Deborah Orr: Children seem to come last with the mess that is the Child Support Agency

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The Independent Online

John Reid must curse - among other people and things - the day he declared the Home Office "not fit for purpose". His proclamation has unleashed a veritable Niagara of similar assessment, with the latest government department stamped NFFP being the Child Support Agency. In fact, it turns out, in the CSA's case the label is something of a kindly euphemism. A cross-party committee of MPs looking into the 2003 reforms of the agency prefers to be a little more explicit, and has crowned the £800m restructuring package as "among the worst public administration scandals of modern times".

The statistics, indeed, are formidable. Nearly one-quarter of the agency's workload - 267,000 new cases and 66,000 old ones - are still waiting to be sorted out. Around 36,000 cases are "stuck" in the disastrous new computer system, inaccessible because of technological failures. One in four cases received since the brave new dawn of 2003 is waiting to be cleared, which is not surprising when it is revealed that new cases are taking an amazing 34 weeks to be sorted.

And naturally, such vast failures create their own layer of administration. Last year the agency received 55,000 complaints from parents, which means that even the whacking 1,000 staff dedicated only to dealing with complaints must in turn be overwhelmed. More staff are surely needed, to deal with complaints about complaints.

And what is it all for anyway? Yes, of course the idea is to send a message to absent parents that the state will not pick up the bill for their dereliction of duty to their flesh and blood. But, unhappily, the state is doing so anyway. There is an estimated £3.5bn of outstanding maintenance to be collected, with 60 per cent of it considered "uncollectable". Which is just as well, since in 2004-05 enforcement teams collected £4m less than they spent on fraud investigations. All this means that it costs 70p to collect every £1 that the agency collects in maintenance.

This latest report, and another equally damning one last week, emphasises that the people who are suffering because of this massive mess are lone parents and their children. I feel compelled to add that it's not just the fault of the CSA, however. Surely some blame has to lie with absent parents who cannot see that making a financial contribution to the upbringing of their children is a moral imperative.

Maybe a tiny part of the endless failure that has dogged the agency does lie in the miserable impossibility of its task. A child whose parents are unable to sort out how they can create a framework of financial support for him or her is already a child who has been badly let down by one or both of the parents. Democratic institutions exist to enforce the rule of law. It is more difficult and complex when they are created to enforce a sense of decency and responsibility.

The Government, however, appears unlikely to start looking at the failings of the CSA from a philosophical viewpoint when it has already proved itself unable even to grasp the extent of its practical failure. The Department for Work and Pensions has blithely remarked that the findings of the National Audit Office, which compiled the report that shocked MPs so much, proves that John Hutton was right to ask for a root-and-branch review of the CSA. Sir David Henshaw's review is expected next month.

Unless it contains some proposals that consider the possibility of simply raising cash by some mechanism such as introducing an absent parents tax code, and distributing it by introducing a lone parents' family allowance, it won't have done such a grand job. What we need to think about now is a way of noisily scrapping the Child Support Agency, and doing what we know is right, and putting children first.

The art of being Grayson

Grayson Perry, the nation's second favourite Potter, has an exhibition opening at the Victoria Miro gallery in north London this week. His rise to public prominence, via the Turner Prize, has brought him to a familiar place in the mediated culture, whereby he is experiencing - and struggling - with the double-edged sword that is popular celebration. In an interview this week, he expressed his ambivalence colourfully and forcefully, with all the finesse of a man who is used to controlling a slippery object that in the hands of others might spin out of control and make a horrible mess.

"Fame is like watching someone ride past very fast on a horse. It looks exciting and you think 'I want to do that', but the actual experience can be frightening or a substantial pain in the arse."

When Grayson rides past very fast on a horse, though, you think something different. You think: "Is that the most gigantic horse and saddle I've ever seen, or is that three-year-old Victorian child actually a well-known English eccentric who has risen to the occasion again."

The neighbourhood that cannot lose

It all started out so gracefully. In my tapas-loving corner of south London, known for obvious reasons as Little Portugal, the early stages of the World Cup were something of a multi-cultural triumph. Cars, balconies and bars were festooned with even-handed displays of English and Portuguese flags, and the air was filled with good-natured badinage about the flexibility of identity and belonging. My four-year-old pronounced Portugal to be his "back-up team", and went on to display a surprisingly comprehensive knowledge of the life and times of Luis Figo.

There was even - due to the fact that the Portuguese-speaking community also congregates in this area - the occasional sighting of a household supporting England, Portugal and Brazil, or England, Portugal and Angola. As events unfolded, it's true, the latter nationals became rather more tight-lipped about their promiscuous support. But this was merely an early indication of the difficulties that lay ahead for all those who had embraced the notion that we were In This Together.

Alas, that early expansiveness, has all but drained away.

It has become pretty obvious over the past few days that if you are a socially minded England supporter, then you head for a local pub, while if you are a Port of that ilk, you head for a local bar. The British embrace of "café culture", it turns out, is still more tenuous than it might appear to be.

I like to imagine that come the final whistle, we'll all be milling around in the South Lambeth Road, exchanging shirts and symbolically painting the other's national colours on our faces. But something tells me that it'll be wiser not to attempt to instigate such gestures. Today, we are the neighbourhood that cannot lose. The situation feels oddly uncomfortable.

* This week, after six long years, the terrible circumstances of Zahid Mubarek's murder in Feltham young offender institution, were revealed to the nation. Again, the condemnation is massive, with 186 individual failures in the criminal justice system logged and 20 individuals named as at fault. The picture of the extent of the psychopathic disturbance of his cellmate, Robert Stewart, was also revealed as long lasting and deep rooted. Odd then, to see the Daily Mail still wondering if Stewart's viewing of Romper Stomper a couple of days before might have been the trigger for the attack. Thanks chums, but it's a little more complex than that.

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