Tim HampsonWednesday 16 May 2012

Legacy computer errors dog child support payments

Computer and database errors are rife in the organisation in charge of enforcing child maintenance payments.

The National Audit Office has refused to sign off the accounts of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC), saying they were based on incorrect assessments and payments.

The CMEC took over responsibility for troubled statutory child maintenance schemes in November 2008 and inherited two primary child support IT systems - the Child Support Computer System (CSCS) and Child Support 2 (CS2) - from the former Child Support Agency (CSA).

According to the watchdog, historical system limitations within CSCS and CS2 meant that the former CSA was not able to analyse fully the total reported outstanding maintenance balance by case or non resident parent.

While tens of thousands of cases had transferred from the CSCS system to the CS2 system, the correct arrears balance did not transfer with them. This was because the information had been archived and, on transfer to CS2, these balances were not picked up by the system, the NAO said.

In addition, a number of cases managed off the primary IT systems, on a separate clerical case database, did not have opening arrears balances entered onto that database. In compiling the accounts the commission has estimated that this would have led to an understatement of the overall arrears balance by £59 million at 31 March 2011.

Head of the watchdog Amyas Morse said: "Since the statutory child maintenance schemes were introduced, there have been problems with the accurate calculation of maintenance and with the two underlying IT systems, neither of which was capable of properly reporting arrears.

He said the commissionhad inherited these problems from the CSA. However accuracy of maintenance assessments continues to be a challenge, Morse said. "The commission is continuing to improve the accounting information available, so that the historic problems affecting the accuracy of arrears data are more visible. Nevertheless, the commission still has a significant challenge in collecting the arrears that have accumulated since the beginning of the maintenance schemes."

Morse said while the 2010-11 accounts properly present the amounts received and paid.