Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): This has been an excellent debate with well-informed contributions from all parts of the House, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). I am grateful to all those who made very useful points during the debate. Of course, I should not forget to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who opened the debate.
In opening for the Conservatives, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) referred to their four-point plan. I do not intend to comment on that todayperhaps the Minister will not be so carefulexcept to note her reference to the potential privatising of parts of the Child Support Agency. I am not convinced that that is a particularly useful contribution to this debate. Overall, the Conservative approach is one of tinkeringperhaps understandably, given that it was a Conservative Government who set up the CSArather than the fundamental reform that we Liberal Democrats want to see. It is perhaps indicative of the challenge facing the supposedly new, modern, compassionate Conservative party that none of its Back Benchers chose to make a speech today on an issue of overwhelming social importance.
I was particularly gratified to hear the comments of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who shares our desire to see radical solutions to the CSA's
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problems. He also rightly shares our view that full and active consideration should be given to handing over the CSA's functions to the Inland Revenue.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the Liberal Democrats' position on this issue? We have heard today about the idea of transferring the CSA's functions to the Revenue, but have there not been rumblings in the hon. Gentleman's party about privatising the CSA? Which is it to be?
Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil spelt out in some detail our policyindeed, so far, ours is the only party to do soof transferring functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. That is a clear, sensible and forward-looking policy, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House when we come to vote.
I hope that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) is successful in his bid to get into the Sunday Mail. Having pointed that out, I shall press on, as we are short of time and the Minister has a number of points that she wishes to make.
For reasons that have been outlined, the CSA has been in a state of almost perpetual crisis since it was established by the Conservatives in 1993, and it is still in crisis today. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions report of January last year described it as
He may have decided that it was appropriate to make no defence of the current situation, but the Minister who opened for the Government was not entirely sure whether to bury the agency or to praise it. On the one hand, he called for a fundamental review; on the other, he described the Government's policy as one of trying to get the agency on to a stable footing, with no quick fixes. Given that it is 13 years since the CSA's establishment, quick fixes are hardly what we are contemplating.
The Minister referred to the CSA chief executive's report, and I echo the call of several Members for that report to be published. The Government asked for a copy of our proposals earlier today, and I furnished them with one within minutes. I hope that they will show similar alacrity in publishing the chief executive's report. As was pointed out, that would be a fair exchange. It has to be said that the Minister's approach sounds like tinkering, rather than the fundamental reform that we Liberal Democrats hope will form the substance of the Government's policy, when it is finally published. The central question of this debate is, should we have fundamental reform, or will there be yet more tinkering? In that context, it is worth noting one of the substantive differences between our motion and the Government's amendment to it. Our motion refers to the loss of public confidence in the CSAa point that was neither echoed in the Government's amendment nor tackled by the Minister. After 13 wasted years, the time has come for fundamental reform of the CSA.
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Reference has been made to the various problems associated with the CSA. It collects just £1.85 in maintenance for every £1 it spends on administration, and the amount of uncollected maintenance has tripled since 1997from £1.1 billion to £3.3 billion in 200405. I should be grateful if the Minister would address in her winding-up speech the issue of the number of staff. We were told today that there are 10,027 members of staff, and that that figure should rise to 11,000 by the end of March. But in a written answer of 9 Januaryonly a week agothe Minister herself said that the target figure for the number of staff by the end of March 2006 was 9,400. I should be grateful if she would explain why there has been such a rapid transformation in the objectives. It may be because of this debate being called, but perhaps the written answer was referring to full-time equivalents while the Minister was referring to a head-count. Will she clarify that and, if necessary, correct the record?
Reference has been made to the CSA's high staff turnover rate of 17 per cent. Increasing the number of members of staff may be part of the answer, but ensuring that they stay in their jobs and can build up the experience needed, which has been rightly urged by hon. Members, is important.
Hon. Members have said that, in many cases, the CSA is there to serve the poorest in society and is fundamental to the tackling of child poverty, which I know is of concern to hon. Members on both sides. Maintenance is received in only 25 per cent. of cases where a lone parent is on benefit; that is down from 28 per cent. when Labour came to power and no better than in 1989 when the agency was set up, despite a public service agreement target to raise the level by March 2006. Underlying those statistics are thousands upon thousands of individuals with experience of repeated failure, and many hon. Members have mentioned such cases.
We need a fundamental reform based on clear principles. The first is that parents have a moral responsibility to maintain their children whenever they can afford to do so. The child's well-being must be paramount in everything that we do. The fact that, earlier this year, only one in five cases was having maintenance collected shows that whatever the successes in some caseshon. Members have mentioned some successesin the vast majority of cases maintenance is not collected and the agency is failing.
Families should have the right to determine their own level of support where they are fully informed about all aspects of the matter and where the interests of the taxpayer are not affected. The organisation responsible for arranging and enforcing child support must command the respect of the public, and it is fair to say that the CSA does not. The assessment of maintenance liabilities must be administratively straightforward, efficient, transparent and relatively predictable, which is one of the advantages of transferring the CSA's functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, an organisation with a good reputation in dealing efficiently with its business.
I have been highly critical of the operation of the tax credits policy, but that is the fault of the policy as much as anything else. One of the major problems with tax credits is that the computer system has been far too effective in taking money out of bank accounts before appropriate appeals and assessments have been carried out. That efficiency, while inappropriate in the case of tax credits, would be an asset in dealing with the collection of money from absent or feckless parents and the passing on of that money to the children who, after all, should be the main beneficiaries of the policy.
Where individuals believe that justice has not been done because of exceptional individual circumstances, a process of arbitration must be available to look at the case and come to a judgment that is swift, fair and final. We propose that a new child support arbiter be set up. Once the functions were transferred to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the arbiter would be there to deal with those difficult cases in a way that is fair, swift and final.
A truly child-centred policy must look beyond merely enforcing the financial obligations of non-resident parents and do more to encourage the involvement of both parents in their children's upbringing. The CSA was set up under a Conservative Government and the failings began then; it has not been improved under Labourindeed, the problems of the new system highlight that. As we know from our constituents, parents have no confidence in the CSA; the Select Committee has no confidence in the agency; and it is clear from answers in this House last year that the Prime Minister has no confidence in the agency, either.
An alternative proposal that is simpler, fairer and effective does exist. It is to transfer the functions of the CSA to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. I have heard no other proposals. I know the Government are holding their breath, as we all are, for their own proposals to be published in due course. It would be helpful if the Minister gave the House some idea of when the Government's proposals will be published. Will it be a few days, weeks or months? The Government have had eight years to look at this and I hope they will give us some idea of when they will make their proposals for reform.
Parliament today should give hope to the hundreds of thousands of parents whose lives have been made a misery and in some cases wrecked by the CSA and to the children it is failing to help by recognising that the agency has utterly failed beyond any possibility of reform. Lack of confidence and respect for the CSA will translate into a lack of respect for Parliament, and rightly so, if we do not finally act to deal with the problem as we have proposed.