Weblog archive for September 2005

8th September 2005

"CSA in meltdown"

Frank Field's open letter to Tony Blair is reported in many newspapers today. Most of the quotes are similar.

We acknowledge that the Child Support Agency has had a difficult time but the Government is determined to ensure that we get maintenance flowing for those children whose parents live apart. I accept there may be arguments about which arm of Government should deliver this long term but the difficulties would not be solved simply by transferring the work elsewhere. 

Lord Hunt, the minister responsible for the CSA

The 2003 reforms, while costing the taxpayer £456m for the new IT alone, have added to the agency's general chaos and declining performance and made an intolerably poor service even worse.... Yet the cost of the Agency increases. It now costs taxpayers 54p for each pound of maintenance the Agency collects. 

Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead

Frank Field was asked by the Prime Minister to think the unthinkable on welfare reform. He did, and Mr Blair ignored him. These new revelations are a damning indictment of the Government's welfare reforms by one of its own former ministers charged with welfare reform. 

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary

Frank Field has been critical of the CSA, and critical of the reformed system, from before the reformed scheme came into effect. On 2nd March 2003, the day before the start of the new scheme, Frank Field and I appeared on a BBC TV programme about the reforms. He said: "Well, I don't think children have been well served, I don't think most parents have been well served, I don't think taxpayers have been well served, nor do I think the staff who are asked to run the service have been well served. So there is a huge need for radical change, but sadly I don't believe what's going to be introduced tomorrow will actually fit the bill". (Here is my commentary on what he said on that programme).

Frank Field said something that echoes what Child Support Analysis has said a number of times - the CSA is hiding its failings. (Blogs for 16th June 2004, 20th September 2004, 20th December 2004, 12th April 2005, 1st August 2005).

Mr Field also said that the CSA, created in 1993, is refusing to publish key pieces of information crucial to understanding its performance. "Organisations in meltdown typically bolt down the hatches to the outside world by publishing less and less information of what they are doing," he said.

The CSA, "in practically all respects" was performing worse than it did a year after the 1997 General Election, Mr Field added. He points to a number of factors which, he says, prove the CSA is in meltdown including:

  • More than £1bn in maintenance now being written off
  • The backlog of applicants increasing and the amount of money collected falling
  • Whereas the agency used to collect all or part of the maintenance for seven out of 10 claimants, now seven out of 10 get nothing or only partial payments

The amount of maintenance collected by the agency had fallen by 2% in real terms, the proportion of lone parents receiving a first payment had dropped by a third, and the backlog of lone parents waiting for a maintenance assessment increased by 20%.

8th September 2005

Some comments from readers of the BBC website

Child Support Reform: The views and experiences of CSA staff and new clients

Adele Atkinson & Stephen McKay, Personal Finance Research Centre, University of Bristol, 2005-03-23

Many of these comments are familiar to Child Support Analysis readers. Many of them are also echoes of a DWP report (see box) discussed here on 12th April 2005. That report revealed an agency which no longer worked as a coherent organisation, with different layers of staff and management at odds with one-another.

"I worked for CSA .... We were told by e-mail in early spring 2004 that our office would be fully closed a year later. Many members of staff were left jobless and are now "signing on"".

"I had the dubious privilege of working for the main contractor of the consortium which provided the new IT. It was generally acknowledged that it was a bag of worms from the very beginning. The system was far too complicated.... The CSA were told this frequently but chose to ignore it".

"I worked for the CSA for 3 years and I had to leave due to the stress and abuse that comes with the job. Staff are left to their own devices and you have to feel sorry for parents and children caught up in this joke of an agency".

"The CSA is an utter disgrace... I pity the staff having to work there, it's not their fault... the blame lies squarely with the government... shame on them!"

"My partner has been employed by the CSA ... and has seen it go through many changes, most of which were not for the better. More and more pressure is put on the staff to improve the amount of money they recoup which is leading to soaring stress levels and very low staff morale. The staff on the ground level are unable to improve the recovery figures because the whole organisation is poorly run and the mangers do not have any indication how to do their job.... There is no consistency in the management style.... It is a joke and a complete waste of time".

"Cases would get lost for weeks while being worked on and incorrect assessments were commonplace. The agency is statistic driven, not allowing the officer the time to deal with a case correctly and stop errors. Lack of cooperation from other government agencies, in particular the Inland Revenue who could make available, information which would chop, in excess of, two months delay off the processing time on many cases and allow them to proceed to assessment and collection".

"The CSA and ministers are hiding behind the "computer problems".... However, the backlog is down to not enough resources being in place to deal with cases. Take on a lot more staff to deal with these cases and do them manually. It is frightening that ministers seem unwilling to act".

"Over the last five years staff morale has plummeted due to faulty IT, poor wages, lack of support and ineffective management. Staff have been leaving in droves over the last two years while management cover up the problems".

"Having worked for the CSA, I left as the stress of continually failing customers left me in such a bad way, I had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Staff are left to try and cope with effectively handling a process which is difficult for all parties involved at the best of times without the additional strain of the IT system which was introduced. Staff morale has reached an all time low, with staff unable to cope with the demands placed upon them by management, who will not admit they have failed the workers and clients alike".

9th September 2005

Here is Frank Field's letter to Tony Blair

Frank Field's open letter to Tony Blair is now available on his website. There is a press release, and a link to a PDF version of the letter. See links below.

There is also a link, see below, to a submission to the Department of Work & Pensions Select Committee, dated last November. He provided the foreword.

9th September 2005

More comments from readers of the BBC website

These are quotes from comments posted since yesterday's blog. What is sad is that none of these comments is new, or surprising, or unique. They are simply normal!

"They are useless. I now pay my ex-wife directly as advised to do so by the CSA as they admitted via my MP they couldn't resolve system problems they were having that meant my children were not receiving my payments until three months later from the CSA".

"Last year they cashed my cheque for £514 and denied all knowledge of receipt. This led to them taking more money off me one month after funds debited my account. I spoke to Liverpool's CSA Area Director and he agreed 'empathetically' that the whole system was at fault".

"As CSA staff member.... Staff struggle with managers that quite frankly could not organise anything, and are way out of their depth, and are incapable of making a decision. There are managers let me stress, not all, some are excellent but they are far outweighed by the bad ones. The CSA would and could run more efficiently if they stopped try to out do each other with the stats".

"Having been forced to deal with the CSA for almost eight years, I can tell everyone that it's ill-conceived, ill-managed, ill-funded and causes nothing but pain, fear, confusion and hardship".

"My daughter's partner has tried to discuss his payments with the CSA and their retort is that he is unconstructive and the call is terminated. What chance is there for a sensible approach to payments when there is no discussion possible?"

"The CSA is a vehicle of administration. If a car goes out of control you don't blame the car - you blame the driver".

"The CSA is failing children and staff because of totally incompetent IT spending and planning. Time after time this government throws incredible sums of money (£450 million in this case) at IT projects that do not work. When will they learn? ID cards will suffer the same failings".

"After almost 3 years of battling against the endless failings of the CSA systems I am finally receiving regular maintenance payments for my son, although I am having to phone them every month to practically beg them to put the money into my account which they have had for several weeks. It's not ideal but at least I am one of the lucky ones receiving money. I am worried that this will stop if the CSA is closed down. Better the devil you know?..."

"Please remember in all this that there are fathers out there not getting payments from mothers - It is not all one way. A colleague of mine is receiving payments from his wife of £5 per month, so his ex wife's debt will be paid off when his daughter is 37 years old..."

"You think the CSA is in melt down! You should try the Child tax credit system. If looked at carefully the way it is calculated actually forces over payments that then have to be recovered or appealed".

"I've seen the CSA from both sides, as a non-resident parent and now as a parent with care and can honestly say they are the worst organisation I have ever dealt with. They lie through their teeth to get you off the phone and make promises they never keep. I only deal with them by letter now since it's difficult for them to deny something that's in writing".

10th September 2005

Frank Field letter to the Telegraph

This letter (see link below) expresses the same views as his open letter to Tony Blair, but with different words. One statement is problematic:

"Where child support agencies work in other parts of the world they have generally used the state revenue service to collect maintenance. We must make such plans while trying to improve the CSA's current sorry performance".

This is misleading at best, and in fact inaccurate. Australia and New Zealand run their Child Support Agencies with their Inland Revenue departments. Other countries such as Canada and some European countries don't, and the US has many different schemes, varying from state to state.

It is misleading because it conjures up a picture of child support being one of the factors fed into the income tax calculation, and so the tax is increased and the extra is paid to the parent with care. But typically this is not the case. These CSAs tend to be run as separate agencies, and the child support calculation is not part of the income tax calculation formula. Australia is currently considering making the child support formula more complicated!

This doesn't mean that the idea has no merit. But it should not be thought of as the simple change to the income tax system that its advocates suggest. It would still have problems of finding the parents, gathering and verifying enough personal information, and refreshing this as needed. Income tax is not practiced as an exact amount each month, but as an approximate amount that it reconciled at end of year, sometimes with extra bulk payments or refunds. These may not be appropriate for child support.

15th September 2005

An open letter to Frank Field

I learnt that the review committee thought it was clever enough to make the CSA formula even more complicated. 

Frank Field, submission to Select Committee, 2004

The new formula that he is referring to is very simple, possibly the simplest child support formula in the world.

Child Support Analysis

I registered my disappointment that you were not being presented with a clear, bold and radical reform, moving the collection of maintenance to the Revenue and having a simple tax rate to determine the level of those payments. 

Frank Field, "open letter to Tony Blair", 2005

Tax is "a compulsory contribution to state revenue". Child support is not that. Only a small proportion of child support now contributes to Revenue-saving. The vast majority makes the children's household better off, and any scheme must pay out as well as collect.

Child Support Analysis

Last week, Frank Field, MP, published his "open letter to Tony Blair" about the failings of the CSA. He also proposed a solution. (See blogs for 8 September, 9 September, and 10 September).

I have written, and sent to him, "An open letter to Frank Field", responding to some of the points he raised, and specifically commenting on his proposed solution.

(I have also sent my letter to some other politicians with a special interest in child support, because they will obviously have seen Frank Field's letter).

I became convinced in 2001 that the "new scheme" would have to be reformed or replaced to make it fit for the 21st Century. Hence this web site! So I am sympathetic to constructive proposals for achieving this. But there are problems with Frank Field's proposals that need clarification (at least) before they could be accepted as practical solutions.

It is possible that Frank Field has not recognised that the CSA is no longer primarily about Revenue-savings for benefits cases. If the new scheme were working as intended, only perhaps 10% to 15% of the total amount of child support collected would be Revenue-saving. And perhaps 85% of all CSA cases would have no reduction from the child support for this. Child Support Analysis proposed in 2002 that it is time to stop using the CSA for this purpose. (There will be more posted here about this in the next few days).

16th September 2005

It is time to stop using the CSA for benefits-reduction!

The benefits concerned are Income Support and Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

When a lone parent claims benefits he or she is forced to claim child support from the other parent. The aim is to enable the benefits to be reduced, to reduce the burden on taxpayers. It is time to stop this practice, so that all of the child support makes the child's household better off.

The CSA was devised in a climate of concern about "benefits dependency" among lone parents. Initially the CSA was primarily intended to reduce benefits expenditure. Improving things for children was of secondary concern. (Many people erroneously still think of it that way). In fact, the CSA could never have been really effective for this purpose. All too often, when one parent is poor, both are. The average income of non-resident parents in benefits cases is less than the average for other cases. And the average income across all non-resident parents is less than the average male income across the country as a whole. Although there are certainly some cases of mothers on benefits while the father is rich, it is far more likely that the father will be on low income or even out of work. The money that the Treasury wants to get its hands on often simply doesn't exist.

These estimates are handicapped by the lack of statistics coming from the new computer system.

Year by year, the proportion of benefits cases has fallen. In about 2000, they became a minority. Now they are probably about one third. Furthermore, with the new scheme, there is a £10 disregard, so the child support has to exceed £10 per week for there to be a benefits reduction. This reduces the proportion of cases that would actually yield a benefits reduction, if all cases were transferred to the new scheme, to about 15%, because perhaps half of all benefits cases would have a calculation of £10 or less. This means that, of all the child support that would be paid if the new scheme were working properly, only perhaps 10% to 15% would be for benefits reduction.

The half of benefits cases that don't exceed the £10 disregard have the weird property that they are forced upon the parents even though there is actually no state financial interest in them! (Surely there may be human rights concerns there?) And all compulsory but unwanted cases are likely to drive a wedge between the parents, who might often be able to make their own private arrangements.

Treating benefits cases this way has a major impact on the running of the CSA. Over 70% of new cases begin as benefits cases, hence compulsory cases. Probably a significant proportion of those, perhaps 10% to 20%, would not begin if the lone parent had a choice. Perhaps a similar proportion of the existing caseload would be closed if lone parents had the choice. Each of those cases costs about £3 per week to run. Obviously anything that reduces the CSA's caseload and workload would reduce its failings.

I became convinced in 2001 that the "new scheme" would have to be reformed or replaced to make it fit for the 21st Century, hence this web site. One proposal I published in 2002 was that the CSA shouldn't be used for benefits reduction. This was rejected by Frank Field, Steve Webb, and Baroness Hollis. It is interesting to speculate whether it would have relieved the pressure on the CSA enough to enable it to work tolerably!

Now that the CSA's operations are being reviewed, I have sent that paper to the latest people in the relevant posts. Other people have also suggested that the disregard should be increased or benefits reduction should cease. Perhaps the severity of the current problems will make it happen this time. It could be done with relatively little legislative change, in addition to whatever else is proposed.

There are few statistics being published from the new computer system. The estimates above were made by using the statistics from the old computer system, and trying to estimate what would happen if all its cases were transferred to the new scheme. Clearly this is error-prone, because the old system's statistics were never good enough themselves!

At February 2005, 29% of live cases on the old computer system were benefits cases. 49% of NRPs earned no more than £115, which would be about £10 under the new scheme (depending on other parameters). Hence the "intelligent guess" of 15%. There may be a higher proportion of new cases, hence of benefits cases, on the new computer. But the average child support in benefits cases is less than the average child support in other cases. This estimate is good enough for policy purposes.

(These numbers are from sheets "CSA 4.1" and "CSA 4.4" of the spreadsheet csa_feb05_tables.xls published by the DWP).

18th September 2005

Australia: "Custody wars: put kids first"

It is a problem all over the Western world. Here is a view from Australia.

Despite formal access orders I am denied access. Why, despite numerous calls to the Child Support Agency, are they supposedly powerless to do anything about the custodial parents' non-conformance to the orders, yet can infiltrate and invade every part of my private financial affairs?. 

A father

I have reservations that these changes may increasingly mean that the resident parent will have their lives totally constrained by the demand for all manner of matters to be consented to by their ex-partner, while there is no comparable constraint on the non-resident partner. 

Shadow attorney-general, Nicola Roxon

A marriage ended, leaving two people to share a three-year-old girl. The father stayed in Sydney, seeing his daughter every third weekend, for one week at school holidays and two weeks over Christmas. The girl and her mother moved to the Central Coast, then back to Sydney, to Goulburn, to Wagga Wagga and, finally, Lismore.

"For me to comply with these relocations has meant I have had to spend many hours in cars picking my daughter up on a Friday evening and returning her on a Sunday afternoon," the father says. "As she moved further away, it meant expensive air fares and long unaccompanied flights for a young girl. I never once, in all this time, missed an access visit and each January planned 12 months ahead for these times." The arrangements worked well, most of the time, and father and daughter remained close although he moved into a new relationship and had another child.

When his daughter started high school, the visits from Lismore stopped as her mother felt them too disruptive to her education, and contact broke down. But when he told the Child Support Agency about the breach in custody arrangements he was told to see a lawyer, although it was the former partner who was breaking the agreement.

Despite this, he doesn't consider himself a "bitter and twisted non-custodial father". Rather it is the system that has failed him.... "Why am I told that I have to spend yet more money with a family law lawyer for advice on an arrangement that should be legally binding when I have already spent a very large amount of money through the legal system to establish the current access arrangements?"

Things may change. (See blog for 8th June 2005).

When the Lone Fathers Association, an increasingly high-profile lobby group representing non-custodial fathers, held a forum in Canberra recently it attracted both the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, and the Minister for Family and Community Services, Kay Patterson... It was at this forum that Ruddock hinted at alterations to the Family Law Act which are being promoted as the most significant changes in more than 20 years.... The changes were almost everything aggrieved fathers could have asked for - independent verification of domestic violence allegations, harsher penalties for people who breach custody arrangements and the right to be consulted about the living arrangements of their children, including where and who the former partner moves in with. They came not long after the Government promised to deal with the other complaint of many non-custodial parents, usually fathers - child support payments.

A review of the system, which will shortly be considered by cabinet, recommended dumping the present system which bases payments on a percentage of the taxable income of the parent paying the support. Instead, the costs of the children would first be worked out based on the combined income of both parents and then divided between the parents based on their capacity to pay and the amount of time they spend with the children.

Some people are not happy. This is a "holy war"!

The Government argues it is fighting to uphold the best interests of children and protect them as much as possible from the bitter effects of family breakdowns. But the hastily held public hearings to investigate the possible effects of the changes to the Family Law Act revealed grave concerns from lawyers and family relationship experts already working in the area.... But the shadow attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, produced her own report on the changes, which she says tip the scales too far in the favour of non-resident parents while not doing anything to deal with the difficulties faced by resident parents. "I have reservations that these changes may increasingly mean that the resident parent will have their lives totally constrained by the demand for all manner of matters to be consented to by their ex-partner, while there is no comparable constraint on the non-resident partner. The result is a reform full of rights for non-residential parents, but short on responsibilities."

Wrong! Non-residential parents pay child support! Isn't that "responsibility"?

19th September 2005

Time to stop "Good Cause" & "Reduced Benefit Directions"

What does it say about society that it tries to force a lone mother to name the father, and reduces her (inadequate) state support if she doesn't?

It is time to stop:

  • Trying to take money off the poorest families on the country; those where poor parents are separated and needing two homes.
  • Coercing lone parents to make a child support claim, using the most administratively incompetent government agency in living memory.
  • Forcing many extra cases onto the CSA, and making it even harder to do its job.

Parliamentary written answers, asked by Derek Conway: "what estimate he has made of the number of claimants who decline to identify the father of their child for Child Support Agency purposes?"

"Child Support should be for Children" - A proposal for reform

26th September 2005

David Blunkett concedes that the Child Support Agency is "a complete shambles"

Poppycock alert!

This is not initially the fault of the Government, it is the fault of the individual who walks away from the consequences and responsibility they should take. 

Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett

Rubbish! The CSA has been screwing up even people trying to pay child support, right from the start. It failed because of careless law and management incompetence. Why have so many PWCs tried to avoid naming the father? Often, because they were better off with private arrangements. Remember that, originally, the CSA was primarily intended to reduce benefits expenditure, not to make children better off.

Child Support Analysis

(How could he do otherwise?)

Speaking on GMTV:

Speaking from Brighton, where he will today give a keynote speech to Labour's conference, Mr Blunkett told GMTV "none of us can be in any doubt that the CSA, over many years, has not delivered. It has been a complete shambles and I am absolutely determined that we are going to do something about it"....

Furthermore Mr Blunkett announced plans of a full "root-and-branch" reform of the system by Christmas. "We will set in place a complete revision in the way in which the structures are going to work".... Parents who sought to evade their responsibilities for their children will be told that "really tough'' measures will be brought against them to ensure they support their child.

Gosh, that's telling them! Again. And again. (Since 1996 or even earlier!)

The following sounds interesting, but is in conflict with a well-known problem: over 70% of CSA cases start as benefits cases, and so are currently compulsory. (Most of those cease to be benefits cases later, and less than a third of CSA cases are benefits cases at any time).

"I am going to announce today that, as well as that, I want to set up a gateway before people get into the CSA. We want to actually look at how we can conciliate or mediate."

Child Support Analysis has been trying to persuade the government to drop compulsion, and indeed to drop "benefits reduction", since 2002. I recently sent letters and copies of the 2002 paper to all relevant parties, including David Blunkett, Stephen Geraghty (the CEO of the CSA), and opposition spokespeople. If compulsion is dropped, then many people will make their own arrangements "in the shadow of the CSA formula", with the CSA as a long-stop. That would be far better.

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