Battle looms over changes at CSA

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A BATTLE is looming within the Government over whether to make major or minor changes to the formula operated by the Child Support Agency in assessing how much absent parents should pay. All sides agree some reform is inevitable.

Ministers, Tory party whips and civil servants at the Department of Social Security are assessing how far changes need to go to make the system more widely acceptable in the face of unremitting opposition from absent fathers, former wives and new wives. The most vocal opponents complain that the existing formula is unfair and makes demands which are unrealistically high, while pressure groups representing lone parents argue the CSA fails to ensure they and their children are better off.

Last week Ros Hepplewhite, the CSA's chief executive, resigned and was replaced by Ann Chant, head of the National Insurance Contributions Agency.

Serious administrative and operational problems which plagued the agency in its first year are beginning to be ironed out but MPs realise the problems caused by the formula remain.

The Social Security Select Committee is split over how to solve the problems. Frank Field, its Labour chairman, wants a formula which is 'fairer and simpler' and which would treat differently those parents who split up before the CSA came into operation and those who divorced knowing of the new system. This would require legislation. Some Tory committee members feel less radical changes to the formula, so that it takes into account more expenses, such as the costs of travelling to work and seeing the children, would be sufficient. Influential Tory sources say the party is torn because no simple solution to the problems is forthcoming.

Leading article, page 11