Government is accused of 'patching up' failed CSA

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The Government was accused of putting off decisions about the beleaguered Child Support Agency (CSA) as it announced a root-and-branch review of the child maintenance system.

John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said he wanted "fundamental reform" that would "completely redesign" the system. He admitted there was little evidence the CSA was any more effective than the courts, which were responsible for maintenance before it was set up in 1993. "Neither the agency nor the policy is fit for purpose," he said.

Mr Hutton vetoed as too expensive a plan by the CSA chief executive Stephen Geraghty to spend £300m in the next three years restructuring the agency on top of its £400m budget.

Instead, Sir David Henshaw, the retiring chief executive of Liverpool City Council, will conduct a swift "all options" review and produce proposals for a new system by July. He will consider whether the Government should write off cases where there is little prospect of tracing the father of the child or securing payments. There is a backlog of more than 300,000 cases and more than £3bn of unpaid maintenance.

It is unclear how much of the CSA will survive after legislation likely to take effect in 2008 or 2009. Mr Hutton announced a £120m plan to improve the agency's performance in the short term, including the use of private firms of debt collectors to chase absent parents and the recruitment of an extra 1,000 staff. Although he ruled out transferring the CSA's work to the Revenue & Customs service,the inquiry may consider if the taxman should play a greater role in enforcing payment of maintenance.

Rejecting criticism from the opposition parties, Mr Hutton insisted: "We are not announcing another review today. We are announcing a reform of the system."

Philip Hammond, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "Lack of political leadership has resulted in fundamental problems with the CSA not being addressed. Now the Government is announcing a review of the design of the child support system - in effect admitting that the CSA cannot be fixed."

David Laws, work and pensions spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "People wanted to hear today that there would be action and fundamental reform, but the Government is offering yet more patching and yet another review."

Chris Pond, director of the charity One Parent Families, warned that lone parents would be frustrated that there would be more delays before the future of child support was decided. He said: "We are faced with the third review of child support in 15 years, during which time most of the children who needed help will have grown up without it. We now have one last chance to get this right."