The government has acknowledged concerns that IT systems for a new child maintenance system could repeat the fiasco of the Child Support Agency (CSA) – but failed to provide the “detailed explanation” demanded by MPs.
The acknowledgement came in the government's response to a report by the Commons work and pensions committee on the proposed new child support system, which centres on a new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC), to be established as a non-departmental public body.
In March, the committee warned there was “no evidence” that the proposed new system and its supporting IT would fare any better than its predecessors at the failed Child Support Agency (CSA).
Ministers announced in July last year that the CSA would be scrapped, admitting that it was not fit for purpose. The CSA’s demise was hastened by a damning National Audit Office report on the £456m CS2 case management system, provided by EDS and designed to support an earlier change to the child support system.
The work and pensions committee pointed to the government’s “record of serial IT failures” and added that proposed simplification of child maintenance payments “does not necessarily mean a simplified IT programme as has been demonstrated by the current CSA computer system problems”.
The MPs also raised concerns that combining the two existing IT systems and a third new system could cause problems.
They demanded: “In this light we recommend that the Government publish detailed explanation of its plans for C-MEC’s IT system in an attempt to win public confidence before the work begins.”
In its response, the government said it “recognises the committee’s concerns about the plans for the IT system to support the new system of child maintenance”.
But the government failed to offer even an outline of how the future IT system might work, arguing that the proposed independent nature of C-MEC meant it would be responsible for all IT decisions.
“It will be for C-MEC to decide how its future IT needs are delivered; in establishing C-MEC as a Non-Departmental Public Body, we are giving it the maximum flexibility and independence to draw from private sector suppliers and experience,” the government said.
It added that the current CSA operational improvement plan was delivering improvements in the existing IT, the government said, and this was “enabling performance to improve now”.
The improvement programme would also provide “a more robust platform for future changes”, the government said.
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that at the end of December last year, just 42% of the CSA’s 1.4m cases had been transferred to CS2, with 58% still held on predecessor systems.
Work and pensions minister James Plaskitt confirmed earlier this year that existing IT systems and contracts would be used by C-MEC as it took on existing CSA operations.
The government’s response to the work and pensions committee also confirms that ministers are planning to introduce legislation to allow greater data sharing between C-MEC, the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs.
Increased data sharing powers have been signalled heavily by prime minister Tony Blair and other ministers – and have sparked controversy among opposition parties and civil liberties campaigners.