Mothers in fear of ex-partners lose out to CSA defrauders

Lilley defends changes to Support Agency Forsyth sticks to plan for boot camps t Tube work shakes the House 14 point strap across widthy
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Taxpayers, as well as mothers living in genuine fear of violence from their ex-partners, are losing out to a growing problem of collusion confronting the luckless Child Support Agency.

Frank Field, chairman of the all-party Social Security Select Committee, told the Commons the agency knew of 16,000 cases where divorced or separated parents were colluding "to defraud the taxpayer". He suggested the police should have been notified before a claim of harassment was accepted.

By alleging she is in danger of being beaten up or threatened by her ex-partner, a mother on benefit can stop maintenance being enforced through the CSA. Subject to an interview, she can continue to receive full benefit and the absent father pays nothing - or at least nothing through the agency.

"This clearly is sickening news for taxpayers, but it is also alarming news for those women who have correctly claimed that their ex-husband or partner is threatening them," Mr Field said. "They must know that if numbers accelerate of people taking the taxpayer to the cleaners, the patience of this place will break."

Mr Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, was speaking during the Second Reading of the Child Support Bill, tackling some of the omissions of the eponymous 1991 Act which established the agency. Calling for a change in procedures, he asked: "Is it unreasonable for individuals to at least have told the police that they have been threatened in this way and that is a piece of information the agency should ask for before they accept at face value that somebody is being threatened?"

Mr Field believed there was a case where a mother with children by three fathers was saying two of them were threatening violence if she went ahead with her application for maintenance.

Action was needed before the number of cases of collusion reached 30,000, or 50,000 or 100,000 as it would, he said.

Introducing the Bill, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, said almost all of the criticism at the time of the 1991 legislation was that it did not go far enough to help women. "The media, too, focused almost exclusively on the feminist critique of the Bill, largely ignoring at that stage the potential criticism from absent fathers."

Mr Lilley said that after the changes had been enacted nobody would be able realistically to refuse to pay maintenance. The Bill would give relief to hard cases, allay resentment felt by those who transferred property in lieu of maintenance, and give mothers help returning to work.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, accepted the Bill represented limited progress but argued in favour of a disregard of £10 a week or even just £5 of maintenance when calculating income support rather than the proposed bonus of up to £1,000 paid to a mother who finds a job.

Both are supposed to be incentives to pursue claims through the CSA. But Mr Dewar said: "Maintenance is a right for the child and a duty for the parent who has to pay. I'm not sure that the right of the child should necessarily be dependent on whether the mother finds work or not." For many it was "not a matter of jam tomorrow, it is perhaps going to be jam in the next century".

Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Liz Lynne was dismissed as an "opportunist" after she said it was time to repeal the 1991 Act and start again. The Bill was "just tinkering at the edges" she said. "It doesn't have the support of absent parents or of parents with care."

Some youngsters could yet end up in US-style "boot camps" despite a report from Prison Service officials pouring cold water on the camps' effectiveness. Michael Forsyth, the Home Office minister, was cheered by Tory MPs as he made clear that a "tough and rigorous regime" remained a strong possibility.

Mr Forsyth was responding to Jack Straw who said on a point of order that the unpublished report "blows apart the case for boot camp prisons quite comprehensively".

By convention advice to ministers was not disclosed, Mr Forsyth said. "Mr Howard has made it perfectly clear that we are still considering a regime for young offenders which will be a tough and rigorous regime, and we do plan to make a statement about it."

Workers on the Jubilee line extension are succeeding where many would- be reformers have failed and are shaking the Mother of Parliaments to its roots. As MPs laughed off a five-minute tremor at the close of the Child Support Bill debate, Speaker Betty Boothroyd observed: "I don't know why this House seems concerned about a few vibrations. Thoughout its history this House has withstood more than that and smiled back at it."