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I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentlemans response. He has completely misunderstood the nature of the proposals. This is fundamental reform. It is quite ridiculous of him to
suggest that it is not. Every aspect of the system is being changedroot and branch. We are not delaying the reforms. We are progressing them as quickly as we can. We need primary legislation to implement the changes, so the speed at which we are able to progress will depend on the progress of that legislation.
The tougher enforcement rules that I am proposing are not a gimmick. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is always that they like to talk tough, and they brief tough when they whisper to the Daily Mail and other newspapers, but whenever they are given the choice in the House of supporting tough action against non-resident parents who are not paying up, they always wriggle out of that responsibility and find some reason or other why they are not able to support the proposals. That speaks volumes about the hon. Gentlemans vacuity and the emptiness of his position. I have dealt with the issue of interim maintenance assessments and I do not want to repeat my remarks. We asked Sir David Henshaw to look at folding the CSA into HMRC. He rejected the idea, as has everyone else who has looked at it.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the CSA, from day one, has been collection and enforcement, but that that does not absolve anybody of their personal responsibility? We need an adequate maintenance flow to parents with care so as to attack the ongoing problem with child poverty and to give people a sustainable platform so that they can move from welfare to work.
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree with everything he said. It is undoubtedly true that the problems with the CSA have been partly about policy and administrationthere is no point in pretending otherwisebut fundamentally those problems are the result of the actions of non-resident parents who refuse to meet their financial responsibilities to their children. That is the culture that we have to challenge fundamentally. I hope that the reforms that I am bringing forward today will succeed in bearing down on the unacceptable culture that has grown up that says that it is okay for people not to pay for their kids. It is not.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of States statement? I appreciate the amount of work that he has put into this difficult area. Two of the principles behind the agency were, first, to ensure that children got a proper and fair maintenance payment and, secondly, to ensure that responsibility was not passed on to other taxpayersnot the Government, but other taxpayers and the parents of other children. Although I welcome an attempt to make sure that there are more consensual arrangements, will he ensure that those two principles are not lost and that we will not go back to a system whereby deals were done that put the emphasis on the taxpayer? The parties who did that knew what they were doing. Finally, on experts, will he watch the Treasury experts and make sure that he continues to drive the policy, not the Treasury?
In relation to the last point, the Government as a whole are taking the policy forward. I welcome the hon. Gentlemans comments, because he had to struggle
with these issues himself when he was in government. He was a fine Minister. I accept and agree with the two fundamental points that he raised about the basic design features of the system. That is why we have decided not to accept, for example, the suggestion that there should be a complete maintenance disregard. We have to make sure that the arrangements reflect the point that he made about a balance when it comes to thinking about what it is reasonable for the taxpayer to do. We all have an interest in preventing child poverty and preventing families from slipping into poverty when, unfortunately, they break up, but we have to do that in a balanced and proportionate way. More work needs to be done on that to make sure that there is not also a disincentive to work for lone parents, which we have to guard against as well.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his clever and subtle statement. Does he accept that while there is never a lack of support in the House for reforms, what is lacking is reforms that work? How will he measure success? Does he believe that once the reform is up and running, 40, 60 or 80 per cent. of parents using the new service will gain their maintenance payments regularly and in full?
Mr. Hutton: Yes. We will have to agree with the commission and commissioner the exact performance standards that we will expect that new agency to deliver. We should set the bar high. It is important that we focus on this issue. There will be an opportunity between now and the time at which legislation comes forward and the establishment of the new commission for my right hon. Friend to influence our thinking in all those areas.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The lifting of the bar on private agreements is most welcome. Obviously, I have not yet seen the White Paper. Has the Secretary of State dealt with the core problem of which we are all aware: self-employed people who waltz around the system? How will the new arrangements deal with that major problem in the old system?
Mr. Hutton: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentlemans point. I am sure that we have all dealt with constituency cases in which we have had to wrestle with that problem. The means to deal with it is to use HMRC data, but obviously we would welcome his and his hon. Friends further comments on the matter.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement, which focuses strongly on simplification and setting a framework for the things that have not been working. During his statement, he said, Despite the best efforts of its staff, and it is important that we recognise what the staff have been doing. Although they will recognise a lot in the statement as being good, they will have some uncertainty about the transition to the new arrangements. They are no doubt being briefed as we sit here, but will my right hon. Friend set out to the House how he will reassure the staff about their future and their part in the future?
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the work that her constituents have done over many years at the CSAs offices in Plymouth. I think that this week marks the last week of service in the CSA of Jean Brown, who has been an outstanding public servant. We are all grateful for the work that she has done.
There will have to be proper negotiations among those representing CSA employees, the Department and the new commission. However, we should all reflect on an obvious fact: in an ideal world, we would not need a commission or an agency, but sadly this is not an ideal world. Many absent and non-resident parents will still decide, for a variety of reasons, not to pay up for their kids. We will need an efficient and well-run organisation to make sure that they do pay up, and I am sure that my hon. Friends constituents will continue to play a part in that.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): On the issue of a well-run organisation, does the Secretary of State accept that the first contact between the customer and the new commission will be essential, given that that is where things have too often broken down with the Child Support Agency? Will he ensure that when the commission is telephoned, the telephone is answered rapidly, that one named person deals with each case, and that that person is accessible, available and responsible so that the customers think that someone is actually looking after their case and they are not being bundled from pillar to post, with papers being shuffled around the agency, which has been the real problem in the past?
Mr. Hutton: I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is important that any well-run service, whether it is in the public or private sector, delivers that kind of first-contact service. Since we have been putting more money into the agency, we have tried to improve its performance in that area. Some 95 per cent. of queued calls in the system are being dealt with. I would like that figure to be higher, but the situation has significantly improved on what came before.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): I welcome the statement, which is obviously going down the right roadat least my office staff will be given a bit of respite if the proposals work. May I follow on from the question asked by my friend, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? I have found that a lot of fathers say that they do not get paid, but in fact they work in small businesses and get paid cash in hand. Obviously, the mothers know that that is happening because they see them driving around in cars and going on holidays, but there is no way to get at them. Will the new system get them?
Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We know that there are such cases. If we use HMRC data, it will simplify the system and give us a proper benchmark. We will continue to explore all opportunities to look at other sources of information about non-resident parents income to build up a sense of what they might be doing.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD):
I wish to follow on from a question posed by my
hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that has not yet been answered by the Secretary of State. The statement will offer little cause for optimism to my constituent, Mrs. McCabe. In her case, arrears were built up in the UK by a non-resident parent who now cannot be pursued because he is living abroad. Under the new system, will the arrears be written off, or will the new organisation have the jurisdiction to pursue them?
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): As one of the Members of Parliament who gave evidence to Sir David Henshaw when he was examining the CSA earlier this year, I welcome my right hon. Friends statement. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), I have dealt with many cases since becoming a Member of Parliament. Like many, I am sure, I know of constituents who are owed five-figure sums by absent parents. Write-offs would be devastating to them, and I am pleased by todays announcement about them. However, can the Secretary of State explain the existing relationship between the Birkenhead and Bolton offices? The situation is causing many problems and we cannot get answers from them. What is happening between those two offices? I have raised this point elsewhere. From my perspective, the arrangement is resulting in conflicting and inaccurate information being given to Members of Parliament and constituents alike, so it needs to be addressed immediately.
Mr. Hutton: I will certainly look into the matter on behalf of my hon. Friend. It is worth pointing out that the Bolton office, which is a new service in the CSA, is dealing with some of the most difficult cases in the systemthe so-called clerical cases. Obviously, we all expect a proper level of service from the CSA, so if that is not happening, I will cause inquiries to be made.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): There is obviously merit in the tougher enforcement and collection procedures, so the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on those. Does he agree that in order to guard against error, there must be robust review or appeal procedures? Will he ensure that he provides that all sanctions are legal, proportionate and reasonable? Will he bear it in mind that many of us think that curfews and the withholding of passports will not satisfy those tests?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is true that the powers that we are taking are much tougher than those that are usually associated with the recovery of civil debt. However, we are taking those tougher powers for a very simple reason: we want to ensure that more of the money that is owed to families gets paid. We must tackle the culture of non-compliance, which is a fundamentally corrosive factor in our society that undermines family
values and parental responsibility. Of course, any proposals in the legislation must comply with the European convention.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee in the previous Parliament, I welcome my right hon. Friends robust statement, which implements many of the recommendations put forward in our report of two years ago. We found that the lack of use of enforcement powers, such as the taking of driving licences, was budget-driven because enforcement teams got sucked away into carrying out assessments. I am delighted that the new agency will have the word enforcement in its title, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that the enforcement budget will be ring-fenced under the new arrangements so that resources are not sucked away for assessments and there is proper and robust enforcement, which has been lacking in the past?
Mr. Hutton: It will clearly be a job of the commissioner and the new commission to ensure that that mistake is not made. We are certainly trying to get the agency to focus more on enforcement, which it is doing. However, I do not judge the success of enforcement powers, such as those on driving licences and curfews, by the number of times that they are used. I want the powers to be available so that they act as a deterrent to those who are thinking of cocking a snook at the system. That is why the powers should be available to the commission and the agency at the earliest possible opportunity.
John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of States comments about doing more to promote joint parental responsibility. I am sure that everyone agrees with the notion that it is a good idea to get the joint registration of both parents on a birth certificate. Equally, I agreed with his comments about the vital importance of ensuring that everyone understands that it is not acceptable to avoid ones responsibilities as a parent. The Government have frequently talked the language of rights and responsibilities and have rightly said that those two things often go hand in hand. Has the Secretary of State had any conversations with his Cabinet colleagues about revisiting the question of parental contactthe rights of parents to have access to their childrenor does he have any proposals of his own? If we are quite rightly raising the bar for peoples responsibilities as parents, will those rights also be extended, because many people think that the existing system is unfair on parents without care and children themselves?
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and appropriate point. In relation to child maintenance, we are talking about the obligation to comply with the law, but there is an equal and equivalent obligation on the part of the parent with care to ensure that any orders that the court makes in relation to access and custody are complied with, too. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has introduced legislation to improve the contact process and contact orders, and we need to keep the matter under careful review.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The hard-working, dedicated staff of the Child Support Agency care deeply about getting money to the children and parents who need it, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to give them the tools to do that work effectively. Will he say whether further work is required on the current IT system, and if so, will the provider of that system contribute towards the costs? Can he say that lessons will be learned before the procurement of the system for the new commission?
Mr. Hutton: I thought that someone would mention IT. Obviously, the new commission will need a proper software and IT systemthat goes without saying. We must try to learn lessons from what went wrong a few years ago, and we will work hard to make sure that that happens. I am grateful for my hon. Friends overall support for the reforms.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): In his statement, the Secretary of State said that he would significantly strengthen the enforcement regime, and he outlined a range of measures, which I broadly support. However, they will not be available for four years, and in the meantime obligations are all too easily, and too widely, ignored. Will he consider bringing forward the additional powers that he mentioned in his statement?
Mr. Hutton: Yes, I will, and we propose that once the Bill completes its passage through the House, as I hope that it will, those new enforcement powers should be available to the current agency. The powers will not await the establishment of the new commission.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I give a general welcome to what my right hon. Friend said, and may I ask him to consider an issue that the existing system does not deal withthe possibility of shared care between two parents? I have a classic case in my constituencyother hon. Members will have similar onesin which, over a 10-year period, each of the two parents looked after their child for three days and a bit every week. The problem is that the size of the bit kept changing, so there were calculations and recalculations, and money passed back and forth between the parents. Diaries were kept, and there was a great deal of acrimony. There were hearings, appeals, and visits to Ministers, involving the two MPs offices. It could all have been avoided from the very beginning, if it was recognised that both parents had shared care, and neither owed any maintenance to the other.
Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The White Paper does not propose any changes to the way in which maintenance liability is assessed in such cases, but I assure him and the House that, if there are other Members who feel as strongly as he does, we are prepared and willing to listen to representations on that point.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD):
Like every MP, I have long strings of constituents coming to my constituency office and surgeries with problems to do with the CSA, so I welcome many of the proposals announced today, not least because I called for some of the measures between 2002 and 2005, when I was the
Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) has pointed out, one major concern is the fact that it will take some years for certain of the reforms to come into effect. Will the Secretary of State explain why he, or rather his predecessors, failed to introduce the reforms five and 10 years ago, when all concerned were calling for them?
Mr. Hutton: I think that successive Ministers and Governments tried everything that they possibly could to make the system work. I had to make a decision on whether to proceed with the reforms or not, and I decided not to. I welcome the hon. Gentlemans comments, and I look forward to him taking over his former responsibilities once more, in place of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).
Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friends statement will be welcomed by many parents in my constituency who have yet to receive a penny piece in maintenance, despite the fact that their former partners often have very good lifestyles and drive around in big cars. I would like clarification on two matters. First, what safeguards will be put in place to prevent those who have abusive or violent partners from being coerced into private arrangements that may involve a lot less money than they would get through the new system, and, secondly, what sanctions will be put in place if people make a private arrangement but fail to honour it?
Mr. Hutton: If the voluntary arrangement breaks down, the parent with care is free to submit an application to the agency, or to the commission in future, and we will rigorously enforce those applications. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an important point, and we must make sure that parents with care do not become the victims of abusive, violent or coercive behaviour, aimed at making them settle cases against their best interests. I accept that we have more work to do on that, and we must fix the level of maintenance disregard, as that is an important issue, too. At the end of the day, we must all address one fundamental question, and answer it in one way or another: on the back of everything that we have learned over the past 13 years, do we think that it is the right way forward to move to a system that tries genuinely to encourage and incentivise voluntary agreements? I believe that if the answer to that question is yes, we can deal with the concerns that my hon. Friend raised. If the answer to the question is no, we have a more fundamental disagreement, but I think that my hon. Friend is with me on the main issue.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): In broadly welcoming the statement that the Secretary of State made today, may I pay tribute to the hard-working staff of the CSA in Plymouth? It is certainly not their fault that the current system has fallen down so badly. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not enough simply to get the architecture of his new arrangements rightit is crucial to get the culture of the new office right, too. It must be customer-focused, and must deliver a service in a non-bureaucratic, consumer-friendly way. If he can achieve that, he will certainly have our wholehearted support.
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