Last Thursday the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) published “Experimental statistics” relating to “Children Benefiting from an Effective Family-based Maintenance Arrangement Secured After Contacting Child Maintenance Options, GB – as of end of March 2015”. (I will look at what exactly constitutes an “effective family-based arrangement” in just a moment). The statistics proudly proclaim on their front page that “Over the year 2014/15 52,000 children benefited from an effective family-based arrangement, secured after contact with Child Maintenance Options” [their emboldening]. It all sounds so marvellous, indicating the success of the government’s efforts to reform the child support system, but just how impressive are the statistics?
OK, let’s first look at that term “effective family-based arrangements” (which I will now refer to by the DWP’s initialism ‘FBA’). Firstly, an FBA is a child maintenance arrangement which parents have agreed between themselves. The DWP define an ‘effective FBA’ as either:
- A regular financial arrangement where at least some of the agreed amount is always/usually received on time and 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 [I think the word ‘whether’ here should probably read ‘where’].
Now, we have of course been here before, and I (and others) was severely critical of the idea that a maintenance arrangement where only some of the agreed amount was paid should be deemed ‘effective’. The DWP seem to have responded to the criticism by adding the caveat that the parent with care (‘PWC’ – i.e. the recipient of the maintenance) should consider that the arrangement was working very, or at least fairly, well. Whilst this may be an improvement, I am still concerned that it is implicitly considered okay if the non-resident parent (‘NRP’ – i.e. the payer of the maintenance) doesn’t fulfil their obligations. There is also the issue of determining whether the PWC is happy with the arrangement – I may be missing something, but as far as I can see the DWP does not explain this in the notes that come with the statistics. I assume that the PWC is asked – the statistics are based upon a survey of a sample of users of Child Maintenance Options (‘CM Options’), but obviously some may feel pressured by the NRP into saying that they are happy not receiving the full entitlement, when they are not.
And so to the statistics themselves. What, in particular, does that 52,000 figure mean? I think the best way to measure it is shown in the table contained in the statistics giving details of the numbers of all child maintenance arrangement types, including effective FBAs, arrangements through the Child Support Agency/Child Maintenance Service, arrangements through the courts and, most tellingly, non-effective FBAs.
The table tells us that effective FBAs constitute just 20 per cent of all arrangement types, 50 per cent are through the CSA/CMS, 6 per cent are non-effective FBAs and in 23 per cent of cases there is no arrangement at all. Now, it doesn’t seem to me that 20 per cent is a particularly impressive figure, particularly in a system where FBAs are loudly touted as the best way to sort out your child maintenance arrangements. Still in half of all cases the PWC has to go to the CMS to sort out their arrangement, and in nearly a third of cases there is no or no effective arrangement.
Then there is the six per cent figure for non-effective FBAs. This means that even when you set the bar low as to what is an effective FBA, in nearly a quarter of the cases where CM Options is used the FBA is a failure. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the system.
The other main finding of the statistics is that CM Options has “maintained a steady performance despite a significant increase to the volume of customers accessing the service”. Looking at the graph for the number of children benefiting from an effective family-based arrangement secured though contact with CM Options since 2010, that would seem to be the case, although I did notice that the graph for 2014/15 does seem to have flattened during the year, suggesting that the number of people using the service may now have peaked.
To conclude, it does appear that the latest incarnation of the child support/maintenance system is rather more efficient than previous incarnations (not that that is saying much), but it has certainly not solved all of the problems, and we must be very wary of government attempts to persuade us that it is better than it actually is.
The full statistics are available here.