CSA 'on point of collapse' owing £720m to parents

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The Independent Online

The Child Support Agency is on the brink of collapse, with spiralling rates of overdue payments and the loss of confidence of both mothers and fathers, it was claimed yesterday.

The Child Support Agency is on the brink of collapse, with spiralling rates of overdue payments and the loss of confidence of both mothers and fathers, it was claimed yesterday.

Half a million parents are owed money by the CSA, amounting to £720m, according to official figures. A £456m computer system brought into overhaul the agency has developed serious problems and is already struggling to cope with even half the total number of child maintenance cases. The problems have led to a backlog of 30,000 cases, with less than half the total sum owed to the CSA being collected this year.

Campaigners warned that the next few months were a "make or break" time for the CSA, and said the failings went from the bottom to the top of the Government. Michelle Counley, director of the National Association for Child Support Action, said: "I think we have got to the point of no return with the CSA now. It is on the brink of collapse."

The extent of the crisis facing the agency was revealed during evidence given to a House of Commons select committee investigation into the performance of the CSA.

A new system of calculating payments and collecting child support was introduced in May last year after Tony Blair admitted that the CSA was failing parents both paying and receiving maintenance.

Ministers promised that the system would be simpler, fairer and backed up by a new hi-tech computer programme. But the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee heard yesterday that collection rates had actually worsened over the past year.

In February 2004, 54 per cent of CSA cases were classed as "fully compliant", meaning that child support had been calculated and the parent was up to date with payments. But in 23 per cent of cases, no payment had been made at all, and in the rest, the parent was only partially compliant.

By May of this year, the last quarter for which figures are available, full compliance rates had fallen to 50.8 per cent, while cases where no payment had been received at all had risen to 25.6 per cent. Compliance rates are nowhere near the agency's target of 75 per cent. Absent parents now owe a total of £720m to the CSA, of which £35m is from arrears relating to this year alone. The agency has already written off £1bn of arrears, which it has accepted it will never recover.

Cases are supposed to take six weeks from one parent applying for child support to a first payment being received, but charities say that most applications take around a year before any money is received.

A spokeswoman for the CSA said: "The Child Support Agency remains committed to ensuring that children are financially supported by both parents whether they live with them or not. We have experienced problems with the new IT and telephony system and we are working with our supplier to remedy these."

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