CSA may be breaching data rules: Absent parents say confidential details being sent to ex-partners. Rosie Waterhouse reports

THE Child Support Agency may be in breach of the Data Protection Act by disclosing information about an absent parent's income or address to the parent with care of the children.

The Data Protection Registrar, who regulates the use of information held on computers, is investigating the practices operated by the CSA since it was set up last April to assess and collect child maintenance.

His office has received dozens of complaints and allegations from absent parents who claim confidential information about their income and their new partner's income have been disclosed without consent.

The Data Protection Office has also been told that absent parents' addresses have been given to former partners. Philip Jones, an assistant registrar, is seeking a meeting this month with officials from the CSA and the Department of Social Security. Meanwhile, a guidance note explaining the registrar's understanding of how the CSA's operations fit in with the Data Protection Act has been sent to the CSA, complainants and people with queries.

It explains that the CSA is entitled to disclose certain details relating to the absent parent's income. These are the amount of the assessable income - the sum left after certain essential living expenses and housing costs are taken into account - and the protected income - the amount a second family is allowed to keep so it does not fall below Income Support level.

However, the Data Protection Office has received evidence that CSA staff are also sending to former partners a full breakdown of the absent parent's income, including tax, and, in cases where they have new families, details of the new partner's income. The guidance says: 'The Registrar's understanding is that the (Child Support Act) Regulations do not require that a detailed breakdown is given of how the assessable and protected incomes have been calculated. He is currently seeking to establish whether, in disclosing the detailed breakdown of assessable income and protected income calculations the CSA might be in breach of one or more of the data protection principles.

'The Registrar is also aware of allegations that in some cases the address of an absent parent has been passed to a parent with care. It seems to the Registrar that the passage of the addresses of absent parents to parents with care, and vice versa, without written consent, would contravene (the) Regulations. If evidence of any such disclosure were brought to the Registrar's attention he would consider whether any breach if the Act had occurred.'

The Registrar has powers to enforce the principles and can issue an enforcement notice compelling the data user, in this case the CSA, to amend its practices if necessary.

Two test cases have been sent to the registrar from the Campaign Against the Child Support Act. Mike Pimblott, its organiser, said one case involved an absent father whose income and tax details had been sent to his former wife without his consent. The second was an absent father with a new partner whose income was revealed when the CSA notified his ex-wife of the maintenance he was assessed to pay.

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