The real story behind the claims of the CSA

The agency might be working better but the returns are still small
The Government's latest figures on the performance of the Child Support Agency were greeted with less than enthusiasm by the agency's critics yesterday.

The social security minister, Andrew Mitchell, announced improvements in the CSA's efficiency ratings: 80 per cent of assessments paid by the agency were correct to the last penny; 98 per cent of payments received from absent parents were passed on to the parent with care within 10 days; and the CSA issued 25,000 deduction of earnings orders.

The key figure is the sum of money actually collected, which shows a continuing slight improvement. The minister announced that the pounds 183m collected or arranged by the agency in the first six months of the year was pounds 10m more than was collected during the previous six months.

Malcolm Wicks, Labour's social security spokesman with responsibility for child-support policy, said: "These figures camouflage the overall failure of child-support policy.

"Today only a small minority of children in lone-parent families receive maintenance. Of course we welcome improvements in the CSA's performance, but it is from a pitifully low base. According to the CSA's own survey, 78 per cent of single parents received no child maintenance in 1994-95."

Richard Oppenheim of the Network Against the CSA, who has monitored the statistics closely from the beginning, said that the figures, though an improvement, were still no better than the amount of maintenance that used to be collected from absent parents (usually fathers) under the old system before the CSA was ever set up.

"About one-third of fathers are paying more than under the old system, about one-third are paying less and about one-third are paying the same," he said yesterday.

While it was broadly agreed yesterday that the CSA's systems are now working better, critics hastened to point out that these figures were largely a distraction from the underlying small returns from the agency.

Of all those fathers whom the agency has correctly assessed as due to pay, only 50 per cent are actually handing over the money. Of those who have been issued with interim assessments because they have failed to furnish full details of their incomes, 94 per cent are refusing to pay anything at all, according the latest DSS quarterly statistics.

The latest government figures disguise the continuing mass resistance by fathers to pay the CSA, and the agency's difficulty in enforcing its assessments, even when they are correctly drawn up.

At one end of the social scale are large numbers of well-off self-employed fathers whose accounts are complex and who find it easy to hide their true incomes. The CSA has no legal access to Inland Revenue tax returns, so it has no way to check incomes as declared to them.

At the other end of the scale, 75 per cent of the absent fathers are from the social classes C2, D and E, and 65 per cent of them have no qualifications. Many are low earners in insecure jobs, moving in and out of work. Assessments are often out of date, as people's circumstances change.