Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

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Clause 7

Agency arrangements and provision of services
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 38, in clause 7, page 3, line 14, at end insert—
‘(1A) Before any arrangements are made pursuant to subsection (1) above, the Commission must ensure that consideration has been given to how the specific arrangements sought will contribute to the Commission’s main objective of maximising the number of children living apart from one or both of their parents for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 39, in clause 8, page 3, line 26, at end insert—
‘(1A) Before any authorisation is given pursuant to subsection (1) above, the Commission must ensure that consideration has been given to how the specific authorisation sought will contribute to the Commission’s main objective of maximising the number of children living apart from one or both of their parents for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place.’.
Paul Rowen: This clause deals with agency arrangements and the provision of services. I know from our evidence-taking sessions last week and our debates that when CMEC comes into operation, greater use will be made of the voluntary and third sector to provide information services. I welcome that. The amendments seek to place in the Bill what we believe is the prime purpose of the agency and to ensure that that aim is not overlooked when arrangements are made to contract out and for different services and support to be provided by other bodies.
I appreciate that if money can be saved by delivering a service in a different way, that is in itself a laudable aim. But that pursuit of greater administrative efficiency should not be allowed to obscure the importance of delivering the service for which the agency has been set up. The Minister already knows of our concerns about the planned cuts. He has given reassurances about that, which he has repeated this morning. Nevertheless, as we begin to contract out and to use other services, we need to make sure that our prime purpose is to ensure better delivery of service. That is why I quoted the example of making greater use of the third sector in the provision of information services. That is an excellent example, which shows that locally delivered, locally administered voluntary agencies can be much more successful in providing support to parents who seek to make child care arrangements than an arm’s length agency that might not have sufficient staff in the locality to provide information and support.
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We also accept, as the Minister pointed out last week, that the use of private debt collection agencies has brought results. We are not opposed to the use of private debt collection agencies. However, we have to be clear about our purpose in moving to the use of such agencies, and that purpose must be the provision of child maintenance and the welfare of the child. The amendment is designed to ensure that that remains the prime purpose for introducing any such contracting or agency arrangements.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I want to return to something that the hon. Gentleman said a moment ago on the commission’s objectives in securing effective maintenance. Does he share my regret that the phrase “and the welfare of the child” does not appear in clause 2?
Paul Rowen: We had a full debate on that last week, and I was disappointed that the Minister could not accept a reasonable amendment that would have set the agency up with that very clear purpose. This measure is not only about collecting money, but putting arrangements in place to ensure that children are properly cared for.
On professional and technical services, I want to make a brief comment about the provision of IT services, which has bedevilled the CSA since its inception. There are still two different computer systems in operation. I know that the Secretary of State said in February in evidence to the Select Committee that the Government intended not to have a new system. However, he also stated that they were happy with the arrangements with EDS and that there was a clear programme to ensure that the problems with the current system would be worked out. I hope that the Minister can update us on the improvements to IT services. I am still experiencing problems in my casework that are caused by the inability of the IT systems to extract the information that is needed.
Mrs. Dorries: It is not only a case of being bedevilled by IT. Some cases are more complicated than others, as we have said before. In complicated cases, such as that of Mr. and Mrs. Jennings who are two grandparents in my constituency who are looking after children who have an absent mother and father, the IT system seems to fail completely. Then, going back to an earlier point, we have to depend on individual caseworkers. Can we have an assurance that the IT system will not be of the average standard used for average cases, but that measures will be built in to allow the software to deal with more complex cases?
Paul Rowen: I agree with the hon. Lady. She has quoted an example in her constituency, and all of us have cases in which the current IT system is not delivering. The Select Committee insisted that before CMEC becomes operational, the Department should provide the House with information on how the computer system will operate. We want an indication from the Minister about what will happen as CMEC is set up and what arrangements will be put in place.
We do not want to deal only with yesterday’s computer solutions—this is the point in the Henshaw report about the CSA having a fresh start and a clean break—because we want to know what arrangements are being put in place to ensure that any replacement or enhancement system can deal with not only the new method of operation, but, more importantly, existing cases. The Minister knows that in the previous sitting I went on about ensuring that historic debt is not forgotten. We must ensure—we need a comment from the Minister—that what he has got planned will ensure that the new systems will perform and that what has bedevilled the CSA in the past will be dealt with more effectively.
Mr. Boswell: I have quite a lot of sympathy with the comments that are being made, and, sadly, assurances are needed in relation to IT systems. I have a different point, which picks up a dialogue about confidentiality that the hon. Member for Angus and I engaged in at the oral evidence session. I have no ideological difficulty whatsoever with either agencies or outsourcing, if that is the most effective thing to do.
One of the attractions of the amendments, which bears on clauses 7 and 8, is that they relate to the agency’s main purpose. However, I have concerns that information may leak out to other persons. If the Minister remembers the oral evidence sitting, we developed the argument that highly confidential information on income, which HMRC does not normally release, will pass from the Inland Revenue to CMEC in order for CMEC to do its job. I do not think that anyone in this Committee is seeking to overturn that.
It is extremely important that that information or any other material, such as medical submissions that appear on the file, stops at that point. The collection of such information is justified by the need to sort out maintenance, but not as part of a fishing expedition that becomes part of the public currency. Those people are private individuals, and we are all aware of the sensitivity of the cases. All that I am asking for is the Minister’s assurance that whatever obligations apply to officials within the existing agency will continue into the new commission and its agents or contractors. There will be absolutely no question of any dilution of standards or safeguards in terms of the privacy or confidentiality of the information relating to individuals.
Mr. Weir: I want to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry, which is the point that I also wish to make. Taking up what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about IT, we challenged in the evidence-taking session the flow of information, and I made the point that CMEC is fundamentally different from the CSA in that it will get its information from Revenue and Customs. At that point, I raised the concern about where that information will go after it has reached CMEC.
Hilary Reynolds, who is the civil servant responsible, said that one of the schedules includes all the available information gateways and that the gateways are fairly wide to allow CMEC to take and receive information from a wide variety of sources. This is a specific clause about the use of that information and the scheduling of various gateways. That is quite correct. The schedule in question is schedule 6, which states that
“Information to which this paragraph applies may be supplied—
(a) to the Commission, or
(b) to a person providing services to the Commission
for use for the purposes of functions relating to child support.”
My concern is that the contracting-out of services, specifically in clause 8, gives the potential that a lot of information coming from HMRC is going not to CMEC but to outside agencies. I made that point in the evidence-taking session in relation to the extent of contracting out—for example, will the calculation of maintenance be contracted out to a third party? There are limits on contracting out, including on when services can be contracted out. However, clause 8 does not set any limits, as far as I can see.
Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are also issues about jurisdiction? We understand that the agency, at least, is operating within British law. There is nothing, as far as I know, to prevent the new CMEC from commissioning services from different providers in another country where British law does not apply and where the provisions of the Official Secrets Act or the obligations of the civil service code, for example, are not binding unless specified.
Mr. Weir: That is obviously a concern. I would be concerned if there were proposals to contract out CMEC services to overseas agencies—for example, many big accountancy companies operate multinationally. However, there is concern about the level of contracting out, and the amendments would set some controls on that.
Will the Minister say something about the extent to which confidential information from HMRC may be passed on? We all agree that information can go to the commission for the purposes of child maintenance, but where it goes once it reaches the commission is a different matter, which is a huge concern for many hon. Members.
Mr. Harper: On clause 7, which deals specifically with agency arrangements for other public bodies or other parts of Government, I want the Minister to indicate what he has in mind. His colleague, Lord McKenzie of Luton, made it clear that CMEC was being set up as a non-departmental public body rather than as a Government agency, because it would be better if it were more at arm’s length and further away from Government. Since the clause deals with a number of the relevant functions performed by other parts of the Government, I am curious whether the power was included as a general power in case it was required, whether at this stage the Department had any specific thoughts about how it may want to deal with that—what bits of Government CMEC may want to use—or whether it was included just in case to allow future flexibility.
We will be able to discuss the two points about IT contracting when we discuss new clause 13, which has been tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire.
The information control addressed by amendments Nos. 38 and 39 is important. As the hon. Member for Angus has said, we touched on that in the evidence session. The relevant schedule is wide and permits information to be passed. When we talk about that schedule in due course, we will want to have some controls on where the information can go and on the responsibility that CMEC would retain for ensuring that that it was handled securely under British law.
Mr. Plaskitt: I feel that the debate on clause 7 has strayed significantly into clause 8 as well, but provided that you permit me, Mr. Chope, I will respond to all the points that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Rochdale asked whether I could provide an update on fixing the IT. Clause 7 does not relate to the IT situation, but seeing as it has been mentioned, I will see to what extent I can reassure him. We are all familiar with the IT problems in the agency, which have bedevilled it pretty much from the outset. I do not want to go back over the history of how the IT was acquired, because that would not add much to our proceedings. However, suffice to say that the problem has been there from the beginning.
When we thoroughly assessed the IT situation in the agency to find out what was wrong, we discovered 506 defects in the system—that is all—which is a seriously large number. Those had to be graded into those of real significance, which undermined the efficiency of the organisation, and relatively minor defects. We decided, sensibly, to target the fundamental, systemic defects in the system first to try to get them fixed; 219 of them have been fixed since June, the date of the last report on IT status. That leaves a significant number of defects still to be remedied, but those that are left are minor. Those that were far more detrimental to the operation of the system were the focus of our priorities and have largely been resolved.
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A major upgrade will introduce enhanced functionality throughout the agency’s IT system by the end of the year and will resolve a number of problems, as I shall explain. We will implement IT changes to support the agency’s new operating model that allocates cases to appropriately skilled case workers and teams to progress those cases, which will certainly be a result. We will implement a more effective telephone call routing strategy that is aligned to the new operating model, which should improve the response to clients on the phones. We will also implement a number of IT fixes that will prevent cases from becoming stuck in the agency’s computer system, which has given rise to many problems in all hon. Members’ constituencies, and provide improved system-produced key customer communications, a matter that was raised in earlier sittings.
Enhancements to the finance system functionality will be introduced in 2008-09, which will improve the system’s ability to collect debt and process all financial transactions. The agency is working closely with EDS, the main supplier, with the aim of ensuring that all cases will be technically recovered by the end of March 2008. The agency will ensure that any operational or remedial actions are taken on cases following technical recovery by March 2009. In view of these plans, all current cases should be unstuck by the end of March 2009 at the latest. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Rochdale that, to coin a phrase, a lot has been done, but there is a lot still to do in respect of fixing the IT system.
The hon. Member for Daventry asked about confidentiality and I can assure him that the confidentiality safeguards will not be diluted. They will apply to any agency carrying out a function on behalf of another in exactly the same way as they do to the commission itself. The hon. Member for Angus strayed on to clause 8, but I will try to reassure him that any supplier that has access to sensitive information in the course of carrying out the commission’s functions will be subject to exactly the same restrictions on the use of that information as the commission’s employees. Provisions to govern that matter will be enshrined within the associated contracts.
Clause 2 provides the commission with a single overarching objective: to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements in place. I do not fundamentally disagree with what the hon. Member for Rochdale sought to achieve by tabling the amendment, but I hope to persuade him that provisions that will have that effect are already in the Bill.
The functions that the Bill confers on the commission and the powers that it is given to carry them out have the common purpose of enabling the commission to achieve its objective. For any functions that relate to child maintenance, the commission already has a duty to consider its objectives. Indeed, that is made absolutely clear in clause 2(3), which states:
“The Commission shall aim to pursue, and to have regard to, its objectives when exercising a function that is relevant to them.”
It is therefore clear that the commission must already have regard to its objectives when considering whether its functions should be carried out by another provider. It is worth noting that clause 7 also makes it possible for the commission to carry out functions of other Departments and public bodies, and for each to provide services for the other.
I think that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean was anxious about scope, and I shall now deal with that point. It might not always make sense for the commission to enter into arrangements or to perform functions with a view to its main objectives. The commission’s works sit within and are closely linked to a number of other areas of government. As such, there might be situations when the commission is best placed to carry out a particular task, even if that task does not contribute directly to its objectives. With the increasing momentum for work to be joined up across government, I think that hon. Members will agree that that should be encouraged.
We should also consider the example of Northern Ireland when looking at the context of clause 7. Although child support in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter, the IT systems provided by the British CSA are used at present. That makes economic sense, given the small size of the Northern Ireland CSA caseload and that its child support system is based on GB’s child support system. Wider government success and efficiency depend on such arrangements being possible, even when they do not contribute directly to the aims of the individual body.
I suggest that the amendment would, on the one hand, simply repeat a requirement that is already provided for elsewhere in the Bill and, on the other, prevent the commission from contributing to and benefiting from wider initiatives for joined-up government. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale will agree to withdraw the amendment.
Paul Rowen: I was interested in the Minister’s comments, particularly those that related to our earlier proposals on using HMRC to collect some of the maintenance. In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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