CSA points finger for failure to hit targets: Intimidation of staff, inexperience and over-optimistic expectations at fault in shortfall on benefit savings. Marianne Macdonald reports

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The Independent Online
THE Child Support Agency yesterday blamed cultural opposition, intimidation of staff and inexperience for its failure to come close to performance targets in its first year of operation.

Failures include a benefit savings shortfall of pounds 112m on a projected figure of pounds 530m, failure in 70 per cent of cases to assess maintenance in five days and a backlog of work which will not be cleared before next year at the earliest.

The CSA's annual report repeatedly apologises for the delay in processing applications, replying to letters and arranging maintenance. 'Our services did not come up to the high standards we were aiming for,' it admits.

But it places blame partly with parents who took too long to return inquiry forms, fathers who refused to co-operate and the February changes to the child support formula which meant prior assessments had to be revised.

Further efficiencies should be possible as the agency builds up to full strength with an extra 700 staff members taken on this year in addition to the present 5,000.

The report shows that in the agency's first year more than 850,000 cases were accepted and more than 200,000 maintenance assessments made. Just under 60 per cent involved clients who were not already receiving maintenance. The agency located 28,000 fathers for whom the mother did not have an address.

But it fell short of key targets. The CSA arranged maintenance for only 31.5 per cent of eligible parents, just over half its target of 60 per cent, responded to only 45 per cent of written inquiries within 10 working days and answered only 33 per cent of complaints within the same limit.

More than 40 per cent of applications took longer than the maximum 12 weeks to process, while spot checks had revealed that 'too many' assessments were inaccurate. However, the agency kept within its pounds 114m budget.

Ministers have claimed the targets were 'a stab in the dark', and yesterday's report agrees they were 'too optimistic'. New ones for the year to April 1995 are lower, although higher than the results actually achieved last year.

Staff will be expected to arrange maintenance for half those eligible; score 65 per cent on a client satisfaction index (up 4 per cent on the present score); and make savings of pounds 460m (up from pounds 418m).

Since it began business 16 months ago, the CSA has had to contend with a vocal opposition campaign, often from fathers with second families. It received 10,866 complaints and almost 5,000 letters from MPs in its first year. CSA staff have been spat at and had razor blades sent to their offices.

There has also been persistent criticism that excessive maintenance assessments have driven fathers to suicide, that the agency has disregarded 'clean-break' settlements involving property or cash in lieu of maintenance, and that money clawed back has not gone to the children concerned.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, claims pounds 203m of the pounds 210m collected in the first year has gone to reduce the Chancellor's benefit bills. Other critics have warned that lone parents are losing out because the extra maintenance they receive puts them just over the income support level so they lose associated benefits such as free school meals.

But the report corrects the myth that all absent parents are suffering financial hardship because of the CSA. Almost one in four absent parents assessed last year was asked to pay only pounds 2.20 a week.

Mrs Hepplewhite admitted yesterday that the agency had had 'an exceptionally challenging' time. 'The first year has seen plans and expectations tested against practical experience.'

Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, was more forthright: 'The agency has faced a campaign of organised opposition. There has been harassment of staff which is totally unacceptable.' He promised more effective measures to force recalcitrant parents to pay.

In October the Commons Social Security Select Committee will report on its second inquiry into the Child Support Act. Recommendations are likely to include changes to the formula for assessing maintenance and allowing lone parents to keep some of the payments.

(Photograph omitted)