A note of the main features of the Child Support Agency's operational improvement plan and a plea to solicitors to make representations to the strategic review

The Child Support Agency has published its operational improvement plan, which the Secretary of State hopes will solve some if not all of the chronic problems from which it has suffered since its inception in 1993.

The plan clearly acknowledges the scale of the CSA’s failures, noted by the writer on the Opinion page in last month’s Journal. The Agency proposes to meet the challenge of its past failures in four key ways:

  • getting it right;
  • keeping it right;
  • putting it right; and
  • getting the best from the organisation.

To “get it right” the plan tells us that the Agency will work more closely with HM Revenue & Customs to trace non-resident parents. It has to be said that the Agency has used HMRC for some time now without much success. Senior caseworkers will be appointed to deal with more complex cases – but recruited from existing senior staff. Finally, the CSA’s standard letters will be improved to help clients understand what is happening with their case. (A recent one to a client of mine demanded the immediate payment of £57,000 without justification in fact or law.)

We should see what actually appears before welcoming the plan wholeheartedly.

The theme of Keeping it Right relates to proper case management. The Agency intends to “develop risk profiles” to help it focus on those who are unlikely to pay. Does that cover those who have been hit with inaccurate and unjustified calculations of child support maintenance? If so there is a more obvious way of addressing the issue.

Under “Putting it Right” the plan includes “managing NRPs [non-resident parents] with child support debt more effectively”. Is it too much to hope that the Agency staff will begin to consult with the creditors of child support debt in respect of the rate of recovery of arrears before entering into a binding agreement with the NRP?

“Getting the Best from the Organisation” should be the most important section of the plan. While the prospect of 1,000 new staff looks promising, the sting in the tail is “a prioritised programme of work with our IT supplier… to rectify some of the remaining problems with the IT systems” (emphasis added). None of the current IT problems are acceptable bearing in mind the cost of the computer system to date, the scale of the problem and the magnitude of the human cost of its failure. If the ambition is only to rectify some of the problems then I suggest that the aim is so low that it almost deserves to miss.

We are also to look forward to a strategic review of the whole child support system, under the chairmanship of Sir David Henshaw, former chief executive of Liverpool City Council. This is hoped to reform the system radically by 2009.

I suspect that the changes arising out of the operational improvement plan have already been decided. But the strategic review may be more willing to listen. If you have clients who have had problems with the structure, policy or practice of the CSA – and who hasn’t – please write to Sir David so that the review does not proceed simply on the evidence of DWP civil servants. Perhaps we will find that we have contributed to a new and more just replacement to an administrative nightmare which, as the Secretary of State admits, is “not fit for purpose”.

John M Fotheringham, Family Law Committee

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