The Minister responds: on Child maintenance reforms

Responding to a series of online questions on the Family Lives website; Maria Miller MP addresses planned changes to the child maintenance system. Website users were invited to email their questions, a selection of which appear below:

Question: Why are lone parents going to be forced to pay for the services of the new CSA? Surely it should be the "deadbeats" that pay, not the resident parents? (James French, also asked by Lisa Seaton). Is this just a way of reducing the national deficit? (Justine Mensa-Bons)

Both parents have a responsibility to raise their children whether or not their own parental relationship is intact or not. Children do better when both parents remain involved in their lives. That goes for the financial cost of a child’s upbringing too.

At the moment too many parents feel they have no choice but to use the CSA which does little to encourage parents in working together on how they will raise their child.

The CSAs focus on money alone can often lead to higher levels of conflict. More than 3 million children live in separated families, and only around 50% of those actually benefit from an effective maintenance arrangement of any sort.

At the moment unwilling non resident parents (nrps) have no incentive to pay until the CSA chases them. That’s an expensive and time-consuming business and I believe it’s right that parents should make a contribution towards the cost of that.

Under our plans, non-resident parents will have to contribute to the cost of transferring the money from one parent to another. And, more importantly, they’ll face a penalty fee if they face enforcement action for falling behind on payments.

The current statutory system isn’t sustainable. It costs 40 pence to collect every £1 from a non-resident parent with the system as a whole costing £460m a year to run.

Our changes are designed to provide better value for money for the taxpayer. But this is certainly not just a way of reducing the national deficit.

The system will continue to be heavily-subsidised by the taxpayer. These reforms are about getting parents to collaborate and sort things out themselves. That’s what’s best for children.

2. Will there be any help for struggling parents who are unable to afford the charges and whose ex partner refuses to come to an arrangement between themselves? (Mrs Layton)

Parents on benefits who are unable to work together as parents will only be expected to pay a reduced application fee – £20 upfront which is less than 10% of the projected cost of processing the application.

You could also save money if your ex agrees to pay you directly once you open a case with the “new CSA” and you’ll be able to rest assured that they will still step in if they ever stop paying. We also propose to charge non resident parents higher collection charges than for parents with care and penalty fees for enforcement action taken against them.

The most important change under the new system is that there will be better support to help both parents come to their own arrangement - escaping the statutory system, and charges, altogether.    


3. What help is given to parents who are victims of domestic abuse? And do they need to prove they're victims in order to qualify for any help? (Mrs Layton+ Juliette Hansford)?

Thank you both for this question. Firstly, we’ve made it clear that where there has been domestic violence, applicants will be supported and fast-tracked into the “new CSA” and will be able to apply free of charge. I’ve already met lots of groups that represent domestic violence victims to get their perspective on how we might best identify inPiduals who have experienced domestic violence.

This is something we need to get right across Government and I will be working with the Home Secretary and other Ministers to make sure there’s a consistent approach. We will set out our detailed proposals later in the year and consult again on this - we really need to get this one right.

We know that for many parents who have suffered domestic violence, their priority is getting the right support in place for their children and the fact that they have to use the statutory system is not a choice they would have necessarily made for themselves. They need our support and I’m spending a lot of time developing how this will work in practice. 

4. What will you do to enforce payments from those parents who go to great lengths to avoid their responsibility, like fleeing the country? (Juliette Hansford and Becky Willoughby).

I’m amazed and saddened at the lengths some parents will go to avoid supporting their own children. Using information from HM Revenue and Customs, we will make the maintenance service much less dependent on what non-resident parents choose to disclose about their incomes. There will be less opportunity to exclude sources of income from the maintenance calculation. It will also enable us to trace people more effectively.

However the CSA has never had the powers to pursue parents who choose to flee the country. But you will still be able to use the courts to enforce maintenance in countries where reciprocal arrangements with the UK are in place. Those who refuse to make sure their children have the financial support they need will also face enforcement action – as well as new financial penalties under the new system. 

5. What will happen to the outstanding maintenance arrears when the CSA cases are closed? (Juliette Hansford) (Naomi Horan)

Collecting maintenance from some irresponsible parents has been an incredible challenge over the years. The CSA will continue to use its best efforts and formidable enforcement powers to collect outstanding arrears. We’re already deducting money directly from debtors’ bank accounts and taking away the homes of those who refuse to pay up.

Those who have CSA cases and are waiting for their former partners to pay the debts they owe through the CSA will not need to open a case with the new statutory service and will not have to pay a fee in order to get their money.

6. What happens when a non resident parent is willing to reach a private arrangement but the parent with care refuses to co-operate in order to spite them? (The Shoe Tree).

That’s a good question. Too many parents have used the CSA as a weapon to get back at their exes. Our proposals aim to stop that. If a parent with care refuses to cooperate and is determined to take their case to the “new CSA”, then they will be charged to open a case. Once the case is in the “new CSA”, the non-resident parent can choose to pay the parent with care directly through Maintenance Direct (as long as it’s on time and in full) and will not pay any charges if they do so. If they fall behind they will lose the right to pay directly and revert to the normal collections process.

The independently chaired Family Justice Review Panel has already recognised the distress and sense of unfairness felt by parents who are continually refused contact by their former partners and yet have to pay maintenance. Courts can already order the likes of unpaid work, fines and imprisonment where contact is refused and the Panel’s concluded that courts should also be able to order reductions or suspensions in maintenance payments where this is in the best interests of the children.

But the Government will wait for the Family Justice Review's final report, due in the autumn, before responding on the Panel's recommendations. 

7. If the detachment of earnings is in place can it be paid direct to myself and bypass The CSA? (Naomi Horan)

This seems an attractive idea but I can see how it might cause problems in practice. Some parents have several child support cases and the money needs to be Pided up between them.     
That’s why Deduction from Earnings Orders are a power reserved to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. The money should be passed on to you promptly and without delay and if it isn’t I’d like to hear about that.      

8. Are you going to stop parents with care using the new CSA to intervene when maintenance is already being paid? Surely it should only intervene in cases where no maintenance is being paid. (The Shoe Tree).

We’re not going to stop any parent with care from using the statutory service if they really need to. We will, however, provide plenty of support to help people come to their own arrangements so they don’t need to come to the statutory service.

If maintenance is already being paid we would suggest the parent with care talks to the other parent and negotiates a settlement which they’re happier with. Under the “new CSA”, once the parent with care has opened a case, the non-resident parent will be able to nominate to pay the other parent directly. This will mean both parents escape collection fees and the “new CSA” only ever step in if payments default.

Newly-separated parents will go through a gateway before entering the new service anyway, which will provide additional support to get parents talking and collaborating in the best interests of their children. More than half of the people who currently use the CSA feel they are likely to be able to make their own arrangements given the right support.

I recently visited Child Maintenance Options which provides telephone and web support to separating parents, and whilst it was good it could provide even more help. I’m committed to making sure that enhanced support is there for people to work things out themselves.  

9. Is the new CSA going to start taking into account the income of the parent with care? It can't be fair that they're able to claim thousands of pounds a month in tax credits, child benefit and other benefits as well as a share of tax credits from another household without it being considered. (The Shoe Tree).

The current statutory service is a one size fits all model, with very little flexibility in what is paid. We want to provide support to parents to make their own family-based arrangements, based on their own personal circumstances, which could include the income and situation of the parent with care.

There are no plans to take into account the income of the parent with care in the new CSA. The original CSA scheme took into account the income of both parents as well as a range of other factors. In attempting to allow for all circumstances, it proved unworkable.

The current scheme and the proposed new scheme are based on the principle of collecting from the non-resident parent broadly the amount of money that he or she would have spent on the child or children had the family stayed together.  This does not depend on the income of the parent with care.

10. Why is the Government putting more money and time into making the state child maintenance system better when I thought it wanted to push more parents into private arrangements? (Martin Lynagh)

At the moment far too many separated families wrongly think there’s no other option to securing child maintenance for their child than to use the statutory system. Our priority is to get more parents to realise there is – and the benefits of family-based arrangements usually far outweigh using the CSA.

We believe that children do better when both parents are involved in their lives and research shows family-based arrangements where money is flowing go hand in hand with non-resident parents keeping in contact with their children.

What’s more, more than half of CSA parents with care and almost three quarters of CSA non-resident parents have said they would be likely to make a family-based arrangement were they to receive the right kind of help. One-third of parents using the CSA have friendly relationships with their ex-partners and find it fairly easy to discuss financial matters – there appears to be little need for them to use the CSA.

We’ll be providing support to aid this even more. And yet we recognise that for some people the state system is the only solution. We realise that the current system is in drastic need of an overhaul. Its IT systems are flawed, children are missing out and costs are spiralling.

We believe the proposed new scheme -using readily available income information from HMRC, running on a new IT system and still heavily subsidised - will be simpler and more transparent. And, most importantly, it will lead to better outcomes for parents and children.