Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) (CS 01)


  1.  PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union, represents the overwhelming majority of staff employed by the Child Support Agency (CSA). We previously submitted evidence to the Social Security Select Committee in 1999 when the Committee examined the Government's White Paper on Child Support Reform (CSR).

  2.  PCS has always supported the Government's plans to reform the CSA. Consequently we were very disappointed when the Secretary of State announced the delay to the introduction of the Child Support Reforms. However, PCS do believe that it was the correct decision to take in the circumstances. The alternative, of pressing ahead without a fully operational IT system, would almost certainly have proved a disaster for the agency, its staff and its customers. There was a real risk that the administrative shambles of the agency's early years would have been repeated.


  3.  PCS welcomes the tributes made in the House by the Secretary of State and others to the hard work that our members have put in to improving the agency's performance and ensuring greater compliance in recent times. However, many of our members in the CSA do not feel as valued and appreciated as they should. Staff morale is not good. A recent staff survey showed that only 21.4 per cent of CSA staff felt that they were paid fairly for the job that they do. This is below the Government's benchmark of 24-34 per cent and way below the private sector benchmark of 36 per cent. For the child support reforms to work this must change.

  4.  For nine years our members in CSA have had to administer an excessively complicated system of child maintenance with woefully inadequate IT support. At the same time our members have had to serve clients of the agency, frequently frustrated by the unfathomable legislation and the administrative failings of the current system. This has not been an easy job. Our members were therefore looking forward to the introduction of simplified legislation which clients could understand with a new and improved IT system to streamline the administrative process.

  5.  The Committee will no doubt want to focus on the impact of the delay on the agency's clients who will have to wait longer before enjoying the benefits of CSR. However, PCS would suggest that the Committee might also want to consider the staff's perspective.

  6.  Staff frustration with the current legislation and IT system continues. As always it is CSA staff that will have to bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction with both the inadequacies of the current system and the indefinite delay to the introduction of the new system. CSA staff are not responsible for the delay but they are left to pick up the pieces. It is CSA staff, not highly paid EDS executives, who will be left to explain to clients why the reforms have not begun.

  7.  Staff have been left in limbo since the announcement. There has been no indication of when a new start date for the reforms will be set. The only business plan that PCS has seen for 2002-03 makes no mention of the delay to CSR and appears to have been written before the announcement. Staff need to know what is going on. The current scarcity of information about the future of the CSR Programme only serves to lower morale and foster rumour.

  8.  A further blow to staff caused by the delay to CSR has been the confusion surrounding the CSA's team bonus scheme. The team bonus was due to have been paid this July if the agency had successfully implemented CSR. Despite CSA staff doing all that had been asked of them (ie meeting all of the Secretary of State targets, increasing compliance and reducing work on hand) the bonus may now not be paid because the others have failed to deliver the new IT system on time. The vast majority of CSA staff had no involvement at all in the development of the new IT system. Yet our members seem likely to suffer financially as a result.

  9.  Staff morale in the CSA is also not helped by the current reluctance of managers to release staff that want to transfer to other parts of the Department. More and more of our members' hopes of a career development move are being thwarted by this arbitrary approach. If CSR is to succeed the agency needs staff who want to work for CSA, not those who are forced to.

  10.  PCS concern for this is borne out by the current fluctuating staffing levels and wastage/turnover levels. Staffing is now between 12,200 and 12,500 and the turnover is the highest in DWP at around 13-15 per cent. These problems led to the CSA underspend in 2001-02 of £12.8 million—all related to recruitment shortfalls. CSA management are seeking DWP Board authority to recruit an additional 1,000 full-time equivalent staff during this new financial year.

  11.  The fundamental problem for staff in CSA is that they are paid far too little for what they are expected to do. Doug Smith, CSA's Chief Executive, has repeatedly stated his discomfort that half of the agency's staff are paid less than £12,000 per year. This is despite our job being one of the "most difficult and certainly the most harassing jobs in the civil service" (Tam Dayell, MP, 20 March 2002).

  12.  Everyone seems to agree that our members' work is excessively difficult and that the level of basic pay is too low, but sympathy does not pay our members' bills. The reforms will only work if CSA is able to recruit and retain good quality staff. At present CSA has a staff wastage rate double that of similar agencies like the Benefits Agency. This is unsustainable if the reforms are to succeed and must be tackled as a matter of urgency.


  13.  The principal benefit for the agency of the delay is that it buys time. As well as continuing to develop and test the new IT system the time can also be used to refine some of the other elements of CSR that were not as polished as they should have been for an April 2002 go-live.

  14.  PCS had serious concerns that the training materials for the April 2002 go-live date had been developed too late and had been excessively rushed as a result. We feared that this could have left our members without the skills needed to implement the reforms successfully. The delay must be used to put this right.

  15.  CSR creates new job roles for staff. Management propose to devolve to each individual caseworker much greater accountability and responsibility for a case through the end-to-end process. PCS are not opposed to this in principle, however it does raise the question about whether the current pay and grading arrangements for CSA's caseworkers will be appropriate post-CSR.

  16.  PCS have been pressing for a review of the agency's grading to rectify this problem but to date little progress has been made. The delay to CSR provides an opportunity for this key element of the implementation of CSR to be addressed. It is not acceptable for our members to take on extra responsibility without this being recognised in the agency's rewards and remuneration policies.

  17.  The delay will also allow the agency the time to refine its proposals to extend the CSA's opening hours. Already CSA is leading the way in the civil service in providing a service to the public outside of traditional civil service opening hours. However, the agency has an ongoing problem in recruiting and retaining staff who are willing to work on alternative working patterns (eg evenings and weekends).

  18.  It is clear to PCS that if CSA is serious about providing a full service across an extended working week, then this can only be achieved by offering staff considerable incentives to alter their working patterns. At present little progress has been made on this issue. The delay to CSR provides the agency with the time to address this issue.

  19.  Perhaps the most serious impact of the delay is to the agency's CSR Business Case. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on CSR to date, mainly on developing the new IT system. The business case for this expenditure forecast large-scale administrative savings to the Exchequer in the years after CSR was implemented to fund the initial expenditure. The delay means that the realisation of these benefits has been put on hold indefinitely.

  20.  PCS fear that the Treasury is still likely to expect to see the promised savings realised. We are concerned that administrative efficiencies and reductions in staffing levels will be implemented before CSR is fully established. This could of course push the whole project off course as well as being a serious concern for our members and their future jobs.

  21.  The announcement of the delay to CSR is in danger of making the agency drift aimlessly while it waits for a decision on a new go-live date. Staff, as we have said, do not know what is happening and this could affect morale and confidence. Clients of the agency do not know what is happening. This needs to be addressed urgently to avoid clients slipping into bad habits of non co-operation and non-compliance. A new go-live date must be set as soon as possible. If this cannot be done quickly then an open explanation as to the reasons why a new go-live date cannot be set must be forthcoming.


  22.  The delay to CSR is obviously an embarrassment to the agency and the Government. The Committee will doubtless want to know how such a flagship project has gone so widely off course. The Secretary of State has said that the principal cause of the delay was the incomplete testing of the new IT system. The principal culprit would therefore appear to be Affinity.

  23.  Affinity is the preferred private sector partner of the DWP. It is a consortium consisting of the computer company EDS and consultants such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers. It was EDS who were contracted to design, build and deliver the new IT system for CSA.

  24.  CSR is not the first large-scale public sector IT project that EDS have failed to deliver properly. The Committee will remember the chaos at the Passport Office a few years ago when an EDS IT system was introduced. The delay to CSR must call into question the extent to which EDS can be relied upon to deliver what they promise, in respect of public sector contracts.

  25.  PCS is firmly of the view that EDS should incur substantial penalties for failing to deliver the IT on time. We are also concerned about other DWP modernisation projects that are currently in the pipeline, such as the replacement of the Income Support and Jobseekers Allowance computer systems as well as the development of Jobcentre Plus and the Pensions Service.

  26.  PCS believe that the Government must reconsider the status of its arrangements with Affinity/EDS before trusting them again with major IT modernisation projects and millions of pounds of public money. We cannot afford to risk a repeat of CSR in other major DWP modernisation projects.

  27.  This matter is compounded by the recent policy of contracting out virtually all of the DWP's IT experts. This has left the Department without the essential expertise to oversee, let alone run, a large IT project like CSR. The Department was left with no choice but to trust the advice they were receiving from EDS. The results of this short-sighted policy are what we see today.

  28.  PCS have also been concerned for some time about the number and cost of consultants that have been used by CSA as part of the CSR programme. We believe that a real question mark must now hang over the value for money that consultants provide. If everything had gone according to plan then the excessive cost of using so many consultants might have been justified. But the fact is that the plans have gone awry. The expertise, effectiveness and the value of consultants must be examined more rigorously before more public money is committed to consultants in the future.


  29.  Clients who would have gained financially are clearly a major loser of the decision to delay CSR. However, as always with matters of child maintenance, for every winner there is always a loser, so there will be other clients quietly celebrating the delay.

  30.  CSR was to have seen the introduction of the child maintenance premium for parents with care on income support. This will now be delayed and so those families will remain poorer for longer.

  31.  CSR was expected to drive up compliance rates and ensure that more money was moving faster to children. This will now be delayed. Those children will now not benefit from this for some time.

  32.  Current clients of the agency still do not know when they can expect to transfer to the new method of calculating their maintenance. This uncertainty is very unsatisfactory and could lead to greater client dissatisfaction with the agency.

  33.  In strategic terms, the Government's drive to reduce child poverty has also been impacted by the delay. The benefits of CSR have long teen trumpeted as a key element of the Government's anti child poverty agenda. The delay will obviously not help the Government achieve the challenging targets that they have set themselves.


  34.  The delay to CSR is regrettable but the only sensible option that was left. A new date for go-live needs to be set as soon as possible. The intervening time must be used to address all the issues that need to be resolved for CSR to become a success. The IT system is very important but that alone will not deliver a successful CSA.

  35.  In particular more attention needs to be paid to meeting the justified concerns of our members working for CSA that we have outlined above. The agency's greatest asset is its staff, not an IT system or anything else. Now is the time for that to be recognised substantively. The success of CSR depends upon it.

May 2002

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