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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May I press the Leader of the House on the reply that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about next year's local elections? He referred to a Government statement that said that he hoped and expected those elections to take place. Why cannot he say that they will take place?
Mr. Hoon: The right hon. Gentleman is always a model of fairness and clarity, but what I actually said, quoting my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government, was that we expect and intend those elections to take place. That is a clear statement and I do not intend to improve on it.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The genuinely shocking news about the use of heroin by a nine-year-old is further proof that there has never been so much heroin on the streets of Britain at such a low price, in spite of the courageous and professional work by our soldiers in Afghanistan. Should we not have a debate and a vote on the deployment of further troops in the Helmand province in Afghanistan, as that is likely to be mission impossible? There is certainly a grave danger that local farmers will be driven into the hands of the Taliban and the lives of our troops will be put in grave peril.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend in raising that important issue and, indeed, in highlighting the prevalence of heroin use, particularly by very young children, but I am puzzled about his subsequent
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comments. Clearly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence suggested when he announced the deployment to Helmand, part of the purpose is obviously to reduce lawlessness in that part of the world, particularly to reduce therefore the ability of those who trade in heroin to take advantage of that lawlessness. It is important in that process that we restrict the opportunity of the Taliban to continue with their appalling terrorism, but that is part of the wider process of ensuring that an elected Government in Kabul have the ability to control the whole of Afghanistan, with necessary benefits not only to the people of Afghanistan but, as my hon. Friend was also implying, to the people of Europe, who suffer so much from the trade in heroin.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): As the Leader of the House used Government time yesterday to ensure that over £500,000 would go into the hands of those who do not come to the HouseI am speaking about Sinn Fein-IRAwill he use Government time to allow those of us who do come to the House to debate the issues that affect our constituents and to hold direct rule Ministers to book, whether in respect of health, education or other issues?
Mr. Hoon: There are clearly opportunities for the hon. Gentleman, who is assiduous in the use of parliamentary time, to hold Ministers not to book, but to account, which is obviously what he does very successfully. There are opportunities during Northern Ireland questions to raise such issues, and I am sure that he will take full advantage of them.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may have heard this morning's announcement that Unilever is to sell off its Birds Eye frozen food industry across Europe, including the factory in Lowestoft, where 800 people worka big slice of our local economy. The Lowestoft food factory is one of the most efficient and productive in the country. It received factory of the year and manufacturer of the year awards last year. It should therefore be an attractive part of the business for a new buyer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to stress the positive attributes of Lowestoft? Will he ensure that the Government and the East of England Development Agency do all that they can to encourage prospective buyers? May we hold a debate on food processing in this country, so that we can understand what is going on in that industry?
Mr. Hoon: As someone who has been a fairly regular visitor to my hon. Friend's constituency, I know what a thriving and vital place Lowestoft is and the importance of that factory to the local economy. An early resolution is essential, given the obvious uncertainty that the announcement must have caused the people of Lowestoft. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would be willing to see my hon. Friend to discuss these matters and to find out what help the Government can provide.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con):
There are real concerns across London about
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health, education, the environment, transport and how the Government have failed to deal with those issues for the capital. Will the Leader of the House therefore find time to hold a general debate on London issues on the Floor of the House in the near future?
Mr. Hoon: I will certainly add the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the long list of other suggestions that I have received. I recognise the importance of London, but I do not entirely recognise his description. The Government have provided significant support to the people of London, to its infrastructure and to ensure the effective delivery of public services in our capital city.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): As chair of the parliamentary group of the Transport and General Workers Union, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and all those involved on bringing about a satisfactory conclusion to the cleaners' dispute, but does he agree that low-paid workers and more vulnerable workers are also concerned about the ever-rising cost of energy? He may be aware that British Gas has trailed in the press a price increase of up to 25 per cent. That will cause tremendous concern among low-paid workers, pensioners and businesses. Will he arrange time in the House for a debate on those proposed increases, so that we can investigate the reasons behind them?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the resolution of the dispute involving our cleaners. He has played a significant role in that process and I congratulate him on his efforts. It is important that the House continues to debate the wider issues of energy. We have recently held debates on energy. It is obviously a matter of great concern, particularly to the poorest members of our society, that energy price increases might significantly affect their ability to enjoy other aspects of their lives. That is obviously part of the wider Government commitment to ensure that we use our energy efficiently and effectivelysomething that the Government take extremely seriously.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): May we have a debate that is dedicated exclusively to cancer care, so that we can address cancer patients' access to the most effective and appropriate drug treatments, such as Herceptin, so that we can tackle the postcode prescribing lottery and so that Essex MPs can ensure that we save our excellent cancer centre at Southend-on-Sea hospital?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that important issue, which affects every family throughout the country. The Government have given a great deal of priority to cancer care. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not refer directly to Herceptin. As two judicial reviews are under way, it would not be right for me to make any observation about those cases at this stage. However, I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government know that cancer care is vital. We have put enormous extra resources into cancer care, and I am delighted that that extra money is having some effect in improving the care of and results for those who suffer from that dreadful disease.
The previous Administration established the Child Support Agency because the system of collecting maintenance through the courts had lost the confidence of parents. That was the right decision to make. Different courts applied different criteria, resulting in widely differing settlements for families in similar situations. Too often, cases took months to come to court. Enforcement was difficult and costly.
The Child Support Agency was designed to provide better support to children and families, by making sure that parental responsibilities were properly enforced. Those were the right foundations upon which to build the new agency, and it is why the Child Support Act 1991 enjoyed widespread support. But as we know, over the years, those good intentions have not been translated into good performance. When we came to office, the agency was still costing more to run than it collected in maintenance and taking longer to process claims than the courts.
The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 made important changes. Maintenance calculations were simplified. For the first time, parents on benefits could keep up to £10 of the maintenance that they received. Tougher enforcement measures were introduced.
The performance of the agency has improved. It has nearly doubled the number of children receiving maintenance payments. About £600 million of maintenance will be collected this yeartwice the level of 1997. That improved performance is a credit to the hard work of the agency staff, who are doing a good job in very difficult circumstances. They have had to cope with a great deal of criticismmuch of it unfairand I want to place firmly on the record today my appreciation of their commitment and dedication. Notwithstanding the efforts of its staff, the performance of the agency remains unacceptable.
The agency currently manages 1.5 million cases. Of the 670,000 cases assessed as having a positive maintenance liability, just over 400,000 parents with care are actually receiving any payment via the collection service or have a Maintenance Direct arrangement in place. There is a backlog of over 300,000 cases. Despite having collected £4.5 billion in maintenance, more than £3 billion of debt has also built up, and it has already cost the taxpayer well over £3 billion to administer.
Only 30 per cent. of lone parents receive any maintenance. Less than 15 per cent. of lone parents on benefit receive any maintenance through the CSA. There is little evidence to suggest that outcomes are any better than under the court system that it replaced. That is why, last April, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, asked the new chief executive of the CSA to undertake
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a review of the agency's operations. Today I am publishing his recommendations on my Department's website.
The review recommended a restructuring of the agency's operation to increase productivity and performance. It proposed a plan that included migration and conversion, new legislative powers to write off debt and close cases and the greater use of outsourcing to support the removal of backlogs and collect debt. The plan required an additional £300 million of public money over the next three years, over and above the agency's £400 million a year current budget.
Even if the plan were fully implemented, however, at the end of the three-year period only half of lone parents would receive maintenance, only one third of lone parents on benefit would receive any money, and although more parents would receive maintenance, about half those assessed would be eligible to receive only £5 or less per week. In those circumstances, I do not believe that it would be right to commit £300 million of additional public money in that way.
As we all know, the CSA deals with many of the most difficult cases. In one in five cases the parents have never lived together; 5 per cent. question paternity; half of absent parents have no contact at all with their children; about 15 per cent. have links to other casesoften more than one; and 70 per cent. of new applicants are on benefit and thus have no choice but to use the CSA.
Given that complexity, we should be suspicious of simple solutions, because there are none. Walking away is not the answer, nor is handing over wholesale the work of the CSA, in its existing structure, to another Department. More than 500,000 children currently benefit from maintenance payments collected through the CSA and we must ensure that that continues, but it is time for fundamental change.
Having had an opportunity to consider the matter over the past three months, I have concluded that neither the agency nor the policy is fit for purpose. I have, therefore, asked Sir David Henshawa distinguished public servantto redesign completely our system of child support. The primary objective must be to ensure the welfare of children. Sir David will set out both the policy and the operational structure needed to achieve that. He will need to consider how best to ensure that parents meet their responsibilities to their children, while minimising the cost to the taxpayer.
In undertaking his task, Sir David will need to address several difficult choices and questions. What support and advice can be given to help parents reach a fair solution as to how best to support their children if their relationship breaks down? Can we find a more cost-effective way of ensuring that children get maintenance payments? What is the right balance between enforcing responsibilities and getting more money to children and value for the taxpayer? Should benefit claimants be forced to use the agency even if they have informal arrangements in place? Should the Government continue to chase cases where the parents have decided to get back together again and restart their relationship? In some instances, the agency is chasing cases where the end result will be recycling money in the same household, with no benefit whatever to the child.
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There will be an opportunity for all those in the House and beyond to make their views known to Sir David and his team. He will seek the widest possible involvement in his work. Just as the original proposals commanded widespread cross-party endorsement, my ambition is to ensure that the new framework enjoys similar support. I have asked Sir David to deliver his findings to me before the summer recess, and today I have placed in the Library copies of the terms of reference for his work, which have been drawn as widely as possible to allow all options for reform to be considered fully.
The Government have a clear responsibility to those already using the agency to ensure that it delivers for children and parents, so today I am publishing proposals that will help to stabilise and improve the performance of the agency in the short term. The plan will make more effective use of current enforcement powers, improve the productivity and effectiveness of the new IT system and increase debt recovery. I am thus making available from the Department's existing resources investment of up to £90 million over the next three years, to support that short-term recovery.
That investment will of course be subject to review in the light of Sir David's work and the achievement of agreed milestones. In addition, I am making available a further £30 million to contract out some of the agency's debt recovery. I expect that to result in a substantially increased recovery of the current debt owed to parents with care.
The CSA will take quicker and firmer action against those who default on payment. Supported by changes to secondary legislation, we will increase the use and effectiveness of deduction from earnings orders. The CSA will also be able to make more progress in clearing up the growing backlog of cases, and we will draw on data held by credit reference agencies to help speed up enforcement. I will consider tougher enforcement measures that require primary legislation, but they will need to be addressed as part of the redesigned child support system. That extra investment will mean that by 2008 we will improve compliance rates, ensure that 200,000 more children benefit from maintenance payments, be on track to help lift an additional 40,000 children out of poverty and see a significant increase in the number of parents receiving the child maintenance premium.
Given the considerable cost and risks involved, the stabilisation and improvement plan will stop short of converting all the old scheme cases to the new scheme. I know that conversion is of concern to many Membersrightly soand I have asked Sir David to consider it as part of the redesign of the child support system. We must come to a decision on the right way forward as soon as possible.
I believe that Members on both sides of the House continue to support the original objectives of the Child Support Agency. The measures that I am announcing today are an important step towards improving the current arrangements and, critically, putting in place the foundations for a system of child support that will have a better chance of meeting those original objectives.
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