Staff reveal child support agency shambles

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The institutional chaos of the Child Support Agency (CSA) was revealed by unions and senior staff yesterday.

Poorly trained case workers, incompetent managers and a computer system riddled with problems are making the lives of people at the agency a "nightmare", according to a worker who spoke to The Independent.

The source, who wishes to remain anonymous, works in the debt-maintenance section of the CSA, dealing with parents who have not received the money they are owed.

He said: "The computer system has been terrible but there are also management failings.

"Some of the people answering the phones and dealing with parents simply are not up to the job; they haven't been given the training and there is no one there to support them.

"The staff who can do their job go into work and spend the whole day getting shouted at by angry clients. It is complete chaos."

The chief executive of the CSA, Doug Smith, announced his resignation on Wednesday as he and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Alan Johnson, appeared before a highly critical committee of MPs investigating the agency.

Mr Johnson has indicated that unless the CSA begins to show improvement in the next few weeks, he may decide to go for "the nuclear option" and scrap the present system.

Mr Johnson said yesterday that the agency's performance was "somewhere between problematic and disastrous".

Unions, parents' groups and MPs have warned that the crisis may worsen, because cuts in the civil service mean that the CSA's staff must be reduced from 12,000 to 8,000 by 2008.

Alex Flynn, of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: "The proposed job cuts are sheer lunacy and will only add to the problems. We have heard of staff breaking down in tears of frustration at the computer system and sickness rates at the CSA are the highest in the Civil Service."

The agency has been plagued by problems since a new £456m computer system was introduced 18 months ago.

It was meant to simplify the calculation process for maintenance payments and restore faith in the CSA after years of problems with the first system.

However, it rapidly became clear that CS2, as it was known, was causing yet more chaos.

The computer and telephone system provided by Electronic Data Systems (EDS) proved incapable of coping with the volume of information involved.

Fewer than half of the cases could be processed without a major IT error occurring, and staff have resorted to using calculators and mental arithmetic to make maintenance assessments. Parents complained of spending hours on the phone and never speaking to the same person twice.

Deadlines set for EDS to correct the problems have been repeatedly missed, and the backlog of cases is now growing by 30,000 a month.

Cases are supposed to take a maximum of six weeks from the time a parent makes an application for maintenance to the final calculation of what their former partner should pay. The agency currently takes an average of from 15 to 23 weeks, and even then very few parents will actually receive any money.

Yet more problems with EDS have meant that, in some cases, absent parents have paid their money into the system, but their former partners have not received it.

Out of 478,000 applications to the agency since CS2 was introduced, only 61,000 parents have been paid maintenance.

The problems involved with simply processing the applications have meant that enforcement of maintenance payments has taken a back seat.

A spokeswoman for the group One Parent Families said: "People are becoming so frustrated that they are simply giving up on their cases or not even applying in the first place.

"Parents cannot be sure they are going to get paid from one month to the next."