Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Friday, 9 February 2007

Child support trouble for 600,000

By Rachel Spring
Social affairs analyst, BBC News

A child at play
The new agency is set to have more power than its predecessor

As many as 600,000 families will not receive maintenance through the Child Support Agency's replacement after the CSA is scrapped, the BBC has learned.

Shedding up to 43% of the current CSA caseload is necessary if administrative savings of 200m are to be achieved.

The government can not yet say how many families are expected to make private child maintenance arrangements instead.

Nor is it clear how many lone parents on benefit might decide not to have maintenance recovered on their behalf.

Reform

In December 2006, the government confirmed its intention to abolish the CSA after 13 troubled years.

A government consultation paper is proposing to replace the CSA with a new independent organisation, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC).

It hopes this will deliver a simpler and more effective way of assessing, collecting and enforcing child maintenance.

C-MEC is to have a "clean break" from the past and not automatically take on all the cases presently with the CSA.

Now the government has told the BBC that it anticipates C-MEC will have a caseload of between 0.8 and 1.1 million.

This is significantly fewer than the current 1.4 million cases with the CSA.

Lone parents who claim out-of-work benefits will no longer be compelled to make an application for maintenance via the CSA or C-MEC.

The proposed reforms would instead encourage out-of-work lone parents to seek support from their former partners, by allowing them to keep significantly more maintenance without it reducing their benefits pound-for-pound.

A spokesperson for the CSA said: "We think it is entirely right that parents can choose to come to their own financial arrangements without the intervention of the government.

"Our research suggests that forcing couples to use the CSA can cause bad feeling between ex-partners, making it less likely that they will make lasting arrangements.

"We have been very honest about the fact that the current system does not work, but believe that our reforms, which get more money to more children, will be a powerful incentive for parents to make their own agreements.

"We will offer additional help to do this, alongside the reassurance that the state will have more powers to enforce payments for those who refuse to pay."

Trust

Convincing families to move to private child maintenance arrangements is crucial to the success of the reforms.

However, recent research commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions found that that more than 90% of current CSA users not on benefits would rather stay with the CSA than transfer to Maintenance Direct, where payments are not processed by the CSA.

They found that parents often preferred to use the CSA because of a lack of trust in their ex-partner.

Parents with care did not trust their ex-partners to pay, while absent parents wanted proof that their payments had been received.

The government is looking at encouraging more people to make private arrangements by charging parents for using C-MEC.

Janet Allbeson, a spokesperson for One Parent Families, said they were "pleased that the child support reforms will offer all parents the choice of making their own arrangements for child maintenance or using C-MEC, but it is important that all parents who wish to use the services of C-MEC are free to do so" .

The consultation continues until 13 March 2007 and a bill is expected later this year.

The new C-MEC would be established in 2008. It would start accepting applications in 2010-11 and cases would transfer from the existing CSA until 2012-13.

SEE ALSO
The agency with an unhappy record
24 Jul 06 |  UK Politics
CSA steps up enforcement action
09 Dec 06 |  UK Politics

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