Child Support Agency - The First Year: Couple left 'penniless' as demand backdated: Rosie Waterhouse assesses its performance and meets two of the men affected

MICHAEL and Kathy Lindop were on the verge of splitting up, even though they loved each other, as a drastic ploy to get round the Child Support Agency's formula.

They decided that if they lived apart, Kathy's invalidity benefit would not be taken into account when the CSA assessed how much maintenance Michael should pay for the three children from his first marriage.

They went to the local housing department which agreed to allocate Kathy a flat, and pay the rent, as she suffers from the debilitating sickness myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and is unable to work.

But when they got home they could not go through with it. 'We just sat down on the settee and cried in each other's arms,' Michael said. 'We love each other dearly and could not bear to be separated. We decided the CSA had taken everything else but they were not going to destroy our marriage as well.'

Michael split up from his first wife, Vivienne, almost eight years ago. A court order set maintenance for his daughters at pounds 15 a week but he paid a little extra - pounds 70 a month - until the CSA stepped in.

Michael was earning pounds 195 a week after tax as a vehicle builder for British Rail Maintenance, and Kathy receives pounds 68 a week invalidity benefit, which is taken into account when the CSA assesses how much Michael can afford to pay.

He was told to pay pounds 86 a week backdated to July 1993 - building up arrears of pounds 1,900 - reduced to pounds 55 a week after his wages fell.

The CSA formula is supposed to leave about 70 per cent of income after maintenance is paid, but the Lindops claim they are being made penniless because essential expenses such as bank loans, fuel bills, council tax, water rates and the car are not taken into account and their outgoings exceed their income.