Child Maintenance Options: success or failure?

family life

The ‘flagship’ idea behind the government’s reform of the child support/maintenance system is, of course, to encourage more couples to sort out arrangements between themselves, thereby saving the state the expense of doing it for them, via the new Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’).

As part of the reform the Child Maintenance Options (‘CM Options’) service became the ‘mandatory gateway’ (why must everything have a ‘gateway’ these days?) to accessing the CMS, meaning that parents must talk to CM Options first, before they are able to access the CMS. Accordingly, it was particularly interesting to see the Department for Work and Pensions release a statistical report last Friday detailing numbers of children benefitting from ‘family-based’ (i.e. agreed) child maintenance arrangements after their parents (or, presumably, one of them) contacted CM Options.

Now, before I go any further I should explain that the statistics are ‘experimental’, i.e. they are still ‘undergoing a period of development and review’ and may therefore be revised in future editions. Quite why we have to have experimental statistics these days for things that aren’t obviously urgent, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I assume that the figures in the final edition of the statistics, whenever that is published, will not be hugely different from those in this edition.

There are six ‘headline statistics’ set out at the beginning of the report, and I want to go through them in turn.

The first two ‘headline statistics are easy to deal with, as they aren’t statistics at all. The first reads:

“The Department for Work and Pensions’ strategic objective around child maintenance is to ensure the maximum number of children who live apart from one or both parents benefit from an effective maintenance arrangement through private or statutory means.”

Which I think anyone with a modicum of intelligence could have guessed, and the second ‘statistic’ adds to this by telling us that:

“Child Maintenance Options contributes towards this objective by providing a free and impartial advice service that offers parents information on different ways to accomplish this.”

OK, now we have that out of the way, the next ‘headline statistic’ is also not a statistic, but at least tells us something useful about the report:

“Effectiveness of Child Maintenance Options is measured through regular in-house surveys whose results are reported in this publication.”

Obviously, if we are to measure the effectiveness of CM Options then we need to know how they measure ‘success’. The above doesn’t explain much, but later in the report we are told that an effective ‘family based arrangement’ for the purposes of this research is defined as either:

  • A regular financial arrangement where at least some of the agreed amount is always/usually received on time and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well; or
  • An ad hoc arrangement which includes a financial element (or transaction in kind e.g. school uniform) and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well.

Hmm, not a particularly high bar. OK, I suppose if the parent is happy then we should all be happy, but surely complete success should only be where the non-resident parent pays the full amount of their liability, as calculated in accordance with the child support formula, on a regular basis?

Moving on, the last three ‘headline statistics’ in the report actually are statistics:

  • Over the course of 2013/14 41,000 children benefited from an effective family-based (or private) arrangement, secured after contact with Child Maintenance Options;
  • 183,000 children have benefited in this way since the creation of the Child Maintenance Options service, in 2008; and
  • 15 per cent of parents contacting Child Maintenance Options choose an effective family-based arrangement.

The important one here is surely the last: bare figures on their own mean nothing, but the percentage is a measure of success. And it is not particularly impressive. Just 15 per cent? I wouldn’t call that very successful at all, and certainly nothing for the government to shout about.

The statistic seems to bear out the fact that if parents are going to agree arrangements themselves then they are probably going to do so without reference to any government agency (or court, come to that), just as they always have done. The great flaw with the government’s policy is that no amount of advice or support from CM Options is likely to encourage recalcitrant parents to come to an agreement.

Photo by Wirawat Lian-udom via Flickr

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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10 comments

Yvie - December 15, 2014 at 5:47pm

Why shouldn’t parents be encouraged to work together. What business is it of the State as to how much one parent owes the other – or as John puts it ‘the measurement of success is when the non-resident pays the full amount of their liability’. And what would that be, and who should decide what the full amount is? Certainly it can be defined fairly easily if a father has no input into the lives of his children. A set percentage of his salary would seem appropriate, allowing for living expenses, and collected by child maintenance options if needs be. However, many fathers share care of their children or are already totally involved in the lives and expense of their children by choice. It can often cost them as much, if not more, than the it costs the mother. And that is before child maintenance is taken into account. Both parents on separation have to provide a home for themselves and in the case of shared residence, for the children also. The mother has the added luxury of child benefit, child tax credit and often working tax family credit, a State hand-out which the father does not receive,. Most fathers do not want their children to traipse between two homes carrying a plastic bag full of clothes, so for the comfort of his children, will ensure that a full set of clothes is available for the children to change into. This is an added but very necessary expense. Many dads are single parfents on low incomes, yet their ex. partners could be working and earning a lot more money than the ‘payer’ – yet the income of both parents is not taken into account, just the income of the father. I hope child maintenance options does not turn out to be as rigid and blinkered as the CSA, but will attempt to encourage both parents to work together to achieve a fair and realistic amount of child maintenance taking into account the living costs of both.

mandirule - December 15, 2016 at 2:40pm

And how in my case am I expected to go through this polava when my ex avoided csa itself in the first place returned letters saying he wasn’t at any addresses that was provided they took out a deduction from earnings order then he kidnapped my kids to avoid paying maintenance now I ain’t spoke to him and he’s not bothered with my children I don’t even know his whereabouts so I’m being told I’ve got to stay all over again which is stress I cannot put my self or my kids through this man made me lose my whole family for 5 yrs and teared my world apart how the hell am I expected to sort out neatural arrangement

Max - January 14, 2015 at 1:51pm

I was contacted by CMO. They also contacted my estranged husband. I had high hopes that, after a year of no contribution for our 4 children, CMO would sort the matter out. Unfortunately my hopes were dashed when I was awarded the basic level of just £7.00 per week (not per child but in total) as he had only declared £49.86 per week to the tax man. I spoke to CMO to explain to them that his lifestyle was inconsistent with his income but they have no recourse other than to advise me to report him for tax fraud. Individual advisors were sympathetic to my plight and could plainly see that no would would go to work for the small amount of money he claimed to earn as he would have been better off claiming JSA but sympathy and common sense does not translate into any action on their part. I am guessing the tax man will take years to look into his affairs, so in the meantime 4 small children will grow up in poverty even though I work long hours to try to provide for them. On the flip side my new partner has been paying £700 per month for his one child. He has paid his ex a lump sum of £90,000 recently so dropped child support to £450 per month. He was immediately contacted by CMO and ordered to pay £500 per month. As he had paid £450 just days before they called him he thought he could top it up by £50.00 for that month but they said anything he had paid before their involvement did not count. He must pay the full £500 on top making this months payment £950. The moral of the story, if you are decent and honest you will be penalised but if you are an absent parent with no intention of supporting your children then there isnothing they can do.

John - November 29, 2015 at 12:57pm

Unfortunately Max you hit the nail on the head. Yes, in this country the government and “Authorities” play on peoples weakness and vulnerabilities. If you are honest and willing to pay they will rip you apart. However, I still cannot see what business it is of the local authorities or Government to get involved in your personal and private family life and affairs. Maybe they do because they know if they get involved they can make money out of divorced parents? 😉 However, there is in fact no LAW in this country that states you MUST pay. It is not a LAW, it is just an act of parliament and legislation. ooh, that’s an argument for another day I think 🙂

Luke - November 29, 2015 at 11:41pm

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Hmm, not a particularly high bar. OK, I suppose if the parent is happy then we should all be happy…
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Another reiteration of your truly bizarre and frankly bonkers position on this John, if both parents are happy why the _____ does the “bar” have to be higher ?
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How patronising that you think ‘the great and the good’ should be concerned with such a situation…

H - February 16, 2016 at 11:14am

Having sorted out an agreement with cmo last year they have gone back on our agreement now they have finally caught up with the father of my children. After years of messing the CSA around he will be given another chance to do it again as his slate has been wiped clean. So to add insult to injury I have to now provide him with my personal bank details and let him sort it out! Thats like saying let him violate me again, just hand him the info and you will be paid as he assured us verbally he would! He doesn’t want the burden of his children. CMO will only intervene if he misses a payment. Was told today they want to encourage parents to talk, when you are a victim of domestic violence the last thing you want to do is to have contact with your abuser.

Kirsty - July 21, 2016 at 11:25am

Absolute waste of space the lot of them are….went down the route end of May where by he was given a calculation to pay, received nothing for them to say they need my bank details sent them over straight away! (Nobody told me this when they took my £20!) 8 weeks in and still no payment on his half all I get from them is ‘2 weeks’ we have to give him ‘2 weeks’ they know his had my bank details for weeks, were now going the direct payment route, but again we have to give him 2 weeks! It’s almost like they want him to build a massive arrears so they can gt a decent share of it when they take their percent!!!! Absolutely fuming….they’ve still not been in touch with him or sent a letter asking where my sons payments are?! Abolish the lot of it!!!!

SR - April 6, 2017 at 11:13am

I am so so unhappy with this service
Case workers are waste of time
Not enough notes are left for the other agent taking the call to follow through . I found them to be incompetent. My ex partner told me money has being taken out of his account every week. He thinks they are taking a big payment so they can earn interest on it. It’s hard to have an agreement with my ex because he plays up all the time which means I will have to start all over again. Payments are due on the 19th of each month
First payment due January 19th
Received 6th of Feb
Still waiting on Feb and March payments
I’ve made several call’s and not seems to be getting anywhere my Son has missed 2 school trips because those payments weren’t payed on time.
Please someone advice me as to what step to take next.
The money has being paid in and not being sent out to me
They are in breach
Thanks

L - August 3, 2017 at 12:26pm

lets give all the parents without care a fresh chance to NOT support the children they have!
the child maintenance service are no help at all and their system is a sham.
When my case first started my childrens father was on benefits so payments were usually made (i had to have a direct pay set up despite a court injuntion being in place he does have contact with children obviously) within six months he was working so i informed the right people. he denied it anx continued paying low rate. i complained so suddenly they got off their bums and investigated so was awarded slightly higher with arears.
i was then informed by a friend that fir 4 mnths he had been working elsewhere earning a lot more, i informed cms and they investigated and once again he denied it. Fast forward another 4 months after multiple emails and phonecalls cms tells me that back in april he didnt actually deny it he just didnt reply or send proof and they just left it at some low award. they say theyll write again and hopefully he will reply!!!! they still will not use an atatchment of earnings because he is paying something. so the cms idea of success is parents getting off with paying as little as possible and thinking that keeps us parents with care happy. obviously this is the paying parents fault but when we pay them to help us we expect a service

yvie - August 3, 2017 at 6:15pm

No reflection on anyone commenting on this thread, but I have come to the conclusion that it should be illegal for any government body to remove money from a father’s bank account without first confirming that he is indeed the father of the child, This should mean a mandatory DNA test instigated by the child maintenance service and the results given to both parents before payment is taken.

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