Child agency ditches single parents in work

Change of focus aims to cut income support bill
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The Independent Online
A two-tier system for child support was effectively heralded by the Government yesterday when a key principle of the original Child Support Act - that all parents should eventually have recourse to the Child Support Agency to assess fair child mainentenance - was ditched. The White Paper, called Improving Child Support, announced that parents who have care of children and are in work and not on benefits will not be taken on by the CSA from 1996 as was intended.

However, they will still have to go to court for maintenance to be set - a system that ministers had previously criticised for producing inconsistent and unrealistic assessments which the CSA was intended to remedy.

The legislation will remove the post-1996 cases from the jurisdiction of the agency with a "reserve power" to bring them into the agency's jurisdiction at a future date. Such parents will be able to apply to the CSA to collect and enforce payment, for a fee, if the agency has time.

The decision was condemned yesterday as proof that the real driving force behind the child-support legislation is the Treasury, whose only concern is mpving parents with care of the children off income support. For the Treasury would reap no benefit fromthe estimated 50,000 parents with care who are not on income support and who had written or court agreements before April 1993 who were expected to ask the CSA to assess maintenance in the first year after 1996.

News of the removal of non-benefit cases from the legislation comes just a month after the Government announced that the CSA was deferring both the take-up of cases that had been difficult to pursue and the backlog of cases where the parent with care of children was already receiving income support before April 1993 - an estimated total of 350,000 cases. This was criticised as being administratively expedient and to the disadvantage of lone parents.

The remaining changes to the Child Support Act tackle the most common complaints from absent parents which have dogged the CSA since its launch in April 1993.

However, they will do little for the parents with care who are on income support and cannot work. During 1996/97, following primary legislation, the Government will introduce a limited appeals mechanism. An independent child support appeal tribunal will be able to overrule the CSA's assessment and allow some discretion to depart from the strict maintenance formula in cases where the absent parent would otherwise face hardship or where certain property or capital transfers took place before April 1993.

There will be closely specified grounds for the special circumstances that will be considered and there will be limits on the extent of the departure.

Changes to the maintenance formula from April 1995 are: n No absent parent will be assessed to pay more than 30 per cent of his or her normal net income in current child maintenance, or more than 33 per cent in current maintenance and arrears.

n A "broad-brush" adjustment will be provided in the maintenance formula to take account of previous "clean break" property or capital settlements. (This will be taken into account in more detail once the appeals mechanism is in place in 1996/97.)

n An allowance will be made towards high travel-to-work costs.

n Housing costs will be allowed for a new partner or step- children.

n For high earners, the maximum level of maintenance payable under the formula will be cut sharply. For example, the maximum amount payable for one child aged five (including the basic element) will be reduced from £143.40 a week to £104.85. Where there are three children of, say, 16, 15 and 13 the maximum will be reduced from £407.18 to £251.71.

n From April 1997, parents with care on income support or jobseeker's allowance will be able to build up a "maintenance credit" from that clawed back by the Treasury, up to a maximum of £1,000 which will be paid as a lump sum when they start working at least 16 hours a week. This is intended to remove some of the disincentives to work from the loss of fringe benefits such as free school milk and dental care when they are floated off income support.

Measures to improve administration include: periodic reviews every two years; where the agency causes a delay in setting maintenance, consideration will be given to not enforcing more than six months worth of arrears; simplification of the definitions ofhousing costs and earnings; introduction of an interim assessment for self-employed absent parents.

Groups representing absent parents were privately celebrating victory yesterday but pressure groups condemned the failure to improve the lot of the parents with care of children.

The Child Poverty Action Group said: "We are concerned that the Government's aim is to silence its most vociferous critics. The balance of the package is overwhelmingly to the advantage of absent parents, and not parents with care; it contains practically nothing to combat the poverty of lone parents and their children."

The National Council for One Parent Families said: "We are disappointed that the maintenance paid by rich absent fathers will be further reduced. This seems to undermine the principle, recognised in family law, that a child has a right to share in the affluence of their family".