A STREAMLINED system of child maintenance designed to force absent fathers to meet their payments was unveiled yesterday, but will not take effect for another two and a half years.
When it is brought in towards the end of 2001, the new system will initially apply only to new cases, and it could take years to apply it to the 905,000 families already on the books of the much-criticised Child Support Agency.
The Government's reforms, outlined in a White Paper, will scrap the complex formula for assessing maintenance that eats up 90 per cent of the CSA's resources, leaving only 10 per cent for chasing payments. At present, a third of all maintenance remains uncollected, while three in ten absent parents pay less than they should and another three in ten pay nothing at all.
The new formula will make absent fathers pay 15 per cent of their take- home pay for one child living with their former partner; 20 per cent for two children and 25 per cent for three or more.
The average payment will drop from pounds 38.48 a week at present to pounds 30.50 a week. But the Government hopes that one million children will be better off, saying the amount of maintenance paid should rise from 66 to 80 per cent.
Fathers with children in a second family will pay less to their first family than those without but the White Paper said "the new scheme should show a slight preference to children in their first family".
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, told the Commons the CSA had become a "bureaucratic nightmare" but conceded his reforms would take time and would not be easy.
He hopes to win a slot in the Queen's Speech in November for a Bill that would allow tougher penalties for non- payment. It will become a criminal offence to lie to the CSA.
Absent parents will face fines up to pounds 1,000 for lying or refusing to provide information. If they refuse to pay the fine, they could go to jail.
To stop a man playing for time by denying he is the father of the child, the burden of proof will be on him to prove this if he was married to the mother.
The Inland Revenue will reveal tax records to the CSA to stop people hiding their incomes and the Government will consider bringing in penalties such as confiscating driving licences and passports.
David Willetts, the Tory social security spokesman, accused Mr Darling of producing only "gimmicks and soundbites". He said: "We recognise that the CSA needs to be reformed, but it is stupid to put absent parents in jail or take away their driving licence. That means they won't be able to earn any money and the children that we all want to help will suffer."
The National Council for One Parent Families welcomed the announcement that lone parents who will receive the working families tax credit would keep all maintenance paid to them, and that those on benefit would keep up to pounds 10 a week.
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