Child agency changes ignore 'unjust' formula: The Government has not answered critics. Rosie Waterhouse reports

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S changes to the Child Support Agency ignores the most fundamental proposals suggested by Opposition MPs and pressure groups representing absent parents, new wives and those ex-wives who are left worse off by the new child support system.

Earlier this month the all-party select committee, chaired by the Labour MP Frank Field, suggested changes, but was accused of 'fudging' other aspects of the formula condemned by many as unjust.

The most common complaint addressed by neither the select committee nor Alistair Burt, the minister answerable for the agency, is the 'clean-break settlement' whereby divorced and seperated absent parents may have given the parent with care the house or other capital settlement as part of the divorce agreement in lieu of maintenance.

The agency ignores these settlements when assessing maintenance and the select committee decided it could not work out a formula for how to include such arrangements in the agency's assessment.

The committee suggested that aggrieved absent parents could return to the courts and overturn the cleak-break settlement - implying the parent with care, usually the mother, should have to give back the house or other cash settlement.

The committee's proposals which were partly accepted include: a two-year transition to full payment; raising protected income from pounds 8 above Income Support level to pounds 40 plus 10 per cent; and care element costs to be decreased for children over 11.

Recommendations not accepted include; arrears should not start building up from the day the maintenance form is received and a fuller account of the cost of stepchildren to be taken into account.

The National Campaign for Fair Maintenance said yesterday that the changes took no account of the main criticisms of the Act, which included:

Second, non-working partners with no income of their own, for instance if they are nursing the child of a second relationship, are still expected to contribute 25 per cent towards a second family's housing costs;

The Government is refusing to make allowances for people who entered into clean-break settlements;

No consideration has been made for travelling to work costs, child care, the settlement of existing debts (often from before the break-up of a relationship or legal fees in connection with divorce or child custody cases) and, therefore, thousands of absent parents now face bankruptcy and repossession of their homes.

Donald Dewar, Labour's spokesman on social security, said two important areas had not been tackled. Ministers had made no attempt to build flexibility into an inflexible financial formula - for instance cash or property settlements and special costs such as visiting the children were not taken into account.

Mr Dewar also said there should be a right of appeal to a review officer who could order a departure from the standard formula.

Leading article, page 15

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