Child maintenance under fire: MPs will join pressure groups in exposing flaws in the system, reports Sue Fieldman

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QUESTIONS are to be raised in Parliament about alarming inadequacies in the new maintenance system for children.

The questions will be submitted on behalf of leading children's charities and pressure groups that have joined together to monitor the widespread failings of the scheme.

The monitoring group will next month brief MPs on the desperate situation of parents ensnared in the financial clutches of the Child Support Agency, which was set up in April to take over from the courts the responsibility for setting, reviewing and enforcing child maintenance payments.

Top of the agenda will be the flaws in the formula used by the agency to work out the amount of maintenance. It applies to everyone rich or poor. It takes no account of debts, childcare costs, the mortgage payments a man makes on the former matrimonial home, fares to and from work, or the costs of travelling to have access to the children.

The system also ignores previous clean-break settlements. The CSA can now without prompting stick its nose into the parties' finances years after they were finalised.

Janet Allbeson, a social policy officer for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, said: '(Parents) may have gone through a lengthy court battle emotionally as well as financially, things have cooled down, and suddenly the whole thing is up in the air again.'

In truth the formula was designed for errant fathers whose families are on DSS benefits. Applying it wholesale to everyone is a recipe for disaster.

If you feel an assessment is unjust you can apply to have it reviewed by a child support officer who played no part in the original decision. There is then a right of appeal to the Child Support Appeal Tribunal. That is in effect the end of the road unless there is a point of law in issue, when you can go to the Child Support Commissioner.

You cannot go to court to challenge a CSA assessment. Leslie Maclean, who is being dubbed the first man to take the CSA to court, is in fact challenging a judge's decision to allow his wife to scrap an existing maintenance order and let her apply to the CSA for maintenance instead. He is not challenging the actual CSA assessment.

Two weeks ago we asked readers to write in with comments on the new system. All correspondence is being passed on to the monitoring group to help with reform of the system.

Adrian Groves of Berkshire: 'Instead of pounds 120 a month as set by the court I am being told to pay pounds 308 a month. Virtually overnight I was expected to pay an extra pounds 188 a month.

'How is it possible to sensibly spend pounds 71.26 a week on a child of nine? If I were to pay this ridiculous amount my second family would be unable to maintain the close loving relationship we have with my son. I have of course asked for a review of the assessment but at the end of the day it is the formula itself that is flawed.'

Derek Andrews of Essex: 'When I got a court order for maintenance of pounds 20 a week I thought that was it. Now the agency has assessed me at pounds 86.70 a week for one 14-year-old daughter plus I had a bill for over pounds 800 backdated. The way they work it out is beyond belief. How can they say it costs pounds 86.70 a week for a child of 14 when a pensioner like my mother gets only pounds 50 odd a week?'

Jill Fitzgerald O'Connor of Northumberland: 'Just recently I have been pursued by the CSA for information on my ex-husband. I informed the CSA that he is on invalidity benefit yet they still persisted, including telephoning me at work. Child support is a tax on being a father, and the more caring, the more tax is levied.'

Wendy Walters of Southport is a second wife: 'The CSA can increase maintenance, ignore clean breaks, make it harder to see the children and a non-custodial parent can do sweet nothing about it.'

She has contacted her MP, Matthew Banks, who wrote to the CSA. Ros Hepplewhite, chief executive of the CSA, replied saying: 'The costs of maintaining contact with a child can, I know be high in some cases, but it would not be right to give them precedence over the child's basic right to maintenance.'

The National Council for One Parent Families has a free booklet, 'Maintenance and the Child Support Agency', that offers information to lone parents claiming child maintenance. Send a SAE with 34p in stamps to NCOPF, 'Maintenance', 255 Kentish Town Road, London NW5 2LX. From next month, lone parents who need advice on the Child Support Agency will be able to talk to Sandra Tuck on 071-267 1361, from 10am to 1pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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