The Child Support Agency is "woeful" and is "operating on borrowed time", the chairman of one of the Parliament’s most powerful select committees declared today (26 January).
Committee chairman, Sir Archy Kirkwood’s comments came as the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a second damning report into the CSA.
IT failures have been among the causes of under-performance at the CSA, which lead to hundreds of thousands of parents waiting for their cases to be dealt with. When the system went live in March 2003, it was two years late and caused difficulties for staff. Some screens went blank and cases could not be progressed.
The DWP committee has recommended that the National Audit Office investigate the background to the contract between the Department for Work and Pensions and IT services company EDS to build a new system for the Child Support Agency.
After seven months of investigation the committee reported:
"It is not possible for the committee to make judgements on why the IT contract with the contractor EDS went so badly wrong. We have not had access to any of the policy or strategic planning leading to the agreement being signed.
"It would appear however from all the evidence that has become available since, that the department wholly failed to comprehend the scale of the business transformation that was required to achieve a successful outcome of the proposed reform before any new IT considerations came into play.
"More than anything else that omission appears to be the root cause of the problems that we continue to face today and will be with us for many years to come."
The committee has recommended that Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, should tell the House of Commons the exact status of the Agency’s IT system.
It said achievable targets should be announced for transferring cases from the old CSA system onto the new. Frontline staff were already struggling to keep on top of their existing caseload and would not be able to cope with any additional burden, the committee found.
The report also recommended the immediate suspension of government plans to reduce CSA staff levels by 25%. The case for job cuts should only be considered once the new IT system has proved to be fully operational.
Kirkwood said, "The CSA is operating on borrowed time. Rapid, radical action is needed if the department is to deliver a service that children deserve. If the agency cannot be rescued, then it must be replaced. "