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So farewell then, Child Support Agency

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The beleaguered Child Support Agency should be be phased out and replaced with something cheap and simple, the government said today after accepting reforms proposed in Sir David Henshaw's report on child support today.

John Hutton, the work and pensions secretary, declared the CSA's closure today after 13 years of hashed policy, Byzantine business processes and bodged computer systems. Meantime, the children who the government was supposed to help were left in "poverty and distress", Sir John Bourne, head of the National Audit Office said last month.

But the CSA is unlikely to be closed, just as the CSA is unlikely to see the back of EDS, the IT supplier whose computer system was fingered by the National Audit Office last month as one of the reasons the last reorganisation of the CSA, in 2000, was fudged.

Opponents are calling the move a rebrand rather than a closure. And Henshaw didn't actually propose scrapping the CSA in the report he published today, just kicking it into the long grass.

The CSA would be cloned. Its sibling, said Hutton, would be simplified, and would poke its nose in only where it was invited. Henshaw had found that the government's desire to make money from the child support system had impelled the CSA to interfere in the lives of those families who claimed benefit.

The resulting system was inherently inflexible and unforgiving, as was noted by Russell Brown, MP for Dumfries and Galloway, in the Commons today.

That inflexibility was designed into the CSA's computer system, the NAO noted, and made all the worse when its design and implementation where rushed.

Computer systems are often blamed for imposing inhuman autocracies on organisations, forced as they are to work to the rigid ways in which their software is designed. Such systems often fail, as the NAO found in its study of the CSA.

"The current system has been so rigid, where individuals who work so hard for the child support agency work basically within boxes and anything outside of the parameters of that box is a nightmare for them to work with," said Brown.

Yet the CSA's went further than most in directing family life by the inflexible rules enshrined in a second rate computer system.

Hutton assured the house that he would "very much like" to see such rigidity designed out of CSA v3.0.

Henshaw's basic proposal is that broken families would be left to make their own maintenance arrangements. If parents couldn't agree with one another, then the CSA could be invited to step in. Any family could choose to adopt the new rules. But those preferring the old rules would be managed by the old CSA, which would eventually be wound down.

The fate of EDS in all this is yet undetermined. Even after all the trouble since 2000, EDS was kept on by the CSA because to ditch the supplier would mean closing the CSA. It had become dependent on EDS because it had outsourced all the in-house IT experts who could have "challenged", in the NAO's words, "the validity of assurances given by EDS".

The system had 14 critical defects when it went live a year late. CSA workers had to find 600 workarounds in their inflexible boxes. EDS system was still causing problems, last it was reported on.

Hutton adopted something close to Henshaw's language in calling today for a "fresh start". But EDS is just six years into a 10-year contract. Having already been paid £152m, but less than it could have been had it not bodged the CSA implementation, EDS said today it would continue to assist "improving" the agency's computer systems till someone else was contracted.

The Department for Work and Pensions might not be able to kick EDS into the long grass with CSA v2.0. Henshaw had after all called for a "clean break" with the CSA's troubled past. It might yet have to employ the old timer on the "fresh" project. Although with a consultation on the new reforms planned for the summer, a white paper in the autumn, maybe some changes seen in 2008, EDS could get to ride its contract to the end. ®

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