UK Family Law Reform

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CSA to get tough with absent parents

The controversial Child Support Agency is still cracking down on Liverpool’s 6,800 absent parents. Daily Post reporter Caroline Innes was given exclusive access to the Birkenhead CSA enforcement team as it tries to reclaim £21m owed to children in the region

THE CSA’s attitude to parents who refuse to acknowledge their financial responsibility to their children has changed.

Equipped with new powers, the agency has shaken off its “softly softly” approach and will now use all powers at its disposal to force parents to settle the debt they owe to their child.

By the time cases reach its Birkenhead office, parents may have been attempting to evade the CSA for years, and officers will make use of information held by Revenue and Customs, credit reference agencies and private tracing agencies to enforce payments. Parents who never thought the CSA would come knocking could find money has been deducted directly from their pay, their driving licence confiscated, their home sold or ultimately in court facing a 42- day prison sentence.

The current CSA White Paper is proposing even more enforcement powers, including the removal of a non-compliant parent’s passport, and curfews on parents who cannot or will not pay.

But enforcement officers say they need these powers when faced with parents who will, as in one case, go to the extent of moving to the Isle of Man leaving behind a £350,000 property, to evade the agency.
This week, staff are celebrating a major success after securing £28,000 in unpaid child maintenance by using an “order for sale” to force a local father to release equity in his home.

The enforcement team, at St Mark’s House, Birkenhead, is working hard to ensure the money gets to the child and say they will make no apologies for the harsh tactics used to force non-resident parents, predominantly fathers, to pay up.

Mr Harrison, CSA chief enforcement officer and investigator, based in Birkenhead, said: “There is no softly softly approach any more for parents who have either ignored or evaded the CSA. We want to secure money owing for these children.

“The way we see it is that this is child debt and when you have been in the house and seen that child doing its homework or playing out, you do feel a responsibility to get the money owed to that child, money that can make a real difference.

“Because of that, the message now is simple. Approach us before we approach you.

“We have got the powers to make parents realise their obligations and are working hard to clear the backlog in cases from as far back as when the agency was set up in 1993.

“The agency has recently been re-aligned to concentrate on enforcement, and anybody with a large amount of debt to their child in Merseyside needs to know that there is no point burying your head in the sand as we will trace you and force you to pay.”

PARENTS in the Liverpool area owe their children more than £20.7m in maintenance payments, and, in the past year, more than 170 non-paying parents in the region have had their cases put through the courts.

Nationally, 40 cases in the past 12 months have resulted in a prison sentence.

Since launching a high-profile enforcement campaign headed by the slogan “Approach us before we come for you,” the Merseyside office has seen an increase of more than 100% in the number of calls from absent parents wanting to resolve their payment issues.

And the number of enforcement officers working on cases has quadrupled.

One enforcement officer of nine years, who has also worked as a bailiff on behalf of the CSA in Wirral, said she was pleased the agency had become more pro-active in Merseyside.

She said: “We are really targeting those parents who owe thousands of pounds, and have a dedicated £50,000 team who deal specifically with their large debts.

“One case I have been working on involves a father who owes over £30,000 and last year moved to the Isle of Man to avoid having to pay as the CSA does not have jurisdiction there. However, he still owns a £350,000 house on the mainland, here in Liverpool.

“And as he lived here when he should be paying, we can still go after his property to release equity and claim the arrears.

“We are pursuing an order for sale against that property and are now 98% of the way to getting that money. We are 100% sure we will get this money for his child.”

She added: “We use things like Equifax and credit reference agencies now. It is very difficult to live through life without credit or without being credit checked.

“And while a non-resident parent may think they have cleverly hidden their address from us, they will one day go and get a new mobile phone or apply for tax credits and bingo! we have their details on our system.”

She added: “Just yesterday, I phoned one mum and told her we had got £400 for her children. She broke down in tears and said that at last she could now get a new radiator in her girl’s bedroom.

“That is when you are really pleased to be doing this job.”

Lord Bill McKenzie, Child Maintenance Minister, said: “In Liverpool and surrounding areas, irresponsible parents owe an average of £3,044 each in maintenance, money that their children have a right to.

“In many of these cases, tough action is required.

“Every day, the Child Support Agency passes 37 cases to bailiffs and 36 to the courts, while 200 more begin to have money deducted straight from their pay packets.

“Parents need to realise that, if they ignore their obligations, they will risk having their home sold or spending time in jail.”

It may have been heavily criticised over the last few years, it may be facing significant changes, but it seems finally the Child Support Agency is determined to become fit for purpose.

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