Action at last over child support shambles: A monitoring committee of welfare groups plans to alert MPs to the failings of the new maintenance system. Sue Fieldman reports

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A monitoring group of more than 20 children's charities and pressure groups will brief MPs on the flaws in the new system for child maintenance and the urgent need for reform now that the Government has launched a review.

The MPs will report on their findings before Christmas.

Judy Foy, a spokeswoman for the Law Society and a member of the monitoring group, said: 'We will be trying to educate the MPs as to why the system is falling apart.'

The Child Support Agency has been running since April. It was set up to to take responsibility from the courts for setting, reviewing and enforcing child maintenance. It uses a set formula to fix the amount of maintenance.

It has already attracted a barrage of criticism for its poor administration and inflexibility.

The monitoring group has a lengthy list of reforms. Emma Knights, a spokeswoman for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: 'There are a huge number of things wrong. At present the formula takes no account of travelling costs to have access to the children - this should be changed.

'There will also have to be something done about debts. They are currently ignored in the formula. If you cannot pay a loan secured on your home because you are paying maintenance and you are repossessed, what happens then?'

One of the most contentious issues in the formula is the element of support for the carer parent - in other words financial provision for the wife. It is currently pounds 44 a week.

A wife using the excuse of child support can in effect get increased maintenance for herself. Miss Knights said: 'One of the things we will be proposing is that this must be amended.'

The monitoring group will insist that the CSA takes account of property and other financial settlements that have already been made amicably by the parties.

Gary Craig, a spokesman for the Children's Society, said: 'Someone has to take very seriously the much broader arrangements made in good faith between the parties and now being overturned at will.'

There is a huge groundswell of opinion that the CSA formula is weighted against a father's second family. Miss Knights said: 'The act sets up a very complicated system of recycling money from one low income family to another. In many cases the end result is to leave two families close to income support level.'

Many second wives are aggrieved at the system. Their families are being hit by huge maintenance bills for children from their husband's first marriage.

The income of a second wife is ignored in calculating how much maintenance is to be paid to a child. It is, however, taken into consideration when working out the protected income of the second family. This split concept in the formula is causing immense confusion.

Claire Groves is a second wife. She and her husband Adrian, who live at Reading, Berkshire, have a two-year-old daughter.

This week Mrs Groves received a reply to her complaints about the CSA from Alistair Burt, the junior social security minister. Mrs Groves, who works part-time, was singularly unimpressed.

She said: 'The letter is a load of waffle. Mr Burt says that children need someone to look after them and for this reason the maintenance requirement for the child includes pounds 44 a week for the carer.

'So the first wife gets pounds 44 a week for being a mother, something that every other mother does for nothing. It is absolutely outrageous.

'The court, having taken all our income and outgoings into consideration, set maintenance at pounds 120 a month in August 1992. The CSA has put it up to pounds 308 a month.'

Mr and Mrs Groves have appealed against their assessment. This week they received the new figure from the CSA - pounds 297, a reduction of pounds 11 a month.

They intend to appeal again to the Child Support Appeal Tribunal.

Mrs Groves said: 'Mr Burt says in his letter that most absent parents after payment of maintenance will be left with 70 to 85 per cent of their net income. There is no way we are left with anything like that.

'To me the message from the CSA comes across loud and clear. If you have been decent, honest, hardworking, law-abiding and responsible and you are in work you will be penalised and reduced to paupers'.

If you have any proposals to reform the system write to The Independent, Money (CSA), 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. Your comments will be passed on to the monitoring group for discussion at the meeting with MPs.

(Photograph omitted)

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