CSA taken to task for catalogue of mistakes

Ombudsman attacks failures and delays
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The Independent Online
The beleaguered Child Support Agency is attacked for maladministration in a damning official report listing a catalogue of failures and mistakes that caused undue worry and distress to parents.

William Reid, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, upheld complaints that ranged from mistaken identity, inadequate procedures, failure to answer correspondence, incorrect or misleading advice, delay in the assessment and review of child support maintenance and in its payment to the parent with care of the child.

Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, is expected on Monday to announce a Bill that will make fundamental changes to the working of the agency set up by the Child Support Act.

To resolve the main sources of grievance, legislation would need to change the formula to take into account previous clean break settlements of cash or property in lieu of maintenance and allow a right of appeal against the maintenance assessment. Protest groups have also campaigned for the parent with care who is on Income Support to be allowed to keep some of the extra maintenance without losing all benefits.

The CSA has been plagued by complaints of unfairness and a campaign of opposition almost on a par with the anti-poll tax revolt since it was set up as a "Next Steps" executive agency of the Department of Social Security in April 1993.

The Ombudsman said he was "extremely disappointed'' that the CSA had failed to learn from similar criticisms of systematic failures by the other DSS agency, the Benefits Agency, in its handling of the introduction of the disability living allowance in 1993. Government ministers and Department of Social Security officials are also criticised for pushing through a policy that affected millions of people with such haste. As a result, he said: "Maladministration leading to injustice is likely to arise when a new administrative task is not tested first by a pilot project; when new staff, perhaps inadequately trained, form a substantial fraction of the workforce; where procedures and technology supporting them are untried; and where quality of service is subordinated to sheer throughput.''

The Ombudsman investigates complaints against government departments and public bodies of maladministration leading to injustice. He was asked by 95 MPs to look into complaints against the CSA. He accepted 70 cases for investigation.

Mr Reid said the investigations had shone light on administrative shortcomings that needed to be remedied and the resulting improvements to the system should bring benefits for all parents involved with the CSA. The DSS has apologised to the parents whose complaints were upheld and the CSA has been instructed to correct the faults.

Last month the Government announced that the CSA would delay taking on the remaining cases where the parent with care was already receiving Income Support before April 1993 until the backlog was cleared. It would also not pursue, for the time being, cases in which it issued a maintenance order more than six months earlier which had not been returned. An estimated 350,000 cases would be deferred indefinitely.

Alistair Burt, the social security minister with responsibility for the CSA, said: "The best way forward is to simplify and speed up administration. Measures to improve quality, accuracy and customer service will be an important component of our responseto the social security committee, due shortly."

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