Leading article: Back to the drawing board


There can be little doubt that Sir David Henshaw's damning review is the last nail in the coffin of the troubled Child Support Agency, at least in the form in which it was originally conceived. The Work and Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, informed the House of Commons yesterday that the CSA will limp on, serving those parents for whom the present system is delivering. But it will no longer be the comprehensive system to assess, review, collect and enforce child maintenance payments that was devised by the Conservative former social security secretary Tony Newton in 1993.

Instead, a new agency will be established to focus on those parents who persistently refuse to co-operate. Such people, we are told, face being electronically tagged, prevented from going out after work, or even having their passports confiscated - New Labour's standard punishments for those who engage in anti-social behaviour. It is a shame it has come to this, because the CSA was fundamentally a good idea: a neutral agency designed to take the acrimony from child maintenance payments. It was welcomed across the political spectrum as a replacement for a court-based system that was widely seen as unfair and arbitrary.

But the CSA never functioned as intended. It was a mess in 1997 when Labour took power, having been bedevilled by mistakes and miscalculations. And this government has done nothing to improve it since. Its implementation of a costly computer system, unsurprisingly, proved a disaster. The agency now recovers less than it costs to run.

Maladministration is undoubtedly part of the reason for the CSA's failure, especially the lazy assumption that throwing technology at the problem would be the solution. But accelerating social breakdown among families, particularly those at the bottom of the income range, is also a big factor. Quite simply, it is increasingly difficult to get fathers (and it is still overwhelmingly fathers) to pay up.

There are certainly problems inherent in sanctioning the state to intervene in such matters - not least the fact that when the system fails, it is the state, rather than the non-paying parent, that is blamed. And yet the state has little option but to get involved. Money not collected is money denied to children. What is more, money not claimed has to be paid out by the state. It cannot be right that the state should be burdened simply because certain parents refuse to acknowledge their financial responsibilities to their offspring. Some form of government intervention to enforce negligent parents to pay out remains the only fair way forward. The Government has no choice but to go back to the drawing board and devise a system that will actually work.

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