Child agency failed to collect pounds 527m

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The controversial Child Support Agency failed to collect pounds 527m in child maintenance last year, despite reforms, MPs were told yesterday.

Much of it will probably never be paid, the CSA's new chief executive Ann Chant told the Public Accounts Committee.

In March last year, unpaid assessments were running at about pounds 101m and about half the CSA's maintenance assessments were wrongly calculated.

Forty to 50 per cent of its assessments of absent parents' liability were still wrong, Miss Chant told MPs.The Secretary of State for Social Security, Peter Lilley, has set the CSA a target of 75 per cent accuracy by March next year. Miss Chant said that was "ambitious".

The agency was overhauled earlier this year after widespread public criticism and failure to meet its first-year targets. Its first chief executive, Ros Hepplewhite, a target for disgruntled absent fathers and their new families, resigned last December and legal changes are under way to soften the impact of the Child Support Act.

A senior civil servant in the Department of Social Security, Sir Michael Partridge, also questioned by the committee yesterday, said: "We didn't anticipate ... this level of non-cooper- ation and wilful obstruction of the agency. It is quite unprecedented in anything I have come across in public service."

Even parents caring for children took an average of 42 days to return the first assessment form, he said. Miss Chant said absent parents were even less likely to co-operate.