Weblog archive for November 2004

5th November 2004

New version of Open Door on CSA web site

It is hard to see how a 7-page (or 14-page, depending how you count them) quarterly publication will help very much. However, it is there for anyone who wants to read it. The sections are:

  • Our Chief Executive answers tough questions from MPs
  • Read what the Head of the Civil Service, and MPs, think about child support reform
  • Find out how the Agency measures against its targets and why Direct Payment is easier for clients
  • How we tackle criminal offences like fraud and refusal to provide information
  • You ask the questions, we answer them

The CSA says:

"Our quarterly magazine contains articles which will be of interest to stakeholders, advisers and employers. You can download PDF copies of the latest editions using the links below."

9th November 2004

The medical importance of knowing your biological ancestry

Child Support Analysis is in favour of being able to identify biological relationships, and against attempts to hide the truth about such relationships. Hence support for paternity testing, and opposition to the "Man Not Included" service. Here is some support for that view, from the USA.

Quite simply, knowing your family's medical history can save your life. 

Dr. Richard H Carmona, Surgeon General

US health officials are asking Americans this Thanksgiving to try to find out what their family medical history is, as this can have a big impact on an individual's health and longevity. The message comes from the Surgeon General himself, Dr. Richard H Carmona.

"By tracing your family's medical history you will have a better idea what your own risks are for developing diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer".

Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created a new computerized tool to help make it fun and easy for anyone to create a sophisticated portrait of their family's health.

"This new tool, called "My Family Health Portrait" can be downloaded for free and installed on your own computer. The tool will help you organize your family tree and help you identify common diseases that may run in your family. When you are finished, the tool will create and print out a graphical representation of your family's generations and the health disorders that may have moved from one generation to the next. That is a powerful tool for predicting any illnesses for which you should be checked."

Medical News Today, "Find out about your grandparents' health, it could save your life"

13th November 2004

MPs attack the government over the CSA's IT failings - 1

This is catching up with news from Parliament. There will be another blog item tomorrow. Despite the mess that continues as a result of the inability of the EDS-provided computer system to do what is required, the government still won't describe its contingency plans. Presumably, because it hasn't got any. The government appears to have decided to continue with the revised CSA scheme, and its computer system, without seriously planning for anything else. EDS probably recognises this, and acts accordingly. (In EDS's position, faced with a government that shows no signs of throwing you out and trying an alternative, what would you do?)

We will not let the matter rest here. 

Sir Archy Kirkwood, Commons work and pensions select committee chairman

MPs investigating failures of the IT systems at the Department of Work and Pension's Child Support Agency have slammed a government response to their highly critical report, which was published in July. The MPs said the response failed "to address the spirit and letter of many of the committee's recommendations". Expressing his frustration, Commons work and pensions select committee chairman, Sir Archy Kirkwood, said, "We will not let the matter rest here."

"The Government's response also fails to engage fully with a number of other specific recommendations. In the case of the IT system used by the Child Support Agency, the Committee called for the Government to set out its contingency plans, including various options, in particular the abandonment of the CS2 system, if the system is not fully operational by 1 December 2004. The Department's response did not address the issue of contingency plans, and omitted any mention of the dates explicitly recommended by the Committee."

One day, a government may realise that it needs to think outside the current system, and consider alternatives. It probably won't be this government, which is more interested in telling the UK what it intends to do, rather than actually doing it.

14th November 2004

MPs attack the government over the CSA's IT failings - 2

Instead of reacting to news as it arises, why don't I simply write next year's blogs now? They will probably just be variants on this sort of news.

... whilst the performance of the CSA IT system is unacceptable, problems with the Agency go much deeper. The Committee will question the CSA over its apparent reluctance to use a wide range of powers to enforce the payment of child maintenance. 

Committee Chairman, Sir Archy Kirkwood

Secretary of State, Alan Johnson MP is due to appear before the House of Commons, Work and Pensions Committee on Wed 17th November to explain why half of lone parents haven't received maintenance payments for their children. The meeting has been called as part of an ongoing investigation into the Child Support Agency, which introduced wide ranging reforms in March 2003.

Committee Chairman, Sir Archy Kirkwood, said 'I believe the CSA is a failing organisation, unable to deliver the service parents have a right to expect. The organisation must improve, or increasing numbers of children will suffer.'

MPs will also question the head of the CSA, Doug Smith, about the poor performance of the new IT system and the refusal to set a deadline for the transfer of cases to the new system. Of the 742,400 cases under the 'old' scheme, only 75% receive maintenance. Under the new scheme, results are even worse with only 50% of the 238,122 cases receiving maintenance payments.

17th November 2004

CEO of CSA resigns

Plans to cut the agency's staff by 2,600 by April 2006 will only deepen the crisis. 

Pressure group One Parent

Doug has decided that now is the time to stand aside. He believes we have reached a natural breakpoint at which to hand over the reins. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson

Rearranging who runs the CSA isn't going to solve the problem. It is a systemic failure. There are a million cases waiting to come onto the new system and tens of thousands of lone parents missing out an an extra £10 a week that was promised to them. I am not convinced that this new computer is ever going to be good enough. 

Janet Allbeson, of the campaign organisation One Parent Families

You could be just working on a case, trying to solve a problem and then an error message will pop up, which is what the agency calls an incident. What happens is that you can't work on that case anymore. You could be talking weeks - more likely months - until there's a fix in the system. What the CSA wanted the system to do has not been conveyed to EDS - or if it has, they have misunderstood. Basically it doesn't work. 

EMPLOYEE, WHO WISHED TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS

How easy will it be to find a suitable replacement? Which effective senior civil servant would want the job?

As NEWS.scotsman.com says:

"The chief executive of the Child Support Agency resigned today amid widespread anger about the organisation’s failure to make absent parents pay maintenance for their children. And Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson indicated that he would make a decision within weeks on whether to scrap the £456 million computer system which is blamed for creating chaos at the Agency. Prime Minister Tony Blair faced calls in the House of Commons for the Agency itself to be abolished. He agreed that the current crisis was "not acceptable" but insisted that work would be done to sort out the computer problems."

"The Prime Minister today promised to look at the possibility of transferring responsibility for chasing child support cases to the Inland Revenue, after branding failings of the Child Support Agency as "unacceptable" But he warned the change, advocated by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, was likely to cause consternation to recipients and the Inland Revenue alike."

From Computing:

"The government is withholding nearly £1m per month in fees due to EDS while the problems are resolved. But the CSA has also made more than 2,000 change requests from its original specification for the system."

From the BBC:

"The problems being faced by thousands of parents who are failing to get the payments they deserve is clearly no laughing matter.... But the prime minister brushed it all aside with another flash flood of reasonableness."

Official figures earlier this month showed that staff at the CSA took an average 13.8 days sick leave in 2003, the highest of any government department or agency. The average sickness leave for civil servants was 10 days.

Ananova, "Child Support Agency chief resigns"

NEWS.scotsman.com: Andrew Woodcock, "Csa Chief Quits Amid Payments Row | Trevor Mason, "Csa Failings Unacceptable, Says Blair"

Reuters, "Head of Britain’s Child Support Agency to quit"

Computing, Bryan Glick, "CSA chief resigns as IT problems continue"

BBC: "Basically, it doesn't work" | Nick Assinder, "Prime minister's questions"

Times, "How chaos mounted at the Child Support Agency"

20th November 2004

Good follow-up article to the resignation

Obviously there have been many articles about the resignation of Doug Smith, the CEO of the CSA. Most of them are fairly superficial, repeating the usual statements about the CSA, and accepting the government's vision of the purpose of the CSA without comment.

But one article was written from a position of more knowledge, and a much wider (and international) perspective. This is not surprising, given that the author, Adrienne Burgess, has written such material as "A Complete Parent: towards a new vision for child support". Rather than quote too much, I'll just provide a few paragraphs, with a reference to the article below.

"When the CSA opened in 1993, no one was more surprised than the then five-year-old Australian CSA. They'd known a British CSA was on the cards: English officials had visited, and had returned to London with reams of notes. What caused the Australians to rub their eyes was not the existence but the design of the British CSA. It seemed the Brits had not only failed to learn from the many positive elements of the Australian experience - they had done the exact opposite."

"Where the Australian formula was simple and transparent, Britain's was complicated and obscure. Where the Australians allowed lone parents on benefit to keep more than half the child support paid, the UK Treasury clawed the lot back. Where the Australians collected money for children only, the Brits claimed for mothers too. Where the Australians had chosen not to revise existing court settlements, the Brits had decided to "go retrospective"."

[snip]

"One reason Britain's separated fathers make so much fuss outside the system may be that they are neither seen nor heard within it. Remarkably little research has looked at their experiences; and when one report on cohabitation breakdown identified unmarried fathers as doing badly out of the system, the foundation that had commissioned the research in effect suppressed the findings, by failing to issue a press release."

"Separated fathers' views are routinely misrepresented. Government sources imply, with a disingenuousness bordering on dishonesty, that because 90% of cases never get to court, 90% of fathers are satisfied. In fact, many of these men are very dissatisfied. And, recently, government advisers - possibly in an attempt further to discredit the protesters - have been citing research they say shows more separated mothers (34%) than fathers (17%) wanting children to see more of their dads. The research method used to obtain these figures is highly unusual. What's more, they conflict with other findings in the same study and have not been replicated in any other study: research from all over the world reveals far more separated fathers than mothers dissatisfied with child-father contact, especially where contact levels are low or non-existent."

[snip]

"But it is in the contrast between the two countries' CSAs that the real gap yawns. Today, the Australian agency boasts a culture of "voluntary compliance" rather than enforcement. Newly-separated fathers are targeted before child support arrears build up. Referrals for help with employment and other issues - debt-management, relationship concerns - can be made. Meanwhile, the British CSA flails about, and like the rest of the system, continues to regard separated fathers as nothing more than walking wallets - and very unsatisfactory ones, at that."

22nd November 2004

Transcript of a TV programme on paternity fraud, dated 23rd November

Last year, more than 3,000 DNA paternity tests were commissioned by Australian men, and in almost a quarter of those cases, the test revealed that not only had their partners been unfaithful, but the children they thought were theirs had been sired by someone else. 

KERRY O'BRIEN

Many mothers are reluctant to agree to paternity test because, of course, if they do agree and the child turns out not to be the father's - the man's child - they face prosecution, as in the case of Liam McGill. 

Sue Price of the Men's Right Agency in Brisbane

I couldn't resist this item, because it reports a TV programme that has already been broadcast on 23rd November (tomorrow).

In Australia, of course, which is why it is dated tomorrow!

"Next week, the Supreme Court in Victoria will hear an appeal from a woman who was successfully sued by her ex-husband for so-called paternity fraud. Two years ago Liam McGill became the first Australian to successfully sue his ex-wife for paternity fraud. The Victorian Supreme Court awarded him $70,000 for pain and suffering which is now up for appeal. But the court could do nothing to compensate him he'd paid in child support over eight years for two children who were proved not to be his".

Last year, the Australian Law Reform Commission report recommended that it should be an offence to take a paternity test without the mother's permission. (So-called "motherless tests"). It is hard to detect the logic behind this. There are probably two main motivations:

  1. To protect errant mothers from being found out;
  2. To ensure that men continue to pay child support, even for children that are not their own.

So far, this report does not appear to have been turned into law in Australia. Perhaps because it is a hot potato that it is felt need not be grasped. It misses several points:

  1. Most motherless paternity tests are positive - they confirm paternity. (Hence the term "peace of mind tests"). It is obviously much better for those tests to be performed without causing conflict by requiring the mother's permission! And for the case of positive tests, it is better to have the test than for suspicions to linger.
  2. It is becoming accepted in many locations that it is better for the truth to come out, for the sake of the children. And, typically, the sooner the better.
  3. It is better for a nation to have such tests accedited within its own borders, than to cause the tests to taken using overseas services of potentially dubious quality. Within the borders, the government can encourage counseling, otherwise there may be no help at all.
  4. And the best result in the longer term is for misattributed paternity to be greatly reduced. That won't happen if the problem keeps getting hidden.

The UK's Human Genetics Commission is still considering what the UK should do.

Papers on this web site:

24th November 2004

"Just ask Dad"

Amid all the controversy over "Fathers 4 Justice", here is a less extreme position, well put. It is from Jack O'Sullivan, co-founder of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood.

(Although I wouldn't normally condone the sort of actions that people associated with Fathers 4 Justice take, it is possible that the only way to prevent some of these problems continually being dismissed is with their sort of publicity. Those men may not achieve all of their personal aims, but they may achieve a climate where other voices, such as Families Need Fathers, and Fathers Direct, are more likely to be heard. "The squeaky wheel gets the most oil").

Some quotes from a much longer article by Jack (below):

"Set aside misty-eyed sentimentalism and focus on fatherhood as a vast resource, virtually free to the taxpayer. It could help to fix annoying problems that bedevil governments, from crime, low educational achievement and child poverty to blighted communities. It is as promising as another North Sea oil field.

"You think I jest? Research demonstrates that children of involved fathers have better social skills by nursery age, do better at exams at 16 and are less likely to have a criminal record at 21. A released prisoner, if he gets stuck into fatherhood, is six times less likely to reoffend. And having a good father keeps you sane. The long-term mental health benefits are recorded in children, teenagers and adults.

"We also know that children of an involved father, living with or separated from the mother, are better off financially. If he is a resource to his family, he is, typically, an asset also to his community and to his employer. And if you find a man who takes his caring responsibilities seriously, you will usually find his partner enjoying better opportunities to work. When he refuses to leave his fatherhood at reception on Monday morning, he offers fairer competition to female colleagues trying to balance work and motherhood.

"There are elements in the Government that know all this: their stamp is on several recent policy documents on education and the NHS, which sing the praises of using fathers productively. But across Government, policy lacks a big picture and is characterised by incoherence and inconsistency."

25th November 2004

It is a mess in Northern Ireland too!

There are actually 2 CSAs in the UK. There is one for Great Britain, and another for Northern Ireland. They operate with the same basic legislation and computer systems. Neither works properly, and often not at all.

Here is a view from a Northern Ireland journalist, Janet Devlin:

"The Child Support Agency is currently having a survey of 1,600 people carried out to evaluate its service to customers in Northern Ireland. The survey, which is being undertaken by the Statistics & Research Agency, was apparently ordered before last week's government inquiry exposed an organisation in meltdown. To that end, a nice, soft spoken woman called Iris telephoned me last week to ask a series of questions which I assume are designed to get to the root of the problems at the CSA....

"With a little more probing, she admits she has not yet had one positive reaction to any of her allotted surveys, with most people starting out at a rant, and many of them breaking down in tears. Now that I can understand. Going by my own experience of the CSA, I am able to comprehend for the first time in my life why loonies take to the rooftops with AK47s. The aforementioned computer system, imported from America at a cost of £420m, has taken on all the personality of Hal or The Terminator in my imagination....

"Your whole life you work and pay your taxes. Then you have a baby, much-loved and much-wanted, but not in ideal circumstances. You do what Tony Blair wants you to do, which is to stick the baby in childcare so you can continue to work and pay taxes to prop up a creaking welfare state. You turn to the CSA because you believe it will mediate a fair, amicable and efficient financial settlement. Then they mess the whole thing up. Somewhere there is money sitting in a bank account, paid in (usually) by dads, which is not getting to their sons and daughters, while mum is struggling to pay for the childminder, school uniforms and household bills. And the cheering prospect for all of us still owed money by the CSA is that Christmas is just around the corner. I bet Doug Smith, ex-head of the CSA - who at least had the good grace to resign - will have much nicer presents than our children will....

"Just when you think you have that settled, you hear from the bank that you are overdrawn and they are going to charge you a massive sum in retaliation (though they call it something else). You hurry down to the bank to find that the only reason you are in the red is that the CSA has failed to forward payments for the past four months. It's pretty difficult to talk to anyone back at the ranch about your problem because you keep having to go through a general switchboard number which practically asks you to key in your bra size. Eleven phone calls and two days later, you find that you are phoning the wrong number because an ongoing case is not the same as a new case. You telephone another number, only to find that the entire building is out on strike except for one person who is not dealing with, probably, hundreds of calls. He tells you it is your own fault that you didn't get any money because you should be checking with your bank every month....

"It's difficult to get hold of your case worker because she works flexible hours and no-one else is willing to deal with your inquiry. You are assured you can phone her before 8pm, but none of the three direct line numbers you are given work - and the switchboard has closed down. By this time, you feel like you are living through Lord of the Rings part 54. Forgive me if I am fuzzy on some of the details, but it's all sort of nightmarish, looking back. You wonder if you will get any money from the CSA in time for your child starting primary school."

Nothing new there, then.

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