One would have hoped that, 25 years since its inception, the child support/maintenance system would at last have evolved into something that worked smoothly and did not require constant monitoring. Sadly, the history of the system has shown it staggering from one crisis to another, despite the almost continual tinkering by successive governments, desperate to make it work. Consequentially, it has been necessary to keep the system under almost constant scrutiny, checking to see whether its various parts are working as intended (usually not).
Now the system is coming under scrutiny from not one but two sources: the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Both are of course looking primarily at the working of the latest incarnation of the child maintenance system, with the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which replaced the Child Support Agency, administering the current 2012 child maintenance scheme.
To briefly recap for the uninitiated, the 2012 scheme differs from previous schemes in a number of ways. In particular, the scheme only directly deals with cases in which parents cannot agree child maintenance arrangements, it uses the non-resident’s gross income figure (usually obtained from HM Revenue and Customs) to calculate the amount of child maintenance and, last but not least, it requires the payment of fees, for applying to the CMS, for asking the CMS to collect the maintenance and for requesting the CMS to take enforcement action if the maintenance is not paid.
The Work and Pensions Committee has recently launched an inquiry into the CMS and its effectiveness in ensuring regular payments for children, and will consider recommendations to improve the service overall. The reasons for the inquiry have been set out by the Committee’s Chair, Frank Field MP, and other members of the Committee. Frank Field points out that “The current maintenance system appears to be failing parents in receiving regular payments, demonstrated through the level of outstanding of arrears, which stands at £4 billion.”
Committee member Heidi Allen MP said:
“…a group of my constituents drew to my attention concerns with receiving regular payments. In such cases, the Child Maintenance Service have a range of options for taking enforcement action, from contacting non-paying parents to legal enforcement, but the time to get results can be very lengthy. The fact that some cases rely on legal enforcement suggests that the system is not fully effective in ensuring regular and timely payments. Our inquiry plans to look at weaknesses in the old CSA system, particularly around self-employed parents, and assess whether the new CMS can deliver an improved outcome for parents and children.”
And Committee member Steve McCabe MP described how he was really concerned about the recent report from single parent charity Gingerbread, which revealed that there is millions of pounds missing in child maintenance payments, which he said “is unlikely ever to be recovered as a result of the introduction of the Child Maintenance Service.”
The inquiry is to be extremely wide-ranging. The Committee is inviting submissions on points including how well the CMS is performing, whether levels of child maintenance are set correctly, how effective enforcement action is, what will happen to all of the arrears owed, and even whether there is any international evidence on ways of ensuring parents regularly contribute to their children’s maintenance payments. If you wish to make a written submission you can do so here. Be quick, though – the deadline for making submissions is Monday 5 September.
The aim of the DWP is much more focussed. It is conducting a ‘30 month review’ on the impact of the child maintenance charges mentioned above, as part of its Child Maintenance Reforms Evaluation Strategy. The review is required to take place by December 2016 (although is likely to be published in early 2017), and was a response to the considerable disquiet among peers and MPs in 2012 about charging parents, particularly parents with care. The DWP has recently invited written views/evidence on the impact of charges from external groups, covering the following matters:
What is the impact of:
- The application fee on the applicant?
- The on-going charges on the paying parent?
- The on-going charges on the receiving parent?
How well is Direct Pay [whereby the non-resident parent pays the maintenance direct to the parent with care] working (awareness, how it is working in practice etc):
- How is it affecting victims of domestic violence?
- What is the impact of direct pay on the receiving parent?
- What is the impact of direct pay on paying parent?
Photo by Richard Perry via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.