08 July 2005
James Plaskitt, the new benefits minister, has given the strongest indication yet that the Child Support Agency could continue to operate in its current form, despite calls for it to be closed.
In an interview with Public Finance, Plaskitt outlined a way forward for the troubled agency, which enforces child maintenance payments from absent parents. This follows years in which it has been dogged by a problematic £465m IT system that has left a backlog of 250,000 unprocessed claims and almost £1bn of debts written off.
However, the CSA came under fire again this week when the agency's independent case examiner, Jodi Berg, published a damning assessment of its performance in her annual report.
Plaskitt said he was awaiting a 'root and branch' assessment of the CSA's 'horrendous problems' from its new chief executive, Stephen Geraghty, which will be delivered to the Department for Work and Pensions later this summer.
DWP officials have also studied the agency's performance since it became clear that officials had failed to solve problems with transferring data since the introduction of a new payment system two years ago.
However, Plaskitt dismissed the suggestion that the CSA be closed down, an idea floated by the Commons' work and pensions select committee. He said: 'I would not say that because we are staring at big issues at the CSA that you should recoil and say 'pull the plug, it's not working'.
'For all the faults at the CSA, it makes 600,000 payments for vulnerable children accurately. I don't want to throw that away.
'It is sometimes suggested to me that there are easy solutions such as resurrecting the courts system [to get parents to pay maintenance], or to transfer the work to the Inland Revenue. You'll only relocate the problem.'
The select committee, chaired by Liberal Democrat Sir Archie Kirkwood, reported that despite attempts to improve the IT system, more than £720m in maintenance payments remained uncollected last year, while £947m in debts had been written off as 'unrecoverable'.
Plaskitt said: 'I don't want to prejudge Geraghty's report but, hypothetically speaking, if he comes to us and says "the game is up – it's unrescuable", we'd have to listen to that.
'But if he says there's a foundation to build on, then we'd have to listen to that, too. We'll see what our options are, but I've given you an indication.'