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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006, 18:49 GMT
The troubled history of the CSA
After years of controversy and complaints ever since it was established in 1993, the Child Support Agency is to be axed.

The brainchild of Conservative former social security secretary Tony Newton, the agency was to take on the responsibility for assessment, review, collection and enforcement of child maintenance payments.

Anti-CSA demonstration
The CSA and its work has provoked a decade of anger

It was initially seen by MPs on all sides as a good thing - a long-overdue replacement for the widely hated court-based system, which was seen as arbitrary and unfair and had no power to trace absent parents.

The idea of forcing absent parents, generally thought to be fathers, to take financial responsibility for their children had powerful appeal for many politicians.

The social security bill would also be slashed, the government argued, with benefits reduced pound for pound for every payment recovered.

But even before the new agency was up and running, cries that vulnerable, single mothers would be forced to name their children's fathers - and babies be made to undergo DNA tests - echoed round the Commons chamber.

If George Orwell were alive today and looking for a sequel to 1984, I suspect he would have based it on the CSA
David Tredinnick MP

Protesters took to the streets, led by fathers' and civil rights groups.

Before long "CSA snooping" was spoken of with the same distaste as the poll tax and portrayed as a modern day equivalent of Big Brother.

Conservative MP David Tredinnick led demands for change saying: "If George Orwell were alive today and looking for a sequel to 1984, I suspect he would have based it on the CSA."

But the warnings were not heeded and within a year of it being set up in 1993, MPs' pigeonholes were bulging with letters of complaint about the new agency.

Among the 5,000 letters passed on by MPs were claims the wrong people were pursued for cash, that money was not getting through to lone parents and that unreasonably high bills were slapped on absent fathers - some of whom later killed themselves.

Suicides

Father-of-two Graham Clay of Mapperley, Nottinghamshire, on take-home pay of 600, had his payments increased to 297 a month - despite protests about his financial circumstances.

He later hanged himself. A bundle of papers from the CSA was found in a rucksack nearby.

On publication of its first annual report in July 1994, the then head of the agency Ros Hepplewhite was forced to deliver an apology for getting things wrong.

"Overall our standards of service did not reach acceptable levels and we did not achieve some of our key targets.

"We apologise to our clients for the difficulties they have experienced because of our shortcomings," she said.

The CSA revealed it had fallen 112m short of its 530m collection target, and that it was boosting staff numbers.

Two months later Ms Hepplewhite quit.

Desperate dads

An official report into the CSA some months later found it had made errors in 86% of cases and then social security minister Alistair Burt said work to improve things was going on behind the scenes.

But the over-charging, the clerical errors and the desperate dads continued.

Soon after Labour came to power in 1997, the then social security secretary Harriet Harman announced plans to simplify CSA payments.

Fathers would pay less, but more of them would pay, so overall more money would be raised, she argued.

At this time - of the 380,000 people who had been ordered to pay something to their families by the CSA - just three-quarters had actually made the payments.

A new 456m computer system was meant to sort many of the problems out.

'Appalling service'

But not long after the system was installed in March 2003, it became apparent that claims were being processed so slowly that a backlog was building up.

An all-party committee of MPs found a backlog of 30,000 cases was building up each month - with an estimated 170,000 waiting to be processed.

And CSA clients were receiving "an appalling level of service" because of the new telephone system.

A new simpler system of calculating maintenance payments was introduced in March 2003 for new cases - but this could not be extended to the older cases because of problems with the computer system.

Unhappy

Ministers warned the CSA would be replaced unless it improved its act - but the problems continued.

An April 2005 government report found staff morale at rock bottom with the "vast majority" of administrative staff saying they wanted to leave.

Department of Work and Pensions research suggested most CSA staff were "overwhelmingly negative" about the new computer system and unhappy with the level of training they had received.

Staff told researchers that difficult cases were sometimes deleted and others stockpiled and never dealt with.

Some staff knowingly entered incorrect details into the system to get it to move cases on, while others devised ways of avoiding talking to clients over the phone.

Worsening situation

In November 2005, Tony Blair said the CSA was not properly suited to its task, adding that fundamental questions about its future had to be answered.

And there was further woe when it was revealed the agency was spending 12m a year chasing unpaid debts, but had only recovered 8m from parents.

KEY FAILURES
Spends 70p to collect every pound of child support
3.5bn in payments not collected since 1993
Reforms cost 539m but scheme worked no better than predecessor
Source: National Audit Office, published June 2006
Opposition parties stepped up their calls for the CSA to be radically reformed or scrapped altogether, as payment arrears ballooned to 3.3bn and the case backlog reached 300,000.

A National Audit Office report published in June 2006 said the 540m reforms had actually made some aspects of the CSA worse than before.

By 2010 the total cost of trying to turn around the CSA will have topped 1.1bn, it said.

Inaccurate payments

One in four of all new applications received since March 2003 are still waiting to be cleared and there was a one-in-five chance that payments were inaccurate.

A third of non-resident parents were paying nothing at all despite their maintenance being assessed.

The NAO also pointed out problems with the design, delivery and operation of the new IT system.

But the report says there are recent signs of improvement and the government's plan for improving the agency was a significant step forward.

However, the government delivered its final blow in July 2006 after Liverpool City Council boss Sir David Henshaw published his review of the entire child support system.




SEE ALSO
Costly CSA reforms 'not working'
29 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Parent complaints about CSA rise
27 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Private firms to chase CSA debts
18 Jan 06 |  UK Politics

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