Leading Article: Who pays for a father's sins?

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The Independent Online
RADICAL changes introduced today will force thousands of absent fathers to pay child maintenance and will save the Government pounds 530m a year in benefits to single parents. The new Child Support Agency will be the Treasury's policeman chasing errant parents. For the taxpayer and for some families the changes will be a boon. They are an important step towards ensuring social responsibility by parents, particularly men. But the meanness of the regulations leaves many children, especially the poorest, with no share in the windfall. Indeed, some may be worse off.

This is a result that is hardly in keeping with the new Children Act, which was heralded as making the interests of children central in resolving disputes between parents. Nor is it equitable. It is, however, characteristic of government policy on a number of fronts that has failed to protect the worst off. Last month's Budget, which will cost the poorest 10 per cent of the population twice as much as the richest, was just the latest example.

The children hit by today's changes are in families entitled to income support. For every pounds 1 their fathers are made to pay, the family will lose pounds 1 in benefit. Those who may be living from hand to mouth will lose the security of benefit for maintenance payments from a man who has, until now, proved unreliable. It is a lot to ask of already stressed families.

If the maintenance award takes them just above income support levels it may, in fact, make them poorer. The lone parent may suddenly lose entitlement to free school meals, prescriptions and dental care, and will no longer have access to the Social Fund to borrow for essentials.

Seeking maintenance through the Child Support Agency may not look attractive to such poor families. But it is compulsory. If a mother refuses to name the father of her child, she may lose 20 per cent - pounds 8.80 a week - of her income support. If she does not know his identity or thinks identification would endanger the family, she is released from this requirement. But she has to convince social security officials, not famed for their sympathetic attitudes.

All in all, a great day for the Treasury does not look so bright for the poorest one-parent families. However, if the Exchequer was less greedy, the picture would not be so bleak. A little of that saved pounds 530m could allow families on income support a few extra pounds if maintenance was wrung from fathers. This would provide an incentive - instead of punitive benefit cuts - for a woman to name the father of her child. The agency should also guarantee each weekly payment so that no poor family falls foul of a feckless father.

The new system undoubtedly offers great advances. Setting maintenance through the Child Support Agency will reduce divorce-court wrangling between estranged parents, as well as doubling the average sum awarded. The changes will help some lone parents to escape the poverty trap because maintenance, unlike income support, does not disappear when a woman returns to work.

But until Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, acts to protect the poorest, it is difficult not to be cynical about the Child Support Agency. Part of its task is, quite rightly, to save the Treasury money, but this must not be at the expense of the poorest families, whose fragile situation is vulnerable even to minor changes in circumstance. It is not for the Government to visit the sins of the father upon his children.