CSA makes way for leaner, meaner alternative

The beleaguered Child Support Agency (CSA) is to be scrapped and replaced by a tougher and more streamlined organisation, John Hutton announced today.

The work and pensions secretary said the new body would “come down like a ton of bricks” on absent parents who refused to pay maintenance for their children.

It would have the power to confiscate passports or impose curfews on parents who refuse to pay up, while the government is also looking into plans to ‘name and shame’ those who are successfully tracked down.

It is also examining a range of options to make sure more fathers take responsibility for their children, including registering them at birth, Mr Hutton said.

To reduce the workload of the new child support body, estranged couples on means-tested benefits would no longer be obliged to use its services, and they would be offered advice to help them find a voluntary solution.

It would also be freed of the backlog of thousands of cases and at least £3 billion in unpaid maintenance currently on the CSA’s books – most claimants under the old system would have to reapply to the new body.

Mr Hutton insisted the changes, which follow a four-month government-commissioned review by David Henshaw, would ensure value for money for the taxpayer and ensure children were properly supported when their parents split up.

However, opposition MPs condemned the proposals as too timid, and shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond said they would be a “huge disappointment” to the 1.5 million families stuck on the current CSA system and expecting action.

“They will not be automatically converted onto the proposed new system and are effectively abandoned.Now is the time for action but yet again the government have kicked meaningful reform of the CSA into the long grass yet again,” he said.

He warned that the government had invested almost £500 million into the CSA but had “completely failed to demonstrate the political leadership required to push through the reforms that are desperately needed by so many single parent families”.

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws also dismissed today’s plans as offering only “rebranding, further delay and more gimmicks, when what is needed is immediate action”.

“Since 2005, we have had one government review of the CSA, one government redesign and now we are offered further consultation with no action until 2008,” he said.

He added: “Only replacing the CSA with a new organisation with complete access to income details and the ability to deduct money at source from those who refuse to pay would make a real difference.”

But Mr Hutton insisted his plans represented a “fundamental change of every aspect of the child support system”. He said the government had taken so long to reform it because it had tried to make the CSA work – but it was now time to “turn over a new leaf”.

And he dismissed suggestions that they were just another consultation exercise – most of the changes would require primary legislation, which was why further consultation was needed with a view to publishing a white paper in the autumn.