Lilley hopes overhaul will save CSA

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Far-reaching changes to rescue the Child Support Agency, including a cap on how much absent parents will have to pay, were announced yesterday by Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Services. The Government is also postponing indefinitely a move to allow parents not on benefit to use the agency to reopen court settlements and written agreements reached with their absent partners before 1993. Tory MPs were alarmed at the prospect of the agency's controversial operations extending even deeper into the middle class before the next general election.

The changes are chiefly aimed at answering the complaints of absent parents. Mr Lilley said assessments would now be fairer and "no absent parent will now be able reasonably to refuse to pay their child maintenance". The main gain for parents with care is the "maintenance credit", a bonus of up to £1,000 from the Treasury to encourage mothers back into work.

More than a dozen changes will introduce a limited discretion into the payments formula, allow for "clean-break" settlements, allow in full the housing costs of new partners and stepchildren, and set a rule that absent parents will pay no more than 30 per cent of net income. An independent Child Support Appeal Tribunal could overrule the CSA's assessment if it causes undue hardship to the absent parent or is considered too low by the parent with care.

The prospect of a two-tier system, providing "rough justice for those on benefit while the courts protect the better off" was one criticism aimed at the changes by Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman. But opposition MPs broadly welcomed thepackage and concentrated their fire on the failure to allow parents with care on income support to keep some of the maintenance paid. The major changes to the formula will take effect from April.

Protest groups representing absent parents were celebrating yesterday, but the most vocal opponents said they would continue to campaign for the abolition of the agency. Mike Pimplott, founder of the Network Against the Child Support Act, said: "The changes are far too little, far too late."

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