The Child Support Agency is facing criticism after issuing a memo to staff giving instructions on what they can and cannot tell claimants about the performance of its new computer systems.
The memo to staff on how to deal with questions from claimants said they must not advise clients if their cases are being dealt with clerically - although claims can take longer to process manually. It also said, "Don't give any information relating to estimated costs on the new system."
Parliament has been told that spending on the system stands at £456m, against original estimates of £427m, and the system is still not yet operating properly.
An expert witness in IT-based legal cases, Stephen Castell, said the memo was useful because it ensured that thousands of staff gave consistent advice to clients when asked questions about the systems. But, he added, one guideline "was less than candid".
Under the heading "Things not to say", staff are instructed, "Don't advise the client that their case has been made clerical."
Castell said it would have been good practice to make potential delays clear to the client "so that his or her expectations may be properly managed".
The CSA introduced systems from services supplier EDS to support reforms of the agency in March. The reforms simplified the process of calculating child maintenance claims and collecting money from non-resident parents.
But the agency has been unable to transfer most of its case files from old systems to the new ones because of technical problems.
EDS last year won a settlement from the agency after the introduction of the system was held up and payments to the supplier were not made. Last month the CSA said that the new systems had improved but were still not working satisfactorily.
In August, the CSA said in a statement to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, "Where a case cannot be dealt with on the new IT system, arrangements have been made for those cases to be handled clerically. The agency apologises for the disappointing level of customer service that some clients have experienced."
The department said the briefing note ensures "consistency in the lines we wish our staff to take with our clients [and] contributes to the agency's aim of providing a professional service and getting money to more children more quickly".
Instructions to CSA staff
- If claimants ask whether the CSA is in crisis, say this is not the case
- If the client's case appears properly on the computer screen, this can be mentioned
- If the screen has gone blank,this must not be admitted
- Do not apportion blame to ministers or the government.
Source: summary of internal CSA memo