Leading Article: An agency in need of drastic reform

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The Independent Culture
IN THE annals of unpopularity, few agencies can come near to the levels of opprobrium achieved by the Child Support Agency. Much of its unpopularity was to be expected - fathers who had never before had to pay towards their children's upbringing were suddenly faced with meeting their responsibilities, and with the large bills that entailed. The intention that lay behind setting up the CSA - forcing absent fathers to honour their responsibilities - was admirable. But, for all the whingeing and special pleading, there is something deeply flawed about the way CSA operates. The formula adopted to assess liability is so complicated that staff spend 90 per cent of their time processing forms, with an administrative bill alone of pounds 200m a year.

The Government is to publish a Green Paper next week on the future of the agency, and seems to have concluded that almost everything about the CSA needs to be changed. Most important, it is proposing an end to the existing formula which can take three years to process. Instead, it is proposing a flat rate deduction from income. This should free staff to concentrate on those fathers who are making no contribution - the so-called deadbeat dads. As things stand, the agency has a case load of 742,000, with a backlog of more than 140,000. Even amongst those parents who have been assessed, 65,000 have paid nothing for more than three months. The principle behind the agency is a good one. Many fathers need to be coerced into taking responsibility. The last government put a lot of effort into reforming the existing structure, to little avail. The Government is right to conclude that drastic action is needed.