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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: David Taylor, † Mr. Christopher Chope
Alexander, Danny (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
McGuire, Mrs. Anne (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Weir, Mr. Mike (Angus) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 19 July 2007

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

CM 2 Families Need Fathers
CM 3 National Family Mediation (NFM)
9.10 am
The Chairman: Before we begin, let me say that hon. Members may remove their jackets during sittings if they wish. Will everybody please ensure that their mobile phones and other electronic devices are turned off? Copies of the money resolution and the Ways and Means resolution for the Bill are available in the Committee Room.
With that, we move on to the familiar territory of clause by clause scrutiny.

Clause 1

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 70, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘a body corporate’ and insert
‘an Executive Agency of the Department for Work and Pensions’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 96, in schedule 1, page 46, line 21, leave out paragraphs 9 and 10.
No. 97, in schedule 1, page 48, line 2, leave out paragraph 17.
No. 98, in schedule 1, page 49, line 29, leave out paragraph 22.
Andrew Selous: I welcome you back to the third sitting of our Committee, Mr. Chope. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. We are now back in what is for most of us the more familiar territory of a Public Bill Committee. For me, at least, the evidence-taking sitting was my first experience of that process. I found it useful, and it certainly brought back memories of being in a Select Committee in the previous Parliament. On a more serious note, I believe that we obtained some very useful evidence from our witnesses, some of which I shall refer to during our deliberations today.
It might be useful briefly to remind the Committee of the distinction between a non-departmental public body and an Executive agency. I am informed by the Library that the term “non-departmental public body” was first used by Sir Leo Pilatsky in 1980 and was described thus:
“A body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department, or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm’s length from ministers.”
The Library brief goes on to say that
“Their distance from government means that the day-to-day decisions they make are independent as they are removed from ministers and Civil Servants.”
In contrast, an Executive agency will have a chief executive who will report to a Minister against specific targets.
A number of questions therefore come to mind, and when the Minister replies I would be grateful if he were to tell the Committee whether the Department’s view is that over-meddling by Ministers was one of the problems with the agency. Were Ministers spending too much time distracting senior management from their tasks in the CSA, and was that unwelcome? What lessons can we learn from ministerial involvement in the past?
The setting up of a new non-departmental public body will have public expenditure implications. I have read the regulatory impact assessment and the notes to the Bill, but I cannot find the specific cost associated with establishing a new body rather than continuing with the CSA and perhaps changing its name. Could the extra money be better spent?
There are questions too on the timing of setting up such a body. There is wide agreement across the House that it has been a very troubled agency, under Conservative and Labour Governments, since it was set up in 1993. On the face of it, it is curious that Ministers are taking a more hands-off approach, when there are so many problems within the agency and so much uncertainty over the future of CMEC. There is a huge question about the number of parents who will or will not move to private voluntary agreements, but that is just one of the problems. I have a number of questions about why the Department is going down that route.
I remind the Committee that Janet Allbeson, the last witness in the second evidence-taking session on Tuesday afternoon, referring to the change to a non-departmental public body, said:
“It is quite hard to see why it is necessary. It will cost a lot, and it will take a lot of time and resources to set up...I think that Ministers are quite keen to put it at arm’s length from them”——[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 84.]
One of my questions is exactly how much that will cost.
To conclude, I would like some form of reassurance from the Minister on how that arm’s length relationship will work. The public, parents who have not been getting maintenance, non-resident parents who have been extremely frustrated by inaccurate assessments and the way in which they have been treated by the agency and, most importantly, children want reassurance that Ministers are not pushing off the body to arm’s length so that they can say that it does not have so much to do with them, as was the case when it was an Executive agency. That is the sum of my concerns about the amendment, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, and we also look forward to Mr. Taylor’s chairmanship. I endorse the Opposition spokesman’s welcoming the innovation of our evidence session; I, too, think it was helpful. I hope that it will help us to hit the ground running as we move into our clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill. I welcome all members of the Committee. I am pleased to say that, for the remaining stages, I will be supported by my the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who will take forward some of the clauses of the Bill, including those relating to mesothelioma.
I am slightly surprised by the amendment, because when we received Sir David Henshaw’s report on how to reconfigure child care in the UK, we thought that there was broad acceptance of his recommendations across the House. That included his central recommendation, which is
“that there is a need for fundamental change in the way child support is organised in this country.”
The switch from an agency to a non-departmental body on a commissioning arrangement, as we propose, is at the core of that fundamental change. The amendment would prevent the commission from being established as a non-departmental public body. Instead, responsibility for child maintenance would continue to rest with an Executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions. In effect, the amendment means that the CSA would continue to exist as it is now.
We believe, in agreement with Sir David Henshaw, that a much more fundamental change is required. There is after all, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire confirmed, a legacy of failure associated with the CSA. Sir David noted that repeated efforts had already been made to reform the agency and concluded that a fundamentally new approach and a new organisation were needed. We agree with that, which is why the Bill establishes CMEC to take on responsibility for the child maintenance system.
It is not the case, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman, that Ministers are trying to get this matter at arm’s length in our own interests. Our interest is in getting the structure right, so that the organisation can deliver on its central objectives. It will operate at arm’s length from Ministers and the Department, and it will be led by an independent board. That board will focus solely on pursuing its statutory objectives, and it will have complete freedom to take operational decisions. For example, the commission might look to make greater use of the skills and expertise of the private or third sectors as it seeks to deliver services in the most efficient and effective manner. We believe that the focus and autonomy that goes with a non-departmental body is crucial, if we are to deliver a successful child maintenance system and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that is what we are all trying to ensure.
Lastly, as hon. Members will be aware, clause 15 will break the compulsory links between the statutory maintenance service and the benefit system. Given that, and given the personal and sensitive nature of the issues the commission will deal with, an arm’s length relationship with Ministers is more appropriate than an Executive agency. I hope therefore that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Andrew Selous: I asked the Minister a specific question in relation to cost. I have probably lost my chance to get him to come back on that, unless he intervenes while I am speaking, but I would be grateful for the information. Hopefully we are not talking about a huge amount of money, but it would be good to know what it is.
The Minister has said that there is a need for fundamental change. We all agree that fundamental change is necessary, because the current system is not working. We need to start in a pretty radically new manner to make the improvements that we all want to see. I am not completely convinced by his argument that fundamental change can come about only by the creation of a non-departmental public body. There are many Executive agencies across Government in which Ministers seek fundamental change and ensure that it happens. With the Highways Agency, for example, there must have been many times when Transport Ministers have banged the table and said that they want to see fundamental change because the agency has not been delivering on its objectives. I am therefore not sure that his argument fully stands up.
Concerns have been expressed that even when CMEC becomes a non-departmental pubic body, it will be essentially the same people in the same buildings using the same computer system. I do not totally buy the Minister’s argument that its becoming a non-departmental public body will, in and of itself, cause the public to say, “Right, this is a completely new organisation,” because they will pick up the telephone to speak to the same people, and they will realise that statements are coming out in pretty much the same way, but with a different name at the top.
Mr. Plaskitt: Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that we sack the entire staff of the agency?
Andrew Selous: Absolutely not. That would be very foolish. The Minister has said that he is seeking fundamental change, and I was making the point that changing the type of organisation in which the same staff operate in the same buildings is not in and of itself going to cause fundamental change. This is a slightly esoteric point, and I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote—it is a probing amendment. I am slightly disappointed, however, because I had hoped that the Minister would be a little more forthcoming and perhaps more convincing about the need to spend money and change the legal structure. If he were to intervene to let me know about the cost, I would be grateful.
The Chairman: Order. I am happy to allow the free flow of debate. Each member may speak more than once. I cannot force people to speak if they do not want to but if, after the hon. Gentleman has sat down, the Minister wishes to rise again, I will allow that.
Andrew Selous: That is extremely helpful, Mr. Chope. The Minister will have heard those comments, and we shall see whether he rises to my request for a little more information. This is essentially a probing amendment to find out more about the Government’s thinking. I do not think that their arguments stack up, but that is not the main point, because we have far more serious issues to address. If the Minister feels able to reassure me slightly further than he has been able to, I shall be grateful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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