Child support assessments hit by errors

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The Independent Online

Nearly a quarter of assessments for maintenance payments made by the Child Support Agency were wrong, a report revealed yesterday.

The study, carried out by Ernie Hazlewood, the Government's chief child support officer, also found that although 15 per cent were for the right amount, staff had not been following official guidelines in making the assessment.

Labour and child support groups immediately seized on Mr Hazlewood's report which showed that only 29 per cent of all assessments on the amount owed by absent parents were definitely correct and were made by staff following proper procedures.

While improvements in accuracy had been achieved since the previous year, the report said that progress was still "disappointing". Staff are said to have made errors in 23 per cent of cases - either sending out demands for too little or too much maintenance. In 28 per cent of cases, a lack of evidence meant it was not possible to tell whether the assessment had been correctly decided.

This report follows a highly critical review by the National Audit Office, published in June this year. It found that fathers were paying up to pounds 55 a week too much, and that the agency was owed over pounds 500,000 in unpaid maintenance, a "significant" amount of which was not expected to be paid back.

Mr Hazlewood said that while some progress had been made, there was "still some distance to go before standards may be regarded as generally acceptable".

The social security minister, Andrew Mitchell, said the report showed the CSA was making "good and steady progress after a difficult start". But he conceded: "The continuing requirement for improvement is substantial."

But Labour claimed the report revealed a "shockingly high level of inaccuracy". The shadow social security secretary, Chris Smith, said the agency's decisions "can make or break" people's lives. "Accuracy is therefore of prime importance and for that reason there should be no room for any shred of complacency on the Government's part."

A spokesman for the Network Against the Child Support Agency called for the agency to be dismantled and said: "The report shows that despite a change of chief executive, new legislation and increased staffing levels, the agency is still in administrative chaos."

But the CSA tried to deflect criticism by emphasising that the period covered ended six months ago and there had been improvements since then. The agency was reformed earlier this year after complaints of harassment and unfairness.