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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for the most honest statement about the CSA that we have heard from the Treasury Bench for many a long year, but I suggest that one aspect of his statement that will cause disquiet on both sides of the House is the question of what we can do for those whose cases are trapped on the old systemthe hundreds of thousands of people who are paying nothing and who should be making a modest contribution, and those who are paying substantially more than Parliament said they should be paying from 2003. My guess is that his staff have told him that it is impossible to do much to transfer those cases to the new computer. To test whether that advice is correct, will he and Lord Huntthe Minister in charge of the CSAspend a day in the office with staff and see whether, in fact, they can start to transfer those cases to the new system?
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words. We have a major problem in converting cases from the old scheme to the new one and I shall not pretend that we have solved that problem. Clearly, we have not. The advice that I have received is that we cannot make those transfers easily. That is a significant problem, especially in relation to the payment of the child maintenance premium. A clerical operation in which we went through all 900,000 such cases would be required to make those payments. My right hon. Friend is right to say that that is where we must focus our immediate concern. Sir David Henshaw will have to examine the problem as part of his redesign work, and I hope that we will shortly be able to come to the House to deal with that question.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD):
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. He knows that, where we agree with him on policy issues, we are not afraid to say so, but today I wish to express the anger
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of many of our constituents about the ongoing failures at the CSA and the Government's ongoing inability to put in place a clear set of policies for its reform. The Government have been talking about dealing with the CSA since coming to office in 1997. The Prime Minister said in 1998 that urgent reform was needed, but we still await a clear decision by the Government on what that urgent reform will beand that is no clearer today, after the statement.
Does the Secretary of State accept that what we have in this country is the most inefficient child support agency in the world and that, even though CSA staff are doing a difficult job, the standard of performance is not acceptable? Does he also accept that it is shambolic and absurd that after a one-year review, we are to have another review, which will take a further six or nine months to reach a conclusion? What on earth have his Department and his predecessors been doing since the Select Committee reported in January 2005 and called for his Department to put in place an alternative set of policies? Why is he having to brief newspapers today that he is going back to the drawing board, that he has a blank sheet of paper and that, as he said in his statement, all the options for reform are open? Why is that the position when a review has been going on for the past year? Why has that review not reached a conclusion? Is the problem that the Secretary of State believes that the CSA should be transferred to the Inland Revenue but does not have the agreement of other parts of the Government?
Why, in spite of the recommendations that the Select Committee made a year ago, have the reductions in back office and support staff at the CSA continued for the past year? What is the magnitude of those cuts and have they contributed to the fact that there is now an absurd delay of 470 days in processing outstanding unprocessed new claims? Does the Secretary of State agree that that is wholly unacceptable? When, under his new proposals, will that 470 days be reduced to the 42 days that used to be the Government target? What has happened to the gimmick of tagging about which we heard so much two or three weeks ago, but which was not mentioned today? Has that idea been totally rejected?
I accept that the Secretary of State inherited a mess from his numerous predecessors, who failed to act in respect of the CSA. I accept also that, in so far as one can establish his direction of travel, he is edging in the right direction today. It is tempting to feel sorry for him, given the position in which he finds himself, but most of us feel much sorrier for the people who have suffered for too long as a consequence of the agency's failures. Today, those people were expecting action and fundamental reform but instead they have got patching and another review. Does he accept that that will not be satisfactory to most people?
I am not asking for the hon. Gentleman's sympathy. I am asking for his support to solve the problems. He can carry on dancing around, as he has today and on previous occasions, hinting at his wisdom, knowledge and superior assessment of the problem, but the fact is that he does not have a sensible policy to offer. There is a golden rule in this House: it is best not to throw those kinds of stones from a position of total intellectual bankruptcy. His policy is not a sensible one.
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I am happy to help him out of his predicament: he should help us and work with Sir David Henshaw to achieve a resolution.
I do not want to get party political[Hon. Members: "Go on."] All right then, I will. It is fashionable to accuse the Liberal Democrats of flip-flop but that accusation is proper in relation to their policy on child support arrangements. The hon. Gentleman has gone from supporting a return to the courts to transferring the CSA to the Inland Revenue, but both policies are risible.
I have made it clear today that the CSA's performance is not acceptable. Of course that is the Government's responsibilitythere is no one but us to stand here and defend the agency's performance and that performance has not been good enough. Now, we have to engage with the fundamental issues and put in place the foundations of a more acceptable solution. However, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) it is simply not true to say that nothing has been done in the past eight years. We now have a much better formula in place and performance in key areas of the CSA has improved, but I shall not trade statistics on inadequate performance with the Opposition spokesmen, because the truth is there for all to see.
There has been no reduction in CSA staffthe hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) is quite wrong. It is clear in the plan that I published today that additional staff will be recruited to ensure that we make progress on the backlog and shift the focus from the back office to enforcement and debt collection to make absent parents who are not paying fulfil their responsibilities to their children.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): The CSA was born during those grey Major yearsuninspiring and unworkable and within three years, I and a few other Labour Members voted to scrap it. I am the first to acknowledge that when we did so, wemy right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and Idid not have a joint answer to the problem, but we knew that the agency might not work. Several attempts have been made to solve the problems, including a recent one, which also failed. Today, I am pleased that an effort is being made to start afresh. If there is to be a fresh, blank, white sheet of paper, that is good. I hope that we are going get away from that uninspiring proposition that came out of those grey Major years and do something that saves the situation for millions of people in Britain.
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. As he says, it is time to get serious and design a proper, more cost-efficient system. I suspect that some of the Labour Members and people outside the House who supported the creation of the CSA were concerned about the real motivation of its creators. Was the aim to help families or to save benefit? We can now afford to leave that behind us as we focus on designing a new system and I look forward to my hon. Friend's support during that process.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con):
I appreciate more than many the difficulties that face the Secretary of State and Lord Hunt, the Minister responsible for the CSA. There was a collective failure
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in the House to scrutinise the original proposals and intentions, and since then there has been a collective failure to breathe life into a corpse. No matter how hard agency staff have tried, I agree with the bottom line suggested by the Secretary of State, that perhaps the agency has reached the end of its days and something radical is needed.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, although he has given Sir David Henshaw proposals for practical development, he will have some policy input in setting parameters for the review on key policy areas such as maintaining the link between parents and children, and perhaps also in differentiating more effectively between the deliberate non-payers, who have always been a problem under every system, and those who voluntarily want to maintain contact? Will he
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