Chief of troubled CSA quits

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The Independent Online
ROS HEPPLEWHITE, the head of the controversial Child Support Agency, which has been blamed for the suicide of desperate fathers and impoverishment of second familes, resigned yesterday, blaming pressure of work.

Her departure was greeted with glee by some anti-CSA campaigners, but reaction centred on the agency's remaining fundamental problems with assessing and collecting child maintenance.

News of her resignation as chief executive of the CSA and the appointment of her successor, Ann Chant, a career civil servant who is head of the Contributions Agency, came with the publication of an exchange of letters between Mrs Hepplewhite and Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security.

Giving six months' notice, Mrs Hepplewhite, whose own father left home and failed to pay her mother maintenance, wrote: 'It is now nearly three years since I was appointed to head up the Child Support Agency. I feel it is an appropriate time for me to step down from what has been an exceptionally demanding post.

'In dealing with the inevitable problems which arise from making a major social policy change of this kind I have been greatly helped by departmental and other colleagues and by the commitment and determination of the agency's staff.

'As you know, I have strongly supported the objectives of the Child Support Act and the changes introduced by that legislation. I am hopeful that the new arrangements will in time benefit many families and be more widely recognised as an important and necessary innovation.'

In reply Mr Lilley wrote: 'I fully recognise the exceptional pressures under which you have had to work both in terms of implementing major social policy change and in terms of the hostility those changes have provoked in some quarters'. Mr Lilley thanked her for 'the courage and dedication with which you have faced these pressures and the important task of introducing the child maintenance reforms'.

Her resignation comes amid continuing attacks on the agency for its pursuit of absent fathers and high maintenance demands.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said: 'The CSA is again plunged into crisis. Ros Hepplewhite's departure can be nothing less than a recognition of the public anger and concern about a system that has gone badly wrong.'

Mr Dewar said the CSA had put 'families under strain, failed to achieve its targets - financial and social - and worst of all, not helped children as it should'.

Diana Maddock, the Liberal Democrat's spokeswoman on family and women's issues, said: 'Mrs Hepplewhite was handed an impossible task by Tory Ministers and the Archangel Gabriel could not have made any sense of the legislation.'

Frank Field, Labour chairman of the Commons Social Services Select Committee, which is conducting its second inquiry into the CSA, was 'astonished' that the CSA's operations director, Peter Sharkey, had not been made its new head. 'He was brought in to clear up the chaos and he has done it. He is actually running the agency. It is an amazing decision to ignore that talent and take the risk of going outside.'

Sally Witcher, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: 'The real problem is to do with the Child Support Agency and not the person charged with delivering it. Ms Hepplewhite was given an impossible task and the problem remains, whether or not she goes. The crucial issue is not the administration of the agency - but flaws in the legislation. The system as it stands is a complete shambles.'

Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said: 'No matter how badly the CSA implemented their policy, Ros Hepplewhite stood by that policy.'

But Mike Pimblott, founder of the Campaign against the Child Support Act, one of the most vocal groups representing absent parents and second partners, said: 'I'm glad she's gone. I can only hope the replacement has consideration for the families and the welfare of the children and that she listens to those groups who oppose the workings of the agency to establish what can be done to improve the system.'

The new CSA chief, page 3