A million phone calls a year to the Child Support Agency end in frustration

More than a million phone calls to the CSA last year were abandoned as desperate parents gave up all hope of speaking to a helpful human being.

The total meant an astonishing 26 per cent of calls to the agency ended in frustrated failure, according to official figures released last week. The rate is more than five times the industry standard.

Last night the CSA conceded that there had been "problems" in the operation of its hotline but blamed a poorly designed phone system. The system installed just two years ago routinely directs callers to the wrong staff, officials say.

The troubled agency, which is meant to ensure parents pay maintenance for their children, also blamed IT equipment for a growing backlog of cases.

Its annual report, published last month, showed that the number of cases still to be determined grew from 238,122 in November 2004 to 260,000 in June. Those that are completed are increasingly wrongly assessed so that around one in four payments is incorrectly calculated.

But parents phoning to complain face a long and frustrating call. In one month alone (March 2004) 145,000 people hung up before they could be helped.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "We acknowledge that problems with the introduction of the agency's new telephone system in 2003 meant that some calls did not get immediately directed to the correct team. However, many of those problems have now been resolved and the level of service has greatly improved. We have succeeded in reducing the number of abandoned client calls by more than 50 per cent and are working hard to reduce them further."

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is due to make a decision shortly on whether to scrap the £450m IT system installed just two years ago.

Mr Blunkett was asked about the performance of the CSA's phone system before he and other MPs left on their 80-day holiday last month.

Figures laying bare its hopeless performance were released in a written parliamentary answer last week.

FIVE CALL CENTRE BUGBEARS

1: Endless spells on hold with no end in sight

2: Being passed from pillar to post through a succession of staff

3: Negotiating a touch-tone labyrinth with no real people

4: Mind-numbing, repetitive holding music

5: Belligerent, rude and unapologetic staff

Firms could offer alternatives to waiting by offering a contact email address or calling customers back. If they are held in a queue callers could be given clear information about waiting times. Centres could make clear how much customers are charged, even if they are not premium-rate numbers.

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