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Hon. Members: Object.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Perhaps the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) should be given the chance to move his Bill.

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 23 February.

19 Jan 2007 : Column 1116

Child Support Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Claire Ward.]

2.30 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome the opportunity this afternoon to raise the case of my constituent, Mrs. Sharon Johnson, who has been diabolically treated by the Child Support Agency.

I say at the outset that I am very grateful to the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), for his presence today and for his courtesy in contacting me to discuss the rudiments of this case yesterday afternoon. He generously informed me that in one of his last initiatives as a Back Bencher before joining the payroll vote, he himself staged an Adjournment debate on a child support case on behalf of one of his constituents. He made that point to emphasise that he felt some empathy and fellow feeling with me. I know that he takes the matter seriously and I do not seek to score a party point for the sake of it. I look forward to his considered and helpful response.

Mrs. Sharon Johnson of Aston Clinton, in my constituency, has three children: Jade, who is 14, Sophie, who is 10, and Alex, who is six. The thrust of the matter is this in summary form. She applied to the Child Support Agency in December 2005. She of course received no written acknowledgement, which seems to be par for the course all too often. She was obliged to make phone call after phone call to seek to ascertain progress on the matter. There was none. It was very much a case of one-way traffic—a situation with which all too many individuals across the country dealing with the agency will themselves be only too familiar.

Mrs. Johnson approached me, as her constituency Member of Parliament, in March 2006. Since that time I have written two letters to the chief executive of the CSA, one letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and on top of that my office has had telephone communication with the CSA or the parliamentary business unit subsection thereof—either I or a member of my staff made the calls—on no fewer than 41 occasions. An article about the matter and the extent of the privations experienced by Mrs. Johnson appeared in Private Eye in November last year. The case was referred to the independent case examiner this month.

I was relatively generous. I was willing to give the agency time to sort the matter out, if possible. Finally, my patience snapped. I thought that I had been very reasonable, and I decided to apply for an Adjournment debate in this House. I simply make the point to the Minister, and for the benefit of those listening to the exchanges today, that the fact that I had secured this debate today appeared on the Order Paper of the House on Tuesday of this week—13 months after Mrs. Johnson had originally approached the agency, in December 2005. On Tuesday evening of this week, the CSA completed its maintenance calculation. Now it may be that I am excessively cynical, but I have a suspicion that there is some linkage between the public acknowledgement of my interest and the decision to
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reach a basic maintenance calculation—that they are not entirely unrelated events.

There has been a sorry saga of delay and incompetence, of which Mrs. Sharon Johnson, my constituent, is the innocent and hapless victim. The detail of the matter is positively Kafkaesque, and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister of State will be relieved to learn that I do not intend to go into the seemingly interminable ping-pong match of the matter. Instead, I intend to offer a brief synopsis.

I have three essential criticisms of the agency in this case—poor customer service, serious computer problems that remain unresolved, and the breathtakingly inept handling, or non-handling, of the matter by the agency’s office in Bolton. On the question of poor customer service, Mrs. Johnson was not written to by the agency: she had to chase it on the phone. The CSA incorrectly registered her ex-husband at her address, where they had lived together, and proved incapable of rectifying that simple error, despite repeated reminders. Later, it changed the records to register her ex-husband at her new address, where he had never lived, and it wrote to him at that address about an unrelated child support claim for his child from a previous relationship. I submit that fiction could not be more fantastic.

In its infinite cheek, the CSA then advised Mrs. Johnson to wait between three and six months to see whether the error was corrected before taking any further action. When she complained, she was told that she was “one of thousands”. That is the gravamen of my critique of the inadequacy of the customer service that she received.

The second issue is the computer problems. On 28 March 2006 my office was told that a case worker for this matter had not been assigned, but one would be assigned as soon as possible, the case would be prioritised and the team would have four weeks in which to assess it. Three months after that deadline of four weeks had passed, nothing had happened. On 15 June 2006, in exasperation and discontent, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. There followed regular chasing by me of the parliamentary business unit at Birkenhead. Computer failures there have been on a mammoth scale, with internal deadlines missed and documents to Mrs. Johnson sent in July last year with the most basic errors. One of the biggest computer problems was that Mrs. Johnson’s case kept disappearing from the queue of tasks for CSA staff. Finally, it was decided that an expert would attempt a fix to recover the lost material and facilitate progress on the case. In fact, I am sorry to report that a relevant staff member went on holiday, and the fix was not attempted for a further two weeks.

In recognition of the significant delays and incompetence from which Mrs. Johnson had suffered, she was awarded a consolatory payment—I gather that that is the lexicon used to describe it—of £50. Finally, in August 2006, the case “went clerical”—the term used for a decision to transfer a case from consideration by computer to consideration by an individual on paper. We were advised off the record that the CSA had subcontracted all new clerical cases to a private contractor based in Bolton. Delays meant that Mrs. Johnson missed the cut-off point for her case to be handled clerically at Birkenhead. Instead, we were
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advised that it would be handled by the new firm in Bolton, whose work would start—inconveniently and unfortunately for Mrs. Johnson—only at the end of September 2006. Hundreds of cases were to be sent to that company from offices across the country, but we were assured in the most mellifluous tones that Sharon’s case would be on a priority list.

I put it to the Minister in all courtesy that one can scarcely believe the level of incompetence, carelessness and indifference demonstrated by the CSA in Bolton. No doubt he, as a rising star of the Government and a sympathetic Minister, will be aware of the problems at Bolton. After all, the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about those problems in exchanges on the statement on child maintenance made to the House on 13 December 2006. In response to probing from the hon. Lady, the Secretary of State said:

A sensible statement from a sensible Secretary of State: what, one might ask, is the outcome of the inquiries?

I hasten to add that the staff of the parliamentary business unit at Birkenhead have been co-operative and helpful but they had their hands tied behind their backs. Bolton got off to a bad start; staff worked slowly and things did not get better. I was told that staff at the business unit at Birkenhead were not allowed to phone the Bolton office—they had to e-mail. The Bolton office was supposed to respond within 48 hours; instead it took an average of six days to respond to information requests, if it responded at all. Even then, information was often incomplete or simply wrong.

My office was advised by staff at the unit that Mrs. Johnson’s experience at the hands of Bolton was by no means isolated or exceptional. The CSA management structure was unable to bring pressure to bear on outside contractors. The parliamentary business unit eventually told us that the issue “hit the fan” in November 2006 and new systems were installed, but nothing discernible happened or changed. Escalated requests for information did not receive responses. We were advised to write to the chief executive again, as management needed to be made aware of the situation. This I duly did on behalf of Mrs. Johnson on 21 November 2006.

I put it to the Minister that our experience of the last month typifies the utter and shameful contempt with which the CSA has treated Mrs. Johnson and her family. In December 2006, we were verbally advised that the Bolton office had agreed to process the case within two weeks. We asked for written confirmation of that and it later emerged that the Bolton office had agreed only to respond to us within two weeks, not to process the case.

There were numerous exchanges in the first couple of weeks of 2007. Last week, the Bolton office told the Birkenhead office that nothing at all had been done with Sharon’s case; in fact, her file was still in storage—obviously, not only the Home Office suffers from that scourge—but progress was being made, as the paperwork had been requested from storage. We are duly grateful, I am sure. Naturally, we were disgusted but not entirely surprised by that news. The
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CSA’s own staff agreed that something should be done about the Bolton office. I was advised that staff turnover there was high, information was excessively difficult to extract and the staff at Bolton had no concept of the fact that they were dealing with people’s lives. Surprisingly, that is, I think, a conclusion that I could have reached independently, although I was grateful to have it confirmed by the impressions of the staff in the Birkenhead office—I mean that sincerely.

This week, we were told that progress had been made and that the information we received last week was given in error. We have been assured verbally that the relevant calculation—Mrs. Johnson’s entitlement—was completed on Tuesday evening this week. She has been awarded £93 a week, effective from 12 July 2006—presumably, it took the agency until July 2006 to contact Mrs. Johnson’s ex-husband. We have passed on those details to Sharon Johnson, as the CSA has not yet been in touch with her.

The CSA website states that the CSA can help to

It has failed to fulfil any of those tasks. The Home Office, on the admission of no less celebrated and illustrious a figure than the Home Secretary, has been declared “not fit for purpose”, but on the strength of this case, it would seem that the Child Support Agency is not even fit to open an envelope.

I have, in conclusion, a few explicit and simple demands. After the catalogue of errors of which my constituent is the victim, it is hard not to be cynical and I would like some cast-iron guarantees from the Minister, whom, as I say, I personally greatly respect and whose interest in the matter I appreciate. When will the CSA write to Sharon Johnson to confirm the calculation? When does the CSA expect Sharon Johnson to begin receiving payments? As it took 13 months for the CSA to process her application, I hope that it will not take a similarly long period for it to establish a schedule for payment. Will Sharon be awarded compensation for the appalling failures by the CSA, which have resulted in severe financial hardship and stress for both her and her children? Finally, will the Minister please get a grip on the contractors, Vertex? We are told that the exact financial benefit of the contract to Vertex is not clear, but we are advised by the Department for Work and Pensions that the generic cost to the Department—an interesting concept—for the 19-month contract is £23 million. The message to that contractor should be, “Buck up, serve your customers, earn your keep, or clear your desks and get out.”

2.46 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). I congratulate him on securing the debate. He has demonstrated eloquently that this is an important constituency case. I also want to congratulate him and
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his team—I know from my own constituency casework that it is not just the Member of Parliament but the constituency staff who often bear the burden of, in this case, the 41 calls—on their dogged determination in pursuing Mrs. Johnson’s case. They should not have had to do that, but, nevertheless, she has been well served by him and his team, while being let down by others.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I regret to have to say that this case has not been handled in the manner that his constituent is entitled to expect. I apologise absolutely for the fact that the level of customer care that she received was not to the standard that I would expect for my constituents. He is right not to accept it for his. As he is aware, Mrs. Johnson first applied to the agency for child maintenance in June 2003, when she was receiving a prescribed benefit. Although he quite fairly did not comment on that first application, I want to mention in passing that it is certainly my sense that the first application was also very poorly handled, for which, again, I offer my sincere apologies. It was wrong that the agency did not contact the father of Mrs. Johnson’s children in response to her first application in 2003, still less make an assessment of his liability. I am very sorry to have to say that the agency took very little action at all on the first application.

More than a year later, in August 2004, after Mrs. Johnson has ceased to claim the prescribed benefit and was no longer required to use the agency’s services, she wrote to the agency to instruct it to close her case. By way of background, it is important to note that, owing to the circumstances of the case, the amount payable to Mrs. Johnson at the time of her initial application would have been less than £5 a week. However, the principle is the same. Her case was not properly handled and Mrs. Johnson and her family were not properly supported by the system.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments focused on three specific areas: the poor level of customer service in Mrs. Johnson’s case, the computer and IT failures, and the handling of the case in the Bolton office. In December 2005, as he has mentioned, Mrs. Johnson made her second application to the agency for an assessment of child maintenance against the father of her children. To begin with, that application was treated little better than the first. The agency almost immediately encountered a fault on its computer system that prevented staff from progressing Mrs. Johnson’s case. At that point, the fault should have been investigated and, if no remedy could be found, Mrs. Johnson’s case should have been processed clerically. At the very least, while the agency was deciding whether a system fix was possible, the children’s father should have been contacted both to make him aware of Mrs. Johnson’s application and to encourage him to make voluntary payments to her until his liability could be assessed.

Sadly, and wrongly, no further meaningful action occurred on the case until the intervention of the hon. Gentleman. In July 2006, after his second letter about Mrs. Johnson’s case, the agency again attempted to take the case forward on the computer system. A different error then arose for which no remedy existed, and the agency belatedly decided to make the case clerical. By that time, the agency had at last contacted the
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non-resident parent, thus establishing the start of his liability for child maintenance. However, it is clearly unacceptable that it took seven months for the agency to contact the non-resident parent.

A further delay occurred before the case was referred to the agency’s clerical processing office in Bolton in September 2006. Staff there promptly attempted to obtain from the non-resident parent details of his employment and earnings, without which they could not assess his liability. It became necessary to obtain that information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Again, I very much regret that the breakdown in communication between staff in Bolton and the Birkenhead office that has already been mentioned led to the request to HMRC not being sent at the time—October 2006. Only at the end of November was that oversight noticed.

Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman had written yet again to the agency about the poor service that Mrs. Johnson was receiving. In reply, the agency promised in a letter to the hon. Gentleman dated 14 December 2006 that it would make a maintenance calculation for Mrs. Johnson within two weeks. However, it failed to do so. I apologise for that failure, not only to Mrs. Johnson but to the hon. Gentleman, because he was given an assurance by the agency that was not fulfilled.

In response to the systematic failures in the treatment and support of Mrs. Johnson and to the specific and fair points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased to confirm several matters to the House. As has been mentioned, the agency has now made the long-overdue maintenance calculation for Mrs. Johnson and has written to both her and the non-resident parent to advise of the amount payable and the fact that the liability is effective from 12 July 2006, the date on which the agency first contacted the non-resident parent. The hon. Gentleman asked when that communication would be sent to his constituent. I understand that it was sent on 16 January. I have a copy of the correspondence, so at the conclusion of our proceedings, I will confirm that it was sent on 16 January. If the hon. Gentleman does not have the correspondence in his possession, I will, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pass it on to him so that he can confirm that the letter has been processed and is on the way to Mrs. Johnson.

The next step, of course, as the hon. Gentleman fairly said, is to obtain payment from the non-resident parent. The agency is determined to secure regular payments on Mrs. Johnson’s behalf, and, if necessary, it will apply for the money to be deducted from the non-resident parent’s earnings. We are committed to ensuring that Mrs. Johnson receives the maintenance that she is due and the customer care to which she was entitled when she first contacted the agency.

The CSA is ready to take any and all appropriate action to achieve payment from the non-resident parent. It will work closely with the Bolton office, and we have assigned a senior manager to monitor the case specifically to ensure that it progresses as quickly as it can in any way possible. The agency will also consider, as a matter of urgency, the extent to which Mrs. Johnson has suffered financial loss as a result of its poor handling of her case.

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