Support that Needs Supporting: A Critical Analysis of the Current State of the Child Support Agency Abstract: On November 17, 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair stated to the House of Commons that “the CSA has fundamental problems.” And this is the current opinion amongst many of the users of the service. This project will critically analyse the issues which have caused the agency to fail in its provision of support to some of the most vulnerable people in society; children.
Table of Contents (Jump to)
Chapter 1: Investigation
Chapter 2: Adjudication
Chapter 3: Enforcement
Chapter 4: Technological and Staffing Problems
Chapter 5: The Future for the CSA
This dissertation examines the current state of operation of the United Kingdom Child Support Agency, an organisation beset with criticism and administrative difficulties. It was hoped that the CSA, which has the two-fold role of assessing and collecting child support payments, would solve many of the problems of the court-based regime it was designed to replace. However, after 13 years of operation and several intervening attempts to reform the Agency these early ambitions have not proved well founded. In the following paper various areas of institutional weakness are identified and discussed, and conclusions are drawn on the basis of the observations made.
The Child Support Agency (“CSA”) commenced operations in April 1993. It is an executive agency of government and a branch of the Department for Work and Pensions. The CSA is obliged to implement the 1991 Child Support Act and all relevant legislation relating to child support.
Child support, which is more popularly known as child maintenance, can be defined as the contribution made by a non-resident parent towards the financial costs of raising their child and it is usually paid to the person (usually the other parent) with whom the child resides. Before the establishment of the Child Support Agency disputes regarding child maintenance were dealt with by the courts. It was hoped that the introduction of the CSA would solve many of the problems associated with the old system – in particular its inability to trace parents and its tendency to impose arbitrary and unfair settlements. The CSA was charged with the duty to assess payments on a consistent basis against a standard formula and thereafter to collect and distribute child support in an efficient manner.
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There is no doubt that this is a very sensitive and difficult area of public policy to manage but it is hard to avoid the assertion that the Child Support Agency has performed poorly. Criticism has been levelled at the CSA since its inception. In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair accepted that the CSA had “lost the confidence of the public”. He described the Agency as “a mess, in need of urgent reform”. Various costly and comprehensive reforms were indeed implemented but the Agency’s performance deteriorated yet further over time. In November 2004, Doug Smith, the head of the CSA, resigned after wide-ranging criticism of the CSA systems.. Chairman of Work and Pensions Committee Sir Archy Kirkwood was moved to describe the situation at the CSA as:
“a systemic, chronic failure of management right across the totality of the agency..”
In November 2005, confronted by reports that for every £1.85 that is collected for child support, the CSA spent £1 on administration, Tony Blair acknowledged that the CSA was “not properly suited” to its function. Blair proceeded to admit to the House of Commons that the CSA has “fundamental problems.” It is submitted that this is now the view of the overwhelming majority of commentators and clients of the CSA’s services. There is now a strong likelihood that the CSA will be subject either to radical reform or be scrapped altogether. At the time of writing in June 2006 it is anticipated that the government’s plans for the CSA will be laid before Parliament before Parliament rises for the summer.
These are therefore important weeks for the Agency. This project will critically analyse the issues which have hindered the CSA in its efforts to provide support to some of the most vulnerable people in society; the children of failed relationships.
“…I make no defence of the current situation. The CSA is in an extremely difficult position…it is the investigating agency, then it is the adjudicating agency, then it is the enforcement agency….The basic problem remains…It is extremely difficult to make this operation cost effective when the agency is the investigating, adjudicating and enforcing authority….The truth is that the agency is not properly suited to carry out that task”
Prime Minster Tony Blair
House of Commons, 16 November 2005
Perhaps the first point to make is that the CSA caseload is very heavy. Changes in society are producing more and more broken families and thus child support claims, and many of these may prove to be highly complex cases. The investigation-stage of a case is clearly resource-intensive and the plain fact of the matter is that staffing resources and internal efficiency protocols have never been adequate to meet the demands of the burgeoning caseload.
It needs hardly be said that the process of investigation of child support cases is often a very difficult and thankless task. Non-resident parents will often make great efforts to conceal and misrepresent facts so as to circumnavigate, obfuscate and frustrate the work of the Child Support Agency and it is unfair to blame the Agency for the behaviour of those with whom it is charged with dealing. Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents have taken extreme steps such as changing jobs or rendering themselves unemployed to defeat CSA investigations aimed at building a case to require them contribute financially to the upbringing of their children. It is likely that evasive or duplicitous parents create many times the amount of work for the Agency that a cooperative parent does and it is perhaps unreasonable to lay that responsibility at the door of the CSA. However, it is submitted that the style of management and administration systems operative at the Agency has exacerbated the profound external difficulties it faces, magnifying inevitable difficulties and allowing other problems that could be avoided under a tighter and more cogent regime to manifest themselves causing additional costs and delays.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in the CSA investigation system the policy organisation’s policy that “the non-resident parent has a right to be believed” which ties the hands of Agency staff. This policy is clearly in place to reduce the administrative burden on the CSA but it is manifestly susceptible to abuse, if not, frankly, ripe for it. If a parent with care is fully aware that the non-resident parent has several jobs but has disclosed only one job to the Agency, then telephones the Agency to disclose this fact, the Agency will respond by repeating the aforementioned mantra and refuse to take further action unless “pay-slips from other jobs can be provided”, which in almost every case is an impossible demand. This is a ridiculous state of affairs, and one that gives non-resident parents full and open licence to deceive the Agency and avoid paying the proper amount to the children who are supposedly the priority in the system..
It is also submitted that the CSA, being an administrative entity, is not best suited to dealing with some of the highly complex and contentious cases that fall for its attention.. Such cases, which would probably be better suited to solution within the court system, serve as logjams in the Agency’s workload, and delay the progress of many more straightforward cases.
CSA investigations have been hampered not only by clumsy managerial procedures and organisation, but also by the information technology systems upon which it relies. The problems with the CSA’s IT systems have been well-publicised and are so extensive as to merit specific discussion later in this paper. However, with regards to the issue of case investigation in particular, it has been impossible for management accurately to scrutinise and evaluate the performance of the Agency, and thus set in place long term strategies and goals, because of failings and incongruities within its information technology infrastructure.
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As the Commons Work and Pensions Committee commented in 2005: “It is difficult to exaggerate the Agency’s already low reputation…”. It is submitted that the credibility of the CSA is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to its case investigation work. The Agency does not enjoy the unqualified respect of parents on either side of the child support equation, and this probably understates the truth. The CSA is widely perceived to be a disorganised and failing entity. Given that effective investigation is heavily reliant on prompt and fulsome compliance by parents, the credibility of the Agency itself has become a major factor in reducing its effectiveness as an organisation. In simple terms, parents are not scared of the CSA or intimidated by the consequences that dilatory or obstructive behaviour on their part might provoke. When one contrasts the reputation of the CSA with that of the Inland Revenue or the Police it is clear that the Agency is its own greatest enemy, in particular in regards to its role as investigator – something which is so dependent on its relationship with and image in the eyes of parents, many of which already harbour a recalcitrant agenda.
CSA investigation has also been hampered by weaknesses and omissions in the range of powers made available to the Agency for the fulfilment of its case investigation work. For example, Liberal Mps David Laws and Danny Alexander recently claimed that the CSA has had to shelve 46,000 cases where the non-resident parent cannot be traced, noting, almost incredulously, that there is no obligation on non-resident parents to inform the Agency when they change either their job or their address. This position has been labelled as “absurd” by the Work and Pensions Select Committee. It can be argued that such lacunae in the powers awarded to the CSA have made a significant contribution to the inefficiency of its case investigation operations..
Moreover, in this regard it should be noted that the ability of the Agency to obtain information about a non-resident parent’s income at the investigation-stage from Government bodies and other organisations and is woefully inadequate, and this weakness predictably generates a huge amount of unnecessary delay. The CSA’s inability to access confidential information such as credit cards records clearly hampers the organisation’s activities although there is a limit on just how far enhanced legal powers could assist in bringing the most assiduously evasive and duplicitous non-resident parent to book. Ironically, given that the future of child support may well lie in that direction, it is submitted that there has to date been poor communication and ineffective cooperation between the Child Support Agency and the Inland Revenue.. Unfortunately, even in cases where both parents offer full cooperation, due to the CSA’s parlous communication networks families routinely have to wait many months before a child support assessment is made and a maintenance liability is established, and of course over this period extensive arrears may build up.
Another factor which has frustrated CSA investigation work is that the rules and frameworks under which it operates have been subject to constant and comprehensive change over the course of the life of the Agency. Seemingly well-meaning “reforms” have been implemented with such regularity that the CSA is in a constant state of learning. For example, The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 introduced a wholly new system (known in the literature as the new scheme”) which entered into force for new cases as of March 2003. The intention was that the new scheme, which incorporated much simpler calculations, would elevate the problems of the Agency, however, it is submitted that this attempt to improve the situation at the CSA only made things worse, because the Agency now had to deal with a new an unfamiliar system alongside the old rules which remained applicable to earlier cases. Further work was generated by the need to convert cases from the old system to the new. These demands inevitably had a negative effect on the on-going case investigation work of the Agency, further depleting morale and resources.
Other weaknesses in the investigation process may prove simply intractable. Under the rules of the CSA men are liable to start paying maintenance from the moment they are named by the mother as the father of the child. Unfortunately, almost one in five men who challenge the claim and ask for a DNA test discover that they are not the father of the child in question (3034 of 15909 1998-2004). Refunds to the men are paid by the taxpayer, no attempt has been made by the CSA to recover any of the money wrongly paid over to the women in question. Labour MP and ex-social security minister Frank Field has commented:
“The situation in the CSA is getting so absurd that even Lewis Carroll would have rejected it as a script for Alice in Wonderland.”
However, this is just one example of the difficulty faced by the CSA in attempting to impose an administrative framework and order in its investigative case work over such complex, sensitive and fraught personal relationships.
The very latest report on the Child Support Agency’s performance, published on 27 June 2006 by Independent Case Examiner (ICE) Jodi Berg (who is charged with the responsibility of monitoring the CSA) expresses “deep concern” about the standard of its investigation work and the weakness of the basic administration of the Agency. Berg reported that complaints against the Agency rose 5 per cent over the past year and noted that more than fifty per cent of all complaints were associated with delays or errors in the case investigation process. This increase in complaints follows on the back of record increases in the past two years. Given the problems identified above this is perhaps not surprising. Berg recommended in more than half of all complaints ultimately investigated (1,348 over the last year) that the CSA should offer some form of financial recompense to the complainant.. The examiner concluded that the Child Support Agency would only be able to deal with its poor levels of customer service if it achieved the establishment of “sound fundamental administration processes”.
It is submitted therefore, in summation on this issue, that the CSA operates under a weak and pregnable administrative system, and that holes and ambiguities in the system are exploited by non-resident parents determined to avoid paying child support by any means. This commentator asserts that this combination of factors is in large part responsible for the poor performance of the Agency’s work on case-investigation.
Alongside its role as investigator, the Child Support Agency is charged with the responsibility to adjudicate the cases that come before it. It is clear that the Agency has dramatically under-performed in this area just as it has in other spheres of its activity. The National Audit Office (NAO) has qualified its opinion on the CSA’s account in every single year since the Agency’s inception due to the level of error detected in maintenance assessments. The NAO has reported that more than a quarter of receipts from non-resident parents and, astonishingly, more than three quarters of maintenance assessment debts are incorrect under the CSA‘s accounts. The NAO has also estimated that overstatement errors run to more than £20 million pounds per year and that understatement errors may amount to around twenty times that amount. This is an appalling state of affairs, and one which prejudices, in particular, the interests of children which the CSA is supposedly duty bound to hold high.
The CSA Standards Committee provides the Chief Executive with a independent review of the quality of decision making within the Agency, and on the mechanisms in place for quality assurance. The Committee expected an improvement in the standard of adjudication achieved by the CSA after transition from the old to the new scheme, however it noted in its 2003/04 annual report that the new IT system was unable to deliver the anticipated results. The report indicates an overall accuracy figure of 81.8%, which is below the 90% target imposed by the Government. It is submitted that this figure, which suggests mistakes in around 20 per cent or one fifth of all adjudications is unacceptable and that it cannot be explained merely by blaming IT difficulties. It is argued that staffing issues and poor management and surveillance play a significant part in erroneous adjudications and this is one aspect of the work of the Agency that cannot be defended by pointing at the behaviour of recalcitrant non-resident parents..
The accuracy of decisions exclusively made in maintenance assessments is put at 79.8 per cent by the Committee, which is a steadily improving figure. (accuracy was put at 75% in 2002/03 and 71.6% in 2001/02). The report suggests that the primary causes of “inaccuracy” under the old scheme were:
- miscalculation of earnings
- errors regarding housing costs
- supersession errors
- insufficient documentary evidence..
The Committee expressed disappointment that similar errors appeared to be creeping into the operation of the rules under the new scheme, and reported that these included mistakes in the setting of effective dates, elements of client contact and erroneous earnings calculations.
In March 2005 the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee delivered its report: The Child Support Agency: Government Response to the Committee’s 2nd Report of Session 2004–05. In this report the Work and Pensions Committee expressed continued concern at the “lower than expected level of accuracy of maintenance calculations“. The Select Committee noted, the findings of the Agency’s Standards Committee as discussed above and recommended adherence to policies set down in the Transformation Programme designed to smooth the problematic transition from the old scheme to the new. These policies include double-checking for the most commonly made errors, and measures ensuring that all decisions are correctly documented (inadequately documented decisions are classified as inaccurate even if the calculation is correct).
The Select Committee noted that a series of measures would be developed to further improve the adjudication process and these include:
- The adoption of a Standardised Adjudication Form – completion of which should be mandatory in the case of all “off-line decisions” unsupported by the system. It is submitted that this should support the documentary trail supporting these decisions.
- The introduction of a risk-based checking system – It is suggested that this policy should target surveillance and quality control resources on stages in the adjudication process known to be error-prone. In terms of opportunity-cost it is clearly prudent to make such stages a priority in this regard, but that is not to say that other less commonly arising mistakes should be ignored.
- Centralised Checking Teams – It is submitted that, in theory at least, this is also a well-founded policy. A centralised quality assurance mechanism, could more efficiently improve consistency and standardisation within the Agency and it is perhaps surprising that such a resource has not been in place within the CSA since its inception.
- Introduction of Quality Support Officers – again it is surprising that it took 12 years of operation before the creation of such posts were seriously considered. It is argued that the prior lack of such officers goes someway to explain the poor performance of the Agency since its establishment.. Such officers could quickly draw adjudication errors to the personal attention of the decision maker and the relevant Team Leader to ensure that misunderstandings are promptly and effectively rectified through focused coaching and targeted support..
- Enhancements in Staff Training – Again it is noted that the User Education Programme concentrates on training aimed at eliminating the top five errors, but it is submitted that improvements aimed at eliminating the propensity to err in general should also be implemented if the Agency is really to address the mistakes plaguing its adjudication processes.
As has been argued was the case in the context of the Agency’s case-investigation work the transition from the old scheme to the new scheme rules has proved problematic.. Efforts to improve the quality of the adjudication process have been hampered by the change from one system to the next and by the fact that the two quite different systems run in parallel and must be administered as such within the organisation.. These effects have been felt not only in the UK CSA but in its Northern Ireland counterpart. In the Annual Report on Decision Making in the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency (2003-2004) the Independent Standards Committee reported that whereas under the old scheme around 1 in 4 decisions contained an error, under the new scheme almost half of adjudications contained a flaw, although curiously financial accuracy is reported to be 92 per cent in both cases. This suggests that most errors are either procedural in nature or to be found in the inaccurate/incomplete recording of decisions and this is very much a management issue.
Ultimately, it is argued that it is the senior management team of the CSA that should be held responsible for the general tendency of the Agency to err in its adjudication role.. It is the function of the leadership of the Agency to set in place the appropriate systems and cultures necessary to ensure accuracy. After thirteen years of operation one would, it is submitted, properly expect that teething troubles in the adjudication process should have been long-since identified and rectified, but that does not appear to have been the case. Indeed the management malaise at the CSA, while perhaps most obvious in the context of poor adjudication standards, translates into below-par performance in other fields of activity beyond the largely internal scope of the adjudication process, with even greater force due to the determination of non-resident parents to hamper the administration that lax management has left pregnable..
Enforcement is the third of the CSA’s three main functions in the field of child support.. Yet again however, it is submitted that the Agency has been found lacking and criticism of its efforts in this arena has been both extensive and far-reaching. The CSA has consistently exhibited a disturbing failure properly to enforce maintenance payments. In an enforcement monitoring exercise supervised by the Child Support Agency Standards Committee in 2003 it was discovered that only 10 per cent of enforcement cases were dealt with in a correct manner. This, it is argued is a simply disgraceful state of affairs. Moreover, the National Audit Office has qualified the CSA’s Client Fund accounts in every single year since the Agency’s inception and this is an indefensible situation that would have led to collapse and investigation if it had occurred in the private sector in the context of any normal commercial undertaking. Part of the blame can be laid on the behaviour of obstructive non-resident parents but the lions share of the responsibility for this appalling record of failure must lie with the management and administration system dedicated to enforcement that those reluctant payers seem to find so easy to exploit.
In principle, where a non-resident parent fails to pay regular maintenance, the Agency’s policies dictate that so-called “front-line staff” should endeavour to negotiate an arrears agreement. If such an agreement cannot be reached on a voluntary basis, and the non-resident parent is in employment, a debt manager may be called upon to impose a Deduction from Earnings Order on his or her salary.
If this action proves ineffective the case will be referred to an Enforcement Team which will consider legal proceedings (this decision and the form of such proceedings is at the discretion of the Enforcement Team). The Child Support Agency Standards Committee have found numerous errors occurring at this important stage.. Among the errors the most commonly occurring include a failure to use the full range of powers available to the Agency to obtain information to allow the conversion of a case from an interim maintenance assessment to a full maintenance assessment.. In this regard it should be noted that section 14A of the Child Support Act permits criminal proceedings to be brought against those failing to provide information or who offer false information. It is argued that cultural factors within the management of the organisation deter resort to criminal action in some cases and that this tendency coupled with the fragile administrative superstructure is deleterious both to the CSA’s performance and its reputation.
Another frequently noted error is the incorrect application of Liability Orders, which are necessary to obtain legal recognition that a debt is owed as a precursor to further enforcement proceedings against the non-resident parent. In many other cases no action is taken after the issuing of a letter warning of enforcement action to an unresponsive non-resident parent..
There is strong anecdotal evidence and a commonly held public perception that the Agency takes a very tough and rigorous line on non-resident parent’s willing to cooperate and make payments, but a far less assiduous approach to uncooperative and evasive parents. It is submitted that there is a widely held belief that the CSA pursues this line with a view to the preservation of its own resources and the improvement of its own performance figures and the Agency is routinely criticised for disregarding the interests of children and single parents as a consequence. Indeed, the CSA has been roundly criticised by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman for this engrained pattern of behaviour.
However, that is not to say that the Agency has not made progress in some fields of enforcement activity. Prompted by recommendations made by the Standards Committee the CSA has sharpened its policies to some extent. For example the £250 de minimis debt threshold for enforcement action (imposed presumably for administrative and cost efficiency) has been abolished and new fines have been introduced along with the option to seek the withdrawal of driving licences from non-payers. That said, by 2005 the Agency had only used its power to withdraw driving licences 11 times in the five years since the introduction of the penalty, and given that over that period well in excess of 250,000 non-resident parents had become habitual non-payers, this must be viewed as a lamentable if not disgraceful record.
Unfortunately the developing picture became even gloomier despite the increase in resources made available to the Agency’s enforcement teams. Billions of pounds have now been written off by the Agency as “uncollectable”. It is submitted that the Agency’s political overseers must take some of the blame alongside the senior management of the organisation. Under Tony Blair’s Labour administration the amount of the uncollected child maintenance had tripled from £1.1bn in 1997 to £3.3 billion by 2005. It is clear that the Agency puts insufficient emphasis on compliance and that, for some inexplicable reason it resorts to middle-order procedures to compel regular payments in far fewer instances than should be the case. The parent with care is typically forced to make numerous complaints before any enforcement action is taken by the CSA and even then there is no guarantee that effective measures are put in place. For example, it has been asserted that only around 19 per cent of long-term defaulting cases are subject to a Deduction of Earnings Order. It has also been noted that the sheer amount of complex regulation confuses both parents with care and non-resident parents, and that the latter group has become skilled in the art of exploiting the convoluted appeal system so as to either evade payment or delay it for as long as possible.
This commentator is spoilt for choice in the selection of statistics for mention in this paper on the CSA’s enforcement performance but perhaps the most damning fact of all is that the Agency Enforcement unit retrievedjust £8 million in 2005 but cost£12 million to operate. That really speaks for itself.
Again it is pertinent to restate the fact that non-resident parents have exacerbated difficulties over enforcement by their obstructive and often duplicitous behaviour, but this does not justify the results obtained by the Agency. If the CSA was using the full range of its powers to their full effect and achieving poor results, this commentator would indeed dwell more on the behaviour of parents and the agenda of the Government which awards and delimits the powers. However, it is manifestly clear that the Agency does not use its powers effectively – something best evidenced by the stated statistic on the incredibly low use of the driving licence withdrawal option. Such a threat is obviously a potent weapon in the arsenal of the CSA, and while it may not always be appropriate, perhaps because the non-resident parent relies on his or her licence in order to generate an income, this commentator simply refuses to accept that it has only proved ap
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