Tories warn of CSA enforcement costs

The government has been forced to defend the Child Support Agency (CSA) once again as new figures suggest it is spending more on enforcement than it receives in payments.

Figures obtained by the Conservatives show the CSA’s enforcement directorate spent £6.6 million in six months this year in pursuing maintenance claims from absent parents, but in the whole of last year only managed to retrieve £8 million worth of payments.

Shadow work and pensions minister Paul Goodman said the statistics, obtained in a parliamentary answer, showed the “mess” that the agency was in and called for an urgent statement on what the government was doing about it.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the figures “do not show the whole story”, by only taking account of the first payment obtained from an absent parent, and not those that may be collected afterwards.

The CSA has long been beset with problems – earlier this year, the Commons work and pensions committee said the agency was a “failing” organisation, with 250,000 outstanding cases and about £1.5 billion in uncollected child support.

And in September, former social security minister Frank Field warned that, according to his own research, the CSA was now in a worse state than it was when Labour came to power.

The agency’s new chief executive is currently carrying out a root and branch review, and is due to report back in the next few months, but this has failed to silence the critics.

The fact that work and pensions secretary John Hutton is the fourth man in the job in about a year has not helped – nor did Tony Blair’s admission in the Commons that the agency was “not fit” to deal with its remit.

“Squabbles between ministers on the future of the CSA just add to the confusion and lack of direction when families are desperately seeking the money that is rightfully theirs,” said Mr Goodman.

“With the fourth secretary of state in less than fourteen months it is no surprise that the CSA is lacking clear direction and proper control. We need an urgent statement from ministers as to why the department is in such a state and on the future of the CSA.”

Responding, a DWP spokeswoman told politics.co.uk that while the figures obtained by the Tories were accurate, they were “not a fair comparison”.

Not only were the £8 million in initial payments just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of how much the CSA received, but the figures also failed to take into account all the work involved in enforcement, from tracing parents, to making contact and finally collecting the money.