Leading article: A laudable idea that failed

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The Independent Online

All sides are tuning up in advance of the Government's expected announcement about the future of the Child Support Agency. John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, yesterday dismissed as "speculation" reports that absent parents might have their credit records and mobile phone bills scanned to verify their income. The Prime Minister has said he wants to see fundamental reform of the troubled agency. Some reports have suggested it could be broken up or even abolished. The least that is expected is a comprehensive review.

One encouraging sign was Mr Hutton's statement last month that the CSA's problems would not be solved by an examination of its performance alone. He said consideration should also be given to the whole policy framework within which the CSA worked. He is quite right.

When the agency was set up in 1993, the thinking was that the vexed process of agreeing and enforcing child support could be made more efficient and effective. One hope was that if child maintenance payments were calculated according to agreed formulae and collected by a neutral agency, some of the acrimony would be removed from the process. Another hope, of course, was that if absent parents, mostly fathers, were made to pay for their own children, the taxpayer would have to pick up less of the tab.

Thirteen years on, however, the task has proved infinitely more complicated than expected. Thus far, it seems, no one has been found who is up to the job of leading the agency and no computer system has been devised that reliably calculates and implements the payments. Last year it emerged that the agency had failed in its most basic objective: it actually recovers less than it costs to run. All this suggests that, while the people and the software may be fallible, it is the concept that is flawed. The notion that a neutral agency should be able to set objective criteria for maintenance payments remains a good one. Extracting reliable information from reluctant parents, however, is a challenge. And it was probably overambitious to expect one agency not only to determine the level of payments, but to enforce them as well. Computers, even adequate ones, can do only so much, as the confusion over tax and benefit payments shows.

If the CSA is to survive, expectations of what it can do will have to become more realistic. The formulae for calculating maintenance will have to be simplified and enforcement delegated to other authorities. In the end, though, it may be that more contested settlements have to be hammered out individually. If, as it seems, this would cost the taxpayer less than prolonging the life of the agency, the only solution may be a return to the drawing board.