We’ve been receiving a few enquires recently from parents who have heard about the changes to child support, and thought that there was supposed to be a new scheme coming in around now. They’re right: there was supposed to be, and to an extent there is, a new scheme starting in October 2012 that will shift the parameters on child support payments for some families. We thought it would be a good idea to draw all of the threads together, so far as we can, to set out what’s going on in the realm of provision for children where there parents don’t live in the same household.
You will all be familiar with “the CSA” – the Child Support Agency. What you may not know is that in 2008 the CSA was replaced by a new body called CMEC (the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission) in an attempt to make a new start, away from the old mistakes and bad reputation. Most people, however, continued to refer to the CSA anyway, and actually CMEC itself was abolished in summer 2012 in the “bonfire of the quangoes”. Now we’re back again to the CSA, which is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s like it never went away.
Information about the scheme can be accessed via two main channels: the CM Options website or the main government information portal at www.gov.uk. The “Options” website aims to encourage parents to make and stick to their own arrangements, working out entitlement/liability using a calculator provided by the site and giving tips for “negotiation”. The government portal is more factual and focuses on what you need to do to access the agency: it seems to accept that for some people, voluntary arrangements are simply not a realistic aspiration.
At the beginning of this blog, we mentioned imminent changes. Currently, child support liability is based on the net income of the paying parent: the initial rate is 15% of net income for one child, 20% for two and 25% for three or more children, paid from the parent who does not live with the children to the one who does. Adjustments are made for the number of nights the children spend with the paying parent on average each year and 1/7 of the initial sum is deducted for each night per week. Further deductions are made if the paying parent is financially responsible for other children or has step-children living in their household. The scheme applies up to a net income of £2000 per week, after which the court has additional jurisdiction.
The changes that are coming in will move the system to a gross income basis, where the paying parent’s initial contribution is assessed at 12% for one child, 16% for two children and 19% for three or more. This formula applies to income up to £800 per week, then a ‘top-up’ formula to anything over that amount of 9%, 12% and 15% respectively, up to a cap of £3,000 per week, gross. Overnight time deductions and the taking-into-account of other children will remain. The new calculation system is likely to be introduced very soon, once staff have been trained, but only applications to the agency where there are four or more children from the same non-resident parent will be put onto the new scheme at first so that the agency can be sure the new IT system works before it goes live across the board. The second stage (probably early next year) will be to widen the scheme to where there are two or more qualifying children, then later in 2013 to all cases.
The change to a gross system will make it easier to assess self-employed people on their income using their tax returns, and make it more difficult for the minority of self-employed non-resident parents who prefer not to play fair to minimise their assessable income with the effect of minimising their child maintenance liability. However it will only affect new cases at present, and for the foreseeable future – everyone currently in the system is unaffected by the changes.
Controversially and as we have discussed previously, there will be a charge for those using the CSA (rebranded for this purpose to the “Child Maintenance Service” from 2014) to assess and collect maintenance. The consultation on charging levels ends in a couple of days. The Agency has, however, emphasised that they will not introduce charging until the new scheme has been extended to all applicants and has been shown to be working well. A campaign continues to encourage the government to rethink its proposals in this area, and to focus instead on the huge potential benefits that access to child support might bring for the children involved, whose parents may be unable to meet the charges of accessing the scheme. The Guardian has published an article on the collection aspects of the new regime, but the accuracy of some of the allegations – like the likelihood of making victims of domestic violence pay for enforcement services – has been disputed by the CSA.
A move to gross income is likely to assist with enforcement for some sectors of society, but the introduction of charges will put barriers in the path of obtaining a more secure financial future for many more children, which is what the scheme is supposed to facilitate. We wait with baited breath, but without much hope, for the next instalment from the relaunched old CSA. What do you think?