Mark slams woeful record of Child Support Agency

January 17, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in House of Commons

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I speak in support of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and of the motion before the House. I know that I am not the only Member whose constituency mailbag amply demonstrates the somewhat chaotic nature of the Child Support Agency in its current form. Fathers and mothers approach me daily in large numbers with tales-the vast majority of which are subsequently proved to be correct-of incompetence, misunderstanding, contempt and despair.

I do not suggest for one minute that CSA staff are not dealing with sensitive and difficult issues as best they can, or that the organisation does not have a tough job on its hands. However, far from achieving positive outcomes in difficult circumstances, the CSA has in my view all too often contributed to a further breakdown in relationships that were already broken. The end result is that children are missing out on the financial support that they deserve, and their chances of enjoying a positive relationship with both parents are being jeopardised. In my experience, it is not just a question of the wastefulness of the system, which was highlighted in recent months, and the incompetence that led to thousands of fathers being wrongly named as absent parents; the CSA also has a seriously bad image problem. It is structurally unsound, and the tragedy is that it has lost the confidence of so many of those whom it is designed to help.

Every week, I am presented with correspondence from the CSA, written in language that is highly unlikely to elicit co-operation from parents. Many parents face a CSA that acts as judge, jury and executioner in its dealings with them. In many cases, such correspondence is directed to parents who are more than willing to co-operate. Is it any wonder that so many children are not getting their fair share of maintenance, when the system treats parents in this way?

It is clear that the structural complexities of the CSA in its current form have led to administrative difficulties. We are all familiar with the backlog in processing claims, and with the headline figure on how much it costs to collect maintenance, compared with the amount that children actually get. Those complexities have filtered through in the CSA's dealings with families. This unholy alliance of complexity and hostility is costing thousands, if not millions, of children every day. Without a modicum of confidence in the system, the CSA simply cannot operate.

The strategic review of the CSA has to be one of the most overdue reviews in any part of government. I urge Ministers to take into consideration the reasoned and reasonable proposals that my colleagues have outlined this afternoon. Nobody wants a return to the old system, but we do need to move forward with a new one.

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