Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

MR DOUG SMITH, MR VINCE GASKELL AND MR MARK NEALE

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002

  100. If we have picked up the statistics correctly 51 per cent of non-resident parents are paying in full at present. How do you see that figure improving?
  (Mr Smith) We have a target whilst we move through the child support arrangements to move to 75 per cent compliance levels and that we will be pushing for. Aspirationally I hope we can move significantly above that when we get these arrangements working properly as planned.

  101. Moving on to figures about collectable debt, and again looking at the statistics that we have been provided with, you have a target to reduce the debt which is currently around £286 million. How quickly do you see that being reduced?
  (Mr Smith) We are achieving the reductions that we forecast. I think we can do more on reduction this year. It is aspirational. I am deliberately trying to shift resources where I can get them out of mainstream areas in the Agency into enforcement work. This is on slow burn because enforcement work is a skilled activity and requires a good working knowledge of the law. Bringing people up to speed quickly is not easy. I am looking to see what I can do by additional support for people who do enforcement work so that routine work we can shift down to somebody else's shoulders and they concentrate on the skilled work and gradually build it up. It is that impact over a period of years that will start hitting that level of debt.

  102. The legislation which we have passed has hopefully given you an improved tool kit to chase up non-resident parents who do not pay. Do you feel there is more that should be done as far as improving that target?
  (Mr Smith) Yes and no. I do not think we are looking at this stage for any legislative improvements to the tool kit. I think we need to look more rigorously at the constraints that we impose on ourselves and how we use some of the current legislation and the current tools that are available, many of which grew up in the 1990s as the Agency went through a particularly bad period. We may have put more shackles on ourselves than is, in the light of current events, where we are now, sensible or practical. We just need to go through a test of that over the next year or so and say, "Is there more that we could do within existing legislation, existing rules, to move faster and more forcefully on some of the people who are quite deliberately seeking to evade their responsibilities?"

  103. Can you give us an example of where you feel the Agency constrains itself?
  (Mr Smith) Perhaps the number of checks and referrals that a case officer at the front line needs to jump through to move a case towards a court hearing, for example. It may be that we are in a world where we can trust people to take on more risk around that and move those cases through the system more quickly. That is the sort of thing we need to test.

  104. Do you mean something other than bureaucracy and delegation in the system?
  (Mr Smith) You are tempting me on words I would like to use myself but we do need to find a way of shifting cases more quickly from the front-end of the process to the core. We need to understand properly the risk associated with moving them more quickly because the potential risk is that you end up taking action on a non-resident parent that is not appropriate and is not the sort of target where we ever share the view, "Hey: you have got to get this guy into court very quickly because he has been making a mockery of the system". It is wrong to do that if actually the underlying assessment is wrong or we have done something in the past that is inappropriate.

  105. Is the interaction with the legal system a frustration to you and your staff?
  (Mr Smith) No. It works very well.

  106. How effective will it be with the new proposal of the threat of taking someone's driving licence away? What is your feeling about that?
  (Mr Smith) It is effective. We have taken a number of cases up. We do not threaten to take people's driving licence away. This is one of the sanctions that a magistrates' court can impose. In some cases that is effective in encouraging compliance. In other cases other sanctions are effective. It is a useful addition to the armoury.

  107. You may not know this off the top of your head, but how many licences have been lost in the system?
  (Mr Smith) They are certainly in single figures, maybe as low as one.

  108. We have some way to go there.
  (Mr Smith) Yes and no. The name of the game on this never was to have wholesale withdrawals of driving licences. The name of the game is to drive up the compliance levels and I think that the increasing awareness that we are serious about compliance is fed by these stories that are floating about the place on driving licence withdrawal and is having far more impact than actually withdrawing licences left, right and centre.

  109. So it is a psychological effect and sanction, is it?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  110. It must be hard to measure that. Have you any research on that issue?
  (Mr Smith) Not specifically, but in terms of measurements, in one sense the proof of the pudding comes in the eating and our compliance levels are going up. They are going up because of a range of factors of which that is one. It is very difficult within that to say that driving licence withdrawals have accounted for this tranche of it and management changes have accounted for that tranche of it.

  111. In one sense it does not matter if the compliance rate is up because that is a good sign?
  (Mr Smith) Indeed.

  112. In some senses it is a scatter-gun approach. What you have to look at is the end result.
  (Mr Smith) That is what I am firmly fixed on.

Mrs Humble

  113. You have actually touched on an area that I wanted to ask you about and that was the use of courts to enforce payment. Certainly from the constituents whom I have been dealing with, they have a serious complaint about the delays that you yourself have acknowledged are built into the system before the CSA even contemplates using the courts, and sometimes years pass before any decision is made to go to court. But then there also seem to be very substantial delays once that decision has been made. I was interested in your comment to David Stewart where you said they were working well with the legal agencies. A constituent came to see me only two weeks ago and she actually had a letter from the Agency saying that at long last, after God knows how many years, the issue was going to be referred to the court but warning her that there were still going to be very long delays before any final outcome. Where are the delays there? Are the delays in getting cases scheduled before the courts through adjournments, the usual things? When you say courts do you mean magistrates' courts? Is there anything that we as a Committee can do to help that? Are there any recommendations that we should be making about your interface with the court and how we can best expedite matters?
  (Mr Smith) I do not have detailed figures to hand but my understanding is that the main cause of concern in magistrates' courts is the willingness to adjourn rather than bring the thing to a decision. We are working with the magistrates' courts to try and explain more fully the background to what we are about, what we have done before the case comes into court, and to encourage magistrates towards reaching quicker decisions on cases that go before them. If you want some more information on delays that we are facing I can provide that[6].

  114. Yes please, and also what sanctions are available to the Bench in making a determination; what penalties can they impose against what I assume is usually the non-resident parent who is not paying up.
  (Mr Smith) Indeed.

  115. What powers they have to enforce penalties against that individual if he is found guilty of not paying.
  (Mr Smith) I received only in the last three weeks my first letter of complaint about the speed at which the Agency had achieved enforcement of a debt.

Chairman

  116. Frame it.
  (Mr Smith) I put that as a small aside. It just represents the seriousness with which we are trying to shift some of these things sooner.

Mrs Humble

  117. Will the situation also change now that the new Act makes it a criminal offence to give false information? Have you already used the legal system against individuals who have given false information to the CSA or have you not, and do you anticipate using the courts for that as well?
  (Mr Smith) We have done and in fact a few weeks ago we had our first successful prosecution on that, so we are starting to enforce that and that should become more visible as we go into the next year. The one thing that I was quite anxious about with the new powers, particularly in relation to prosecution, was that we did not start to run before we learned to walk on this. We did not want to go out pell-mell trying to prosecute left, right and centre for failing to provide information or for deliberate errors in the information that has been provided. We are now starting to build up a significant caseload of cases that we will progress into the courts. That is important because that is part of building the compliance culture that we talked about earlier but we do need a steady drip feed of visible cases where people have declined to provide information to the CSA and have been prosecuted, or people who have attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of the CSA and have been prosecuted. We need that constant drip feed; otherwise we are not going to sustain and support our people at the frontline who are dealing with the difficult telephone conversations. The two have got to go hand in hand, which is why it was so important to get that balanced package.

Chairman

  118. There are some questions in the existing system and the work you have been doing on prospective reforms but I cannot resist drawing your attention to this. You sent us a letter with the Child Support Agency Business Plan 2002-03 where you say that the reform has been delayed, trying to remedy the fact that there is a bit of a delay here, and you have a number of bullet points where you say you will continue to extend the awareness of your ability to prosecute people who refuse to provide information or deliberately provide incorrect information, and a letter which came to me the same day via my colleague Professor Steve Webb says that there have been no prosecutions and therefore no convictions made under the criminal offence of non-co-operation with the Child Support Agency. It is a bit of a worry. The serious point is that there are about 30 per cent, nearly a third, of cases which are still a non-compliant core of the caseload. You have actually been making some inroads into making partial compliance into full compliance and the statistics show that and that is very welcome, but there is a residual core here of nearly a third of people whom you are getting no change out of at all. You are talking tough in the letters you are sending to Members of Parliament, you are prosecuting nobody and you are not even taking driving licences off them. What are you doing to bear down on that core third who are thumbing their noses at you metaphorically?
  (Mr Smith) That is fair. The outturns of prosecutions and the outturns of driving licence withdrawal are not high, I accept that.

  Chairman: They are non-existent.

  Mrs Humble: There is one.

  Miss Begg: Two.

Chairman

  119. I do not think the courts have enforced them. I can tell you about that. In two cases the courts ordered a non-resident parent to be disqualified from holding a driving licence but the order was suspended. They are both now making regular payments, so I suppose that makes the point.
  (Mr Smith) If you can imagine a pyramid this is the small part that is visible in the actual number of prosecutions. Under the surface there is a significant amount of work being done in preparing cases for prosecution and gathering information. There is a real issue. If you are moving down the line towards prosecution as somebody provides the information, actually you get a really successful outturn on this. That is exactly what you wanted. You want the information coming across, you want the maintenance assessment in place to get a down payment flowing. You do not want the prosecution. That is an absolutely undesired outcome.


6   Please refer to the letter from Doug Smith to the Chairman of the Committee dated 20 June 2002, Ev 22. Back


 
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