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4 July 2007 : Column 993

Every Member should share the Bill’s aspirations of sorting out the problems and putting in place a better and more workable system. There has been a complete failure of public confidence in the CSA and there must be a fundamental culture change towards the entire process of child maintenance. We welcome elements of the Bill and the new direction. We want parents to take greater responsibility and children clearly to be at the heart of the process. We welcome some of the Bill’s proposals, and the principles that underlie it.

Effective enforcement will play an important part in the change, but there must be a simpler and more efficient system of assessment and case management. Over the past few years, constituents have experienced problems in that regard. That is why we support the move to use income tax data as the basis of future assessment. I have come across numerous cases of women in my constituency who are frustrated because their financial fortunes have been diminished by the absence of a proper process for determining their former husband’s or partner’s income. I have been told time and again, “His income has been set too low,” and, “He has undeclared sources of income,” yet the agency’s response to the complaint has been, “Well, we have to take his word for it.” We understand the frustrations of the women concerned. I am glad that the Government accept that in too many cases that can lead to injustice.

It is also right to change the focus of how we handle child maintenance. I have always felt that the rules on participation are too tight. It is clearly in everybody’s interests if parents can come to a voluntary agreement. Why enmesh the workings of the agency in cases where it is not needed? We support the change in that regard.

It is right to end compulsory participation in the CSA scheme by all parents with care who are on benefits. That amounts to a vital change from the previous benefit recovery focus to a much clearer focus as part of a wider child poverty strategy—again, putting children at the heart of the process. We welcome many aspects of the Bill, and its principles.

My party is clearly focused on the importance of the family as the basic building block of a healthy society and on the maintenance of the family structure. We believe that every child has a right to support, both material and emotional, from both parents, and that both parents have an obligation to deliver that support to the child. The family is created when a child is born, and that family responsibility persists regardless of what happens to the relationship between the parents. Our goal as a future Government will be to strengthen the family and to place great importance on early interventions that can help prevent family breakdown. However, relationships and families do break down. Where parents separate we should focus on supporting those separated families to ensure that they continue to provide not only material but emotional support to children.

The Bill specifically deals with financial support, but I also strongly believe that we must not allow the mechanisms for financial support to undermine other public policy objectives in respect of supporting separated families and supporting families. The comments of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on that are apposite, and I will return to the issues he raised.

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We need a change in culture so that the continued obligations of parents in separated families are understood and accepted as the norm, and so that the interests of the child are put at the heart of the process. As the Secretary of State says, the provision of good child maintenance arrangements when the family structure breaks down is one of the keys to establishing an effective child poverty strategy. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have said that that is close to their hearts.

However, this cannot and should not be just one of those days when Ministers simply sit back and bask in consensus. I am glad that they are putting in place some of the building blocks for improvement, but after 10 years in government, Ministers cannot divorce themselves from the failings of those years. Although the Secretary of State is new to his job and is therefore grappling with the joys of trying to deal with complicated questions on the Floor of the House after only a few days of getting up to speed on his brief, the fact is that his boss, the new Prime Minister, has for the entire past decade micro-managed domestic policy from No. 11 Downing street. In that time, he has sat back and watched the CSA go from bad to worse, thereby failing many families and children under his watch.

It is no defence simply to say that the CSA was established under a Conservative Government—I am surprised that I have not been intervened on yet to make that point. It is a matter of fact that that was the case, and it was established with the best of intentions—to support those in separated families and to protect the welfare of children. I am not ashamed of that. As we have learned since, however, the best intentions do not always work out in the detail of practice, and never has that been clearer than in the case of the CSA.

Mr. Hain: May I just interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s rant against the Prime Minister—

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): My hon. Friend has been speaking pearls of wisdom.

Mr. Hain: Does the hon. Gentleman mean by that that I “ain’t heard nothing yet” from his hon. Friend?

May I draw attention to the operational improvement plan that has been put in place for the CSA? I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says about its staff, because they deserve a great deal of praise for the tremendous improvement in performance. Let us take a look at what all this means. In March 2006, 591,000 children benefited from the agency’s collecting or arranging maintenance. The target for March 2008 is 720,000 children—a significant rise—and the total is already rising beyond the 2006 figure. The target for 2009 is some 791,000 children. That means an increase of roughly 200,000 over the period concerned, which is a significant increase, as the hon. Gentleman ought to acknowledge.

Chris Grayling: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government first started addressing this issue in 2000, before I became a Member of this House. I wish that I could have sat him down with some of the women let down by the CSA with whom I have had
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conversations in the years since then, and allowed him to explain to them the statistical information that he has just given. I think that they would have given him pretty short shrift.

Mr. Hain: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. His assuming a monopoly of moral wisdom on this issue does not encourage progress. We have all had problems with CSA cases. I remember being one of the earliest MPs to identify—in the early 1990s—the problems with the original CSA. It was clear that the whole construct brought in by the previous Government, although they were trying to achieve an honourable objective, was extremely destructive, ineffective, discriminatory and inefficient, and penalised people across the piece. We have all dealt with such cases for well over a decade. We are trying to get things right, so making the points that the hon. Gentleman is making does not help.

Chris Grayling: In the past few years, the Government have spent more than £500 million sorting out this problem, and still we are back in the House today, setting up the system again, so the Secretary of State does not have much of a record to defend. The truth is that—

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Although we accept that there have been improvements over the years, my constituents, for example, are still facing new and increasing problems because of the agency’s ethos and the IT systems, which have continued to fail. So although we accept that what the Secretary of State says about improvements is right, new cases involving considerable failures are still arising.

Chris Grayling: Indeed, and it is a shame that it has taken so long to make some of the proposed changes. As I have said to the Secretary of State, we approve of some of the principles in the Bill, but a lot of detail still needs to be addressed.

The truth is that this Government have been bedevilled by their inability to deliver. This is not the first time that they have tried to get to grips with this problem. The Secretary of State himself referred to interim improvements made three or four years ago in an effort to sort things out. The Government have made some progress, but many of the people whom we deal with daily—I appreciate that this point applies to Members in all parts of the House—are still getting nowhere. The National Audit Office has said that overall, the vastly expensive system that has been put in place to make the CSA work has proved no more effective than its predecessor. So let us hope that the latest attempt to sort out the situation can make a difference. Given the Government’s track record to date, it would hardly be surprising if people waiting for the agency and its successor to sort out their problems were frustrated again.

Jeremy Wright: Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason why Members in all parts of the House have so many such cases of concern is that the CSA does not use effectively some of the powers that it already has? Many constituency cases are based on the argument
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that, despite information being presented to the agency by the parent with care, it does not take appropriate action. It is therefore not enough simply to provide extra powers; such powers have to be used.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We can only hope that the successor body—I will return to the issue of how much of a successor it really is—can make a difference and deal with the problems itself. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—the truth is that in few policy areas can we find a clearer case of big promises from the Government, followed by failure to deliver.

The Government claim that the Bill will help to tackle child poverty. That is to be lauded, but the truth is that the Prime Minister moved next door last week after 10 years of rhetoric about child poverty in which the figures actually increased, rather than decreased. The real picture today is that child poverty rose by 100,000 before housing costs last year, and by 200,000 after housing costs. After those 10 years, the total figure for child poverty now stands at 2.8 million before housing costs and 3.8 million after housing costs.

The Bill will go only a small part of the way in dealing with a problem of this scale, but for that part we welcome it, even though, as we agree, it is overdue. And even though it is overdue and the Government have had so much time to prepare it, they have still managed yet again to present Parliament with legislation that is praiseworthy in intent, but which leaves many questions still to answer, many details still to be addressed and a lot of information—although long promised—not yet available to the House. Ironically, the Bill, rather than being flawed in detail, contains very little detail. It is another of those measures that contain little substance and create a loose framework, leaving it to the Secretary of State to work out the details. Many of the Bill’s clauses are built around phrases such as “arrangements will be made” and “the Secretary of State may”.

Let me put the Secretary of State on notice that before we step aside to allow him to act, we will expect a lot more detail from him in Committee on how he intends to deal with the small print. It would help the Committee if he published draft regulations before it discusses these issues, so that we could understand the detail behind his intentions.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about the need to publish regulations in draft. As the Secretary of State knows, a large volume of draft regulations relating to the Welfare Reform Bill—on whose Standing Committee I served—were published in advance, so that the Committee could scrutinise them. I hope that that practice will be followed by this Department on this Bill when the Committee stage starts.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; let us hope that the Secretary of State picks up on it and publishes the relevant details.

As the hon. Gentleman knows—and as we learned yesterday on hearing the details of the statement on constitutional reform—we have to study the small print extremely carefully under this Government, since the advent of the new Prime Minister and his new appointments.

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Danny Alexander: And before.

Chris Grayling: Absolutely. Having waited so long for these essential reforms on such an important subject, which affect the lives of so many families in the UK, it is essential that we get them right.

Let me return to the question of how much is really changing—the point that I made a moment ago in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). The creation of a new child maintenance and enforcement commission sounds like a brave new departure in this important area: a new body, a new location, a new team, new systems to improve on what we had before—a completely fresh approach to the service that will change the frustrations of the past few years. I have no doubt that that is what people will be expecting from this Government and this Bill, but if I am not mistaken, that is not necessarily what is happening.

It appears that the organisational side of the Bill involves unscrewing the CSA name-plate from the front of its building and replacing it with one saying “Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission”. The Government are pretty good at changing name-plates. We have not forgotten the £600 bill for replacing the name-plate of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister with one saying, “Deputy Prime Minister’s Office”. Of course, inside the new agency’s building, there will be the same team of people in the same offices using the same computer system—the one that has caused the Government so many headaches over the past few years.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us in his winding-up speech what is being done internally to ensure that this is much more than just a re-branding exercise for the CSA. What is actually being done to ensure a real culture change within the organisation? Are the Government really planning to maintain the same internal systems, or will they need to spend yet more large sums of taxpayers’ money on yet another new computer system? And why is it taking so long for the transition to the new system to take place? The new approach, we understand, will not be fully operational until 2013—most of the way through the next Parliament. Why is the change to a system in which assessments are based on information from Revenue and Customs not being fast-tracked? After all, it will be dealing with one of the biggest sources of current frustration with the present system. If Ministers can accelerate that change, they will have our support in doing so.

When the Bill is in Committee, my hon. Friends will want to probe the Government in detail about whether they intend that there should be support for couples seeking to enter into voluntary agreements. Many interest groups, for example, would like a formal structure whereby the new agency can provide back-up support for couples as they negotiate with each other. In particular, we expect to discuss in detail in Committee whether the new agency should be able to offer women information about the income levels of their former husbands or partners, in order to help inform those voluntary agreements. Given that these negotiations will be taking place at a very emotional, sensitive and difficult time for those involved, it is absolutely right that the Committee look carefully at the level of support given to those embarking on the task of reaching a voluntary agreement.

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Likewise, there is an issue about how equipped the voluntary sector will be to cope with the advice that undoubtedly it will be asked to give. I know how hard pressed many such groups are at the moment. The citizens advice bureau in my constituency is facing more and more demands for its services, particularly with the worrying growth in consumer debt. I have no doubt that the welcome change to greater use of voluntary agreements will place an extra burden on such organisations in my constituency and around the country. What steps are the Government planning to take to ensure that the voluntary sector can cope?

John Penrose: It seems sensible that the advice functions should be outsourced, as CMEC will be focusing on enforcement. If so, and if it is to be an organisation with teeth, it is unlikely to have the right approach and atmosphere for people wanting a consensual advice service as well. If the services are to be outsourced, it is essential that the right organisations are chosen, and that the commissioning operation is sensitive to that. It must come equipped with sufficient money to fund these advice organisations even if they are not provided in-house.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a number of important points, and we will look forward with interest to seeing what information the Government give us in Committee on that subject. This is another example of an area in which we have precious little detail about what the Government envisage for an important part of the Bill.

At the top of that list is the question of the benefits disregard. We understand the theory of what the Government are trying to do but we will need to discuss in Committee with Ministers the potential consequences of their plans—if they are prepared to provide details by then.

I know that some see the income disregard as an essential tool to motivate parents on benefits to participate in the system and to make sure that money actually gets to the child rather than the state. It has also been seen as a way of targeting funding on children to ensure that we can lift them out of poverty. But as the Secretary of State rightly said, there is a counter-argument, which is that the disregard could end up providing a perverse incentive to separate. Although I do not for a moment believe that money is the prime motivator for people to stay together or to separate, the harsh reality is that in some cases it does make a difference, and we should not use either our tax or our benefits system in a way that encourages family break-up.

I am disappointed that the new Secretary of State does not have more information for the House today, and that he was not able to offer to provide the information sought by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and myself. I appreciate that it is early days, but will he look at the issue again and come back with information as quickly as possible, as it is central to the viability, the cost and the working of the scheme? The Government are asking the House to debate the fundamentals of the Bill—in the Chamber today, and in Committee—without that information. That suggests that the Government are not being as full, open and collaborative with Members as they should be, given the supposed change of tone in the Government.

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