CSA watchdog finds 'errors and delays' in service

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The Independent Online

The Child Support Agency is still plagued by incompetent and inadequate service despite a reduction in the overall number of complaints, the agency's watchdog said yesterday.

The Child Support Agency is still plagued by incompetent and inadequate service despite a reduction in the overall number of complaints, the agency's watchdog said yesterday.

Mrs Anne Parker, the CSA's independent case examiner, upheld 91 per cent of the 1,226 complaints investigated, and said that the CSA's customers were dissatisfied by delay, errors and poor communication.

The agency, which aims to ensure that an absent father or mother pays maintenance for their children, has in the past been blamed for splitting up second families and pushing people to suicide.

Mrs Parker said 59 per cent of the complaints came from non-resident parents being pursued for maintenance, 3 per cent of whom were women.

"The major complaint was delays in assessing the amount required for maintenance, which caused a lot of frustration," she said.

"It is not unusual for there to be a delay of between eight months and two years for a maintenance assessment to be made. This leaves the parent looking after the children with no money and a large bill for the non-resident parent," she said.

"The CSA needs to get closer to its target of 26 weeks. This would be a real improvement."

In her third annual report, Mrs Parker said it was essential that "the Agency and its staff continue to recognise the very significant impact which failures in communication, mistakes and delays have on its clients." Many people complained that the CSA did not respond to letters. "There is still a long way to go," she said.

The report showed that the overall level of complaints to the agency reduced by 25 per cent last year, and the complaints referred to the independent case examiner (ICE) had dropped by 20 per cent.

"It would be unreasonable to expect a sea-change in the quality of the service overall, since it is well recognised that the constraints and complexities of the current system render mistakes almost inevitable," she said.

Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, welcomed the report. "I am pleased to note that the ICE acknowledges the improvements in service delivery in the CSA," he said. Mr Darling said that the new computer system for the CSA was signed a few weeks ago and so a simpler and quicker system could be developed. "The whole child maintenance process is being simplified and geared up, ready for new cases by April 2002. Maintenance due will be calculated in days not months, as now," he said.

Under the new child support system, non-resident parents will be required to pay 15 per cent of their net income for one child, 20 per cent for two children and 25 per cent for three children. The CSA will also be given new powers to ensure maintenance due does get paid.

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