CSA faces radical shake-up: Select committee expected to urge wide-ranging changes to unpopular agency

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is expected to make fundamental changes within the year to the operation of the Child Support Agency and the much-criticised formula used for calculating maintenance.

The reforms are expected to follow a report by the Commons Social Security Select Committee, which is holding its second inquiry into the Child Support Act, the most unpopular government measure since the Poll Tax.

The select committee is taking evidence over the next month for a report due in the autumn. Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, will be called for the first time to defend the Act, and Ros Hepplewhite, the chief executive, will be re-called to explain the agency's performance.

This week the directors of the child support agencies in Australia and New Zealand will give evidence. Their systems, which have been less problematic, have been cited as models from which Britain could learn. For instance, they are not retrospective and do not seek to overturn previous arrangements made before the agency was set up, and they have wider, more discretionary, appeal systems.

Ministers privately accept that changes are inevitable to ease the burden on absent parents who have organised an increasingly vocal campaign against the agency. Pressure is mounting on the Government to halt the timetable for taking on new cases, to clear a backlog of applications and assessments which are being increasingly delayed. The select committee report is expected to make this a priority.

The system is 'in danger of collapse' under the weight of paperwork and the volume of complaints since the agency was set up in April 1993, according to the Labour MP, Frank Field, chairman of the select committee. Under government-set targets the agency is expected to take on 6 million parents with care and absent parents by April 1997.

One large source of grievance which the Government is expected to address is the fact that previous 'clean-break settlements' involving property or cash settlements in lieu of child maintenance are not taken into account in the formula.

Another expected change is a 'maintenance disregard' whereby parents with care of the children who are on Income Support would be allowed to keep some of the extra maintenance being paid. Now the parent with care loses pounds 1 of benefits for every pounds 1 of maintenance received. Supporters and critics argue that it would be more acceptable to both parties if the children were seen to benefit directly from the extra maintenance being paid.

Amendments to the appeal system are also likely. At present the only ground for appeal is if the assessment has been calculated incorrectly. Some form of appeals tribunal, allowing more flexibility and discretion, may be established. The committee is also likely to call for administrative changes so that information is collected to find out how many parents with care are receiving more money and how much.