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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I welcome you on your return to the Chair, Mr. Taylor, and echo the thanks that you have given to your colleague, Mr. Chope. It has been a very good natured and exploratory Committee, and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Angus falls very much in that category.

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I support the amendment in spirit, although I anticipate the Minister in saying that I, too, think that 12 months is probably too short. Doubling that period might make the proposal more feasible. The hon. Member for Angus spoke well to the practical problems, which are the real-world problems that affect our constituents in the difficult decisions that they have to make. We have all had constituents who have had to decide whether to change from the original system to the second system, and some who have got themselves into further administrative complications in bringing that to be.

The situation will be better as and when there is a single system. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman was right, perhaps somewhat cynically, to anticipate that the passage of time may, in the end, be the solution—as was once called “the biological solution” in relation to General de Gaulle.

I would like to emphasise the matter a little more, although I say so with some diffidence, as the hon. Member for Angus is a lawyer and I am not. On the other hand, I have a family member who is somewhat interested in the human rights complex, if I may put it that way, and who knows quite a lot about it, although I have not sought her advice on this matter. I cannot help feeling that, if I were ever a Minister again—not something that I anticipate, although I would wish it on some of my colleagues very shortly—I would be uneasy and uncomfortable about this situation. The basic principle of our administrative system, and one of the areas of criticism under our administrative law, is that people should be treated fairly. It is perfectly defensible to define people in different circumstances as being in different categories and to make arrangements for them. However, if one looks at the history of jurisprudence in the European Court of Human Rights, one finds that even where people have made those distinctions, the court can look through to the fact of the matter and say that there is functional or indirect discrimination, even if there is not formal discrimination. I am thinking, for example, of arrangements for notice periods for employment and unfair dismissal where the Court has taken an interest because there is an effective discrimination against women.

There is an actual discrimination in this case because people whose income and other circumstances are exactly the same can be treated under any one of three categories. That is an extremely uncomfortable position for Ministers. I suspect—I am not asking the Minister to reveal his inner thoughts on the matter—that he would be anxious to move off this ground as soon as possible. In the past, I have tweaked the Law Officers and said, “I am a humble man, my lord, and do not understand these things, but I cannot think that it is quite right to have these three systems.” I have received a suitably polite and dismissive response.

Whether a legal challenge against having three different systems would succeed is much less important than the fact that it is an uncomfortable situation. It is not congruent with our traditions and administrative system to have people who, in otherwise identical cases, are treated in three separate ways as a result of a contingent administrative situation. Nobody expects the impossible, particularly given the history of the Child Support Agency to date, but it would be helpful to encourage the Minister along the way to get the

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systems rationalised into one shape as soon as possible, remembering—if I may offer him a final olive branch—that it is always open to people who do not like the shape of the new system to conclude a voluntary arrangement in order to take themselves out of the commission. Given the record in the past and the perceived unfairnesses and failures, I can quite understand it if some might be tempted to do so.

9.30 am

Andrew Selous: I am sympathetic to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Angus. There is widespread anger that there are currently two schemes, and that anger will be multiplied when there are three schemes. I am aware of some of the practicalities, not least because I have met Stephen Geraghty in the past couple of weeks. I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say about the practical issues around trying to achieve the admirable objective put forward by the hon. Member for Angus.

Mr. Plaskitt: We all understand the point made by the hon. Member for Angus and the motives behind his amendment. I equally understand and largely agree with what the hon. Member for Daventry has said.

From our constituency casework, we are all familiar with the difficulties. Everyone accepts that the current circumstances are not ideal, but we can also see the difficulties in getting from where we are to where we need to be. The hon. Member for Daventry thought that I might be feeling uneasy in my ministerial position given the circumstances. I say to him that I would feel uneasy in my position, if I were not learning from previous attempts to move from one system to another. Equally, if I were about to impose a completely unrealistic and unachievable target on the commission, it would create more uneasiness in my mind than any uneasiness that I may feel at the moment.

There is no doubt that the transfer is one of the commission’s most significant challenges. Experience shows that this is a complex exercise that must be carefully managed and planned in the interests of the children concerned. The hon. Member for Angus will agree that detailed plans are required, and we intend to make regulations requiring the commission to publish such plans, using powers set out in schedule 5. Such plans will need to be approved by the Secretary of State before publication.

As set out in the White Paper, the transfer of existing cases will begin in 2010 and take around three years, which is a realistic timetable. Previous attempts to modernise have shown that sufficient time needs to be built into the process in order to manage the transfer. An earlier start would not give the commission sufficient flexibility or time to develop its services to the stage where it can handle the assessment and management of around 1 million cases. A staged approach over a three-year period will also spread demand for the information and support service.

In drawing up the plans, we made a commitment to consult throughout the entire process with all stakeholders. That will be supported by a communications strategy to ensure that parents understand the changes that are being introduced. The commission will develop detailed proposals for the

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staged approach to transfer existing cases to the new arrangements, and the regulations will set the framework for that process. Once the commission is in a position to publish its plans for delivery, we will be ready to implement the new system.

To seek to deliver this scale of change to so many people over a 12-month period as the hon. Gentleman has suggested would risk further failure. However, I assure him that we want to move everyone to the new arrangements as soon as practically possible, and we will support the commission in making that happen. I understand why he has tabled the amendment, but having given him the perspective in relation to the commission, I hope that he will agree to withdraw it.

Mr. Weir: Having listened to what the Minister has said, it appears that the hon. Member for Daventry was right, and the biological solution may well be what happens in this case. I fully understand the practical difficulties involved, and I will not push the amendment to a vote. However, I urge the Minister to move the process on as quickly as possible, because it is fundamental to give CMEC a real chance to be different from the CSA. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Andrew Selous: I beg to move amendment No. 119, in clause 18, page 8, line 2, leave out lines 2 to 5 and insert—

‘(1) Schedule 5 (which makes provision for, and in connection with, enabling the Commission to require existing cases to transfer to the new maintenance calculation rules or leave the statutory scheme, so far as future accrual of liability is concerned) shall have effect subject to subsections (2) and (3) below.

(2) Before Schedule 5 shall come into effect, the Secretary of State must publish a report to the House giving a detailed report on how the Commission intends to arrange the transfer of cases to the new rules; the consequences for parents and children where there is an existing child support application or assessment/calculation; and the staffing and IT resources which will be made available to support the process.

(3) A Minister of the Crown must make a motion to each House of Parliament in relation to the report mentioned in subsection (2) before the coming into effect of Schedule 5.’.

The amendment seeks to cover similar territory to the previous one, and it is a probing amendment to obtain information from the Minister. I do not expect him to have the details at his fingertips, and I wonder whether he will agree to write to me and the Committee to tell us the Government’s current estimates of the number of old and new cases that are expected to opt for voluntary agreements, the simple cash transfer payment method and transferral to the new statutory scheme. It would be useful to have an idea of the split that the Government foresee, because that will have a direct bearing on CMEC and on its staffing and IT.

I want to ask the Minister about the process by which information and advice will be given to parents in existing cases in the old and new schemes to help them to decide their child maintenance arrangements. Obviously, there will be some cases where child maintenance increases and others where there is likely to be a decrease, depending on the decisions that are taken. I would like to see more information on how that is going to work in practical terms. I anticipate a

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large number of parents being confused by the various options, and inertia might set in because the system is so complicated that people decide to stay put, which may not be the right thing to do or be in their best interests.

On the IT side of life, I would like to press the Minister on how confident we can be that the CS2 computer system is up to the task of recalculating around 1.4 million cases and transferring around 500,000 old scheme cases from the CS computer system to CS2. He will know as well as anyone in Committee that IT difficulties have been at the heart of many of the CSA’s problems in previous years. It is important that the Committee, and indeed the House, is as fully informed as possible about the IT issues.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): May I echo the welcomes that have been given to you, Mr. Taylor? I am delighted that you will be with us for the remaining sittings, albeit I am tinged with sadness that we will not be seeing Mr. Chope again until we are perhaps all involved in another Bill.

I did not discuss the previous amendment, although I had a great deal of sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Angus. As the Select Committee pointed out—I think that the Minister has acknowledged this—the CSA has an unfavourable history regarding transition between systems. A number of concerns arise in that context. I hope that the amendment will give the Minister an opportunity either to answer those concerns now or to write to the Committee. Such an answer would be useful, given the public concern about the transitional issues.

The amendment has value, because it would require the commission to work out a lot of the detail before the transitional scheme is implemented. I am sure that the commission will bear in mind the Committee’s remarks—not least those made in the earlier debate—about the need to get that process going as quickly as is practical. That would be a useful discipline, in addition to any answers that the Minister can give the Committee now. It would mean that there would be a final check to ensure that there is satisfaction with the mechanisms to deal with one of the issues of greatest concern to clients, customers and children, in addition to Members of the House who deal with a range of extremely confusing cases where two systems are currently involved—in future, three systems may be involved. That might address some of the questions that the hon. Member for Angus asked in the previous debate. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intends to press the amendment to a Division, but he would certainly have my support if he were to choose to do so.

I have echoed the questions that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire has asked, but I want to add one or two more. Again, the Minister may not be able to answer them now and may wish to write to the Committee—I would be perfectly happy with that, because I am simply keen to get the information. The Government estimates of the number of old and new cases relate both to old and old, old cases, as well as to new cases under the third of the three systems. Such

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cases are likely to opt for voluntary arrangements, cash transfer or simply transfer to scheme three. The White Paper suggested that old scheme cases with a nil assessment will be given priority in terms of transfer. It also suggested that child poverty will be a focus, which is absolutely right. None the less, what estimates has the Minister made of the number of cases in those various categories? Also, what guidance, if any, does he intend to give CMEC about how to treat cases where there are child-maintenance arrears to be collected across different schemes? Potentially, that will mean collecting the arrears across three schemes. That is an important question given the debate and the concern about arrears.

As the hon. Member for Angus has pointed out, in many cases child support assessments and calculations have not been updated for several years, and a number of non-resident parents may face a significant increase in their child-support liabilities when they are transferred to the new scheme. It is sometimes hard to see in advance from the point of view of either the NRP or the PWC what the outcome is likely to be, but that does seem to be a possible outcome. I wonder what research the Department has carried out to identify the scale of the increases that non-resident parents will face at the point of transition and to calculate how many and what proportion of them will be affected by such changes.

I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire about the computer system. I wonder whether the Minister is satisfied that the CS2 system is up to the task of recalculating child maintenance in up to 1.4 million cases and transferring around 500,000 old-scheme cases from the old computer system to the new one. In a sitting before the summer recess, the Minister told us that he had identified 509 problems with the computer system and had corrected 219 of them. In that context, at this stage at least, can he be satisfied that the answer to that question is in the affirmative? I hope that this debate will give the Minister a chance to reassure us on some of those points or, if not, to write to us.

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