Listening to the child involved in family court proceedings
Child law

No child support for half of children in separated families

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James Harbottle
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Half of children in separated families receiving no child support

Emma Perkins Partner and Solicitor and Head of our Children Law Team
Partner and Solicitor and Head of our Children Law Team

The child support system has had a troubled history, now covering some thirty years.

In that time the system has had three incarnations: the original 1993 scheme, the 2003 scheme and the current, 2012, scheme.

The first two schemes were the subject of huge criticism, primarily for their failures to recover billions of pounds of child support from non-resident parents.

Until now the current scheme, which encourages parents to make their own child support arrangements, has avoided much of that criticism.

But that may now change, following a recent report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.


CMS “achieving no more” than CSA

The child support system was originally run by the Child Support Agency (‘CSA’). But in 2012 the CSA was abolished, and replaced by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’).

At the same time billions of pounds of unpaid child maintenance debt remaining from the CSA schemes was written off, and a new child support scheme was introduced, which aimed to reduce reliance on the state, by encouraging parents to make their own family-based arrangements.

Only where the parents cannot agree their arrangements will the CMS get involved, either under its ‘Direct Pay’ service, whereby the CMS makes the initial maintenance calculation and then the maintenance is paid directly between parents, or under its ‘Collect and Pay’ service, whereby the CMS charges to collect maintenance from the paying parent, and pays it to the receiving parent.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has recently carried out an investigation to ascertain how well the new scheme is working. It has found that the CMS “is achieving no more for children of separated families” than the discredited CSA that it replaced.Listening to the child involved in family court proceedings

The Committee found that around half of children in separated families – that’s 1.8 million children – continue to receive no support from their non-resident parent, and enforcement can be too slow to be effective.

Unpaid maintenance owed to parents on Collect and Pay has increased by more than £1 million a week, to a total of £440 million in October 2021, and the National Audit Office recently concluded that unless more is written off, outstanding arrears will grow to £1 billion by March 2031 and “indefinitely thereafter”.

The Committee says that the 2012 reforms were based on the assumption that most parents can come to agreement on child maintenance between themselves, but the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’), which is responsible for the CMS, “has done little to ensure this is the case, or to address concerns that its approach risks causing a further deterioration in the parents’ relationship or exacerbating abuse and coercive control”.


Improving the system

The report makes a number of recommendations to improve the system, including:

  1. That the DWP should take action to tackle and monitor the ‘take-up gap’ between the number of separated parents that would benefit from using the CMS scheme and those that actually use them. An estimated 18% of separated families used the CMS scheme in 2019–20, compared to an expected 33%. As a result, there may be around 350,000 parents with caring responsibilities who do not have a child maintenance arrangement but would like one.
  2. That the DWP should outline how it will identify cases which potentially involve domestic abuse or coercive control, and adapt its services and communications in response.
  3. That the DWP should do more to detect child maintenance fraud, for example where the non-resident parent fails to disclose their true income.
  4. That the DWP should improve its enforcement procedures, so that non-payment is dealt with more quickly and more effectively.
  5. Lastly, there is the other side of the coin, which is likely to become ever-more significant in these times of rising prices: that many non-resident parents simply cannot afford the sums that the system requires them to pay. To address this, the report recommends that the DWP should review the affordability of child maintenance payments, and the appropriateness of the current award calculations.No child support for half of children in separated families

For its part, the DWP has said that it has in place plans to improve payment compliance by digitalising processes and allowing its staff to move from case maintenance into enforcement activities.

But that may not be enough. The seriousness of the situation was summarised by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Dame Meg Hillier MP, who said:

“There are still thousands of children not getting the money they need from non-resident parents. Even if the promise to improve compliance actually materialises, DWP will only buy itself a couple of years before child maintenance arrears reaches £1 billion again. There’s no strategy to bring that down except adding to the billions of owed child support that it’s already written off and won’t collect.

“The [Committee] would like an explanation how it’s going to fix this now, as we head deeper into a cost-of-living crisis that’s worsening the UK’s already shameful child poverty rates. Now more than ever children need this money.”