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Meeting on Child Maintenance

Child Maintenence - Make Sure Your Voice is Heard!

Many of you will be aware from our previous communications, that the Government have been consulting on the introduction of new tougher sanctions for those who fail to pay their assessed Child Maintenance in full. These sanctions include confiscating passports, taking funds from joint accounts with new partners, docking money to be paid in benefits and, eventually, state pensions, etc. They also propose to alter the way they assess the amount due so as to include many forms of unearned income. The proposals include plans to write-off much of the historic Child Maintenance arrears, dating back over 20 years. We suspect that this may be the deeper reason for these proposals and that they feel the need to be seen to be tough whilst writing-off debt that is sitting on the books. Fuller details of plans are contained in this briefing for MPs can be found in the link here.

 

There has been an element of revolving doors with ministers in the role of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance. Caroline Dinenage MP and then Kit Malthouse MP and now Justin Tomlinson MP have each held the role within the last year. We have met with all three ministers, the latest one last week. It does mean that ministers are likely to be following the views of the Treasury, points that best suit the department itself with strands of policy based on whose voices are politically the loudest. Justin Tomlinson MP has only been in the role since 9th July 2018 so we were grateful for an early meeting with him. His previous experience has been working with people with disabilities.

 

In meeting with Justin Tomlinson MP, we found the minister in listening mode, perhaps rather more interested in how shared-care arrangements worked than in matters relating to affordability, other than that the thresholds for paying a % of income had not been reviewed for 20 years. On shared care, there was a sense of him trying to understand better why a 4/3 days a week split of time resulted in an assessment of CM of 4/7 of the full amount.

 

He had clearly dealt with constituents who had issues as paying and receiving parents. He was very interested to learn more about how Sweden drove people to mostly make their own arrangements or to go to mediation (14%) rather than court (2%). However, he was less engaged with the idea of funded non-transferable paternity leave because of the cost, whilst acknowledging that research did indicate that early involvement of fathers was beneficial later.

 He had been considering the idea of compulsory registration of both parents on birth certificates. He was unaware until told that this legislation had been passed, but not enacted. We pointed out the sad fact that some children’s lives start badly when fathers are excluded from birth certificates and they felt the need to go to court straight away to overcome this.

 There was a sense here that the minister understood how, emotionally, people would respond to the lack of even-handedness of enforcement of family court orders compared to CM assessments. He identified the courts as being responsible, though I drew his attention to disingenuous or perhaps naïve comments from MoJ ministers about the courts having all the powers, given how difficult some of them are to evoke or use. We also covered a broad range of other issues relating to failures of CMS.

 The minister looked like he was listening sympathetically, but also played devil’s advocate a lot. We were left with the impression that there is scope here for everyone to influence him on these and other points.

 Let’s hope that this minister remains in post for long enough to make a difference. We all know about the difficulties of a lack of judicial continuity in family courts. One might argue that the same applies to ministers, particularly ones dealing with important, but relatively un-seductive issues such as CM.

 The new regulations were published the day after the new minister was appointed. They are due to be rubber-stamped by Parliament in the autumn, under what they call ‘affirmative procedures’.  We understand that it is common practice for ministers to offer one-to-one consultations with MPs to explain proposals, answer questions and possibly make last-minute amendments.

 

ACTION

Please contact your MP and suggest that he/she meet with Justin Tomlinson MP to share your experiences of Child Maintenance and concerns you may have about their proposals. Please feel free to share any responses with us on admin@fnf.org.uk. Our thoughts on this are contained below and may assist you in highlighting problems based on your own experience.

 

 

FNF Comments on the Proposals

Conflict and Shared Parenting

Proposals appear not give weight to the effect these regulations are likely to have on post-separation family conflict nor their likely further undermining of shared parenting arrangements. The single parent charity Gingerbread did concede that there is a problem with shared parenting payment assessments, when they appeared alongside us to give oral evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee for Work and Pensions inquiry into child maintenance at the end of 2016.

Affordability of Assessments

We made very significant progress in our meetings with DWP in so far as in January 2018 DWP accepted that the figures upon which we base our views about unaffordability of assessments are correct and that there is a significant issue that needs to be investigated, particularly in the interaction of Child Maintenance with Universal Credit (UC), as this is being rolled-out. Child Maintenance payments are not included in UC and this has resulted in many paying parents experiencing excessive marginal tax rates of 80%-100% or even more. For these parents, not only does work not pay, but they are also placed in untenable financial positions. The same applies to those who are not yet on UC and this explains some of the historic arrears. We need some joined up thinking here. Basically for separated parents on lower incomes, CMS often completely skews the result which UC is intended to obtain!

The Government have sought to deal with payment without first ensuring that their assessments are affordable and appropriate. In so doing they are sustaining a hostile environment for paying parents that is likely to cause many to stop working altogether. Many report feeling bullied and harassed by CMS.  Frequently their ex-partners will blame them for failing to meet their ‘entitlement’.

Given the track-record of CMS/CSA’s performance in their duty of care towards paying parents, we have little confidence in assurances of making detailed checks into individuals’ circumstances before imposing new measures. Too often the answer to them, however sensitively put, is ‘computer says no’ – as the assessment formula is enshrined in legislation, whereas calculations of affordability are not.

We are suggesting:

1.         A delay in implementation of these new regulations until DWP have concluded investigations into affordability.

2.         In the meantime claims by paying parents relating to affordability need to be investigated and fed back to the minister with a view to amending the assessment formula.

3.         That the government consider waiving the 20% payer’s surcharge and

4.         That the government consider reducing the pre-condition to reviewing assessments of a 25% income variation to, 7%-10% for anyone with an income under, say, £20k.

5.         That the government drops the proposal to include unearned income and assets in calculations of Child Maintenance, other than for the purpose of collection of arrears until further reviews of types of income and assets and of their impact are investigated. The DWP assumption of an 8% return on assets seems absurdly optimistic! 

We note that receiving parents experience a measure of financial ‘protection’ in so far as they receive child-related benefits, housing support, etc, which are reviewed regularly. We note also the fact that these state benefits are unaffected by received Child Maintenance payments, regardless of whether these are £0 or £1,000 a week. However, this bill will result in deductions from job seekers or disability benefits and state pensions i.e. from the most vulnerable in society, some of whom have second families and are pushed to robbing Peter to pay Paula. The public understandably sympathises with “single” parents. However, the system must be even-handed and affordable. It also needs to support and “incentivise” shared parenting. It takes two to parent and many paying parents despair at tough actions to enforce unaffordable assessments which are further exacerbated by the lack of support for sharing caring responsibilities. Involved parents and children experience better mental health, sustain better jobs and result in more generous contributors financially and otherwise to their children.

 We have made the points above to a scrutinising committee of the House of Lords (see: here) and the minister, but the message needs to be reinforced by as many people and other MPs as possible. Please feel free to make these and other points to your MP, but ideally, relate them to your own experiences and, as we suggest above, ask your MP to meet with the minister to seek assurances that these regulations don’t make things worse.

 The report of the House of Lords Committee mentions us and draws upon our evidence (see here and you can find all the submissions in the right-hand column, under ‘39th Report’ here. Not surprisingly the government have given stock answers to the issues raised by their Lordships, but this is all helpful as it puts our concerns on the record and keeps them live, even if most can’t be dealt with without primary legislation. There is an acknowledgement, in the Government’s response, that there may be problems with how Child Maintenance works under Universal Credit. They seek to minimise the likely impact of this but are not ignoring it. We have been raising this issue for some time with DWP. The fact that they are openly talking about working on quantifying the problem is helpful and driven by us, with the mathematical support of Dr Christine Davies of Royal Holloway University of London (point 19 of the published report).

 

 It is interesting to note that all submissions recommend that the government delay and re-think their new regulations, but for different reasons. It is also clear that some of the proposals, such as taking money from joint accounts is expected to only affect 200 people a year.  The House of Lords, rightly, question the value of this. 

We remain hopeful.

 

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FNF HSSF Kite Mark Award

Families Need Fathers has been awarded the Help and Support for Separated Families Kite Mark which is a new UK government accreditation scheme for organisations offering help to separated families.

Families Need Fathers work with a range of family law professionals, including Family Law Panel

 

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