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There is no question in my mind but that enforcement needs to be stronger and much more of a priority. I know that the Minister is taking that seriously. He has expressed that view to me in private. The lack of
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commitment to enforcement has been one of the great failures of the Child Support Agency. In that respect, the Bill is a mixture of good ideas and gimmicks. The proposal to name and shame on the internet is an utterly pointless gimmick.

When the Secretary of State raised the question of curfews, I was not sure whether he was rowing back slightly from what was previously proposed. I am dubious about the effectiveness of the measures. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of international experience to suggest that the proposals on passports and, in particular, driving licences can be highly effective. Having those powers in important. There is anecdotal evidence from the United States, for example, that when driving licences are threatened, long queues form the following day at the office where maintenance is paid. That is an important point.

Mr. Todd: The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time, but the Chamber is fairly empty. Perhaps his speech is a vehicle for hon. Members to make a few points.

Surely one of the tests of the Bill will be whether it deals with the most obvious dodges and wheezes that people use to handle their liabilities to the CSA. Such elements as self-employment, running one’s own business and operating in a small company in which one knows the proprietor extremely well are critical, as is the actual mechanism of collecting money after an assessment has been made. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Bill will address some of the naked abuses that constituency MPs see all too often?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some abuses are obvious, and sometimes the parent in care has evidence to show that she—it is most often she, but not always—believes that dodges or wheezes are being carried out. I do not intend to repeat the good points that have been made about self-employment. I am not completely convinced that the Bill gets the balance right on these matters, but several of its additional proposals on enforcement will help to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies. For example, there will be a power to seize money directly from bank accounts. However, I wonder why there is no power to seize property.

A strong system of appeal is needed, whether through the courts or otherwise, that is easy to access and understand. The Bill takes a slightly inconsistent approach because there will be an administrative right of appeal in some cases, while the Government intend to use the courts for others. More consistency would be useful. I have mentioned the competence of the CSA. We will encounter problems unless the new organisation has improved competence. The greater the administrative competence of that organisation, the greater the justification for giving it administrative powers. However, the greater its incompetence and the likelihood of incorrect calculations being made, the more important it will be to have court-based legal safeguards or a clear appeals process. We will make that point strongly in Committee.

It is utterly shameful that £3.5 billion of outstanding debt remains uncollected. If that debt is written off, the people who have been treated the worst will also get the worst outcome. None of the debt should be written off
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unless it is specifically found to be uncollectable, rather than statistically determined to be uncollectable, or a parent with care has agreed to a lower figure. More action is needed to collect the arrears and compensation should be paid if the CSA’s negligence has contributed to a non-payment.

We will need more scrutiny of the operations of the future CMEC. The Social Security Advisory Committee might well be in a position to carry out such a role, as it does for other aspects of the benefits system. I hope that such a provision will be added to the Bill. Likewise, the CMEC must account in detail in its annual report for its performance on collecting arrears and enforcing debt recovery.

We need a child support system that works for those who matter most—the children of the families affected. Despite the many serious flaws in the Bill, I hope that it will proceed to Committee and that the Government will have an open mind about improving it. If they do not, however, we will not hesitate to vote against it on Third Reading.

3.38 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). I wish him and his wife well for their forthcoming event and hope that that all goes extremely well.

I am pleased to participate in this important debate. Since I returned to the House in May 2005, hundreds of my constituents have visited my constituency surgery, or contacted me by post and e-mail, to comment on and complain about the Child Support Agency, which has been one of the biggest issues in Bexleyheath and Crayford. The problems have been many and varied, and they have often had severe consequences for the people concerned. Bureaucracy and inefficiency have caused my constituents frustration and worse. There have been many failings under the existing system, while bureaucracy and unfairness have caused considerable distress.

We are all concerned about child poverty; even today, many children in Britain suffer deprivation, and that is unacceptable. Obviously, we want to make sure that children are not deprived of the resources that are necessary if they are to develop and grow satisfactorily. Of course, we also need to consider the taxpayers’ interests and the issue of fairness. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State’s measured speech, and I agreed with the broad thrust of his remarks. The Bill is generally to be welcomed, and I am broadly supportive of it. My Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), highlighted the issues extremely well in his excellent speech. He mentioned the aspects that we support, but he also raised issues of concern. Most importantly, he and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, asked whether the Government’s aim is attainable through the Bill. Will it work, or is the new body just the CSA mark 3?

There are still real concerns about the Bill. The Secretary of State talked about change as if his party had not been responsible for the CSA for the past 10
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years, and for the problems that occurred. Our concern is that the Bill has been presented as a radical reform, but as currently drafted it promises the same people, the same buildings, and—I do not know—perhaps the same computer system. There is very little detail on how the measures will deliver the culture of change that we need, and the change to child maintenance that the Government promised.

I was in the House in the 1990s when the CSA was established. I was supportive of action and hopeful of success in dealing with the problems that it was set up to solve. I was a supporter in principle, and remain a supporter of the founding principles. Regrettably, the CSA did not get off to a smooth or effective start. It suffered a loss of popular confidence at the very beginning, and it never regained the confidence of the people who depended on it. That has been a matter for regret over the years. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, there have been improvements, and we welcome that, but regrettably there are still huge areas of failure. That is not to be critical of the staff; they are working hard and are doing their very best, but that is no good as an answer to our constituents, who experience problems that include constantly getting letters that say different things, failing to get through on the telephone, and failing to get satisfaction. That is why it is so important that we discuss and debate the issue in detail this afternoon.

I want to highlight a number of problems that my constituents have experienced. The first relates to compliance. Statistics for my constituency show that partial or non-compliance seems to be going up, and that is worrying; full compliance is down considerably. Some people—men, particularly—are just not taking responsibility for their children, and that is totally unacceptable. All of us in the House are in agreement on that. It is not a party-political issue; we are just discussing how we can improve the situation. We want to be constructive. We want to make sure that the Bill is improved, and we want to make sure that when it reaches the statute book, it will determine successful outcomes for applications.

I must raise the case of one of my constituents, and I would particularly like to draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on our Front Bench, who will wind up for us. My constituent signed over the equity in his house when his relationship broke up, and he then went on to have another family. The partner who had taken the equity had no wish to accept any more maintenance, but the CSA did not take the equity in the house into account, so the man had to continue to pay, and had considerable financial difficulties. The CSA seemed unable to deal with a situation in which there was a voluntary agreement, and in which the parties wanted no further involvement with the CSA.

The main problem has been administration. Constituents have come to my surgery with letters, sometimes written on the same date, saying completely different things. People who have the responsibility of bringing up children, which is difficult enough in today’s society, do not need the additional problem of getting three letters from the same organisation which say three different things at the same time. I hope that when the new commission is set up, it will be much
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more robust and efficient, so that the distress and hardship caused to people who are already subject to considerable pressure is not exacerbated, and they are helped.

The principle underlying the CSA was to help children out of poverty and to help mothers with responsibility for children to fulfil their responsibility without worrying about extra money. I was fortunate—my wife and I were together, yet we found that even with two parents, children were difficult to bring up. With only one parent, it is extremely tough. We want the new system to deal with the problems effectively.

Sometimes the bureaucratic problem is the failure to get through on the phone or to get any answer at all. That causes considerable frustration.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. One of the problems that our constituents often have in their dealings with the CSA is its lack of responsiveness. There is a system within the CSA for allocating the most difficult cases to the clerical office in Bolton. Has he had the same experience as I have with the office not taking incoming calls? Even by contacting the excellent MP hotline at the CSA, it is impossible to get information back without hugely delaying the case further as it is being dealt with at Bolton, because we cannot get hold of staff directly ourselves.

Mr. Evennett: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. My office has had similar experience. The nub of the issue is to improve communications and get results.

As I understood it from the Secretary of State, there is to be a new ethos and better administration. I am a little concerned that that will take a long time. I follow the points made by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey about phasing in. We all know that IT systems are temperamental, but the IT system at the CSA has been a disaster. I have recently seen examples of payments being calculated quite unreasonably. Even when men have presented the information from their wage packets or salary, the calculations have been wrong because of IT problems. That aspect of the new set-up must be examined closely.

I welcome the income disregard. That is a positive feature of the measure because it addresses difficulties that have arisen in the past. I am very keen on private arrangements between people to fulfil their responsibilities towards their children if the relationship breaks up or has never got started. An amicable settlement must be best for everybody concerned. Regrettably, that is not always possible, as we have heard from the cases described this afternoon, and an agency is required to help out. The more private arrangements we can encourage, the better, but we will always need a failsafe, even for those who have had private arrangements, when things go wrong.

Mr. Todd: One of the tests of the legislation will undoubtedly be the proportion of cases that can be dealt with outside the state’s intervention. I have found, as I am sure have other hon. Members, that the mere involvement of the state has often exacerbated the problem. The frustrations of dealing with the CSA and the antagonisms of producing detailed assessments and arguing over them make the situation worse. The
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further we can get the state to withdraw, except in extremis where it is required, the better it will be.

Mr. Evennett: I endorse that. It encapsulates my passionate belief that there is a place for the state, but where arrangements can be made privately, it is essential that we should encourage that and help to make it happen.

Child maintenance is obviously a critical factor in supporting child welfare, and our children deserve the best. I shall not go through the facts and figures, because they are well known and on the public record. Children are our future and we must do all that we can to ensure that they are helped, and child maintenance is pivotal in alleviating child poverty. We have already heard about various reports, and Lisa Harker’s report “Delivering on child poverty” points out that 42 per cent. of children in poverty are living in lone-parent families, and that maintenance ought to play a major part in reducing child poverty. That is absolutely the case, and that is why we are looking at the matter so seriously this afternoon.

I welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will take the necessary steps to address the real problems of families under today’s system. But as many hon. Members have said, the devil is in the detail and in the implementation. We support the two founding principles—to ensure that children receive a proper and fair maintenance payment, and that there is fairness for the taxpayer. I look forward to seeing how the Bill is developed in Committee, I hope making it a slightly better Bill. But at this stage, I think that it has qualified support and we look forward to future developments.

deferred division

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the motion relating to the European global navigation satellite system.

The Ayes were 318, the Noes were 141, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]

4 July 2007 : Column 1016

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

3.52 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I begin, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), re-enters the Chamber, by welcoming him to his old job this afternoon. He has been involved with the preliminary reforms of the CSA, and I am pleased that he will be able to carry forward further reform. I also want to join in the consensus that there has been across the House in agreeing that that reform was absolutely necessary, and that we could not simply proceed with the situation that we were in, with a failing agency that was not doing the job that it needed to do for a variety of families and children in our society.

I welcome the Bill’s general thrust towards encouraging more voluntary maintenance agreements. Other hon. Members have spoken on this, and it is important to say that this is the way in which we should wish to encourage parents to resolve child maintenance issues. If the state does not have to be involved, it should not be.

It is important also that we encourage those voluntary maintenance agreements in whatever context we can. It is worth remembering that a number of parents who are separating will be in the process of forming their arrangements at or near courts. Not every separating couple find themselves at court, but many do, so it is sensible to encourage parents who are at court in any event, resolving a number of other aspects in their lives and for the future of their children, if possible to resolve also the financial aspects of child maintenance while they are in a frame of mind to discuss the future, and if possible, being represented. That is not to say that I advocate going back to the old days where all these matters were resolved by the courts; I do not advocate that, but it would be helpful for those parents already involved with the courts system to be encouraged to engage with a voluntary procedure while they are in that context.

As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, the reality is, whether we like it or not, that in the minds of many parents the issues of access and contact are inextricably bound up with those of financial support. Although it would be wrong for anyone to advocate that we should have a system in which it appeared that access or contact was being bought by financial support, it is also important to recognise that the two issues are connected in the minds of many parents. It is crucial to have a system in which we avoid a situation whereby financial support and contact are put in place in such a way that one can be used in a weapon in the battle over the other. I hope that if we move towards voluntary maintenance agreements, with flexibility in terms of how they can be implemented, we can avoid that situation in as many cases as possible.

We in this House may say that voluntary maintenance agreements are the way forward and tell parents to get on and make them, but even with a
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broad measure of cross-party support, it is not as simple as that. We must recognise that in many cases there is a significant imbalance between the two parents in terms of how able they feel to negotiate, to argue their case, and to ensure that at the end of a voluntary negotiation process a fair settlement is reached which benefits the children. I entirely agree that that is our foremost priority. However, because of that potential imbalance in power, it does not necessarily follow that without some assistance parents will end up in a situation whereby the children benefit from such an agreement.

We have heard about the need for advice and support, which is vital. With that advice and support, we can have confidence, in the vast majority of cases, that a voluntary maintenance agreement is the way forward. I very much support the thrust of the Bill in that sense. However, that advice and support should almost certainly not come, at least directly, from the new agency, CMEC. We must have a system in which even if, as the Bill suggests, CMEC will have the responsibility of commissioning advice and support, there is some distance between it and those delivering advice and support to families. Mediation is always a better way of resolving such situations than resorting to the state through the CSA, CMEC or any other agency, or through the courts. If it can be done by voluntary agreement, it should be. It is vital that parents who are considering an agreement are not deterred from engaging in that process because they think—they may well be wrong—that if they were to go to CMEC, engage in an open discussion of their situation, and volunteer information as to their circumstances, CMEC would use that information against one party or another, in a more enforcement-related process, if the agreement broke down at a later date.

That is not the same as saying that CMEC should not be there in cases where voluntary maintenance agreements broke down. However, it is vital that advice and support come not directly from CMEC but from other agencies that are more trusted in environments where they are relied upon to give impartial advice. That requires far greater involvement of the voluntary sector and many more organisations being involved in the process. Of course, they will require adequate financial support to do that job; I recognise that there will be financial implications. However, if we are to avoid the longer-term expenditure involved in agreements breaking down and CMEC becoming involved in a way that we would not wish it to, it is worth that initial expenditure.

Let me return to the point about encouraging voluntary agreements and what CMEC can do in that regard. It is important that it should be able to support those arrangements by standing behind them. Several hon. Members—initially my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—made the point that there is a big difference between CMEC being enabled to enforce a voluntary agreement and enabled to take an application from square one from a family whose voluntary maintenance agreement has broken down.

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