The CSA and its computer systems
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The quotes provided are normally directly from the original article, but typically whole sentences and paragraphs are omitted, often without indicating where the omission is, but without altering the order of presentation. In some cases people's names are removed, and replaced thus "[X]".

Date & reference Extracts (not necessarily contiguous)

This Is Lancashire

Scrap Child Support Agency

SIR: Mr Tony Blair leader of the Labour Party knows the Child Support Agency is in dire straits. A survey carried out by Labour's Gerry Sutcliffe just before the general election firmly established that MPs are simply not prepared to carry on dealing with surgeries stuffed full of CSA cases. They want action. The point is, what kind of action will they get?

They realise the only solution is abolition, yet, strangely, Labour's catch phrase of the moment is that they cannot afford to scrap the CSA. They seem quite unaware that income is more or less the same as it was under the old Liable Relatives Unit, yet the CSA costs nearly four times more to run. What's more, the court-based system remains in place. It still deals with all other aspects of divorce, even though matters of child maintenance have been removed from its remit. There is no reason why, even temporarily, things couldn't go back to how they were. It would instantly save taxpayers £1.1b..... the cost of a new computer.



Stormy times ahead for the DSS IT super project

Can a complete overhaul of the benefits system succeed in stamping out fraudulent claims? The biggest civilian IT project in Europe is already delayed. Programming work to rebuild all the Department of Social Security's benefits systems will finally start in a few weeks, but can it succeed? Next month, after more than two years of preparation costing #3.4 million in taxpayers' money, developers will begin creating the largest non military database in Europe. The customer is the Department of Social Security (DSS). In line with the government's history of IT purchases, the prime contractor is EDS. Dubbed Accord, Europe's biggest civilian IT project is scheduled to take eight years to implement and will cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Its goal is to create one database holding the records of every UK benefit claimant, past and present. It will handle about 50 million transactions a week, make payments to 24 million people and attempt to limit benefit fraud, now running at an estimated #3 billion a year.

Problems with the current system include:
* No link between the Child Support Agency (CSA) and child benefit systems.

The income support and child support agency systems are to be complete by April 2001. Information about the current CSA system is well documented because of the serious problems that developed shortly after it was installed at breakneck speed. EDS supplied the existing system to the CSA in 1992 in just 10 months, following pressure from the then Tory government to get the new agency up and running quickly. There was only time to deploy an off the shelf system, used by the State of Florida, which had different requirements to the CSA. The system proved unable to handle changes to the CSA's business process and the CSA now admits, "the task of the IT system [became] almost impossible in terms of tracking cases." The problems were compounded by the complex formula used for calculating support payments from absent parents, and by widespread lack of cooperation from those parents. The result was an explosion of inaccurate personal data.

The chairman of the National Association for Child Support Action (NACSA), Andy Farquarson, said: "The CSA's reliance on its computer system has generated more complaints from our members than almost any other aspect of the agency's operation. NACSA believes IT problems are a significant factor in the CSA's notorious inefficiency." The CSA is anxious not to rush ahead and repeat the same mistakes. Government ministers are hoping that a White Paper on reform of government machinery, due in May, will mark the end of years of complaints and criticism of the CSA, including claims that a litany of agency blunders has driven some fathers to suicide. Arguing that there is no point in computerising a mess, Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned in March last year: "We are not convinced the agency's strategy of introducing a new computer system is sensible until high levels of error in the underlying information are removed." In reply, the CSA was able to assure the committee only that it was, "reasonably confident we can achieve what is being set for us." By July, the CSA chief executive Faith Boardman and DSS minister Baroness Hollis were again reassuring MPs that the agency was not going to rush into reforms.

The CSA and EDS will have less than two years to install the replacement IT system to support the reforms while also trying to clear a backlog of cases. The EDS consortium has been handed the task of preparing the plans for correcting or 'cleansing' the CSA's data on benefit claimants and parents. The plans will be completed by November. How long the actual cleansing will take is not known. If EDS waits to start the system rewrite until the data is ready, it will have little time to complete the job. So is the CSA biting off more than it can chew? Tory PAC member Geoffrey Clifton-Brown is certainly worried about the project and has now pledged to call for an investigation by the National Audit Office. He fears that given the size of the data cleansing problem, the agency is taking on "over hasty timescales". He added: "It seems unfortunate that the PAC should recommend in March that the agency should not rush implementation of the new computer system, and yet in November the agency appears to be ignoring that advice without even knowing the scale of the task of cleansing inaccurate data."

CSA spokesman Ian Cuddy defended the plans. "The agency is not ignoring the PAC recommendation. The agency has already identified that it is essential to have accurate data before it is transferred onto a new computer system," he said. It will be more than a year before we find out who is right. EDS will certainly need careful project management to ensure that Accord passes off without falling over at the first hurdle.


CSA: radical reform, but not just yet

by BBC social affairs correspondent Kim Catcheside

Fathers could be fined up to a £1,000 for misleading or failing to cooperate with the Child Support Agency (CSA) in tough new measures announced by the government on Thursday.... The changes are a response to what the Government admits is the failure of the CSA. But organisations representing absent parents say it could mean rough justice for many because it will not take enough account of individual circumstances. The government says there will be concessions for low earners and those with second families, but that there can be no compomise with the principle that ALL parents are financially responsible for their children. The new flat rate will mean that, on average, parents will pay less maintenance, but the government is gambling it can offset that by making more absent parents pay.

But the changes will not take effect until 2001 at the earliest, a target date which could be subject to delay, because the proposals cannot be introduced until a new computer is set up to deal with it. Following recent problems at the Passport Office, it is unlikely that the government will want to risk introducing changes until it is absolutely confident that the new CSA computer is working properly. In the meantime, up to a million families will be stuck with a system which has been condemned as ineffective and inadequate.


Delays threaten to undermine CSA shake-up

David Brindle, Social Services Correspondent

Many divorced and separated families will not benefit from sweeping reform of the child support agency, unveiled yesterday, because the changes are expected to take four years to come into full effect. Delays being blamed on the need for new computer systems mean that the reformed child maintenance rules will start to apply to new cases only from late 2001, even if everything goes to plan, with transfer of almost 1m cases beginning at an unspecified date. It is believed ministers do not anticipate completion of the transfer before 2003. By then, tens of thousands of families will no longer be on the CSA's books because their youngest child will have left school.

Opposition MPs last night warned that the government could face a backlash from people who had heightened expectations of early change. "A lot of parents, hearing about the proposals, will have no idea about this long transitional period," said David Willetts, shadow social security secretary. "Ministers are moving more slowly than the CSA they criticise for slowness."

A spokesman for the anti-CSA campaign group, the National Association for Child Support Action, said: "After 10 years of family law moving towards conciliation, it is a retrograde step to criminalise aspects of family break-up." However, the association joined welfare groups in welcoming the £10 maintenance allowance for lone mothers on income support - a move which the Child Poverty Action Group said would mean many of the poorest children benefiting from the CSA for the first time.

The Independent

CSA will be able to dock absent fathers' wages

By Sarah Schaefer, Political Reporter

Absent fathers who miss a maintenance payment for their children will have their wages docked under radical legislation to be published this week, Alistair Darling confirmed yesterday. The Social Security Secretary said that the Child Support Agency (CSA) would be given the power to contact employers or Inland Revenue in order to deduct outstanding paymentsfrom absent fathers' incomes. "There are several sanctions we can impose if a parent can pay but won't pay. For example, the CSA can attach that person's wages so it can put that money into payment," Mr Darling told MPs during question time.

Mr Darling, however, admitted that current delays and problems would continue "for some time". He said ministers wanted to be satisfied that the CSA's computer system and staff could cope with the change. "Until the new system is brought in and becomes operational we have to operate under the existing system. "Whilst we will do our best to ensure that it's improved week by week, month by month, some of the problems that all of us are very familiar with will continue for some time until we can bring in the new system," he said.


The Times

Computer hitch delays reform of child payments


REFORMS to change the way absent parents are required to pay for child maintenance face being undermined by the latest computer hitch to beset the Government. Ministers have admitted that the Child Support Agency's new computer system - responsible for handling a simplified formula for calculating maintenance payments - will not be fully completed until 2003.

But it is scheduled to be introduced in October 2001, meaning that hundreds of thousands of existing CSA cases will be run on the old computer system using the old formula. In a report last year the Commons Social Security Committee warned that there was a distinct possibility that the new system would not be in place in time, despite assurances that it would be operating for new cases by 2001. However, in a written answer to Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat social security spokesman, Angela Eagle, the Social Security Minister, admitted that the CSA information technology system would not be completed until 2003. The CSA problem is the latest of a series of high-profile IT hitches for the Government.

Mr Webb said yesterday: "There is a real risk that families and children will face the consequences of computer chaos. "I am sure the Government will say it can run both systems side by side but the shambolic history of the CSA suggests there are more problems ahead."

This Is Lancashire

New bid to cut CSA red tape snarl-ups

BURY MP David Chaytor is urging ministers to ensure that a single named official is responsible for every case handled by the controversial Child Support Agency.

In a Commons debate on the Bill revising the formula that the agency uses for calculating absent parents' liabilities, he tackled Social Security Alistair Darling on the issue. He asked him: "Under the new system will you be able to ensure that people who approach the CSA are given a named official who will progress their case? "We all know of the terrible bureaucracy that dogged the Agency under the old regime, but one of the most frequent complains from the constituents is that they never know to whom they are talking. "Can a named official be guaranteed under the new system? "I hope that you can ensure that the CSA will give the highest priority to projecting a human face to those who contact them."

Mr Darling replied: "You make a good point and we wish to encourage such an approach now, as well as in the future. "It is much better for everyone concerned if people can speak to someone who knows their case and they do not have to go over old ground time and again. "When we have the new computer system, it will be much easier because staff will be able to call up on screen everything they need to know about an individual."

Bolton MP David Crausby said he was delighted to the changes at the CSA and the simpler formula. He said that while everyone supported the CSA and the principal that absent parents should pay for the maintenance of their children, he added: "The present system of enforcement is incredibly unfair." He added: "We must all have had constituents who have suffered injustice at the result of the present provisions. I am delighted that we will introduce lower rates for non-resident parents on very low incomes. "A simpler method for the calculation of child support has been desperately needed. At long last legislation proposes a formula that will at least be clearly understood."

Electronic Telegraph

News in brief: New child support system delayed again

THE introduction of the Government's new child support system has been delayed yet again by problems with computer technology. Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, announced yesterday that the new formula for calculating payments through the Child Support Agency would not be running until April 2001.

Ministers had promised to implement the changes, included in legislation now going through Parliament, by the end of this year. However, the consortium which has won the contract to install the new computer system - Affinity, led by the information technology company EDS - said that the work was much more complicated than anticipated. This is because the computer will have to be able to "talk to" other machines at the Benefits Agency and Inland Revenue to cross-check data.

The Guardian

Six-month delay for CSA reform

David Brindle

Reform of the child support agency was deferred yesterday for a further six months until 2002 amid growing signs of anxiety about a computer intended to make the changes. Alistair Darling, the social security secretary, said the change was being put back to avoid "unacceptable risks" in the changeover.

The deferral means a simplified child support formula will be applied to new cases in April 2002. Last summer the operative date had been late 2001. Existing cases will not be transferred from the present, deeply unpopular formula until later - some possibly not before 2004 - by which time many fathers will no longer have maintenance liability. The postponement came days after the Commons social security committee voiced concern about spending plans for the computer system.

In the first use of a new ministerial power, Mr Darling had notified the committee of his intention to spend money developing the computer system before parliament approved the bill setting out the agency changes. The committee was first told he wished to spend £60m before royal assent was granted, enabling the Affinity consortium - led by a US computer company, EDS - to start development. Subsequently however, this figure was revised to £6m. Although the committee did not oppose the spending, it said it was worried that the proposal "bore little or no relation to the likely final version" and called for a review of how the ministerial power should be used in future.

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat social security spokesman, said the apparent confusion over the computer did not bode well. It was sensible to have a further delay to avoid repeating mistakes made when the agency was established - "it would be a fiasco if they did try to do that". One of the agency's worst problems has been the running of its complex maintenance formula with an off-the-shelf computer from the US.

The Times

CSA complaints

Complaints to the Child Support Agency increased by 31 per cent to 765 in the last year, Anne Parker, the CSA’s Independent Examiner, said in her annual report. Mrs Parker said that this was because old files had been reopened for transfer to a new computer system.


Child Support Agency reforms delayed

Tough new penalties for fathers who fail to pay maintenance are to be delayed, Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling told MPs.

The measures, intended to combine a simpler Child Support Agency system with sterner sentences for parents, were due to come into effect in April 2002.

But in a statement to the Commons, Mr Darling said testing of the new Child Support computer system, built by EDS, was not yet complete.

Mr Darling said the delay was "frustrating" and "regrettable", but insisted it was important to get the IT right and not to take a chance on a system needed to support parents and children.

Shadow Works and Pensions Secretary David Willetts said the delay would leave families "in limbo".

He claimed the statement was only a delaying mechanism for a "desperately important" debate on the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan and a way for Tony Blair to avoid staying in the House of Commons for that debate. "The longer the gap between Prime Minister's questions and the debate, the easier it is for them to stay away," he said.

But Mr Darling said he was not prepared to put families through the same chaos that descended in 1993 when the CSA was created and its computer system collapsed because it was not ready.

He told the Commons that while he wanted to see the new IT system in place "as soon as possible" he would not proceed until he was satisfied that it was "working to the standards I expect".

"In my view, until the testing process is complete, I will not have the assurance I need to authorise the start of the new system," said Mr Darling.

"I have therefore decided to defer the planned start date. The new system will only be implemented when the supporting IT is operating effectively."

Mr Darling insisted: "There was a choice - I could have taken a chance, but that meant taking a chance on the support for children and parents.

"In my judgment, it is better to take time needed to get it right than repeat the mistakes made in 1993."


IT chaos halts CSA reform

Reform of the child support agency has been delayed to allow more time to test new computer systems, the work and pensions secretary, Alistair Darling, announced in the Commons today.

Mr Darling conceded that the delay was "frustrating and regrettable" but said he was not prepared to take a chance on support for children.

"I know that many parents are anxious to see the changes introduced as soon as possible but I judged that the risk of proceeding before testing was complete was unacceptable," he said in a statement.

Mr Darling was unable to give a revised date for the changes, which were due to take effect at the end of April, but promised to keep MPs updated on progress.

Tories said the delay was "serious" and many families would be "left in limbo" by the announcement.

The Independent

Overhaul of Child Support Agency is halted by IT glitch

By Nigel Morris, Political Correspondent

The planned overhaul of the Child Support Agency was postponed last night because of problems with the new computers that will handle claims.

The switch to a new, streamlined system of payments to lone parents was delayed just one month before the reform was to be launched.

In a Commons statement, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said extra time was needed to test the CSA's new multimillion-pound computer network.

"The delay is frustrating and is regrettable," he said. "There was a choice. I could have taken a chance, but that meant taking a chance on support for children and for parents. That could not be justifited." He added: "I know many parents are anxious to see the changes introduced as soon as possible, but I judged the risk of proceeding before testing was complete was unacceptable."

The CSA computer system, which was due to come on stream on 22 April, is being developed by the American company EDS. Its introduction had already been delayed from last October.

The Work and Pensions Department was unable to confirm last night when the CSA computers would be ready to process fresh claims, but said the firm would not be paid until they were up and running.

The Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb described the delay as a "shambles". He said: "If this computer system can't cope with the trickle of new cases, then what chance is there that it will be able to handle the flood of existing cases once they are transferred? It is the latest in a long line of botched government IT projects."

Kate Green, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said: "The delay is disappointing but the system has to be right so that children get a properly resourced service that actually delivers the maintenance they need, rather than a rushed, untested system which parents could have little confidence in."

Page last updated: 18 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003