Child Support Agency chief quits as criticism mounts

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The chief executive of the Child Support Agency has resigned following widespread criticism of the organisation's record in getting cash to single mothers, it was revealed today.

The chief executive of the Child Support Agency has resigned following widespread criticism of the organisation's record in getting cash to single mothers, it was revealed today.

Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson announced Doug Smith's resignation as he gave evidence to the House Of Commons Work and Pensions Committee this morning.

The committee's chairman Sir Archy Kirkwood was highly critical of the agency's performance, which he said has caused unnecessary suffering to many single parents, particularly because of long-running problems with its computer system.

Mr Johnson told the committee: "Doug has decided that now is the time to stand aside. He believes we have reached a natural breakpoint at which to hand over the reins.

"I would like to publicly thank him for his work in what has been a terribly difficult time."

Mr Johnson was warned before the hearing began that the CSA had reached "make or break" point.

The warning came amid claims that thousands of single mothers and children are suffering because fathers are not paying their way.

Ministers said 12 months ago that the problems would be solved by a simpler maintenance calculation and a £456 million computer system.

However, one year later the problem is said to be even worse with up to a million divorced, separated and absent fathers not stumping up in full.

Less than half, 43 per cent, of the money due in the first year of the new system has been collected says pressure group One Parent, which has given evidence to MPs.

Plans to cut the agency's staff by 2,600 by April 2006 will only deepen the crisis, the group warns.

One Parent Chief executive Nicola Simpson said: "The Government must set a deadline for getting the systems to work properly.

"Eighteen months after the agency was reformed, thousands of single parents haven't seen a penny of the money that was promised to them.

"It is money they need to support their children."

Ms Simpson urged Mr Johnson, who was appointed Work and Pensions and Secretary in the autumn reshuffle, to stop the staff cuts at the CSA.

Today's hearing is part of an inquiry into the CSA, which Sir Archy said had caused "continuing and increasing concerns" on all sides of the House of Commons.

In the course of taking evidence, the committee heard from one young woman who spent 14 months ringing the CSA twice a week and was told on ten separate occasions that she was not eligible for support before finally having her claim upheld, he said.

"Nobody who has given evidence has had anything constructive to say about the situation, either as professionals, academics or clients," said Sir Archy.

"This is not just about computers. It is a systemic, chronic failure of management right across the totality of the agency."

Mr Johnson admitted that since his appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary, he was "still gauging the extent of the problem" at the CSA.

"I haven't' got any rabbits to pull out of any hats," he told the committee.

He expressed his "respect" for the hard work and dedication of staff dealing with a "problematic and unstable" computer system.

"This agency is unlike any other in that it is not simply a processing or enforcing agency," he said. "It's an agency where people have to intervene in the most emotional, delicate circumstances."

The CSA's work was made more difficult because many absent parents did not take their responsibilities as seriously as they should, forcing the organisation to act as a debt enforcement agency rather than the "building society" it wished to be, he said.

Mr Smith acknowledged that of 478,000 applications for support made over the past 18 months, just 61,000 absent parents had made any payments.

He said that calculations had been completed in around 140,000 of the cases, while another 100,000 had been closed.

Others were stuck in the computer system or kept on hold because there were hopes of tracking down absent parents in future.

Applicants were waiting an average of an estimated 15-22 weeks for their first payment, far longer than the agency's target of six weeks, he said.

Mr Smith later denied a suggestion he was leaving because he had "failed to deliver".

He told the committee: "No. I'm leaving the CSA because I indicated when I took this job I expected to do it for between three to four years.

"I think I and my senior management team have done a good job over the last year to mask the worst impacts of this IT system from the people who really count in this, who are our clients who are looking for money to support families in adverse circumstances."

He said he thought the agency had done "a remarkable job".

But he was forced to concede to MPs that the agency's software recovery programme would not be in place by this autumn, as ministers had promised and that the agency had not even attempted to calculate how much staff time had been lost as a result of IT problems.

Mr Smith said he hoped the software recovery programme would be completed by next spring, but added even that timetable might not be reliable.