25 Jan 2012

Government heavily defeated over Child Support Agency

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

The government’s plans to charge single parents for using the Child Support Agency are defeated in the House of Lords.

Peers voted by 270 votes to 128, a majority of 142, to reject the plans. It was the sixth time the government has been defeated over its welfare reform bill.

Former lord chancellor and Conservative peer Lord Mackay, who tabled an amendment, told Channel 4 News why he was opposing the government.

The government is proposing to charge £100 as an upfront fee (£50 for those on benefits) to parents who wish to use the Child Support Agency in future. There is a clause in the legislation which would mean that victims of domestic violence would be exempt from the charge.

In addition, in cases where the CSA has to police the payment of maintenance, the government proposes “collection charges”.

The CSA would levy 7-12 per cent of any monies collected before the money is passed on to the parent with care of the child/children, while the non-resident [ie paying] parent could face a surcharge of between 15-20 on top of the amount of maintenance owing.

The government says that such a charging structure “reinforces expectations of parental responsibility.” Given the costs of using the CSA to force payment, any move to increase mediated solutions would doubtless reduce government costs too.

Lord Mackay tabled an amendment to ensure that parents who have no alternative but to use the CSA to get maintenance payments from former partners would be exempt from the charges. The amendment received the support of peers from all the main parties.

“It’s unfair to charge the woman for doing what she needs to do, to get maintenance for her children,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Where the person who’s keen on getting an agreement is the applicant and doesn’t get it for the obstinacy of the other side, I don’t see that it’s fair for her to have to pay.”

Where the person who’s keen on getting an agreement is the applicant and doesn’t get it for the obstinacy of the other side, I don’t see that it’s fair for her to have to pay. Lord Mackay

Lord Mackay said that he is not opposed to charging parents for using the CSA, but added: “If it [the government] is going to charge, it should be the person who causes the need to go to the CSA that should pay.”

The proposed changes are part of Iain Duncan Smith‘s welfare reform bill, which has already had a tumultuous journey in the upper house. This is likely to be continued by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who introduced the Child Support Act 1991 under Margaret Thatcher.

Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long says that Lord Mackay is an “unlikely” rebel.

“A former Lord Chancellor to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, it clearly causes him some discomfort that tonight he could lead the Lords to defeat his own government. He has though, he insists, no choice.

“It is a question of fairness, he told me. Lord Mackay was instrumental in setting up the Child Support Agency back in 1990. It’s had a hugely troubled history but he says it still provides a critical service to parents – 97 per cent of them are women – who have tried everything to get their ex partners to pay maintenance and failed.

“He doesn’t know if he can defeat the government but he’s done everything he can to win support for this evening. An unlikely rebel – an unwilling one even – but a determined one too.”

Last resort

Single parent campaigning charity Gingerbread has condemned the proposals. Chief Executive Fiona Weir said: “The government plans to charge parents to use the Child Support Agency in order to ‘incentivise’ them to instead make private arrangements.

“But in reality most single parents go to the CSA as a last resort – when they have to, not because they want to.

“If a child’s other parent simply won’t respond or refuses to pay, these government proposals will penalise the parent with main care and her children. That’s plainly unfair.”

Gingerbread said although it supports efforts to help parents work together on the financial fallout of separation, the government’s proposals may mean families losing out: “Single parents tell us that for many families these charges would mean going without basics like school uniforms, pulling children out of activities like sport or music, or even turning off the heating.”

Lord Mackay told the Guardian that almost half of parents get less than £20 per week maintenance, and “you are applying charges to these sums. It’s just a question of fairness about people who have very little money. As lord chancellor I thought my role was about fairness. We had set up the CSA with that in mind.”