I think it is putting it mildly to say that the issue of actually recovering child maintenance from non-resident parents has been the bane of the child support maintenance system ever since it was introduced in 1993, when the ill-fated Child Support Agency (CSA) was launched. It was reported back in March that an eye-watering £3.8 billion of child maintenance was then uncollected. Any initiative to recover even some of those staggering arrears must therefore be a good thing.
Now, just like the proverbial London bus, two such initiatives have arrived at once.
The first in time was a trial of the ‘proactive use of part payment in full and final satisfaction for arrears owed to parents with care’. Hmm. Well, I suppose anything is worth a try. The trial, which ran from November 2015 until July 2016, involved CSA case workers contacting parents to see if an agreement could be reached whereby the parent with care (PWC) would accept a lesser sum in satisfaction of the arrears, and the non-resident parent (NRP) would pay that sum. The trial was split into two: one group in which the PWC was contacted first, and one group in which the NRP was contacted first. There was also a ‘control’ group of cases where no contact was made, to compare how much arrears were recovered by ‘normal’ means.
The result of the trial was disappointing, if not entirely surprising. The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) report on the trial concludes:
“The approach taken here to proactively discuss with clients the option of part payment in full and final settlement is not an efficient method to recover arrears on CSA cases. There was no significant difference in either the number of cases with payments, or the amount paid per case, between cases that were in the part payment groups (PWC first and NRP first groups) and the control group. Assessing cases for their suitability for part payment and attempting to contact suitable clients to discuss part payment is therefore not cost effective.”
To explain that last sentence, the trial cost the DWP £307,000. The Executive Summary to the report is revealing:
“The low rate of payment was due to a large number of cases being unsuitable for proactive discussions of part payment, unsuccessful contact for many clients, as well as refusal of part payment.
“However, in a third of cases where parents with care were called first, the parent with care wanted the arrears owed to them written off, rather than further action taken to attempt to collect the debt.”
As to the first paragraph, one wonders whether the DWP were guilty of a certain degree of naivety in carrying out the trial at all. The sort of NRP who refuses to maintain their child is, almost by definition, a difficult person to deal with. It is hardly surprising that they are not prepared to enter into reasonable discussions, are not prepared to pay anything, and that the PWC sees no point in attempting to negotiate with them. Which brings me to my last point regarding the trial: the extremely sad second paragraph. Some PWCs are so fed up with the whole thing that they would rather have the debt written off than waste any more of their time on it. A sad indictment of the failure of the child support system (not to mention the failure of so many NRPs to take any responsibility for the maintenance of their children).
Moving on, the second initiative is the launching of a consultation by the DWP “on options to give the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) stronger compliance, collection and enforcement methods to make sure parents are meeting their responsibilities towards their children.” The consultation proposals include:
- removing passports – parents who persistently do not pay the child maintenance they owe could face being banned from holding or obtaining a UK passport for up to 2 years;
- improved calculations – income from capital, foreign income, notional income from assets and unearned income could all be taken into account when the CMS works out how much maintenance a parent owes; and
- deductions from business accounts – the CMS could seize funds from sole trader and partnership accounts to pay off a parent’s unpaid maintenance bill.
The consultation also outlines proposals to address historic unpaid child maintenance built up under the old CSA, and options for writing it off. The consultation closes on 8 February 2018. Pre-Xmas brain death (OK, I stayed out late one night) prevents me at this time from being able to give the proposals the proper consideration they clearly deserve. I may do that at a later date, failing which I’m sure that I’ll return to the matter when the consultation outcome is published (the consultation is to inform the government’s new child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy, which the DWP aims to publish in 2018).