“The aim of the CM reforms is to encourage and support more families to make their own collaborative arrangements and to deliver a more efficient and effective statutory service to those who really need it. This is delivered by promoting the financial responsibilities that parents have for their children and by providing information and support about the different child maintenance options that are available through CM Options.”
So says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in its latest quarterly release of statistics for “children benefiting from an effective family-based maintenance arrangement secured after contacting Child Maintenance Options”, as of the end of December 2015.
For the benefit of those who don’t know, Child Maintenance Options (usually reduced to ‘CM Options’) was set up in 2008 to “provide free impartial information and support to help parents make informed choices about child maintenance”. However, its function has changed subtly but significantly since then. Whereas initially it was a service that you could choose whether or not to use, now contacting it is mandatory if you wish to make an application to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) for a statutory child maintenance arrangement. In other words, CM Options is part of the government’s policy to encourage people not to use the government body that deals with child maintenance/support applications (now the CMS, formerly the Child Support Agency).
The statistical release was published on 20 April. Somewhat confusingly, on 27 April the DWP published further statistics relating to child maintenance, this time experimental statistics for the 2012 CMS scheme. To add to the confusion, this second set of statistics is described as quarterly, but covers the period from August 2013 (essentially when the 2012 scheme opened) to February 2016.
I don’t propose to go through any of the statistics in either release here (if you are interested, links to the two releases can be found at the end of this post). In fact, I am not actually sure I care about the statistics, for the simple reason that I don’t trust the motivation behind them. Statistics such as these should be entirely impartial, but I just feel that these are just being produced by the government with the specific aim of painting a rosy picture of how well the government’s reforms to the child support/maintenance system are working. To put it bluntly, it is all just spin.
Let us go back to that quote at the beginning of this post:
“The aim of the CM reforms is to encourage and support more families to make their own collaborative arrangements and to deliver a more efficient and effective statutory service to those who really need it.”
We have to remember the debacle that came before the CMS. Ever since the government of the day had the bright idea to do away with child maintenance through the courts and introduce a separate child support maintenance system, that system has been a continual embarrassment for all succeeding governments. It has been an ugly running sore: totally failing many of the children it was intended to help, and running up billions of pounds in unrecoverable arrears in the progress. Those succeeding governments tried to do something about the problem that they inherited, but their efforts to make the system work made little or no difference.
So, what was the current government to do to avoid similar embarrassment? The answer was there all along. What do all politicians do to make themselves and their policies look good? Why, turn to the spin doctor, of course. Don’t worry about whether a system is any good – that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the system looks good, or at least a lot better than the failed system that preceded it.
Knowing that it was nigh on impossible to come up with a child support maintenance system that actually worked, the government decided instead to come up with a system that appears to do the job, but actually doesn’t do much at all for a huge number of parents seeking financial support for their children. Those parents now have to do their best to sort things out themselves, rather than having the system do it for them. It’s a great wheeze too, and one that I fear may be working: certainly, you don’t see the same kind of ‘failing child support system’ headlines these days as you used to.
And all of these statistics are just part of the same system of smoke and mirrors. They say: “Aren’t we doing well? The number of children benefitting under the new scheme is increasing, and the amount of arrears is nothing like it used to be!” Well, no, but that’s because you’re dealing with far fewer cases than you used to, as I have explained here previously.
It’s all a bit like the family justice system since the legal aid cuts. Whereas before we had a system that was there for all, now for many people there really isn’t much of a system at all. It’s every man for himself, with many, including the children, suffering as a result. Still, as long as the voter thinks the government is doing a good job, that’s all that matters.