CSA silver lining for parents' pockets: New rules give some people the chance to seek less onerous maintenance terms, writes Sue Fieldman

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of parents who have been ordered to increase child maintenance by the Child Support Agency are to have the blow softened, by lower payments and a phasing-in period.

On Wednesday, regulations were passed in Parliament that modify the way the CSA calculates and collects maintenance for children.

The CSA will start a mammoth mail-out on Monday to advise parents of the new amount and ask if they want to spread the payments.

The CSA has only been in operation since April 1993, but it has been widely criticised for sending out bills for hugely increased maintenance.

To ease the burden of paying the extra amounts, there is to be a phasing-in period of up to 18 months. Payments will increase at six-monthly intervals.

For instance, if a father was paying pounds 20 a week under a court order and the CSA had assessed him for pounds 86 a week, he would pay pounds 40 a week for the first six months under the new arrangements. This would then rise to pounds 46 a week for the next six months, then pounds 80 a week, and finally the full pounds 86 after 18 months.

A paying parent can only apply to phase in payments if he has a second family, there is an existing maintenance arrangement under the old system, and the new CSA assessment is more than pounds 60 a week.

The CSA is contacting all parents who qualify asking if they would like to apply for phasing in. All cases assessed for the first time after Monday will automatically have the 18-month build-up period if they meet the three conditions.

Parliament has also ordered changes to the strict formula that governs how much a parent has to pay.

The CSA reckons that of the 160,000 assessments already made, about 60,000 will be reduced by the formula changes. Again, it will be notifying parents of the reduced amount.

Emma Knights at the Child Poverty Action Group says: 'The CSA is intending that all reviewed assessments, except the most complicated, will be issued during the week of 7 February. It is hoped, therefore, that there will be no cases of significant overpayments.' The amended formula will apply to new reviews after Monday.

The old formula contains a provision intended to ensure that a paying parent has a 'protected income' of at least pounds 8 a week above what he and his second family would be entitled to on income support.

Under the new formula the margin goes up to pounds 30. In addition, paying parents with incomes a little above the protection line will retain at least 15 per cent, instead of 10 per cent, of the marginal income.

There is also a reduction in the additional amounts asked of parents - who have paid the full basic amount of maintenance - where there are only one or two children involved.

Under the old formula, the parent had to pay extra maintenance at the rate of 25p in each pound left over. The payment is now reduced to 15p in each pound if there is one child and 20p in each pound if there are two children.

Undoubtedly the most controversial element in the present formula is the pounds 44-a-week carer's allowance. Many have criticised this as extra maintenance for the wife. Under the new formula it will be reduced in two stages. When the youngest child reaches 11 it will go down by 25 per cent to pounds 33, and it will fall again to pounds 22 when the child reaches 14.

Hidden in the depths of the regulations is some good news for paying parents with a mortgage. The CSA had a cock-eyed way of working out how much was allowed for an endowment mortgage in a parent's housing costs.

Now the full endowment premium will be allowed for mortgages under pounds 60,000. People with new maintenance assessments will immediately feel the benefit of this change. Those on the same arrangements will have to wait for their yearly review.

The changes are all well and good for paying parents, who will be notified by the CSA of any reduced amount of maintenance as well as the option to phase in payments. But the new arrangements do absolutely nothing to help the parent with care of the children. Some mothers will undoubtedly be forced back on DSS benefits.

A spokesman for the CSA says: 'There obviously may be some potential losers but the payers do need time to pay.'

Anything involving the CSA is a minefield of unintelligible regulations. But a coherent and free leaflet on the new regime is available from CS Changes, Freepost 1399, Slough SL1 4BU.

(Photograph omitted)

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