Minister says CSA is 'not fit for purpose' after rise in complaints

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Indy Politics

The Child Support Agency, which is supposed to protect the interests of children from broken relationships, just is not working, a minister admitted yesterday.

The admission came after an ombudsman's report that there were more than 3,000 complaints about the organisation last year, most of them justified.

"We fully acknowledge that the CSA is not fit for purpose," the Works and Pension Minister, Lord Hunt, said yesterday. He went on to promise that a review now under way would improve the payment system for single mothers.

Experts saw the minister's comments and the report by the independent case examiner, Jodi Berg, as evidence that the much-criticised agency, which was established 13 years ago under the Tory government, is ripe for abolition.

Mrs Berg reported that complaints against the CSA by harassed parents had risen by 5 per cent in 2005-06 to 3,117. Her office deals with complaints which have not been resolved internally. More than 1,000 were about delays, just under 700 were about errors, and just under 600 complained that no action had been taken at all. The complaints were entirely or partly justified in 85 per cent of the cases.

Mrs Berg warned that the agency was still struggling with a new IT system introduced in 2003, which has "never worked effectively" - and from a basic administration that was "not up to the task".

She added: "Too often the experiences of parents who complain to me are of an agency in which one hand does not know what the other is doing, and there is no discernible effort to place the needs of their children first. Until the agency establishes sound fundamental administration processes, poor customer service will continue to be an underlying theme of complaints referred to me."

John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has set up a review of child support arrangements under Sir David Henshaw, who is due to report back before the summer break.

"Sir David Henshaw is currently developing proposals for the redesign of child support, in the meantime we have already invested £120m in the operational improvement plan, which aims to improve customer service and the agency's performance. I am confident these steps will ensure we are as effective as possible in getting more money to more children in the UK," Lord Hunt said.

Chris Pond, chief executive of the charity One Parent Families, said: "The latest report represents another nail in the coffin of the present CSA.

"The independent case examiner highlights what lone parents know only too well - that the agency is failing to enforce maintenance obligations, and even basic administration is not working effectively. The losers have been children being brought up by struggling lone parents."

The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Philip Hammond, said: "This is more damning evidence of Labour's appalling mismanagement of the CSA. Basic administrative failures and lack of effective enforcement have caused thousands of families to suffer and the Government has completely failed to demonstrate the political leadership necessary to drive improvements."