Ros Hepplewhite, told the Social Security Select Committee that the agency had priorities for assessing maintenance. The highest priority was where the parent with care of the child - usually the mother - was making a claim for state benefits for the first time since the agency was set up in April. This was the largest group; of the 527,000 assessment forms sent out almost 280,000 were to new claimants.
The second priority was when the caring parent was on social security benefit prior to April. Ms Hepplewhite said that 'in this group it was agreed we should deal first with the absent parents who are paying maintenance under previous arrangements . . . We are taking the payers first'.
Before the agency was launched ministers emphasised it was to trace 'runaway' fathers who were paying no maintenance. But the agency is under pressure to save the Treasury pounds 530m this year. A confidential memorandum obtained by the select committee, showed that staff were being told to target more profitable cases where the new maintenance assessment would be high and the absent parent would be willing to pay.
The memo sent out to agency staff by Dave Moody, divisional manager for Wales and Merseyside, said: 'This is not the time for cases we know should be getting early attention, but which will need a lot of effort to extract money. The name of the game is maximising the maintenance yield - don't waste a lot of time on the non-profitable stuff'.
Of the 507,000 applications sent out where the parent with care was on state benefits, about half would already be paying maintenance, Ms Hepplewhite said. Of the 36,000 new maintenance bills sent out by the agency by the end of September, about half were to absent parents - usually the father - who were already paying maintenance.
However, by April next year, when the agency estimates it will be dealing with 1 million cases, only one third of new assessments - about 333,000 - would previously have paid maintenance, she said.
After 1996, the agency expects to be dealing with 50,000 cases where the caring parent is not on state benefits but has a court settlement. So far the agency has taken on 19,500 cases where the caring parent is not on benefits but has no court order.
The committee decided to hold an inquiry into the operation of the agency after members received 400 letters of complaint from absent fathers who had previously paid a contribition towards their children and who had received new assessments, typically up to four times the amount previously ordered by a court or agreed privately.
The formula for assessing how much the absent parents should pay only takes into account their housing costs and essential personal expenses up to pounds 44.
A recurring complaint was that the formula does not take account of 'clean break' settlements in which the divorced or separated father may have given the former partner the home or equity from it, or taken on joint debts.
Asked if she thought the formula was fair, Ms Hepplewhite said her job was to operate the formula and it was for ministers to decide whether to change it. 'There are a number of candidates for additional allowances and it is for ministers to decide whether they should be taken into account,' she said.
Afterwards Frank Field, the Labour chairman, said that he believed the increased payments should be phased in over two years and that the formula should take into account expenses incurred by the absent parent, including clean- break settlements, the cost of travelling to work, and the cost of raising stepchildren whose natural father did not pay because he was unemployed or on low income.
Today, Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Burt, is to be questioned on whether the formula is fair.
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