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

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

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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