Burden on absent parents is eased: Agency alters assessment system after deaths

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The Independent Online
SIX changes to the formula operated by the Child Support Agency for assessing the maintenance absent parents must pay were announced by the Government yesterday.

The reforms, announced by Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Social Security, tackle some problems that have emerged since the agency was set up in April. Protest groups and lawyers condemned them as inadequate, vowing that campaigns and legal test cases would go on.

The Commons Social Security Select Committee held an inquiry into the agency's operation after MPs received more than 1,000 letters - mainly from absent parents paying maintenance agreed amicably or set by courts - who had been ordered to contribute hugely increased sums. Earlier this month it published recommended changes, some of which Mr Burt has taken on board.

John Major said several weeks ago that the system was under review but Mr Burt's radio announcement during Parliament's Christmas recess was unexpected.

The previous day an inquest was told a father hanged himself after the agency tripled to pounds 297 a month the maintenance payments agreed in a divorce settlement. It was the third death in which families said agency demands had driven a divorced father to suicide.

The changes involve:

Phasing in, over up to 18 months, of the new amounts of maintenance for absent parents with second families who had formal arrangements under the old system, giving time to adjust to new liabilities;

Helping absent parents on protected lower incomes by increasing the minimum income they may keep after maintenance from pounds 8 above what the family would receive on income support to pounds 30;

Increasing the additional proportion of income above the protected minimum which absent parents may keep to strengthen work incentives from 10 to 15 per cent of any income above protected income;

Reducing additional amounts asked of absent parents who have paid the full basic maintenance, where there are only one or two children involved, from 25 to 15 per cent and 20 per cent respectively;

Reducing that paid to a parent for the 'care element' by a quarter at 11 and a further quarter at 14;

Waiving the pounds 34 a year collection fee charged to absent parents where the parent with care is on benefit, unless the agency does collect or enforce the maintenance.

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