The future of the Child Support Agency has not looked bright for some time. Now its days are set to be numbered.
Last year, the prime minister refused to defend the agency when pressed in the House of Commons on its record. He said the CSA was “not properly suited” to the job of being an investigating, adjudicating and enforcement agency.
Yesterday work and pensions secretary John Hutton went further. He told MPs “neither the agency nor the policy is fit for purpose”.
Hutton announced that the CSA is to be “completely redesigned.”
Outgoing chief executive of Liverpool Council Sir David Henshaw will lead a review and report back in the summer. His task is to set out the policy and structures needed to revamp child support.
“It is time for fundamental change,” Hutton added.
To call Henshaw’s task tough is an understatement. He has a few months to come up with solutions to transform a system in deep trouble.
“The underlying causes of the problems with the CSA’s current performance are deep rooted and complex. They reflect not only the operational and IT system issues which have accumulated over the 13 years the agency has existed, but also the complexity and instability of modern relationships,” commented CSA chief executive Stephen Geraghty.
More than 500,000 children currently benefit from maintenance collected by the CSA. About £600 million of maintenance will be collected this year, twice the level of 1997, according to the government.
However as 70 per cent of new applicants are on benefit – for single parents seeking benefit it is compulsory to sign up with the CSA – the agency’s poor record at collecting maintenance is contributing to child poverty.
* Less than 15 per cent of lone parents on benefit are currently receiving maintenance via the CSA
* Only 30 per cent of all lone parents receive any maintenance.
* One third of parents assessed by the CSA do not pay, according to the agency.
It has pledged to help 40,000 more children out of poverty by 2010.
The CSA was set up in 1993, a move described as the “right decision” by Hutton, because collecting maintenance through courts was not working well.
However “there is little evidence to suggest that outcomes are any better” under the CSA than the old court system, he said yesterday.
A proposed revamp of the agency by CSA boss Geraghty was rejected by the government for being too expensive and not ambitious enough.
Ahead of the Henshaw review, a CSA improvement plan over the next three years, including new investment of £120 million, will be implemented immediately.
Effectively it will patch up the old system to keep it going for the time being. The plan aims to “improve our service to clients, increase the amount of money we collect, achieve greater compliance from non-resident parents and provide a better platform from which to implement our existing policy in the future,” said Geraghty.
The new cash includes £30 million to pay private debt collectors to recover outstanding maintenance arrears from absent parents, currently standing at over £3.3 billion.
The plan includes quicker and firmer action against parents defaulting on payments. Credit reference agencies will be used to find out about parents’ finances. Orders deducting maintenance directly from wages will be issued more often – they are presently only used for one in five maintenance collections. Parents will be able to pay maintenance with credit and debit cards. CSA staff will intervene more in high risk cases and less in uncontentious ones. Courts will be used more to chase parents who won’t pay.
In addition the agency will employ 1,000 more staff over the next year. Senior caseworkers will be introduced to deal with more complex cases and more training for staff making assessments will be on offer.
Children’s charities are pleased the government has acknowledged the CSA’s failure, while anxiously waiting to see what will happen in the future.
“Poverty is the single greatest threat to the wellbeing of children and families. The CSA has not been a good use of government money. The high cost of enforcing payment, along with the confusion and delay that have marred the system, adds up to a neglible impact on child poverty,” said John Harris, deputy director of policy and research at Barnardo’s.
“John Hutton is absolutely right to recognise that the CSA cannot continue in its current form,” said Kate Green, chief executive at the Child Poverty Action Group.
“Ministers must now make some brave decisions. Henshaw’s review is the last chance to get it right,” she added.
We will all have to wait a few months to see how radical Henshaw’s plans are and if the government will agree to implement them. A magic wand might be a useful item for Henshaw to keep in his briefcase.