The Times

Friday July 2 1999


Darling seeks a more effective Child Support Agency

The founders of the Child Support Agency had laudable intentions: to ensure that errant parents pay for their children's upbringing and to improve the lot of single mothers. But for many families their intentions paved the road to hell. The CSA became a monstrous bureaucracy, chasing responsible parents and wrecking the families it was meant to support. Although the last Government tinkered with the child maintenance regulations, the entire system required a thorough overall. Yesterday Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, published a White Paper which promises to address many of the CSA's failings. Mr Darling has wisely recognised that for a system to be workable and effective, it must be both simple and tough. Such an approach will be criticised but, for the sake of the children, it is the right one.

The current system is failing many children. The percentage of lone parents on income support getting child maintenance has not fallen since the CSA was set up. Bureaucracy is partly to blame. Patience and a doctorate are needed to understand the formula used to calculate how much parents pay towards the care of children. As more than 100 pieces of information can be required to make a single decision, bureaucrats spend 90 per cent of their time form-filling and only 10 per cent pursuing parents who refuse to pay. This explains why a third of all child support cases wait at least six months for a solution.

Instead of trying to weed this overgrown bureaucratic thicket, Mr Darling has wisely decided to uproot it entirely. Absent parents will contribute a flat rate percentage of their take-home pay, depending on how many children they have to support. Mr Darling must guard against special pleading blurring the clarity of this reform. A clearer, faster system should be a fairer one for the families involved. A tight rein must be kept on the list of "exceptional circumstances" which parents can cite to get their contributions lowered. Failure to do so will result in the current, complex, system being reintroduced in the detail.

Mr Darling hopes that this simplicity will liberate the CSA to hunt down errant parents. As 30 per cent of parents whom the CSA has assessed pay nothing at all, this makes good sense. More contentious, however, are Mr Darling's plans to deal with parents who lie about their financial status or who persistently pay late. The Government would like to fine or imprison them, and are considering other sanctions such as removing their driving licences. Mr Darling's justification for doing so is powerful. These adults are failing to fulfil their role as responsible parents and wasting taxpayers' money as the CSA chases them. The threat of a large fine or imprisonment is required to concentrate their minds or punish their fecklessness.

The Secretary of State must should tread with care. Given that CSA officials have been stuck behind their desks form-filling, their existing powers to hound parents and extract money have never been properly tested. Furthermore, if parents are locked up, or unable to drive to work, they cannot earn an income and therefore cannot contribute towards their children's upkeep, undermining the purpose of the whole exercise. Mr Darling must ensure that the CSA turns to these measures only as a last resort, and then targets the reckless, not the responsible but stretched parent. Another burst of over-exuberance would once again bring the CSA into disrepute.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.