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Will 50,000 children really benefit from maintenance reforms?

I wanted to pick up on something I said in my weekly review post here last Friday. I mentioned in that post the press release published by the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’), in which it claims that 50,000 children (or ‘as many as 50,000 children’, depending upon whether you read the headline or the second paragraph) are set to benefit from the government’s reform of the child maintenance system.

The press release explained that a 3-year process of closing all existing Child Support Agency (‘CSA’) cases is getting under way and that:

“Under sweeping reforms of the child maintenance system, the CSA has already stopped taking on new cases, with newly-separated parents encouraged to make their own family-based arrangements or use the new Child Maintenance Service instead.

“Now, in the next phase of the changes, the agency is beginning the process of closing its 800,000-strong historic caseload.

Initially, the DWP is writing to around 150,000 parents with details of when their case is due to close and advice about the next steps they should take. Although there is no need for anyone to act until they receive a letter, once parents receive notification of their closure date they are urged to consider their options.”

Child Maintenance Minister, Steve Webb MP sets out the rationale for thinking that 50,000 children will benefit from all of this is given by as follows:

“We’re reforming the child maintenance system because we want to get more maintenance to more children. This process provides parents with an opportunity to re-consider their child maintenance arrangements and our estimates show that as many as 50,000 children could benefit.

“I would urge anyone who receives a letter from the CSA about their case closing to look carefully at the options, as they may be surprised at the support available to them.”

And the release gives a little more detail:

“…because the parents’ circumstances may have changed since the initial assessment was made – plus the new statutory child maintenance system is much more robust, using data from the tax authorities – it may be that maintenance becomes payable once a new assessment is carried out”.

On Friday I expressed my doubts about these claims. Now, I thought I would look at them in a little more detail.

The press release doesn’t explain how the 50,000 estimate was arrived at, so I can’t comment on that in detail. The question, then, is: will a significant number of children benefit from the reforms?

There are two points to the DWP’s claim: that the circumstances of some parents may have changed since the initial assessment was made, and that the new system is ‘more robust’, using data from HM Revenue and Customs (‘HMRC’). I shall consider each of these in turn.

The first point is surely easy to deal with. Yes, the circumstances of some parents will have changed since the initial assessment – and we are effectively talking here about the non-resident parent (‘NRP’), who will be liable to pay the maintenance. However, what is to say that their circumstances will have changed for the better? Surely, on average, an equal number will have found that their circumstances have changed for the worse? That being the case, changes in the circumstances of NRPs will lead to just as many children being worse off as better off.

The second point suggests, of course, that many NRPs have been failing to disclose their true income to the CSA or the parent with care, disclosing instead a smaller amount or none at all, in the hope of being assessed to pay no or less child maintenance. I’m sure some of this goes on, although it is difficult for someone who is employed to do it. As to the self-employed though, will they disclose more to the Revenue than they have done to the CSA? I’m not sure that they will. Further, as I mentioned here in this post, it could be argued that the CSA/Child Maintenance Service is likely to scrutinise income details from the NRP more deeply than HMRC anyway.

In short, I find the DWP’s argument that significantly more children will benefit as a result of the government’s reforms entirely unconvincing. It seems to me to be just another example of spin being used to make the reforms sound like a real improvement, when they are anything but. In fact, it has been argued that they will make many children worse off because of the introduction of fees.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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