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Commons committee highlights problems with current working of Child Maintenance Service

Fees may be deterring pursuit of child maintenance

On 2 May 2017 the Commons Work and Pensions Committee published its report on the Child Maintenance Service

The Committee has found that the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), introduced in 2012, has problems, "as with any new scheme", that need to be addressed, and some with urgency.

Transition to the new scheme
The committee recommends that case histories of prolonged under-payment of child maintenance be transferred automatically from the Child Support Agency (CSA) to CMS. In instances where the CSA case included ongoing enforcement action, parents with care should be permitted to opt to be placed immediately in the Collect and Pay scheme, which administers payments, on joining the CMS.

Fees for use of the CMS
The 2012 scheme introduced fees designed to encourage parents to collaborate rather than necessarily relying on assistance from the CMS. Some parents who need support cannot, however, afford the £20 CMS application fee and may instead give up on pursuing maintenance payments altogether. It is recommended that CMS applicants on means tested benefits be exempt from the £20 application fee. Furthermore, the committee finds it difficult to justify charging an application fee to parents with care to transition legacy cases with a prolonged history of non-payment, especially as such cases appear a low priority for enforcement. Separate fees charged to both parents for using Collect and Pay are discouraging some parents who require the service.

Victims of abuse
There is a high prevalence of histories of domestic abuse in the statutory child maintenance caseload. The committee has welcomed the waiver of the £20 fee for domestic abuse survivors but further changes are required to make the system safe and effective for survivors of domestic abuse and, ultimately, their children. All frontline CMS staff should be given training on identifying and understanding domestic abuse and that parents with care in registered cases of domestic violence, or when it has been identified by CMS staff, should be able to proceed directly to the Collect and Pay service without charges.

Slipping through the net
A high proportion of former CSA cases have not entered the CMS or been resolved by effective family-based arrangements. Families in these circumstances are disproportionately likely to be in the most vulnerable groups. The committee is concerned that many single parent families are simply slipping through the safety net. While amicable separations are typically self-managed, parents seeking the assistance of the state are likely to be those struggling to access support for their children. The CMS must seek to assist those families in difficulty. Monitoring must be improved to establish the extent to which parents are adequately supported in making child maintenance choices and whether incentives intended to result in better support for children are in fact having the opposite effect.

Too many non-resident parents get away with prioritising second families, or worse still themselves, over children from a previous relationship. It is recommended that the DWP clearly set out the criteria it uses for prioritising the collection of arrears, including any time or value thresholds, and how it intends to approach and resource tackling each category of arrears. Parents with care should be informed if their arrears-only case will not be pursued.

The CMS is tentative in deploying its extensive enforcement 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. The CMS ought to strike fear into would-be evaders of parental responsibility and must take a stronger approach to enforcement. The committee recommends that the CMS adopt a presumption in favour of enforcement action when a payment has been missed, and proceed unless there is either evidence of a valid reason why or a credible reparative payment plan is in place.

Child maintenance cheats
Unfortunately a minority of parents want to avoid paying fair child maintenance. Some use self-employment loopholes, creative accounting or fraudulent tax returns in order to do so. The committee recommends that, when an application for an assets or lifestyle variation has been made and a tribunal or court ordered higher maintenance payments than would arise from a standard CMS calculation, the higher payments should apply until the variation is dismissed. It is further recommended that a small HMRC investigation team be embedded in the Financial Investigations Unit to work in tandem with the CMS, given the shared interest: child maintenance cheats are very often tax cheats too.

Gingerbread has welcomed the report. Rosie Ferguson, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, commented on the findings:

"For decades, the children of single parents have been denied the financial support that they need, and today's findings show that the government still has a long way to go to tackle this social injustice. This report acts as an effective blueprint for the building of a fairer, more effective child maintenance system. We hope that it will receive the serious cross-party support it deserves, and we look forward to the establishment of a stakeholder group to keep up the pressure on behalf of single parents."

The report can be found here.