Public Accounts Committee (PAC) compares Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to the discredited Child Support Agency (CSA)
FNF – both parents matter agree with the Committees recommendations for:
• A review of affordability and payment thresholds
• Clear cross-government governance for separated families
• Review of CM interacts with wider welfare issues
• Gain a better understanding of users of CMS
• Improved understanding of CMS being ‘played’ including the withholding of access to children
• Need for affordable assessments – that will reduce fraud so the real culprits can be dealt with
• Proactive approach to fraud (we agree, so long as the formula is affordable and fair)
• Fresh consideration of write-off of unaffordable debts
• A review of affordability and payment thresholds
We have long campaigned on the inadequacy of the systems for child maintenance. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has published its report on Child Maintenance following their investigations, adding to widespread acknowledgement that Child Maintenance rules are unaffordable and inappropriate.
The Committee concludes that:
‘Ten years after reforms designed to improve child maintenance,
the Department for Work & Pensions is achieving no more for children of separated families
than under the previous, discredited Child Support Agency (CSA).’
Considering what a mess CSA was, this is a damning statement and, in our view, entirely predictable.
Resonating with our concerns and recommendations they say:
- “Serious constraints on parents’ ability to pay will inevitably hamper” any new DWP effort to collect maintenance or enforce the collection of arrears - with some Paying Parents facing a “poverty trap where there is little incentive for them to work more.”
- “In addition, some paying parents simply cannot afford maintenance payments, meaning enforcement is unlikely to result in any more maintenance actually being paid.”
- “Within one year [the DWP should], undertake a detailed review of how the child maintenance system interacts with the wider welfare and separated families environment, including whether further action to implement reforms or legislative changes are required.”
- The report also recommends that “in consultation with stakeholders, develop a strategy to tackle rising unpaid maintenance debt on its 2012 scheme, drawing on lessons learned from its experience of reducing CSA arrears, considering key barriers to compliance, such as affordability, and whether a write-off of uncollectable debt would be appropriate.”
Further, the Committee note in their report our evidence, published on their website:
Families Need Fathers told us that “CMS is driving conflict amongst many parents to the detriment of their children.”
Chair of FNF, Paul O’Callaghan, says: “Families Need Fathers – because both parents matter welcome the Committee of Public Accounts picking up on how CMS is driving conflict in separated families. So far, despite multiple, authoritative reports1 highlighting the flaws of Child Maintenance, the Government has failed to address serious deficiencies in the way that CMS works, not only resulting in unnecessary cost for the taxpayer, but often irreparably causing conflict between separated parents, which ultimately causes conflict when trying to resolve child contact arrangements. In particular, they have failed to ensure that their assessments are affordable and fair to both parents.
You cannot get blood out of a stone and we predict that the current cost of living crisis will hit children of separated families hard as more paying parents will struggle to meet unrealistic assessments. The time for DWP procrastination must now end. We urge the Government to implement the recommendations of this Committee, prioritise necessary legislation and report back next year.”
Most difficulties with child maintenance stem from a ‘winner takes it all’ formula that is often unaffordable and undermines shared parenting (one parent receives child related benefits and child maintenance, irrespective of income, even if care is split fairly evenly).
The Committee reports that “More than two-thirds of Paying Parents on Collect & Pay and over a quarter of those on Direct Pay say the payments are not affordable.”
Once these concerns are addressed the remaining issues will diminish as they are a consequence of the failure of existing legislation.
We have highlighted some of the key components necessary to create conditions for such a strategy. There is now a public health crisis for children of separated families. There is a need for focus on effective child support mechanisms, education, Early Intervention to keep people out of court and out of CMS, integration with other departments such as Education, etc as identified in our paper ‘A Strategy for Separated Families’,
1 CSJ - The Hidden Parent Poverty Trap: Child Maintenance and Universal Credit – March 2019
SSAC Occasional Paper 22: Separated parents and the social security system – 22 October 2019
National Audit Office – Child Maintenance Report – 3 March 2022
22nd June 2022
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