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Public Accounts Committee publishes damming report on Child Support Agency

13 March, 2008

The Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its report on the management of Child Support Agency Client Funds Account 2003-04 to 2006-07 today.

The report reviews the performance of the Child Support Agency in North in managing its client fund accounts during this period, including its debt collection and enforcement and highlights lessons learnt and planned improvements which the Agency anticipates will reduce the likelihood of previous failings reoccurring.

Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd, who is the Chairperson of the PAC, said:

"The Committee recognises that the Child Support Agency has a major role to play in helping tackle child poverty in one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and more children would be lifted out of poverty if it delivers an effective service to its customers. Failure to collect the maintenance due from non-resident parents can cause real hardship and have lasting consequences for both parents with care and children.

"We are aware that the Agency is totally dependent on its Britain counterpart for its computer systems which have been continually failing for many years. However, the Committee questions whether the Agency has used this as an excuse for not tackling the performance matters that are under its remit.

"The Committee also questions whether some of the targets set by the Agency were stretching enough. It is particularly critical of the Agency's target to collect only £1.5 million arrears in debt for 2007-08, when it has £71million owed.

"The Committee recognises that there has been an improvement in the average absence per member of staff, from 21.8 days in 2006-07 to an estimated 17.5 day for 2007-08. The Committee believes that there is clearly need for improvement and calls on the CSA to examine in conjunction with staff, management and Trade Unions as to why average absence is so high and to work towards a dramatic reduction.

"The Committee is concerned that the level of costs to collect and arrange each £1.00 of child maintenance here continues to be significantly higher than in Britain.

"The Committee believes that there is a need to target non-resident parents not paying for the support of their children. In cases where they have crossed the border into the South, it should take every opportunity to work with the Department of Social and Family Affairs (DFSA) to minimise the scope for non-resident parents evading their responsibilities.

"The Committee is very critical that the Agency's system is not able to produce a register of debtors. Indeed, it found it difficult to see how the Agency can be assured that it is asking people to pay the correct amounts if no debt register exists.

"The Committee is also disappointed that, against a background where, in around 9,500 cases, there was a failure to make full and regular payment and yet the Agency had only 12 successful prosecutions over the period from April 2007 to December 2007.

"The Committee found the arguments for a fresh start persuasive but, given the scale of the Agency's problems, it is clear that there will be no quick solution. The Committee is surprised that the Department does not yet have a clear idea what the proposed structural change should achieve in terms of savings or efficiencies. However, it welcomed the Accounting Officer's assurance that there will be no loss of transparency when child support activities are absorbed within the Department." ENDS

Notes to editors:

  1. The Child Support Agency was established in April 1993 with the main purpose of ensuring that parents who live apart maintain their children whenever they can afford to do so, thus minimising the burden on the taxpayer.
  2. The Agency is to be disbanded and the activities transferred within the Department of Social Development. Legislation has been introduced in Britain to implement a completely redesigned scheme and similar proposals will be brought before the Assembly soon.
  3. The Agency carries out a significant amount of work on behalf of its Britain equivalent. This work benefits the Agency in a number of ways not least the 1,200 local jobs it creates with revenue of £30million to the local economy.
  4. Both Child Support Agencies have been widely criticised for failing to meet their targets since inception.
  5. Every £1.00 collected and arranged in child maintenance costs the Agency here £0.88 in administration costs (staff cost and overheads). In Britain, the administrative costs are £0.57 for every £1.00 collected and arranged.

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