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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 16:05 GMT

UK Politics

CSA reform tops welfare bill

The CSA has come in for much criticism

The reform of the controversial Child Support Agency is at the centre of the welfare reforms promised in the Queen's Speech.

The government has unveiled a new bill to build on the progress it has already made in overhauling the welfare state.

The changes to the CSA will be part of legislation which will also introduce further pension reforms and a measure designed to link benefit payments to compliance with court orders.

[ image: Reforms will introduce a simpler system]
Reforms will introduce a simpler system
The reform of the CSA follows a white paper on the agency published earlier this year which proposed combining a simpler system with tougher sanctions for parents, usually fathers, who fail to co-operate.

The new bill will provide for the replacement of the existing complex formula the CSA uses to determine maintenance payments with a system of percentage rates based on the absent parent's net income.

Tougher sanctions could include fines, confiscation of driving licenses and prison sentences.

There will also be powers to ensure assessment cannot be unnecessarily delayed by disputes over paternity, allowing presumptions of parentage where an absent parent refuses a DNA test, or refuses to accept the positive outcome of a test.

The Queen's Speech
At the weekend Prime Minister Tony Blair explained the reasoning behind the reforms, saying: "We cannot have taxpayers as a whole ending up having to pay large sums of money out to help families in circumstances where their fathers don't have any sense of responsibility."

The National Council for One Parent Families welcomed the proposals to reform the CSA.

Director Maeve Sherlock said: "This is a last chance to set in place a scheme that will work for millennium families.

"Reform of the CSA is long overdue and is essential if children in one parent families are to be lifted out of poverty."

But the Law Society said it was time to abolish the CSA.

The society, which represents solicitors, called for a return to a system where payments were decided by the courts which was more flexible and more effective in ensuring payments.

Vice-president Kamlesh Bahl said: "A cruder child support formula will help the CSA's bureaucracy, but only at the expense of fairness."

Liberal Democrats social security spokesman Steve Webb also called for the abolition of the agency as the proposals contained in the white paper would "clearly create injustices".

Pension reform

New legislation will also reform the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme through the introduction of a state second pension.

This will ensure that people with a lifetime of working or caring behind them, and certain disabled people with broken work records, would retire on a pension higher than means-tested benefits.

The new bill will allow for the withdrawal or reduction of benefit entitlement from offenders who fail to comply with community sentences imposed by the courts.

The measure will be piloted in various parts of England and Wales to test the links between social security offices and the Probation Service, and to assess its impact on offenders.

But the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders called the measures "retrograde and counterproductive".

Director Paul Cavadino said: "It makes no sense as a way of tackling crime.

"Plunging offenders further into poverty must increase the temptation to commit theft, burglary or street robbery, so damaging, not improving community safety."

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