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16 Dec 2009 : Column 258WH—continued

One of my concerns for the future regards those families who no longer go through the CSA. I have tabled some questions on that issue, and have received
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some helpful letters from the CSA. The presumption now is that partners should try to make a deal, and in an ideal world that is how things would proceed. Someone once famously said that when it comes to family breakdown, the CSA has never been part of the healing process, and that is correct. Obviously, it is a good thing if a couple, albeit separated, can agree on a fair assessment for a child that can be implemented without acrimony or the need for enforcement. I welcome the fact that that is happening more.

My concern is about when there are two partners, one of whom is perhaps articulate and well-lawyered, as it were. An initial deal might be struck and, for the sake of argument, the mother might be offered a cash lump sum and a modest monthly maintenance assessment. On day one, it might seem like a lot of money-£5,000 or something-and beyond the dreams of avarice. A year later, the lump sum is gone, the monthly maintenance is not much and money is needed for a new pair of trainers, a school trip or whatever.

It might be too early to know whether such a thing is happening, but I worry that, at that point, the mother might be in a poor negotiating position. She might talk to her ex-husband or ex-partner and say, "I need more money", and he might reply, "I gave you £5,000. What have you done with that? I give you money every month; you get benefits. Go away. I have lawyers who say you can't have any more."

Clearly, that is not true, and such a woman could go to the CSA, ring the options helpline and so on. I hope she would do that. However, I want the Minister to ensure that we closely monitor what happens to people who in the past would have gone through the CSA process, but who have made a deal and fallen off the official radar because they do not need contact with the authorities.

I am pleased that the CSA has done some internal survey work, and that over the first quarter of next year it will do some formal surveying and look at the terms of the agreements of those people who have private arrangements. However, that work needs following up six or 12 months down the track to see what has happened to those who have gone off the radar. I worry that a small number of people will fall through the gap and not realise that they have the right to go back to the CSA, even if a private deal has been made.

I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil). Returning to the point about common sense, we sometimes find that the CSA is slow to back down when things have gone wrong. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned a case that had to go to court. I am aware that the CSA regards measures on driving licences and passports as a last resort for somebody who has probably evaded payment and tried to avoid every means of paying, and sometimes extreme approaches are taken. If someone does not turn up in court, that is not necessarily the fault of the CSA, but it raises issues about joint working between different Government agencies.

In such cases, we need the Government and the CSA to be able to tap in more smoothly to Inland Revenue data, which I know happens to some extent, as well as benefits and other data, to ensure that when an allegation is made about someone's income or job, it can be verified.

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My constituents say to me-I am sure this is the case for other hon. Members-that the CSA wants them to turn into private investigators. If someone says "My ex is working," the CSA says, "Prove it." How should they prove it? They are asked to go and stand outside the gates and take photographs and so on. When I told the CSA that my constituents feel that they have to don a dirty mac and turn into private investigators, its response was, "We don't have the powers or the resources to do it ourselves." That creates a tension.

We do not want malicious allegations, but where serious and well-founded allegations are made, we need a system whereby the CSA can investigate more vigorously, instead of putting so much onus of proof on the person who makes the claim. I understand that a balance is required, but sometimes people know a lot about what their ex-partner is doing-where they work or where they go to the pub. They also overhear conversations and so on, especially if they are still living in the same community.

Where a reasonably substantiated allegation is made about undisclosed earnings or something similar, perhaps the CSA errs too much towards saying, "Until you show us cast-iron, black and white, verifiable proof, we won't do anything." Given a well-founded allegation, I would like the CSA to be more proactive and say, "Yes, there is something in this. We will take it seriously and use our data sources to act on it." That would be a fairer system.

Let me repeat my appreciation for the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, who has given us the opportunity to debate this issue. As MPs, we always see the bad cases, and I suspect that there are many instances of people getting their maintenance assessed and paid on time. Such people think the system is fair and the children get the money. Those cases never come across our desks, and we should place on the record our appreciation of those who ensure that hundreds of thousands of children in this country receive child maintenance that they might not otherwise get.

Nevertheless, there is considerable room for improvement, especially in areas such as the derisory consolatory payments, the powers of the independent case examiner and continuity of staffing and contact with members of the public. I hope that the Minister will help the CSA to improve the service that it provides for the public.

10.27 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this timely and important debate. As a Back Bencher, I did exactly what he has done, and brought seven or eight of my constituency cases to the attention of the Minister who was then responsible for the CSA. It is sad that an hon. Member still needs to do that after considerable efforts have been made by all parties to try to improve the CSA.

We all agree that a well-functioning child support system is vital. The Government will not meet their child poverty targets for 2010 or 2020 unless the CSA is effective and does its job well. The CSA can play a part in ensuring that there are fewer unwanted pregnancies if fathers know that the agency is effective and will come after them, and that they will have to pay for 18 years for the child that they brought into the world. There is
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also a little evidence to suggest that an effective CSA has some influence in reducing relationship breakdown, according to Professor Nick Wikeley. I was struck by a comment made by the journalist Polly Toynbee in The Guardian on 27 January this year. She said that

Earlier in the article, she said that

That figure is a little too high, according to the latest information that I have seen. The 2007 families and children study produced by the Department for Work and Pensions showed in table 15.1 that 61 per cent. of all parents with care were not receiving child maintenance.

It is important when we consider the CSA that it tells us its performance on the number of cases for which there is a child maintenance liability, but as politicians we need to be aware of the situation throughout the country. That matters hugely, because if a clear majority of non-resident parents-about 60 per cent. or, for argument's sake, somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent.-are not paying child maintenance, the word on the street, or the culture, is that people can avoid paying it. That is deeply unhelpful to what all of us in the Chamber are trying to achieve.

I commend the attempts that we heard about yesterday to inculcate a greater sense of financial responsibility among non-resident parents, and sometimes even among parents with care. In a recent survey, 22 per cent. of parents with care were saying, rather surprisingly and counter-intuitively, that they did not really want child maintenance. Perhaps the relationships had broken up very badly. That figure surprised me, but it was from a piece of work undertaken by the Department.

Mr. Donohoe: I would like to get my mind clearer on that point, because I had understood that if the parents did not want the CSA involved and were not on benefits, there would be no need for the CSA's involvement at all.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Now that there are voluntary arrangements and we have repealed section 6 of the 1991 Act, people do not have to come within the CSA's net. I was trying to make a slightly broader point and saying that if we look across society as a whole-not just at the CSA cases and the voluntary arrangement cases, but at those cases in which neither applies-we see that there is unfortunately a clear majority of cases in which parents split up and no money is moving. That worries me and we need to bear it in mind. Polly Toynbee was right to draw attention to it earlier this year. Indeed, when Sir David Henshaw produced his excellent report in 2006, he said that in only 30 per cent. of cases was some maintenance paid. I think that the figure has improved slightly, but we need to be aware of the broader picture.

I want better co-operation between Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs-the Inland Revenue, as we used to know it-and the CSA. I agree with the comment that many parents feel that they are forced to act as private detectives to establish the non-resident parent's income. Will the Minister tell us what further co-operation is in the pipeline between HMRC and the CSA? That was one of the best things that we put in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. It should
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have happened long ago, but I am not convinced that we are yet reaping the full benefit in data transfer and tracking all income available to non-resident parents to make the CSA as effective as it could be.

I shall refer briefly to the case of one of my constituents, who is also calling for greater co-operation between HMRC and the CSA. Her ex-partner signed on as unemployed. She says that when Mr. X signed on earlier this year,

She says that all she wants is

She goes on to say that she is convinced that her ex-partner is working, even though he is signing on. She has pretty good evidence of that and is extremely frustrated that that information does not seem to have been captured and taken forward.

This is just a practical point. I would like to know from the Minister why e-mail communication with the CSA is not now an option. That point was raised with me by Families Need Fathers, whose representatives I met on Monday. As they put it to me, e-mail communication would save considerable time, money and anger, not least when assessments are sent to old addresses, resulting sometimes in huge child maintenance liabilities arising without the non-resident parent's knowledge. May we please move into the 21st century and ensure that e-mail communication can happen between the agency and parents with care and non-resident parents? That would be practical and helpful.

We need strong and robust enforcement powers in the CSA. For many years during the previous Parliament, I used to question DWP Ministers about the number of driving licences that had been taken away. I think that, although the agency had the powers, only two licences had been taken away. However, the effect of threatening to take such action can be beneficial. I understand from the helpful House of Commons Library debate briefing pack that, in the state of Maine in the USA, $89 million was collected through threatening to remove driving licences and that, in Australia, an extra 11 million Australian dollars was raised through threatening to stop non-payers travelling abroad.

I do not want anyone's driving licence or passport to be taken away, but if the threat of that is effective when all other options have failed, those are tools that, sadly, the CSA needs in its armoury-there must be consequences. Child support matters. Children's lives and futures are at stake, and we will not meet our child poverty targets unless we have a CSA that works.

The system needs to be fair, however. Fairness to non-resident parents-fairness to, in the main, fathers-is critical to a well functioning CSA that has broad public support. A couple of practical issues worry me in that regard. One is the fact that liability orders are not stayed if the application is appealed. We need a quick and fair appeal system so that cases are not held up indefinitely, but it seems to go against natural justice that the liability order keeps on going if there is an appeal. That should be looked into quickly and fairly, and an adjudication made fast.

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It also seems odd that non-resident parents should have to pay the costs of challenging the use of administrative powers even if they have been wrongly used. There was provision in the 2008 Act; I remember debating that point when it went through the House. I have a great deal of sympathy for the case raised by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), in respect of the £2,400 that his constituent has been asked for when he never could have been a father. It is worrying that in such cases the mother has the right to refuse a DNA test. What if his constituent had not been proved to be infertile? Would those liability assessments have gone on piling up if the mother could refuse a DNA test? We have the technology to decide these things decisively now. That issue worries me as well and possibly needs to be examined.

I am concerned about the 25 per cent. variation of income figure that was mentioned when we were putting the 2008 Act on the statute book. Will the Minister confirm whether the Department still has that figure in mind?

I think that cases will soon be hitting the press of people who have lost their jobs and who are now on benefit, but whose maintenance liability has not been reduced, because the fall in their income was just below the CSA's 25 per cent. variation figure. I appreciate that the CSA went for such a high figure because it was so scarred by the amount of work caused by very minor variations. However, as it gains in confidence and its systems become more robust, the 25 per cent. figure will need to change. If someone's income drops by 24 per cent., should they really go on paying maintenance at the level at which they were first assessed? That seems to go against natural justice.

I want briefly to mention the one-year rule, which I thought the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire would bring up. It is a concern that parties who have happily and voluntarily gone to court to produce flexible arrangements that suit them to deal with their assets and income, can see those arrangements unwound within a year, to the detriment of either the parent with care or the non-resident parent. All parties raised that issue when the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill went through the House, and it is a bit of unfinished business, so I leave it on the Minister's radar screen.

Child maintenance arrears, or the debt as they are commonly known, have recently come down slightly, which is excellent-let us give credit where it is due. They are now just under £3.8 billion, although that is a slightly fictitious figure because a lot of the assessments were not really accurate. Furthermore, about half that sum is owed to the Secretary of State, rather than to parents with care. However, it matters that we collect those arrears.

It also matters that we collect arrears where the children are over 18, and I am a bit concerned that the focus seems to have been on collecting debt only where the children are under 18. If someone has been deprived throughout their childhood, the fact that they can get a lump sum when they are 19 or 20-perhaps to help them to go through college or university or to get a small deposit on a house-is important, and we must not forget that.

I recently visited a CSA office and talked to some of the staff, who work extremely hard in difficult circumstances, as was said earlier. I heard of the joy that someone who
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has got nothing for years feels when a cheque for £15,000 or £20,000 comes through. The difference that that can make to a young person's life is phenomenal. These things matter. Ideally, we want the income to be there as people go through their childhood, but if they have not had that income, we must not give up on the collectable debt. If the non-resident parent has assets, I would support the CSA in going after those assets.

On the debt, I am worried that up-to-date information has not been published. Gingerbread has pressed for the publication of client fund accounts throughout October, November and December. It worries me that there is no official published deadline. Many Government figures come out at set times of the year; indeed, the unemployment figures came out at 9.30 this morning. The DWP cannot say, "Sorry, we don't feel like doing them this month. We'll do them next month." That is simply not good enough. We need the figures to come out regularly, because lobby groups such as Gingerbread study them carefully. Maintenance arrears matter, and we must make sure that we do not lose sight of them.

As the CSA grows in confidence, I hope that it will take a leaf out of the Australian CSA's book by trying to ensure that the relationship between separated parents is as good as it can be. I say that because there is evidence that if the relationship is better, rather than worse, more money is likely to flow. I understand why the CSA has been wary of going down that route, but I hope that it will look at the issue as it gains in confidence. I have with me two booklets from the Australian CSA called "Me and my Kids-Parenting from a distance" and "Me, my Kids and my Ex-Forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your children". The Australian CSA produces those because it recognises that if we can make relationships better, make contact amicable and help with parenting from a distance, more money is likely to flow. That is also better for children. I therefore commend that approach.

Finally, I share the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. It will be five years before we get the gross-income scheme. We passed the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act in 2008, and it will be five years-2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013-before we get to 2014 and one gross-income scheme. We all back the scheme, because it is simpler and easier. It will also net the self-employed and take in rental and dividend income. It is scandalous that the original legislation did not include such income-I do not know what MPs were doing when we passed it. That was wrong, because all income should be included. Why have these changes taken so long? Five years seems a very long time. We have seen the differences between the old scheme, the new scheme and the future scheme, so let us move ahead as quickly as we can.

10.45 am

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