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Single parents facing long wait for maintenance cash: Family lawyers and charities accuse Child Support Agency of inefficiency

SINGLE MOTHERS are being denied help with the costs of bringing up their children as a result of lengthy delays at the new Child Support Agency, according to lawyers.

Solicitors specialising in family law say the agency, which was set up to obtain maintenance from absent parents, is dogged by inefficiency, with some applicants told they will have to wait many months for their cases to be considered.

One mother was told she could not expect maintenance for five months, due to a backlog of claims at her local office. 'What's she supposed to do in the meantime?' her solicitor said. The criticisms will embarrass the Government which has touted the organisation as the spearhead of its campaign against errant fathers. When it was set up in April, Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, said the agency would track down absent parents and assess how much they should contribute to the costs of bringing up their children, eventually saving the taxpayer up to pounds 600m a year.

But such claims are far from being fulfilled, according to Glenys Hodkinson, vice-president of the DSS group at the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, which represents staff at the agency. 'It's horrendous and it will take months, if not years, to sort out.'

She said staff had not been given sufficient training to handle the complex tasks involved in assessing maintenance and obtaining the money. Most women were having to wait up to 12 weeks for claims to be assessed, with some losing out financially during this period.

The delays would also hit fathers because claims were backdated to the day of the application. Arrears inevitably built up if staff at the agency could not send out the forms promptly, Ms Hodkinson said.

Her concerns were echoed by lawyers and charities. Wendy Mantle, a solicitor and expert on the Child Support Act, said: 'All our worst fears are materialising. If they cannot cope at this stage, one wonders what will happen later.'

Gingerbread, the single-parents' support group, said that it had surveyed 200 mothers and found that just six had been contacted by the agency.

The National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux said its members had had to deal with a number of the agency's errors. For instance, a happily married man was surprised to be sent a letter saying that he owed maintenance to a child born as the result of a previous relationship. When he rang the agency he found that the letter should have been sent to another man of the same name.

However, last week, the Child Support Agency rebutted the criticisms. 'From our point of view, the agency is off to a steady start,' a spokeswoman said. 'It is early days but we have not had anything major raised with us.'