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Child support groups dismayed by U-turn

Rosie Waterhouse finds campaigners who favour making absent fathers pay are angered by decision to defer cases
Protest groups and campaigners were in disarray last night after the Government's U-turn on the workings of the Child Support Agency, which is to defer indefinitely 350,000 cases.

Most organisations condemned the abandonment of the original aim of the Child Support Act - to make errant absent parents pay for the upkeep of their children. Only one group, the Campaign Against the Child Support Act, viewed the decision as a victory for non-compliance and refusal to co-operate on a par with rebellion against the poll tax.

Calling for responsibility for maintenance assessments to return to the courts, a spokeswoman said: "The movement of single mothers, absent fathers, new partners and the children of both families is forcing the Government to change the Act by administrative decree.

"The Government must now acknowledge the single mothers' absolute right to choose whether or not to claim maintenance from the father by scrapping the Act and its hated and discredited agency."

But the National Council for One Parent Families, which was instrumental in formulating the Act, said that the announcement was a "devastating blow to all those lone parents who looked to the CSA to get the maintenance they so badly need to escape from the benefits trap".

It added: "What this essentially means is that ... fathers who have never wanted to pay any maintenance for their children can now enjoy their Christmas festivities in the knowledge that they will not be pursued.''

Demanding immediate talks with the Government, Sue Slipman, its director, said: "The CSA took on a massive caseload to appease the Treasury. It is now lone parents who will pay the price for the resulting chaos."

The council also objected to the pledge by Alistair Burt, the social security minister with responsibility for the CSA, to deal sympathetically with requests from individual lone parents. Ms Slipman said: "Once again the onus is being put back on lone parents to battle to get their maintenance. This is exactly what was wrong with the court system which the agency was set up to replace."

Mike Pimblott, co-founder of the Network Against the Child Support Act, said: "The Government has demonstrated that compliance with the law does not pay. The Government and agency are clearly continuing to chase `easy targets', the parents who have paid to look after their children and who are not errant parents." He went on: "The example set by the Government will cause further unrest and potentially put the remaining nail in the coffin for them at the next election. Had Mr Burt had the intelligence torecognise that removing all pre-1993 cases would have removed the hated retrospective nature of the Act, andreduced the CSA's overwhelming workload and allow other aspects of the Act to be repaired."

The Child Poverty Action Group said: "It has been clear for some time that the attempt to take on more than one million cases in the first year would lead to problems. In the dash for benefit savings the Government has failed to put the needs of familiesand children first.

"While this may act as a welcome reprieve for many families who have good reasons for not wishing to pursue a child maintenance application, it appears to be a panic solution to the crisis that faces the CSA, and it shows the Government has bitten off more than it can chew."