Price of parenthood reviewed: Rosie Waterhouse talks to Ros Hepplewhite, head of the Child Support Agency, who promises a sympathetic ear to fathers

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A GLIMMER of hope for divorced and separated fathers facing huge increases in maintenance payments was offered by the head of the Government's Child Support Agency, which is imposing the new bills.

In an interview with the Independent, Ros Hepplewhite, chief executive of the agency, said that if she became aware of genuine and unforeseen iniquities in the formula for assessing the amount of maintenance, she would bring them to the attention of ministers, whose job it would be to change the formula.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons Social Security Select Committee decided to hold an inquiry into the agency's formula, after receiving hundreds of letters of complaint.

Without making promises, Ms Hepplewhite indicated that she was looking sympathetically at certain cases in which complaints have been made - in particular, that the formula fails to take into account certain expenses incurred by the absent parent, in most cases the father.

Although adamant that some of the complaints now surfacing had been expected when the agency was set up in April by the Child Support Act, Ms Hepplewhite accepted that there were certain consequences which were not foreseen and which should be brought to ministers' attention.

In particular, she seemed receptive to the need to review the assessments for absent fathers with a second family, whose new partner has children from a previous relationship, if the natural father was not paying maintenance because he was unemployed or on a low income. Ms Hepplewhite said: 'The whole purpose of the legislation was to ensure the natural parents are responsible and they are both contacted. I would accept that, ideally, stepfamilies should be dealt with at the same time as first families, so the entire maintenance arrangements for both families can be sorted out. There is always going to be the situation where natural fathers have different incomes. In some cases the natural father is assessed as being exempt.'

Asked whether it was fair that the expenses incurred by absent fathers for supporting stepchildren were not taken into account in their assessment of maintenance for their natural children, Ms Hepplewhite said: 'There is no wish to see the policy work other than as intended. There are going to be some areas where the policy may not be working as intended and it would be absolutely my responsibility to alert people who formulate policy to any difficulties.'

Ms Hepplewhite also seemed sympathetic to another recurring complaint from fathers - that the cost of travelling to see their children and of having the children to stay, is not taken into account in the assessment. Many complain that, because of the increased maintenance bills they will not be able to see their children as often, and their relationship with them will suffer.

Another grievance expressed by fathers is that 'clean break settlements' and court orders which had involved the father in handing over equity on the former marital home, or continuing to pay the mortgage, in exchange for smaller maintenance payments, were not being taken into account. Ms Hepplewhite said that 'in the vast majority of cases' the mortgage debt had been transferred to the ex-wife, and if she was on Income Support or Family Credit, the taxpayers picked up the bill. 'That was seen to be anomalous,' she said.

However, she said: 'If that isn't happening and the absent parent has not transferred the mortgage debt, that would be unusual and would not be the advice that most solicitors would give. It would be wrong to suggest that changes to the formula would be introduced solely on the grounds that the Act is having its intended effect. Of course the Agency, if it feels there are circumstances which are unforeseen, would point that out to ministers.'

When the agency was launched, ministers stressed its main purpose was to track down 'feckless and irresponsible' absent fathers who were paying no maintenance. But thousands of fathers, who were already paying sums agreed amicably or in court settlements, have been re-assessed by the agency and are commonly being asked to pay four or five times the previous amount.

Over the next three years, the agency will assess maintenance for the parent with care of the children who is on Income Support or Family Credit or who has no court order. From 1996, any parent with care, who is not on Income Support or who already has a court order, can ask the agency to reassess the maintenance. Eventually, the agency will do annual assessments for about 2 million par ents with care of children, of which up to 1.2 million will be on Income Support.

Ms Hepplewhite said: 'We are suffering from the fact that there has been a lack of awareness of the implications of the new legislation. People did not realise we would be taking over entirely the child maintenance assessment role from the courts . . . We are dealing with a major piece of social legislation which impacts very directly on large numbers of people.'

The work of the agency was under 'constant review', Ms Hepplewhite said: 'I would see it as part of my ongoing responsibility to ensure that I contribute to the formulation of policy. It is absolutely part of the policy to assess the impact. That will be done routinely. In particular, as we are a Next Steps agency, there is an opportunity to feed in data about the impact of the policy'.

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