MPs back child maintenance reform implementation

9 Oct 14
The successful implementation of a new IT system for the administration of child maintenance payments carries lessons for the public sector, a parliamentary report has said.

By Mark Smulian | 10 October 2014

The successful implementation of a new IT system for the administration of child maintenance payments carries lessons for the public sector, a parliamentary report has said.

Spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee said the Department for Work and Pensions’ launch of child maintenance programmes has shown ‘no evidence of the backlogs or IT failings with which previous child maintenance schemes have struggled’.

Its Child Maintenance 2012 Scheme: Early Progress report said the DWP had shown good practice in the scheme’s design and first phase implementation, and had learnt from problems.

The 2012 child maintenance scheme replaced two previous ones that had struggled with IT problems, and was designed to both maximise the number of children benefiting from maintenance arrangements and reduce government spending on administration.

‘The key factors behind the successful introduction of the scheme included: identifying what had gone wrong with the previous schemes; maintaining a stable and experienced leadership team that brought together both policy and operational expertise to the project,’ the report said.

It also praised the ‘pathfinder’ approach used where the scheme moved forward only when the department was confident it could introduce each stage, rather than trying to meet pre-announced deadlines.

‘The department should evaluate the introduction of Phase 1, in particular the roll-out and pathfinder approach, to identify good practice to apply when planning future programmes and share this more widely in the public sector,’ MPs stated.

Using a staff team that blended both operational and policy backgrounds had ensured they possessed ‘the insight to make critical judgements about programmes’, the report said.

There are some 2.5m separated families in the UK, around 1.1m of whom rely on statutory government-run schemes that assess, collect and make maintenance payments.

Others make their own arrangements or use the courts, but some 60,000 have no arrangements in place.

However, the report added that the DWP did though face IT problems in realising its plans to close some 800,000 ‘legacy’ maintenance cases at a cost of £370m.

It cannot handle the more complex ones without its ‘data warehouse’ database, which “is several months behind schedule and much of its functionality remains undelivered”, the PAC noted.

MPs were also concerned about the impact of introducing a £20 charge for using the government service.

PAC chair Margaret Hodge said: ‘The Department for Work and Pensions has made good progress in simplifying the way it administers child maintenance.

‘However, there is a worrying uncertainty around the impact that the introduction of charges for statutory child maintenance services will have.’

Hodge said research suggested that for parents on low incomes the £20 application fee would ‘be a significant barrier to applying to the statutory service’.

For those facing difficulty in setting up their own arrangements there was therefore ‘a risk that some parents end up reaching no arrangement at all, to the detriment of the children involved’, she said.

Responding to the report, child maintenance minister Steve Webb said MPs had recognised the progress in making child maintenance simpler.

‘The old CSA system was massively costly yet saw thousands of children get no regular financial support. The new service we’re introducing provides better support for parents and gets more money to more children.

‘The government wants to help parents reduce conflict after a separation and support them to co-operate. The charges are there to encourage parents to work together for the good of their children, rather than just rely on the state by default.’


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