Leading Article: Child support: Major's poll tax?

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S changes to the Child Support Agency look like a panic measure. In the face of widespread discontent at legislation that is not yet even fully effective, the Government has made considerable concessions. Tuesday's inquest into the suicide of a man whose maintenance payments had been tripled must have focused government minds.

But ministers should not think this is the end of the matter. The Child Support Agency, unless further reformed, will come to haunt John Major in the way the poll tax did Margaret Thatcher. Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, absented himself from yesterday's announcement - he also let his junior minister take the flak during investigations by the Commons Select Committee on Social Security. Mr Lilley should stop hiding from the substantive criticisms made of the CSA.

The modest improvements announced yesterday are welcome. Increased maintenance payments will be phased in over 18 months rather than imposed with little warning. Paying parents will not be quite so impoverished. They will be able to keep at least pounds 30 a week (compared with pounds 8 currently) above the income support minimum, so retaining some incentive to continue working. And they will not be expected to pay so much for older children.

But the formula for assessing maintenance remains unfair, inflexible and lacking the right of independent appeal. It takes scant account of differing personal circumstances. Previous, legally-binding 'clean-break' settlements can still be overturned. The groundswell of opposition to a piece of social policy that is well-founded in principle but poorly enacted can only grow amid such high-handedness.

CSA assessments will continue to ignore the debts - other than mortgages - that absent parents are liable for. Nor can costs such as travel and gifts be set against the payment. Indeed, the messiness and individual character of the lives of parents is simply not catered for. No one is given discretion to waive the rules for deserving cases. And those who feel hard done by have nowhere to which they may appeal. It is little wonder that many of the 56,000 parents who have already received demands are making such a fuss. The millions who have yet to be assessed will surely swamp the Government with their protests.

The Child Support Agency was not meant to be like this. It was supposed to transform the attitudes of those who had grown accustomed to letting the state fund their liabilities to their children. This situation could not go on: it abused taxpayers and humiliated lone parents.

But the Government is failing miserably in the way it is introducing payments that in certain respects resemble a tax on absent parents. A tax, especially a new one, must be seen to be fair and socially useful. It should take proper account of ability to pay. Otherwise, it will be as despised and electorally damaging as the poll tax.

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