Special report on the problems within the CSA

    Failing organisation

    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.

    Seriously disapppointed

    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
    failure.

    “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.”

    IT

    New Asset  

    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.

    Panicked

    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
    out.”

    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.”

     

     

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