NAO: DWP child maintenance systems struggled with IT problems

IT errors on two of the government’s Child Support Agency schemes – which are in the process of being closed – led to backlogs and miscalculations, according to a report

It problems with the DWP’s child support schemes caused poor customer service, backlogs and incomplete information – Photo credit: PA

Some £3bn of child maintenance arrears are “uncollectable”, following IT problems with two of the Department for Work and Pensions’ three child maintenance schemes, according to thje UK’s spending watchdog.

The DWP currently manages three schemes, which are used by separated parents to allow the parent that does not live full-time with the child to pay support without going through the courts.

It is in the process of closing two of these: the 1993 and 2003 schemes, which are known as Child Support Agency schemes. This will leave just the 2012 scheme, which is known as the Child Maintenance Service.

In a report into the closure of the 1993 and 2003 schemes, published yesterday (28 March), the National Audit Office said that the schemes “struggled with IT problems leading to poor customer service, backlogs and incomplete information about amounts due”.

Such inaccurate assessments meant that some parents receive too little support for their children, while others “face hardship because of paying too much”, the NAO said.

The department hopes to address such issues with its 2012 scheme, which the DWP says is much more accurate than its predecessors, claiming an accuracy of 98.1% in calculating arrears in the 2012 scheme. This is compared with a 63% accuracy in the 1993 scheme and 81% in the 2003 scheme.

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According to the NAO report, parents on the 1993 and 2003 schemes were told in 2014 that their cases would close, and that they would have to move onto the new scheme or make their own arrangements.

However, it found that it was taking the DWP longer than expected to close cases within the 1993 and 2003 schemes, and, as of September 2016, the department still needed to finalise arrears in 163,000 cases.

The NAO report said that the DWP had put this down to work taking longer than expected, and because of staff transferring to Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment.

And, according to the NAO, the department has estimated that around £3bn of the £4bn arrears balance is “uncollectable” – which it classes as there being no recent contact with the parent that does not live with the child full-time, and no payment made in the last six months.

The DWP’s efforts to close all the cases on the 1993 and 2003 schemes so that it can shut down the respective IT systems is also “not intended to address the arrears built up on the schemes”, the NAO said.

Its report also said that parents found that the closure of long-standing cases “can be disruptive and lead to confusion about the amount they owe or the amount owed to them”.

A spokeswoman for the DWP said: “The old system wasn’t good enough which is why the Child Support Agency has been replaced, and today nearly 90% of parents are paying the maintenance they owe.

“We are taking enforcement action in a higher proportion of cases than in the past and will be publishing a strategy for addressing arrears in due course.”


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