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Press Release: FNF Talks to BBC Money Box about Heidi Allen MP’s Proposed Child Maintenance Bill

PRESS RELEASE

16th February 2018 - for immediate release

FNF tells BBC Radio 4 Money Box programme that Heidi Allen MP’s Child Maintenance Bill gets headlines by focussing on the problems of the rich. 

But she fails to address the underlying problems of child support for both separated parents.

DWP officials undertake to investigate issues of ‘affordability’.

As backbench MP Heidi Allen’s Child Maintenance Bill approaches its second reading on 23rd February, BBC Radio 4 Money Box Programme is looking at the problems with the current child support system.

Taking part in the programme FNF spokesman Michael Lewkowicz says the system is still set up to pit separated parents against each other and undermines any goodwill they may have to collaborate in the parenting of their children.

The reality is that for the vast majority, separation affects both parents financially but the anecdotal cases on which Heidi Allen relied at the first reading of her 10 minute rule bill diverts attention from the problems of the majority.
Specifically, the current formula for Child Maintenance:

  • Results in hundreds of thousands of assessments being unaffordable to paying parents and
  • Undermines shared parenting arrangements

In a significant development, DWP officials have accepted the FNF evidence in relation to affordability. At a recent meeting officials accepted that there “is an issue” and that there is a need to further “investigate”. FNF will be meeting with the Minister, Kit Malthouse MP, later this month and will be putting forward these points.

At the first reading of Heidi Allen's bill, her speech showed a lack of understanding of key aspects of Child Maintenance. For example, she said that increased Child Maintenance would save Government money as fewer parents would be forced onto benefits. However, this is simply wrong as a welfare entitlements are the same whether the receiving parent receives £500 a week in Child Maintenance or nothing at all.

 

Chair and Managing Trustee of Families Need Fathers, Jerry Karlin says The “bad payers” or “deadbeats”[1] (fathers) v “distraught receivers” (mothers) narrative distracts from the reality that both parents are often struggling after separation, and that both parents are (or should be) involved in the responsibilities of bringing up their children. The current polarising regime is regressive and works against collaborative parenting.

 

We are grateful that DWP officials have undertaken to investigate further the evidence we presented to their recent consultation on affordability. The CSA was not fit for purpose, and to tinker at the edges of the current (CMS) regime could end up being even worse.  But it cannot be right for legislators to propose increasingly draconian powers before they truly understand the problems.”

Further Background

The Child Maintenance formula fails hundreds of thousands of families by making unaffordable assessments, fuelling family conflict and discouraging shared parenting, It hinders rather than helps parents to support their children after family separation. Yet, for all its failings, Heidi Allen's bill to reform it focuses on the issues of a small proportion of higher net-worth self-employed paying parents who find ways of minimising their reported income.  She does this instead of focussing on the tens of thousands driven to poverty and despair by a formula that even the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is now investigating after Families Need Fathers drew their attention to it the disastrous effect it has had on low-income paying parents who are assessed to make payments of money they actually do not have.

 

It ignores the fact that average earnings of the 4.8 million self-employed people are just £12,500 a year or that many are part of the so-called 'gig' economy with insecure low incomes and zero hours contacts that leave them struggling to make ends meet or meet unrealistic Child Maintenance assessments.

 

It would be better if MPs directed their attention to the much wider issue of whether the calculated liabilities for Child Maintenance are affordable and fair as FNF evidence is that, in many cases they are neither and even CMS now accept that this needs to be investigated further.

 

They should also consider the role of Child Maintenance in supporting shared parenting. Currently one parent is automatically classified as a 'single parent' the other a 'single adult', even if they share care of their children more-or-less equally! As a consequence, one parent receives child benefits and welfare support on top of Child Maintenance payments, the other is not considered a proper parent and receives neither, completely disregarding relative incomes. A research report published this month by The Fatherhood Institute estimates that the number of single parents has been over-estimated by up to 50%[2] as government statistics count parents who jointly share caring responsibilities for their children as ‘single parents’.

 

We have yet to see the detail of the bill, but it will seek to re-introduce a 'lifestyle test' and propose the scrapping of a rule that enables family court ordered Child Maintenance to be overturned. 

 

The “lifestyle incompatible with earnings test”, proposed by this Bill, was scrapped a few years ago because it did not work, primarily because CSA/CMS staff are not qualified to make such complex and difficult judgements. The recent DWP public consultation into Child Maintenance[3] states that "In many cases the lifestyle of the paying parent was supported by debt rather than income" i.e. the nice car some had outside their house was not even theirs and their Child Maintenance payments were correct in the first place. In any case, if such a test were to be re-introduced it should consider the issue both ways i.e. whether the receiving parent is significantly more comfortable than the paying parent who can't afford proper accommodation for themselves and their children when they are with them.

 

Where people do not declare their incomes, they not only fail to adequately support their children, but also evade tax. In those situations HMRC is the appropriately qualified body to investigate, whilst passing back their findings to CMS.

 

FNF understand that the Bill will include some helpful proposals, such as the scrapping of rule that allows CMS to overturn financial settlements made in court.  Court settlements properly take into account a range of factors such division of assets such as the family home, the car, and responsibility for shared debts. It is wrong for a crude CMS formula that only takes into account paying parents incomes to overturn such arrangements on the basis of hearsay rather than proper evidence. Existing practice leads to some receiving parents losing out when the paying parent's income drops is or is hidden, but it can also lead to unaffordable assessments for payments. The 2006 Henshaw Report[4] recommended this to be scrapped and clearly it should be.

 

However, the overall thrust of the proposed bill is to address a very small minority of difficulties for wealthy parents whilst ignoring the wider problems in the system of asking many parents to make payments that they cannot afford and failing to consider their shared parenting responsibilities.  A bigger cudgel will not improve a faulty system – on the contrary. These are the issues that MPs should be focused on.

[4] Sir David Henshaw’s Report ‘Recovering child support: routes to responsibility’ 2006
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20121102173058/http://www.dwp.gov.uk/policy/child-maintenance/sir-david-henshaws-report/

 

ENDS

 

FNF Background for Editors

FNF carried out a survey of over 800 service users in response to the Select Committee Inquiry into Child Maintenance last year and subsequently provided oral evidence to the Committee. The Committee’s report did not pick up on the key points being raised by FNF and further submissions have been made to the new Inquiry into the rollout of Universal Credit.

Quotations from paying parents can be found in the FNF Submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry into Child Maintenance last year – see here.

Heidi Allen MP was interviewed along with Michael Lewkowicz from Families Need Fathers about this issue alongside a spokesperson from the single parents’ charity Gingerbread in March this year – see here.


Notes for editors:

Families Need Fathers - because both parents matter
FNF is a registered charity providing information and support on shared parenting issues arising from family breakdown, and support to divorced and separated parents, irrespective of gender or marital status. FNF is NOT a fathers' rights group - we support the best interests of children - namely mature and collaborative parenting by both parents - an objective which is inadequately promoted in the family court system and associated services.

Our primary concern is the maintenance of the child’s meaningful relationship with both parents.

Founded in 1974, FNF helps thousands of parents every year.

Please address any queries/requests for info to FNF (media@fnf.org.uk) - 0300 0300 110.

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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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