A new beginning is the way to cure a false start

Child Support Agency

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Labour's worst inheritance was the stricken Child Support Agency. Now, trying again to make this misbegotten beast work, the CSA is undergoing another upheaval. This is the last chance to kick-start this hunk of bureaucratic wreckage into life. A fundamental review is in progress - a chance to write off the agency's disastrous past and start all over again.

That means the CSA will almost certainly write off a large number of the backlog of cases that still hang round its neck, dragging down its statistics. New cases may be doing better, but while the old ones lie in yellowing stacks, the agency will always be counted a disaster. Politically, Labour could write off Tory mistakes from the agency's bungled launch. The National Audit Office was so outraged by the CSA's figures this year that they refused to accept its accounts, complaining that eight in ten cases contained mistakes, mainly due to the old cases.

News of an amnesty will no doubt strengthen the determination of all those non-paying absent fathers to sit tight. The fathers' Internet web site will buzz with yet more advice on ways to avoid paying. Glorying in their mass rebellion, the fathers know that any bureaucracy collapses if enough people refuse to comply.

It will be a bitter day if the CSA does again have to write off thousands more cases, letting so many shameless fathers off the hook. But any non- paying men who read this should know that the agency will only abandon old cases where the mother herself has refused to co-operate. Where mothers want the agency to chase fathers for maintenance, the CSA will plod on.

How has it reached such a state? Only 31 per cent of fathers who have been assessed actually pay the full amount. Another third pay absolutely nothing at all, while the rest have paid something but not the full amount. Getting money out of fathers is harder than extracting an apology from the Tory ministers who ignored all advice when they set the CSA up.

But what now really alarms ministers is the increasing number of women who are refusing to co-operate. Over half of all mothers are refusing to fill out forms, or otherwise using loopholes in the system saying they fear violence, or a more loosely defined "harm" if they proceed with a claim for maintenance. The whole thing was set up to help women, yet now they too are turning their back on it. If even the mothers won't help, then the agency really will be brought to its knees. That's why Labour has just this one chance to change public opinion, to get the mothers onto their side and finally force fathers to pay.

Winning back the women is the name of the game, but it will be hard work. As it is, mothers on benefit think the CSA is all hassle and no extra money. Those mothers who do already get something sometimes from the fathers, however little, rightly reckon they're probably better off with what they've got. If they antagonise such a father by setting the CSA on him, he will stop what he gives now and the CSA will probably fail to get anything else out of him instead.

That is an entirely rational calculation, one that the fathers' movement has been vigorously encouraging, telling men to give a bit under the counter illegally to their ex-partners on social security, so women fear losing that little something if they ever declare it to the CSA. The men coerce their ex-partners, and the women collude because they rightly doubt that the CSA will do any better.

The CSA review is likely to recommend that women should be offered an incentive to co-operate. At the moment mothers on benefit are not allowed to keep a penny of any maintenance paid to them. Women are expected to go through all the aggro of chasing up the father, filling out the forms, suffering his fury and re-opening old rows without gaining anything for themselves and their children. The Treasury frowns on the idea, calling it a bribe for complying with the law. But they'll never win over the mothers without that bribe, so they'd better pay up.

There are other ways the CSA can prove itself a friend to mothers. For those in work on Family Credit, the CSA could take away the risk that a mother's maintenance might just stop, by paying it themselves and then recouping it from the father.

The agency hopes to win back women by explaining the system to them better, with personal advisers visiting mothers in their own homes. The success of the New Deal pilot schemes for single mothers suggests that lone mothers know very little about how the benefit system works. Once a personal adviser explains to them how much difference maintenance can make to their future income if they ever want a job, many more may co-operate eagerly - so long as these visitors feel like a friend not a menacing threat. The family credit system is fiendishly incomprehensible Housing benefit and then the CSA forms are yet two more layers of bureaucracy from different offices, so having a personal adviser may at last give the CSA the human face it has always lacked. Until now women have complained that access to the CSA has been via anonymous help lines, long delays, and people the other end who don't ever have the right answer.

First, though, the CSA has to persuade women that they really will collect the money. They need headlines showing how well they are doing - and the only way they can do that is by shedding the dead weight of dead duck cases this Government has inherited.

This is the last chance to save the CSA and it may not work. The new reorganisation is to move its headquarters near to the Benefits Agency from whence it first emerged. As welfare-to-work merges benefits, employment and maintenance claims under one personal adviser, then we may hear less of the CSA as a distinct entity.

Most people agree that fathers should pay for their children and the tax-payer should not be left to pick up the bill. Had the Tories heeded advice and introduced the CSA slowly, it would have worked with great popular support. This is one last chance to rescue its battered reputation - but now it must persuade mothers that it really can work, as an ally, not an enemy.

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