Ms Taylor: Mrs. Y now has sufficient evidence and the CSA has brought a case against Mr. Y. Enforcement action has been successful. I have a multitude of such cases, and I ask the Minister to consider investigatory powers.
No wonder CSA officers feel stressed; if they have heard much of what has been said in the debate, they will be feeling even more stressed. I meet them each month at my Stockton office. They have a clear sense of professionalism and they are determined to deliver, wherever and however, for the families, most
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particularly the children. I say to the House, please remember that CSA officers are handling 1.4 million cases, and that figure is growing. They are supporting more than 600,000 children and have collected £4.5 billion in maintenance.
I have pleaded for the Minister to consider investigation. I also suggest that he take out of the system the multi-difficulty cases involving those who are deliberately avoiding and evading, and who will continue to do so. Equally, let us put in the system people who want to paythose who have a responsibility and who feel it appropriatebut properly, through the organisation. We must remember that when marriages break down, speaking to each other decently becomes more and more difficult. We should not think that having two families to care for is easy.
We need a system whereby the decent parent can feel reassured that his payments are appropriate and are going to the children. This is the plea of all pleas: if Mrs. Y is not to be employed by the CSA
Ms Taylor: As chief executive, as my right hon. Friend says. If Mrs. Y is not to be employed by the CSA, let us hope that we can get the IT system working, because we are putting too many children and vulnerable youngsters in too many unstable families due to a situation that they should never have to face. Frankly, we as a society will rue the day if we are unable to put this right.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): As I said in an intervention, I have dealt with the Child Support Agency for some 13 years, first as a solicitor and then as a Member of Parliament. I remember as a solicitor dealing with many cases relating to child maintenance and divorce. I found them the most emotionally draining to deal with, although I dealt with lots of other things as well. I cannot imagine what it is like to go into a CSA office day after day to deal with nothing but such cases. It must be a terribly stressful job, and I have a great deal of respect for the staff who do that.
I reiterate what was said by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor): the staff should not be attacked, as it is not their fault that there is a problem with the agency. They are dealing with a very difficult situation. I understand that there is quite a large turnover of staff at the Falkirk office. That is partly because of the stress of the jobit is not surprising. I must also say to the Minister that these are probably not the best paid jobs in the civil service. We all know what is wrong with the agency.
The article is headed, "We Don't Deserve Any More Support, Boss Says CSA Must Be Axed". I do not know whether he is saying that and the Minister will not tell
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us, but it is interesting that the counsel of despair has perhaps gone so far that the CSA's own boss does not see any great future for the agency. Having said that, I have some sympathy with the Minister's comments because, whatever we do, we have to have the CSA or something like it.
Every constituency MP will have filing cabinets full of cases involving the agency. Those are certainly the biggest component of my case load, although complaints about tax credits are fast catching up. That is my objection to the Liberal Democrat proposal: to transfer the agency's functions to the Inland Revenue seems to me to be the equivalent of wilfully leaping out of the frying pan directly into the fire.
The tax credit system is also failing those whom it is supposed to help. Indeed, several constituents have told me that they are so sickened by their treatment that they will no longer claim tax credits. That is a terrible indictment of the system. Adding to that chaos the chaos of the CSA would be insane. It should not be done.
There is also a practical problem: the CSA works with one computer system while the Inland Revenue works with another. Are those systems at all compatible? Can we transfer, one between the other, or are we to pay the famous EDS another massive sum for a computer system that can run both together?
As I also said earlier, the agency's problems go back to its very foundation. When the agency was established, there seemed to be no appreciation among those involved in setting it up of the lengths to which some parents will go to avoid taking responsibility for their children. In many cases and in many ways, it seemed that the agency almost tried to disguise that problem by concentrating on those who would pay, or at least pay something. That led to hundreds of cases in which huge arrears grew up, with little or nothing being done, although other parents were harassed by the agency. In my view, the agency has never got over that initial problem. What is in principle a good idea was undermined from the outset by its rushed introduction.
I asked some parliamentary questions about the number of cases of arrears in my relatively small rural constituency. I was told that 600 cases had been outstanding for more than three months in Angus alone, and 26,000 across Scotland as a whole. That is an appalling situation. One case, in which the problems are compounded by various appeals and reassessments, has been going on for 10 years and continues. The parent with care is at the end of her tether, and who can blame her? Another case, which is far from unique, was sent for enforcement and reached the stage at which the agency threatened the absent parent with imprisonment. He paid a little, and a schedule of payments was agreed. He paid for a couple of months and then stopped. Nothing was done. When action was eventually taken, the process started from scratch. Why on earth are such cases not rigorously monitored to ensure compliance? The answer in part, of course, is that there are not the staff to do it. Monitoring of compliance, however, is important.
It is not just the agency that is at fault. One of the problems is that the agency has the ability to take people to court for failing to provide information or providing false information, which is a criminal offence that can go
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to the sheriff court in Scotland. I understand from those working in the agency, however, that many such cases that are reported to the court are not proceeded with by the fiscals. There is an urgent need for a multi-agency approach to link up the agency with the court and to make sure that the court plays its part.
The Minister might think that it is my favourite reading, but there was another story in last Sunday's Sunday Mail[Interruption.] I am trying hard. The case that it narrates is of someone who is owed £15,000 for a 14-year-old child. The case was taken to the court, but the sheriff decided that the father was
There are numerous cases with large outstanding arrears. When the Scottish Affairs Committee examined the agency a couple of years ago we were assured that the collection of arrears was a priority. It seems that nothing has changed in the interim, however. I still have constituents who are chasing huge arrears, and worse still, in one recent case, a constituent who had been chasing substantial arrears for two years was suddenly told, "Sorry, it's a mistake; no arrears are actually due." The information given by the agency to parents is often at fault. As has been pointed out, there is contradictory information in letters, saying that things are being done that are not done. The case might come back a couple of months later, questions are asked about why nothing is being done, and the chase starts again.
It is not just parents with care who have legitimate cause for complaintthere is the question of absent parents, not all of whom are trying to avoid payment. Indeed, in my experience, an awful lot of them accept that they must pay, but there are now at least two different systems, and in some cases there seem to be up to six operating in different areas. At least two are operating side by side, and people in identical situations can pay hugely different amounts. One constituent who contacted me recently pointed out that he was on the old system and was paying around £500 per month, while a work colleague in an identical situation who was on what I suppose we could still call a new systemalthough it is some three years since it should have been introducedis paying less than £200. Such glaring and obvious inequalities fuel discontent and undermine the agency still further.
A steady stream of constituents have that complaint, and there is little that MPs can do. If we contact the MinisterI am sure that most of us have done itwe get the formulaic reply that it would be irresponsible to transfer old cases on to the new system until such time as there is certainty that the computer system is robust. That is fair enough, but how long does it take to get a robust computer system? It is now three years since the new system was introduced, and yet few cases have been transferred.
As I also pointed out earlier, it is worth noting to constituents that even being transferred to the new system might not necessarily help. There is a common misconception that many men, when they are transferred from the old to the new system, will immediately have a large fall in payments. That is not the case. There is a taper, and because of the delay in
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introducing the system many who have children in their teens will get no benefit from a transfer now. Even under the new system, one fifth of cases contain errors.
As I said, I have some sympathy with the Minister. I do not blame the Government for all the problems of the agency. They inherited a mess, but they have now had eight years and the mess does not seem to be getting much better. Urgent action is now needed. A fundamental root-and-branch reform of the agency is required. I do not have all the answersI wish that I did, as perhaps I would be made chief executive, which I am sure is worth a lot more than standing here. When the new system was introduced, there was real hope that the mess would be tackled, but nothing seems to have improved.
I do not support the abolition of the agency, because, as I said, something would have to be put in its placeif not the agency, then something similar. We cannot go back to the old courts system. I cannot speak for the courts in England, but the courts in Scotland could not cope with a massive influx of child support cases. It would overwhelm the system and lead to utter collapse. The one point that the old system had in its favour, which struck me when the Minister outlined it, was an ability to have a quick interim assessment made on ex parte statements. If 300,000 cases are awaiting even the initial assessment, it seems to me that one way to get some speed into the system would be to reintroduce the interim assessment, either through the courts or some other agency, that will at least give a quick decision that will allow enforcement while a full investigation is made of the facts.
In a previous debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister gave an assurance that there would be no job cuts in the CSA until the problems had been sorted out. There have been various comings and goings about the numbers in the CSA, and I do not intend to enter into that argument. There is, however, a question of resourceswe need people who can do the investigation, the calculation and the enforcement.
To ensure fairness, all cases need to be treated in the same way, to ensure that the pubic have confidence in the agency's methods. That means that we must go forward and move everybody on to the same system. To cut the Gordian knot, that must be done. We cannot continue with the complexity of different systemsan old computer system, a new computer system, a manual system and a part-manual system. I cannot understand why there are so many systems. The case of one constituent on the new system, for some reason that I could not understand, would not work on the computer, so it went back to a manual system, but she was told that she had to phone the agency every month to remind it to take the money and pay it into her bank account. That seems a bizarre way to proceed.
The agency has lost public confidence. Root-and-branch reform is necessary. I do not support a transfer to the Inland Revenue, which would be going from bad to worse. I can happily support the Liberal Democrat motion, because it does not provide a specific solution, and I can also happily support the Government's amendment, which recognises the difficulties with the agency. While it mentions Stephen Geraghty's report, however, it does not tell us what is in it and what the
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Government will do. Until we get that information, all that we can say[Interruption.] The Minister says that we will get it soon, but how soon is soon? In this place, soon seems to be anything from tomorrow to next year. If there is a date for an announcement, let us hear what the Government have to say. Reform is urgently required, and I think that the Minister accepts that it must be a root-and-branch reform and a real cleaning out of the agency.