The Truth Finally comes out
Staff at the Child Support Agency have admitted a catalogue of deliberate administrative blunders that caused hundreds of thousands of families to lose income they were due from absent parents and the government. The errors included knowingly entering false information on the CSA database, deleting files for no good reason and avoiding contact with anxious parents by transferring telephone calls to the answering machines of absent colleagues. A report giving first-hand accounts by staff of the ploys used to cope with the CSA's administrative overload was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions last year. It was posted last month in an obscure corner of the department's website, without any attempt to draw attention to its findings.
The report was discovered by the magazine Computer Weekly, which disclosed the contents today.
The report cast doubt on ministers' decision to blame the CSA's failings entirely on defects in a £456m computer system introduced two years ago. Researchers from Bristol University discovered a more fundamental managerial malaise, including lack of appropriate staff training and poor communication between tiers of management, which kept the agency's top brass uninformed about malpractice. Confidential interviews with staff at one CSA business unit revealed that they were instructed to "stockpile" simple cases so they could be processed quickly when new rules on support entitlement came into force.
Staff were told this "would look good on their stats when the new system went live".
But the tactic backfired when the introduction of the new system was repeatedly delayed. As a result some cases that were stockpiled in 2002 have still not been processed. The researchers said: "Members of staff told us they were entering false information to fill in unknown details so they could get the system to continue with the case. For example, one admitted to entering old employer details, knowing a client had changed jobs, just to keep the case active."
Staff at one business unit were "told to make up national insurance numbers on their stats sheet [by managers] more interested in hitting their target than actually getting the work done". One staff focus group said staff deleted files if they did not know where they should be sent. Other ploys included sending files to the in-trays of people on long-term sick leave. The magazine said the government was planning to further delay the introduction of the new child support rules until next year at the earliest, but the work and pensions secretary, Alan Johnson, had not yet announced the postponement. The delay could affect up to one million families due to benefit from simpler rules and a £10-a-week child maintenance premium.
In January the Commons work and pensions committee urged the government to consider axing the agency if its new computer system could not be made to work. It said staff were battling with a backlog of 250,000 cases. Mr Johnson said the government would consider "radical fall-back proposals" if performance did not improve after changes at the agency, where a new chief executive, Stephen Geraghty, has been appointed. The CSA said: "This report is based on research carried out early 2004. Since then the service to clients has progressively improved following action taken by the agency to improve levels of customer service and to support our staff."
However it acknowledged there was "still some way to go before the agency is delivering for all its clients the level of service they are entitled to expect." Although there was frustration, both staff and clients considered the new scheme to be simpler and easier to understand. "Since this research was undertaken last year a number of new software releases have been made and there has been significant improvement. "We will not jeopardise cases where money is already flowing to children by moving them on to the new system until we are sure it is working properly."