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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 December 2009

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Child Support Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts .)

9.30 am

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the Child Support Agency. Let me start with a bit of history. As everyone knows, the CSA was established in 1993 under the Child Support Act 1991. I was not a Member of Parliament when the Act was passed-that was just before I became an MP-but I have talked to those who were here and took part in the examination of the Bill in Committee. The problem at that time, which remains a problem to this day, was that there was not the investigation and scrutiny that there should have been of the mechanics of the Act that was put on the statute book. There has not been sufficient scrutiny in this place of what was proposed or of all the alterations that have taken place over the years.

There is constant talk of simplifying the child support system. The Government have made more and more new proposals over the years, but that does not seem to have been reflected at the sharp end, where I work as a constituency MP. Every week, I have at least two new cases where there are major problems. As I make my speech, I will demonstrate through at least six examples that some of my constituents face a major problem.

Surprisingly, when it was explained to those constituents that I was taking part in this debate and that, if they wanted, I would use their names, they were more than happy for that to happen. I am surprised that that is the case, given that most people would want to hide away from the publicity that such a debate engenders. Yet the constituents concerned were adamant and insisted that I use their cases to demonstrate what is wrong with the system. Many of those cases are known to the Department, because I have written directly to the Secretary of State and had replies from the Minister who is here today.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. Christmas is a time when all families should be together and fathers and mothers should have access to children. However, the CSA is getting in the way of that. Although he talks about the action that the Government rightly have taken to try to simplify the Act, does he agree that that has led to inconsistencies, because different fathers, different people and absent parents are treated differently, particularly in relation to the financial calculations? That issue is leading to major difficulties and should be resolved.

Mr. Donohoe: I think I will show that in the six cases that I am about to put to the Minister in order to get some answers. There is absolutely no doubt that we live within a complicated state of affairs in the modern world. I had one case that hon. Members
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would not believe, where I could not understand why the calculations were coming out the way they were. A woman was getting an incredible amount of money and I found out that the reason for that was that she had five children to five different fathers. As a consequence, the calculations were done in that way, which bamboozled me. I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said in that sense.

I shall now turn to my constituents' cases, and the first is that of Marian Morris from Prestwick. Marian has been coming to see me since January this year. She has been pursuing the CSA against her ex-husband and, to this date, is owed more than £44,000 by him. The man concerned is a charlatan. He has managed to disappear-to go offshore-and has run rings round all the agency's staff. Later, I will come to some of the elements that concern me about how the agency does things.

Marian's ex-husband deserted her and her two daughters back in November 1999, which is more than 10 years ago. The lady immediately put in a claim to the CSA, but to this day she has not received a single penny, either in child support payments or through any other support. Her ex-husband left suddenly, wiped out all the joint accounts and assets, and left her without a penny, yet he has not repaid a single thing to her.

During the past 10 years, Marian has worked and still does so. She has had three jobs in order to support and raise her daughters without assistance, and she feels extremely bitter that her daughters, now aged 16 and 14, have had to grow up so quickly and fend for themselves while she worked long hours-often 15 hours a day-because she had little money to pay for quality child care and has no family nearby to help.

As I say, Marian is owed more than £44,000 to date and the man concerned has run rings round the relevant agencies. I had a meeting with agency staff on Friday. The agency sent three officers down to see Marian and all they could do was constantly apologise for the current system. She has had a one-off consolatory payment of £150 from the agency itself in respect of ongoing delays, but I find such gestures derisory-in fact, it could be argued that they are a slap in the face to the individual.

Marian's case keeps dragging on and no one seems to be able to do anything about it, so she keeps writing to me, and staff in my office have to be constantly on the phone to the CSA-I will come back to the problems associated with that.

More than anything else, the problem has been summed up in an e-mail sent to me by Marian, in which she writes:

That is the nub of the problems I am seeing and those are the difficulties we face as far as Marian is concerned.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I also commend the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. I am listening with great interest to the case studies he is describing. Part of the nub of the problem in Northern Ireland-I do not know whether it is the same in Scotland-is that staff retention is low and turnover of staff in the CSA is inordinately high. That
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means that time is not given for good-quality training of staff to ensure that the problems he is outlining are dealt with at the coal face.

Mr. Donohoe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will cover that point, because something that was working some time ago was the geographical distinction. For example, staff in the agency in Falkirk had various parts of Scotland to deal with. As a result, not only the Member of Parliament, but the individual, had five or six members of staff dealing with, for example, Ayrshire. That meant there was a good chance that they knew what was going on in Ayrshire, whereas now staff deal with all areas. The geographical distinction was one part of the old set-up that worked to the advantage of my constituents.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems is that the CSA is not listening to Members of Parliament who make representations? I made representations for a constituent who was being taken to court after allegedly not paying for two years. That father was eventually taken to court, even though I asked for a stay of those proceedings because I had the evidence that he had been paying.

After the court proceedings and judgment, the CSA accepted that a mistake meant that his payments were put down as being made by someone with the same name. The agency had also used the new man's national insurance number by mistake, and it now accepts that it was totally in error. The CSA failed to listen to common sense from the MP, proceeded with the court case and is still proceeding against the man concerned. Hon. Members can imagine what that has done to his relationship with his ex-wife and children-destroyed it. That is just not on.

Mr. Donohoe: I agree, and that is another example of the aspects of the CSA that, even after all the organisational and structural change, require a much closer look. The hon. Gentleman's intervention gives me the opportunity to say more on that: clearly, were the same officers to deal with the same cases right through the procedures, at least there would be an opportunity to introduce an ounce of common sense to the scheme. That is what is wrong with it, and I do not think it will ever recover to the position that once existed, even though in the olden days there were court cases as a result, which was not a great idea either. I accept what he says and trust that the Minister will take it on board.

The second case I would like to mention is that of Euan Loutit, a police officer who was married to another police officer. He thought that he was to be taken from the old scheme to the new, with all that entails, but it transpired that the confusion involved did not allow that change to take place. He came to see me many years ago about the problem he faced and indicated that he had major concerns about the parent with care. The CSA has investigated his case over the intervening period and concluded that everything is in order, but Euan has indicated to me that he does not believe that the CSA, as it could and should have done, investigated his wife's income. She had an accident while a police officer and was awarded £250,000 in compensation, and
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she earns money from tenants in her house that is not taken into account. As far as Euan is concerned, nothing with the case seems right.

In August 2009, the CSA wrote to me, stating that it would like to offer an assurance that the officer concerned in Mr. Loutit's case had

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): Perhaps I have not been listening hard enough, but is Mr. Loutit the parent with care or the non-resident parent?

Mr. Donohoe: Mr. Loutit is the non-resident parent. I raise that case because it demonstrates a universal problem. The CSA's letter went on to state that

That ties the hands of the CSA and does not let it see a bit of common sense. It gives no flexibility at all. That is the difficulty as far as Mr. Loutit sees it. When there is such confusion in the system, the arrears build up, so Mr. Loutit has enormous arrears and, as a consequence, the CSA claims that it all must be paid back within two years. At the same time, there is a restriction on the amount of money that can be taken from an individual-I think it is 40 per cent. of take-home pay.

My final point about that case, which beggars belief, is that the CSA now claims:

We need legislation in place, and that is what I ask the Minister to consider.

In November 2008 our transition to the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission commenced. It is anticipated that a single statutory maintenance calculation will be introduced from 2011, with the transition of all existing cases to that new system taking approximately three years. All parents involved will be kept abreast of how those changes will affect their situation. That, in itself, is something I would like the Minister to address as soon as is practical.

The third case is that of Andrew and Jacqui Jess. Andrew's problem is that they have been to the CSA over the years, arguing on the basis of a system that they settled amicably between them, but Jacqui and the children now live in Australia. The CSA will not take that into account when making the calculation because, it claims, if they had gone through the court, or if the case had been through a court or a similar system in Australia, he would be fine and that would be taken into account, but because the children are in Australia and he settled things of his own volition, the CSA says, "Sorry, we are not taking that into account at all."

Another problem that that case highlighted, and which was also mentioned at a meeting just last Friday with the CSA officers who came to my office, is that the CSA will not take the clear evidence individuals provide of their communication with the CSA. A parent might have telephone records showing clearly that there were conversations, and the CSA tells everyone who phones
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that their calls are likely to be monitored, so why is there no track and why are no records kept? There must be records that are kept, and they are just not telling the truth to my constituents; that must be looked at much more closely.

The other element of that case concerns the office of the independent case examiner, who is looking at the situation of Andrew and Jacqui Jess. The examiner apparently arbitrates, but the CSA can still revisit the situation later and overrule the examiner's decision. There needs to be more consistency in the whole system.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): For the purposes of clarification, is the hon. Gentleman saying that in that case the CSA overruled an agreed court order?

Mr. Donohoe: No, the independent case examiner obviously will not be overruled on the conditions that are put to them, but it is possible that after the event situations will change so that we are back to square one. I have had such cases, and that is a problem. One would think that, once the independent case examiner had made what they thought was a ruling, that would stay for ever more; but the case can be revisited and altered, which does not seem particularly fair.

The fourth case is that of Tom Tait, who has worked diligently all his life. His company went into administration, and during the course of his employment his wages were arrested. He was paying and has proof of the fact-the wage slips are there for all to see. Money was taken from him, the company went into administration and the CSA told him that the employer had never written a cheque to it. He is being held responsible and has to pay the arrears, so we are told.

There is something absolutely, ridiculously wrong with the system if that is the case. The man is paying for one of his sons, who is 19 years old. He has shown his pay slips to the CSA. The son is an apprentice in a local factory, yet because he serves some of his apprenticeship in full-time education, the father has been told that he still has to pay for him. That individual's case must be looked at much more closely. He feels aggrieved about his position, as he has every entitlement to do.

We move to the fifth case, that of Paul McKendrick. He is not in the highest-paid job. He has been paying £30 a week, but arrears have accumulated, which means that the calculation has been worked out at £33. However, he cannot afford to pay any more, so his arrears are running up and nobody seems to want to do anything. He has all kinds of pay slips to show what his salary is, but nobody is taking into account his real circumstances. He states:

The CSA is blaming the Government as an escape route. That means that when I am sitting with Mr. McKendrick, he is blaming me. If the Government cannot look at these cases as they should, set better parameters and apply a bit of common sense, the position will continue to be difficult.

The final case I have this morning is that of Steven Mallinson, who is also a policeman. The latest letter that I received from him is dated 11 November and is worth reading to give a flavour of his problem:

let us call her Miss X-

Again, let us call her Miss X,

Mr. Mallinson then asks how he is supposed to support his children in such circumstances. That is a typical letter from a parent who is at their wits' end.

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