Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

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Schedule 1

The Commission
Andrew Selous: I beg to move amendment No. 71, in schedule 1, page 44, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2) The person appointed to chair the Commission, and the chief executive and non-executive directors of the Commission, must have—
(a) relevant experience of leading, or senior management in, a large public or private sector organisation, and preferably,
(b) a demonstrated knowledge of family policy law.’.
Thank you for your guidance during our last debate, Mr. Chope. The point of the amendment is to ensure that the people appointed to chair the commission and to be its chief executive and non-executive directors should have the relevant management competence to lead this new organisation and some knowledge of the area of public policy that CMEC will deal with.
I am surprised that the advertisement for the chair has already been placed, given that we have not yet set up the organisation. Is that not slightly presumptuous of the Government? I know that they have to forward plan, but that two-days-a-week post has been advertised at £100,000 a year. That works out at an equivalent annual salary of £250,000 a year, which is considerably more than that of our new Prime Minister, who earns around £187,000 a year. I do not begrudge a large salary for the chair of the organisation. It is an extremely important job, and it requires the right set of skills, determination and focus to ensure that the agency delivers day in and day out on getting money to the children who need it and looks after parents with care, non-resident parents and children.
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Concerns have been expressed in the past that occasionally appointments seem to be made with slightly more party political attachment than one would hope for. The House of Commons Library has informed me about appointments to health trusts in recent years. In one analysis, there were shown to be 206 self-declared Labour activists, 28 Conservative activists and 27 Liberal Democrat activists. Again, I am not making a assumption—I am merely seeking reassurance that the people whom we recruit to chair the new organisation will be absolutely the best people for the job, regardless of their background.
The need for relevant experience is important. Just because a person has been the chairman or chief executive of a large, private sector organisation, or because they have run a chain of supermarkets extremely well, that does not necessarily give them the right skill set to make a success of CMEC.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend and find myself much in sympathy with his comments. In addition to the specification that he set out in the amendment, does he agree that it is extremely important for the person to have good communication skills? One of the difficulties in the past was that the agency was seen as remote and unfriendly. Once that image has been acquired, it is very difficult to overcome.
Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, and am particularly grateful that he is able to serve on our Committee with his long experience as both a Minister and a shadow Minister. He has taken a close interest in these matters for a long time, and I am sure that both sides of the Committee would agree with me that we are grateful for the benefit of his advice during our deliberations.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the people we are looking for—the chair and the chief executive—must not only run the organisation extremely well in terms of day-to-day delivery, but undertake an extremely important communication task. The phrase “changing the culture” has quite rightly been mentioned on many occasions. I know that it is something the Government are seeking to do. The position has a high salary and, as I have said, I do not begrudge that, because we are looking for an impressive set of skills including management competence and relevant experience of dealing with children’s issues and family law matters. The person must also have the ability to communicate with the country at large and explain why the payment of maintenance is a civic duty and a personal responsibility for us all and that it is not something that can be dealt with by the general good will of taxpayers.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Given the difficulties that the Child Support Agency has had in the past, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the fact that we are advertising for a chief executive for only two days a week? Often someone who gets that sort of job also sits on other public bodies. Is that enough time to get CMEC up and running and to do all the things that the hon. Gentleman rightly says are necessary, such as communicating throughout the country and setting up a system that works for parents and children?
Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. This will be a massive task. In addition to appointing the chief executive and the non-executive directors, the chairman—whoever he or she is—will have a huge job setting up the agency and getting it off to the right start.
I was surprised when I learned from Janet Allbeson in the second evidence-taking sitting that the advertised post was for two days a week. I look forward to hearing from the Minister why that is the case. Most of us agree that £100,000 a year is enough to get one up and out of bed every morning for perhaps five days a week—many of us get up and out of bed and work very hard for quite a lot less than that.
Hopefully, the person appointed will not be restricted to working two days a week and will be entitled to go into their office and make progress on other days of the week. Will the Minister reassure us that he will be looking at candidates who do not have heavy commitments for the other three days a week just in case the Government have got their calculations wrong and the chairman’s role turns out to be full time?
In the early days of the agency, when the chairman will have to deal with massive inherited problems such as the uncertainties around how many parents will go into these appropriate voluntary arrangements, I can envisage the job taking considerably longer than two days a week. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point. I have no doubt that the Minister and the Department are keen to get the very best people for the job, but looking at schedule 1, it seems to me that we should stiffen our resolve to deal with the concerns on this matter to ensure that we really do get the very best people for the job.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): We support the amendment. As has been said, CMEC is a new start, and a huge level of expectation rides on its success. The Government have taken a risk in making it a non-departmental body. In that case, it is vital for the confidence of the 1.4 million people who use the CSA at the moment—we have been told that that will hopefully reduce to 1 million—that the organisation gets on the right footing from day one. I think it hugely important that the job requirement states that the person or persons appointed must demonstrate some knowledge of family policy law. Obviously alongside that, one would expect them to have senior management experience in other public sector or private sector organisations. We must ensure that we are not going about this in a roundabout way. This is not a normal organisation in which somebody is appointed on a part-time basis in the hope that that will work.
Child payments at the moment are in crisis. We all know that from our caseload of people who are not getting the money that they deserve. Whoever is leading and running the organisation has clearly got to work more than two days a week and must demonstrate that they are committed to this fresh start. If not, we will see a CSA mark 2, which no one wants.
Mr. Plaskitt: I thank the hon. Members who have spoken in this brief debate. I will deal with some of the points that have arisen in the course of the debate. First, placing the advert at such an early stage is normal procedure. We do not want to lose any time. It is not that we are unreasonably anticipating the outcome of the Bill. The posts, if filled, will be filled on a conditional basis. They will not be formally up and running until the Bill receives Royal Assent. Once that has happened, we will be all ready to go, so we will avoid losing valuable time.
The issue of salaries has been raised in the debate. I reassure the Committee that we arrived at the salary for the chair of CMEC after a comparative exercise with other non-departmental public bodies. The role is comparable with that performed by those who chair the pensions regulator, the Environment Agency, the Pension Protection Fund and the Health and Safety Commission, for example, which have similar remuneration packages.
Some have questioned whether it is appropriate for the role to be part time. It is perfectly usual for the chair of such an organisation to be recruited on that basis, although that does not prohibit them from spending more time on the job. It is important to bear in mind that the chair will not carry the entire load in setting up CMEC. There will be a board, a full-time chief executive and so forth.
Mr. Boswell: By way of consolation not only to members of the Committee, but to the Treasury, I point out that there is a strong likelihood that, if whoever is selected is worth their salt, as Ministers will want them to be, they will be so committed that they will give much more than the notional two days a week. I invite the Minister casually to reflect on whether he knows of any chairman of a non-departmental public body in that kind of role who actually delivers only two days a week.
Mr. Plaskitt: I would not like to name such an individual. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. In his earlier intervention on the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, he mentioned the importance of communication skills. He was absolutely right that communication will be an important part of the duties of the chairman of the organisation. If the hon. Member for Daventry has seen the advert, he will know that we are placing precise emphasis on that, by declaring that we are seeking an individual with “inspiring communication skills.”
Andrew Selous: Will the Minister reassure the Committee that, whoever is interviewed for the post, it will be made clear that there is a high likelihood that the appointment will be full time, at least in the early months? I take the point that it will formally be two days a week. When everything is up and running and working perfectly, as we all hope that it will be, two days a week will be fine, but I would hate anyone to come into the post and say after a few months, “Well, it says 48 hours, that’s it.” There are massive communication tasks to be done, including dealing with the media and perhaps travelling round the country to talk to disaffected family groups. I hope that those points are made through the interview process.
Mr. Plaskitt: I do not think that a clock-watcher is likely to get the job. I thank the hon. Gentleman for tabling the amendment, which has given us the opportunity to debate some important aspects of the issue. I understand why he tabled the amendment and the way in which he did so, but I hope that he will understand that we do not believe that the criteria that he is seeking to bring forward should be included in the Bill. He rightly drew attention to the skill set that we want the new commissioner to have. We want all those in key posts across the commission, including the chair, the executive staff and those on the board, to hold a wide variety of skill sets. It would therefore not be appropriate to be too specific in the Bill about skill sets. I hope that he understands that we agree about the skill sets for which we are looking. We can find them without specifying them in the Bill, however. For that reason, I hope that he will not press his amendment.
Andrew Selous: I have found the debate useful. I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurance in respect of this probing amendment.
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Like every Committee member, I have a great desire to make a success of CMEC and getting the right people is critical. Unless the right people are round the board table in that organisation, it will not work. Many other things need to be in place for it to work, but without the right people it will not. I am reassured by what the Minister says and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment No. 60, in schedule 1, page 44, line 15, at end insert ‘and approved by Parliament’.
In view of the Prime Minister’s statement a couple of weeks ago about wanting to ensure that Departments are much more accountable—including their public appointments—I am sure that the Minister will have no problem with the amendment, which would insert into the schedule a provision that, although the Secretary of State will appoint the chair, that appointment should then be approved by Parliament. Given that we are setting up a new organisation at arm’s length from the Department, it is vital to public confidence in the success of CMEC that, although the chair of the organisation is appointed by the Secretary of State, the appointment is approved by Parliament.
The Prime Minister spoke a couple of weeks ago, taking up the issues raised by the Select Committee on Public Administration, of which I am a member, and promised hon. Members that public appointments would be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. We have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the Prime Minister is bringing in a new broom and that this post can, should and will be dealt with accordingly by a Committee.
Andrew Selous: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Select Committee on Work and Pensions would be the appropriate body to do the approving, or should such a matter come before the whole House?
Paul Rowen: I believe that the Work and Pensions Committee is the appropriate body to approve this appointment. Given that CMEC is an arm’s length organisation, there is considerable scope in the Bill to ensure that that Select Committee takes a much greater role in ensuring that CMEC delivers. I hope that the Minister can say, “Yes, we now have a new broom and we will make a new start. This will be the first public appointment that will be approved by Parliament through the Work and Pensions Committee.”
Mr. Boswell: Mr. Chope, may I welcome you to the chair? I shall not make extensive contributions during the Bill’s passage, although I would like some details clarified and it is worth at least spending a moment on this matter.
I started as a sceptic on public appointments on the grounds that there is, if not the tidy separation of powers that characterises some other systems, at least some difference in principle between the role of a Member of Parliament and that of the Executive in this country—even if that is largely composed of Members of Parliament—in that the Government decide what they want to do and we decide whether they are doing it and hold them to account if they are not. In a sense, there is a confusion of roles if Parliament then assumes an Executive responsibility, because it might be said or deemed to have appointed the person involved. I appreciate that that is not exactly what the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but the general public might say, “He or she is your person, rather than the appointment of the Government.” That is, to some extent, being broken down for a couple of reasons—I will not go on at length—one being that the Nolan rules have already inhibited the selection. Indeed, I remember that that was beginning to happen during my time as a Housing Minister. I hope that it made no difference to the probity of my appointments, but I think that it affected the process and acted as a constraint.
However, if we are going down that road there is an argument for saying that we should engage those experts who take part in Select Committees and who take a serious interest in such matters. Most of us here, whether or not members of a Select Committee, would regret the fact that, despite the huge volume of constituency case load work that comes through the CSA at present, not enough hon. Members take the details of such issues sufficiently seriously.
It is fair to say that, at the beginning of my parliamentary career, I would have rejected such a matter out of hand as being a constitutional aberration, but I am beginning to warm to it. I shall listen with great interest not only to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire if he wishes to respond, but to the Minister, in particular, to hear his thoughts about what is potentially an interesting experiment.
Mr. Plaskitt: I had a suspicion that the hon. Member for Rochdale might hang his proposal on the Prime Minister’s statement of 3 July. I was not disappointed.
However, I draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman and that of the hon. Member for Daventry to what is actually being proposed. I suggest that the hon. Member for Rochdale studies carefully “Governance of Britain”, published by the Ministry of Justice, which backs up the Prime Minister’s statement. For accuracy purposes, I shall read into the record a short section from the document so that we can be clear about what is being proposed and why I shall suggest that he withdraws the amendment. It states:
“there are a number of positions in which Parliament has a particularly strong interest because the officeholder exercises statutory or other powers in relation to protecting the public’s rights and interests. Some of these appointments are not subject to oversight by the Commissioner for Public Appointments or other form of independent scrutiny.”
The Government therefore believe that Parliament, through its Select Committees, should play that role. That is made clear in setting the parameters for extending Parliament’s role, but the post is indeed overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, so it is outwith the scope of what is being proposed. However, the appointment of that commissioner is one of those posts that should now become subject to parliamentary approval. It will happen.
Mr. Boswell: Indirectly.
Mr. Plaskitt: The objective that the hon. Member for Rochdale is after will happen indirectly.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Daventry for his intervention because he rightly drew our attention to the important role of the Select Committee. I am absolutely certain that, just as the Select Committee’s inquiries helped us immensely in preparing the Bill, it will rightly want to have before it the key personnel who will eventually take important positions in CMEC and in getting its organisation under way. It is right that that should be the case.
As the Secretary of State will be ultimately accountable to Parliament for the commission’s performance, it is appropriate that he has the power to appoint the chair of the organisation. That process is consistent with appointments made to other non-departmental public bodies. I hope that I have reassured the Committee that our current appointments process ensures that the appointment of chair, as with all non-executive appointments to the board, will be regulated independently and scrutinised by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. With that reassurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Andrew Selous: I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Rochdale putting forward this proposal, the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, and what the Minister said in reply. I am grateful to the Minister for quoting from the document issued by the Department for Justice. It was helpful of him to do that. However, I am not sure that it entirely made his case. Of course, it did in a strictly legal, technical sense. He is completely correct in what he says, and I do not doubt that for a moment. However, as far as I remember, he talked about Parliament having a role where there was a statutory duty—as there is in this case—for passing an Act of Parliament. He also talked about the need for Parliament to be involved in overseeing appointments where the rights and interests of citizens were being guarded. I cannot think of any more important rights and interests to citizens. Some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country are children up and down this land, many of whom are kept in poverty because they do not receive the maintenance to which they are legally entitled. In a sense, by reading out the document, although legally and technically correct—I stress that—the Minister was almost undermining what he was saying. I am not sure that I am hugely relieved by the fact that the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who will oversee this appointment, is approved by Parliament. That is one step removed.
Mr. Boswell: It is a pretty funny audit trail if we here and, in particular, our constituents in the real world, do not like what is happening, and the only way that we have redress is to sack the Commissioner for Public Appointments because he or she has failed to intervene to stop an inappropriate public appointment by the Secretary of State. Of course, the Minister is right that the Secretary of State would be liable here, but it is all getting very remote, is it not?
Andrew Selous: I am grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend, who is right to say that we will approve the approver, but that that is remote. I am reminded of the shots that we occasionally see on the 10 o’clock news of powerful committees of the American Congress hauling people before them to be appointed or to quiz them. Many of us in this House look across the Atlantic with a degree of envy at the power of the American Congress to ensure that people who are appointed to senior appointments are the right ones, and that the public interest in who is being appointed to the key posts is being safeguarded.
The amendment is all the more important because we are now getting a non-departmental public body. It is slightly more removed, so if there were an extra degree of parliamentary oversight, at least of the person who will chair the body, that would row us back a little in the right direction.
Paul Rowen: I listened to what the Minister said and was disappointed with his very narrow interpretation of the Ministry of Justice White Paper. Certainly, as a member of the Public Administration Committee, which has published a report on how we wish public appointments to be made, that is not the route that we wish to pursue. We are not suggesting that the chair of CMEC should be selected by Parliament. That is quite properly the Minister’s responsibility. There will be a new procedure to ensure that the procedures that are followed have a proper audit trailed through the Commissioner for Public Appointments. However, at the end of the day, all that we are doing is asking that that appointment is approved. If we are serious about wanting to give Select Committees more powers, particularly with arm’s length agencies such as CMEC, that sanction is important.
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Andrew Selous: I am listening with interest, and if the hon. Gentleman is minded to press the amendment to a Division, I shall urge my hon. Friends to support him. Does he agree that were this procedure to happen, it would be pretty rare for the Government’s chosen candidate to be overturned? We accept that the Government, in good faith, would go out and scour the world, not just the UK, to get the very best people. Some pretty amazing things would have to be found out by the Select Committee’s interrogation for such an appointment to be overturned. It could be an extra seal of approval on the Government’s choice, which they may be pleased to have in times to come if things do not work out properly.
Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I agree that we are not talking about an American Congress-type interrogation process. If the Minister cares to read the Public Administration Committee’s report, he will see that it is very much about establishing a direct link to the appointments from the Select Committee that will oversee their work. The fact that a person appointed has been approved by the Select Committee is important when it comes to arm’s length, non-departmental organisations.
Andrew Selous: I can think of a further argument in favour of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that if a Select Committee approves someone, it will take a particularly strong interest in that person’s performance and in the performance of the organisation? The Select Committee will be on the back of the organisation all the time to ensure that it delivers, because the credibility of members of the Select Committee will be on the line. Their constituents will come back to them and say, “You were on the Select Committee. You approved this lady or gentleman to be chair of this organisation, and now they are not delivering.” I can see an increase in the frequency of Select Committee inquiries and in the intensity of the questioning. We have discovered the beginning of a virtuous circle.
Paul Rowen: I agree, and some of my later amendments would ensure that the organisation is more accountable to Parliament. When an organisation is directly run by the Secretary of State, it is very easy for the Minister to be called to account.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire is wrong. The relationship would become very cosy, and the Select Committee would be tarred with the brush of the failing person. If they were too closely linked, members of the Select Committee would be more likely to want to support the person they had appointed, or they would, in effect, have to criticise themselves for making that decision. Does the hon. Member for Rochdale agree that the amendment would have the opposite effect to that suggested by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire?
Paul Rowen: No, I do not. We should consider what happens in other places. For example, as hon. Members who have been school governors know, when a school governing body appoints a head teacher, that body is responsible for that decision and continues to exercise a watching brief over what that head teacher delivers on behalf of the parents and children. If he or she does not deliver, the governing body has the powers to deal with the situation.
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): That is exactly the point. It is a matter of accountability. As long as the Secretary of State remains ultimately responsible for the appointment, a watching brief is exactly the role that a Select Committee could play, rather than having a cosy relationship from which there would be no benefit to the children, the Department or anyone else, least of all the Select Committee, which would not be ultimately accountable. It is therefore more likely that the Select Committee, which consists of hon. Members, will push the person and the Department to deliver the best. If that Department fails, especially in the instance we are discussing, no one stands to gain. The previous Department failed under both Administrations—no one can say it was a success.
The Chairman: Order. That is far too long for an intervention. We are getting into a rather unvirtuous circle of very long interventions.
Paul Rowen: I agree, Mr. Chope, but the interventions show our very strong wish to press the amendment to a Division, because in the context of the Public Administration Committee’s report and the Prime Minister’s statement, this is an opportunity for the Government to have a clean break, a fresh sweep and a new start in terms of accountability to Parliament.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.
Division No. 1 ]
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine
Rowen, Paul
Selous, Andrew
Weir, Mr. Mike
Clapham, Mr. Michael
David, Mr. Wayne
Engel, Natascha
Griffith, Nia
Hesford, Stephen
James, Mrs. Siân C.
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
Owen, Albert
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Question accordingly negatived.
Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment No. 66, in schedule 1, page 46, line 36, at end insert—
‘(3) The Commission is to be responsible for ensuring that appropriate staffing levels are maintained in order for it to fulfil its functions as determined in section 2 of this Act.’.
The amendment seeks to make it clear that the commission is responsible for ensuring that there are appropriate staffing levels and that they are maintained so that it can fulfil its functions as determined in clause 2. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate from the evidence that we had on Tuesday just how important it is that there is no reduction in staff numbers until it is certain that CMEC is functioning at the required standard. Given the administrative problems of the CSA in the past, its current reputation and the need to ensure a clean break, as recommended by Sir David Henshaw’s review, it is important to state now while we are dealing with CMEC that there will be appropriate staffing levels to enable it to carry out its job.
Current plans are that by 2008, over an 18-month period, there is likely to be a staff reduction of 20 per cent. Approximately 2,000 staff will deal with all cases, both historic and new. We heard from the Ministers on Tuesday that those staff cuts are based on an assumption—it is at this stage only an assumption—that a significant number of parents will choose to make voluntary arrangements rather than use the statutory scheme. As we heard in the evidence from the lady from One Parent Families, that cannot be guaranteed at this stage. It is therefore vital that we do not rush headlong into making cuts that may well render the organisation as useless and unfit for purpose as the CSA.
The significant increase in parents using the voluntary routes is partly based on the repeal of section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991. That ensures that parents with care who receive benefit will no longer mandatorily have to use the CSA. In the regulatory impact assessment the Government have estimated that that move will reduce the case load of the statutory scheme from 130,000 to 100,000 calculations each year. They have made assumptions also about the efficacy of the proposed child maintenance information and support services, on which, so far, we have had very little detailed information. I have serious concerns, therefore, in advance of the establishment of CMEC, about arrangements and staff cuts that could render the organisation problematic.
During questioning on Tuesday, we heard about some of the arrangements that the CSA is trying to make to ensure that although a constituent does not get an individual case officer, some 30 or so officers will, at least, be available. However, what will happen if, over that 18-month period, staff numbers are thinned out? That will make things very difficult.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The transition period is the most important issue, but is not part of the solution that training should take place now, so that people are used to the new system? Quite often, large organisations change their systems, but do not train their staff in advance.
Paul Rowen: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I think that if we were starting with a blank page, that would be okay, but given the historical debt and the number of cases on the first or second tranches of the CSA, there has to be continuity. I hope that the new arrangements involving the third or voluntary sector, which will allow it to provide information and support, will bring about an improvement, and, if the Bill gets going in the way that it should, I hope that more parents will move towards voluntary arrangements. However, that will not happen overnight. Our concern is that at the moment we are going headlong towards that reduction without guarantees that the improvements and changes have taken place. Clearly, it will take a lot of public education to raise awareness and give people confidence in the arrangements.
Given what has happened, we have to give parents the confidence that the new arrangements will guarantee that they will get the payments for their child that they deserve, but that will not happen overnight. It will take time for the information service to get up and running and to get the message out there. Therefore, we believe that to go headlong, right at the beginning, into the 20 per cent. reduction, will build up trouble. If, after a 12 or 18-month introduction, during which CMEC is set clear targets, we look at how things are progressing and find clear evidence that more parents are switching to private arrangements and the case load is reducing, it will be right and proper to introduce the reduction. However, we should not say, “We are going to go ahead and do this, because we believe that we are right”, because judging by evidence from the CSA, we have not always been right and have let down a generation of children. In this particular case, I ask that that not be done, that we proceed carefully and slowly and that we make those staff reductions only when we have evidence that there has been a clear shift in the case load and numbers with which CMEC has to deal.
Mr. Weir: I agree with the comments made by the hon. Gentleman. There is a serious concern here. Often we have problems when trying to get in touch with the CSA on behalf of constituents coming in to see us. One of the complaints is that they cannot speak to the same person about their case. I noted during the evidence session, when the Ministers were pressed on that matter by the hon. Gentleman, that Mr. Geraghty said that
“we will have groups of about 20 to 30 people who have a case holding between them.”——[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 10.]
To have 20 or 30 people dealing with one case is a lot. Even if someone phones up, they will still not be able to get hold of the same person each time.
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In my experience, someone phoning up the CSA often gets somebody reading what is on a computer screen, and that is all that they can get unless they ask them to go away and examine the case in more detail. When somebody is not getting their money, or does not know what is happening with their case, that is not sufficient. I do not blame the staff of the CSA—the problem is the system, not the staff. In my experience, the staff try their best to help. I have visited the Falkirk centre, which deals with most cases in Scotland. I have seen that it has a good operation and that its staff work hard, but there is a systemic failure.
Andrew Selous: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue that he has identified, of which we all have experience through our constituents, could be dealt with if there were a proper record and detailed accurate case history, recording previous conversations, on the screen that the member of staff looks at? Then it would not be such a problem.
Mr. Weir: That is correct. It should happen, but it does not always. Too many cooks spoil the broth. There are too many people, and not everybody records things in the same way. Anyone who has worked in an office will have kept files. Several people look at them, and sometimes people have different ways of working, so it can be difficult to follow a file.
I appreciate the fact that it might be impossible to have one person on each case. The staffing would not allow for that and it would be unrealistic to demand it, but the system must take account of the problem. Under the present proposals, all current CSA staff will be transferred to CMEC under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, which is right and proper. It is not their fault that there are problems with the agency. However, I note that, when questioned by the hon. Member for Llanelli in the evidence session, the noble Lord McKenzie said that by the time CMEC is started up
“we will have reduced the number of people that we have, because under the Department’s Gershon efficiency target, we have to manage a 15 per cent. reduction by the end of this business year.”——[Official Report, Child Maintenance and Other Payments Public Bill Committee, 17 July 2007; c. 17.]
In an organisation that is not functioning properly—we all agree about that—one problem is getting hold of people and getting proper information, and the expected reduction is large. In the evidence that we took there were obvious uncertainties about the number of people who will use CMEC, whether there will be really be a reduction of 500,000 people and how many will use voluntary agreements. It is wrong to consider the reduction before CMEC is up and running and we can see what the situation is.
Stephen Hesford: Is not the hon. Gentleman’s argument a misunderstanding of the system as it is and as it will be? Given the staffing levels, which have been as they are for 10 years, when we have been in a mess, they are not the issue. The hon. Gentleman has identified that the system is at fault, not the staff, so the amendment is applied to the wrong issue. The problem is not staffing levels, it is the system. The Bill proposes a new system, which is the key, is it not?
Mr. Weir: No, it is not. Part of the problem with the system is that there is an insufficient number of people dealing with the cases and struggling with a computer system that, frankly, has never worked. Until we have a new system—as has been pointed out, there will be three different maintenance systems running to start with in the new CMEC—we need a lot of people.
Paul Rowen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment suggests not that staffing levels should be set in concrete but that the commission should be allowed to set them? That is vital. We cannot set up a new organisation, appoint people to run it, and then say “But you cannot determine how many staff you will have.” Nobody else would be faced with that situation.
Mr. Weir: That is entirely right. The point that I am making is that there must be sufficient staffing. That will be a matter for the commission. If it is going to be set up properly it must have sufficient staff.
On voluntary agreements, it came out in the evidence-taking session that there is no clear knowledge about how many people will use them. But that is not my only concern; I am concerned about how they will be monitored, which is a point that I made in the evidence-taking session. CMEC will need to have some system for monitoring voluntary agreements. When Lord McKenzie was asked, he said that that was a matter for the commission, which is quite right, but there will have to be some monitoring, and that will require staffing.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to press the amendment to a vote, I am minded to support it because the last thing we need is for CMEC to get off to the same under-resourced start as the Child Support Agency. That lack of resources was at the root of many of its problems.
Mrs. Dorries: The Minister and the Department are right to attempt to predict future staffing levels. No business or organisation would embark on establishing an entirely new department or company without taking that into due consideration. However, the premise on which the staffing levels have been based anticipates that a large number of cases will move over to a different type of system—the voluntary arrangements. As we were told during the evidence-taking session, parents now have an opportunity to enter into voluntary arrangements, and 50,000 parents across the UK do so. There is no obligation at the moment; nobody drives parents towards the Child Support Agency. Therefore, I am not sure whether the premise on which the staffing reductions are based is correct.
As for the words “appropriate staffing levels” in the amendment, surely one way to guarantee appropriate staffing levels would be to explore further the option of a key caseworker scenario. In the evidence-taking session we were told that the department and its lines operate for 66 or 68 hours a week. In my experience of key caseworker scenarios, that is fine, because there is a back-up key caseworker, so two people share one case. Parents are made aware of when their key caseworker is working, either by e-mail or another system. It would be possible to have appropriate staffing levels and for parents to have a better service if they were aware of when their key caseworker would be working and when their cases could be managed. We know that sometimes 20 or 30 people deal with a case. One person with one computer screen dealing with one case would give better outcomes, both for parents and staff, and may even reduce sickness levels in the Department.
Andrew Selous: I shall be brief because we have had a fairly broad debate. Looking at the wording of the amendment, I presume that the Minister will vote for it because it says:
“The Commission is to be responsible for ensuring... appropriate staffing levels”.
Well, we all want to see appropriate levels. He is not saying that he will keep the staffing level at 25,000 or 10,000 but that he will ensure that there is the right number of staff to do the job. If the amendment is pressed to a vote it will be interesting to see how everyone votes.
We are talking about the application of the Gershon review. If one reads what the Gershon review was supposed to do, it was to ensure that resources go to the front line, to free up bureaucracy, and to slim down the administrative tail if it was too big. I think that we would all sign up to that.
Mr. Boswell: I think that I am right in saying that it was also supposed to maintain the quality of service to the user.
Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the key part of Gershon was that there would be no diminution in service delivery, an objective that is possible. On studying the affairs of the Health and Safety Executive recently, it came to my attention that there has been a slight reduction in full-time equivalent construction inspectors as a result of Gershon. That is the wrong way to do it; that is cutting the front line. I would not have had a problem with Gershon and the Health and Safety Executive if there had been a reduction in the back offices or if it had merged some offices or outsourced something at the rear of the operation. That is at the heart of the issue.
I return to the wording of the amendment, which merely says “appropriate”. I do not think that anyone in the Committee wants to see an inappropriate level of staff.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past One o’clock.
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