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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
The agency with an unhappy record
By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

CSA demonstration
The CSA has been controversial since the outset

So, after an unhappy 13 years in this world, the CSA is no more.

Its record has not been impressive.

Since 1993, almost 3.5bn of maintenance has not been paid. Much of this debt will never be recovered.

More than 320,000 cases remain unresolved and even for those cases that have been cleared, the average time taken was almost a year.

What is more, the tax-payer was shelling out 70p for every 1 collected - in other words, going back to the drawing board was really the only option.

Of course there will be a good deal of focus on the new sanctions to be applied to those deadbeat parents who simply won't pay up.

Electronic tagging, confiscating passports, even naming and shaming may well prove useful tools. But the real change here is that the state has decided to, as far as it can, withdraw from the process and encourage ex-couples to sort it out between themselves.

Ex-partners would rather talk to anyone in the world except the person they have just been living with

It is a move that will be applauded by those who think the state meddles too much in our private lives, but the difficulty with this approach is that you are asking people to negotiate over maintenance at the very time they're at loggerheads - one partner has either left or been thrown out, and there can be bitterness, recrimination and unpleasantness.

Far from being ready to discuss maintenance payments, ex-partners would rather talk to anyone in the world except the person they have just been living with.

Now it's certainly true that couples who are breaking up do have to discuss the division of belongings - who gets the Abba CD box set and all that.

The difference though is that while these kinds of negotiations can run into the ground without it mattering all that much, it does matter when children face a fall in living standards after a break-up.

Ministers clearly understand they have to create incentives to make this work. And so perhaps the most significant change is that lone parents on benefits will be allowed to keep much more of the maintenance money before their benefits are affected.

At present, if you make a claim for say income support as a single parent, you are obliged to involve the CSA to extract money from your children's other parent.

The government is promising a significant increase in the amount that the residential parent can keep

But there's not much incentive to co-operate with this process as you stand to gain only around 10 a week before your benefits are docked.

And from the absent parent's point of view, they can argue that most of their payments are, in effect, going straight to the Treasury rather than to support their children.

Where to set this new threshold will be a matter for consultation, but the government is promising a significant increase in the amount that the residential parent can keep - an indication that perhaps, finally, the system is being geared towards raising children out of poverty, rather than clawing as much benefit back as possible for the Treasury.

So most of the decisions have been made - save one, what to call a new agency.

The message boards can take care of that no doubt. One wag has suggested "Fathers Are Us" - but CSA it certainly won't be.


SEE ALSO
Costly CSA reforms 'not working'
29 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Parent complaints about CSA rise
27 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Private firms to chase CSA debts
18 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
The troubled history of the CSA
18 Jan 06 |  UK Politics

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