Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye, and sometimes it’s not so hard…
Last week the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) published the latest summary of quarterly statistics on the progress of the Child Support Agency (‘CSA’) child support schemes, to December 2018. The summary was very brief, but one of the statistics was quite significant.
But first a short explanation, for the benefit of those sensible enough (or lucky enough) to have had nothing to do with the CSA.
The CSA was established in 1993 to administer the then new child support scheme, which was effectively to replace the role of the courts in determining the amount of, and enforcing the payment of, child maintenance. There have actually been three child support schemes. That first, 1993, scheme was replaced by the 2003 scheme, which in turn was replaced by the present 2012 scheme. The 2012 scheme is administered by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’), which replaced the CSA. Since then, CSA cases have been run down, as cases have been closed and new cases dealt with by the CMS.
OK, so what was significant about the statistics? Well the summary informed us that before the end of December the on-going liability (i.e. requirement to pay child maintenance) was ended on all CSA cases. So the CSA is no longer required to collect on-going child support maintenance. Sadly, this does not quite mean the end of the CSA, as it still has arrears to collect on its cases, more of which in a moment, but we are at last approaching the end of its sorry story.
So why will the CSA not be missed? Well, where to start? Perhaps with its delays in making and enforcing maintenance assessments? Or maybe its errors in making assessments? Or the interminable issues with its IT system? Well, yes, all of those, which caused endless misery, frustration and hardship for those dealing with the agency, or affected by its hopeless endeavours.
But the big issue was those arrears, which were of utterly staggering proportions. As the DWP itself noted back in December 2017:
“Significant policy, operational and IT issues beset the 1993 and 2003 schemes [i.e. the schemes administered by the CSA] which contributed to the build-up of considerable arrears of unpaid maintenance – currently £3.7bn of this debt is outstanding. Of this, a minimum of £2.5bn is owed to parents (approximately 970,000 cases) and £1.2bn is classed as owed to government (approximately 320,000 cases) … The published CSA Client Fund Accounts for 2015/16 make clear that £3.1bn of CSA debt is deemed uncollectable.”
Just let that sink in. Three point seven billion pounds worth of debt. Of which three point one billion is uncollectable. Remember, we are talking about the maintenance of children. How many children have suffered as a result of financial hardships caused by the ineffectiveness of the CSA? No, I will not shed a tear when the CSA is finally consigned to the scrapheap of history.
The big question, of course, is whether the CMS is any better. Or, more to the point, whether the current, 2012, incarnation of the child support scheme is an improvement over its forebears.
Well, it’s pretty much impossible to make a direct comparison. And that is exactly how the government wanted it to be. When it came up with the 2012 scheme the government very cleverly shifted much of the responsibility for dealing with the issue of child maintenance from the state on to parents. Parents are now encouraged to deal with it themselves, with the threat of having to pay significant fees for the privilege of something that was previously free: having the state deal with it for you.
This means that the workload of the CMS is a fraction of what the CSA used to deal with. Which obviously means that complaints about the CMS will be fewer, and the amount of arrears accrued under its administration will be less. In other words, the government specifically designed the current scheme to reduce the huge number of complaints about the child support service, which had embarrassed so many previous governments.
Whether the new scheme and the CMS is actually an improvement is a moot point. Certainly, it is far from perfect. For example, the fees have caused hardship, parents caring for children have preferred to settle for less rather than use the service, and there have still been significant arrears, although nothing like on the previous scale.
So I am not exactly happy about the current system. But that will not make me hanker after the old one.
You can read the full statistics summary here.