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Mr. Watson: I have a couple of observations to make and I seek one reassurance from the Minister. However, before I do that, let me reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West that I support the measure, which obviously has cross-party support.
First, how satisfied is the Minister that there has been full consultation on the measure? Does she feel that all the representative groups have been consulted, and what are they saying about it? Some of the pressure groups in this area have great passions, and it is important that they have been able to express their views.
Secondly, what observations has she made about the law of unintended consequences? Does she know of areas such as those in my patch where 40 per cent. of the neighbourhood operates a cash economy without the use of electronic banking? Has she got any evidence to show that the provision might drive people out of the banking sector into a cash economy?
Thirdly—this is an observation, but I hope she takes it seriously—these charges are staggeringly expensive for an electronic transfer. Banks do not need to charge £25 or £55 to move money between accounts. Our officials should renegotiate that.
Fourthly, I seek one reassurance, which I hope the Minister can give me. Let us be honest, the CSA is occasionally totally hopeless. I have the greatest respect for the people who work in that sector, but they do get it wrong. Occasionally, they are belligerent, they dig in, and they make the lives of our constituents a misery. When they do that, our constituents come to our surgeries, we write to the Department, and some minor ranking official writes back with a brush-off letter. Will the Minister reassure me that if a constituent complains to me about the order and I write to a Minister—as other hon. Members may also do—that a Minister will write back, not a middle ranking official?
11.2 am
Helen Goodman: I begin by thanking all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for the constructive approach they have taken and the pertinent questions they have asked.
First, I shall address the points made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. I am grateful for the Opposition’s support. No doubt all the Committee will be pleased to know that we anticipate that, taken together, all the measures—not just those before the Committee today—in the 2008 Act, which will be implemented by April 2010, will lift some 100,000 children out of poverty. Together, those measures are very significant. It is not just a question of justice; it is also about making significant progress towards our shared child poverty objectives.
Several hon. Members asked about joint accounts and whether the ability of the non-resident parent to set up joint accounts with a new partner represents a significant loophole. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rochdale are absolutely right: that is clearly a risk. We will take that matter into account as we evaluate the new process. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire also said, the provision is a significant step. It seems sensible to take this step first, see how it works and then move on to dealing with joint accounts. We have not decided how we will inform the House of the evaluation at this juncture, but hon. Members can rest assured that I am alert to the matter and if it can be dealt with expeditiously, it certainly will be.
The third point the hon. Gentleman raised was the possibility of non-resident parents converting their money into cash. At the moment the commission cannot estimate the likelihood of non-resident parents converting funds into cash. They will monitor the effectiveness of this policy and that is another of the loopholes that we will be examining. This point is connected to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East. We will never be able to close all the loopholes, but we will consider what we can do to limit the risks.
All hon. Members who have spoken have raised the question of the reasonableness of the charges. The charges made on the regular deduction orders will be £10. At an earlier stage in the discussion with the banks and building societies there was some consideration of £25, which, unfortunately, is why it has crept into the impact assessment. The reason for this is that the process cannot be computerised. It has to be undertaken manually on every occasion as it is constrained by the limit on the proportion of the non-resident parent’s income and the need not to push the bank account into overdraft. That has to be checked every time and that is the reason for the costs. In the evaluation, once the banks and building societies are used to running this process, we can look at whether they will be able to reduce the costs.
Obviously, this route is a last resort. The commission would much prefer non-resident parents to pay by direct debit, cheque or standing order, none of which attracts this level of charge. In effect the non-resident parents are making a rod for their own back when they resist paying through other, cheaper means. The £55 charge applies only to the lump-sum deductions.
The hon. Gentleman asked who was in charge of this policy. I am the junior Minister with responsibility for this policy and I look forward to the many items of correspondence that I will receive on this from my colleagues across the House—of course, I report to the Secretary of State on this.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether these regulations apply to deductions from third-party accounts. They do not; we will be introducing further regulations to cover that.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked how the commission will decided whether a deduction order is appropriate—a point also raised by the hon. Member for Rochdale. The primary legislation provides that a deduction order may be made only where there has been a failure to pay child maintenance. The measure will be used only when non-resident parents are clearly failing to meet their responsibilities, and after attempts to make appropriate alternative payment arrangements have failed. One of the things officials need to learn to do is make good assessments. The relatively high administrative costs are because officials are in a learning process, and will be examining which cases they think are most likely to produce results if we go down this path.
The hon. Member for Rochdale also asked what happens in the event that a non-resident parent goes into business with a new partner. That is not a scenario that is envisaged in these regulations. It is precisely the sort of thing we need to look at. We need to take account of whether that is how people behave when we bring forward our evaluation and were we to introduce regulations covering joint accounts. He also asked why the implementation date is August. That is to speed up the implementation of these regulations, rather than waiting for the regular date later in the year.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East asked about the consultations that have been undertaken in preparation for these regulations. The 2006 White Paper was widely consulted on, and throughout the passage of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, there were considerable discussions about the details of the schemes which are now being set up. The regulations and mode of operating have been discussed in detail and this is ongoing with the banks and building societies. Their part in this is critical to its success, and the efficient and effective administration of it. When we bring forward further regulations we will consult on them and publish the evaluation so that all stakeholders have an opportunity to comment.
My hon. Friend said that on occasion, CMEC is not the most efficiently administered organisation, even though the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire had previously complimented the officials in the Department on the excellent way in which they had prepared the papers for today’s debate. I hope we are seeing an improvement in administrative quality. In recent years, that has been notoriously problematic. Although this is the first time I have spoken—
Mr. Watson: I think I got the assurance that if a Member writes to a Minister with their concerns about the operation of this scheme, they would get a ministerial letter back.
Helen Goodman: I was just about to say that I will endeavour to ensure that is the case. However, I am not so inexperienced that, without knowing the level of correspondence, I would be prepared in all cases—whether simple or complex—to commit to involving officials in responding to correspondence.
Mr. Watson: I am not suggesting that the Minister write her own correspondence or do her own research. I am sure that her officials would draft that for her. It is a responsibility of Ministers—if they are making these changes—to respect Members of Parliament who raise important points with them. I do not think I am being unreasonable to press the Minister a third time on this. I would just like her to commit to a Minister responding to a Back Bencher who raises points about the scheme.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is so persistent and persuasive that I am convinced it is the path we should take. With your permission, I would like to commend this statutory instrument to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support Collection and Enforcement (Deduction Orders) Amendment Regulations 2009.
11.15 am
Committee rose.
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