The Child Support Agency ‘has been a complete shambles and I am absolutely determined that we are going to do something about it’
The above statement was made by the Work and Pensions Secretary, David Blunkett, on the television programme, GMTV (www.gm.tv, retrieved on 19/10/2005).
The Child Support Agency (CSA) was established in April 1993 after receiving royal assent in July 1991 and was under the authority of the Secretary of State for Social Security (Garham and Knights 1994). It was set up as a ‘next step’ agency and now reports directly to the Department of Work and Pensions, previously the Department of Social Security. The agency is a quasi-autonomous agency (Bates et al 2002). The CSA has been plagued by problems since being instituted, the main problem being that it is not fulfilling its original objectives.
The responsibility of the CSA is to assess and collect child maintenance from the absent parent when parents separated (Puttick 2003). The agency has faced many problems with enforcing maintenance payments from the absent parent. The agency has also suffered technical difficulties, which has led to a backlog of applications and the loss of information. These failures, coupled with the belief that the assessments are not based on the ability to pay, has meant that that CSA has become unpopular. The agency has also proved unpopular due to the fact that those single parents who are receiving income support still have to apply, even if they have already reached an agreement with the other parent (Davis et al 1998).
The agency was set up as it was felt that a simple, fast and efficient system was needed to ensure that parents did not avoid their responsibilities. The agency, however, has been anything but simple, fast and efficient (Garnham and Knights 1994). This paper discusses how the agency has not delivered on these three key criteria. It is impossible to focus on all the agency’s failures so only a selection of the key issues will be presented here.
The Child Support Act, 1991, was created as it was felt by the Conservative government of the time that the responsibility of maintaining children had fallen on the state. There was a rise in the number of single mothers receiving child benefits so the government felt that it was important to reinforce parental responsibilities (Davis et al 1998). The Child Support Act was key to the creation of the CSA. The new system was based on a set of principles. It is impossible to list them all here. The main principles were to ensure that both parents took responsibility for the cost of raising children, that the incentive to work was not reduced, maintenance reflected changes in circumstances and payments could be worked out in advance by both parties (Garnham and Knight 1994).
The maintenance to be paid for child support by the absent parent is calculated according to a formula (Davis et al 1998) but has been seen as being too complicated for people to understand (Garnham and Knights 1994). A study conducted by Garnham and Knights (1994) showed that few parents understood how the formula was calculated or how it applied to their case. Those who were willing to contribute to their child’s wellbeing also felt a sense of injustice as maintenance payments were changed from being decided by discretion to forced payments based on a formula.
Therefore, those who have had direct contact with the system would say that it is not simple. The new rates of child support are now based on a much simpler formula (the formula was amended by the Pensions and Social Security Act, 2000) (politics.co.uk 2005). A percentage of the absent parent’s income is now required. The rate of payment is 15 per cent of net income for one child, 20 per cent for two children and 25 per cent for three (Howard. Retrieved 2005).
Many of those who have come into contact with the system would also argue that it is far from being fast. It was hoped that claims for simple cases would take six weeks to process. Findings have shown, however, that it often takes seven weeks for the final stage of the process to be sorted out. In the book, ‘Child support in action’, Davis et al (1998) highlight a case of their own where the process has been slow. They reported that in one case, it took just over six months from the application being submitted for the parties to be informed of the payments required.
Not only is there a problem with assessments taking a long time. Collection and enforcement has also proved to be a problem for the agency (Garnham and Knights 1994). As of November 2004, it was reported that £750 million in child support payments from absent parents had still not been collected by the agency (McCue 2004).
Collection and enforcement of child support is under the control of the Secretary of State and public law. The assumption of the Child Support Act and held by the CSA was that once an assessment had been made and the absent parent had been informed, the parent would pay. Nevertheless, this is not always the case (Puttick 2003). The enforcement powers of the agency come into effect when gathering information and collecting money. One of the criticisms of the CSA is that it pays little attention to the actually collecting money and is more concerned about being seen to be doing something (Garnham and Knights 1994).
It has been argued that the first few years of the agency’s life showed a distinct lack of interest in ensuring non-payments were followed up. A study into enforcement was conducted by Davis et al (1998). They found that in one case, only £400 had been paid during a two-year period and that the arrears were over £2000. The agency has preferred to get compliance via negotiations but it is apparent that this method only tends to work with those who are willing to contribute to their child’s upbringing (Davis et al 1998). The agency has been accused of targeting ‘soft’ fathers; those who have stayed in constant contact with their children since separation (Garnham and Knights 1994).
The final issue that will be looked at is the efficiency of the CSA. The agency has clearly had problems with assessing payments and enforcing the payments from absent parents. There have also been problems arising from the agency’s inefficiency. Many of the problems with inefficiency have been the result of the agency’s computer systems. Assessments have been calculated incorrectly and important information has been lost, leading to delays in payments (Garnham and Knights 1994). There have also been cases where the wrong person has been contacted for payments. One case that was reported by the media involved a man who would have been aged nine at the time of the birth (Garnham and Knights 1994).
A memo produced by the company supplying computer systems to the Agency apparently stated that the CSA’s IT system had been poorly designed and badly implemented (McCue 2004). It is important to state here that the claims cannot be substantiated as they are from an unofficial source. Nevertheless the system’s failures have been evident for all to see. In November 2004, the minister in charge of the Agency said that thousands of cases had not been processed due to the problems with the computer system. The new computer system caused the Agency to go £29 million over budget (www.computing.co.uk, retrieved 19/10/05a). The computer system used by the CSA has clearly caused more problems than it has solved.
It would not be fair to suggest that the CSA has had no successes since its inception. Nevertheless, the point here was to point out the Agency’s many failures in relation to what it set out to achieve. There has even been talk of scrapping the new computer system altogether (www.computing.co.uk, retrieved 19/10/05b). In many cases the agency has not proved simple, fast or efficient service. An analysis of the numerous case studies support this. The system has not been simple as parents have been unable to establish how their maintenance payments have been calculated. The agency has not been fast, as people have waited months for payments. The system is also not efficient due to the mix-ups. Nevertheless, the formula for assessment has been simplified.
There is hope of improvement as David Blunkett has acknowledged the problem and has promised to improve the system (www.gm.tv, retrieved 19/10/2005).
Only time will tell whether the changes that are to be introduced will radically change the Agency’s problems.