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Lawyers criticise new measures against absent parents

The family lawyers’ association, Resolution, is urging the Government to drop plans that would give civil servants increased powers to clamp down on parents who fall behind with child maintenance payments.

The proposal, which Resolution describes as draconian, is contained in the Welfare Reform Bill now making its way through parliament. It would allow the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) to confiscate the driving licence or passport of defaulting parents without the need to obtain a court order.

The Department for Work and Pensions says the measure would only be used as a last resort after all other sanctions to make parents pay had failed. It believes that allowing civil servants to take such direct action would be faster and easier and beneficial to the taxpayer. It will be tested in certain areas of the country before being adopted nationally.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said: "We are supporting parents in these tough times, but for those who choose not to support their own kids, we will not stand by and do nothing.

"If a parent refuses to pay up then we will stop them travelling abroad or even using their car."

However, the new powers are opposed by Resolution. A spokesman said: "We agree with the government’s aim that all parents meet their pastoral and financial responsibilities toward their children. However it is well known that the administration of child support in this country is riddled with errors and bureaucratic failures.

"Until the system is fixed, running smoothly and has public confidence there can be no justification for not allowing a right to challenge such draconian measures in the courts."

The subject of child maintenance payments often evokes strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Many parents, usually but not always mothers, can suffer great hardship when their former partner fails to pay child maintenance. On the other hand, many other parents, usually but not always fathers, often feel they are being hounded unfairly.

Whatever view one takes there is little doubt that there is a determination on behalf of the Government and CMEC to make sure more parents face up to their responsibilities. Parents on both sides of the argument who are affected by these issues should seek legal advice to protect their interests.

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