Page last updated at 08:42 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Absent parents may lose passports

Mother and child
Absent parents could be stopped from driving

Absent parents who do not pay child support could have their passports and driving licences seized without having to be taken to court.

The Department for Work and Pensions said the proposals contained in the Welfare Reform Bill would be a "last resort" if other sanctions failed.

Latest estimates suggest absent parents owe nearly 4bn in unpaid maintenance.

But opponents say the government's plans could lead to breaches of parents' civil rights.

'Tough times'

The Child Support Agency can confiscate the driving licences of parents who refused to pay for their children, but it had to apply for a court order to do so.

Last year, Parliament passed an act giving the body which oversees the CSA and is developing its successor - the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) - the same power in relation to passports.

The new legislation would allow the CMEC to bypass the courts and confiscate absent parents' passports and driving licences until the money is paid in full.

The government is debating welfare reform whilst standing on the burning ship
Frank Field, Labour MP

The government argues that this is "faster, simpler and easier for the taxpayer".

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said: "We are supporting parents in these tough times, but for those who choose not to support their own kids, we will not stand by and do nothing.

"If a parent refuses to pay up then we will stop them travelling abroad or even using their car.

"We want fair rules for everybody and that means giving people the support they need, but in return expecting them to live up to their responsibilities."

Janet Allbeson, from the one-parent family advisory group Gingerbread, told the BBC she supported the idea as a last resort.

"Over half of all children in single-parent households are poor. And we know, because Parliament has told us, that if all non-resident parents who are required to pay money each week by the Child Support Agency did so it would lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty."

'Talking tough'

The government says the new plan will be tested in certain areas of the country.

Similar schemes in the US and Australia have been successful in increasing payments.

Other powers open to the CMEC include taking money from a bank account without going through the courts; applying for a curfew, or recovering money from a dead person's estate.

Opponents are worried that civil liberties may be undermined if bureaucrats have the power to take away passports and driving licences.

The Liberal Democrats have also criticised the plans.

Time limit

Work and pensions spokesman Steve Webb said: "This latest bill will have more talking tough, but we've heard it all before.

"What we really need is an efficient, effective system and this bill isn't going to bring it in."

The Welfare Reform Bill also includes measures to require many single parents and people on incapacity benefit to seek work.

But Labour MP and former welfare reform minister Frank Field said: "The government is debating welfare reform whilst standing on the burning ship."

He is calling for a time limit on benefits for under-25s who have never worked.

In a report for the Reform think-tank he also advocates the National Insurance system being reformed so that employees with a longer record of work receive more contribution-based Jobseeker's Allowance if made redundant.

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