Middle class may escape CSA

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Ministers are close to postponing plans to extend the Child Support Agency's operations into middle-income groups in 1996 as a crisis grows over its work.

The prospect of such a move comes in the wake of the agency's controversial decision to shelve 350,000 cases to clear a mounting backlog. But postponing the 1996 plans would require primary legislation, which ministers face with trepidation in view of the Government's lack of a paper majority and the deep unpopularity of the CSA. There are fears that legislation would run the risk of backbench efforts to emasculate the agency.

However, with ministers due to announce a possible appeals system and changes to the maintenance formula next month, the argument is still in favour of a tightly drawn package of primary legislation, sources say.

The agency's announcement that cases are to be shelved was condemned by the National Council for One-Parent Families as a betrayal of lone parents who have been waiting for maintenance. A linked decision not to pursue, for the time being, cases where lone mothers have failed for six months to complete a maintenance form satisfactorily brought a warning from Frank Field, the chairman of the Commons Social Security Select Committee, that collusion by parents to evade maintenance payments was likely to rise. The agency's inability to cope reinforces what some Tory backbenchers see as a political imperative not to allow it to get involved in middle-income separations from April 1996, in the run-up to the next election. From that date, either parent would be free to approach the agency to impose a maintenance settlement even when the lone parent was not on benefit.

David Shaw, the Conservative MP for Dover and a member of the Social Security committee, said the decision to shelve cases reinforced the argument against extending the agency's remit in 1996. "There must be a substantial question mark over whether the agency should get involved in cases that do not have an impact on the taxpayer. There is certainly no justification for the 1996 changes if they haven't cleared the backlog," he said.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said the decision to postpone taking on cases dating from 1993 where the parent caring for the child was on income support was an admission of defeat. Alistair Burt, the Social Security minister, defende d an "operational decision" to defer cases to allow the agency to improve, but his position was not helped by his inability, and that of the agency, to say how long the postponement would be.

The problems were continuing "teething troubles" at the 18-month-old agency, Mr Burt insisted, emphasising that absent parents among the 1.1 million cases already on the agency's books would continue to be pursued, and the agency would "look sympathetically" at appeals by those deferred to have their cases taken on. The agency said postponed cases would be taken on eventually.

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