Politics: Child support payments to be simplified in agency overhaul

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The Independent Online
Reforms to the Child Support Agency will be set out before the summer, welfare minister Frank Field said yesterday. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent says Mr Field conceded that the agency was not working and needed an full-scale overhaul.

Calls for a Government-backed voluntary system under which parents would agree arrangements for the support of their children when they divorced were rejected by Mr Field.

Instead, the minister for welfare reform, speaking in a Commons debate called by the Liberal Democrats, suggested that a simple solution would be to relate payments directly to the earnings of the absent parent.

The CSA has met with constant criticism, with some people arguing that it fails to take account of individual circumstances and others that it is too complex because it tries to do just that. MPs have received many thousands of complaints about its working and large numbers of families on benefits have not received payments.

Mr Field said it would be unfair to blame CSA staff, as the formula they had to use was so complex that 90 per cent of their time was spent grappling with it. The Government's reform would aim to support children, get payments to families in need, to give parents more choice, protect taxpayers, move the issue of access up the political agenda and establish a system staff could understand.

At some stage soon, ministers would have to decide whether to follow the "voluntary-type principle" put forward by the Liberal Democrats, to have easily understood rules backed by enforcement, or whether the House thought it had the "wisdom to legislate for the complexities of people's lives", he said.

Opening the debate, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, David Rendel, said the CSA had failed and should be abolished. He called for a system of mediation to arrive at voluntary agreements, backed by a family court or tribunal to enforce fair decisions when disputes arose.

"The Child Support Act has failed to meet the needs of absent parents, it has failed to meet the needs of parents with care and, above all, it has failed to meet the needs of children. The Child Support Act is beyond repair and it is now as friendless as it is unfriendly," he said.

Conservative Simon Burns said the aim of the CSA had been to safeguard children and its principles should be maintained. It was impossible to get a voluntary agreement in most cases and this was why the agency had been set up."Where this is possible, and in a perfect world ... there should be a voluntary agreement - but this is not the purpose of the CSA," he said.