Over the weekend, the Child Support Agency was officially replaced by the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. Some of the news coverage suggested that the Child Support Agency was a policy ‘disaster’. This is probably a little exaggerated, but it was a controversial policy from the very outset.
It was a classic case of a broad principle (absent parents should take some responsibility for raising their children) put into rules for a government agency to enforce. This principle became a series of rules about the level of maintenance that should be paid. These were questioned in the very early days and numerous cases of what appeared to be excessive maintenance demands hit the press. Campaign groups, like Fathers for Justice, began to spring up around these issues.
But, administratively, it was also a fascinating case of the impact the targets and other managerial systems can have on the policy itself. The intention was that more absent parents should pay towards the upbringing of their children. But the targets imposed upon the CSA focused upon the amount of money raised in maintenance payments (most of which went to the government and not to the parent with care responsibilities). The result was that, instead of chasing absent parents who were paying nothing, the CSA sought to get more from those who were already paying something. These people had already accepted some responsibility, there was no need to prove paternity etc. The administrative machine responded to a target in such a way that it effectively changed the policy. No longer was the objective to get more absent parents to pay. Instead, it appeared to be to get more from those currently paying something. In this respect, the policy was a disaster – it did not do what was intended.