CSA reforms a failure

Reforms to the Child Support Agency (CSA) have failed to deliver any real improvement and have made some things worse, despite costing £540 million.

That is the conclusion of a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which finds that the changes introduced in 2003 have not led to much-needed improvements in customer service and administrative efficiency.

“The child support reforms were a final but, in the event, unsuccessful attempt to deliver the policy behind the creation of Child Support Agency in 1993,” said Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO.

“While they have benefited a number of the poorest parents and children, overall they have not achieved value for money and have not achieved what they were designed to do.”

To date, the 2003 reforms have cost some £539 million and produced a scheme that is “no better than its predecessor” the NAO report finds – however it does note some signs of improvements recently.

Fundamentally, the NAO finds that the CSA’s flaws are fundamentally built into its design, which needs “substantial administrative input” to collect and transfer small amounts of maintenance.

In 2004-5 it cost the agency 70 pence to collect each pound of maintenance.

And three years after sweeping reforms, 61 per cent of the CSA’s caseload is still processed under the old rules, with no date for the conversion of almost one million old-rules cases.

And of the applications received in the last three years, one in four is still waiting to be cleared, and a fifth of the payments are inaccurate the NAO finds.

Though the reforms have benefited many parents with care on income support, others may be losing as much as £520 a year in child maintenance premiums payable under the new scheme.

“These problems will have caused genuine hardship and distress to many parents and their children,” Sir John said.

“From design to delivery and operation, the programme to reform the agency has been beset with problems which the Department for Work and Pensions, the agency and its IT supplier EDS, have struggled to deal with.”

The government has commissioned a fundamental redesign of the child support system by Sir David Henshaw, this is expected to recommend options for longer-term policy and delivery arrangements.

“The agency’s new operational improvement plan is a significant step towards addressing these difficulties and is showing signs of improving the agency’s performance, but, given the scale of the problems, there will be no quick fix,” Sir John concluded.