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Child Support Agency (Dawn Rennie)

1 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): First, I thank Mr. Speaker for making this debate available to me at such short notice. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department for the communications between us on some of the facts of the case that I am about to present. I am also grateful to the sheriff clerk and the procurator fiscal at Kilmarnock sheriff court.

On 9 February 2006, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a statement to the House on the future of the Child Support Agency. I welcomed that announcement to terminate the agency, believing it to run a shambolic system that works only at times in relation to those in pay-as-you-earn schemes and which does not work in relation to many other people, particularly those in business, who seem to employ smart accountants to get out of their parental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State announced that a new system would be devised by the chief executive of Liverpool city council, Sir David Henshaw, and that the House could expect a further announcement in the latter part of July 2006. My first question to the Minister is, when does he expect that change to be implemented? I believe that it must be done sooner rather than later, given my experiences over the great many years during which I have represented constituents on the issue of the agency. As the Minister will see from the case that I will highlight, the Government need to act now to help individuals who have become trapped by the system and have lost heavily as a result of incompetence in the agency and in the law.

Dawn Rennie of Prestwick has been fighting for more than 13 years to get her former partner—Patrick Clancy of Irvine, who also happens to be a constituent of mine—to pay maintenance for their now 14-year-old son. Throughout that time, Mr. Clancy has managed to build up arrears of nearly £16,000. He has given pocket money to his son of some £20 a week, but he has persistently failed to meet his responsibility and liability to pay his child maintenance.

Liability orders were sanctioned by the court in Scotland—one on 14 August 1995 for £4,897.21 plus costs, and a second on 17 October 2002 for £12,298.15 plus costs—but little of that money, if any, has been paid. In fact, £15,725.51 is outstanding in respect of those two orders alone. Subsequently, Mr. Clancy offered a mediocre £5,000 payment to cancel out the £16,000 of debt. Dawn Rennie declined that as derisory, and I agree that the offer was derisory.

It took 13 years of persistence by Dawn Rennie before the CSA finally got Mr. Clancy to court, on the ground that if he did not pay what he owed he should be sent to jail. I hold no personal malice towards Mr. Clancy, but I feel strongly that the CSA has been totally hopeless in pursuing the case timeously.

I have to tell the Minister that when the word "timeously" is put through a spell check, it comes out as "timorously". That may be more appropriate to the CSA than "timeously". At this time of year, when we have just gone through the Burns period, the word "timorous" has a particular meaning—I am sure everybody knows about the little mouse.
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The trial eventually took place on 15 December 2005, when Sheriff Ruth Anderson ruled that Mr. Clancy did not have the money to pay the arrears because of his drink and gambling addictions. It seems almost bizarre that the sheriff would rule in that way, but that is exactly what she did.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend has hit on a point that is very interesting and serious, because many of us have come across cases like this. The question, which is really for my hon. Friend the Minister, is why did it take so long—13 or 14 years—to get the case to the court. Why has action not been taken before now?

Mr. Donohoe : I think that is a question for the courts. As my hon. Friend says, the Minister needs to answer the point, and I am sure that he will.

As I said, a decision on the case was taken on 15 December, when Sheriff Ruth Anderson ruled that Mr. Clancy did not have the money. Obviously, because of that, the matter was never pursued. Dawn Rennie was neither informed of that hearing nor given any opportunity to stand as what would be described as a prosecution witness. That fundamental flaw in the system must be addressed. She has since been informed that the court's decision is final and that there is no right of appeal—a decision that I do not accept and which I do not think anyone could accept. I therefore want the Minister to consider overturning the decision. That is the second reason why I want the debate to give me some answers.

To say that I find the position that I have described totally unacceptable would be a major understatement. However, this debate is not in connection with the failure of the justice system, which should perhaps be the subject of a debate on another day. Today, I must place it on the record that, having knowledge of the Clancy family, who are well known in the Irvine area, I am convinced that Patrick Clancy will not be working for the £80 a week he claims to be. Consequently, he is making a complete mockery of the system.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend is going down a trail that I have trodden for quite a while. Will he ask my hon. Friend the Minister why—when self-employed absent parents can prove conclusively to the tax man that they are making only £10,000 a year, but they are living in rather a large house, with a nice sports car in the drive, and they have holidays abroad—we do not use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to get the revenue off those individuals? Why is the CSA not asking itself questions about why it is not chasing those people up? It should not walk away from the difficult cases.

Mr. Donohoe : I could not agree more. The situation is clear on the basis of my experience and that of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. I am sure that the Minister is aware of dozens of cases similar to the one that I am describing.

Time and again, I have come across similar situations, which is why I made the point about the person on PAYE being caught, quite correctly, although it is
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almost impossible on occasion for the CSA to do much about the person who is self-employed. I encountered one case of an individual who I and everyone else knew full well was a second-hand car salesman. He was selling more than 60 cars a week, yet he said that his income was less than £70 a week. That cannot be right, and the problem must be corrected at some point.

Mr. Jim Cunningham : I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) said. The situation that he described has been well known to the CSA for many years. I have raised it on a number of occasions, as have other hon. Members. I sometimes wonder whether those on the Government Front Bench listen and look into the issues that Back Benchers raise. The phenomenon is not new—it has been around a long time—but no one has done anything to tackle it. Now we know why the CSA gets itself into a mess from time to time.

There must be a way to bring to book the people who are dodging the system. On the one hand, someone who works in a factory can get clobbered; on the other, someone who owns their own business can get away with blue murder. It is about time that that loophole was plugged.

Mr. Donohoe : My hon. Friend is right, and this is why Sir David Henshaw has a job on his hands. He will have to convince me and my hon. Friends, as well as colleagues across the House, that a system will come into being that covers the points made by my hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins). This issue needs to be examined and we need some ideas from David Henshaw long before the end of the year.

I welcome the proposal to revisit the legislation and hope to have the opportunity of making some input to it. I am sure that my hon. Friends also want some input. Again, I ask the Minister what consultation is taking place to allow hon. Members with first-hand experience to have some input so that we can have a transparent system, which we must have. The system that operates just now is neither transparent nor fair.

In the first instance, I am here to seek justice—that is the only word for it—for my constituent from a system that has consistently let her down every step of the way. I fully accept that the individual has responsibility, and that is the case that has to be made, but the state equally has responsibility. It must be shown clearly that there is some form of state responsibility. That is the third issue on which I ask for clarification and comment from the Minister.

While I accept that liability orders were put in place, it took 13 years for the agency finally to take the case to a full court hearing. As I explained, when it came to court, Dawn Rennie was not given the opportunity either to attend or to defend her family. That is plainly wrong, and it must be addressed and resolved by the Minister and the Department.

It must be said—there is no other way to put it—that the CSA has been a charter for disaster since its inception. My constituent has received neither a formal apology nor any hint of meaningful compensation. She was offered £150 as a good-will gesture when my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock
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(Sandra Osborne) took the case up some seven years ago. I hope the Minister can rectify that either today or in the near future.

No doubt the Minister has had to face difficulties, but they are minuscule compared with the grief of those caught in the net of a bungling, inept system that has been accepted as such by the Secretary of State himself. The Government must face their responsibilities and acknowledge that the system is inept. They must address the problem immediately, not at some time in the future.

The Government have been quick enough to compensate farmers time and again—the latest occasion was after the foot and mouth outbreak. It seems that people would be better off if they were animals, because compensation is so quickly offered to farmers, but it is not offered, and there is no proposal to do so, for all the mistakes that have been made by the CSA over the years. I look forward to the Minister's response.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this debate on a subject that is obviously important to one of his constituents. I appreciate that he feels strongly about the agency, as do other hon. Members who intervened.

I shall speak first about the specific case, on which the agency has fully briefed me. It is a difficult one and I am sure that hon. Members appreciate that I am constrained in the comments that I can make on specific cases. However, I always welcome the opportunity to discuss child support issues and to lay out the steps that the Government are now embarked upon to address in the long term the current performance shortcomings to which my hon. Friend referred.

The case illustrates the complex and lengthy processes that are often involved in securing maintenance for children. Miss Rennie has been seeking maintenance for her child through the CSA since its inception in the early 1990s. She has experienced a number of problems that have thwarted progress in the agency's attempt to secure maintenance.

The complex system for calculating maintenance that was in place when Miss Rennie first made her claim has led to a number of different maintenance assessments. However, the two individuals involved have also played a part. Claims and counterclaims by Miss Rennie and her ex-partner, mainly in relation to his income, also led to a number of revisions of both the weekly assessment and the level of outstanding debt.

Although I acknowledge that Miss Rennie has not received from the agency the level of service that she had a right to expect, it is clear that the agency has tried a number of different ways to secure the money owed by the non-resident parent. Two liability orders have been obtained in respect of maintenance owed, the first in August 1995 for more than £4,000 and the second in October 2002 for more than £12,000, and a range of enforcement measures have been used or attempted. They include a charge for payment in January 2003, the registration of letters of inhibition in May 2003, an attachment to attempt to seize a vehicle in June 2003, arrestment to freeze a bank account in August 2003 and
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orders for deduction of earnings in December 1993, in November 1994, which was revised in February 1995, and August 2001. All those attempts took place before the recent sheriff's judgment on further enforcement action.

Although there have been a few brief periods when maintenance was paid—mainly in September 1998 and between January and March 2003—in addition to the informal payment of pocket money to the child, it is clear that overall Miss Rennie has not achieved the outcome that she was looking for. The question is: why has that happened? It is clear to me that the agency could have acted more quickly, but I do not believe that it can be held solely responsible for failure to obtain maintenance.

When looking at individual cases, we must first consider whether parents are facing up to their responsibilities. It is not the responsibility of the CSA to provide maintenance to children. That responsibility lies with the non-resident parent. If non-resident parents met all their financial responsibilities, there would be no need for the agency to exist. Too often, debates about child support cases focus on the poor performance of the agency when the underlying issue is whether the non-resident parent is meeting their obligations. In the most recent sheriff court judgment in this case, the sheriff found that Miss Rennie's ex-partner had

The implication of that is that Miss Rennie's ex-partner has not been avoiding his obligations, but has been unable to meet them due to his financial position.

It is not the normal procedure for the parent with care to be called at the court hearing because the action is taken on behalf of the agency. Information was being gathered continuously from her and the agency case was presented by a specialist solicitor, but the sheriff accepted that the witnesses who spoke on behalf of the non-resident parent in ascertaining his income level were credible. As the judgment stands, the agency is unable to enforce the recovery of the outstanding debt.

I am sure that Miss Rennie has a view about the sheriff's ruling, as does my hon. Friend. I sense that their dissatisfaction may now be directed more at aspects of the Scottish legal process than at the agency, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that.

Mr. Donohoe : Surely it is common sense to say that the person who is best versed in the case was Miss Rennie. It is clear that there is a serious fault in the system. Would it not be better when an application is made to the sheriff court or High court that the individual who is most aggrieved is present in court and, at the very least, asked to make some comment?

Mr. Plaskitt : I should not stray into the realm of how legal systems operate because that would be inappropriate. I have read through all the details of Miss Rennie's case and reviewed others as well. It is not the normal practice for the parent with care to attend court. However, it is the practice that the solicitor representing the agency in such hearings is usually in regular contact with them to collect the relevant information to pursue the case in the court. After all, the agency goes to court
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to take action because it wants to act on behalf of that parent. It usually gets to that point because it has exhausted all other attempts to obtain money from the non-resident parent.

Mr. Jenkins : I should like to take the Minister back about two and a half minutes. I cannot believe that he made the statement that he made then. He said that many people were critical of the CSA but that it was not the CSA's fault—it is the fault of the absent parent who is not a law-abiding, upstanding, righteous individual. That is almost like the Home Secretary standing up in the Chamber and saying that we would not need the police, prisons, enforcement or legislation if there were more honourable, law-abiding citizens who obeyed rules and regulations. Of course, we do have the police service, prisons and laws because we do not have such a situation. The Minister cannot come here and pretend that the problem is not with the CSA but with that difficult bunch out there. You were set up to deal with that difficult bunch.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. I am not dealing with anything.

Mr. Plaskitt : I entirely understand my hon. Friend's strength of feeling. I can answer as a Minister, but I am also a constituency Member of Parliament with my own CSA case load, and I am as aware as he is of the pressures. My point was that there would not be a requirement for an agency if parents always met their responsibilities when they split up or a relationship ended. He is right: the agency exists because some parents will not face up to their responsibility, and intervention is needed to make them do so. The agency has an enforcement role.

My hon. Friend and others will know from their case load of the extraordinary lengths to which some non-resident parents will go to evade responsibility. The agency has a certain armoury of powers to go after non-compliant, non-resident parents, but whether it has enough powers or uses them to the fullest possible extent are questions that must be answered. In a recent statement in the House, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the CSA is not fit for purpose—we all accept that. One of the areas where it has failed and let down parents is by not having a sufficiently successful record in ensuring enforcement on the non-resident parent. I shall explain in a moment what action we are taking to try to improve the agency's performance in respect of enforcement and what we can do in the longer term with the successor agency or body to strengthen that role and ensure compliance of non-resident parents.

Mr. Donohoe : In replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), the Minister indicated that the CSA depended very much on the responsibility of the absent parent. The absent parent in Miss Rennie's case has been served notices at five different addresses but has not responded to any of them. It is clear that that person is not normal, as one might suggest. It is obvious that he is trying to evade any
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responsibility as a parent, and that is surely the difficulty that must be addressed when we consider what alternatives to put in place.

Mr. Plaskitt : That is why the agency resorted to going to court in that case. It is not for me to comment on the sheriff's judgment—that is for others to comment on, and I am aware that they have. The agency can take the action to court, but it cannot determine the conclusion that the sheriff might reach.

The case that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire raises illustrates one of the many reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State concluded that the present system was not fit for purpose. The CSA was set up to replace a court system that was slow and complex, and which did not deliver for parents caring for children. Unfortunately, most of those complaints have also been levelled at the agency.

Throughout the agency's history, there has been an endless stream of negative stories and a constant flow of letters and calls from the public to the agency and to MPs pointing out its manifest failings. I have asked my officials to consider whether anything further can be done in this specific case, and I shall write to my hon. Friend when I have had a response.

Turning to the broader issues that my hon. Friend and others have raised, last year we asked the newly appointed chief executive of the agency, Stephen Geraghty, to conduct a root-and-branch review of the agency's operations. From his findings, we concluded that the current system was incapable of delivering the outcomes that we all desire from a child support agency. The problems are not just in how the agency operates, but in the policy and legislative framework that is supposed to support it. We therefore asked Sir David Henshaw to redesign the system. The terms of reference for the redesign have been drawn as widely as possible to allow all options for reform to be considered fully.

My hon. Friend asked about involvement of and consultation with other people. Sir David has already written to all Members of the House asking for their views. If my hon. Friends have not received the letter, I encourage them to give their views to Sir David Henshaw if they wish. He has also already formally been in touch with Opposition spokespersons for Department for Work and Pensions matters, and is expected to report to Ministers later this year.

In addition, we recently published an operational improvement plan that sets out how the agency will turn around its performance over the next three years. The £90 million investment will support the recruitment of more staff and the deployment of more staff to processing work, particularly enforcement. We will quadruple the number of staff who are dedicated to enforcement activity from just over 500 to 2,000 by 2009, with an aim to raise compliance from the 65 per cent. that is achieved at present to 80 per cent. by March 2009. We shall also consider the use of data from credit reference agencies and from Revenue and Customs.

A further £30 million will be invested in using private debt collection agencies to recover more than £100 million of historic debt during the three years of the plan. That will also allow us to draw on the expertise of the private sector. Work has already begun on introducing those improvements and will continue while Sir David is producing his redesign of the whole agency.
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In conclusion, I believe that all Members of the House continue to support the original objectives of the CSA. The measures that we have announced are an important step towards improving the present arrangements and, critically, putting in place the foundations for a child support system that will have a better chance of meeting those objectives in the long run.

Mr. Donohoe : Will the Minister give some indication of how he intends to address the issue of the self-employed?

Mr. Plaskitt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. I believe that in his experience and that of every Member of the House, myself included, some of the most intractable cases that present in our surgeries are of exactly that nature. The non-resident parent, who may have been in employment, voluntarily goes into self-employment and then uses all manner of devices to conceal their income level. My hon. Friend will know that parents with care who have evidence of that can ask the agency to revisit and investigate if there is evidence that living circumstances do not equate to declared income, but that is difficult for the agency, and we all know that there are plenty of devices that people in self-employment can use in an attempt to evade responsibility. We have specifically asked Sir David, in reviewing how a future agency might work, to reflect on what can be done to give us more leverage against people who are trying to evade their responsibility. It is part of the wider enforcement issue.

The present system is not working, but it is time to learn the lessons from the past and to look to a new system to ensure that parents meet their responsibilities to support their children.

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