The Queen's Speech: Offenders ignoring court orders will lose all benefits

REFORMS TO rework the Child Support Agency and remove benefits from offenders were condemned by professional bodies yesterday as unfair, retrograde and counterproductive.

Following through on its "tough and tender" stance on welfare, the Government has promised changes to the much-criticised CSA, further pension reforms, including a state second pension and a measure designed to withdraw benefits from offenders who fail to comply with community sentences imposed by the courts.

In the Bill on welfare reform the Government has promised to replace the existing complex formula the CSA uses to determine maintenance payments with a simple system of percentage rates based on the absent parent's net income. If parents try to delay the process, new penalties will be available to ensure compliance.

There will also be powers to ensure assessment cannot be unnecessarily delayed by disputes over paternity, allowing presumptions of parentage where an absent parent refuses a DNA test, or refuses to accept the positive outcome of a test.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, said the new method of calculating child support payments would make the system even more unfair than it is and called for its abolition.

"The Child Support Agency has failed and no amount of tinkering will solve the many problems that have dogged the organisation," said Kamlesh Bahl, president of the Law Society.

"It is time to stop tinkering with the CSA and go back to the court-based system which was more effective and fairer."

The Government also proposes to reform the state earnings related pension scheme (Serps) by way of a state second pension.

This will ensure people with a lifetime of working or caring behind them, and certain disabled people with broken work records, would retire on a pension higher than means-tested benefits.

"Replacing Serps with a new second state pension will be ineffective because it will be decades before any meaningful change is noticeable," said Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security. "Pensioner poverty is an issue which exists now and this Bill does nothing to address that problem."

In one of the most controversial moves the new Bill will allow for the withdrawal or reduction of benefit entitlement from offenders who fail to comply with community sentences imposed by the courts. The measure will be piloted in parts of England and Wales to test the links between social security offices and the Probation Service, and to assess the behavioural impact on offenders.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders condemned the new measures. "The plan to withdraw welfare benefits from offenders who fail to obey court orders is retrograde and counter-productive," said Paul Cavadino, director of the asssociation. "It makes no sense as a way of tackling crime. Plunging offenders further into poverty must increase the temptation to commit theft, burglary or street robbery, so damaging, not improving, community safety."

The National Association of Probation Officers added its voice to concerns. "It is extremely difficult to envisage the withdrawal of benefits from those who breach orders either enhancing public protection or reducing crime," said Harry Fletcher, its spokesman.

Cherry Norton

Social Affairs Correspondent