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Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to publish the internal review of the problems at the CSA—something for which we have been pressing since he received it.

Obviously, we have not yet had a chance to study the report, which I understand will soon appear on the Department's website, but on the back of it the Secretary of State has concluded that the present structure of the CSA cannot be made to work and this morning he has set out his plans for what amounts to a further review—no matter what he may choose to call it—of the system for assessing and collecting child maintenance payments.

Although the decision to redesign the system from scratch may be the right one, the truth is that the Government must accept responsibility for the lamentable failure to get to grips with the problem much, much earlier. That is not a criticism of the Secretary of State—he has been in his post for only three months and nobody could criticise the speed with which he has dealt with a report that landed in his in-tray only just before Christmas; but it is a criticism of the Government and the failure of political leadership at the Department for Work and Pensions over a long period, as successive short-lived Secretaries of State played revolving doors, without engaging with the fundamental problems that were self-evident to every Member of the House, because we have to deal with them every week in our constituency surgeries. The problems are evident to many of the parents who have to engage with the system and were evident more than a year ago to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which called for action in its report of January 2005.

The CSA's track record is not a happy one. The new computerised system that the Government introduced in 1999, in which they "invested" £0.5 billion of taxpayers' money, was two years late getting started and has never worked properly. Now the Secretary of State is writing it off.

While the Government fiddled around with the problem, 330,000 applications for child maintenance piled up, unprocessed due to the IT and management problems in the agency—330,000 single mums going without the financial support they need and to which they are entitled. The Government have failed them.

Some 920,000 cases have remained on the old assessment system, which has left parents who were promised a rapid transfer to the new system worse off and unfairly treated in comparison with new claimants. The Government have failed those parents. Some £3.3 billion of arrears have been allowed to accumulate, while the agency's enforcement unit last year managed to collect just £8 million at a cost of £12 million. That was less than £1 collected for every £40,000 outstanding. The money is owed to single-parent families, but the agency has made no effective attempt to collect it. The Government have failed those families, too. Complaints
 
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have risen by 30 per cent. over a year, and face-to-face contact between agency staff and parents has halved since 1997. Compliance under the new system has dropped to 61 per cent.

In the face of such a catalogue of evidence, the Secretary of State's predecessor asked the chief executive of the agency to examine not the fundamental design of the system, but the internal workings of the agency. Now that the Secretary of State is dropping that internal report in the wastepaper basket, it looks like the wrong question was asked of the wrong man. That has created an additional nine months' delay to eventual reform—nine months in which chaos and injustice continues.

Some have suggested that the CSA should simply be handed lock, stock and barrel to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. While I and, I am sure, the Secretary of State would not want to rule out a future role for the tax authorities in an alternative system, does he agree that it would be completely inappropriate to suggest that HMRC should take over the present system? Does he agree that such a move would effectively transfer the burden to employers under the pay-as-you-earn system, and that it would compromise the Revenue's core functions, not to mention its ongoing struggle to sort out the problems in the tax credits system?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the new enforcement powers that he announced will be used against only seriously non-compliant absent parents? Conservative Members will support greater powers to track down and deal with parents who try to dodge their responsibilities to their children. We welcome the use of private debt collectors, which will be an effective step, but such greater intrusion into people's private lives can be justified only when there is serious non-compliance, so I urge him to ensure that it does not become part of the routine process at the front end when dealing with applications.

The Secretary of State told the House that the terms of reference for the belated review will be to redesign completely the child support system. Will he confirm that, whether or not much cash is raised in individual cases, he still believes in the principle that every parent should contribute something towards the maintenance of his or her child? That principle, on which the CSA was founded, was—and remains—important, so it should not be lost in the redesign of the system.

The Australian child support agency is often cited as a model and has many features to commend it, but in Australia, nearly all parents use the agency when families split up. In this country, the majority of families make entirely private arrangements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government remain of the view that voluntary arrangements are to be preferred when it is possible to make them and that the state should get involved only when it is not?

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills whether Sir David's remit should include an examination of the impact of decisions about access, which are managed by CAFCASS—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—on the operation of the child maintenance system—and, indeed, vice versa? There was a report in some of the media this morning that the public sector unions have been given a promise that the
 
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CSA will not be broken up. Will he categorically confirm that no such undertaking has been given? Will he tell the House the lessons that he has drawn from the IT disaster in the CSA, which deals with 1.5 million cases, that he can share with his Cabinet colleagues before they ask the House next week to commit to an IT system that would have to deal with 60 million people?

The action that the Secretary of State has announced to address the crisis in the child support system is certainly too late. Let us now all work together to ensure that it does not turn out to be too little. We will continue our work on child support and seek, with his agreement, the opportunity to feed that work into Sir David's review.

There are grounds for optimism. It is possible to run a workable child support system because international experience tells us so. However, for parents who receive CSA payments, this will be a time of uncertainty and anxiety as they face the prospect of further turmoil and change. We owe it to them, as well as the many hundreds of thousands of parents for whom the CSA is not delivering, to ensure that we move forward as rapidly as possible with clarity and, hopefully, consensus on how best to deliver a simple and effective system for the 21st century.

Mr. Hutton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the work that Sir David Henshaw will initiate to help us to redesign a more cost-efficient and effective child support system. I make it clear to all hon. Members, as I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman, that their views will be welcomed, and I am sure that Sir David will want to follow that up.

It is not true that there have been no improvements at all to the operation of the Child Support Agency since 1997. It has improved in several key areas, but I have not come to the House to say that the agency's performance is acceptable—quite the opposite. We have to move beyond that now, so I am not going to quibble about the statistics that the hon. Gentleman cites, which are right. The agency's performance has simply not been good enough. My predecessors worked hard to try to make the CSA work, but it cannot work. Rather than investing more money in it, let us design a sensible new system to replace it. I agree that it would make no sense to transfer the CSA's existing functions to any other Government Department or agency, including HMRC, given the CSA's range of functions, which other Departments clearly would have no expertise—or legal basis—to perform.

Clearly, the new enforcement powers will need to be focused on non-compliant parents or used if there is a risk that a parent will become non-compliant. I do not believe that the right way to solve the problems would be to construct a mini-dictatorship at the centre of Government—absolutely not. However, we have a responsibility.The hon. Gentleman asked whether I thought that every parent should contribute—yes, absolutely.

We must be prepared to take some of the decisions that I have suggested that we should take to give the CSA the tools that it needs to do its job. I know that many hon. Members have had the same experience as me when talking to people in the CSA. They often say that they are fighting the war—that is what it feels like
 
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to them—of getting absent parents to pay what they should be paying for their children with one arm tied behind their back. We cannot ignore that any longer, so we have to get tough, which is what I propose that we should do with non-compliant parents. I hope that Opposition Members will lend their support to measures to achieve that.

Of course voluntary arrangements are to be preferred and it would be an immensely good and important step forward if they were in place for more parents. Sadly, as we all know from our constituency work, relationships that break up often do so in turmoil and involve a lot of emotional upset. It is thus not always possible for such agreements to be reached, so I remain convinced that we will continue to need a strong and effective system to ensure that maintenance is paid when relationships break up. We do not have such a system now, so we must address that problem.

It is true that the CSA needs to focus on its existing responsibilities. The stabilisation plan will allow it to do that and there is no question whatsoever—I hope that this is clear—of us, or anyone else, backing away from giving the CSA in its present form all the support that it needs to ensure that non-compliant parents meet their financial responsibilities to their families.


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