Western Mail, 29th July 2006
The Government finally pulled the plug on its beleaguered Child Support Agency this week. Rhian Howells, Partner at Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, Cardiff, is concerned that a replacement body will make the same mistakes.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister was certainly memorable. But one of her last acts, which was to set up the Child Support Agency (CSA), will go down as one of her worse decisions.

First mooted by Thatcher in 1990, although not established until 1993, the CSA was designed to assess child maintenance and enforce collection from absent parents, replacing the court system which was becoming increasingly overloaded.

There was chaos when its computer system collapsed because it was not ready. Problems with the system persisted throughout and when Sir David Henshaw delivered his report on Britain’s child support system this week, the agency has an estimated £3 billion in unrecovered debt and an astonishing backlog of 333,000 cases.

It has been an unmitigated disaster, taking an average of 26 weeks to process a child support claim, while at Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice we have seen many cases that have taken well over a year to go through the system. This is clearly completely unacceptable.

Our experience has been that the thoroughness of the CSA has been found wanting on many occasions.

For example, we have acted for a divorced woman, whose former husband is self-employed and he claims to be financially struggling. As a result the CSA makes him pay child maintenance of just £5 a week.

This same father drives around South Wales in a top-of-the-range Porsche.

Where is the CSA’s system to prevent such a blatant disregard for his responsibilities?

Looking at the bigger picture, in June last year the National Audit Office (NAO) said that millions of pounds worth of reforms put in place in 2003 had failed to produce any significant improvement.

In 2004 its chief executive, Doug Smith, announced he was resigning, admitting that he was “seriously disappointed” with its performance.

Even as far back as July 1999,the then Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling said the CSA had “failed” and added, “It doesn’t help parents who want to pay and it isn’t tough enough on those who won’t.”

It has taken the present Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton to finally bite the bullet, announcing the CSA will eventually be replaced by a smaller body, while announcing other reforms such as including a law compelling fathers to register as parents on the birth of a child.

However, none of these changes will happen immediately.

The Government will now consult and publish a White paper in the autumn. Hutton says he wants a simpler system that encourages parents to make their own maintenance arrangements, ‘with firm and effective state intervention where that is not possible.”

He wants the new body to be much smaller than the CSA and deal with fewer cases, as the government tries to shift the emphasis of child support back on to parents reaching their own informal financial agreements.

He promises tougher enforcement measures and a new organisation to deliver child support in the future.

In effect, it seems the CSA is only to be cloned, its sibling simplified and allowed to poke its nose in only where it was invited .

My worry is that this move is more of a rebrand rather than a closure.

And will the organisation be staffed by former CSA employees, who I am afraid to say are mostly desperately under-trained and ill-prepared for the difficult situations that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

Existing powers to confiscate the driving licences of non-payers will be augmented by new powers to confiscate passports.

The most dramatic development would also see those who repeatedly fail to make maintenance payments identified via the media and possibly the DWP’s website.

Such name-and-shame schemes are common in parts of the United States, and are certain to cause consternation in the UK.

In summary, this week’s announcement has been a huge admission of failure.

The Government should have acted many years ago to address a system that was failing the most exposed members of our society, ie parents and children whose quality of life was being undermined.

Going forward, our chief concern is whether parents will get clear information quickly about what it means for them.

The last thing needed is for the system to be clouded by further widespread confusion.

The sooner the CSA is scrapped the better; but the new system needs to be fairer, more robust and ensure that the delays and abuses that have plagued it all along are finally brought to an end.