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Voluntary arrangements are to be encouraged, and communication with other Government Departments is vital. I dealt with a case of a father who was telling
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the CSA that he had a very low income and could not possibly pay a reasonable amount to look after his children, while he was telling the Home Office how well-off he was because he wanted to sponsor a potential new wife who was coming into the country.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who asked, “Why not use Revenue and Customs to collect the money through the taxation system?” HMRC is ruthless in the way in which it collects income tax, and it is collecting the money, not distributing it, that is usually the problem. If that could be covered using an existing department, it would be one way forward.

It is easy to forget that most parents are interested in the welfare of their children, whether or not their relationship survives—but sadly there are some who are not. People must be allowed to put a voluntary agreement in place if they can. Before I was a Member, there was a case in my constituency where a young father of two had come to a voluntary agreement with his ex-partner. He was being hounded by the CSA, and in the end, the CSA letters were found along with his documents after he had committed suicide. It is not just a question of sorting out the financial needs of families. These are often families whose entire lives are falling apart; the marriage has fallen apart, and there are financial problems and concerns about the welfare of the children.

If the new Secretary of State can deliver a solution to the victims of the CSA, he will find agreement on both sides of the House. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new position, as well as Opposition spokesmen including my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) to point out that the CSA spends approximately £1 for every £1.85 it collects. If ever we needed evidence of why it is time for a change, that is it. That is one of the worst ratios of any country in the world. The CSA long ago abandoned the new scheme’s original targets of clearing applications within six weeks. The average clearance time now for new cases is close to six months.

The bottom line for any system of child support is whether the money is getting to the children. In this respect the current system has an unenviable record. In 1990, under the old court system, the typical maintenance award was in the region of £20. Fifteen years later, it is £21 per week, despite a considerable rise in the costs of bringing up children.

One issue that I shall touch on is the use of the IT system within the CSA. Some time ago, it came to my attention that the existing IT system—much maligned, with IT operators accepting the blame for being unable to transfer enough cases to the new system—was being blamed as the bottleneck holding up cases. But I was informed that the IT system was not the cause of the problem, but that those dealing with it were prepared to accept the blame because they had a number of other IT contracts with the Government.

One task for the new Secretary of State is to find out whether the IT system is really a problem, or whether EDS is well able to deliver corrections to the IT system
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but cannot because it has been told that the work that a smoothly running IT system would produce would require more staff. We have heard about staff cuts in the CSA. I have visited hard-working CSA staff in their offices and seen them do their best, often while being the victims of verbal abuse on the telephone. I am not blaming the staff, and I hope that in the new system, the staff get the back-up and the IT system that they deserve, and that the mothers get the money they deserve to spend on the children, whose welfare is all-important.

There has been much talk of change and a new approach to politics this week. However, I doubt that many hon. Members will disagree with me when I say that if ever there was a policy area in which change is most urgently needed, it is the system of child support. Ten years of this Government have been accompanied by 10 years of child support chaos. We have said goodbye to a Prime Minister, but the problem of the CSA and its replacement will prove more enduring, unless the new Government take the bold steps necessary.

In my six years in this place, I have taken part in half a dozen debates on the CSA and I have needed to trigger such debates in Westminster Hall on more than one occasion. When I looked back through Hansard I was disappointed to see that I had to make the same arguments and raise the same concerns year after year. I would like to believe that that says less about those debates and more about the lack of action by the Government. It is a scandal that some of my constituents have had to wait for so long for the Government to take meaningful action in that area. I am also disconsolate at the thought that even if the new system that the Bill will introduce works as the Secretary of State claims it will, it will not be up and running until 2010.

I was not in this place in 1991, but I know that there was cross-party support for the Child Support Act 1991. I would love to say that today’s Bill will be given the same warm welcome across the Chamber, but I for one have several real concerns about the proposals. Other hon. Members have outlined the scale of the failure in the CSA, but it is difficult to overstate how serious the challenge is for any new system. Some 38,000 Scots are waiting for payments and some £3.5 billion in maintenance remains uncollected, with £2 billion written off as uncollectable. That is not the Government’s debt to write off. Parents are due that money, and should be able to take action to recover what they can through the courts if it is written off by the Government. Less than half of the non-resident parents who made a payment in the last quarter are paying the full amount they owe and, in spite of the ongoing problems at the CSA, staff numbers have been cut.

Until recently, Ministers were still talking about dealing with the problems in the agency and saying that they could get it “on a stable footing”. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that there is no use in steadying a sinking ship. While I welcome the belated decision to scrap the old agency, we must ensure that the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is not merely a rehash of the CSA. We need real root-and-branch reform at every level, and I would contend that the jury is still out on whether that is what the Bill will provide. I echo the concerns of the
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National Association for Child Support Action, which rightly pointed out that if CMEC is to manage existing cases, and operate with existing CSA staff and IT systems, it is difficult to understand how it can be considered a “radical” departure from the old system.

Perhaps the biggest immediate hurdle that the CSA has to overcome is the perception that it is a toothless and failing agency that is not taken seriously by parents—the very parents who often owe substantial arrears towards the welfare of their children. The recent report by the Work and Pensions Committee stated that it was

although some hon. Members have tried their best this afternoon. I am sure that every Member’s weekly surgery appointments will demonstrate the scale of the mistrust and underline the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of parents wronged by the current system. To restore that shattered reputation, we will need far more than tinkering change. We need wholesale replacement of one of the most disastrous organisations in modern British political history.

Other hon. Members have dealt with the fine detail of many aspects of the Bill already, so I will keep my own comments brief and focus on several areas of particular concern to my constituents. A key reason why the agency is seen as toothless is that it has placed far too little emphasis on compliance and too rarely uses middle-order steps to ensure regular payments. Currently, there is little confidence that the CSA will pursue non-compliant parents, and if maintenance is not being paid, the parent with care has to make numerous complaints. Even then, the agency may not deliver effective enforcement action. Many of us will have heard at first hand from mothers about why they have had to act as detectives to prove that their ex-partners have higher incomes than have been declared. At the same time, however, the agency will often take the word of the non-paying father as gospel.

In that regard, I am pleased that some new measures to increase collection are being introduced, such as the use of deductions from earnings. However, I caution that the problem with enforcement has had less to do with the CSA’s lack of powers than with its failure to use them. I hope that the new structure will change that, but I am not convinced that the measures in the Bill will fix the problem. As I said, the jury is still out.

The principles guiding the changes look good, but I share the concerns of those who feel that we have been given insufficient detail about how the changes will be achieved. With the best will in the world, measures such as removal of passports and driving licences will do nothing to deal with the fundamental problems that dogged the previous organisation from the start.

We all agree that a truly child-centred policy must look beyond merely enforcing the financial obligations of non-resident parents and do much more to encourage the involvement of both parents in their children’s upbringing. In that regard, I welcome the Government’s recognition that there should be no barriers preventing parents from coming to their own, mutually agreeable, arrangements for child support. However, if such agreements could be reached in every case, the Government would not need to get involved in child support at all. As that is clearly not the case, I seek assurances from the Minister today that parents with care must have a clear choice to go to CMEC if that is what they want to
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do, without being pushed into making voluntary arrangements that are unsatisfactory—to them, or in respect of the child. In particular, I hope that the Minister will say what help and advice will be given to parents before a decision about whether to adopt a private arrangement is made. Also, if the agreement breaks down, CMEC must be ready, able and accessible, so that it can help sort the problem out.

Various Scottish Members have mentioned the key problems that exist in Scotland. However, I think that I am the only Scottish Member here today who has not been briefed by the Law Society of Scotland on that topic, so I shall not try to repeat the details that have been given already.

Another major problem is that the current system is clearly unable to cope with the volume and complexity of its work load, while the communication with the Inland Revenue that is crucial for accurate assessments has been very poor in the past. I am pleased that there is to be a greater role for the Revenue in that respect, but I am concerned that the workload will remain unmanageable unless the system is simplified.. Simplicity is vital if maintenance calculations are to be made quickly and reliably.

I am pleased that the Bill recognises the problem of calculating income when the non-resident parent is self-employed, but I have yet to be convinced that the new measures will close the loopholes currently being exploited. There has been a particular problem where the ex-partner is self-employed, and it is difficult to verify profits and income independently. A case that I took up last year involved an ex-husband who said that his income was around £100 a week. The CSA calculated maintenance on that basis, but anyone who looked closely at that man’s lifestyle would see that it simply could not be supported on £100 a week.

Any basic investigation by the CSA would have discovered that, but none took place. I remain unconvinced that the measures outlined in this Bill will put a stop to fathers avoiding supporting their children by using clever accounting techniques. It is therefore vital that information-gathering powers for the new organisation be improved, so that access to information held by other arms of Government and other organisations, such as banks and credit agencies, can be made easier.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about the problems that any new handover will bring. We are still waiting for some old cases to transfer to the current system, which presents us with the ridiculous prospect that when the new system is launched, three entirely different child support systems could be in operation at the same time. Like other Members, I seek assurances from the Minister that that will not happen.

The 2006 National Audit Office report said:

There is much still to be done to ensure that we shall not be saying precisely the same thing about this Bill in the years to come.

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4.39 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): We have, I fear, heard from Members on both sides of the House a catalogue of concern caused by the Government’s failure after 10 years in power to put in place a child maintenance system that works. A total of 1.4 million families are caught in the current failing system; it costs £465 million a year to run the Child Support Agency, yet fewer than one in three eligible families receive any payment at all. Outstanding debt of £3.5 billion continues to mount by £20 million every month. Some of the comments we have heard this afternoon highlighted the results of those failures.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) identified a number of points, especially the cost of recovery of child support, on which he talked in some detail. He also noted the aspects of the Bill about which he hopes to hear more in Committee; for example, the importance of private agreements in driving the culture of change that the Government have talked about. He shares my hope that more detail about that element will be forthcoming in Committee.

I want to touch on some of the hon. Gentleman’s points about mesothelioma, although I shall refer to the subject later in my speech. He spoke with great passion about the tragic situation faced by mesothelioma sufferers and the magnitude of the problems of exposure to asbestos and the resulting illnesses. He stressed the importance of the Bill’s provisions on changes to payments and of the need to ensure that they are made quickly in such cases. The House should pay tribute to the tremendous work he does in the all-party group on the issue.

Other contributions picked up on elements that we shall debate with the Minister in more detail in Committee. I welcome the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) to his new post, and hope that I pronounced the name of his constituency correctly. On behalf of my party, I send our best wishes to him and his wife on their impending new arrival.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of collecting arrears and noted the lack of any mention in the Secretary of State’s speech of the priority it will be given under the new system. We, too, are concerned about the subject, because collecting arrears is of great import to parents already trapped in the system, so we hope that we can call on the hon. Gentleman’s support in Committee for amendments to ensure that parents with care are fully involved in any write-off and that no unilateral decisions on those issues are taken by the Government. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s support.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the differences between the Scottish and English systems. He and his colleagues will obviously have much to add on that subject and I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts in Committee. He made a rather more controversial point when he expressed his party’s view that the collection and passing on of maintenance might be carried out not by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, but by Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue. That may be a somewhat ambitious role for HMRC, given some of its current problems, but we look forward to hearing more about how the hon. Gentleman would make that proposal work in an amendment.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) talked eloquently about the problems faced by his constituents, particularly as a result of the increase of non-compliance, which has caused him much concern. He works hard on behalf of his constituents to help to alleviate those problems. He also expressed concern about the continuing failure of the existing system and pointed out that assessments do not reflect the reality of people’s individual arrangements. That is an important point, given the fact that the Government intend to push forward changes in enforcement before they make changes in the assessment procedure. When the Minister winds up, will he allay my concerns and explain how the two issues could be better linked? By making changes in enforcement before there are changes in assessment, he could cause further problems for people who may not have received an accurate assessment in the first place. Perhaps he could allay our fears by talking about the current system’s level of accuracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said that the devil is in the detail and he was absolutely right; all of us should have that attitude in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), who also made a good contribution, talked about the role of courts and mediation, which no other Member touched on. He mentioned the importance of ensuring that financial support is not used as a weapon to stop contact between parents and their children. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) discussed the importance of ongoing contact and the enduring responsibilities of parenthood. Again, I hope that we can discuss such issues in more detail.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) spoke well about the importance of the Bill in reducing poverty and the problems of assessing the self-employed; I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts in Committee. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) also mentioned assessment problems for the self-employed; perhaps the Minister will pick the issue up in his closing remarks. Under the current system, the self-employed could be reassessed if their income varied by plus or minus 25 per cent.; there could regularly be such changes in the incomes of the self-employed, particularly for those in seasonal occupations in the holiday industry, which has been mentioned.

In opening the debate, the Secretary of State said that the Bill would provide a more effective and efficient system. I am sorry, but hon. Members could be forgiven for feeling that they had heard such promises before. Almost exactly eight years ago, the then Secretary of State for Social Security, now Chancellor, introduced the 1999 Child Support Agency White Paper. He said:

Those are fine words, but we are here today because of the failure of that set of Government reforms. The system was so flawed that at the moment more than one in three non-resident parents simply do not bother to pay their maintenance. The computer system that was developed still does not work properly; indeed, in the past 12 months, there has been a doubling in the number of maintenance cases that have to be dealt with
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manually, because the computer system simply cannot cope. Eight years on, 750,000 cases are still on the Child Support Agency system. There are more cases on the old system than on the new scheme.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the National Audit Office’s damning indictment of the Government and the fact that despite £539 million of investment, nothing has improved the Child Support Agency’s performance. The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), said that the new proposals before the House today were a fundamental redesign; the Secretary of State himself said that the new proposals were driving a change in culture. The reform has certainly been presented as radical, but when we read the Bill, we see that the similarities are greater than the differences. If there is a fundamental redesign, it is not in the Bill. Sir David Henshaw, commissioned by the Government to put forward a vision for the future of child support, said that

He went on to say that a redesign of the system

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