“The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.”
– Milton Friedman
I wanted to say a few words about the recent report on the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) published by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, but I didn’t know where to start. The report, which looks at the CMS and the new child maintenance scheme, which were both introduced in 2012, covers a lot of ground, from the effect of the introduction of fees for using the service, to the CMS’s use of its enforcement powers, and much else besides.
In the end I decided that rather than deal with the specifics of the report, I would talk about the overall impression of the 2012 scheme that I am left with after reading the report.
Before I proceed, let’s just go back to the basics of the issue of child maintenance.
As I have said many times, child maintenance is not, and never was, a problem when it is sorted out by the parents. Cases in which the amount of maintenance is agreed and the absent parent pays that sum are not the concern of the family justice system (in its widest sense, including any government body that deals with child maintenance). The system has nothing to do with such cases, save perhaps for recording the agreement, usually in a court order.
Child maintenance is only an issue for the family justice system when the amount is not agreed, and when the maintenance, or the full amount of the maintenance, is not paid by the absent parent. The two primary tasks of the system, therefore, are to calculate how much should be paid, and to ensure that that sum is paid. It’s as simple as that.
Until the advent of the Child Support Agency (CSA) the issue of child maintenance was, of course, dealt with by the courts. However, the way the courts dealt with it was not perfect. There were considerable variations in how much different courts felt should be paid, and courts could be inefficient in enforcing payment. The government believed that it could do better, and therefore essentially transferred to issue of child maintenance away from the courts, to a separate agency set up to deal with it. The solution was at least as bad as the problem, with the CSA quickly gaining a reputation for gross inefficiency, and tens of thousands of children suffering the effects of financial hardship as a result.
Successive governments tinkered with the child support system, most particularly introducing a new scheme in 2003, but the problems wouldn’t go away. So when the Coalition government inherited those problems in 2010 it decided to implement a radical solution. The answer was the 2012 scheme, and the radical idea was this: if the child maintenance system doesn’t work, then rather than trying to fix it, simply encourage people not to use it.
It was a brilliant idea, playing on the fact that the system doesn’t need to worry about cases where parents sort things out themselves – the fact that the vast majority of those cases would never have been the concern of the system anyway being neither here nor there.
As the report explains, the idea behind the 2012 scheme was not the government’s, having been suggested by the Henshaw report back in 2006. As the report also explains, central to the idea was the introduction of fees for using the CMS, to encourage parties to agree their own child maintenance arrangements. In the government’s own words, the fees were “designed to act as an incentive for parents to collaborate, encouraging them to think again before automatically putting in an application to the Child Maintenance Service”.
So how has this great idea been working? The report gives several examples, but I will repeat just one, from a parent with care who paid her £20 application fee. She said:
“I paid my fee for them to work on my behalf, and was full of hope that my children would finally get some support financially from their father. Almost 12 months on, the only thing that has happened is that I have received a couple of letters, a few phone calls, and am £20 out of pocket, while my child’s father has paid not a penny.”
OK, so the odd failure may not tell us much. What of the wider picture? Has the 2012 scheme fulfilled the government’s promise “to support parents to reach their own arrangements wherever possible, with a new, efficient and effective statutory scheme providing a safety net where needed”? Just how many parents are sorting out their own arrangements, and how efficient is the CMS at dealing with the matter if they can’t?
At this juncture I could go on at great length about the failures of the CMS as cited in the report, but to keep this post within manageable proportions I will limit myself to a couple of points, one looking at the first of those two matters, the other looking at the second.
The report looks at the Department for Work and Pensions Survey of Child Support Agency Case Closure Outcomes, published in December last year. The survey examined what has happened in cases that were formerly dealt with by the CSA and have been closed. It found that three months after CSA case closure, only 18 per cent had an agreed maintenance arrangement in place, and that more than half, 56 per cent, were not even in the process of setting up any sort of arrangement. The report concludes in damning fashion:
“The foundation of the Government’s approach to child maintenance is to encourage separated parents to come to voluntary agreements where possible and, where such agreements are not possible, provide a statutory system as a safety net. It is apparent, however, that many families may be slipping through that net.”
So let’s have a look at that ‘safety net’. How good a job does it do? Well, one of the main areas of concern for the Committee was the crucial issue of enforcement. Once again, the report is scathing. It said:
“The CMS has extensive enforcement powers and can take action once a single payment is missed. It is, however, currently tentative in deploying those powers. This enables non-resident parents to get away with not making appropriate contributions to their children’s upbringing. It also signals to other non-resident parents that they may well be able to do the same. Faith in the statutory child maintenance system is fundamental to its effectiveness. The CMS ought to strike fear into would-be evaders of parental responsibility.”
In other words, the CMS is not only poor at enforcing payment, its inefficiency actually encourages non-payment. Wonderful. The new system is no better at one of its two primary tasks than the old system(s).
As I said, I could go on, but I won’t.
And yet, despite all of the report’s criticisms, I get the impression that the government’s child support policy is actually a success. Not that it is a success in the sense of doing a good job for parents with care and their children, but that it may be a success in the government’s main aim: to make it look like they are doing a good job. I have been following the tribulations of the child support/maintenance system since its inception, and over the years it has been the constant subject of huge and serious criticism in the mainstream media, making it a real thorn in the side of successive governments. But my impression since the 2012 scheme was brought in is that the regularity and ferocity of that criticism has subsided significantly. The media think that the scheme is working reasonably well, or at least that it is better than it was, and therefore less newsworthy.
I wonder how many users of the system agree with the media. Is the new system really better, or is it just a big con?
You can read the Child Maintenance Service report here.
Photo by I’m George via Flickr