MP spells out failings in the Child Support Agency's systems

As Stephen Timms was setting out his vision of a golden, technology-driven future for the Department for Work and Pensions, Labour MP Frank Field was spelling out his concerns in a letter to Tony Blair about the litany of technological and administrative foul-ups that have dogged one of the department's key operations, the Child Support Agency.

As Stephen Timms was setting out his vision of a golden, technology-driven future for the Department for Work and Pensions, Labour MP Frank Field was spelling out his concerns in a letter to Tony Blair about the litany of technological and administrative foul-ups that have dogged one of the department's key operations, the Child Support Agency.

A report by CSA chief executive Stephen Geraghty on the agency has been circulated to ministers, and government proposals about its future are due shortly.

In November, the prime minister told MPs the CSA was "not properly suited" to carry out one of its key functions: that of ensuring absent parents make a financial contribution to the upbringing of their children.

The comment seemed to indicate the government may be planning to dismantle the CSA. If this were to happen, the agency's functions might be broken up and distributed across other departments, including HM Revenue and Customs.

But Field, the former welfare minister, is calling for robust action to get to the heart of the problems at the CSA.

Calling for "root and branch" reform of the agency, Field highlighted a string of IT-related problems at the CSA since 2003:

lThe CSA's £456m computer system has yet to provide accurate data for its work from March 2003, when it was brought in, up until January 2005.

lEven basic data to measure the CSA's performance is lacking, including the agency being unable to generate statistics on the number of non-resident parents for which the agency has no address.

lThe proportion of cases across the CSA where maintenance is collected directly from earnings has not improved since February 2002 - it stands at 18%.

lThe CSA is running three systems to collect child support, stretched across a mix to two IT systems and two sets of scheme rules.

lThe IT system is not performing, despite numerous requests for changes since March 2003. The next target, slated for spring 2006, which aims to bulk transfer cases from the old scheme to the new, has been delayed twice since 2003, making it hard to trust the latest timetable.

Field also pointed out that the failure of the CSA "ricochets onto the agency's ability to achieve other departmental targets".

According to Field, the DWP was on course to miss a target set in 2002 stating that, by March of this year, 60% of parents with custody rights who are also on benefits would be in receipt of maintenance; the proportion now stands at 25%. He also said the CSA's problems meant the DWP would miss a target to reduce by 6.5% the proportion of children in households with no one working for more than three years.

With Field and others on their backs, the prime minister and DWP ministers like Timms will surely want to put a fully functioning CSA system at the heart of the DWP's technology agenda in the years ahead.

According to Timms, the CSA's systems are now "stabilising", but he admitted there was much that was still to be fixed.

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