CSA 'benefits success' slows

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Political Correspondent

The Child Support Agency is falling behind in its efforts to help lone parent families off benefit by increasing maintenance payments, while complaints are soaring, parliamentary answers supplied by Ann Chant, the agency's chief executive, have revealed.

The answers to questions from Liz Lynne MP, the Liberal Democrat social security spokeswoman, show that 8,818 people were taken off income support in 1994 because maintenance payments lifted them above the threshold.

But by the end of August this year only 2,939 people had stopped relying on the benefit, representing one third of the previous year's total, two thirds of the way through the year.

Complaints about the agency's work have risen in the meantime. In the year 1993/4 there were 10,846. For the year 1994/5 27,648 were recorded. More than 14,000 have been recorded for the first five months of the current year.

The figures, coinciding with a lobby of Parliament today, contradict assertions that the agency has overcome its initial teething problems.

Ms Lynne said: "The Child Support Agency is the white elephant of the 1990s. It costs pounds 192m a year to run and is saving the taxpayer less and less."

In the year up to April 1995, pounds 24m was saved by the CSA in helping people off benefit.

"Claims that the system is 'bedding down' do not stack up," Ms Lynne said. She renewed her party's call for the agency to be scrapped.

Last month Ms Chant told members of the Commons social security select committee that the CSA saved nearly pounds 500m in benefits last year and has already "paid for itself".

More than 60,000 parents had come off income support after they received maintenance application forms, she said, accounting for pounds 199m.

But the Government's own chief child support officer Ernie Hazlewood said that in 28 per cent of cases it was impossible to tell whether assessments had been correctly decided.

He said in a report that the agency had made "disappointing" progress in improving accuracy. Only 29 per cent of assessments were definitely correct, only 4 per cent better than last year. Mr Hazlewood said there was "still some distance to go before standards may be regarded as generally acceptable."