Testing times for Gordon's relationship with the nation's families

26 Nov 2007

COMMENT PIECE

Gordon Brown may have said sorry to the nation’s parents and children over the lost Child Benefit data fiasco, but the Prime Minister would be wise to pause for thought and consider another imminent debacle lying in wait for him – one that will further strain the relationship between his Government and tens of thousands of parents.

This accident waiting to happen is his Government’s bid to reform the Child Support Agency (CSA) - that ill-fated body set up to assess, collect and enforce child maintenance payments from non-resident parents.

The Government’s proposals for reform – the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Bill – will be back in the House of Lords in early December. The Government intends to replace the CSA with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. Reform is vital but the Government risks getting it seriously wrong.

Those familiar with the CSA know that families being at the receiving end of clerical errors and poor management by ministers and civil servants is nothing new. Cash failing to reach single parents, the wrong people being pursued for payment, absent fathers receiving unfairly high bills – all this and more has caused misery for tens of thousands of parents and children.

Despite the infamous ?456million computer system introduced to the CSA in 2003, a huge backlog of claims has continued to mount up, with levels of service being nothing short of atrocious. Instead of helping families to rebuild their lives, the CSA has instead trapped them in a spiral of bureaucracy, adding to the pain of family breakdown.

So you would have thought that ministers would want to get it right this time. Yet despite consulting widely on its proposals, the Government is refusing to take on board the concerns raised by many different agencies.

As a result, the Government’s plans look set to continue the pattern of failure that has dogged the CSA. Worse, they look set to create a new system that will be even more unfair and ineffective than the present one.

Take the question of historic debt, for example. Some ?3.5 billion of maintenance has not been paid by the CSA, and most of this debt will never be recovered. This figure includes approximately ?760 million from debts so long standing they can no longer be legally enforced. Some 35,000 single parents have been waiting over five years for the CSA to resolve their claims. Such delays are inexcusable and cause enormous hardship to families and children.

The Government must provide more information on how this debt will be enforced and collected, with clear plans on how it will deal with those families whose claims are now so old they are unenforceable. It should ensure compensation for cases that have been mishandled, along with a clear, affordable and truly independent process for parents to make a claim against the new agency when it gets things wrong.

Then there is the question of court jurisdiction. Some cases are particularly complex because the courts are trying to deal with related claims. In these situations, when the courts are already examining the details of a family’s finances for the purposes of divorce, the most cost effective and practical course would be to enable them also to cover arrangement for child support payments. The CSA’s successor would then be freed up to handle other cases more quickly.

Another key issue is that of shared care. The present arrangements allow for significantly reduced maintenance payments for non-resident parents who spend a certain amount of time per year with their children. Considerable sums can hinge on one night’s stay by a child with the non-resident parent.

This situation provides a financial incentive for parents with care to restrict the non-resident parent’s contact with their children. On the other hand, many non-resident parents do not pursue their right to a maintenance discount for fear that it could lead the other parent to reduce the number of days they have with their children.

Fair? Hardly. But the Government plans to continue with this system – failing to recognise that there should be flexibility so that solutions can be shaped to a family’s circumstances.

Two versions of the CSA have failed miserably. There is still time to get things right the third time round but - just as Gordon Brown has shown a willingness to apologise to the country’s parents and children - he needs to start listening to them too.

Kim Fellowes
Chair of Child Support Committee
Resolution

Resolution is an association of 5000 lawyers, campaigning for fair family law and working for the constructive resolution of family problems. www.resolution.org.uk

Kim Fellowes is a Director in the Newcastle-based law firm Dickinson Dees LLP. She has been involved in child support work since 1993 and during 2006 -2007 has been extensively involved in child support reform, meeting with Lord Hunt and Lord McKenzie of the Departments of Work and Pensions and Constitutional Affairs. Kim was also called to give evidence to the Work and Pensions select committee on child support matters.

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