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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, when I was an elected Member for a number of years, by far the most difficult, intractable problems that I faced from constituents were CSA problems, which grew and grew over the years. Does he recall that the courts did not deal with the cases, the CSA is having problems dealing with them and there is no guarantee that the Inland Revenue could deal with them any more successfully? Instead of beating ourselves, hard-working officials and dedicated Ministers around the head and body for not being able to deal with this problem, should we not be pointing the finger at the people who caused it—the errant fathers who are not meeting their responsibilities?

We should remember that people are doing a really good job, as I know from the CSA staff who are working in what used to be my constituency. When Sir David Henshaw is doing his—it is not a review; what is it called?

Noble Lords: Redesign.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, when he is conducting his redesign, as well as looking at the systems, could he also consider whether further legislation is necessary to give powers to make fathers meet their responsibilities?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there is much in what my noble friend has to say. I will not run away from the problems that the CSA has in its operational performance, but these issues go much wider. My noble friend is right. In terms of enforcement we have a real problem in the number of parents who seem to feel that it is acceptable not to support their children financially when their relationship breaks up—if they had a relationship in the first place. That is wholly unacceptable. Clearly, as part of Sir David's redesign, we are asking him to look at enforcement powers to see what further powers our new child support system needs.

At the end of the day, it is not a question of the Government's or the agency's failing performance. The sole purpose of child support arrangements is to
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make sure that children receive sufficient financial support. My noble friend is also right to suggest that this is a problem that has bedevilled Parliament and governments for many years. The search for a way forward with as much consensus as possible is earnestly to be desired.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that the contract with the IT supplier, EDS, contained clauses that allowed the Government to claim compensation for non-functionality? Will he tell the House whether the Government have taken advantage of those clauses and how much if anything has been claimed back? Will he look very carefully at the position of the 270,000 parents with care who are currently in the old system and are on means-tested benefits who are denied the benefits of the new scheme; namely, the £10 premium? In this redesign through Sir David or howsoever, will he look at the equity that will be involved, and at those locked in the old system which is now shelved compared with those who have the advantages of the new system available to them right now?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I want to pay tribute to his work as chair of the Select Committee and for its report, which was very informative. As for the computer system, noble Lords will know that it was not the most successful IT system ever developed in this country. Indeed, many problems were caused by its introduction. Frankly, I pay tribute to CSA staff who have had an almost impossible task at times in trying to work it. There has been a realignment of the contract with EDS. The result is that the original £456 million cost has been reduced by £65 million. In addition, we have held back a further £17 million based on performance.

The system has many defects which are gradually being put right, which is gradually getting the system back to a stable state. I doubt that it will ever achieve what it ought to have achieved, but it is becoming more fit for purpose. Clearly, we need to be strong in terms of our relationship with EDS. Also, it is in the interests of everyone to make sure that there is co-operation in putting right the rest of the defects.

On the child maintenance premium, I well understand the matter that the noble Lord raised, particularly in relation to parents with care who are on the old system who have not been converted to the new system. The problems are the operational feasibility and cost. I have taken advice on this matter and I understand that manual intervention is required in the vast majority of cases, which might mean looking at 300,000 cases manually in order to pick the 50,000 that are likely to be eligible. As the noble Lord will realise, the amount of work involved would be extensive. However, as part of the redesign, it is a matter that we will ask Sir David to pick up.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I noticed that in the initial stages of contact between parents and
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the CSA, parents were given a special number to telephone for advice. They tried many times to make contact. I do not know whether the line was out of action or whether it was deliberately blocked—I am not passing judgment on that; I say that only because that is the type of trap that the new body should avoid. I have not until now heard of any parents—former constituents of mine—who have successfully made contact, anxious to help as they were. They have utterly failed to make any contact or get advice at any stage.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. The figures that I have show that the average waiting time for callers is now 13 seconds for the new system as opposed to 49 seconds for the old system, which is a big improvement over the past 12 months. Obviously, there is a way to go and part of the work that we now wish to undertake within the CSA is to improve on that. Having visited the Northern Ireland CSA, which has a close relationship with the CSA in the rest of the country, I have been impressed with the dedication of staff in the Belfast centre who, as I said earlier, do a difficult job to the best of their abilities.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I welcome the new design but I want to ask about experience in other countries in Europe. Presumably, every country has this problem and finds the solution very difficult to reach. Will Sir David Henshaw in the time that he has been given before the summer recess be able to look at the experience in other European countries in particular?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. I have not had the advantage of visiting child support services in other countries as yet although no doubt the time will come. Clearly, experience in other countries shows that this is a very difficult area. There is no question that collecting child support from parents who do not want to give money to their former partners in respect of their children is a difficult issue to deal with. There clearly are examples of systems in other countries which seem to work better than those here. We should learn from them. Australia is often pointed at as the best example in the world. It is different; in Australia most people turn to the Australian Child Support Agency. It also has, because the tax system is rather different in Australia, much greater access to information.

There are clearly lessons that we can learn there but, at the end of day—rather like the suggestion that you could simply hand CSA over to Revenue and Customs—we need to adapt any lessons from other countries to our own situation. In looking at the experience of other countries, that would be a matter for Sir David himself to decide.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, while recognising the reasoning for rejecting the financial
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costs of the Geraghty report, will the redesign proposals be limited, or required to be contained within any ceiling of expenditure?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, affordability and cost-effectiveness are words that come clearly to mind in any policy that is going to be developed. I cannot say any more than that. We will have to wait and see what Sir David's redesign proposals are concerned with. We found it difficult to justify an expenditure of £300 million of additional money for a child support system which, to all intents, is widely thought to be in serious difficulty and which we believe to be not fit for purpose. It would have been risky. That is why we felt we could make some initial investment to deal with some immediate problems for more front-line staff, but on overall expenditure for the future, the first thing is to see what Sir David comes up with in terms of the redesign.

Freedom of Speech

3.12 pm

Baroness Knight of Collingtree rose to call attention to recent developments affecting freedom of speech; and to move for Papers.

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