Tuesday, July 25, 2006

CSA: Babies And Bathwater

We've blogged the disastrous Child Support Agency many times (eg here and here). So obviously we're glad to see the back of it. Aren't we?

Hmm. The problem is the Henshaw Report doesn't tell us what's going to replace it. It recommends setting up a smaller leaner meaner fitter blah blah agency, but it really gives us no idea what it would look like. It just calls for more reports.

And for taxpayers, there's one big issue that's missed completely. What would Henshaw's policy reforms actually cost us? Having now read his 79 page report, I can find no mention of cost.

Let's recap the basics. The CSA was originally devised as a way of forcing errant dads to pay for their kids, rather than the state picking up the tab- a problem as old as welfare. But despite vast spending on people and rubbish IT systems, it's never delivered the goods, and now has a backlog of more than £3bn in unpaid maintenance. As the report says: "Cost-efficiency for the taxpayer has consistently been poor. In 2004/05, the CSA recovered £120 million in Income Support expenditure against costs of £425 million".

Yep. A major problem. And as a taxpayer you have to say, £120m is pathetic against the £11bn pa the state spends on single parent benefits. We never had the sex, so why should we pay for the kids? Better get the Major's debt recovery friend Mr Gomulka on the case soonest.

But you can dream on- Henshaw's recommendation is that we should just pay up and forget about trying to recoup any of it. "Relieving child poverty" is now to be the overwhelming prority, and in future, CSA Mk2 will hand over all the money it collects from the deadbeats to their "families". So for them any maintenance payments will be on top of state benefits.

Apart from the cost, there's a Big Big Problem with that, well summarised by the redoubtable Frank Field:

"The message would be clear. If families can draw income support, and keep the maintenance payments, the incentive would be on all too many families to claim that they had been deserted but to carry on living together and claim benefit.

Of course there would be those who claim that such a concern is massively over-emphasised. They will be the same voices that countered those of us who were concerned about the ease at which it was possible, fraudulently, to claim tax credits. It would be lovely if we were back in the Garden of Eden where all of us were running around without an untoward thought in our heads. But we aren't."

Needless to say, Henshaw simply assumes the problem away. He asserts "research shows little evidence of this", but doesn't elaborate- for obvious reasons.

In reality, Henshaw's plan fixes nothing. By throwing in the towel, it further incentivises separation and fraud, and will cost taxpayers a fortune.

We're back to a very familiar issue. None of us wants to see children dying in gutters, and most of us are prepared to pay some tax to prevent that. But we escaped that kind of poverty half a century ago. Our present welfare system is too generous and breeds dependency. Reducing still further the financial responsibilities of parenthood ain't going to help.

PS We've blogged Sir David Henshaw's dubious credentials for this remunerative job before. The Report not only records how much he got paid (£65 grand plus £10 grand expenses), but also rather pathetically spins his CV, claiming "a degree at Sheffield in Public Administration", implying the Uni rather than the Poly he actually attended. It also unaccountably fails to mention that the Audit Commission put his Liverpool Council in the bottom 2% of all councils for value for money.

PPS One of Henshaw's wackier suggestions is to somehow force single mums to record the name of the father on the birth certificate, presumably as a condition of state support. This has been tried before: iirc, under the Poor Laws, single mothers could only get help from the Parish if they named the father, who could then be made to pay. The trouble was, they often paid some unemployed cripple to claim paternity so the real father got off, and the parish had to pay anyway. 150 years ago, my Great Great Grandmother was born illegitimate in a small Wiltshire village. Her birth certificate records no father, so presumably my ggg Grandmother got no parish help. The Census records her living at home with the babe and her family, and I would guess her father- my gggg grandfather- the local blacksmith, would not have been wholly amused. Which must have been fun.


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