Child Support Agency erred in 86% of cases

The Child Support Agency made errors or failed to fulfil statutory requirements in 86 per cent of its maintenance assessments in its first year of operation, a report by the chief adjudication officer for the agency said yesterday.

Not all these assessments were wrong, but in 39 per cent the payments levied were too high or too low, and in 35 per cent there was not enough evidence to tell whether the assessment was right or wrong. In another 11 per cent the assessment was not carried out properly, but the right sum was levied.

In just 14 per cent of the sample of 1,380 cases, taken from the 200,000 maintenance assessments in 1993-94, did the agency both follow the requirements of the legislation and get the sums right, the chief adjudication officer said. Alistair Burt, the junior social security minister, described the findings as 'disappointing', and Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said the report showed 'genuinely shocking' maladministration.

'These findings must be a serious blow to the Child Support Agency and go a long way to explaining why confidence in the system is virtually nil,' Mr Dewar said.

The agency's performance also came under fire from Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, although he noted that many of its calculations depended on complete, precise information from both parents.

'This information has often been late and of poor quality - incomplete, inaccurate or inconsistent - contributing to relatively high levels of error and uncertainty over the accuracy of many maintenance assessments,' he said.

As pressure groups for single parents said the report confirmed their bitterest complaints about the agency, Mr Burt admitted there were 'considerable problems to be overcome'. He added, however, that 'there is greater scope to be optimistic for the current year' and said the 'deliberate non-cooperation' of some absent parents had been a large factor in the agency's difficulties.

Sir John said the full extent of incorrect maintenance assessments could not yet be quantified because further information was needed from one or both parents. The agency assessed pounds 116m in maintenance and fees in the year to 13 March but recorded receipts of only pounds 14.9m. Its computers could not provide the information needed for proper performance monitoring.

Ernie Hazlewood, the chief adjudication officer, said in his report: 'I am aware that operational pressures have played a major part. There has been an understandable wish to clear cases quickly, and not asking for further evidence can quicken the process . . . Nevertheless, the overriding requirement is that the maintenance assessment is correctly calculated.'

Annual Report of the Chief Child Support Officer 1993-94; Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 670 - IX; HMSO.

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