Weblog archive for July 2003

1st July

Annual report from the Independent Case Examiner published

"A small improvement, but disappointing and needs to do much better". That is about what the ICE report says about the CSA. There are still too many cases referred to ICE that could and should have been resolved by the CSA without it getting that far. Some quotes:

"The Agency has advised that 'reactive migration' (the transfer of existing cases onto the new IT system, resulting from its 'link' to a new case) may generate an increase in complaint referrals to ICE in the short term. We have already started to receive complaints from clients, which are related to people's expectations of the Child Support Reforms."

"We have received allegations that staff, have advised parents with care to close cases under the existing rules, in order to make applications under new rules. It may also be the case that people are choosing to take action of this kind in order to speed up the process of transfer to the new system, if they believe it will be of benefit to them."

That latter quote refers to the "premature conversion loophole" reported in this weblog on 10th, 16th, 21st, and 26th of February, 18th March, and 1st and 30th of April. The government has been in continual denial about it.

It is fascinating to compare the 2 press releases, talking about the same ICE report, put out on behalf of the 2 organisations, and also to see what 10 Downing Street says. (Dare I say that 10 Downing Street "sexed up" the report?)

From Jodi Berg, head of ICE:
"CSA watchdog reports concerns about Agency's complaints handling
Calls for further improvements in the Child Support Agency's complaints handling are highlighted in the 2002/03 annual report launched today at Westminster by its watchdog, the Independent Case Examiner.
"

From Patricia Hollis, minister for child support, & Doug Smith, CEO of the CSA:
"Child Support Agency praised for improved service
Work and Pensions Minister Patricia Hollis today welcomed the publication of the Independent Case Examiner's (ICE) annual report (2002/03) on the Child Support Agency."

From the website for 10 Downing Street:
"Child Support Agency praised
An independent report has praised the Child Support Agency (CSA) for its clear and timely communications with clients about child support reform."

Annual Report 2002-2003 of the Independent Case Examiner

Press release on behalf of the Independent Case Examiner
Press release on behalf of the Child Support Agency
10 Downing Street statement

3rd July

Child Support Guides for the old scheme published

The Child Support Guides for the old scheme, used internally by the CSA as explanations of how the child support system operates, have been published on the CSA website. They comprise 9 volumes, and each of these in turn comprises a set of chapters in the form of PDF files. There are one or two glitches resulting from the transition between an internal resource to a published resource.

Child Support Guide index

4th July

Bad news given to Parliament about the CSA's new computer system

On 2nd July Doug Smith, CEO, Vince Gaskell, CSA Director & Mark Neale, DWP Director gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. It appears to have been very bad news. (On 1st April I wondered mischievously here "did they schedule the start of the new scheme to hide it behind the war?" On 30th April I reported a design flaw in the new computer system).

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents most staff at the CSA, submitted a written report to the Select Committee stating:

"The agency's performance since March 3 had been "extremely poor". Since March 3, less than 100 cases out of a total of 60,000 had resulted in the parent receiving at least one child maintenance payment".... despite the extra 11 months given to EDS, the IT system had not bedded in at all, and (it) is effectively preventing CSA staff from performing their job properly.... The IT system had not been available for much of the working day, and was very slow when it was online, with delays stretching to hours rather than minutes as staff tried to navigate between computer screens.... Cases were "disappearing" from the system.... These problems, taken as a whole, are very serious".

From the Telegraph:

"The stricken Child Support Agency is on the verge of crisis again because of a computer system malfunction affecting thousands of child maintenance payments. Doug Smith, CSA chief executive, said that while staff were now in control of the £456 million system introduced in March, the situation was only "slightly above the worst-case position". A range of technical problems in the past few weeks had reduced productivity by up to 30 per cent, he said."

From UTV:

"The Child Support Agency's new system for processing child maintenance payments is on the verge of crisis because of a poorly performing computer system.... The agency`s chief executive Doug Smith insisted he and its staff were in control of the new system, which came into force at the beginning of March at a cost to the taxpayer of £456 million, but conceded that the situation was only "slightly above the worst case position". He revealed that because of a range of computer problems in the past few weeks, productivity had been reduced by up to 30%.... a fuming committee chairman Sir Archy Kirkwood said the union's evidence "filled me with horror" and told Mr Smith: "We are facing potentially another crisis in the CSA... What I cannot understand is how we got here. This is the second time around. It is not as if the department has no experience with bad IT contracts. There is a trail of failed IT projects. The CSA has been through this once before and here we are again. There are huge sums of public money involved. Ministers are blaming computer engineers, computer engineers are blaming ministers and civil servants".

Telegraph, Sarah Womack, Crisis looms at CSA as £456m computer fails
UTV, CSA payments nearing 'crisis'

7th July

Is the CSA shooting itself in the foot with the "premature conversion loophole"?

The government created a loophole that enabled parents with care to force their existing cases onto the new scheme prematurely. They should have waited until the new scheme had proved itself. (This loophole has been reported in this weblog on 10th, 16th, 21st, and 26th of February, 18th March, 1st and 30th of April and 1st July below). The government has been in continual denial about it, in spite of clear evidence. The CSA has reportedly been advising people to use the loophole. If the non-resident parent makes an application during the 13-week period, that should re-open the case under the old rules. But it appears that the CSA is ignoring their applications in favour of the parents with care's later applications.

The CSA is unable to handle the workload for the new scheme. (See the entry for 4th July below). The CSA had to recruit heavily for the change to the new scheme. (See the entry for 27th February). A recent Parliamentary Question (4th July) revealed that around 1500 staff are involved with transition to the new scheme.

The loophole itself, plus the advice from the CSA, has increased the workload on the CSA at a time when it can't handle it. Has a deliberate policy of premature conversion made a massive problem even worse?

7th July

A "premature conversion loophole" example

This is an example of the "premature conversion loophole" in action. It is copied with permission from private communication. Only the names have been changed. (This loophole has been reported in this weblog on 10th, 16th, 21st, and 26th of February, 18th March, 1st and 30th of April and 1st and 7th July below).

Premature conversion example

8th July

EDS in double trouble

EDS is the company acknowledged to be at fault in the delay to the start up of the new CSA scheme. It was originally at fault with the old CSA computer. And it is also at fault in the continuing disaster since the CSA's new scheme started. (See item below of 4th July). Now EDS is also in further trouble elsewhere. These are extracts from a VNUnet article.

"At a Treasury Sub-committee hearing last week the paymaster general, Dawn Primarolo, admitted that the newly introduced working tax credit system had performed so poorly that the Inland Revenue was seeking to recover "additional business costs which are attributable to the failings of the IT services". Primarolo said that applications for working tax credits had been delayed because the IT system, introduced by EDS, did not run "as fast as it should have done and was predicted to do"."

"The criticism comes at an unwelcome time for EDS, which is leading one of three consortia bidding for the Inland Revenue's £4bn, 10-year, outsourcing contract.... Under European Union procurement rules, past performance cannot be considered when awarding public sector contracts. If EDS loses overall responsibility it will continue to be involved, said Robert Morgan, chief executive of outsourcing consultants Morgan Chambers. He added that the government likes having a prime contractor because it provides "one throat to choke if things go wrong". EDS declined to comment."

If those are really the European Union procurement rules, we live in a sorry condition! Are we really doomed to re-live bad experiences because we can't take history into account? Is there no limit to the number of times a company can fail to deliver before we are allowed to recognise that perhaps they simply can't deliver? (EDS has been involved with failures all over the world).

VNUnet, Gareth Morgan, EDS slammed for government IT problems

EDS - Electronic Data Systems
News articles about the current computer system
News articles about the new computer system

8th July

Parliamentary debate about EDS and the new CSA scheme

Extracts (from 7th July):

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): "... However, I was dismayed to discover, when the CSA gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee last week, that the new IT system still faces major delays and problems. That inevitably means that existing cases will take longer to move to the new system, as my right hon. Friend has already said. I am looking for his assurance that he will do everything in his power to improve matters, including ensuring that EDS—Electronic Data Systems—which is responsible for the IT failures, is surcharged or otherwise held to account for its failure to have the system up and running as quickly as it should have been."

Mr. Smith: "I welcome my hon. Friend's positive remarks and share her commitment to ensuring that the new system works as effectively as it should as quickly as possible. I confirm that under the terms of the contract, EDS is penalised for non-delivery and poor service performance. I cannot go into the figures, but I assure my hon. Friend that the penalties involved are significant, both in absolute financial terms and in percentage terms. EDS has changed its senior management with responsibility for the project, and that has resulted in a better working relationship...."

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): "The question that my right hon. Friend has just answered is very similar to the one that I was about to ask, so I shall just ask him whether he is aware of the extra stress that the system's failure to comply with contract is placing on the work force?"

Mr. Smith: "Yes, I am. The technical defects, including the system going down or disappearing for periods, introduce into day-to-day working elements of unpredictability that have been difficult for staff to cope with. As I said earlier, I am grateful for the efforts made by the staff, but progress is being made and improvements in operations are being achieved notwithstanding the technical defects in the system. Further training is being provided to assist the staff in coping with the challenges."

Oral Answers to Questions, 7th July

9th July

Is "Man Not Included" honest and ethical? Does it contravene children's fundamental rights?

"Man Not Included" finds sperm donors for lesbians and single women. It is an introduction agency. It uses its best efforts to protect the anonymity of both recipients and donors. All records of successful conceptions are kept "off line" and are destroyed later.

The rules include "Recipients agree to have no claim whatsoever on the Donor as a result of the usage of their sperm in the conception of a child. Such claims include but are not limited to rights to any financial compensation or maintenance and rights of demand in any way over the Donor's participation in the upbringing of The Child". But it is not possible in UK law to sign away the rights to child support. If a lone mother claims Income Support, she will be required to apply for child support, in spite of any prior agreement. (Except for official sperm donation).

But far more important is that they choose to contravene children's human rights. It is recognised by the UN, by the European Court of Human Rights, and increasingly by UK Courts, that children have a right to know their biological parents.

- The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stresses the right of a child to know its parents. It recently criticised the UK for failing to make maximum attempts for children to learn the identity of both biological parents.
- The European Court of Human Rights has judged that a child has the right to certain knowledge about its origins. (And it ordered a country to provide a paternity test for this purpose).
- There have been a number of cases in the UK courts where children have been deemed to have a right to this knowledge, even against the wishes of the mother.
- A number of countries have removed donor-anonymity in the interests of the children.

The "Man Not Included" website doesn't suggest that children's human rights have even been considered.

10th July

CSA is criticised by Ombudsman's annual report

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration's Annual Report 2002-2003 has been published. As usual, it criticised the CSA heavily. Here are some extracts.

3.3 As for the Child Support Agency (CSA) ... some of the problems seem to be more deep-seated and serious. Although there were some novel and contentious cases, there were nevertheless too many delayed and piecemeal responses. It is a matter of particular concern that there was frequently an initial reluctance by CSA to accept the Ombudsman's findings and recommendations for redress. As a result, a number of investigations took longer than a year to complete.... There is a need for DWP to continue to emphasise to their staff the need to give priority to complaints the Ombudsman has received, to take all possible steps to deal with them quickly, to acknowledge readily mistakes where they have occurred, and to offer appropriate redress.... Whenever practicable, it is in the interests of all concerned for a complaint to the Ombudsman to be resolved swiftly and informally rather than through the statutory investigation process.

3.6 The Ombudsman received 211 complaints against CSA. Most complaints followed the familiar themes of previous years - failure to take effective action to enforce payment by non-resident parents, and delays in issuing maintenance enquiry forms to non-resident parents, in making maintenance assessments; and in carrying out reviews of such assessments. Delays of this kind can be particularly frustrating for parents with care, and often lead to accrual of substantial arrears of maintenance.

11th July

"Unofficial sperm donors" are liable for child support

In the UK, in the US, and in Australia, men who donate sperm but not via official agencies may end up paying child support for their biological children. They can't escape liability simply by having a contract with the woman.

Reasons for this include the fact that neither the child nor the Treasury are parties to the contract. The child cannot be denied its rights to support. The Treasury will not allow a private contract to stop it using child support to reduce social security / welfare payouts. In these countries, it is a good idea not to "help out a single or lesbian friend by providing sperm". And it is wise to be careful before donating to an agency that cannot protect donors by law. See the entry below for 9th July. It will be interesting to see whether "Man Not Included" can handle such a challenge.

A far more important objection than money is to preserve the human rights of the child. Societies are increasingly recognising that children have rights to know their biological parents. Courts are recognising this too. People who attempt to sever any contact between the child and one of the biological parents may be doing so for selfish reasons that conflict with their children's interests. Their children may resent them for it later. People and organisations that arrange unofficial sperm donation don't appear even to think about the long term interests of the children!

A recent Australian case:
The Age, Sperm donor forced to pay maintenance
Herald Sun, Monica Videnieks, Father liable in old-fashioned way
The Age, Susan Murdoch, Sperm donor must pay child support, court rules

A fascinating paper from Laura Wish Morgan in the US:
It’s Ten O’Clock: Do You Know Where Your Sperm Are? Toward A Strict Liability Theory of Parentage

Organisations that believe that children normally have a right to know their biological parents:
The United Nations, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (This was ratified, with qualifications, by the UK in 1991).
The European Court of Human Rights, based on the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
UK Family Courts, drawing on the Human Rights Act 1998, which was in turn based on the above European Convention.

12th July

Tax office seeks costs from EDS

At a Treasury sub-Committee hearing last week the Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo admitted the working tax credit system had performed so poorly that the Revenue was seeking to recover 'additional business costs which are attributable to the failings of the IT services'.... Two other major government IT systems managed by EDS also came under fire last week....

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) criticised the computer system EDS developed for the Child Support Agency (CSA). The union said the system 'effectively prevented CSA staff from performing their job properly'. A spokesman for the DWP told Computing there has been some 'initial teething problems' at the CSA, but says figures on the delays caused would not be released ahead of a report to parliament.

Computing, Gareth Morgan, Tax office seeks costs from EDS

13th July

Paternity testing links updated

It is possible to obtain a "home testing kit" so you can put a sample of yourself and a sample of your child, (perhaps mouth swabs or hair follicles, etc), into an envelope. You send it off and get the answer to the question: "is this my child?" It will cost you at least £129.

I provide a list of links to "motherless" paternity testing service providers available to people in the UK. (They are based in about 10 countries, include 10 or more in the UK). I have just made a major update to the list. (I have no commercial links with any of these companies). See below.

Warning. I have been told by private correspondence of serious quality problems with a couple of these sites!

I do not provide a quality check for paternity testing services. You must make your own judgement. It is rather like asking the question "would I rely on this company to service my car?" Cheapest may not be best. Look for clues, for example:

- Does the company concentrate on having the lowest price, or do they provide a range of options such as high quality and/or official options?
- Does the company simply appear to be a "broker" using laboratories elsewhere, or do they have their own laboratory?
- Is the company recognised by other organisations, or the media, etc? Do they appear to be an authority?

Some links to paternity testing services
Paternity tests for peace of mind

Another option, of course, is to check for infidelity instead. Has your partner (male or female) had sex in the last day, even though you haven't? You can buy a cheap kit over the Internet to enable you to check their underwear to find out. They won't know you have checked!

Infidelity testing - technologies and services

14th July

Damning evidence from CSA Directors now on Parliamentary Committee site

See the entry below for 4th July. Directors of the CSA gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee on 2nd July. (At the moment, the evidence is uncorrected, and doesn't include the written submission from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)).

The Directors described problems with the computer system supplied by EDS, and the difficulties that CSA staff face trying to work in the way demanded by the new scheme. Doug Smith said that the software needed to do the bulk conversion of existing cases to the new scheme would not be available until Spring 2004. He also expected to be able to reduce the number of CSA staff, currently at 12,000, to about 8,000 in 3 years time.

Much of the dialogue was simply surreal. It has to be experienced to be believed! Mrs Humble to Doug Smith: "I am fascinated by this flight path. We have road maps and now we have flight paths. I am not sure how one gets on top of a flight path, which was another of your comments. I want to come down to earth."

Uncorrected Evidence presented by Mr Dough Smith, Mr Vince Gaskell and Mr Mark Neale

15th July

Report on the standards of decision making in the CSA published

This report (required by legislation) has been published. Only a little over 1 page is about the CSA. Would you be happy if your bank worked to this standard?

Percentage of Child Support Maintenance Assessments found to be correct: Using all the elements of a maintenance assessment: 2001-02 72%
(2000-01 67%)
Just the accuracy of the last decision taken on a case: 2001-02 82.4%
Whether appeal submissions presented the case to a sufficient standard to allow the tribunal to reach the right conclusion or decision: 2001-02 78%
(2000-01 74%)

Secretary of State’s report on the standards of decision making in the ... Child Support Agency ... 2001-2002

16th July

CSA (nearly) publishes its Annual Report & Accounts then removes it!

Today the CSA website's "what's new" page reported that the 2002-2003 Report and Accounts were available. But the PDF documents referred to were the 2001-2002 Report & Accounts. Then next time I checked the "what's new" page no longer mentioned them!

(This sort of announcement & withdrawal has happened a number of times. For example, the "Procedures" for the new scheme were published on 19th June. Within a week they had disappeared, but there were still residual statements on the CSA website about them. Then these too disappeared).

I guess there was a temporary hitch with the Report, and it will now be announced again in a day or two. But the Accounts have been published on the NAO website, see above.

16th July

National Audit Office publishes the Accounts that the CSA didn't

See entry below. The Accounts themselves were published on the National Audit Office (NAO) website today. (The Accounts come from the NAO, while the Report comes from the CSA. The latter are still not available). The NAO press release says:

Head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn has qualified his opinion on the Child Support Agency’s account for the ninth year running because of historical high levels of error in maintenance assessments. Reporting to Parliament today, Sir John said that he had taken this action because, on the basis of his examination of the account, he estimated that 28 per cent of receipts from non-resident parents and 76 per cent of maintenance assessment debts were incorrect. This was mainly the result of errors over a number of years in underlying maintenance assessments and incorrect adjustments to customers’ accounts.

Sir John further estimated that: of the £586 million receipts from non-resident parents, there were overpayments of £4.5 million and underpayments of £21.9 million; and the amount of £686 million shown in the account as due from non-resident parents for maintenance assessments at 31 March 2003 contained overstatement errors of £21.7 million and understatement errors of £390.9 million in debts arising from full maintenance assessment; and overstatement errors of £2.7 million and understatement errors of £6.8 million in debts arising from interim maintenance assessments....

Sir John said today: "I have had to qualify this account yet again because maintenance assessments are still subject to high levels of error. I therefore welcome the implementation earlier this year of the Agency’s reform programme with its new, simplified methodology for calculating maintenance assessments. The Agency believes that this will result in more accurate assessments and provide other associated benefits. The new programme has been operating for only four months and it is too early for me to assess the success of the reforms. I intend to consider their impact in my audit of the 2003-04 account."

NAO Press Release, Child Support Agency Client Funds Account 2002-2003
CSA Accounts 2002-2003 from the NAO (PDF format)

17th July

Annual Report & Accounts now available on CSA website

This time they really are there! They cover the period up to end March 2003. So they only include the 1st month of operation of the new scheme, and they give no clues about how it is working. The Report & Accounts comprise 3 PDF files. (You get the same files whether you get to them from the old-scheme site or the new-scheme site). A few comments:

-

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Andrew Smith, announced in Parliament yesterday "I am announcing a series of interim targets that use a basic measure of the unit costs of the services we provide to customers.... CSA target: Staff cost per live case £184.00".

This target is about £181 million based on the current caseload. Staff costs were about £210 million in 2002-03. See also the entry below for 14th July.

- In general, the CSA performance measures improved compared with previous years. This, of course, is partly because the CSA has poor historical performance! Its current performance would not be acceptable for normal financial institutions.

CSA Annual Report and Accounts 2002 - 2003

18th July

Performance details of new CSA scheme not published as promised

There was a debate in Parliament on 7th July about the progress of the new scheme. In response to questions about what was happening, the Secretary of State Andrew Smith said:

"Notwithstanding the shortfalls in performance ... the system is improving. More than 1,000 cases a week are being cleared and I shall shortly report further performance details to the House, from which the hon. Gentleman will be able to draw further conclusions".

Some people naturally expected to see more details about the performance of the new scheme! But here is Andrew Smith's answer to a Parliamentary Question on 16th July:

Mr. Heald: "To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions pursuant to his oral answer of 7 July 2003 ... when he plans to make a further report on the performance of the Child Support Agency".

Mr. Andrew Smith: "I stated on 7 July 2003 during oral questions ... that I would shortly report to the House on progress in implementation of the new child support scheme. I have today placed that report in the Library".

In fact, unless there were 2 reports that day, what he published on 16th was the Annual Report, see entry for 17th July below. It only includes the 1st month of operation of the new scheme, and it gives no clues about how it is working. It was probably pretty well complete before the 7th July anyway!

So what was promised as further performance details became progress in implementation and in practice gave less information than already published elsewhere, such as the Select Committee. (See entries below for 4th, 8th, and 14th July).

25th July

New papers on paternity testing published here

There would probably have to be international agreement that this is a problem that needs to be solved.

On average, unofficial motherless paternity tests improve the outcomes for children.

It is not clear in which direction the UK is going. To ban paternity tests via home sampling kits? Or permit them? Articles in the press say the UK will ban them. The government appears to accept them in principle.

Australia may ban them, at least without the permission of all parents. (In other words, they don't want putative fathers testing whether they are real fathers without the mother's permission). I've had a look at whether a country (UK or Australia) could hope to ban them successfully. I've also examined whether it would be in the interests of children to ban them.

New papers examining these questions are:
What is the crime if men seek confirmation that children are theirs?
"A matter of opinion" - Unofficial paternity tests and the impacts on children

27th July

Dimensional Warp Generator needed in Boston Massachusetts

I'm a time traveler stuck here in 2003. Upon arriving here my dimensional warp generator stopped working.... Please transport unit ... to below coordinates on Sunday July 27th at (exactly 3:00pm) Eastern Stand Time....
Email from strill

strill has emailed Child Support Analysis with a request for a Dimensional Warp Generator. Unfortunately he/she/it needs it this evening (UK time), and it appears impossible to buy a DWG and transport it to Boston MA on a Sunday.

The co-ordinates are very precise, and identify Village Street off Cummings Avenue in the Woburn area of Boston Massachusetts. Can anyone closer to the spot help out in time? This poor person/thing has obviously been trying to get a replacement for some time. More details in the links here.

Google search for "Dimensional Warp Generator"

29th July

No one showed to pick up the Dimensional Warp Generator

Ha...yeah...I showed up to take pics just to see who else would show up.
Sean

See item for 27th July below. Some people actually turned up at Village Street to see what happened! Nothing significant did. Perhaps because no one actually supplied a DWG.

(They were told that 28th July was the critical date. Child Support Analysis was told 27th July).

30th July

Papers about paternity testing publicised

See item for 25th July below. I've sent these papers to the Human Genetics Commission. I've also sent them to various lobby groups in Australia, where there appears to be significant problems.

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