Child Support Agency To Continue Until 2013, Minister Says

The troubled Child Support Agency will not be fully phased out until 2013, the work and pensions secretary admitted yesterday, to the disappointment of campaigners. John Hutton unveiled long-awaited plans to replace the agency with a slimline body, as recommended by an independent review.

Outlining proposals for a simpler assessment system and tougher penalties, he promised that the reforms would promote parental responsibility and tackle child poverty. “We have to make the parents thinking of holding up two fingers to us again and thinking they can wriggle out of their responsibilities [understand] that is not going to happen,” he told MPs. “We have to make it as unpleasant, tough and harsh as possible for non-payers.”

From 2008, most parents will be encouraged to agree payments between themselves, with the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-Mec) taking over the toughest cases.

But a simplified assessment system, based on tax returns and calculated using gross rather than net income, will not be introduced for another two years.

The government will also increase the amount of benefit that claimants can keep when they receive maintenance, encouraging non-payers to contribute because they know that their money is going straight to their children.

Between 2010 and 2013, existing CSA cases will be able to reach private agreements, continue with existing payments via a cash transfer service, or move to the new system. But Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said that many of the changes “will come into force too late to help meet the government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010”.

Philip Hammond, shadow work and pensions secretary, urged ministers to fast-track measures, accusing them of betraying the 1.4 million families stuck on the current system.

The Department for Work and Pensions also confirmed that around £850m of the CSA’s £3.5bn debt will be written off. Ministers say £50m cannot be recovered and another £800m should not be, because it is made up of interim estimates, rather than proper assessments.

C-Mec will be able to use harsher penalties, such as confiscating passports and imposing curfews on parents who repeatedly fail to pay maintenance. The government will also pilot a scheme to dock the wages of non-payers at source, and C-Mec will be able to recover cash owed from the estates of deceased parents.