The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission – formerly the CSA – gets a bad press. This week’s news that its accounts are still in such a state that the Comptroller and Auditor General has once again been unable to give a full sign off to its Client Funds Account will not do much for its street cred.
The problem is that the level of error in maintenance assessments means that the Auditor has felt the need to qualify his opinions on the regularity or receipts and payments, and has raised concerns about the truth and fairness of the outstanding maintenance arrears. This is disappointing news for those of us who care about financial fairness for children and parents, and shows the significant and persistent difficulties inherent in a system that is coming up to its 20th birthday next year.
The Child Support Agency started work in 1993. Before the Child Support Act of 1991, child maintenance was dealt with by the courts in a haphazard way and very few single parents received any financial help from the children’s other parent. Margaret Thatcher’s government saw the rise in single parenthood as a drain on the welfare state and was looking for a solution to shift the burden back to the private purse. The original scheme was draconian, requiring a mother to name the child’s father so that the CSA could pursue him for maintenance or risk losing her benefits, and “absent parents” felt that they were demonised by the change in policy. The formula for calculating child maintenance was complex, meaning that the public did not quite understand the obligations the government sought to impose. Further, the Agency itself was beset by computer and system problems, and its ambitious targets meant that it tended to concentrate on “soft targets” who were already paying maintenance rather than the difficult cases where child maintenance could really make a difference. To a great extent, the system never recovered from its inauspicious start.
Although the Auditor’s report states that significant improvements have been made by the Commission to the information available on child maintenance arrears, he notes that a significant proportion of payments have been based on incorrect assessments or have been paid at the wrong rate. In 2010-11 he estimates that there were £10.2 million worth of overpayments and £13.9 million of underpayments. The figures available on outstanding child maintenance arrears, which the Commission reports to be £3.748 billion at 31 March 2011, do not give a true and fair view because of the level of error in the underlying case data. The Commission estimates that £0.54 billion (14 per cent of the total) of this is capable of collection but given the level of error in the underlying arrears data, there is significant uncertainty about this. However one looks at it, there’s no question that it’s quite a hangover from the old system!
The baton of responsibility for statutory child maintenance passed from the discredited Child Support Agency to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission in November 2008. Due to improved procedures CMEC has been able to make significant improvements to the information available on child maintenance arrears, but it has been an uphill struggle to address the problems of the past that were caused by a series of computer errors and staff issues at the CSA from its inception. Some of the errors in the underlying case data were previously unknown and have been made visible by CMEC’s work rather than reflecting a deterioration in the data’s accuracy.
We’ve blogged before about the societal change brought about by the introduction of the Child Support Agency, and also about the government’s plans to charge parents for using the system to collect payments from non-resident parents. In fact in March the government declared that it would be abolishing CMEC altogether as it is too costly, and transferring its functions back to the DWP. That, of course, is where the CSA started in the first place giving an impression of having come full-circle. We can almost hear the Auditor’s sighs from Cambridge….