Support agency 'brought in only pounds 15m in new cash': Chief executive faces fierce criticism from MPs

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A MERE pounds 15m of the pounds 312m that the Child Support Agency collected in maintenance in its first year was new money, MPs complained yesterday as Ros Hepplewhite, the agency's chief executive, faced fierce criticism at the Commons Social Security Select Committee over the agency's performance.

Frank Field, the committee's chairman, put it to Mrs Hepplewhite that agency figures suggesting pounds 312m had been collected were 'highly misleading' when nearly pounds 200m of that was maintenance paid under the system which existed before the CSA came into operation, and another pounds 98m was paid direct by absent parents to their former partners. Much of that could well also have been being paid before April last year, Mr Field argued.

Mrs Hepplewhite declined to confirm that pounds 15m was all the new money collected, but conceded the new money was 'a disappointing figure and you are quite right to focus on it'.

Part of the reason, she said, was the changes the Government made to CSA rules last year which meant that all cases had to be reassessed up to the end of December. 'It is not surprising that the end-year figures are a relatively low sum.'

Figures given to the committee, however, also showed that pounds 138m had been saved by people ceasing to claim benefits within a month of the CSA approaching them. Some of that would be due to people finding work or being reconciled, Mrs Hepplewhite said, but some of it would also be fraudulent claims ceasing - leading Mr Field to suggest that the CSA 'may be a more effective mechanism against fraud than it is for gaining maintenance'.

As Mrs Hepplewhite conceded repeatedly that the agency had provided a poor service in its first year, she insisted that the service was now improving and denied 'absolutely' that it was on the point of collapse.

Alan Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, also registered amazement as he established that lone mothers can get the CSA to take on their case simply by claiming income support - whether or not they qualify for it.

The agency is using a staged basis to take cases on so that some lone parents who might want to use the CSA's services to extract maintenance from their former partner will not be taken on until 1997.

A claim for income support, however, puts the absent parent within the the agency's jurisdiction and the agency then has 'no choice but to pursue it', Mrs Hepplewhite said. Mr Duncan protested that this meant that a mother with care 'need only apply for some kind of benefit to get the absent father on the hook'.

As Mr Duncan continued to pursue the issue which could further increase the already overloaded agency's work, Mr Field intervened to say that 'I think that point has been advertised well enough.'

(Photograph omitted)