An Act of shame

    Merely tinkering with the Child Support Act is not enough when
    wholesale reform is needed.

    MPs, given an honest choice, would scrap the Child Support Act
    tomorrow.

    Their constituency postbags are full of cases of assessed
    liabilities which absent parents say they cannot afford, of second
    families ripped apart and of rigid bureaucracy bearing down on
    victims and villains alike.

    Liberal Democrat MPfor Roxburgh & Berwickshire, Archy
    Kirkwood, helped bring the Act into being.

    But he now says: ‘I do not believe it was Parliament’s intention
    to devise a set of circumstances in which there is no possibility
    of any real discretion being applied to the facts and circumstances
    of individuals who are willing to pay, but who are being forced
    into what is effectively perpetual penury without any right of
    appeal on the level of maintenance levied by the agency.’

    The government – generally with the best of intentions,
    sometimes as a knee-jerk response – has tinkered with a system
    which plainly is not working. The latest proposals involve a
    ‘departure’ process which will introduce the concept that hardship
    cases can be examined. Yet they fall short of proper recognition of
    individual circumstances.

    Most MPs have cases on their files which bear no relation to the
    feckless, runaway dads the legislation was originally meant to
    clobber.

    Kirkwood spoke in the Commons of one case he has handled in his
    constituency: ‘The men there are not hothouse flowers. They are
    usually tough, independent characters – but one man was in tears
    because his wages had just been arrested.

    ‘It was obvious he was riddled with guilt because he could not
    pay more for his child despite wanting to, but now he had the added
    ignominy – in a small community such news gets around – of being
    known to his mates as someone who could not pay.’

    The father has given up work because he is no worse off on
    benefit, and the maintenance arrears continue to build up. ‘Arrears
    accrue in perpetuity but they are already at a level he cannot
    possibly afford so it is no skin off his nose.’

    Kirkwood also believes that in an ideal world the Act should be
    torn up and the problems of absentee parents who won’t pay tackled
    from a different judicial direction.

    The trouble is that the world is far from ideal, especially
    two-thirds of the way through a fourth Tory term.

    There is no chance of the Act being scrapped this side of an
    election, which is why Kirkwood introduced a ten minute rule bill
    aimed at amending the Act so assessments can be reduced on appeal
    in cases of exceptional hardship. Moving the bill, he said the
    complex and technical application of benefits in other areas can
    usually be addressed by reconciliation and reconsideration, except
    with the CSA.

    The bill itself is just a gesture, as there is no hope of it
    being picked up before polling day, and probably no hope
    afterwards. There are not enough votes in it and little political
    kudos to be gained in picking up such a thorny issue again.

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