Child agency likely to miss out on millions

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

The Government Auditor has formally qualified the accounts of the Child Support Agency as it has become clear that the agency is unlikely ever to collect millions of pounds in assessments it has made on absent parents.

More than half the assessments the agency made last year were either wrong or based on insufficient evidence to decide whether they were accurate, Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, reported yesterday. And the debt due from absent parents increased from pounds 94.9m to more than pounds 525m, partly because more assessments were completed.

However, significant but unquantifiable amounts of that sum may never be collected, Sir John reported, partly because interim maintenance assessments are set at punitive levels, regardless of the absent parent's financial circumstances.

Sir John's qualification of the accounts means that it is impossible to give a full picture of the agency's financial situation.

The position was described as "financial chaos" by Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman. "Figures like this do nothing to bolster public confidence."

Ann Chant, the agency's chief executive, claimed that with payments from absent parents direct to the "caring" parent up to pounds 111m, and with pounds 479m saved in social security payments - either because parents stopped claiming, or because the Treasury took the cash to offset income support payments - the agency "has begun to achieve some real success".

Mr Dewar described the figures as "desperately inadequate" when set against the agency's pounds 200m operating costs, and Andrew Mitchell, the new junior social security minister, admitted there was "still a long way to go" before the agency performed to standard.

The agency achieved its target benefit savings, but managed a client satisfaction score of only 44 per cent against its target of 65 per cent, and it failed again to clear the target number of cases - 568,000 were cleared against a forecast of 899,000.

The Benefits Agency's annual report confirmed it too missed 6 of its 22 targets - one because tighter checks on new income-support claimants proved more time-consuming than expected. The agency again failed to hit its customer satisfaction target.

Big changes are in train over the next five years in the way benefits are delivered, given the new drive against fraud, the introduction of computerised benefit payment cards, and of incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance.

tChild Support Agency Annual Report; Benefits Agency Annual Report; HMSO; pounds 11.70 + pounds 13.70.