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Dads - the new terrorists?
2:23pm Monday 2nd June 2008 in Leader
Tough new laws have been drawn up to tackle fathers who refuse to pay for their children. But are the powers a step too far? Joe Willis talks to a leading North- East solicitor who thinks they are
IT COULD almost be anti-terror legislation - the power to take money from bank accounts without consent and without a court order, the power to freeze accounts, seize the proceeds of house sales, impose curfews, and confiscate passports and driving licences.
However, this is not a new law to help MI5 tackle extremism. The powers are contained within the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill and have been designed to help the authorities recover money from non-resident parents - usually fathers - owed for their children's upkeep.
The Government announced a major overhaul of the child maintenance system last year and the legislation is currently working its way through Parliament and could be given Royal Assent within weeks. The bill will see the much-maligned Child Support Agency (CSA) replaced with a new more powerful body, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC).
Few people would question the need to abolish the CSA, which has been dogged by controversy and complaints ever since its launch in 1993. However, a leading North-East solicitor has warned the extent of the powers due to be handed to the new commission will only increase the heartache for separating families - and lead to even greater confrontation and friction.
Kim Fellowes, from North-East-based solicitors Dickinson Dees, sits on the National Committee of Resolution, a 5,000-strong association of family lawyers committed to the non-confrontational resolution of marital and domestic disputes. She is chair of Resolution's child support sub-committee, which means she has become a national expert on the CSA - and has been involved in legislation battles in the House of Commons and Lords over the CSA and child support, advising both Government and Opposition.
Miss Fellowes believes officials at the Department for Work and Pensions are secretly delighted that the bill has been given such an easy ride through Parliament and should emerge relatively unscathed.
"These new powers will affect every single family going through separation in the North-East," she says.
She believes the commission's ability to take maintenance payments without prior approval from a court could prove extremely controversial. She says: "For fathers, this means the safety net of the court has been removed. Someone might not agree that they have been sent to prison for a criminal offence, but at least they know they have been tried before a court.
The difference here is that there is no court scrutiny.
"And if the father believes he is being unfairly pursued or harassed, that could mean a severe backlash for the mother as she will get the blame. The risk is that even a separation that was previously fairly amicable could become strained."
One of the most worrying aspects, according to Miss Fellowes, is that the powers are being afforded to the successor of an organisation like the CSA - which has a well-documented history of making mistakes. One report compiled during the agency's early days found errors in 86 per cent of cases.
Improvements were promised. But a fresh report carried out by the National Audit Office in 2006 revealed a one-in-five chance that payments were inaccurate. Miss Fellowes and others believe the powers included in the bill are so momentous that they may even breach human rights regulations. She predicts strenuous legal challenges once the powers begin to be applied, possibly in the autumn.
She also raises concerns about other aspects of the legislation which could impact on families in the region. The Government wants to encourage separating couples to make their own maintenance arrangements. The new commission will be responsible for raising awareness about the importance of maintenance payments and will provide an information and guidance service to help parents make effective arrangements. It is envisaged that such services will actually be provided by voluntary organisations, such as Citizens Advice.
With already tight budgets, it is feared the voluntary sector will not be in a position to provide the necessary help. The commission will also have the power to write off arrears owed by some fathers without paying any compensation to the carer who has lost out.
Since the CSA's launch, many thousands of cases have built up where money can never be recovered because the CSA failed to take enforcement action within the a period six years of the payments being due.
"The Government has got a lot of bad publicity in the past over the CSA and now it wants to reduce its workload - and the outstanding debt owed to the CSA of £3.3bn. To do this they are sending people packing by getting them to make their own arrangements and will be writing off arrears," she says.
THE Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment on the criticism of the bill. However, a spokesman pointed to the latest figures which show the CSA collected more than £62m from nonresident parents of North-East and North Yorkshire children during the past financial year. More than 50,000 children living in the region are now benefiting from maintenance payments to their carer, officials say. They claim recent improvements in the CSA have formed a base from which the new commission can build from.
Speaking about the figures, which were published at the end of a three-year drive to improve the CSA, the organisation's chief executive and the new child maintenance commissioner designate, Stephen Geraghty, said: "The Child Support Agency and its operational improvement plan has delivered real improvements to the child maintenance system in areas such as customer service, compliance and collection and this creates stable foundations on which the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission can build. In the meantime, the CSA will continue to pursue parents who evade their financial responsibilities. Our message to them is clear. Act now or we will."