Monday, July 24, 2006

BBC NEWS | UK | Child Support Agency facing axe

BBC NEWS | UK | Child Support Agency facing axe

The troubled Child Support Agency (CSA) is being axed, while absent parents face being electronically tagged, under plans to be announced by ministers.

Parents will be encouraged to make their own arrangements over child maintenance, with a new agency focusing on parents who refuse to co-operate.

New powers would prevent absent parents from going out after work and allow passports to be confiscated.

But the Conservatives are not convinced the changes will make any difference.

'Tough enforcement'

The reforms will be unveiled by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton in the Commons. They are intended to allow parents to keep more of their maintenance allowance before it affects their benefits.

They come as a response to a review of child support arrangements by Sir David Henshaw, whose report is set to be published on Monday afternoon.

He is understood to favour the replacement of the CSA by a new organisation that will not handle payments for all parents.

Lord Hunt, a minister from the department, said he wanted to see more parents resolving issues for themselves without state interference.

But he warned: "It's very important that where parents are not prepared to support their children, there is tough enforcement."

He said the government had "every right" to get tough with absentee parents, but he would not confirm reports of tagging, curfews or passport confiscation.

It is thought that the agency will be given the power to use debt collectors, and a residual agency will be created to deal with the massive backlog which has grown under the CSA.

'Broken families'

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws urged the government not to write off the £3.5bn of child maintenance arrears and 330,000 strong backlog of cases.

"The government must not abandon the hundreds of thousands of families failed by 13 years of CSA incompetence," he said.

"The reforms which are being announced must be judged by one test only - will they get more money through to the children living in broken families?"

He said there might be a temptation for ministers to "wash their hands of many of the most difficult cases".

For the Conservatives, shadow work and pensions secretary Phillip Hammond said: "The government is right to focus on the link between child poverty and lone parenthood.

"But by abandoning the principle of shared responsibility for children, it risks making the situation worse, not better, by encouraging fathers to walk out, knowing they will not be pursued for maintenance."

Chris Pond, from the National Council for One Parent Families, was hopeful that the changes would provide a more effective agency.

"It's got to be much tougher in enforcement, it's got to be much more effective in administration, and we're hoping that these changes will bring this about," he said.

The plans are to be put out to consultation over the next few months and it could be 2008 before they take effect, BBC political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue says.