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 only 29 per cent of all assessments on the amount owed by absent parents were definitely correct and made by staff following proper procedures. While improvements in accuracy had been achieved since the previous year, the report said that progress made was still "disappointing". Staff are said to have made errors on nearly a quarter - 23 per cent - of cases, either sending out demands for too little or too much maintenance.
And in 28 per cent of cases, a lack of evidence meant it was not possible to tell whether the maintenance assessment had been correctly decided.
This report follows a highly critical one, published in June, by the National Audit Office. It found that fathers were paying up to pounds 55 too much, and also that the agency was owed more than 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" and the task ahead remained "substantial". He added that he "looked to CSA management and staff building on signs of improvement and increasing its pace over the year."
Andrew Mitchell, the social security minister, said it showed the CSA was making "good and steady progress after a difficult start", but added: "The continuing requirement for improvement is substantial. The key elements are in place ... and I expect the agency to use them effectively to produce the standards which all concerned have a right to expect."
But Labour claimed the report revealed a "shockingly high level of inaccuracy" by the CSA in making assessments for maintenance payments. The Network Against the Child Support Agency said the report showed that despite various changes "the agency is still in administrative chaos".