Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Net closes on absent parents
Absent parents face a financial crackdown
Absent parents who fail to pay maintenance will face a fine or jail under plans unveiled in a White Paper.
The plans, which are backed by a £28m investment over the next three years, aim to simplify the way maintenance is assessed and to introduce punitive measures for parents who do not meet their financial responsibilities.
Failure to pay maintenance on a persistent basis and giving false information to the CSA will be a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 or a jail term.
The government is also proposing to make it more difficult for fathers to deny paternity.
Mr Darling said that if a child was born while a man was married to its mother, the burden would be on the man to prove he was not the father.
In addition, the CSA will be allowed access to the tax records of self-employed people so that it can assess income more accurately.
Last year, the Commons was told that 80% of self-employed people failed to pay the correct maintenance owing to loopholes which allowed them to avoid declaring their full earnings.
Legislation on checks on Inland Revenue records is currently before Parliament.
Mr Darling said teenage fathers would also have to pay up, when they could afford it.
"They will have to face the fact that fatherhood is a life-long responsibility and not something they can ever walk away from," he said.
The government is looking at other tough measures for non-payers, including withdrawing driving licences.
"There will be no hiding place, no excuse and no easy way out," said Mr Darling.
"Children have a right to care and support from their parents and the responsibility lies squarely with both parents and endures whether they live together or apart," he added.
He added that the current system for assessing maintenance needed a radical overhaul.
It had been brought in in 1993 to replace the court system which was "often unreliable and unfair", said Mr Darling.
But he added that no more children were getting maintenance money today than in the early 1990s.
"It is a bureaucratic nightmare for parents and staff alike."
He promised a total change in the culture and approach of the agency and a new computer system, but said the £28m would be tied to delivery of "tangible improvements" in service.
He said agency staff would have to be available for parents at weekends and evenings and there woud have to be a more effective complaints system.
Parents will get a clear statement - like a bank statement - of what they have paid and what is due.
Mr Darling also announced that he was seeking expertise from the private sector on collecting maintenance money.
Reform is likely to save money for the majority of those who now co-operate with the agency, although this is a tiny number of those eligible to pay.
There will be a flat rate of 15% of a parent's income for one child, 20% for two and 25% for three or more.
Those earning under £100 a week will have to pay £5 a week.
Mr Darling said the system would be so simple parents would be able to work out maintenance sums for themselves.
The CSA spends 90% of its energy making assessments and just 10% chasing money.
The government hopes that, by simplifying the assessment system, more resources can be put into tracking down maintenance payments.
Currently, a third of cases take six months or more to assess. During that time, those looking after children often get no maintenance money.
And absent parents accrue mounting debts, even if they intend to pay.
Currently, many parents on benefits are no better off if they shop their absent partners to the CSA or not because, if they do, they lose benefit.
The government wants to give them an incentive to co-operate.
And by 6 October, he said measures would be introduced to ensure low paid parents were helped to keep "every pound and penny of their children's maintenance".
Most of the reforms will not be in place until the end of 2001, but Mr Darling said he hoped there would be earlier action on making persistent non-payment a criminal offence, on adminstrative reforms and on making it more difficult for fathers to deny paternity.
The Conservatives welcomed moves to simplify the system, but expressed concerns about "gimmicks" like withdrawing driving licences.
David Willetts, Shadow Social Security Secretary, said the reforms could mean "rough justice" for many parents.
He condemned plans to jail non-paying absent fathers, warning this would further reduce the chance of their paying any child support.
He called instead for civil remedies to enforce payment.
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