Parents need action - now

PUBLISHED: 17:37 03 August 2006 | UPDATED: 11:56 04 May 2010

THE announcement last week that the Child Support Agency is to be scrapped will have been followed closely by many single parents in my constituency. Thousands of families in this area and well over a million across the country are struggling to obtain mo

THE announcement last week that the Child Support Agency is to be scrapped will have been followed closely by many single parents in my constituency. Thousands of families in this area and well over a million across the country are struggling to obtain money from absent parents and will be desperate for the Government to improve the system of child support.

I know how complex and demoralising these cases can be as requests for help from lone parents trapped in the shambles of the CSA are unfortunately all too common and make up some of the longest-running cases I deal with.

These problems are often exacerbated by the overpayment or underpayment of child tax credits which affected 3,000 families in East Cambridgeshire alone last year (more than 40 per cent of the total) and plunged many into serious financial hardship.

Last week the Government admitted it had built up a backlog of 300,000 cases and debts of more than £3 billion, but thousands of lone parents would not receive the money because there were "limited prospects of recovery''.

The Work and Pensions Secretary promised there would be a "clean break'' with the past, with a new slimmed-down organisation responsible for delivering child support.

Some elements of last week's proposals are welcome, such as the determination to maintain the obligation on both parents to contribute to the upbringing and support of a child. I also share the view that, where those arrangements can be made voluntarily, they should. But of course the real challenge is bearing down on those parents who refuse to pay maintenance. Tough enforcement powers are necessary but they must be effective; current powers to seize driving licences have only been used 11 times.

For those parents who are currently receiving CSA payments, this will now be a time of uncertainty and anxiety as they face the prospect of further turmoil and change. While the decision to scrap the CSA may ultimately be the right one, it is extremely disappointing that no action has been taken to help the families who are stuck in the current system. They will not automatically be converted onto the proposed new system, and have effectively been abandoned by the Government.

There has also been no attempt made to address the inability of the current system to assess accurately how much maintenance an absent parent should pay. Having spent £500 million on a futile upgrading of the current system the Government must be sure it has addressed this key issue before spending any more.

The timetable for reform is another disappointing aspect of the Government's announcement, given the urgency that change is required. All that is actually on the table is a consultation on the CSA's future and then a White Paper. This will be followed merely by "an ambition...to see some aspects of the new system in place from 2008".

When I speak to my constituents about these issues they do not ask for further reports and more consultations. They want action. And in the absence of any they have every right to feel let down once again.

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