Child support overhaul revealed

The Child Support Agency (CSA) is to be scrapped and replaced with a new body with much tougher powers to collect maintenance, it was announced today.

The new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-Mec) will be able to confiscate the passports or driving licences of absent parents who refuse to pay for the upkeep of their children, or put them under curfew.

It will use information from HM Revenue and Customs on how much a parent is earning, to ensure they are paying the right amount in maintenance, and could even take money directly from parents’ bank accounts if they refuse to comply.

However, work and pensions secretary John Hutton said he wanted to encourage more couples to settle their own affairs, and from 2008 will remove the requirement for all parents claiming benefits to use the government service.

The C-Mec will be on hand to advise people on how best to make their own arrangements, and Mr Hutton said money may be available to support voluntary groups in helping couples sort out their differences.

The CSA was set up in 1993 to help collect child maintenance but has ended up with £3.5 billion in debts and a backlog of thousands of cases. Today Mr Hutton acknowledged that all efforts to reform the agency, including a major shake-up in 2000, had failed.

He promised that under today’s white paper reforms, the agency’s debts – half of which are owed to parents looking after children – “will not be routinely written off” and said the CSA and C-Mec would use “every power available” to recover it.

He acknowledged that in some “limited cases” debt was irrecoverable – he said it would be no more than £50 million – but stressed overall that today’s white paper set out a “proper foundation for a much more effective and efficient system”.

However, the Conservatives said they were “bitterly disappointed” about the timescale of the reforms, saying that the 1.4 million families reliant on the current child maintenance system must be given some relief from its chaos before 2010.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond called for the new ways of collecting maintenance, and plans to increase the level of benefits which are disregarded when calculating maintenance – to £10 – to be introduced immediately.

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws also questioned the timing, and accused ministers of not being radical enough. He said plans to name and shame parents who did not pay up were “gimmicks” which would not help.

But Mr Hutton angrily rejected this suggestion as “ridiculous”, saying the reforms were “fundamental”. He also dismissed claims they could be introduced any quicker, saying he would not risk making the mistakes of the past by rushing.