Attempts to reform the Child Support Agency are condemned today as one of the “greatest public administration disasters of recent times” in a withering report by MPs.
Ministers are on course to spend close to £900 million on a series of reforms to the system but have failed to deliver promised improvements.
Instead, hundreds of thousands of families have been left in hardship because of the CSA’s failure to collect more than £3.5 billion in child maintenance payments from absent parents.
Alarmingly, less than a third of absent parents are making full maintenance payments under the new “reformed” system introduced in 2003, compared with half under the old one.
There is a backlog of 275,000 cases where families are waiting for a decision on maintenance payments.
Staff at the Child Support Agency have been paid more than £25 million in bonuses over the last five years — despite Tony Blair admitting that the organisation is not fit for purpose.
New figures reveal that hundreds of staff at the beleaguered agency have been awarded performance-related payments since 2001.
A total of £11.4 million was handed out in bonuses in 2002-03 alone. While a further £3.9 million was paid out last year, even though John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, unveiled plans in the summer to scrap the agency.
Special bonus payments were made to 3,600 staff last year, and just under 11,000 other staff received individual performance bonuses.
The bonuses were paid despite repeated admissions by Mr Blair and other senior ministers that the CSA was failing. The agency currently has a backlog of nearly 240,000 cases and more than £3.5 billion of uncollected debts on its books.
The government should have decided to scrap the Child Support Agency much earlier, the top civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions said yesterday.
Leigh Lewis, the permanent secretary, admitted officials had chosen to overlook the warning signs and said the system had been flawed from its inception under John Major’s government in 1993.
“It started with a design that was too complex, which was introduced too quickly, with IT which was never until recently effective, and with too many changes of course and direction,” he told MPs on the public accounts committee.
The government is expected to announce plans to axe the CSA and replace it with a slimline body in a white paper this autumn. It is also expected to encourage parents to reach their own agreements on maintenance, using a smaller agency to tackle only the toughest of cases. It follows the failure of previous reforms, introduced in 2003, to solve problems which have dogged the system.