Inside Parliament: Lilley makes a clean break

CSA changes welcomed across House / `Non-resident parent' seeks fees ai d
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Legislation involving children, broken families and money would always arouse strong emotions, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, observed in the Commons yesterday. His very presence at the Despatch Box, announcing sweeping changes to workings of the Child Support Act, was proof of his words. The 1991 Act was passed with all-party support for its guiding principle that both parents are responsible for their children, even if they live apart. But such has been the emotion generated by the Child Support Agency's application of the principle that Mr Lilley's statement became inevitable.

Summing up the changes, he told MPs they would take account of "clean break" property settlements, give flexibility to prevent hard cases, allow for high travel-to-work costs, help absent parents with stepfamilies and reduce the maximum level of paymentsto ensure absent parents keep more than 70 per cent of their net income.

"No absent parent will now be able reasonably to refuse to pay their child maintenance. As a result, these measures will also help parents with care and their children by securing maintenance more speedily," he said. While the statement received a welcome from all parts of the House, Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said it was perhaps the last chance to get matters right. "The tragedy is that reforms that might have made an impact 18 months ago will have to contend with the bitterness that has built up in the system."

Mr Dewar and Liz Lynne, for the Liberal Democrats, both criticised Mr Lilley's decision not to introduce a maintenance disregard in calculating income support.

He said it would make it more difficult for a parent with care to improve her family's standard of living by returning to work, and instead proposed a credit for parents on income support or a jobseeker's allowance (unemployment benefit) of £5 a week. Itwould be paid in a lump sum on starting work.

But Mr Dewar said parents with care needed immediate help. "Is there not a danger that the households where work will be difficult to come by will be the least likely to pick up the divvy?''

Michael Shersby, Conservative MP for Uxbridge, got short shrift for a proposal that when second wives found it "necessary" to go out to work, the cost of child care should be taken into account in assessing the father's liability. "I don't think it wouldbe justifiable to give priority over one's obligation to maintain one's first family to the desire of a second partner to go out to work rather than stay at home and look after her children," Mr Lilley replied, to a ripple of protest at his political incorrectness.

An even more blatant attempt to complete the CSA's transformation into the Absent Parents' Support Agency was made in the Upper House by Lord Kilbracken, who wanted account taken of school fees. The Labour peer, who said he has responsibility for his school-age son for 100 days each year, also objected to the "very offensive and misleading phrase `absent parent'."

Lord Kilbracken, aged 74, said: "During those 100 days, his mother is the absent parent and I am the parent with care. This phrase is very much resented by fathers - and they almost always are fathers - all over the country." He suggested the term "non-resident parent".

The twice-married Old Etonian went on: "It is most unfair that the fees paid by the father at a fee-paying boarding school are not taken into any account in calculating the sum payable to the mother. The father has to pay the same amount whether the son is at a fee-paying boarding school - Eton or wherever it may be - or a day boy at a state school. I don't see how that can be justified."

A Social Security minister, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said he would look at the school fees question, but added: "I don't suspect it affects terribly many people."