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3 Dec 2007 : Column 593

Paul Rowen: I welcome these new clauses, as a serious issue highlighted in the Select Committee report is that there is an arrangement in only 51 per cent. of current cases; the other 49 per cent. do not have an arrangement. The reasons for that include the reclaim of benefit proceedings in respect of the CSA, and non-resident parents going missing and it being difficult to track them.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talks a lot of sense, however, when he highlights some of the problems that will be encountered in enforcing this new regulation. While I welcome it, it might need to be fleshed out more in the other place, because it is important that the relevant agencies and utility companies understand that if a parent does not provide the necessary information CMEC will have the wherewithal to require various bodies to provide it. That is what is missing from the new clause. I welcome what it does, but we should amend it a little further to ensure that CMEC has the legal powers to require agencies to provide information about a non-resident parent when that person is clearly breaking the law and is not providing CMEC with a change of address. If CMEC is to be effective—if the mere 51 per cent. of cases with arrangements is to increase—we need stronger powers even than those that are currently included in the new clause.

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is entirely right that he raised this matter in Committee, and because we had been listening we thought about it and agreed that this aspect needed strengthening—hence the new clause. As the Government are better at drafting them, our new clause is stronger than his. I welcome his decision not to press his new clause, as we want to achieve the same result and this debate is merely about how to get right the mechanism for doing it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about publishing information on prosecutions. They will, of course, become a matter of record, but I point out to him that at the end of October 2007 the CSA had prosecuted 198 cases for failing to supply information in this financial year, and over the same period the agency has prosecuted seven cases for supplying false information. All of them have been successful. I do not know what the scale of prosecutions will be in respect of the new offence, but once it is in force and is applied the figures will be public information.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as he did in Committee, about access to mobile phone records. Mobile phone billing addresses are classified as low-level communications data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, but the CSA is not a registered public body under that legislation, which is why it does not have access to the records. It will be up to the commission, once it is established, to decide for itself whether it wants to register and therefore fall under that legislation.

4.45 pm

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the use of post office addresses and non-traceable addresses. I shall look into that issue, and I am grateful to him for raising it. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) also welcomes our proposal. He rightly says that it needs effective sanctions behind
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it—it has them. The offence will be very clear and the necessary sanction will be in place to enforce it. I am pleased that new clause 6 will not be pressed to a Division and that there is support for Government new clause 1.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

Objectives of the Commission

‘(1) The Commission shall have the following objectives—

(a) to seek to ensure that every child who is living apart from one or both parents continues to share in the income and prosperity of both parents throughout their childhood, through the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements;

(b) to enforce liabilities incurred pursuant to the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48), whether or not a current liability for a child exists.

(2) In promoting the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements for a child under subsection (1)(a) the Commission shall—

(a) encourage and support the making and keeping by parents of appropriate voluntary arrangements for their children;

(b) support the making of applications for child support under the Child Support Act 1991 and secure continuing compliance, when appropriate, with parental obligations under that Act.

(3) The Commission shall aim to pursue, and to have regard to, its objectives when exercising a function that is relevant to them.’.— [Andrew Selous.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Andrew Selous: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 7— Approval of Operational Plan

‘(1) The Commission must—

(a) prepare an Operational Plan to establish how it will meet its objectives under section 2 of this Act and;

(b) publish the Plan in such manner as the Commission considers appropriate.

(2) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a copy of the Operational Plan published under this section.

(3) The Operational Plan shall not have effect unless, within three months of the date on which it is laid before Parliament, a motion has been made in each House considering the Plan.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations determine the categories of information to be included in the Operational Plan.

(5) Regulations made under subsection (4) may include details of staffing levels the Commission considers it appropriate to maintain in order for it to fulfil its functions.’.

Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 7, leave out Clause 2.

Amendment No. 17, in clause 2, page 1, line 10, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘(1) The Commission’s main objectives are—

(a) to maximise the number of those children who live apart from one or both of those parents for whom effective maintenance arrangements are in place;

(b) to secure the payment of any arrears of child support maintenance including sums owed pursuant to the Child Support Act 1991 (c. 48) prior to the establishment of the Commission.’.

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Andrew Selous: I am sure that the Government will agree with the objectives of the new clause, which are primarily to ensure that CMEC is reminded of its specific and important obligation to chase up and secure the historical arrears of child support liability. The arrears able to be collected and paid are reckoned to be £1.4 billion. That massive sum should have been paid through to the children of this country but has not, and we are determined that it will not be forgotten or pushed under the carpet.

I accept the Government’s genuine commitment to this area of debt, and I do not doubt either the veracity of what the Minister said in Committee or his intention. CMEC will be a non-departmental public body and it is vital that this matter of debt is included in the Bill. That is why we have adopted the draconian approach of proposing to remove clause 2 and drafting new clause 3. The Minister will recognise much of clause 2 in new clause 3. He will be pleased that we have not really proposed removing anything—we have merely proposed adding the highly important requirement that the historical debt should be recorded in the Bill.

We have also proposed that “every child” should have a right to continue

Clause 2 has a slightly different wording. It aims

The Minister may think that we are merely proposing a small change of words, but the phrase “every child matters” is significant—he will recognise it from elsewhere within his Government.

It is important to focus on the issue of debt. In June, 881,300 non-resident parents were in arrears, 91,470 of whom owed £10,000 or more. Some of my constituents have debts of £30,000 to £40,000 owed to them, which they want paid over to their children. We welcome the CSA’s operational improvement plan target to collect an additional £213 million of debt by March 2009, but we want CMEC’s instructions in this regard to be clear in the Bill.

The CSA’s 2006-07 annual report has not yet been published, so we do not know the current level of debt. The report is overdue, and we hope that it will be published soon.

In Committee, Ministers described effective maintenance arrangements as those that are working, where money is flowing and in which parents meet their financial responsibilities. That is right as far as it goes, but it contains no reference to the historical debt. Indeed, it refers to cases with a continuing maintenance obligation, and in many cases of debt there may be no current maintenance liability, perhaps because the child has left secondary education or is living with the former non-resident parent.

A generation of children have lost out on the vital financial support that Parliament said they should have because of the failure of the non-resident parent to pay child support and the failure of the CSA to enforce those liabilities. Those debts must not be forgotten. Non-resident parents must not be allowed to escape their obligations. The legacy of failure cannot be simply brushed aside as many families are still owed large amounts of money.

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The CSA already has an enormous armoury of enforcement weapons at its disposal and it has not always used it with sufficient rigour in the past. The problem has not been a lack of tools, but the fact that debt collection and enforcement has not been as high a priority as it should have been in the CSA. The processing and collecting of current maintenance was given higher priority. New clause 3 would ensure that past debt has equal priority, and that would be laid down in primary legislation.

When the new commission configures its business model, it should do so around two equal objectives—the responsibility to establish and actively support continuing child maintenance, and the responsibility to collect past debts. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on new clause 3.

Paul Rowen: I shall speak to new clause 7 and amendment No. 17. The latter would do what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) seeks to achieve with new clause 3, and we will support him if he chooses to press that to a Division. We made the point in Committee that the new commission must make a commitment to the collection of historical debt.

On the basis of figures from March 2006, £3.5 billion has not been collected by the CSA, and the total rises by £20 million a month. That is according to last year’s CSA report, and the 2006-07 report will probably show a further increase. We all have examples of non-resident parents who have gone missing and owe the parent with care tens of thousands of pounds. A lady who came to see me last year is owed £24,000, which has placed a huge burden on her. It means that her children are not getting the support that they deserve and the non-resident parent has got away with evading his responsibilities.

We have all signed up to the main aim that CMEC should be a fresh start—a clean break from the CSA and the failures of the past. Some of us argued that it might be better if the past debt were dealt with by a residuary rump, which could concentrate solely on that. The Government did not come to that decision, but it is important that CMEC’s objectives should state clearly that it has a major commitment to clearing that historical debt.

A generation of children has already grown up without the benefit of the support that the CSA was supposed to provide for them. They have gone through the system, but in establishing CMEC we need to ensure that the actual collection of the historical debt has equal priority with the new arrangements for a new generation of children. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, almost 100,000 of the 881,300 non-resident parents with arrears owe more than £10,000. That is a huge amount, so it is important that we make that debt a major priority.

New clause 7, which we shall press to a vote, would make provision for Parliament to approve the operational plan. The plan would have to be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State and considered by both Houses within three months. Regulations under the operational plan would have to give detail about the staffing levels the commission considers appropriate.

A major concern about the Bill—expressed by Janet Allbeson of One Parent Families, who gave evidence to the Select Committee—is that it is very much a
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skeleton, and much of its detail will be in regulations, which, of course, are impossible for us to amend. It is true that CMEC will have to provide an annual report to the Secretary of State, which can be laid before Parliament. With great respect, however, I suggest that an annual report is just that; it looks back at the year that has just finished. It does not give Parliament the wherewithal to hold that new arm’s length agency accountable for what it plans to do in the coming 12 months. Insisting that the operational plan be laid before Parliament would deal with many of the issues that we raised in Committee, such as the IT systems, the staffing levels or the giving of information and advice, provision for all of which is to be made later. Some of the regulations have been produced for us, as the Minister promised in Committee, but they are still only in draft and we do not have all the information.

One of our major concerns is about staffing. The regulatory impact assessment is that CMEC’s caseload will be reduced from the current figure of 130,000 for the CSA to 100,000. That may be the case. The staffing cuts already programmed envisage a 15 per cent. reduction for CMEC, taking the head-count down to 9,500 by March 2008, which in a perfect world might be okay. However, the problem that we have, and the concern that we raised in Committee, is that we have no evidence yet as to whether the case load will reduce as quickly and as drastically as is envisaged in the plan.

5 pm

We argued in Committee that there should be no reduction in staffing levels until CMEC has proved that it is functioning at the required standard. One of our concerns is that a new series of arrangements will have to be put in place, a new series of advice and information will have to be set in train, and new cases operating under the third type of child maintenance system will have to dealt with—at the same time as dealing with the huge historical debt and the nearly 900,000 non-resident parents who are in arrears. If that happens, and the staffing reductions continue, Parliament will have no recourse to hold CMEC to account.

It is unfortunate that so much of the detail of how CMEC will operate has not been included in the Bill, although both Opposition parties moved amendments to try to change that. The new clause would make CMEC more accountable to Parliament. The new commissioner has already been appointed, despite the Prime Minister’s statement about appointments being approved by Parliament. That has not happened in this case. The rest of the board, however, has not been appointed, and the House should have some say in how CMEC is going to be run. Giving it a statutory duty to present to Parliament an annual operational plan that looks forward not back—which is what we believe that the annual report will do—will give the House a proper opportunity to make sure that, at the third attempt, following the setting up of the Child Support Agency, CMEC delivers on its objectives.

Although we have signed up to the broad brush of what the Government are trying to do, we believe that a lot of the detail has still not been filled in—detail that is vital to the success of CMEC. I am talking about staffing levels, IT support, and the provision of information and advice. None of those things are decided yet. If the operational plan were laid before Parliament, there
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would be an opportunity for Members on both sides to contribute positively to ensuring that CMEC gets the start that we all want. I hope that the Minister will support the new clause, which is not controversial. Implementing it would involve no additional costs. However, it would ensure that hon. Members could play a full part in ensuring that CMEC delivers on its objectives.

Mr. Weir: In principle, I support what hon. Members are trying to do. Like other hon. Members, I have many constituents—mostly, but not exclusively, women—who are owed huge debts by absent parents. Those absent parents have been chased for many years, but, to date, there has been little success in obtaining the money. However, there is one point that gives me some concern. The question of how the historical debt arose was raised during the evidence session in the first sitting of the Public Bill Committee. In particular, in the early days, if the CSA could not get in touch with somebody or somebody did not respond, it would often put in an assessment on the basis of an assumed income, which was much higher than the person’s real income. As a result there is a large historical debt, going back many years, based on an income that the person who owes the debt never had. One could argue that that is the person’s own fault for not dealing with the CSA in the first instance. However, it raises the question of what we are going to do about setting out the true level of historical debt.

When we asked Lord McKenzie about that point in the evidence session, he said:

The difficulty with that approach is that there could be a large debt that was not actively chased on behalf of the parent with care. In fact, nothing would be done with it—it would simply sit on the accounts of the CSA or CMEC. When Stephen Geraghty was asked about this, he said:

There could be two types of debt: debt due to the Treasury; and debt due to parents with care. While I fully support what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is trying to do—I do not want real debt to be written off either; I want it to be pursued—I am a little worried about how we set the level of the debt. Will we take any account of what was, presumably, inflated debt in the first instance?

Paul Rowen: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that our experience of the poll tax was that local councils dealt with high levels of non-compliance and non-payment? The bulk of that debt has now been collected through continued enforcement action, and very little has been written off. How much of the £3.5 billion does he think should be written off?

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