Draft Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002 and Draft Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Webb: I am slightly confused. A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that he did not want the deferred debt scheme to be extended because that would send the wrong signal to errant fathers. Now he seems to be saying that we might want it extended because there will always be the possibility of delays. Which of those is he saying?

Mr. Boswell: I am saying that both points need proper consideration, which is the purpose of this Committee. Let us be honest, the hon. Gentleman has not had experience in government, but Ministers normally have to wrestle with the balance between two such considerations. We could give a signal that we are going to put things off a little longer by maintaining a deferred debt scheme, for reasons that are essentially beneficial to the mother but may also relieve the absent parent who is not maintaining the child. On the other hand, if we move into the sunlit uplands of a new assessment scheme—which is not yet implemented and the date of which we have not yet been given—there will still be the worry that, in the real world, things could go wrong. We would then have to consider the equity, for the parent who is not maintaining the child, of going back into the past to look at that.

I hope that Ministers will consider that. The answer might be not to have a general scheme but for Ministers to be able to stand in and compensate isolated individuals, perhaps on an extra-statutory basis, where appropriate. However, we also need to measure, against the assertions made in the explanatory notes, Ministers' confidence in their new scheme as and when it is introduced.

The Minister helpfully confirmed something that caused me to raise a metaphorical eyebrow when I looked through the order. He gave a verbal assurance, which will appear on the record, that the order is in his view compatible with the European convention on human rights. For the avoidance of doubt, I was not seeking in any way to suggest that I did not think that it was, but I raised a metaphorical eyebrow because I noticed that the certificate was initially given by a Minister in another place. I had not been aware of that practice and I think it quite important that we consider a Commons position on the matter.

Another point about the order that concerns me is the reference to the regulatory impact assessment. In a sense, that is reporting an historical situation because it says that the Child Support, Pensions and Social

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Security Act 2000 was really given a nil return in terms of the regulatory impact assessment. I understand what the Ministers are trying to do in getting non-maintaining parents to make a contribution and get into the habit of regular payment. If the temporary compensation scheme causes that to happen, it is welcome. However, Ministers will know—this is in the Child Support Act 1991 and has continued since—that if there are deduction of earnings orders, those are quite onerous for employers, who are sometimes not very compliant with carrying them out. The Minister might like to touch on that point.

We had a good rehearsal of a number of CSA issues in the earlier debate and it will not be necessary to prolong this one in detail, although I shall be interested in hon. Members' comments. There is one matter of public accountability on which I should like to close. I would like the Minister to secure some figures and put them on the record for us before the debate concludes. First, I need to get a measure of the historic costs of the temporary compensation scheme. For that purpose, we exclude any other kind of administrative compensation offered to people who feel that they have been messed about by the agency. We are talking simply about the combination of deferred debt and the compensation scheme for the parent with care.

Will the Minister tell the Committee what has been paid under the old extra-statutory scheme to date? Secondly, will he explain what has been paid under the 2000 Act so far—that is, the scheme that is now being revived. Will he also tell the Committee what he anticipates will be the cost of the scheme during the three-year period for which we are now providing it? He must have some idea of the caseload and what is going through. A final point, which is rather different from those questions, is how much maintenance is currently unpaid that has been assessed for parents who are absent? How much compensation is being paid by the agency to parents with care to reflect maintenance that they ought to have received but have not because the other parent has not paid up.

Those are major issues, and in a sense it is an appropriate place for me to end my comments. Although the regulations are very simple, they have a much wider effect in triggering real payments and issues than the order that we were discussing earlier. Quite large numbers of cases are involved in the temporary compensation scheme; perhaps the Minister can supply the number. The essential point of the Child Support Agency concerns the support of children and the collection of appropriate maintenance from those who should be supporting them. That is the moment for me to conclude my remarks, and to look forward to the further contributions of colleagues and the Minister's response.

6.12 pm

Mr. Webb: May I start on a vaguely consensual note and say that some of the questions that the hon. Member for Daventry asked at the close of his remarks

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are germane to the concerns that I have about the regulations. I do not have much sense of whether we are talking about a handful, dozens, or hundreds of cases in which the agency and the absent parents between them cause a substantial delay. I have little feel for the scale of what we are talking about here. That information would be helpful to the Committee.

The Minister was a bit coy about 2005 being the date that we allow the scheme to run on to. The year 2002 was chosen because it was assumed that that was when the computers would be ready. If the Government were confident that the computers would be ready in 2003, they would have chosen 2003 for the regulations. I may ask why they did not choose 2003. The Minister might respond by saying that there is no point bringing regulations forward because we might have to have more and more regulations later—let us go as far forward as is reasonably possible, by which time we can be absolutely certain that the new computers will be up and running. That seems to be the thinking behind 2005, which is the central amendment in the regulations.

I find that very alarming, in the sense that my constituents are already saying that they have heard coverage of the new regime. Some of them have worked out that they will pay less or receive more under the new regime and they want it now. I have not supported the new regime, but I am getting a response from constituents who want to know what is going on and when it is going to happen. It is there in black and white, and it does not take a lot of reading between the lines to see that the Government are admitting—there is no other interpretation one can put on it—that 2005 is the earliest date that they can be sure that the new system will be up and running. If they were confident, they would have chosen an earlier date. There can be no other reason. I find it very disconcerting that the Government are not convinced that they can bring the whole thing in in less than three years.

The question is whether we should extend the deferred debt scheme. I think that we should. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify whether it will be retrospective to 1 April. I have seen a constituent since that date who has experienced delays at the start of a claim that are at least partly attributable to the CSA. I told him not to worry because there was a deferred debt scheme. Then I discovered that there was no such scheme—it stopped on 31 March. Is the effect of these regulations to backdate the deferred debt scheme so that any delay that took place from 1 April onwards will be covered? My understanding was that that would be the case because we have moved the end date forward, and I cannot see a start date in the regulations.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the written answer that I received on 21 May, to which I have already referred, said that in all cases in which a non-resident parent's liability begins before the new scheme is introduced, the assessment will be made using existing rules until the case is converted to the new arrangement. It would be bizarre

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if the assessment carried on exactly as before but the deferred debt were not available retrospectively for people who apply now.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful for those comments. There is a case for a scheme of this sort and I ask the hon. Member for Daventry to come off the fence about whether it should be extended beyond 2005. My view is that it should be. There should not be a sunset clause in these regulations. In general, I am in favour of sunset clauses—we keep an eye on such things and if they are not needed, we get rid of them. However, this seems to be some sort of reserve power. If the system is wonderfully streamlined and everything is fine, it will just sit there. Arguably, if it sits there indefinitely, we can get rid of it.

However, my concern is that, with the child support agency being as it is, the problems that we know can arise are not entirely obviated by requiring less information from people. There will still be letters sitting under desks, or whatever happens at the CSA. All of us, as constituency Members, know of cases in which people have written letters and not received answers, or been told that they were lost in the post, or any of the panoply of excuses that we hear for delay. The existing rules only require the CSA to delay by three months. I cannot believe, with the best will in the world, that CSA delays of three months will become a thing of the past. That being the case, will the Minister say what will happen under the new regime? We hope that such things will not happen, but if the CSA delays somebody by three months and the total delay is six months, what will be the provision for people? There will be no difference from the current position. There should be some recognition in the system that the CSA has messed up by at least three months.

I should like to see not 2005 but an almost indefinite date, or at least a date far in the future, once we can be sure that the new system is up and running. I have always advised absent parents that while the CSA is getting things sorted out they should pay what they think to be a decent amount so that huge arrears do not build up. Under the existing system it is not always obvious what the eventual assessment will be. Big arrears can build up and a deferred debt scheme of this sort is desirable.

I am concerned by what the 2005 date implies in terms of the time scale for the new regime. I want to see the scheme roll on when the new regime is up and running; I am concerned that it might stop. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government's intention is to let it stop or whether they are open to the possibility of allowing it to carry on? Can he also clarify that, for existing cases, the system will be treated as though it had been in place since 1 April? That would be helpful from a constituency point of view.

6.19 pm

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