DWP denies CSA debt write-off claims

The government has insisted there is “no question” of writing off millions of pounds worth of child maintenance payments because they are too hard to collect.

Reports today suggest the Child Support Agency (CSA) is planning is abandon up to £1 billion worth of unpaid payments because there are only “limited prospects of recovery”.

Pressure groups have criticised the idea, which could affect 13,000 parents. They argue the debts are irrecoverable because of faults in the CSA, not in families.

The agency is set for a major overhaul after being condemned as “not fit for purpose” by Tony Blair and “totally unacceptable” by work and pensions secretary John Hutton.

Its latest performance report suggested that £3.5 billion of child support debt remains uncollected, and almost £2 billion of this was deemed “probably uncollectible”.

The Times today claims a new law to allow debts to be written off will be introduced in next month’s CSA white paper, which will outline changes to the agency.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the idea was only one option, saying: “There is no question of us washing our hands of debt.

“In fact since the new debt recovery programme was launched in August we have had considerable success in ensuring that those who should, pay.”

The white paper will be based on the findings of a four-month review of the CSA by David Henshaw, and in the government’s response to the report this summer, ministers said it might be “appropriate” to write off debts in some circumstances.

“We will need to look closely at what to do when efforts to collect are exhausted and the costs and benefits of the options available. In such circumstances it may be appropriate for us to bring forward legislation to write off debts,” it said.

The DWP spokeswoman said today: “One of the issues we are currently consulting on is what we do with the outstanding debt that may never be recoverable for a whole range of reasons. We will bring forward our proposals shortly.”

However, opposition parties have condemned even the suggestion of writing off unpaid maintenance claims. Shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond said it would amount to a betrayal of the families who needed the CSA’s help.

“The chaotic mismanagement at the CSA has already let down thousands of vulnerable families and wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“Now the government looks set to betray these families by writing off uncollected debt.Now is the time for a pragmatic approach to get money flowing to the lone parents and children who rely on these payments.”

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws added: “People have been relying upon the CSA to act on their behalf to collect this money. It would be a double betrayal if having made people wait so long, the government now pulled the rug from under their feet.”