Agency under fire for errors in maintenance payments

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The controversial Child Support Agency faced more criticism last night after it was revealed 85 per cent of absent parents' maintenance payments contain errors.

In one in six cases the error was for more than pounds 1,000, the National Audit Office said, and Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, refused to accept the CSA's annual accounts because of the high level of mistakes.

The agency said in its annual report, however, that 87 per cent of cases were accurate to the last penny. It also claimed a 33 per cent increase in the amount of cash collected from absent parents over the last year, with 98 per cent of cash passed to the parent caring for the child within 10 days of receipt.

Sir John estimated that overpayments in 1996-97 amounted to pounds 3.8m, some 1.8 per cent of the pounds 215m collected, and underpayments to pounds 9.4m, some 4.4 per cent of the sum collected.

There was also "a material level of error" in the amounts the agency claimed were owed by absent parents, amounting to pounds 48m in overstatements and pounds 91m in understatements.

Sir John said that the agency's performance in its early years had left "a legacy of error" which continued to affect the amount being paid in child maintenance. He also warned of further pressures facing the agency which is expecting its workload to grow by 60 per cent by the year 2000 and yet will be required to contribute towards cuts in the running of the social security system.