The ‘flagship’ idea behind the government’s reform of the child support/maintenance system is, of course, to encourage more couples to sort out arrangements between themselves, thereby saving the state the expense of doing it for them, via the new Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’).
As part of the reform the Child Maintenance Options (‘CM Options’) service became the ‘mandatory gateway’ (why must everything have a ‘gateway’ these days?) to accessing the CMS, meaning that parents must talk to CM Options first, before they are able to access the CMS. Accordingly, it was particularly interesting to see the Department for Work and Pensions release a statistical report last Friday detailing numbers of children benefitting from ‘family-based’ (i.e. agreed) child maintenance arrangements after their parents (or, presumably, one of them) contacted CM Options.
Now, before I go any further I should explain that the statistics are ‘experimental’, i.e. they are still ‘undergoing a period of development and review’ and may therefore be revised in future editions. Quite why we have to have experimental statistics these days for things that aren’t obviously urgent, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I assume that the figures in the final edition of the statistics, whenever that is published, will not be hugely different from those in this edition.
There are six ‘headline statistics’ set out at the beginning of the report, and I want to go through them in turn.
The first two ‘headline statistics are easy to deal with, as they aren’t statistics at all. The first reads:
“The Department for Work and Pensions’ strategic objective around child maintenance is to ensure the maximum number of children who live apart from one or both parents benefit from an effective maintenance arrangement through private or statutory means.”
Which I think anyone with a modicum of intelligence could have guessed, and the second ‘statistic’ adds to this by telling us that:
“Child Maintenance Options contributes towards this objective by providing a free and impartial advice service that offers parents information on different ways to accomplish this.”
OK, now we have that out of the way, the next ‘headline statistic’ is also not a statistic, but at least tells us something useful about the report:
“Effectiveness of Child Maintenance Options is measured through regular in-house surveys whose results are reported in this publication.”
Obviously, if we are to measure the effectiveness of CM Options then we need to know how they measure ‘success’. The above doesn’t explain much, but later in the report we are told that an effective ‘family based arrangement’ for the purposes of this research is defined as either:
- A regular financial arrangement where at least some of the agreed amount is always/usually received on time and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well; or
- An ad hoc arrangement which includes a financial element (or transaction in kind e.g. school uniform) and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well.
Hmm, not a particularly high bar. OK, I suppose if the parent is happy then we should all be happy, but surely complete success should only be where the non-resident parent pays the full amount of their liability, as calculated in accordance with the child support formula, on a regular basis?
Moving on, the last three ‘headline statistics’ in the report actually are statistics:
- Over the course of 2013/14 41,000 children benefited from an effective family-based (or private) arrangement, secured after contact with Child Maintenance Options;
- 183,000 children have benefited in this way since the creation of the Child Maintenance Options service, in 2008; and
- 15 per cent of parents contacting Child Maintenance Options choose an effective family-based arrangement.
The important one here is surely the last: bare figures on their own mean nothing, but the percentage is a measure of success. And it is not particularly impressive. Just 15 per cent? I wouldn’t call that very successful at all, and certainly nothing for the government to shout about.
The statistic seems to bear out the fact that if parents are going to agree arrangements themselves then they are probably going to do so without reference to any government agency (or court, come to that), just as they always have done. The great flaw with the government’s policy is that no amount of advice or support from CM Options is likely to encourage recalcitrant parents to come to an agreement.
Photo by Wirawat Lian-udom via Flickr