Public face of a policy that failed all parties

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The Independent Online
ROS HEPPLEWHITE became the front woman defending the most unpopular government measure since the Poll Tax. Her departure yesterday preceeds sweeping - and inevitable - changes at the Child Support Agency.

Although, as a civil servant, she was responsible only for running the agency, and not for the Child Support Act which created it, she was increasingly blamed for a formula which was soon condemned as unfair and flawed.

Mrs Hepplewhite and 5,000 staff at the CSA offices started receiving hate mail and threats. Her face featured on placards, along with that of Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, waved by anti-CSA campaigners around the country.

However, fundamental problems with the CSA remain and the Government is reviewing changes.

Portrayed by the Government as the salvation of single mothers and the scourge of absent fathers who refused to pay for their children, the CSA soon became accused of failing to deliver for the parents caring for children - 90 per cent of whom are women - and of targeting fathers already paying to increase savings for the Treasury.

Critics were incensed when it emerged that of the pounds 530m benefits savings expected in the first full year only pounds 50m would go to the children. But the annual report published in July revealed the agency had failed to meet almost every target set, including the financial savings.

Mrs Hepplewhite repeatedly apologised for the delay in processing applications, replying to letters and arranging maintenance. She blamed cultural opposition, intimidation of staff and inexperience for the failures.

Acknowledging that the targets were probably unrealistic, Peter Lilley announced lower targets for this year, including annual savings of pounds 460m and maintenance arrangements for 50 per cent of parents making applications to the agency.

After the initial opposition the Government made some changes to the system for assessing and collecting maintenance last December.

But even supporters of the agency accept that the system is still unfair, especially to second families.

Pressure is mounting on the Government to halt the timetable for taking on new cases so agency staff can catch up with the backlog. Another major source of grievance which ministers are expected to address is that previous 'clean-break settlements' involving property or cash in lieu of child maintenance, often agreed by courts, are not taken into account.

Amendments to the appeal system are also expected.