Identifying the Cause of the Child Support Agency's Problems
by G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson
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History of the CSA and events that led to its conception

The Child Support Agency (CSA) was formed in 1993 following the Child Support Act, 1991. It was set up as a 'Next Step' agency, and reports directly to the Department of Work and Pensions (formerly the Department of Social Security). Its purposes are basically four-fold; to trace the non-resident parent (NRP), to assess how much s/he should pay in maintenance, to provide a collection service if required and to enforce payment if necessary.

By the time 1992 arrived it was clear that the issue of child support was becoming a prominent issue as it had developed into a huge expenditure burden for the government. During Thatcher's era the child support bill had trebled to £6.6 billion, and thus was a massive and increasing tax burden for the country. The number of children born to unmarried mothers had risen to 31% by 1990 (10% in 1970), the number of lone parents claiming benefits had risen to 70% by 1989 (37% in 1971), yet the numbers receiving from the non-resident partner had dropped to 23% in 1989 (50% in 1979). (Harlow, 1999:155). All these statistics outline that the pressure on the government was growing to overcome these problems and that the establishment of a new body or reform was imminent to replace the court based system of maintenance provision under the Department of Social Security (DSS).

1991 saw the passing of the Child Support Act, "Which was suggested, discussed and implemented in an incredibly short time with surprisingly little opposition." (Jenkinson 2001). Harlow (1999) suggests that this was a huge error and led to many difficulties in the early years. The absence of a pilot program meant employees were untrained and untried, and systems and technologies were not in place to support the activities of the organisation. However the agencies formation went ahead and it was formed in 1993

Mrs Ros Hepplewhite was the pioneering Chief Executive, appointed in 1993. She was recruited from the voluntary sector and had no previous experience working in a public service operation. Around half of the 5000+ staff were recruited from the agencies predecessor the "liable relatives unit" of the DSS, and thus had worked under the inefficient and ineffective organisation that preceded the CSA. Other staff were recruited from the private sector and thus brought little public sector experience to the table.

According to Jenkinson (2001) the birth of the CSA brought many "huge and unwelcome changes". One of the key arguments that support this negative outlook on the CSA outlined by Jenkinson (2001) was that the CSA had been formed as a tax alleviating measure rather than attempt to rid the country of child poverty. This raises questions about the exact purpose of the creation of the new agency.

January 1995 saw the publishing of a government White Paper promising changes to the CSA. This duly occurred with the Child Support Act 1995. This was partly prompted by a report from the Select Committee on Social Security (SSC) in the years 1993-4. In their first report on the CSA they found there were flaws at both policy and operational levels, as they saw targets of relieving the tax burden as highly unrealistic. They also criticised the agencies seeming preoccupation with middle class NRPs as a way of "maximising the maintenance yield" (Harlow 1999:165). The Second Report published by the same body ended up in compromise, as the chair of the SSC had been outvoted in proposing radical changes to CSA. A more conservative approach was 'agreed'. Measures, such as provisions for relatively greater flexibility, were put in place to dispel the growing press coverage reporting that the CSA was incompetent and unable to fulfil its objectives.[1]

However despite the various bills the Agency remained inept. It appears that the Conservative Party were considering changes up to the 1997 general election, however their imminent expulsion from government meant that the Labour Party entered office and immediately started the reform process, Ms Hepplewhite was promptly 'replaced' by Ann Chant as the new CEO of the CSA. The new minister put in place to oversee the change was Baroness Hollis.

Green and White Papers followed in years 1998 and 1999 respectively unfortunately becoming less radical in development, and more towards a tool of welfare relief. Diverting its attention in the process away from the interests of the children the agency was meant to support. This reform process culminated in the publishing of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act in early 2000. The application of this act is coming in to place slowly with the new formula for support assessment being introduced by the end of 2003. It will only be then when we can assess the results of the third set of reform

June 2001 saw the creation of a new Department that the CSA had to report to; The Department of Work and Pensions. This department was a merger between the former departments of Social Security and Education and Employment. Alistair Darling became the Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) from June 2001 to May 2002, having previously been the DWP Predecessor, the Secretary of State for Social Security between July 1998 and June 2001.

Darling has recently been replaced by Andrew Smith and he has now been in the job since May 2002. With both Ministers being in control for such short spans of time it is difficult to assess their impact especially under the conditions of gradual reform instigated by the 2000 act. Douglas Smith is the current CEO of the CSA having replaced Frank Field in 2001, it remains to be seen what impact he will make on the CSA.

Notes

Harlow, C. (1999) 'Accountancy, New Public management and the Problems of the Child Support Agency,' Journal of Law and Society Vol. 26 (2) pp. 150-74.

Jenkinson, S. G. (2001) Child Support: A Comparison of Old and New Approaches

[1] News articles about the CSA - index and commentary

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Page last updated: 11 December, 2002 © Copyright G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson 2002