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Abolition of 'reduced benefits decisions'

Date:23 JUN 2008

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 will repeal the power of the Child Support Agency to impose reduced benefits decisions on single parents who do not apply for Child Support from the non-resident parent without reasonable grounds.

Solicitor and Family Mediator, Laurence Singer explained: "Under the Child Support Act 1991 if a 'parent with care' is in receipt of Income Support she has to apply for to the Child Support Agency for Child Support from the 'non-resident parent' 'if required to do so' (which she almost invariably is). She is not so required if 'there would be a risk of her, or of any child living with her, suffering harm or undue distress as a result'. If she does not apply and the DWP do not have 'reasonable grounds for believing' that she would suffer that risk then they have a discretion to make a 'reduced benefit decision' which if implemented is a reduction of £24.20 a week, a not inconsiderable sum and a cause of much resentment.

"Happily the requirement to apply and the penalty for failure to do so has now been abolished by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 with effect from 14 July 2008."

The change means that those already affected by a reduced benefit direction will see their benefit restored, and that - even though the obligation to cooperate with the CSA is not being officially abolished for existing cases until October 2008 - in practice no parent with care on benefit who is already using the Child Support Agency will suffer a benefit reduction, if they notify the Child Support Agency that they are withdrawing their case.

In future, when the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has the responsibility for child maintenance, all parents will be able to choose the child maintenance arrangement that is right for their particular circumstances. The statutory maintenance service will pay all money received in maintenance directly to the parent on benefits, and parents with care will be able to keep more of the maintenance they receive - up to £20 per week - before it affects their benefit, increasing to £40 per week in 2010.

According to One Parent Families/Gingerbread, in 2007/08, on average some 600 parents with care were each month made subject to a reduced benefit decision.

Family and children charities welcomed the change. Janet Allbeson, Policy Adviser for One Parent Families/Gingerbread, said: "We are very pleased that Section 46 of the Child Support Act 1991 is being abolished with effect from 14 July. We hope that, in future, the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will use more positive means to persuade parents with care to choose to seek child maintenance - and look forward to the introduction of a higher £20 'maintenance disregard' in October, and the development of the Commission's new information and support service to separated parents concerning child maintenance."

The spokesman of the Child Poverty Action Group, Tim Nichols said: "Penalties on vital income replacement benefits intended to enforce engagement with the child maintenance system will always impact badly on the wellbeing of children.

"We strongly welcome any move away from this practice and encourage the Government to find ways of promoting economic support for children from both parents that do not result in harm to the child or undermine the pledge to end child poverty."

Earlier this month the Government announced plans in a White Paper to change the law to require fathers as well as mothers to be named on their child's birth certificate. The change, which will be implemented in the Welfare Reform Bill, might make it easier for the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission to pursue non-resident fathers for Child Support.

To download a copy of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 from the Legislation section of Newswatch click here.