Child support payment joins death and taxes: One father says the CSA left him pounds 14 a week for food and clothing

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The Independent Online
A FATHER is being pursued by the new Child Support Agency for maintenance that he cannot pay because of prior debts. It is a situation that will be faced by many as the CSA takes absolutely no account of debts when working out maintenance awards.

Whether you have incurred debts of pounds 10,000 or pounds 10 during the marriage, your maintenance will be assessed in exactly the same way. One of the main functions of the CSA, which has been up and running since 5 April, is to implement a formula for calculating how much child maintenance should be paid. Previously, there was no formula and maintenance awards were made by the courts.

According to the CSA's literature, 'realistic and predictable amounts of maintenance will be assessed, so that people in similar circumstances will pay similar amounts of maintenance - a fair and consistent treatment for all parents. The formula will also be flexible enough to recognise widely differing sets of circumstances.'

That is the theory. Whether it works in practice only time will tell, and the clock has started ticking as the first maintenance assessments are landing on parents' doormats.

Mr L (he does not want his name to be disclosed) and his wife separated earlier this year. They have one child who lives with the wife.

The couple incurred debts during the marriage of about pounds 2,150. Mr L's wife is not working and, for practical purposes, repayment of the debts falls entirely on Mr L.

He has recently received his assessment for child support from the CSA. He is to pay pounds 30.80 a week.

After allowing for the payment of child support, his net income is pounds 130 a week. His total outgoings, which include pounds 25 a week debt repayments, are pounds 116. He has pounds 14 a week left to feed and clothe himself.

When Mr L received his CSA assessment he also received a demand for payment of pounds 78 - a fixed fee charged by the CSA for the assessment and collection service. That was payable immediately and he has since received a further demand.

Mr L's solicitor, David Barry of Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, said: 'Shortly afterwards, (Mr L) received a further letter from the CSA informing him that because the assessment is backdated to the date when the CSA sent him an assessment form, he was already in arrears by pounds 193. In other words, he is meant to pay pounds 271 immediately.

'Even if he stopped all his debt repayments, and stopped eating, it would take nearly seven weeks to pay this amount. Of course, before then, he would be dead. Is that the Government's intention?'

Mr L's MP queried the assessment on his behalf. In a letter, Alistair Burt, the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, said: 'I fully understand in Mr L's particular circumstances his concern about debt repayments. Unfortunately it is not a matter for the Child Support Agency as to how these debts were incurred and who, therefore, has the responsibility of paying them.

'It may, however, be helpful to Mr L if I explain the priority of maintenance against other debts. As a rule, maintenance is treated as a priority debt which comes above all other debts. Maintenance obligations will therefore be taken into account by the courts when other debts are enforced. It would seem from the circumstances that some rescheduling of Mr L's debts will now be likely.'

The minister's remarks prompted some questions from Mr Barry: 'I cannot help wondering what approach banks, building societies and other lenders will take to the minister's comments.

'If the repayment of maintenance invariably comes first, presumably children will become a minus factor for credit rating purposes. Perhaps lenders will try to assess the stability of borrowers' marriages before they lend money. Otherwise, if the marriage were to break down and there was a maintenance debt, the lenders could be pushed down the queue of those to be repaid.'

Meanwhile, Mr L is trying to reschedule his debts, including the pounds 271.

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