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16 Dec 2009 : Column 252WH—continued

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has raised many important issues, but he has used the phrase "common sense" several times. Is this not a bit difficult for the CSA, which is given legislation that we pass and has to implement it? Surely, if it were to say, "We just don't think that feels right. We'll come up with a different number", would it not be vulnerable to challenge from the other party, who would say, "No, that is the law. You should have applied it"? Is it not
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rather hard on the CSA to say that it is not using common sense when it is actually applying the laws that we have given it to apply?

Mr. Donohoe: The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, because that is the problem. When courts were dealing with these matters, the judge sat there and did the act of Solomon, and both parties had to accept what he or she said. The position now is that there have been many changes to the legislation, people are very confused and cases are very complicated. That is why we are getting what we are getting, and why I say that perhaps common sense should apply. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening.

In summary, in the first case I mentioned, everything had been involved: all the agencies, bailiffs, everybody from outside. Can the Minister tell me what the cost of all that was? Perhaps she cannot today, but I would like to know what the cost is of bailiffs coming into cases when it is clear they are not getting any satisfaction. They run around all the time, probably getting a fair amount in fees, but they are not delivering any of the outstanding money.

I would also like to know in a general sense why the compensation is so derisory. I heard this morning that farmers are looking for compensation, and they are talking about literally tens of thousands of pounds, but in this case, a Government agency is making fundamental mistakes and delaying matters, and people are whacking up enormous arrears. At the same time, compensation of sometimes £75, sometimes £150, is given. If there is to be what I would consider satisfactory compensation, the Government will have to revisit the matter.

Apparently, no legislation is in place at present to allow transfer from one scheme to the other, and the Government should address that. I am told that the reason for the three-year changeover date is a problem in the Department, which operates three different computer systems that cannot be married together. Is that so? Is that why we are talking about a three-year delay? In that circumstance, somebody surely needs to revisit the issue far more quickly.

There is a broader, cross-government issue that has always been of concern to me: the apparent lack of joined-up thinking between all the agencies and Departments involved. It only takes a micro-second to find out whether somebody has a driving licence or a national insurance number, or what the Treasury is taking from them in tax, but none of that happens. That is an outstanding issue as far as self-employed people are concerned, because although those on pay-as-you-earn are caught easily, those who are self-employed and have a smart accountant can, and often do, run rings round the agency. I have seen that at first hand on at least a couple of occasions in my constituency case load.

If someone's wages or salary is arrested, who is responsible for making that happen? In certain cases, that course of action has not been continued. I cannot understand that.

There is always talk in the agency about targets, which it speaks of in glowing terms. There is talk about how it is now bang on target regarding the income from the parents. But there are two sides to a target. People
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could be overpaying and the calculation may be wrong. If I were in an agency that had an upper-level target, I would not be examining that position too closely. Has that been taken into account inside the agency as a matter of course? If it just shies away from examining a case where an individual is challenging the amount, because doing so means it will not meet its target for the month, there is a problem.

My next point has already been made in an intervention, but it is worth while reinforcing it. It would be useful for hon. Members to deal with the same staff when phoning the MP hotline, and it would be useful if our constituents dealt with the same staff when they phoned. At least that happened under the old system, but no longer, as I found out in my office when talking to both my members of staff, Ruth Brown and Samantha Mair. They told me they are not getting the same service now that they were getting six or nine months ago.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Staff turnover and not being able to contact the same person are common complaints. Part of the problem is morale and staff turnover in the agency. When I had some ministerial responsibility in Northern Ireland, in the Department for Social Development a number of years ago, that was an issue even then, but it still appears to be a problem. Has the hon. Gentleman any suggestions about how that could be addressed?

Mr. Donohoe: I have to say something as an ex-trade union official: I emphasise "ex", because it is more than 20 years ago. I was responsible for housing officers in local government, who were under such enormous pressures that they had to put up screens between themselves and the public. A parallel could be drawn with how those working at the sharp end in the CSA must feel, going into work and being hammered every minute of the day by people who are irate because they think things are wrong. That is why we are in the situation we are in today.

I should like the Minister to tell me, although perhaps not today, what the staff turnover is in the CSA. There were 8,700 members of staff as of September, but I saw a worrying figure showing that as many as 600 members of staff have been transferred out of the CSA, which must put more pressure on the agency. Why has that been allowed to happen? There are pressures in Jobcentre Plus, but why have so many staff been taken out of the CSA, when it is dealing with people's lives? That point is worth making. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) for his intervention.

I worry about the driving disqualification element-taking away the driving licence-putting people in jail and taking away their passports. On more than 900 occasions in 2007-08, the CSA applied at hearings for the most serious sanctions at its disposal: imprisonment or driving disqualification. On 695 occasions-a fifth of all such hearings that year-the defendants did not even bother to turn up, at a significant cost to the taxpayer. In such circumstances, the agency surely must endure further delay and the expense of taking out an arrest warrant to bring the defendant forcibly before the court. Is that not a waste of public money? At the end of all this, there is unnecessary further delay, and the parent caring for the child is still without his or her maintenance.

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All those issues are of major concern to me and have become more so over the past few months. That is the main reason why I asked for this debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

10.7 am

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing the debate and I thank him.

I should briefly like to outline for the Minister an issue involving a constituent of mine who has been shown to be infertile, but is still being chased by the CSA even though it has now dropped the main case against him. I cannot name the man because in the community I am from, which he is also from, he is probably known by about 80 to 90 per cent. of the people. Also, the grown-up child and the grandmother in question do not know about the non-paternity. Mentioning his name would effectively shatter lives.

I have been in correspondence with the Minister on the main point, and the outline is as follows. In 2001 the Child Support Agency started requesting maintenance from my constituent. In early 2002 he denied paternity, but because he had signed the birth certificate the CSA decided that he was the father. Despite his denying his paternity the CSA started to charge him some £73 a week as well as a penalty. In 2006 his maintenance charges were adjusted and levelled out to about £127.60 a week. He did not pay maintenance to the CSA and it then placed a bill of inhibition on him and attempted to freeze his bank accounts. Over the period 2006-09, maintenance charges were at about £27,000 and the CSA attempted to have him incarcerated. However, he produced a doctor's letter in court stating that he was infertile. Two leading figures in the British Medical Association in Scotland have been supporting and helping him, and the letter they produced put the arrest warrant on hold.

In February, the mother of the child was asked to produce DNA samples from herself and the child to prove paternity. She refused. My constituent then began a process of declaration of non-parentage in court. In August, the mother declared that she did not want payment of arrears, and the CSA dropped the case, but it is still pursuing my constituent for £2,400 in fees. The bill of inhibition still stands against him, so he cannot sell any property to pay off the debt. I met him in October, having met him many times previously. His house was under threat of repossession, and in November he was denied legal aid for declaration of non-parentage. The process has been long and difficult for him, and I shall give an idea of how long it has been. The former Prime Minister was in power, the Afghan war had not started, and Saddam Hussein was in charge of Iraq. That is a long period in someone's life, and a number of questions arise.

Why did the CSA not go after the mother who made the claim against my constituent? Why is he being made to repay some funds? Where is the apology after 10 years of persecution? Where is the compensation from the CSA? His house was nearly foreclosed, his social life was destroyed because it is difficult in his community to lead a normal life with the stigma hanging over his head, and his career has been severely hampered. The CSA has effectively walked away from the case, but
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not without trying to charge him £2,400. Why is it charging him when it was found that he could not possibly have been the father? The fundamental point is that he is infertile, and has been declared so by eminent doctors, but his life has been turned upside down by the CSA. I have seen him in harrowing circumstances.

I have been in correspondence with the Minister, her predecessors, and a number of people at the CSA. I plead with her to get the case sorted as best she can, so that someone who has lost a decade of his life because of the difficulties in the CSA can get it back on track.

10.11 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on raising this important and under-debated issue. All of us, including Ministers, have constituents at our surgeries complaining about the Child Support Agency, and several attempts have been made to reform it. The Liberal Democrats have often been critical of those attempts, and one of our concerns has been the very point that the hon. Gentleman made. In my view, the ideal system would have a simple baseline assessment with a safety valve for hard cases. That seems to be the right combination, however it is administered and enforced.

I am a father, and I think one tends to underestimate the cost of bringing up a child, so it is important to have a benchmark figure on which to base the system. In many cases, that will be more or less fair, but there will always be individual circumstances in which common sense shows that the formula does not do justice to the story, so there needs to be an exceptional safety valve to provide a fairer assessment in a small number of cases. The hon. Gentleman talked about the wisdom of Solomon, and that is sometimes needed. We need a mechanism by which the bulk of cases are assessed or do not go through the CSA, based on a fairly simple set of guideline figures, but a safety valve is needed for exceptional circumstances. That would deal with many of the issues that have been raised this morning.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for describing the six cases, which highlight a number of issues common to many of us, and I have some sympathy with some of his points. He mentioned the woeful inadequacy of consolatory payments, and the CSA's line will be that they are not replacement for maintenance that should have been provided, but a few pounds to say sorry. That is not much consolation when hundreds or thousands of pounds are involved, and we should consider more carefully whether, in extremis, the agency should replace the maintenance that should have been paid if it was at fault and the person who lost out has done everything possible. If the agency has clearly failed, there must be a case for its having a duty to replace the maintenance that should have been collected. That should not be the norm, because it would be an extreme position, but sending someone £50 and saying sorry several years later is not good enough. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about the independent case examiner. The history is that the CSA was so awful that cases were swamping the parliamentary ombudsman, so we had to have an ombudsman just for the CSA. I value and respect the work of the independent case examiner, but I was
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slightly disappointed about a recent case in which the case examiner found in favour of my constituent, and the CSA ignored that. The only answer was to go to the ombudsman, which was complete nonsense. Will the Minister clarify whether the independent case examiner is advisory or has teeth? Constituents are frustrated when they go to what seems to be an independent third party, but months go by, evidence is collected, it finds in their favour, and the CSA then fails to act on the recommendations, so the case goes to an ombudsman and the process may take another year. That is in no one's interest, and I hope the Minister will clarify the status of the independent case examiner's conclusions.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about, for example, members of the public phoning the CSA and reaching a different person every time. There is bound to be an element of that, because people work part time and so on, so the same person will not always be available, but the principle of people having a case load would provide some continuity, and that is important. A constituent who came to see me recently had phoned the CSA time and again over a year and had spoken to a different person every time. People kept promising to phone him back, but did not do so, and when he phoned again someone else promised to phone back. I raised that with the CSA, and pointed out that there was a problem because there seemed not to be a trigger. Someone may say that a matter has been passed to another section and that when it responds that person will contact the member of the public, but there seems not to be a trigger if that section does not respond until the applicant chases it up.

The agency told me that there is a casework system and a trigger, but when the chief executive looked at the case to which I referred, he said it was a clerical case-one where things have gone wrong and are a mess. The answer was that clerical cases are just different. They may be different, but surely people whose cases are being dealt with clerically should expect the same standard of customer service as everyone else. It is not their fault if the data on a computer are wrong, for example. Basic customer service is not sufficiently in place.

When I asked for account breakdowns, the chief executive told me that they will take 20 weeks, and that that is the customer service standard. When I asked him whether that appalled him, he said, "If you want them done quicker, what do you want us not to do? If the figures are wanted quickly and the task is a difficult clerical one, people must stop doing something else. What do you want us to do-stop chasing maintenance?"

That raises the issue of resourcing the CSA, which the hon. Gentleman touched on. I appreciate that serious money goes into it and that staff have been transferred out to deal with the rise in unemployment, but I wonder whether an assessment has been made of the adequacy of the CSA's resourcing to do its job. If it takes nearly five months just to obtain a statement, something is not right. If that is the performance standard and all that it is expected to do, something has gone wrong.

A problem I sometimes come across is the money having gone to the CSA but not being allocated to the right person. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a case of money going to someone else with the same name. When one contacts the CSA, one sometimes detects a
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shrugging of shoulders and the attitude that it was just put in the wrong account, which is no big deal. However, it is a big deal for the families concerned. The attitude seems to be that the CSA is a big organisation with millions of payments coming and going, and the odd one will go astray, so get over it. That is not good enough. Just describing what has gone wrong and saying that it will be put right next month is not good enough.

Having said all that, I noticed that five of the six cases that the hon. Gentleman raised-this may be coincidence-involved non-resident parents. The first involved vast arrears of £44,000, and the others involved dads complaining about how their arrears and so on had been handled. There is a balance to be struck. When a family with a CSA case are sitting in front of me, I try to remember that the spouse or the children may also be constituents. What we want is fairness for the person who must pay the money, and proper money and support for the child and the family. Clearly, it would be wrong, unfair and distressing if the hon. Gentleman's constituent had his "deduction from earnings order" money snaffled by the company, and I cannot comment on how the arrears arose, but in general if someone has arrears, it may be because the CSA has messed up or because the money to be provided for their children has not been paid. We need a balance.

Mr. Donohoe: In my constituency, there have been occasions when I have had one parent sitting in front of me, and the other parent sitting outside waiting to come in. There might be an imbalance in the six cases that I have spoken about today, but both parties come to see me, normally at different times.

Steve Webb: I am sure that is right-the same thing has happened to me. My point is that whenever somebody has to pay arrears that seem unfair, it is important to bear in mind the fact that there is a child at the other end of the transaction. In the first case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, arrears ran into tens of thousands of pounds. That is tens of thousands of pounds that were meant for the welfare of the child but did not get through.

Typically, that is apparent when one sees the mother, for example, but when a father is in front of me, occasionally I will say, "Where do these arrears come from? Why didn't you pay for the past 18 months?" Sometimes the answers that I receive are not as convincing as they might be. We need a system that is seen to be fair, transparent and responsive to the individual case, but we must always remember that the welfare of the child is central.

As I said in an intervention, we cannot condemn the CSA for implementing the laws that we have given it to implement. We must take responsibility and, as the hon. Gentleman intimated, CSA legislation was scrutinised appallingly when it was introduced-there was a feeling that something had to be done. Everybody was in favour of the legislation, and I always think that the worst laws passed in the House are those that everyone supports, as they do not get the scrutiny they deserve. Perhaps, together with our predecessors, we are all responsible in different ways for having allowed the situation to get to this point.

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