Is the government’s child support policy just a con?

child support

“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.”

Ouch.

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

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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18 comments

Andrew - May 9, 2017 at 8:24pm

“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.”

And as I keep saying: No, it is not as simple as that. Many NRPs are multiple debtors and any solution has to recognise the claims of other creditors. It is just plain wrong to arm one creditor with the powers of the State and threaten the debtor with loss of passport, driving licence, and liberty for not preferring that creditor over others.
_
The first two of those powers are no real use, and the third is wrong in principle; imprisonment for civil debt is a servile notion. It should be abolished for all those categories of debt for which it is still available.

Jo Archer - May 9, 2017 at 9:05pm

I, too, read the report and can reveal that far from having any sort of policy to enforce the payment of arrears over a threshold of, say, £500 the CMS has so far proved itself incapable of starting enforcement proceedings against one parent who owes the other precisely £34,522.32, at this moment – and growing.

spinner - May 9, 2017 at 9:18pm

At least we are not having to pay for lawyers and judges to resolve these issues as that £20 she has spent wouldn’t pay for two minutes with a lawyer and in reality each case would cost minimum say £1000 for the lawyers and judges time, multiply that by the number of number of women making claims and you can see why it’ never going to go back.

The system of enforcement needs to improve although while there is a lack of enforcement with child arrangement orders can you really blame fathers for begrudging paying for children a court has ordered they can have contact with but the mother decides otherwise and nothing happens to her.

Paul - May 10, 2017 at 9:23am

Its a con. It does not work for the same reasons family law does not work. It treats all men as irrisponsible criminals from the outset. I have been dealing with the CSA now for years. They have made so many mistakes blunders and miscalculations I have a folder 3″ thick of letters. They have lied to me, they have stollen from me, they have threatened me. An now they inform me that a third of what i am paying will not go to my children. It will be charges which go to the CSA. (CMS if you like, but I know what they are). Over my dead body.
And I mean that literally. In all the years I have dealt with them I have never had a call from these people asking if I would like to set up a payment for child support. If I could set up a payment plan by bank transfer or standing order.Just ask me in a civilised manor. Just ask. Its not alot to ask is it? They threatened me and treated me like an evader from the start. I told my ex to go to the CSA so i knew I would be paying the right amount and so we did not have to argue about it. Biggest mistake of my life. From step one they have threatened me with calculations which I could not afford if I wanted too. The figures which are used are always rediculous. I’ll use the latest one as an example. I work 20 hours and earn £600 a month. They have just threatened to take £64 per week. Is that not frightening ? They made this treat/calculation AFTER i had already supplied them with 3 months wages slips and a copy of my contract. They still can’t get it right and yet have the power to take this money straight from my wages.
Now have to PAY THEM for this level of incompetance. NO CHANCE !
I am 100% happy to pay for my kids. If they send me a REALISTIC amount to pay.
I will not pay them a penny for there service because it is appauling. I will sleep under a card board box first. An it may yet come to that.
Its worth saying alao that I am perfectly willing to negociate a settlement with my expartner. I am happy to do that to avoid paying these CMS scum bags. But it is my EX partner who will not co-opperate. She is an alienating parent who has ended contact by stopping communication. If I called her she would call the police and claim harassment. She is the one unwilling to talk or agree a settlement so why is she not the one receiving the charges ?
There is no way for me to avoid these CMS charges because she is been unreasonable. She is using this service to finacially punish me. She has a partner working full time. My children are not poor. It is nothing to do with money or looking after my children. She is a manipulator and she is using this service to continually punish me. She has stopped me from seeing my kids for 2 years and it is devostating. The worst thing about this proccess is that it keeps rewarding the person who has continually been unreasonable. The proccess both family law and CMS is completely sexist and it does not listen to men. It treats all men as criminals.

Brian - May 10, 2017 at 4:23pm

What you earned, I paid for as child maintenance for years. I can never understand how the state works out how much a child “needs” based on a nrp’s income when it pays child allowance at a set rate per child regardless of NI contributions by the parents! As for your ex…she sounds like a narcissist. I’m seeing a pattern now in protracted litigation in family matters, one party (usually the respondent) shows the traits of a narcissist!

Jo Archer - May 10, 2017 at 5:08pm

The child is entitled to a similar standard of living as its parents – so his/her ‘needs’ don’t really come into it. Most parents do everything they can for their children, without being asked – never mind ordered to do it.

Brian - May 10, 2017 at 5:36pm

Which parent’s standard of living? The silver spoon stamdard of the resident parent or the hovel standard of the paying parent? How about the standard in between which, if one is not so self absorbed to lower themselves to is the one most paying parents I.e. fathers aspire to have accommodated. Don’t talk to me of ‘standards’ when I had old carpets for 15 years and a CRT tv andy ex had new carpets every 4 years amd a hd tv upgrade every 4 years whilst she was on benefits and I was a 36k earner!!!

Paul - May 11, 2017 at 1:41am

As I said Jo. I am perfectly happy to pay for my children. Im not paying for the bungleing CSA. I dont think the way she has treated the father of her kids should be rewarded with a bankrolled life stlye. I can’t go to work if I can’t eat. Im very happy that my kids dont share my living standard because when the CSA payment comes out i will be off to a food bank.
I was paying by a personal agreement but everytime i went to the door she would demand more money ‘They washer machines broken I need more money this week’. I realised I could not afford this so I told her to go to the CSA. So I know exactly what i should be paying. No more arguments on the door step.
She had all my details. I waited a week. No phone call. I called the CSA. Hi i beleive my ex has made a claim can i start paying please? Sorry no, you have to wait till it is proccessed.
I don’t want to get in arrears.
Month later. This is shocking this, phoned them up again. ‘Hello CSA. My ex has made a claim for maintainance I have my card in my hand im read to set up payment and start paying.’ – i’m sorry, we can just set a payment up like that you will have to wait for it to be proccessed. I said could you hurry up please I don’t want to make massive back payments.
It took them TWO YEARS TO GET IN TOUCH. I had over £4000 in arrears to pay back. Which I did. They kept sending me calculations which were wrong or utterly unrealistic for six months after that.
This is how they treat a parent who was ready and willing to pay.
This is what I am trying to convey to you.
People who are calling for more enforcement power and more ruthless collecting simply do not understand how incompetant they are. They are blundering, incompetant to the extent people are left destitute and suicidal. Over 3000 people who have commited suicide quoting the CSA as a reason. There is a document on line called the book of the dead which names all these people. They are utterly unaccountable too.
Most of the men who they deal with want to make payments and want them to facilitate it in a decent manor. But they don’t. They are idiots…
As for people who are self employed or avoiding paying.
THEY CAN’T EVEN FIND THEM…
Don’t take my word for it. Please take the time to read the horror storys on a nice website called CSAHELL.
Please open your eyes.
(*Comment edited – our moderation policy is here)

Paul - May 11, 2017 at 1:59am

There is a very clear patern my freind. Websites like Gingerbread and mums net are teaching these mums how to ‘ditch daddy’ they even provide template letters how to claim ‘domestic abuse’ ect to get free legal aid. It all adds up to a very depressing future if you are a man.
The really sad thing about it is there are some fantastic fathers out their. Fathers doing the school run, the nappies everything but breast feeding really. You walk down any street in the UK and men are pushing prams and push chairs. Its like they have really embraced change.
Yet the law still sees them as expendible extras.
I don’t think this is right at all.

Paul - May 10, 2017 at 10:03am

Once again this completely misses some very important perspectives. Putting the kids first is a noble sentiment but it stops you from designing a successful maintainance system. You need to consider the perspective of men who have to pay child support. Also the impact of child support on employers and employees. For me I find it totally demotivates me. Work becomes pointless. We are capitalists and people work for financial rewards. If you get no financial rewards then why would you work? It fuels depression and a negative mind set. It makes it impossible to get a home. I could not afford to run a car or to get a mortgauge. If I could afford a car or a mortgauge both these things would be of massive benefit to my children. I would have a home they could stay over and I would be able to see them more often if I had a car. I would say this would be more beneficial than a supperficial payment. I’m sure employers notice a drop in peoples productivity and comitment to work. If a father is aloud to work and succeed than he is going to be a far better roll model to his children than if he is forced to struggle and bearly survive. Becuse when you are working for nothing you are not a happy employee. I now only work a bear minimum hours I do not accept overtime. If you work more then you pay more to your ex who is stopping you seeing your kids. No thanks. Have any studies been done on the impact of this legislation on men ? I am 100% sure this will harm their eccomonic out put. Im also sure it harms their mental health. May we never forget over 3000 people have mentioned the CSA as a contributing factor in there suicide notes. But as always, I have state many times that this proccess is sexist and does consider the impact on men. Yes the children are important. But this system will only do whats best for the children when ALL perspectives are considered. You can’t just disenfrancise men and expect them to comply with it. That is a losing battle and an expensive one.
From a mans perspective these payments are a payment to your expartner not to your kids. This is the problem that needs changing if you want a successful maintainance system.

John Bolch - May 10, 2017 at 6:02pm

Whilst the comments here aren’t really on the point (as usual), they do generally confirm (in a depressing way) my hypothesis that the child support system isn’t working.

Thank you all for your contributions.

Yvie - May 10, 2017 at 6:20pm

It is depressing for everyone involved John, but there are two sides to every story and in the case of child maintenance only one side of the story is listened to.

Paul - May 11, 2017 at 2:19am

I feel i was very much on point. I have explained in depth why I am not a cheer leader of more powers and more ruthless collecting and why the system is not working. It is a subject which has turned my life upside down. I can’t not speak up about it. Glad you came to the right conclussion. I too thank everyone else for their contribution.
Have a read of the horror stories on the CSAHELL website. Its a real eye opener.x

Yvie - May 10, 2017 at 6:18pm

It could work well enough for high earners who are left with a very adequate living wage after paying child support. For those earning the national living wage or below it is a complete nightmare, as what is left is barely enough to live on. If you are unfortunately enough to be in this position, it is no good protesting about it as the living arrangements of a displaced father are of little interest to Government and feminist organisations.

Brian - May 10, 2017 at 6:38pm

Yvie – it takes a woman to take up the mans point of view for the man to be listened to…and you articulate it well succinctly.

Dr Christine Davies - May 11, 2017 at 11:53am

The Report on the Child Maintenance Service is remarkable in that it is so completely one-sided. The Inquiry was prompted by one MP and three PWC mothers (see paragraph 8 and CHM0102) and perhaps this explains the bias. The published evidence from Families Need Fathers (CHM0081, 0084, 0105) and (at a first count) 45 non-resident parents (NRPs) reveals the many problems with the child maintenance system – in particular, that many NRPs cannot afford the assessments and/or cannot afford to work. My own evidence (CHM0079, 0098) uncovers the flaws in regulations that have led to this situation and demonstrates their impact.

The flawed legislation and evidence of unaffordability have been completely ignored in the Report. Is this because it would be too controversial in the run-up to the general election or because of a deeply imbedded prejudice? Either way, the problems in child maintenance will persist until these underlying fundamental problems with the regulations are sorted out. Unaffordable assessments are a nonsense, cause tremendous damage to parents and children and lead to the problems of non-payment and arrears that are complained about.

A useful Inquiry Report should give an objective, fair and balanced analysis of a situation. It should not ignore 50% of the submitted evidence because it does not fit with the pre-conceived ideas of those who initiated it or the prejudices of committee members. This evidence may present ‘inconvenient truths’ but they are truths nevertheless.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Aldous Huxley

Will the new Government have the courage to face the facts and amend the regulations? Common sense, simple humanity, and social justice demand it but there are serious barriers to overcome.

Paul Apreda - May 11, 2017 at 1:03pm

Thank you Christine for this valuable contribution.
The inquiry was a shambles and a disgrace, and as we feared it ignored any criticism that wasnt focussed on the popular dynamic of ‘poor mums’ and ‘wicked dads’ .
Your evidence is extremely important and highlights the inadequacies of a system where contributions are being demanded from Paying Parents when they earn as little as £7 per week!!! The threshold for payment of a percentage of earnings is just £100 per week – a figure so low that it is far beneath the level at which individuals start to pay Class 1 National Insurance (£8,164 p.a) The thresholds for the ‘reduced’ level (£100 p.w.) and the Basic level (£200 p.w.) were established in the 1990s and there is NO PROVISION for them ever to increase.
We have cases where a father on benefits receiving £84 per week has £8.40 deducted because the mother of his child insists on Collect and Pay so his £7 per week contribution has to be uplifted by the 20% ‘penalty’.
We also have a mum who is pursued by the father through CMS. She earns around £8,000 p.a. The father earns around £45,000 – but he is remorseless in his drive to ensure that mum pays the fullest possible amount and queries each time the calculation is revised downwards – often ensuring that the figure mysteriously rises again.
There is of course the other perverse disincentive – where the Receiving Parent can increase the amount of money collected from the Paying Parent by preventing child contact.
The system is far from perfect – BUT – with all its problems it would be truly catastrophic to go back to a system where lawyers managed to get their hands on this again.
As we’ve come to expect from the wonderful Mr.Bolch – he too sees only one side of the argument – which may say much about his legal background. John also highlights the problem of enforcement. This is a very significant issue of course, but at least the ‘system’ has the powers to take action. Contrast that with the Family Justice system. Applications for enforcement have trebled since 2011 YET the percentage of cases where an Order for Enforcement is made has HALVED from 2% to just 1%. #potsandkettles!!!

Brian - May 11, 2017 at 3:35pm

Glad it’s not just me Paul that has rumbled the author’s leftist agenda! It blatantly screams at you, but it is disguised as a worthy crusade which readily dismisses or belittles alternative views…just like socialists do! If they don’t like your argument, they chose to dismiss it!

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