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Mr. Weir: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am not suggesting that the debt should be written off. However, there is a fundamental difference between debt involving the poll tax and that involving the CSA. The poll tax debt was known to be correctpeople simply did not payand there is still a fair amount outstanding in many local authorities. I would like to know what is proposed to address the problem that there might be a lot of ancient debt that does not reflect the true liability.
Andrew Selous: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Bill, he will see that clauses 29 to 32 address debt management powers. There is universal agreement on both sides of the House that the figure of £3.5 billion is artificial. It was created along the way when some extra liabilities were imposed, almost to try to get the attention of non-resident parents. I am focusing on the £1.4 billion figure. If addressing that amount was one of CMECs objectives, I would be happy.
Mr. Weir: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, which has put my mind at rest to some extent. However, his proposal does not say that; it refers only to the debt. There is a danger that if we are saying to parents with care, We will pursue your debt, we may well be thinking about different figures. They might be thinking that they are due a sum of £30,000 or £40,000, but the true figure might be less than that. I would not like to raise false expectations of the amount that they might get.
Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Angus (Mr. Weir) for their contributions to the debate. Reference was made to the agencys 2006-07 accounts, and I am happy to confirm that they have been laid today.
We believe that the existing objectives are right, and remain the best way to achieve the outcomes that we want for children. The amendments would give the commission two main objectives rather than a single overarching one. They would give the commission a second objective, of equal standing, requiring it to secure payment of arrears accumulated under the Child Support Act 1991. However, the objectives, as drafted, already set the collection of debt as a priority for the commission. The last part of the second subsidiary objective is to secure parental compliance under the Child Support Act. As I explained in Committee, that sets the commission a clear objective of securing compliance with all liabilities under the Act, including the collection of arrears, regardless of when they arose.
We believe that it is right that that is a subsidiary objective. The overriding priority of the commission must be to get effective maintenance arrangements in place for as many children as possible. By focusing on that, the commission will be helping to eradicate child poverty, and it is difficult to envisage a more important objective. However, I stress again that the arrangements do not allow the commission to ignore existing debt in any way. I hope that I have sufficiently emphasised the fact that the subsidiary objective prevents that. In addition, we expect the commission to have clear targets underpinning each of the objectives, including those on debt. The collection of arrears is vital to the
successful delivery of the main objective. The system will not work unless the commission is seen as an effective collector of the money owed to parents with care.
We have concerns about the wording of the first main objective in new clause 3. First, we do not believe that it is feasible to require the commission to ensure that there is a maintenance arrangement in place for every child; indeed in some casesfor example, where the non-resident parent is violentit may not even be appropriate. Requiring the commission to maximise the number of effective maintenance arrangements in place achieves the same clear goal, but without the difficulties. Secondly, although we wholeheartedly agree in principle with children sharing in the income and prosperity of both parents, we do not believe that the wording of the new clause is necessary; in fact, it may present problems.
The current objectives have broadly the same effect as those proposed in the new clause. The commission must maximise two types of arrangements: arrangements established through the statutory maintenance service, which are, of course, based on the income of the non-resident parent, and appropriate voluntary arrangements. Appropriate means arrangements that are suitable given the particular circumstances of the parents in question, and arrived at in full view of all the available information. That information includes the amount that would be received through the statutory maintenance service, and we expect most voluntary arrangements to be broadly in line with the formula. That will ensure that children share in the income of both parents.
However, the whole point of voluntary arrangements is that they are flexible and can be tailored to the specific needs of parents. We want the commission to support parents in reaching the arrangements that are best for them. We do not want the commission to interfere in an attempt to ensure that arrangements are closely linked to the non-resident parents income. The final part of the proposed first objective refers to
the establishment of effective maintenance arrangements.
We deliberately want the focus to be on arrangements being in place, as the Bill says, rather than just being established, so as to emphasise the importance of arrangements being sustained, not just set up.
New clause 7 proposes that we legislate to require the commission to prepare, publish and lay before Parliament an operational plan detailing how it will meet its objectives. Let me see whether I can dissuade the hon. Member for Rochdale from pressing that new clause to a Division. It is clearly essential that the commission produce robust plans and shows how it will meet its objectives. However, we do not need to legislate for that, as Treasury guidelines already make such actions a requirement of the commissions funding.
The framework document that must exist between the sponsor Department and an arms length body requires that a number of financial and management documents be in place. They include a corporate plan looking three years ahead, which the body must submit annually to its sponsor Department. Treasury guidance sets out the key matters that should be included in the plan. Those matters include: the key objectives and performance targets for the future years, and the
strategy for achieving those objectives; alternative scenarios and an assessment of the risk factors that could affect the plan but which cannot be accurately forecast; and other matters that can be agreed between the Department and the body.
The first year of the commissions corporate plan will form the commissions business plan and must include key targets and milestones for the year immediately ahead. It must also include budgeting information to enable the Department to identify the resources that will be allocated for specific objectives. Of course, we expect that to cover staffing levelsan issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Treasury guidance also requires the corporate and business plans of all non-departmental public bodies to be published on their websites, and to be made available to staff separately.
We believe that that is sufficient to allow scrutiny of the proposals, and that it would be inappropriate for arms length bodies business plans to be subject to approval by Parliament. It is worth noting that the commission is already accountable to Parliament through its annual report and accounts, which must be laid before Parliament. The Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for the commissions overall performance.
Paul Rowen: Does the Minister not accept that there is a fundamental difference? Treasury guidance advises that business plans be put on the website. The Bill is a skeleton measure, and we want to make sure that working arrangements are subject to scrutiny by Parliament, which is a fundamental difference.
Mr. Plaskitt: With respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has made the case for making the detailed operational plans of a non-departmental public body subject to approval by the House of Commons. There is no precedent or argument for doing so. I entirely accept his desire to subject the commissions activity to adequate parliamentary scrutinyof course, that is rightbut as I tried to explain, the commission is obliged to publish its accounts and annual report, and it remains answerable to Parliament via the Secretary of State, who must appear before the House. I believe that those provisions are adequate, and it is not appropriate to go further and try to micro-manage the departments operational plan on the Floor of the House. I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will agree to withdraw the new clause.
Andrew Selous: I listened carefully, as always, to the Minister. I welcome the fact that the CSAs accounts have been laid before Parliament, but if they had come out on Friday we would have had a little more time to look through them.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about new clause 3. May I reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) and others? I have no problem at all with authorities using the powers in the Bill, with the permission of the parents with care, to write off debt that is uncollectable and should probably never have been accumulated in the first place. That is common ground, but I remind the Minister that we have a long history of getting this wrong, and the failure to collect debt has undermined the CSAs work
in the past, and will undermine CMECs work in future. It will not help that fundamental change of culture that we wantthe willingness to pay child supportwhich will be a key component of CMECs success.
Turning to new clause 7, the CSA had a troubled history, and this is Parliaments third attempt to get that incredibly important area of law right. Hon. Members play an important role, and they should be forced to take an interest in what CMEC does. Many of us were not entirely happy with the decision to set up CMEC as a non-departmental body, and we failed to see why it should not become an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions. It is even more important, given that it is to become a non-departmental body, that Parliament should have the role of scrutinising its plans in future. Should the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) wish to press new clause 7 to a vote at the appropriate time we would support him, and I shall now press new clause 3 to a vote.
New clause 4 relates to part 4 and seeks to import into it payments for pleural plaques. On 17 October, a decision was made in the House of Lords that pleural plaques should no longer attract compensation. The judgment suggested that pleural plaques were symptomless [ Interruption. ]
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