Fathers who refuse to pay child maintenance face electronic tags

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Tougher penalties for absent fathers who refuse to pay child maintenance will be included in a shake-up of the troubled Child Support Agency to be announced next month.

New sanctions being considered by ministers include imposing curfews backed by electronic tagging to restrict the movements of fathers. Ministers will also order much greater use of existing but little-used powers such as confiscating driving licences.

Only nine absent parents have been banned from driving and only 27 sent to jail since these penalties were introduced in 2001, government figures show.

Although controversial, tagging is seen as a more realistic option than prison, since parents could remain in work and keep up their maintenance payments.

John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is determined to ensure that the agency improves its record on enforcing maintenance awards. He wants a culture change at the organisation, where the conciliatory approach to sensitive family problems has made staff wary of using draconian penalties.

Mr Hutton believes that when conciliation fails, the agency must get tough on fathers who refuse to meet their commitments. He has told officials that harsh penalties are of little value if parents know they are unlikely to be used.

The agency, which has been plagued by computer and administrative failures since its launch in 1993, retrieved £8m last year but cost £12m to run. It has failed to collect an estimated £1.7bn in unpaid maintenance and has a backlog of 350,000 cases. It has awarded compensation in 35,000 mishandled cases in the past four years.

Although no final decisions have been taken, government sources confirmed yesterday that new penalties were under "active consideration" and would be included in a long-awaited new blueprint for the agency.

The plan will stop short of privatising the agency or handing its functions to HM Revenue & Customs. There was speculation that the agency might be broken up after Tony Blair told MPs last month that it was "not properly suited to carry out" its tasks as the investigating, adjudicating and enforcement agency.

Some aspects of the agency's work may be handed to private firms. One option is to use outside companies to transfer cases from the agency's old computer to a new one introduced in 2003, allowing the 10,000 staff to work only on the new system rather than divide their time between the two.

The shake-up may also include writing off thousands of unpaid debts that are unlikely to be recovered. At present, staff have to reassess these cases every six months, even though they are regarded as "lost causes". Other options include calling in private firms to carry out debt collection and telephone work.

For every £1 the agency spends on administration, only £1.85 goes to families, it was disclosed last month. A committee of MPs said in January that the agency was "teetering on the brink of collapse" and David Blunkett described it as "a complete shambles" when he was the Work and Pensions Secretary.