MPs want fair deal for fathers: All-party report seeks new formula as leaked letter confirms absent parents who already pay are targets

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FUNDAMENTAL changes to the Child Support Agency were proposed by an all-party Commons committee yesterday. The MPs want to make the formula for assessing maintenance fairer and to protect absent parents on low incomes.

However, the report by the Social Security Select Committee, after a two-month inquiry, was immediately criticised for not going far enough by campaign groups representing parents with care of children and absent parents facing hugely increased demands since the agency came into being in April.

Launching the committee's report,Frank Field, its Labour chairman, warned the Government must accept all its recommendations in full or all-party support for the agency would fall apart. The inquiry was set up after the committee was inundated with complaints, mainly from absent fathers already paying maintenance who received hugely increased bills.

Thousands of absent fathers, ex- wives and new wives have formed protest groups to campaign for a fairer formula. Many claim the agency is more interested in saving the Government money than in the welfare of children. The agency has a target to save pounds 530m in its first year and Ros Hepplewhite, the chief executive, has a profit-related pay element to her pounds 46,000 a year salary, linked to achieving that target.

A main source of complaint was that the agency was targeting parents already paying maintenance. Ministers have denied that but the Independent has obtained a leaked letter which shows agency staff have been instructed to chase defaulting parents only 'where there is a likelihood that a maintenance payment will be secured'.

The report's recommendations include:

Payment should be phased in, in stages, over two years.

Allowance for stepchildren should be included in calculations.

The Government should consider cutting the pounds 44 a week 'care element' an absent parent must pay to the parent with care - usually the mother - after children reach 11.

The minimum amount an absent parent must have left after paying maintenance and allowable 'essential' expenses should be raised. At present that is pounds 8 above what the absent parent would get on Income Support - pounds 44 - and the report proposes that should be increased to pounds 20 to pounds 40. The committee decided reducing the absent parent, who may have a second family, to an income just above Income Support level was a disincentive to staying in work.

However, the report failed to address the most common complaint - that the agency was ignoring 'clean break' settlements agreed amicably or set by courts whereby the absent parents handed over the house or made a cash settlement to the parent with care.

The committee has received 1,000 letters of complaint, 70 to 80 per cent from absent fathers paying maintenance who had agreed clean break settlements.

The report suggests absent parents, in most cases fathers, who are aggrieved that the agency does not take clean break settlements into account could reurn to the court to see if the order could be varied.

David Holder, organiser of the Campaign for Fair Maintenance, which has more than 8,000 members, said: 'This could open the flood gates for absent fathers to return to the courts to overturn previously delicately balanced arrangements. I've been talking to mothers today who are petrified they will have to sell the house and give half the money back to the father.

'The changes do not get to the root cause of the problem . . . the strict, rigid formula. If the Government does not address this, it is going to have anarchy on its hands.'

Leaked letter, page 3

Leading article, page 17