The Child Support Agency has been branded “a failing
organisation” which may need to be scrapped, in a report
published by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee this
week, writes Kirsty Brown.
According to the report, the extent of the current crisis is
such that it could take a further five years for the CSA to deliver
the full performance that the government expected would be in place
by 2001. This has led to proposals that for organisation to be
abolished and a new set of policies to be put into place.
Poor management and inadequate staff training, together with
computer problems have been blamed for what is deemed to be the
“failure” of the CSA, which has seen rising levels of
complaint, escalating unrecoverable debts, and an increasing staff
turnover. Although staff commitment is thought to be the only thing
which has kept the agency going, the committee reported a total
loss of confidence both inside and outside the organisation.
In the report, former CSA chief executive Doug Smith admitted to
being “seriously disappointed” in the agency’s
operation over the last 18 months, but denied that it was a
“What we have found over the last 18 months is that the
policy changes have gone well and clients, by and large, welcome
the simplicity and straightforwardness of the policy
changes,” said Smith.
“At the heart of the issues on implementation of the
policy have been the problems we have faced over the last 18 months
with the computer system. It is not possible to operate a large,
complex business in today’s world without having a
sophisticated level of computer support.”
The lack of a fully functional computer system was also identified
by the committee as being at the root of many of the problems faced
by the agency. It was hoped that the introduction of a
sophisticated new IT system would help to solve the problems blamed
for some of the agency’s poor performance.
But instead, problems with the programme and delays in the
conversion of cases from the old scheme to the new, resulted in
information being lost and mistakes in maintenance calculations.
This led to a high number of parents losing out on support
payments, while many non-resident parents ended up contributing too
much or too little.
Parents also experienced difficulties contacting the agency,
calls were ignored and letters were mislaid.
The committee’s report described the case of a parent (who
was not named), who applied to the CSA under the new scheme, and
after months of phoning the agency and speaking to a different
staff member each time, was wrongly told that her son’s
father had refused to pay maintenance.
“I just panicked and thought that we would never get any
money,” she said. “They told me that for five months
and then they rang me up in September and said, ‘He has paid
and we’ve got all the money in our bank. He’s paid
every month on the dot.”
Essential to end poverty
Chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, Kate Green, said
“An effective child support system is essential to ending
child poverty. Over half of children in one-parent families live in
income poverty and these families rely on child support payments to
help make ends meet.
“Parents have been saying for years that the CSA
isn’t working, and cannot believe that they will be asked to
wait another five years for the problems to be sorted
The committee report states an urgent need for a strategy to
progress the cases of parents who are still waiting for maintenance
payments and a realistic target date set by which payment
arrangements on new claims can be made. It also suggests estimated
dates for waiting times be made available to parliament before the
proposed final review on March 24.
Nicola Simpson, chief executive of the organisation One Parent
Families, said: “The report is a devastating catalogue of how
the agency is failing lone parents…We urge ministers to
strongly back the committee’s recommendations to tackle the
agency’s devastating failure.”