CSA will not be replaced until 2013, Hutton says

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Indy Politics

A new system of child maintenance that will replace the ill-fated Child Support Agency (CSA) will not be up and running until 2013.

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-Mec) will be set up in 2008, but will not accept applications under a streamlined process before 2010. The 1.4 million existing cases will not be fully transferred to the new system until 2013.

Opposition parties warned that thousands of families would suffer because of the delay, but ministers said they had rejected a "big bang" approach in order to avoid the mistakes made when the CSA was set up in 1993. They said it was important to "get it right" and that the timetable reflected the advice of experts.

John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said the long-awaited shake-up of the CSA would not include a magic solution. He denied the Government was turning its back on existing clients and promised that some elements of the new system would be in place before 2013.

A White Paper published yesterday included a raft of new enforcement measures such as a pilot scheme to deduct child maintenance direct from pay packets; gaining access to bank and building society accounts; basing maintenance awards on annual tax returns to stop absent parents "playing for time" by saying their earnings had changed; and recovering debts from the estates of absent parents who die. To reduce delays, the new body will be given new powers to take such action without going to court.

Persistent non-payers may be "named and shamed" on the internet if they have been successfully prosecuted. They may see their passports confiscated and be subject to night-time curfews enforced by electronic tagging.

The Government also plans to force unmarried parents to put both their names on their child's birth certificate. The CSA has to close one in 10 cases because the father cannot be traced.

Mr Hutton announced that he is to write off about £50m of the £3.5bn owed to the CSA because it is not recoverable. This stems from a now-abandoned policy of imposing punitive interim maintenance awards in an attempt to scare absent parents into making some payments.

In the long run, the Government hopes that many more couples will reach agreement on maintenance without resorting to the state agency, reducing the number of cases by up to three-quarters.

Philip Hammond, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "This will come as a huge disappointment to the 1.4 million families stuck in the current, failing, system. The Government could be doing much more for these families by fast-tracking some of the key provisions outlined in these proposals to benefit existing CSA families right now. They need help now, not in 2013."

David Laws, the work and pensions spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, accused ministers of creating a "son of CSA", resorting to "daft gimmicks" on enforcement and hiding an £800m debt write-off in the small print of the White Paper.

Chris Pond, chief executive of the One Parent Families pressure group, said: "Giving parents the option of making their own maintenance arrangements is right. But... we need a strong and competent agency which will step in at once if a lone parent requests it. Do-it-yourself child maintenance will not work for everyone."