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House of Commons

Monday 6 February 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

WORK AND PENSIONS

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Support Agency

1. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): In how many cases where the independent case examiner found in favour of the applicant the decision was subsequently not implemented by the Child Support Agency, in the last year for which figures are available. [48319]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The agency makes special payments both on the basis of decisions made by its chief executive and on the basis of recommendations by the independent case examiner. The CSA accepts the findings of the examiner in all cases except when it believes that the examiner's findings were based on erroneous information. It estimates that that has applied to only a handful of cases in the last two years.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I wish to draw attention to a case of which I gave the Minister prior notice—that of Mrs. Sonia Poulton, who lives in Cirencester. The case dates back as far as June 2001. I finally referred it to the independent case examiner in August 2004 after protracted correspondence. A year later, in August 2005, the examiner ruled that there were serious shortcomings in the way in which the CSA had handled the case, that compensation was to be paid for the £5,100 arrears, and that an apology should be given. Since then, the CSA has prevaricated. It has changed its mind about what the compensation should be with a stroke of the pen on numerous occasions, sometimes to the tune of many thousands of pounds.

I re-referred the case to the independent case examiner, and heard from her on 31 January 2006. Her letter stated:

This case is dreadful. It needs to be resolved. The CSA is out of control, with no effective right of appeal. Will the Minister look into the matter personally, so that my constituent can receive the proper justice that she deserves?
 
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Mr. Plaskitt: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have already done so. I have studied the case file, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing it to my attention before Question Time. As he says, the delay in implementation of the independent case examiner's recommendations is essentially due to a dispute over the true level of arrears. I understand that the hon. Gentleman's constituent has now accepted an advance payment of arrears. I am assured that an attachment of earnings is in operation, that the hon. Gentleman's constituent is receiving maintenance payments, and that the agency is writing to her today. I hope that it will be able to clarify all the outstanding points.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Minister confirm that the number of cases being referred to the independent case examiner is still on a steeply rising curve? Does that not demonstrate that any option for the agency's future other than its replacement by part of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs would be doomed to failure?

Mr. Plaskitt: In fact, the number of complaints referred to the independent case examiner is fairly steady. Last year, 2,973 cases were referred to her. She rejected 1,700 and took out 1,257. She issued orders for financial redress in 1,604 cases. Given that the rate of complaints is fairly steady and that the agency also receives complaints directly, amounting to 3 per cent. of the case load, the situation is not deteriorating. I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the fact that complaints are made necessarily suggests that the agency should be scrapped completely.

2. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of the Child Support Agency in securing maintenance from absent parents. [48320]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): Although there has been recent improvement in some areas, the overall performance of the agency is unacceptable. We are currently looking at ways of improving the discharge of its core functions so that more families receive the right maintenance at the right time. I hope to make a statement shortly.

Peter Luff: I am partly encouraged by that answer, obviously, but I am increasingly sceptical about whether a rule-bound bureaucracy like the CSA is capable of dealing with the malicious ingenuity of men who avoid responsibility for children whom they have fathered. Will the Secretary of State look personally at two cases that have caused me particular concern? One involves a woman, a victim of domestic violence who cannot recover the arrears that she is owed by her ex-husband and is bizarrely having to pay him maintenance now. The other involves a woman who is struggling with debt as her ex-husband uses every trick in the book to avoid responsibility for his child. Will the Secretary of State review those cases personally, and assure me that the new CSA that he seems to be offering will really deal with such cases better?
 
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Mr. Hutton: As I said, I shall wish to make a statement to the House shortly, setting out what we need to do to resolve a situation that is clearly unacceptable. I will certainly look into the cases that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I hope that all Members on both sides of the House agree at least on this: while relationships all too often come to an end, responsibilities for children never do. That must be the bottom line in all cases.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I assure the Secretary of State that many Labour Members look forward to his statement and, hopefully, will support it. Will he be able to stress in that statement that while he will look for more effective ways of collecting maintenance in the future, we still need to make the CSA more effective for those who are currently trying to depend on it?

Mr. Hutton: I agree with my right hon. Friend and I am sure that many people are looking forward to the statement that I plan to make. It is certainly true that there are no simple solutions to the situation that we now face in respect of the CSA, and I am grateful to him for his comments in that regard. I further agree that we must do all that we possibly can to ensure that the CSA discharges its functions—functions that, after all, we in this House gave to it—cost-effectively and efficiently. Our number one priority at all times must be to secure the maximum maintenance due to children.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The last time that the House considered reform of the CSA, Ministers told us that threatening non-compliant parents with the loss of their driving licences would make them pay their dues. It is clear that that has not worked—only 11 driving licences have been withdrawn in the past five years. Will the Secretary of State undertake that when he makes his statement later on this week, there will be no more gimmicks or reviews, and that there will be a fundamental reform of this failing agency?

Mr. Hutton: No, there will not be any gimmicks. We need to see a significant improvement in the CSA's performance on enforcement. On driving licences, it is worth bearing it in mind that, sometimes, the threat of such a sanction can have the desired effect, so if I were the hon. Gentleman I would not place too much emphasis on the instances in which that threat has been carried out.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), I have a number of cases in my constituency of men using the system to avoid making payments to former partners. In his forthcoming statement, will my right hon. Friend tackle the problem of self-employed people who use ingenious methods to avoid their liabilities?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we certainly will address that issue. It is common knowledge in all parts of the House that the current legal framework does not lend itself to efficient and effective enforcement. It is far too easy for far too many non-resident parents to evade their financial responsibilities to their children, and that must not be allowed to continue.
 
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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the arguments of principle or practice are against allowing the Revenue to collect maintenance at the same time as collecting tax?

Mr. Hutton: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, Ministers have addressed this issue from time to time—not least Ministers of his own Government, who decided not to proceed down that route, but instead to set up the CSA as a stand-alone agency. With great respect to him, I do not want to get into a detailed debate today about the various alternatives and options. I intend to make a statement to the House in the very near future, in which we will set out clearly how we want to address this issue. It is a very important one, and it is right and proper that Members have the opportunity to put their various points of view to me. We will then consider the best, most intelligent and sensible way in which we can take matters forward.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My constituent, Mrs. X, is owed approximately £35,000 in maintenance going back some 12 years. When I took up her case last autumn, I discovered that no enforcement had ever taken place. The CSA is now saying that because some of that debt was accumulated more than seven years ago, it will not seek enforcement. Does my right hon. Friend think that is an acceptable state of affairs, and will he assure me that in his statement and in ensuing legislation—should it come along—that issue will be addressed?

Mr. Hutton: I am not familiar with the details of the case to which my hon. Friend refers, but as he knows, there is of course a general bar on civil action against debt owed beyond a certain period. I made it clear in responding to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) that the CSA's current performance against a range of measures is simply inadequate and unacceptable, and that is particularly true of enforcement. I spoke to the CSA's chief executive and urged him to improve its enforcement record, and I am very glad to say that there has been a significant increase in the number of cases that the CSA is proceeding to enforcement. That is right and proper, and we must keep this issue at the forefront of our minds as we consider the right way forward.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): We look forward to the statement that the Secretary of State said he will make shortly. Will he take the opportunity during today's exchange to say something directly to the 900,000 or so families still trapped by the CSA's old assessment rules, the 330,000 families whose applications for child support payments are sitting unprocessed in CSA offices and the some 30 per cent. of parents with care who are not getting the child maintenance payments for which they have been assessed and to which they are entitled?

Mr. Hutton: The conversion of old cases to the new scheme has been a sad and sorry saga. It has not been possible to find a sensible way to migrate those cases and I intend to speak about that shortly in this House. The backlog of cases that have not yet been properly
 
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assessed is totally unacceptable and I intend to address that problem, which I accept is chronic and serious, in my statement.

Mr. Hammond: Indeed that is totally unacceptable, but it was not clear from the Secretary of State's response whether he accepts the Government's responsibility for this epic tale of managerial failure. Does he accept that the Government are responsible for what has happened in the CSA and the suffering caused to so many families by it? If he cannot assure the House of any early migration of the old rules cases to the new system, would he at least act—in the interests of fairness—to extend the £10 per week child maintenance premium to parents in receipt of those old rules payments?

Mr. Hutton: Again, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I shall not make a series of announcements about those matters this afternoon. I intend to come to the House in the near future to make a statement about all of them. It is self-evident that the problem of conversion is well documented and it has proved to be immensely difficult to make the journey from the old scheme to the new one. Again, I am sorry not to be able to help the hon. Gentleman very much this afternoon, but I intend to come to the House and deal with that matter in the near future.

3. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will amend the Child Support Agency regulations relating to assessments involving company cars and payments in lieu to obtain cars for work purposes so that both categories are treated equally. [48321]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): We have no plans to change the existing rules. Employees' earnings include monetary allowances, such as those provided to aid the purchase of private vehicles. However, earnings taken into account for child support purposes do not include benefits in kind, such as the provision of a car by a company to an employee.

Bob Russell: Will the Minister explain the principal reason why the two categories cannot be considered on equal merit?

Mr. Plaskitt: Yes. The rules are currently drawn in such a way that they are aligned with other income-related benefits and the taxation system. There would be only two ways of achieving the goal that the hon. Gentleman suggested. The first would be to include the company car in the assessment, which would require the CSA to become an asset valuation agency—not a function we want to load on to it in addition to its existing tasks—and the second would be to exclude the car purchase payment. That would take the arrangement out of line with the benefit and tax system and, in any case, the trend nowadays is towards payment for car purchase. If we exempted that, many parents with care would have fairly robust views about it.


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