Lone parents giving up Income Support: High number of lone parents quit benefit

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The Independent Online
MORE than 11,000 lone parents have stopped claiming Income Support to avoid involvement with the Government's Child Support Agency since it was set up in April.

Many such parents and their children will inevitably be driven into poverty, according to women's and children's rights campaigners.

The unexpectedly high number of withdrawn claims was revealed by the agency to explain how much money it has saved the Treasury by forcing absent parents to pay maintenance. Many absent parents - in 90 per cent of cases the father - who were already paying maintenance have been ordered to pay hugely increased amounts, typically four or five times the sums agreed amicably or set by courts.

The agency has a target to take on 1 million cases and save the Government pounds 530m in its first year. But in its first seven months it has completed only 56,000 assessments and saved only pounds 142m. Ros Hepplewhite, the chief executive, has a performance-related pay element in addition to her pounds 46,000-a-year salary, linked to reaching the targets.

In a statement on savings the agency said: 'Around 80 per cent relates to maintenance paid direct to the parent with care or via the agency. The balance relates to cases in which, following action by the agency, the parent with care has ceased to claim benefit.' A spokeswoman said that a proportion of withdrawn claims for Income Support would have been fraudulent, but she did not know the reasons why other claims were withdrawn. She accepted many would be because the lone parent did not want the agency involved in their lives, 'for one reason or another'.

The agency is assessing the maintenance that absent parents must pay when the one with care is on Income Support or does not have a court maintenance order. Eventually it will take over from the courts the role of assessing and collecting maintenance from all absent parents, regardless of whether the parent with care is on Income Support.

Many of the withdrawn claims are believed to be partly because the parent with care, usually the mother, does not want the father playing any role in her life. Others may fear violence from the absent parent and do not realise that they can refuse to co-operate with the agency if there is a genuine risk.

If the parent with care refuses to identify the absent parent and the agency does not accept there is a risk of violence, the parent loses 20 per cent of Income Support for the first 6 months and 10 per cent for the next 12 months. So far 6,600 parents with care have asked to be exempted from making an application for child support from the absent parent, but only 42 cases have been rejected and had benefits deducted.

The Child Poverty Action Group had been told by Mrs Hepplewhite that there were a large number of withdrawn claims and according to Emma Knights, a welfare rights officer for the group, Mrs Hepplewhite was 'unperturbed'.

Ms Knights said: 'We were astonished that the chief executive of the agency showed no concern at this worrying trend. Instead the agency is happy to include these cases in their count of the savings made and suggest that some of these claims may have been fraudulent. We find it impossible to believe that thousands of parents were claiming fraudulently.'

The Campaign Against the Child Support Act said the agency was driving lone parents off benefits and forcing them into low-paid jobs. It has published a booklet, The Child Support Act - Your Rights and How to Defend Them, available from King's Cross Women's Centre, PO Box 287, London NW6, at pounds 2 for benefit claimants.