The Child Maintenance Service (CMS), like its predecessor the Child Support Agency (CSA), is a regular target for criticism. I myself have been a frequent critic – see, for example, here and here. It is therefore interesting to get another view of the service, this time from the inside. And pretty damning it is too.
The inside view is from an anonymous caseworker at the CMS, published in an article in The Guardian on Saturday. I’m simply going to pick out some quotes from the article and say a few words about them, although they hardly really need any comment.
The article begins with the caseworker reminding us that when the CMS took over the poisoned chalice of running the child support maintenance system from the CSA in June 2014 the £20 charge for making an application to the Service was introduced. The article continues:
“My job as a caseworker is to help secure financial support for children whose parents have separated. I do my best, but I see hundreds of single-parent families with little to no savings get turned away, unable to access a public service even though they are the ones who need it most…”
And why are they turned away? The caseworker explains:
“Every family is different, but the only difference that the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] is interested in is whether or not they can afford to pay the access fee.”
And there is no flexibility: the caseworker explains that they are often asked by applicants whether the fee can be deducted from the first maintenance payment, or perhaps paid in instalments, but the answer is always ‘no’.
But if that seems callous, the caseworker has something much more damning to say about the attitude of the CMS:
“The turning point for me was when a manager towered over me and instructed me to terminate a call from a mother sobbing her heart out. The mother explained that her family had fallen apart and she had suffered a mental breakdown and had lost her job as a result. She begged me to waive the fee but my manager regarded that as simply “wasting time” while other applicants queued on the switchboard.”
As I said above, some of this really doesn’t need any comment, but I will sum up the very clear mind set of those running the CMS: We don’t care about people – we only care about money.
The caseworker then describes how:
“To this government’s shame, the £20 fee was charged to hundreds of survivors of domestic abuse earlier this year, despite it being explicit policy that they should be exempt.”
Thankfully, this is no longer the case, but it is pointed out that caseworkers do not always get the specialist training they require in working with domestic abuse survivors, or in how to spot the signs of financial coercion.
And finally the caseworker tells us of the “archaic computer system” that the CMS uses, which “has a chronic tendency to crash”. Now, I’ve been following the CSA/CMS since the introduction of the child support system a quarter of a century ago, and pretty well throughout that time there have been complaints that the computer system used is not fit for purpose. It really beggars belief that this is still the case after all those years. The caseworker explains that:
“Caseworkers are told to provide pointless log-off records to explain why they are logged out following system crashes. The irony is that filling out log-off records and being taken off the phones to explain systemic failures only wastes more valuable time that should be spent helping applicants. Every day hundreds of calls go unanswered or are lost partway through. It only adds to the frustration of the parents and staff alike.”
Good grief. It would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.
A system that fails the very people it is designed to help is, by definition, not fit for purpose. Child maintenance should be a lifeline for families suffering financial hardship, there to ensure that the children can grow up without the sort of deprivations caused by poverty. But those are the very families that can’t afford a £20 fee and who are therefore excluded from the system: “Every day I see parents who qualify for child maintenance get their applications rejected, simply because they are too impoverished to pay the fee” says the caseworker.
It’s all very well those in the cosy world of Westminster saying that money is short and that the fee is needed to pay for the system, but they simply have no appreciation of how difficult it can be for a parent in need to find the sum of £20. It may not seem like much when you regularly spend more than that on one round of drinks at the House of Commons bar, but in the real world it is a lot of money, which is actually needed for such essentials as food and clothes for the children.
And as for archaic computers and telephone calls unanswered or lost, words fail me.
Hopefully, a copy of Saturday’s Guardian may still be laying around in the House of Commons bar, and this article may yet be read by those in government responsible for the child support system. The trouble is, it really doesn’t seem that they care.
The full article can be read here