Blood from a stone: new initiatives to recover child maintenance

finances and divorce

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).

You can find the Proactive Use of Part Payment for Child Maintenance Arrears report here, and the compliance and arrears strategy consultation here.

Image by Wapster via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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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13 comments

Mr T - December 19, 2017 at 7:40pm

Just ditch the debt collection agency already. Make a dent in the suicide rate, implement equality and SAVE money on all those staffing costs!

This is outdated tax on fatherhood it needs scrapping. If my ex can’t afford to pay for the children give them to me I’ll pay for them – sorted.

Andy - December 19, 2017 at 7:54pm

Here we go again,the most volatile subject to evolve from the Incompetant agency if persue of fair and equal financial needs..according to the CMS both supporting parents have equal financial contribution for the children.

Now for those that are the booted out NRP, usually the Farther those small comments cut to the bone of the issues with the agency in all aspects of the subject.
Who or what ever table when they thought up the calculation to support the children. 9%,16% and 20% and over a weekly payment of x to support and extra 9% over £800 per week..
trouble is that why should this money taken at will from one to be given to another to spend on what the hell it likes either a habit of some sort or to flourish its life style and on top of that has the ability to work and claim benefits so in reality very one sided..
According to the proposed consultation areas of powers given to the CMS in persue of either back dated or owed maintenance to take at will or in some cases a reply by the CMS is get a loan to pay for your arrears…Really.
In all the efforts of the new powers which will be imposed will only fall due to clever tax evasion non disclosed and company directors who don’t get any salary or dividends..it can be hidden…self employment has not been mentioned again so assuming this cannot be persued.
Off shore accounting with good skills will make this proposed idea a little more than a extra work load for the staff at the agency and on this note can’t even work out basic calculation as in my situation told me at I was earning more and calculated earnings from last years and prior years salary but didn’t bother to listen when contact to say I was earning less didn’t even bother to reply when written to.
On that note no wonder NRP,s duck from paying when the Incompetant system can’t get it right in the first place…

Andy - December 19, 2017 at 8:01pm

For your info..
csahell.com/fathers-who-killed-themselves-because-of-the-csa-45.html

FamiliesNeedFathers - December 20, 2017 at 6:03am

The consultation makes clear that even under CMS only 51% of ‘collect’ service funds are being collected, so fresh arrears are beginning to mount at a rate of some £55m a year. The underlying assumption, including in this article, is that most of this is due to the kind of NRP who refuses to maintain their child. Perhaps – but it’s not as simple as that. There are other possibilities that may account for a significant proportion of non-payment.

A key one is simply affordability. The calculation is in many respects flawed.For example:

If the paying parent is on a minimum wage and qualifies for state benefits or Universal Credit (yes, the one that’s supposed to ensure that work always pays), their statutory Child Maintenance is not factored into the calculation. Indeed, for someone on the minimum wage working part-time and on UC, increased income/hours result in a marginal tax rate of around, or even over, 100%. Some incentive to work!

If they are amongst the 5 million self-employed people on low incomes (most are) they may have very variable income, but can’t have the amount they must pay adjusted unless it has varied by over 25%. Quite an amount to lose if they are a small-time business with a gross income of £1k a month.

Consider too, that the threshold at which Child Maintenance starts to be paid has not been adjusted for inflation since 1998, to allow for their essential costs of living.

And, if they share parenting, something that the Government says it supports, then the parent who has the children over 50% of the time still receives all child related benefits and credits and Child Maintenance payments – the one with under 50% of time receives neither – irrespective of relative income of the parents.

When one parent leaves the family home, the Government immediately treats one as a ‘Single Parent’, the other as a Single Adult from a fiscal perspective. They do not take into account that they have parental responsibilities for care or finance of the child.

Consider then that many of these low income ‘non-resident’ parents are simply being asked to make payments that are impossible for them to make. DWP need to look at the income levels of those who are not making regular payments BEFORE they start implementing more draconian powers.

DWP even concede that they could not get debt recovery agencies to collect historic Child Maintenance arrears. Maybe, this is because much of this money simply is not there and you can’t make someone pay something they don’t have.

All this, before one even considers that they may be struggling by debts accumulated in seeking to obtain court orders for contact, many thousands of which are then not enforced.

So were DWP right in carrying out this consultation now? Well, in relation to the 24 years worth of accumulated arrears – yes. They need to do something and spending £1.5 billion of taxpayers money to recover something that may well not exist is pointless. Some of it may even have been repaid privately, but not recorded. Some of it was based on errors in the discredited CSA’s calculations.

In relation to extra powers – they should have first checked that what they are asking for is affordable. By failing to address this first, such powers, if introduced, risk being state sanctioned bullying.

They should also have first reviewed whether the formula works in a society where ‘mother carer’ and ‘father provider’ are no longer the norm, where fathers increasingly care for children, where second families are commonplace and where the diversity of what family life is much greater. That would have been a good starting point.

Coincidentally, an OECD report published a month or two ago showed how progressive policies in Finland led to them becoming the first country where fathers provide more care for their children than mothers. It would be interesting to know whether they have a large Child Maintenance problem?

Andy - December 20, 2017 at 8:43pm

For once the article is supportive of such Incompetant ideas..and spend tax payers money to create the consultation..The idiots who seem to demand monies from the the poor and don’t give a shit that you don’t live but must pay what you owe so the golddigger, her worked hours and approved with a salary of whatever, get a nice top up by the NRP tax free,as the say,HMRC look away on such gains but reversed for the NRP who get penalised…

Tracey - December 21, 2017 at 8:45pm

As a parent that has used the CSA for a brief couple of months in 2010, but saw the relentless and manipulating way they pursued the ex taking money from one family to support another, i closed the case only to recieve a letter two years later offering to pursue any arrears. They got a complaint and hid behind CSA policy “not law” as they quote.

Now with a partner who pays CMS he earns £7.89 but after CMS and tax and NI his earning is £4.42 per hour. Try raising a family of 4 on that, to provide for two children he has not been allowed to see for 7 years due to it being financially beneficial to ruin a parent child bond to gain CMS. The CMS act above the law, they lie, manipulate figures and the vunerable, withold information to ensure it creates arrears and the staff are unprofessional. The CMS needs to close and 50/50 shared care should be promoted where possible and paying parents should not be forced below the living wage or into debt.

Yvie - December 22, 2017 at 1:56pm

This is the other side of the coin that MPs on a mission and single parent groups like Gingerbread fail to address. When a father is earning below the national wage it is totally unfair to use the percentage system to calculate how much he ‘owes’ his ex. I would image most fathers are willing to support their children but at an amount they can actually afford. The CSA/CMS is only interested in meeting its targets. The plight of an impoverished parent is irrelevant. Perhaps this is why the self employed withhold information.

Dash - January 6, 2018 at 1:50am

That’s really thinking at an imspresive level

JamesB - December 23, 2017 at 10:57am

Every now and then I read something and it gives hope and shines. Perhaps I am in the Christmas mood. I say though that I liked your comment and it gives hope on the future relationship between men and women.

One more point, re ‘The sort of NRP who refuses to maintain their child is, almost by definition, a difficult person to deal with’ … well … its that sort of nonsense comment that gives the establishment a bad name. I am not going to go into here as I have done before and he isn’t listening, that is the real problem, if these people want to make a least worst situation then they need to understand the NRPs rather than slagging them off.

I will give a pointer, expecting a man to pay through the nose for 20 years after losing everything through no fault of his own and seeing another man play father to his children in his house, is probably a bit smelly. Perhaps they should scrap the whole lot of them and put it back to the courts with pre-nups.

Yvie - December 27, 2017 at 10:31am

You are right about having to watch another man stepping in to play father to the children. Some mothers will grab all they can from a displaced father and then have the gall to indoctrinate the children that the stepfather is a far better father to you than your own father will ever be. My son has always been a good dad to his children, put them first and has never let them down. Yet this is exactly what happened to him. These mothers have a lot to answer for.

Spike Robinson - December 22, 2017 at 6:14pm

It’s horrifying that further Draconian measures are being looked into without addressing the fundamental unfairness in the system. The egregious banding that causes life or death fights over the huge financial consequences of a little as one overnight a year. The 25% limit that can plunge a father into destitution or homelessness overnight – how does that benefit the children. The total disregard of the father’s minimum survival needs – let alone his ability to accommodate and support the children – is a human rights abuse. As is the penalties that CMS exacts outside of any due process of law. The CMS is a financial reward system for mothers to use foul means to block children’s contact with their father. It’s predicted on an assumption of deadbeat dads and martyr mums, and is illogical and unethical in any other scenario. At minimum the payments should be based on actual income, actual overnights, and on the difference in after tax incomes, not on the father’s pre-tax income. No other group in society – including all intact families – is so cruelly punished by tax increases. When taxes rise, intact families must make do with less, but CMS recipients are held harmless, but CMS payers have to dig double deep. A father who earns a fraction of the mother’s salary still pays over the same amount as the father whose ex is on benefits or has no income at all. Even MumsNet is starting to call out this injustice as we see the small number of male PWCs come through the system. At the end of the day this is a tax on divorced dads, a “moral” tax that is highly immoral and highly destructive to men, children, and women too. The greatest harm to children is conflict between the parents, and the greatest cause of that conflict is the injustice of CMS. Far from trying to squeeze more blood from the stone, the CMS model needs to be completely rethought and re-engineered so it has a chance of achieving its own public-policy goals, let alone achieving fairness and stopping the bloody toll on fathers and families.

Spike Robinson - December 22, 2017 at 6:22pm

And above all John, there should be no CMS payments relating to period unless the father is the one refusing to have the children during that period, not because the children are being lawfully or unlawfully denied the chance to be with him. No father who is willing to have his children with him 50% of the time should be paying any maintenance if that desired and offered contact is being frustrated by the other parent.

John I fear you have fallen into the “deadbeat dad, martyr mum” myth, like so many professionals in the system, the media, and most crucially those who wrote the policies and enabling legislation of the CMS.

Derek - January 21, 2018 at 9:15pm

Too many RP or PWC have used the CMS/CSA and maintenance legislation for their own ends. Preventing the absent parent from contact with their children simply to exploit more money from the situation. Maybe if every case was assessed with assumed 2 day a week contact and that stayed unless there’s a court order preventing the absent parent from contact then these RP/PWC may think again?

as to the calculations, why this fixed percentage? Why not calculate to min wage then a standard 7.5% of anything above? especially seeing as if the parents where together and on min wage they’d probably get little else in the way of help, and lets not forget that if the NRP/PP died, the government wouldn’t continue the payments as they’d deem the RP/PWC has enough money with any earnings and/or benefits? And why should a RP/PWC gain more money if the PP/NRP betters themselves. Wouldn’t it be a kick in the teeth for a individual who cant see their children so uses their imposed freetime to better themselves or career for the RP to have financial gain, and did the children get more expensive all of a sudden?

Why the aggressive stance on arrears, along with the standard stance of ‘we have to collect arrears within 2 years because its law’ when no law exists?

And seeing there is this low to cost to the user government body to handle maintenance , then where is the equivalent for parents denied access to their children?

Current maintenance guidelines and policies are out of date and draconian

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