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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 17:36 GMT
Child Support Agency reforms delayed
Lone mother and son in the kitchen of their home
Some parents wait years for their CSA assessments
Tough new penalties for fathers who fail to pay maintenance are to be delayed, Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling told MPs.

The measures, intended to combine a simpler Child Support Agency system with sterner sentences for parents, were due to come into effect in April 2002.


The new system will only be implemented when the supporting IT is operating effectively

Alistair Darling
Works and Pensions Secretary

The penalties include fines, confiscation of driving licences and even prison sentences.

But in a statement to the Commons, Mr Darling said testing of the new Child Support computer system, built by EDS, was not yet complete.

The CSA's role is to ensure that parents (normally fathers) who no longer live - or never lived - with their former partners contribute to the up-keep of their children.

No chances

Mr Darling said the delay was "frustrating" and "regrettable", but insisted it was important to get the IT right and not to take a chance on a system needed to support parents and children.

Shadow Works and Pensions Secretary David Willetts said the delay would leave families "in limbo".

He claimed the statement was only a delaying mechanism for a "desperately important" debate on the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan and a way for Tony Blair to avoid staying in the House of Commons for that debate.

"The longer the gap between Prime Minister's questions and the debate, the easier it is for them to stay away," he said.

But Mr Darling said he was not prepared to put families through the same chaos that descended in 1993 when the CSA was created and its computer system collapsed because it was not ready.

System deferred

He told the Commons that while he wanted to see the new IT system in place "as soon as possible" he would not proceed until he was satisfied that it was "working to the standards I expect".

"In my view, until the testing process is complete, I will not have the assurance I need to authorise the start of the new system," said Mr Darling.

"I have therefore decided to defer the planned start date. The new system will only be implemented when the supporting IT is operating effectively."

Mr Darling insisted: "There was a choice - I could have taken a chance, but that meant taking a chance on the support for children and parents.

"In my judgment, it is better to take time needed to get it right than repeat the mistakes made in 1993."

'Confusion'

The key changes were intended to provide more straightforward criteria for assessing the level of "maintenance" the parent - usually fathers - should pay.

They were designed to cut out the bureaucracy and confusion which critics say are the Agency's hallmarks.

The reforms included a "one strike and you're out" rule, under which absent fathers who miss even a single payment will have the owed money deducted directly from their salary.

Mothers on Income Support were set to keep up to 10 a week of maintenance.

Alistair Darling
CSA reforms were designed to cut red tape.

This was in response to the criticism that maintenance reduces benefits on a pound for pound basis.

There were also powers to ensure assessment could not be delayed by disputes over paternity.

There will be a presumption of parentage where an absent parent refuses a DNA test, or refuses to accept the positive outcome of a test.

The 2000 Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000.

Payments owed

The Agency calculates an appropriate level of maintenance and ensures that the payment is actually met.

According to figures from the Department of Work and Pensions, obtained by the Liberal Democrats, the CSA pays on average 5 per child, one third of which is taken by the Treasury.

The CSA is owed more than 500m in outstanding maintenance and handles upwards of 13 million payments a year.

From 22 April, non-resident parents whose income is 200 per week or more were due to pay 15% of their net income for one child, 20% for two children and 25% for three children or more.

See also:

17 Oct 01 | Wales
CSA pays back 'wrong' dad
26 Aug 99 | UK
CSA under fire
01 Jul 99 | UK Politics
The turbulent history of the CSA
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