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House of Commons

Monday 23 April 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Support Agency

1. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent performance of the Child Support Agency. [132661]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): The Child Support Agency saw improvements in a number of areas over 2006 as a result of the operational improvement plan, with 58,000 more children receiving maintenance payments, a reduction in uncleared applications of 13 per cent. across both schemes, and new applications being dealt with more quickly. Legislation to replace the agency and overhaul the child support system will be introduced shortly.

Anne Main: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but I gave him details earlier today of a case involving my constituent, Mrs. Marshal, who has been woefully served by the CSA. The MP hotline in Belfast that we have tried to access cannot seem to get any answers out of Bolton—it does not even have the telephone numbers. Mrs. Marshal’s investigations show that the amount paid in by dad is £22,365.24, yet she has received only £19,809.91, which means that the CSA is sitting on some of her money. Where is the money? Mrs. Marshal can see the discrepancies from the spreadsheets, so why cannot the Department? Why cannot I get any access via the MP hotline in Belfast to sort out this woeful mess?

Mr. Hutton: The system is far from perfect —[ Laughter ]I think that we all recognise that. However, unlike the previous Administration, we have put in place significant additional investment to try to improve the service provided to hon. Members. As I said, we are beginning to make progress. The details of the hon. Lady’s case have not yet been brought to my attention.

Anne Main: I sent a copy to the Department earlier today.

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Mr. Hutton: I am sure that the hon. Lady did so, but unfortunately I have not yet seen that correspondence. However, I assure her that I will look into the matter.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the chief executive of the CSA exist—perhaps this is one of the problems with the CSA—because I never get a reply from him to any letter that I write to him at the CSA? If the chief executive took some care in signing replies and, more importantly, reading our letters, he might get some idea of what still needs to be done.

Mr. Hutton: I reject my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that the chief executive of the CSA is not doing a proper job. He is doing a proper job, and that is why the performance of the agency is beginning to improve in several important areas. We set out proposals in last year’s White Paper to bring about significant changes to the system of child support in our country, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will support those changes.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Government’s figures show that fewer child support cases are being cleared each month and that the number of complex cases that the computer system simply cannot handle has increased by a third in the past 12 months. The system cannot cope. Does the Secretary of State now agree with Conservative Members that the assessment process needs urgent reconsideration, or is he happy to continue to tell families who rely on child support that they will have to wait until perhaps 2013 until they see some change?

Mr. Hutton: We are determined to try to improve the operation of the CSA as much as possible. I understood that there was a consensus between the two sides of the House on the changes that were necessary. I also understood that Conservative Members supported the changes that we were trying to make through the operational improvement plan for the CSA. I am not aware that the hon. Lady and her colleagues have any other proposals to put forward.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to abolish the CSA and replace it with a new body. However, the fact remains that there are still enormous problems in dealing with the existing case load—that is the issue that is being raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. While I support what the Secretary of State is doing, what additional resources is he proposing to give the organisation in the meantime so that it can deal with the transitional arrangements? Many of our constituents have to wait an inordinate length of time just for their assessments to be made. That practical, administrative issue is the responsibility of the chief executive. What additional resources is my right hon. Friend prepared to give the agency now?

Mr. Hutton: We are making £120 million of additional investment available over the next three years to support the turnaround in performance that is wanted by all hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend. The first year of the additional investment was spent primarily trying to improve training and recruit additional staff so that we could bring about
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improvements in the processing of new applications. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), the length of time that it takes to process new applications is coming down.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the Secretary of State also consider, as a category, those people who flee from domestic violence, or whose partner has gone abroad? I will give just one example, but we could all give many: I know of somebody who left when their child was 10 months, and their child is now four. The child was meant to have received £94 a month, but they have received a total of £12 because the ex-partner boasts that he can always get away with it. That is unacceptable in any society, so will the Secretary of State consider those categories, and ask the chief executive to make them a priority, as well as other work that he has to do?

Mr. Hutton: I shall certainly do that. If the hon. Gentleman will give me the details of that case, we will look into it. I agree that it will be of primary importance to improve the enforcement arrangements within the agency. To that end, we have proposed a number of additional measures to improve the enforcement powers available to the agency, but I am sorry to say that all of them have been opposed by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Secretary of State said that the CSA was far from perfect; that is an example of perfect English understatement on St. George’s day. I cannot remember the last time I held a surgery in which I did not have at least one case involving the CSA before me—I often have more than one—and I suspect that it is the same for the Secretary of State. Will he give some indication of the scale of the problems? How many cases where errors are being made are outstanding?

Mr. Hutton: There is a backlog of, I think, over 200,000 cases in the system which needs to be dealt with, and we are trying to do that. Sensible Members understand that the problem did not start in 1997. I am afraid that its origins go right back to day one of the agency, which tried to do a job without the right tools and with the wrong policy framework, and which operated in a way that was simply never likely to deliver the results that all of us wanted and expected. When it comes to the CSA, it is easy for people to jump up and criticise its staff, the chief executive or anyone else, but we have a responsibility, which we should acknowledge in this place, for getting things wrong at the beginning and not correcting them in time. Now we are trying to do that.

Work-focused Interviews

2. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): What lessons have been learned from the result of work-focused interviews for lone parents. [132662]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are more lone parents in work than ever before, and part of that success is because of regular work-focused interviews. Most lone parents think that the experience is useful and,
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crucially, the contact with advisers means that they are aware of the range of help and support that is available to assist them in their return to work.

Lynne Jones: I am disappointed that my hon. Friend has not quoted any of the studies that the Department has had carried out on its behalf, but given the success of the voluntary new deal for communities programme, and the fact that 69 per cent. of lone parents whose youngest child is over 12 are in work, what would represent better value for money: spending more money on more compulsory interviews and signings-on, or spending money on removing the barriers to work identified in the studies that have been undertaken for his Department?

Mr. Murphy: I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber, just in time to put her question. A range of studies show that over recent years there has been real improvement, both in the employment rate of lone parents and in the earnings potential of lone parents who enter work. I am delighted to confirm again to the House that the new deal for lone parents has helped more than 480,000 lone parents across the United Kingdom into work, but we have to go further. The issue is partly giving personal advice and support, so that we can get lone parents into work, but it is also about the barriers that remain, to which my hon. Friend referred, quite fairly. The top of the list of those barriers remains making affordable, flexible child care available to all, and that is what we are determined to do, across the Government.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): The Government welcomed the Freud report, which advocated greater involvement of the voluntary and private sectors. Will the Minister confirm the story in The Guardian last Friday, which said that despite that welcome, the Government are not able to implement measures in the report because the Chancellor is refusing to provide any funding for pilot schemes?

Mr. Murphy: I have not had the opportunity to read last Friday’s Guardian, unlike the hon. Gentleman, but the whole Government are committed to delivering on the Freud report, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Prime Minister and of course the Chancellor, because it is that sort of teamwork that has, over time, enabled us to deliver the most successful economy and the highest rates of employment that the country has ever known, as well as a fall in the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance, incapacity benefit and income support. We are determined to continue that record of success.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): One of the biggest concerns for any lone parent accessing work is access to affordable child care. Workers at the Sure Start in St. Swithun’s in Eastmoor in my constituency of Wakefield have told me that they have noticed a trend, in which people access work just before Christmas, so that they can save up money to buy Christmas presents and get through the festive season, and then take their children out of child care and go back on benefits afterwards. Is that a trend that the Department has noticed, and if so, how can we better help those parents to stay in work?

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Mr. Murphy: I have not noticed or had any reports of situations along the lines that my hon. Friend suggests, but I am of course happy to listen to the specifics of her experience in her constituency or elsewhere. She is right to identify the need to provide more support for lone parents to be in sustained employment, because across the welfare system many people who wish for the chance to work and are determined to do so go into part-time or temporary work and go through a revolving door in the welfare system. The Freud report and a series of other reports put a firm emphasis on ensuring that work is sustained and well paid.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend noticed that the further away somebody is from the labour market, the more difficult it is to get back into it? In order to gain skills, it is important that people keep in touch with the labour market. Has he thought about how the Leitch report can benefit lone parents and help them to get back into work?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. The evidence is that for many lone parents, regular contact with the labour market through Jobcentre Plus or a private or voluntary sector provider, getting closer to the labour market and keeping close to it, and going into part-time work that must sometimes be flexible by its nature, are all involved in the journey back to work. The continued investment in getting people back into work to achieve that full employment is a price well worth paying.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Notwithstanding the figures that the Minister gave as regards the numbers of lone parents now in work, we still fall pitifully far down the league compared with the Scandinavian countries, for example. There are still 1,420 lone parents in the Rhondda who are not in work, and that is one of the major causes of child poverty. Will the Minister consider ways of ensuring that lone parents become part of the solution to this problem, for instance by gathering together lone parents so that they can provide flexible child care to other lone parents who want to get into work, thereby getting two parents into work rather than just one?

Mr. Murphy: In a devolved sense, some of the detail of that is part of the approach of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive. However, given the increased role in welfare for the private and voluntary sectors, it is also about the involvement of community groups, faith organisations and trade unions at a local level to support people in giving them the chance to get back into work. My hon. Friend is right about our different profile compared with Scandinavia. There are two differences between our country and those countries. First, as regards the availability of child care, they have had decades of investment, whereas we are catching up after decades of under-investment. Secondly, we have the most liberal—if my hon. Friend will pardon my using that word—approach to job search for lone parents of any major European nation.

Household Incomes

3. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What assessment he has made of trends noted in the latest “Households Below Average Income” statistics; and if he will make a statement. [132664]

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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): The “Households Below Average Income” statistics continue to demonstrate an overall improvement to child and pensioner poverty since 1997. The Government have achieved this through their welfare to work policies—in particular, the new deal for lone parents—and increased financial support for children and pensioners through the introduction of pension credit and the child and working tax credits, in addition to substantially increased levels of benefits for children.

Mr. Leigh: Is the Secretary of State concerned that under our system the poorest effectively pay the highest tax? According to the Office for National Statistics, the poorest fifth of households pay 36.4 per cent. of their gross income in direct and indirect tax, compared with 35.6 per cent. for the richest fifth and 35.3 per cent. for households on average incomes. Instead of forcing poor people through an impenetrable maze of means-tested benefits and overpaid tax credits that have to be paid back, is not the more moral and economically efficient way to use the proceeds of growth to raise tax thresholds so that increasing numbers of poor people do not pay tax at all?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. For us, the issue is very clear. We want to provide further support for low-income households, and that is precisely what we are doing. In relation to tax credits, my understanding is that his Front Benchers support the tax credit system. He may not, but then there is now probably very little that his Front Benchers propose that he feels in any way comfortable with. I am relieved to be able to say to him that matters of taxation are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A large swathe of households below average income has significant difficulty in accessing welfare benefits and entitlement. To what extent does the Secretary of State believe that the Freud report has addressed those specific problems? Will he encourage hon. Members to attend a valuable Public and Commercial Services Union seminar on Wednesday at 5 pm in Committee Room 16, where all will be revealed?

Mr. Hutton: I do not know what will be revealed in the meeting. However, I am convinced that David Freud’s report has identified some important issues for the Department and for the way in which Jobcentre Plus should increasingly individualise and tailor the support that it provides for people who are out of work, through a range of new services to help them get back into work. I suspect that my hon. Friend is worried about the role of the voluntary and private sectors. To put the record straight, it is worth reminding ourselves that those sectors deliver virtually all the flagship success policies that we have pursued through the new deals for lone parents and for disabled people. They do an outstanding job.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Does the Secretary of State accept the Government’s figures, which show that, according to the overall measure of inequality in the UK—the so-called Gini coefficient—the position has deteriorated since 1997?

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Mr. Hutton: It is usually a good idea for Secretaries of State to accept Government figures—

Mr. Laws: But.

Mr. Hutton: No buts. Through our reforms, such as the national minimum wage, and the tax credits which the hon. Gentleman opposed, we have been able to provide significant additional financial help, which has increased the income of the poorest in our society. The hon. Gentleman might also like to consider the fact that the income of the poorest two fifths has increased in the past 10 years at a faster rate than that of the top two fifths.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the revised figures that he announced in his written statement this morning show that poverty among adults of working age has increased by 100,000. Does he have any explanation of that?

Mr. Hutton: As the hon. Gentleman knows, he refers to a relative poverty measure. Some people suggest that the overall income of poor households is falling—it is not; it is rising significantly. Obviously, we need to reflect on and tackle some matters and we will do that.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Fighting poverty is a priority for all politicians but in March, the Government’s figures showed that the number of our fellow citizens in severe poverty had increased by 600,000 in the past 10 years. It is said that, in the past year, the total number of individuals in poverty—with less than 60 per cent. of median income before housing costs—rose from 10 million to 10.4 million, and that poverty among working age adults rose from 5 million to 5.4 million. The Secretary of State’s figures show that poverty is getting worse. Why?

Mr. Hutton: I wish it were true that tackling poverty was an issue for all politicians. That is not what the history books tell us about the Conservative Government’s record. Child poverty doubled under the Conservative Government and it is now falling significantly for the first time in a generation because of our measures. If the hon. Gentleman had a record about which he could boast, I would seriously take something from it. He has no such record.

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