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Parliament and the current computer system

The intention here is to tell the story, not to be exhaustive.

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.

Date & reference Extracts (not necessarily contiguous)

Commons written answers


Mr. Pendry : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will publish a table setting out for the period since 9 April (a) each tender issued by his Department for projects requiring the supply of (i) computer hardware and (ii) computer software, (b) a description of the services required, (c) the number of companies which were invited to tender, (d) the number of companies which submitted a bid without prior invitation by his Department, (e) which company was awarded the contract, (f) the value of each contract and (g) the length of period over which the contract will run.

Miss Widdecombe :

S/W: Terminal Emulation s/w package able to run all STAP supplier unix platform. Initial requirement is for the FAMIS & CSA Projects. Future requirements not yet known. 3 companies invited to tender. Contract awarded to ICL. To run until 1995.

H/W & S/W: Provision of computer equipment and implementation to 7 computer centres for the Child Support Agency. 3 companies invited to tender. Contract awarded to IBM. To run until: Project Specific.

Commons written answers


Mr. Pawsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security

(1) to what extent problems in the Child Support Agency computer system and the EDS application have contributed to the backlog in the agency's work ;

(2) to what extent the Child Support Agency office staff of clerical grade are finding difficulty in accessing, using and reacting to their computer system ; and what assessment has been made of the effects of, and remedies for, the difficulties experienced by Child Support Agency staff ;

(3) to what extent the Child Support Agency has been hampered in its national operation by (a) downtime of the Child Support Agency computer system central IBM mainframe computer and data links and (b) the overrun of night-time batch processing into office hours ;

(4) how many incorrect assessments, mis- identifying of absent fathers and other maladministration have been made due to mistakes involving the Child Support Agency computer system ;

(5) what proportion of those cases taken on by the Child Support Agency are being dealt with clerically without the aid of the Child Support Agency computer system ; and how many of the assessments made by the agency have been made clerically ;

(6) to what extent the Child Support Agency has been hampered in the regional centres by non-availability of the centre's own server computers.

Letter from Ros Hepplewhite to Mr. James Pawsey, dated 8 July 1994 :

As with any large, new system, areas where improvements can be made have been identified. There is a continuous programme of improvements to the system including a planned quarterly enhancement to increase functionality. All relevant staff have been trained to use the system, and are generally doing so competently. Advice and support are available in the event of difficulty.

You asked how many incorrect assessments had been made due to mistakes involving the computer system. Wrong assessments can occur because clients of the Agency provide incorrect information or because Agency staff make mistakes. Whilst this can cause incorrect data entry, the computer system is not known, with one exception, to have caused an incorrect assessment or misidentification of an absent parent. The exception occurred recently when, due to a programming fault, errors occurred on 789 assessments. These were identified within two days and remedial action is being taken.

You were concerned about the effect of computer system downtime on Agency operations. Although non-availability of the system can have a disruptive effect, this cannot be measured precisely because the staff also perform non-system tasks which can be pursued during the course of any loss of service.

You also asked what proportion of cases are being dealt with clerically ; and how many of the assessments made by the Agency have been made clerically. Figures available for the year 1993-94 show that a total of 205,400 assessments were made by the Agency, of which 8,100 were assessed clerically.

Commons written answers


Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if representatives of the Office of the Data Protection Registrar are attending, or have been asked to attend meetings with representatives of (a) the Child Support Agency, the DSS and (b) the Information Technology Services Agency to discuss major upgrading or replacement of the current EDS Ltd. child support computer system. [36174]

Letter from Ann Chant to Mr. James Pawsey, dated 12 July 1996:

I am replying to your Parliamentary Question to the Secretary of State for Social Security about the Child Support Agency Computer System.
As Chief Executive of the Child Support Agency, I have regular meetings with the Data Protection Registrar. These meetings address all data Protection issues relating to the Agency, including any proposed changes to the Child Support Computer System.

Commons written answers


Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security (1) what is the Child Support Agency's policy on retaining data about clients on the child support computer system after those clients' cases have been officially closed;

(2) what operational reasons the Child Support Agency has to retain data about clients on the child support computer system after those clients' cases have been officially closed;

(3) in what circumstances Child Support Agency staff may access archived data in respect of discontinued or closed data;

(4) what legislative requirement there is for the Child Support Agency to retain data about clients on the child support computer system after those clients' cases have been officially closed;

(5) how long the Child Support Agency normally retains data about clients on the child support computer system after the client's case has been officially closed;

(6) if the CSA deletes data about clients from the child support computer system once the clients' cases have been closed; [36232]

(7) if he will indicate the difference between CSA classifications of suspended, cleared without assessment and closed;

(8) what definition of archived is used by the CSA;

(9) how many of the cases so far taken on by the CSA are now officially closed;

(10) in how many of those cases that have been officially closed by the CSA, data are still held on the child support computer system.

Letter from Ann Chant to Mr. James Pawsey, dated 12 July 1996:

It is best to start by defining some of the terms you have used or asked about.
Closed cases: Cases where no further action is to be taken by the Agency unless or until a repeat Child Maintenance claim is made. Typical reasons include reconciliation of the absent part and the parent with care where no maintenance payments are outstanding; paternity not established; death of one of the parties; benefit claim ended by the parent with care; or the withdrawal of an application by a private client. No action will occur automatically on cases that are closed, except for weeding and archiving of data.
Cases suspended: A term used when action on assessing maintenance has to stop temporarily until a particular issue is resolved, for example, a dispute over paternity or where the whereabouts of an absent parent cannot be traced. In other circumstances a case may be ready to be closed completely but some accounting action is still required; it will therefore remain open for this action to be taken but no assessment action can be carried out on it.
Cases cleared without assessment: As for "closed", but in circumstances where an initial assessment was never made, for example a decision that there is no prima facie evidence which might lead to the establishment of paternity; the Agency has no jurisdiction; or the prompt withdrawal of a claim to benefit by the parent with care.
Weeding: Weeding is the deletion of particular items of data under specified rules from the Child Support Computer System. This data cannot be retrieved.
Archiving: Archiving is the transfer of particular items of data under specified rules from the online system to a separate storage medium. The data is transferred to disk and if needed can be printed out on paper (a hard copy), but can never be retrieved back on to the CSCS. The facility to access archived material is restricted to staff with the appropriate security profiles. There are a total of 76 security profiles for access to information; only 16 profiles have access to archived information.

There is no legislative requirement for the Agency to retain data after cases are closed. Operationally it is sensible to maintain a record of previous dealings with the Agency for an optimum length of time. Given that a claim may need to be re-opened up to the point where any qualifying child involved reaches the age of 19, this is going to be for a period of years, not months or weeks. There is also the issue of the sensitive nature of some of the information, for example, where paternity has been disputed, or a DNA test has been carried out, or the Agency has accepted "Good Cause" for not pursuing a case. It is in the best interests of clients to keep these records for quite some time to avoid the need to go over the same ground again in the future. We also need to ensure our records contribute properly to the prevention of Social Security fraud and abuse.

We have yet to decide for how long records will be kept, but after 3 years of operations it is already clear that significant numbers of repeat child maintenance applications are going to be made on closed cases. We must strike the balance between our business needs, general DSS requirements, Data Protection legislation and the needs and best interests of our clients.

There are approximately 650,000 closed cases on the computer system at the moment. At present all closed cases are retained, but a programme to introduce weeding and archiving of data has begun. This process leaves a basic record on the system to show that there has been contact with the person concerned, but the details are archived and will not be accessible through the system.
In the event that the Agency recommences dealings with a client whose details are archived, authorised users can request a hard copy of the archived data to ensure that all relevant information is available and the client is not being asked unnecessarily to provide the same details a second time.

Commons written answers


Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security (1) what would be the costs of modifying the original Child Support Agency computer system to accommodate the proposed departures system and other regulatory changes;

(2) what is the forecast cost of replacing the existing child support computer system to accommodate the proposed departures system and other regulatory changes.

Letter from Ann Chant to Mr. James Pawsey, dated 12 July 1996:

The existing Child Support Computer system (CSCS) has been upgraded to incorporate the new functions associated with the Departures scheme. The enhancements were supplied by the existing CSCS supplier, EDS, working as part of a joint development team of Child Support Agency, Information Technology Services Agency and EDS staff.

The implications of other regulatory changes on the CSCS will continue to be considered as part of the impact analysis process when details of such changes emerge. Any further development or upgrade of CSCS that is considered necessary following analysis will be incorporated in the ongoing programme of system amendments. It is supported by existing system development contracts with a number of external suppliers.
The costs of the upgrades and enhancements are "commercial in confidence".

The possibility of wholly replacing the existing Child Support Computer System to accommodate the departures system and other regulatory changes was not considered as either necessary or a practical solution. Therefore the extensive work needed to provide a forecast cost for this activity has not been commissioned.


Commons written answers


Mr. Rendel: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what percentage of data held on the current CSA computer system has been identified as being of poor quality as a result of the implementation of the data assurance strategy.

Letter from Mrs. Faith Boardman to Mr. David Rendel, dated 2 March 1999:

We recognise that it is essential to have accurate data before it is transferred onto a new computer system. We have therefore endorsed and are implementing a Data Assurance strategy designed to identify poor quality data held on the current system and to recommend action to improve it.

We have identified 24 areas of the Child Support Computer System to investigate the quality of information held. Early indications show that only a fairly small percentage of the data used in the specific areas investigated could be classed as poor quality.

Until the investigation of all the 24 areas have been completed in November 1999 it is not possible to say what percentage of data held on the current computer system is of poor quality.

It has always been our intention to have discussions with AFFINITY on the best ways to migrate cases from the current Child Support Computer System to ensure the integrity of the new system.

Commons written answers


Mr. Duncan Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security

(2) what is the current backlog of cases in the Child Support Agency, and how many of these are (a) more than six months old and (b) over one year old.

Letter from Faith Boardman to Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, dated 3 March 1999:

I cannot provide precisely all the information that you have requested on the current backlog, but have provided as much as possible from the most recent information available.

At 31 January 1999, there was a total of 278,518 maintenance applications outstanding.

We normally refer to our maintenance assessment backlog as cases that are over 52 weeks old and have not yet been assessed.

At any time, the Agency would expect to have a normal head of work of around 210,000 maintenance applications. The speed with which assessments can be cleared is constrained by the complexities of the current legislation which can require up to 104 separate pieces of information to be collected and verified before an assessment can be made, however the Agency is steadily reducing the time taken and is clearing the backlog of applications from the early years.

Our original estimated volume of backlog cases outstanding in April 1997 was 225,000; by 31 January 1999 we had cleared 251,000, and in practice now expect to need to clear 300,000 cases. This is because as we have proceeded in clearing this work we identified more cases in the backlog than originally estimated. In June 1998 we introduced a major improvement of the Child Support Computer System (CSCS) which provided automated management information. To make full use of the automated information all of the existing cases on CSCS had to be checked to ensure their management information status was correct. This exercise involved validating 1.25 million cases, work was completed in December and means that we now have a reliable automated count of all work on hand.

To clear these 300,000 cases by 31 March will require the Agency to clear around 50,000 cases in February and March. Although this is very challenging we cleared over 27,000 in January, and therefore expect to clear the 300,000 cases.

We envisage that the extra resources which will be released as a result of clearing the maintenance assessment backlog will enable more resources to be concentrated on improving customer service and ensuring that parents meet their responsibility so that children receive the maintenance they are entitled to on a regular basis.

Select Committee on Social Security - Oral Evidence




30. A final question from me. Tell me about outsourcing, and whether you think that is successful; some of us are a bit concerned that some of these big players, like EDS, and others, are getting a bit of a monopoly in the government field of big systems operations? But tell us a bit about what your experience is of outsourcing, and whether it has brought the benefits that were anticipated for it?

(Mr McCorkell) I think, in terms of outsourcing, the ITSA experience, our big major experience was what we called the FOCUS project, Future Operations for Customer Service. I remember that well because I happened to be in charge of it, because I was in ITSA at the time. That project transferred responsibility to a set of suppliers, EDS, ICL, and Sema, for the day-to-day operation of the computer systems, not the development of the software, or fixing the software, but the day-to-day operation of the systems and the fixing of things, if a PC breaks it is one of those contracts where it goes and fixes it. That previously had been an in-house function, and we transferred, I think it is, probably in the region of 1,500 staff, but I can check that figure, to that range of suppliers. That has been an extremely successful outsourcing from all points of view. There have been NAO inquiries into it, and they have always concluded, as we have monitored, that it brought significant financial savings to the Department, the cost of those operations dropped significantly after that outsourcing. We continue to monitor that, and because the operations have changed now, since they took over in 1995, and it is difficult to compare because you are not comparing apples with apples any more, we monitor against the market-place, and we believe we are getting very significant value for money from that outsourcing.

Also, I believe, and I was very conscious of this at the time I was in charge of doing it, it has been very successful for the staff involved, the staff who transferred from the Civil Service to these companies. We were very conscious at the time of their concerns and worries, and it was a particular strand of the project paid particular attention to make sure that that process happened successfully and that we helped the people through these worries and these concerns, and we helped the transfer of the staff to take place smoothly. Again, all the evidence is that has been very successful. I think, each of us round this table, every now and again, bump into one of our old colleagues who used to work for us, and we find he has now got a job three stages up the ladder, in EDS, or Sema, and is probably earning more money than we are. But I can give you very direct evidence of the success of that, in that, on my return to ITSA, my office is based in Peel Park, and one of the in-house operations we still have is what we call the Service Help Desk, where we have a whole set of people who are helping doing the overall management of this; that remains an in-house operation, but all around it are people from Sema, ICL and EDS, and mostly they are people we transferred to them, because they are still performing these functions to them. On my second day in the office, I did a walkabout, and I went to see my people in the Help Desk, to introduce myself and say hello, and I also walked about these other areas, and I spoke to many of the people who had been transferred; and I did not get any bad news stories, they were all perfectly happy, they were very content with their jobs and very happy with their future. And people did say to me "Yes, at the time, I was extremely concerned about this, but it went very smoothly, there have been no hiccups, and, frankly, we are very happy where we are."

So I think it has been successful for the Department and I think it has been successful for staff. I assume the suppliers who undertook the contracts are making the profit they intended to make, but, obviously, I have no details of that.

Oral Evidence - Memorandum submitted by the Information Technology Services Agency


Along with most large organisations, the Department of Social Security (DSS) is dependent on secure and integrated Information Systems (IS) and Information Technology (IT) for the effective delivery of its business.

The Department demands high quality IT services because people who use our services are dependent on IT for the timely and accurate calculation and payment of their benefit entitlements, whether by girocheque, order book, Automated Credit Transfer (ACT) or card payment. Similarly, staff depend on IT to carry out their work, whether that involves paying benefits or collecting monies that are due to the Department.

The DSS is one of the largest IT users in Europe and ITSA makes full use of private sector suppliers and their expertise to ensure effective and economical supply and support for the:

— calculation and payment of pensions, benefits and allowances by the Benefits Agency (BA), the War Pensions Agency (WPA) and the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency (NISSA);

The existing computer systems were mainly developed in the 1980s and were built to support the operations that existed at that time. However, the Department's business approach and general trends in technology have moved on, and these systems are now becoming old and in need of replacement. This requires a long term modernisation programme to improve social security delivery and provide a modern, effective and efficient social security system, underpinned by a new generation of IS/IT.

We are moving towards a new structure of Information Systems based on two key components:

— a Shared Systems Infrastructure (SSI) bringing together all the common information held about a claimant into a single and more widely accessible source, for use right across the range of services—and service providers. The end product will be a major improvement on the current situation where information may be collected several times for individual benefits or other transactions by Agencies and is stored separately; and

— Business Process Support Systems (BPSS) providing the links between the SSI and its data (subject to Data Protection Act safeguards) and the people and organisations who will draw on it (that is the claimants themselves, the service deliverers in DSS, other Government Departments, Local Authorities and others). For example, a particular BPSS could support front-line staff in providing help to particular groups of people with different needs, such as pensioners or lone parents.

2.6 These systems will be geared to the needs of the people who use social security, and the staff who operate the systems. They will use proven and tested modern technologies and tools which are flexible enough to be upgraded to cater for future developments to enhance effectiveness and productivity. Thus the staff who actually deliver services, those who manage them, other organisations we work with and claimants themselves will all get better IS/IT support.

2.11 ITSA has a history of working in close partnership with private sector suppliers. (74 per cent of ITSA's expenditure is currently spent externally on products and services). ITSA operates in a mixed economy, using external suppliers where that offers the best means to secure value for money.

2.12 Partnership will enable private sector investment, skills and innovation to be combined with our own expertise and experience of welfare delivery. It will enable modernisation of the welfare state, whilst allowing DSS to retain control. The Access to Corporate Data (ACCORD) procurement programme was created to put in place the supply arrangements that are needed to deliver the aims of the IS/IT Strategy.

3.2 In November 1998 the Department announced that it had selected three private sector consortia with the potential to deliver a wide range of IS/IT services;

— AFFINITY—led by EDS with IBM UK, Cable & Wireless Communications and Pricewaterhouse Coopers;

— ARCWAY—led by British Telecommunications plc with Sema Group UK and Bull Information Systems;

— ACCORD—led by ICL with Andersen Consulting, Experian, Microsoft, Racal Information Systems, Ferret Information Systems, Select Software Tools plc and De la Rue Identity Systems.
3.3 All of these consortia contain major organisations well versed in large scale IS/IT and organisational change.

3.4 The procurement approach adopted by the Department through the ACCORD arrangements has two elements:

— the first is to establish a number of framework or "overarching" IS/IT Service Agreements. These establish commercial relationships between the Department and the selected service providers from which we can readily select IS/IT supply. Having these arrangements in place means we are able to select service providers quickly and enter into contracts for specific elements of IS/IT work with leading industry players. The award of the overarching contracts to all three service providers also ensures we retain choice when awarding contracts, which we see as essential to ensure value for money on an ongoing basis;

— the second is to select one of the consortia as the Department's 'preferred' service provider. This provides the Department with access to private sector innovation and experience and will give one service provider specific responsibility for working with the Department on developing and defining a comprehensive and cohesive view of the IS/IT services the DSS will need in the future. The AFFINITY consortium was selected for this role and they started working with the Department immediately to establish the requirements for overall transformation.

Commons written answers


Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security

(1) how many Child Support Agency cases were uncleared after (a) 78 weeks and (b) 104 weeks on 31 March;

(2) how many, and what proportion of, applications for maintenance to the Child Support Agency dating from after (a) 31 March 1997, (b) 30 September 1997 and (c) 31 March 1998 were uncleared 52 weeks later.

Letter from Mrs. Faith Boardman to Mr. Frank Field, dated 20 July 1999:

The information requested in your questions is not available. Whilst the Agency maintains systems to monitor and report on performance, the specific figures you have asked for would require a scan of our computer system. This would take several weeks to arrange and deflect resources from other important development work.

Lords Written Answers


Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What computer contracts they have concluded with the firm EDS in the last 10 years.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): The following list sets out all the contracts concluded by the Government with EDS over the last 10 years in which CCTA has been involved. There is no central record of any other contracts.

The information is provided as a table. There are 22 contracts listed. The DSS section reads:

1992 to 1995 DSS Child Suppoprt Agency (sic) Contracts placed between 1992 and 1995: Operational Accounting System. Maintenance Assessment: Support to the live running of the system. Technical Services: Agreement to provide resources to develop the system  
1995 DSS ITSA FOCUS 1995: Two contracts, to operate a series of mainframe based systems and central data services 5 and 10 years

House of Commons Debates


Mr. Lansley : As the Minister knows, I was not a Member of Parliament at the time in question. The Child Support Agency has an unhappy history which stretches back under previous Governments. We await evidence of what will be achieved after the introduction of new legislation, but the Government have not yet solved the continuing problems. They have not been solved on previous occasions by what were perceived to be important measures involving new technology, call centres, computerisation and so on. All hon. Members have met constituents at surgeries who have received computer-produced letters that bear no relation to their circumstances. A constituent of mine received in the space of two days eight letters dispatched by a computer system, each of which stated exactly the same thing. Such communications are the product of technology, but they are not necessarily benefits, and we must be careful about the success or otherwise of the introduction of technological systems.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): On the point about the CSA, where a letter is produced every time there is change, it is not the technology that causes the problem, but the regulations on which it was based. Such problems are caused by the interaction between regulation and technology, rather than just by technology.

Mr. Lansley : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, it is not necessarily the regulations that cause such problems, but the system that operates the technology. There is a danger of technology, rather than people, driving the service. The people providing the service should have been aware that, if changes in circumstances were not dealt with quickly enough, the technology would cause eight letters to arrive on the same day, each one saying pretty much the same thing. Technology must be understood and introduced in the right way to deliver an effective service.

I am afraid that the record on the introduction of information technology is not a happy one. The Minister will be aware of the breakdown of the national insurance computer system, and that 285,000 pensioners are not receiving correct pension payments. Indeed, one third of those pensioners still have cases outstanding. He will be aware of the problems resulting from computerisation at the Passport Agency, although I shall not dwell on the matter, as the debate does not concern it. He will know that the Home Office is presently speaking about 17 major projects that it has undertaken, 11 of which have not been completed on the date that was originally estimated.


Public Accounts - Minutes of Evidence



Mr Steinberg:
61. Frankly, I am not that bothered about the White Paper. What I am bothered about is my constituents and the CSA cases which make up 50 per cent of the problems I have. If I did not have CSA cases I could probably retire on a weekend rather than take these up. Let me take two constituents. These two cases cover some of the problems that I have with the CSA and the first complaint I have is lack of communication. Constituents who phone up the CSA and are kept on the phone for nearly an hour sometimes being passed from pillar to post, from one officer to another officer, and at the end they are frustrated, they lose their temper, they swear, and your officers put the phone down. Constituents who wait for years not months before anything actually happens.

Let me read to you from a case. This is a Mrs Gray. As I say, these are examples I have taken out but I could have brought literally hundreds of the same sort of complaint. Let me quote to you. I wrote this to you in September 1999 and it was about Mrs [X]. "You state that Mrs [X]'s application for child support was received on 5 October 1993 and an interim maintenance assessment was calculated, effective from 23 December 1993, when Mr [X] failed to return the maintenance enquiry form. You then state that until 18 August 1995, when a further maintenance assessment was calculated, following Mr [X]'s failure to make payments under the interim assessment, the Centre "took very little action to enforce payment". I would therefore like to enquire what form the "little action" took, as it would appear that absolutely no steps were taken to enforce payment during these two years. Certainly, Mrs [X] was not informed of any measures to secure the outstanding payments." Then I go on and you respond to me. You say: "The Centre tells me from 22 December 1993 the following enforcement measures were taken to secure payments on behalf of Mrs [X]. On 31 January 1994, a computer-generated arrears notification was sent to Mr [X] advising that if payment of child support maintenance was not forthcoming, a deduction-from-earnings order would be served on his employer. This action was never taken. On 5 May 1994, a further arrears notification was sent to Mr [X] but no follow-up action was taken. On 16 October 1995, another arrears notification was sent to Mr [X] but again no follow-up action was taken. On 10 April 1996, yet another arrears notification was sent to Mr [X] but not followed up." This goes on until August 1999 when eventually the CSA did something about it. That is just not acceptable. You went six years and seven times you did not take the follow-up action that you said you were going to take. Why?

(Ms Boardman) I agree that it is not acceptable. Essentially this is a legacy which we still suffer from in a number of cases from the first two years of the Agency which is well documented that because of a number of issues, which include the complexity, which include the shortcomings of the computer system and the shortcomings in the planning and implementation the new system, the Agency was swamped and was unable to cope and between the periods of 1993 to 1996 in particular there were far too many cases that were pulled into that area. Since 1997 we have gone back to many of those cases and I am glad to see that we have gone back in August 1999 in that particular instance. There are still, however, basic problems which are partly around the complexities of the system but they are also around the basic attitudes in society to compliance. Those problems are certainly not unique to this country. The United States has been operating child support for something like to 25 years and their compliance rates are only around 54 per cent as compared to our 67 per cent. That is not to say in any sense that we could not and should not try to do any better but I think the problems which your constituent has need to be put in that context.

Mr Steinberg:
62. I do not accept that at all, I am very sorry. That is fine words. At the end of the day it took the CSA six years to do something. They did the notification and tracing and did nothing about that. You cannot blame formulae, you can only blame incompetence. It should have been followed up in the first year and a solution found but you did not, it was forgotten about, was it not?

(Ms Boardman) The problem, as I have been trying to explain, was essentially that the Agency was swamped at that time because insufficient resources were given to it at the start of the new system, because the IT system that was put in did not do the job it was intended to do and did not provide the necessary support to staff, combined with the underlying problem of compliance and attitudes to compliance within some sections of the population. I am not in any sense trying to defend it but that is the explanation and that is why I think that we do need to plan extremely carefully now. We do need to ensure that we get an IT system that works and take the time and resources to do the job properly.

Mr Steinberg:
63. Let's move on to another main complaint. I do not accept what you are saying there. I really do not. I think that was pure incompetence. What about conflicting information when they are told on the telephone one thing and the next day they receive some information by letter saying something totally different. Let me give you an example, this is a Mr [Y]. There were three letters from the Child Support Agency from Falkirk. This is just towards the end of last year: "One dated 10 December, offered deferment of alleged accrued arrears (from £9,646.18 to £386.67) giving me seven days to reply. The second letter, dated 13 Dec, claims I am in arrears of £9,340.37. The third, dated 14 December, thanked me for returning further information forms and stated the CSA will use them to decide if the maintenance I am paying is correct." This is a total nightmare for somebody, is it not? They are told something and then they get three different letters telling them three different things and they do not know where the hell they are and they panic. This came on 10 December. He is told he owes £9,000 and another one says he owes £300. It is a nightmare.

Mr Steinberg:
65. We are not discussing the individual case, I do not want you to answer on an individual case. I am referring to the example of what happens to the vast majority of people who are involved in the CSA. I am interested in poor Mr [Y] but I want an answer as to why people get three different responses within two or three days all saying something different. That has got to be incompetence. It means that nobody is talking to anybody. One officer is doing one thing, another officer is doing something else and another officer is doing something else and nobody is getting together. Why is there not one officer dealing with one particular case?

(Ms Boardman) I think there is a raft of issues here. The first is that we have had great difficulty with our IT system which, until relatively recently, has not been able, as one of its many deficiencies, to send out a consolidated letter which itemises instances where the assessment has legitimately changed on various dates because of fresh information. That has led, and we know it has led and we are trying to change the IT system to improve, to people getting apparently two or three different assessments at the same time.

Mr Steinberg:
66. How can you get it wrong in the space of three days and get three separate letters giving three separate pieces of information?

(Ms Boardman) In many instances that is a problem which results from the IT system and it has been the case in the past where we have been looking through a case history where the circumstances have changed at different times we have made assessments for each of those times. The computer has been unable to consolidate that information on a single piece of paper and has sent it out in three or four separate letters which have arrived on the doorstep at the same time. That is typical of the sorts of IT problems we are labouring under and that our customers are labouring under and why we need a new decent system to support giving that decent service.

House of Commons Debates


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) on being successful in the ballot for Adjournment debates and on the excellent way in which he has represented his constituent in this difficult case.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am bound by the rules of confidentiality and cannot therefore respond in detail in the House to the points that he has made about the CSA's handling of this case. I share his concerns, however. It is clear that the standard of service that Mr. [Z] received falls far short of what is acceptable. I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend in a more discreet environment to discuss the details of the case.

I apologise on behalf of the agency for its mishandling of the case. The problems date back over six years and flow from a succession of errors and failures on the part of the agency. I understand that the CSA's independent case examiner has now investigated my hon. Friend's constituent's complaints about the way in which his case was handled, and ex gratia payments have been made to him in recognition of those failures. I am also told that arrears of maintenance that were wrongly paid have also been refunded. Perhaps I can discuss with my hon. Friend whether all those arrears have been refunded, because he raised the issue of amounts that do not tally.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of issues about the way in which the Child Support Agency handled his constituent's case, and I shall try to respond to those in general terms, but in particular to four key issues that the case highlights.

First, there were clear failures in keeping Mr. [Z], and indeed my hon. Friend, informed about decisions of crucial importance in the handling of the case and subsequent inquiries. As many hon. Members know, the CSA has always had difficulties with clear and effective communication. That is partly because it uses a computer system that was already 20 years out of date when it was bought in 1990. As a consequence, it issues notification letters that pose more questions than they answer and could rarely be described as being written in a clear and understandable way.

House of Commons Debates


Mr. Rooney:

Owing to the inadequacy of the computers, no one can say with certainty at any given time what the position is in any given case. Those who contact the CSA's regional offices usually find that they are speaking to someone whose brain is befuddled, who is probably living in the dark ages, knowing nothing of what goes on in the real world, and who can answer no Member of Parliament or member of the public with conviction.

The present system generates mountains of paper. The agency may issue as many as seven communications on the same day, running to six or seven pages, each telling a different story and featuring incredible calculations that bear no relation to people's circumstances. The simplicity of the proposed 15, 20, or 25 per cent. formula will restore the agency's credibility, which is the first thing that is needed if parents are to have a genuine desire to co-operate with it. It is no wonder that so few wish to do so now: they rightly feel that the agency lies on the road to ruin and destruction, and that there is nothing in it for them.

House of Commons Written Answers


Mr. Kidney: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what will be the process for checking the accuracy of arrears statements at the time when existing child support cases are transferred to the new system for child support.

Letter from Faith Boardman to Mr. Kidney, dated 3 March 2000:

The process of migrating data from the existing Child Support Computer System to the new system will be complex and work is being undertaken to asses show this is to be achieved. No decisions have yet been made on a preferred approach. However, the Agency is committed to performing case checks on all live cases bringing assessments up to date where appropriate prior to migration of cases to the new system.

From 30 May 2000, changes are being made to the existing Child Support Computer System to enable non-resident parents, and parents with care, to receive payment statements on a regular basis.

The statement will explain how any arrears balance has been calculated. Procedures are in place to enable cases to be corrected where inaccuracies are detected.

Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Mr Murphy

92. My experience is that a large amount of the cause of delay in individuals dealing with the government agency is the fact that someone else picks up the work and then someone picks up it on Wednesday and misinterprets what had been interpreted. Would that be cut out because of the use of Information Technology, or are the problems staying the same or getting worse?

(Mr Czerniawski) The way the Child Support Agency should develop is to develop the use of technology. We use computers to help humans be more human. At the moment the amount of information staff have immediately available to them is very limited and they do have to go through the same stuff over and over again. It is immensely irritating for both sides. The new systems will have a complete picture of the person's circumstances and record transactions. If you ring on Tuesday and say something and then ring again on Wednesday, the person who picks up the phone will see what has happened much more clearly.

Mr Murphy
93. Can I stop you? CSA reforms are going to make that one of the necessary aspects of customer relations anyway, so there is guidance coming through from the new CSA, so the CSA might not be a good example, but is it an unusual example in terms of named employees or named civil servants being tasked to see a named constituent from inception to completion?

(Mr Czerniawski) The Child Support Agency does not embody that.

Mr Murphy
94. Is it setting out to do so?

(Mr Czerniawski) The reforms are being designed to achieve that, but it will be a big change and the CSA will not be able to do so from tomorrow. How far other parts of the Government are less able to do it at the moment and intending to do more of it, I could not answer.

(Mr Bender) I cannot answer directly the proposals that the CSA are introducing, but something should be introduced across Government, where, as the citizen is in contact, whoever responds on the other end should know the story so far. We do not have a cross government plan, it is the identical one throughout. It will be for agency by agency to determine.

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