Appeals plan threatens CSA rulings

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The Independent Online
RULINGS by the Child Support Agency could be overturned by review tribunals if suggestions being considered by ministers are accepted, according to senior Conservative sources.

The agency is facing attack from all sides. The Child Poverty Action Group said yesterday that the CSA's creation last year had led to families being forced into poverty, and Alistair Burt, Under- Secretary of State for Social Security, said CSA staff have been subjected to an unprecedented campaign of threats and intimidation.

The creation of tribunals to review the rulings of the CSA is one of the options being considered by ministers, alarmed at reports of hardship being inflicted on families. Legislation to change the CSA is being considered for the autumn. John Major assured MPs at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday that the agency was under review.

Its critics believe the system is at breaking point because fathers are refusing to pay. Donald Dewar, the Labour spokesman on social security, warned that unless the CSA was reformed, it was likely to fall apart: 'It is losing all credibility with the public and is rightly condemned from all sides.'

Mr Dewar called for a review procedure, underpinned by a statutory code to limit the range for appeals. It would include a right of review in cases where there was a 'clean break' divorce. Ministers are considering changing the CSA rules to pay more heed to clean break divorces, where the parties have agreed the division of property. The agency has been criticised for disregarding such settlements when it fixes the level of support to be paid by an absent parent.

Government sources confirmed last night that a review system, including tribunals, was among the options, but ministers are reluctant to allow discretion as to the amount of support payments back into the system. 'We don't want a discretionary system which would allow the whole world and his dog to appeal.'

Labour believes bringing in tribunals may prove too much of a climb-down for the Government, after it has repeatedly ruled out any discretionary system.

Ministers are privately making it clear they do not intend to be pushed into immediate action. But MPs on all sides believe the crisis facing the CSA is so acute that changes cannot be avoided beyond the end of the summer.

Tory MPs believe the changes to the agency will help the Government to recover some of its lost support. Mr Major told MPs: 'We shall continue to keep it under review. If changes are necessary, we will make them.'

The Prime Minister stressed that children should be supported by their parents, not the taxpayer, and ministers denied that the CSA had been a failure. Mr Burt said the critical report by the Child Poverty Action Group did not give due weight to the parents who had been helped by the CSA.

'Treasury before families', page 2

Leading article, page 15

Sue Slipman, page 17