CSA wins praise despite helping 'tiny minority' of lone mothers

LONE mothers whose lives have been markedly improved by the maintenance won for them by the Child Support Agency yesterday defended its operation as Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families (NCOPF), said that for some it had 'transformed' their lives.

She warned, however, that for the majority of lone mothers the agency was 'not yet working' with only 'a tiny minority' of lone parents yet receiving maintenance.

Malcolm Wicks, the Labour MP who used to be director of the Family Policy Studies Centre, said it was time the 'lop-sided debate' about the CSA ended. Absent fathers had run an effective campaign against the agency but there was a 'silent army' of lone mothers and children who stood to gain and should be heard.

At a press conference to review the agency's first year, Kate Lister, 29, from Newbury, said the CSA had allowed her to get off benefit and into a part-time job for the first time in six years. 'My husband left me with two young children, many debts but no home and caught in the benefit trap,' she said. The CSA had successfully extracted pounds 78 a week from her ex-husband, leaving her pounds 30 a week better off even after paying her own rent, council tax and school meals.

Margaret Williams, a mother of three daughters aged 17 to 11, said the CSA had been 'nothing but good news,' boosting the maintenance her ex-husband was paying by pounds 60 a week to pounds 82.50. 'My children can now hold their heads high again because their father is supporting them, not the state.'

She now hoped to be able to resume the civil service career she had to give up because she could not afford child care. 'Absent fathers have got away with far too much for far too long,' she said.

Sue Slipman said, however, that for most women and children the agency was still failing to deliver. 'The question we are left with is why so many men complain about the devastating effect of increased payments when our monitoring shows that so few women are receiving increased payments'.

It was difficult to tell how far that was the agency's inefficiency and how far it was 'a tacit campaign of non co-operation by many absent parents'. Many lone mothers reactions to the agency had been 'worryingly negative', she said, and their criticisms needed to be dealt with.

Where husbands were self-employed, the agency appeared defeatist, she said, allowing the absent parent to manipulate the figures to appear to have no income. Carole Pallister, a lone parent, said she had had a letter from the CSA stating the maintenance she was due from her self-employed ex-husband was ' pounds 0.00p payable from 21.11.93' - despite her husband advertising his tree- surgeon business in Yellow Pages and employing six people.