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Child Support: Revolt & Revolution

Last week, the government suffered a defeat in the House of Lords over its plans to introduce a charging structure for parents needing to use the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) – previously the Child Support Agency (CSA)* – to obtain child maintenance payments for their children. Peers overwhelmingly rejected the idea by a measure of more than 2 to 1. Disappointingly for those who oppose the proposals, the Government swiftly said that it would attempt to overturn this defeat when the Welfare Reform Bill returned to the House of Commons, as it has done today.

CMEC can make assessments of child maintenance and can also act to enforce payments, ensuring that the non-resident parent fulfils the obligation. The Government’s stated aim is to encourage parents to make their own arrangements for child maintenance without using CMEC, ideally through mediation. The system is expensive to run, and has been beset with problems from the start. However, there are some very positive aspects to the child support system, as we intend to explain.

The government’s idea is to make parents who wish to pursue a non-resident parent for child maintenance pay an upfront fee of £100 – or £50 if on benefits – to use CMEC to make an assessment of how much the non-resident payer owes. If the parent needs to use CMEC to collect payments too, the government suggests that CMEC should levy a charge on each maintenance payment before it is received by the carer. The end result of course is that less money goes into the hands of the parent looking after the child. Faced with the fees, the other knock-on effect is likely to be that many fewer parents bother pursuing their former partners in the first place. After the progress made in encouraging parental financial responsibility over the last 20 years, we feel this is a bitter blow to children’s prospects after parental separation.

Critics of the operation of CMEC/CSA – and there are many – have often failed to take into account the huge societal change brought about by the very fact of its existence. A brief history lesson: the CSA was the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher’s government, which saw that the dependency of single parents on welfare benefits could be relieved by imposing inescapable obligations onto the “absent parents” (as those parents who did not live with their children were then termed) to pay maintenance for their children to the parents with care. In keeping with the politics of the time, the scheme was harsh in its operation in the early 1990s, and a lone parent receiving benefits who refused to let the CSA pursue her children’s father without a good reason was stripped of part of her benefits payments. Computer problems, an incredibly complex formula for assessing payments, errors and a perceived failure to tackle difficult cases harmed the CSA’s reputation to the extent that it has recently had to be renamed for a new start (hence CMEC).

But nevertheless, in the nearly 20 years since the Child Support Act 1991 came into effect, there can be no denying that a sea-change has taken place in the attitudes of parents to supporting their children financially after separation.

In the 1980s and before, child maintenance was optional at best. The courts did what they could, when they were required to do so, but there was no suggestion that they had kept pace with the increase in the numbers of lone-parent families since the reform of the divorce laws two decades before. The Child Support Act led to a change in attitudes to the financial burdens of bringing up children. The CSA was ridiculed, but it was also feared. The terror of being sucked into the vortex of the Child Support Agency encouraged people to make financial arrangements where previously they might not have bothered. Children did benefit. As the years have passed and the formula has become more transparent, the agency better organised and the enforcement provisions improved, the idea of child support is stuck deep in the psyche of separating parents. Now, we rarely see parents who do not want to pay towards the expenses of the children they no longer live with; we are much more likely to see parents who take pride in doing so.

The last 20 years have seen other societal changes too with regard to children of separated parents. Children are more likely now to stay in touch with both parents after a separation; shared residence arrangements, backed by flexible working for both partners perhaps, are exponentially more common. Could the CSA be at the root of this too, even in part, we wonder? Although the courts and lawyers are always keen to separate money and contact with children, and rightly so, we cannot deny that those going through separation and divorce often naturally feel that one should be linked to the other. Parents forced to pay may have fought harder to see their children. Parents receiving financial help may have been more inclined to encourage contact with the non-resident parent. It’s a controversial subject, but we wonder if financial and social/emotional responsibility for children may go hand-in-hand more often than we all like to accept, and whether the Child Support Act may have had some part in starting off an era of more involved parenting for many, after separation.

CMEC is far from perfect. It may be expensive to run and bear the scars from 20 years of tinkering. But the idea that each parent is financially responsible for their children even though they may live apart is fundamental to improving prospects for some of the most disadvantaged children, and for the parents who look after them. We urge the government to look at other ways of offsetting the cost burden of the child support system. Also, we humbly suggest that the responsibility for paying any fees should fall not on the parent receiving the child maintenance and looking after the children, but instead on the parent who has to be pursued for payment rather than coming to an agreement in broad accordance with the published guidelines (unless for a good reason, of course).

(You may also like to listen to our Partner Simon Bethel on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s morning show last week talking about this issue: here from 1.8.30)

Do you have any experience of the child support system?  What do you think its effect has been, and what do you think of the government’s proposals to charge for using it?

*updated 23.5.14 – the new organisation is called the Child Maintenance Service, and proposals for payment are about to come into effect.  See www.cmoptions.org for more details.

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