The battle to get the figures

IT took almost three months of emails, meetings and phone calls to obtain a detailed breakdown of Northern Ireland’s child maintenance arrears.

On January 18th 2012 I requested a breakdown of information from the Department for Social Development (DSD) on every parent in arrears on their child maintenance payments – including how much they owed, their gender, how many children are involved and where the parent lived (town, city or postcode area). I also asked to be told what action had been taken to secure payment.

Following a meeting with officials involved in child maintenance, I was told that the information could not be supplied as problems with computer systems meant that debt could not be broken down on a case-by-case basis.

I then asked for the arrears figures broken down by parliamentary constituency area – as similar statistics are released in this format in England. However, I was told that providing this information on Northern Ireland cases would result in “excessive costs”.

So, I then asked for a detailed breakdown on what information is actually held in the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division’s database to attempt to determine what would be easily accessible including whether information was held on a postcode district basis.

Following further correspondence in response to my questions, I then requested the total outstanding arrears, the total number of children receiving payments and those not receiving payments – for each postcode district.

On March 27th, I was told that the figures requested would be provided. The breakdown by council area was provided on April 4th, followed by the postcode breakdown on April 12th.

The final release of data included the following warning note from DSD: “Child maintenance financial and accounting records are maintained on the department’s child maintenance computer systems. There are two child support systems in operation and both systems have a long history of problems.

“As a result of the underlying problems in the IT systems, the department is unable to generate a complete and accurate listing of individual cases.

“Consequently the information the department has provided in response to the query has not been subject to audit validation. The accuracy and completeness of this information is therefore limited.”

The full statistical data provided by DSD is available in Excel format in files attached below this article.