The Times

Friday July 2 1999

Changes in maintenance will apply just to new cases, writes Jill Sherman

Reform of CSA to be delayed

FAR-REACHING reforms to the Child Support Agency are to be delayed until after the next general election and even then will apply only to new cases, Alistair Darling admitted yesterday.

The Social Security Secretary outlined a series of measures to penalise absent parents who fail to pay maintenance, and a simplified flat-rate formula.

But he disclosed that even if legislation is introduced in the next session, the new reforms will not take place till late 2001. Existing cases would come into the system later still.

The Government also announced that it is to spend £28 million on management consultants and business managers from the private sector to improve the agency's administration, which has been under constant attack since the CSA was formed six years ago.

In a Commons statement Mr Darling confirmed that the present complicated formula for maintenance payments would be replaced by a flat-rate levy. Absent parents would pay 15 per cent of their take-home pay for the first child, 20 per cent for two children and 25 per cent for three or more. Those earning below £200 a week will pay proportionately less, while those on below £100 a week will pay a flat rate of £5 a week.

In many cases absent parents who meet their responsibility will be better off. The average weekly payment is expected to fall from £38 per week to £30.50.

But Mr Darling issued a warning that there would be tough action against parents who shirked their responsibility. "The message is simple: no hiding place, no excuse, no easy way out," he said.

Under the reforms outlined in the White Paper A New Contract: Children's Rights and Parents' Responsibilities, it will be a criminal offence to lie to the CSA.

Those who repeatedly refuse to make payments, or pay late, will be liable to fines of up to £1,000 or prison. Ministers are also considering confiscating the passports and driving licences of repeat offenders.

Mr Darling said that 30 per cent of parents using the CSA were paying nothing towards the care of their child. The agency had proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare for parents and staff alike, he said. It was far too complicated. In a third of cases it took six months even to reach a decision.

"The CSA spends 90 per cent of its time chasing information and only 10 per cent chasing parents who won't pay," Mr Darling said.

Other measures in the White Paper include allowing the tax records of parents to be inspected so that officials can assess their income. A loophole allowing men to deny they had fathered their child will also be closed. In future absent fathers will have to prove they are not the father of a child.

Second families will also be taken into account. An allowance will be taken off the parent's net income before calculations are made for the first family. This allowance will be the equivalent of 15 per cent for one child, 20 per cent for two and 25 per cent for three.

As an example, a woman earns £300 a week as a teacher and lives in a rented house, with two teenage sons.

Her ex-husband, also a teacher, earns £300 a week. Currently he would pay £75.40 a week, but under the new scheme this would fall to £60 a week.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.