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Government spin on child maintenance fails to tell the whole story

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I do hate the way that all information emanating from government departments these days has to be ‘spun’ in order to show off the government’s policies in the best light. Long gone are the days when ‘raw information’ was simply published on its own, leaving the recipients to draw their own conclusions. Instead, information is used to tell us how marvellously well the government’s policies are doing. Even when they are not.

The latest example of spin came from the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’), in a press release published yesterday (these days we are not even immune from spin on a Sunday), telling us how ‘absent parents [are] now paying [child] maintenance cash at record levels’.

The press release is, I’m sure, a thing of beauty for the government, the DWP and Child Maintenance Minister Steve Webb. It gleefully tells us that:

“The number of absent parents who are now paying towards the cost of their children through the Child Support Agency (CSA) has hit an all-time high, thanks to tough enforcement rules now in place.”

And that:

“In the past 12 months, the CSA has helped collect and arrange more than £1.2 billion of payments, thanks to tougher enforcement action against parents who previously refused to pay, as well as vastly improved processes.”

All of this, it says:

“…marks an impressive turnaround for the body, which has drawn criticism in the past for the arrears that built up since its inception in 1993.”

As to existing arrears of child support maintenance payments we are confidently told that:

“The government has also made it clear that there are no plans for a wholesale write-off of CSA debt as old cases are closed.”

It all sounds so wonderful, doesn’t it? After all these years of the failure of successive governments’ policies for the child support maintenance system finally we have a government that is sorting out the mess and creating a system that really works well.

However, I suspect that when Steve Webb looked at the news on Sunday morning over his bowl of muesli he was not entirely happy with what he saw. Instead of wall-to-wall coverage exalting the success of his policies, there was a fly in the ointment. To coincide with the press release the BBC ran a story with the headline: “£2.9bn unpaid child maintenance ‘uncollectable’”.

The headline emanates from child maintenance accounts that the DWP itself published in December. These give details, amongst other things, of outstanding child maintenance arrears. The outstanding arrears as at 31 March 2014 were £3,992,543. Of those, the staggering sum of £2,917,052 was classified as ‘uncollectable’, i.e. neither ‘likely to be collected’ or ‘potentially collectable’.

And the figures have actually got worse during the watch of this government. The same accounts show that a year earlier the outstanding arrears were £3,853,347 and the ‘uncollectable’ figure was £2,701,708.

What was it the press release said? Oh yes, “there are no plans for a wholesale write-off of CSA debt”. Quite what else is to be done with debts that are not collectable, I would really like to know. Perhaps they will just be passed on to the next government, which will then have the problem of spinning the issue away.

Photo by Guy Fawkes via Flickr

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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