COMMONS

"Tentative" CMS must up its game in child support collection

02 May 2017

A report by the Work and Pensions Committee says the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) must be prepared and resourced to automatically take-over the more difficult or complicated child support non-payment cases from the CSA, and be toothier in enforcing payment.

It says gaps in the CMS' capabilities in domestic violence cases, or in dealing with fraudulent means declarations, must be closed, and the Government must set out how it is going to tackle collection of arrears and enforcement in ongoing cases.

Child maintenance payments

  • Non-payment of child maintenance is deplorable: it causes financial difficulty and immense stress to the parent with care, ultimately to the detriment of the child. Too many non-resident parents get away with prioritising second families, or worse still themselves, over children from a previous relationship. The Government cannot pursue every case of arrears but it has made no clear statement of which cases it will take up. Failure to demonstrate that it is taking seriously the worst legacy cases of prolonged under-payment risks undermining trust in the new system. DWP must clearly set out its criteria for prioritising arrears collection and how it intends to approach and resource tackling each category of arrears.
  • Parents do not themselves have recourse to the courts to enforce child maintenance payments and rely on the CMS.  But the Committee says the CMS is "tentative" in deploying its extensive enforcement powers. This enables non-resident parents to get away with not making appropriate contributions to their children's upbringing. It also signals to other non-resident parents that they could do the same. The CMS ought to strike fear into would-be evaders of parental responsibility and must take a stronger approach to enforcement. There should be a presumption in favour of enforcement action when a payment has been missed, and proceedings unless there is evidence of a valid reason or a credible payment plan is in place.
  • Unfortunately a minority of parents want to avoid paying fair maintenance for their children. Some use self-employment loopholes, creative accounting or fraudulent tax returns in order to do so. The trend towards greater self-employment means this problem is only likely to grow. DWP should reinstate provisions for parents to challenge child maintenance awards on the grounds of assets and lifestyle inconsistent with income.

"CMS maintenance calculation"

  • The "CMS maintenance calculation" that can supersede a court order has provided opportunity for some non-resident parents to underpay for their means.  The Committee says court-mandated level of payment should stand until an assets or lifestyle challenge is dismissed. A small HMRC investigation team should be embedded in the DWP Financial Investigations Unit: child maintenance cheats are very often tax cheats too.
  • It is right that parents take responsibility for supporting their children and organise maintenance with as little statutory involvement as possible.  But it is of concern that a high proportion of former CSA cases have not entered the CMS or been resolved by effective family-based arrangements, and cases will not transfer automatically. In cases where the non-resident parent has a long history of non-compliance it is not fair or constructive to force parents with care to start the process from scratch. This currently happens even when there is an active CSA investigation or enforcement action.

Domestic violence

  • The most intractable cases, where payment cannot be obtained through family-based arrangements, are more likely to involve vulnerable groups including victims of domestic violence. The Committee says the CMS must be ready and able to assist those families that need extra support, and that these cases should be automatically taken up by the CMS.
  • There is a high prevalence of histories of domestic abuse in the statutory child maintenance caseload. Abuse, control and coercion can continue when a relationship has ended. The waiver for domestic abuse survivors of the £20 application fee is welcome but that does not make the system safe and effective for survivors of domestic abuse and, ultimately, their children. A system that leaves victims with the choice of re-engaging with their abuser and risking further coercion and control, or declining money owed to them for their children, is clearly not working.
  • Cases involving domestic violence should proceed directly to the Collect and Pay service, which administers payments, without charges. The Committee also recommends further changes to the fees system. In instances where the CSA case included ongoing enforcement action, parents with care should also be able to go straight into the Collect and Pay service on joining the CMS
  • It makes sense to favour arrears cases that relate to children with current support needs. But is unclear whether the Department intends ever to pursue any arrears-only cases. It is unfair to leave those parents still owed for historic underpayments in the dark.

Committee comment

Heidi Allen MP, Member of the Committee, said;

"We know the balance between state and family is one of the hardest to get right. But there is an opportunity to get control of this decades old issue, by improving the new Child Maintenance Service.

I would not like to be the CMS adviser who has to tell a parent who has been chasing the child support their family is entitled to, maybe from a violent ex-partner, that they will have to start all over again with a new agency. Or that despite chasing for years, they need to discard any progress with enforcement and investigation and start from scratch.  In many cases, it makes absolutely no sense. We need to improve on the current situation, not start from the beginning again.

It is right of course that families sort these issues themselves wherever possible, and the Government only provide a safety net when that doesn't work. But a high proportion of ongoing cases from the CSA have not been resolved, they have simply disappeared. There must now be a worry that families simply cannot face starting over and are slipping through the safety net. Families who break up and are able to sort their financial commitments amicably do not need the state's help. But my goodness, when this isn't possible, of all the times when you need the state to back you up, this must surely be it.

The victims of this fraud by shameless self-employed parents who play the system, and old-fashioned deadbeat non-payers here, are children. The CMS must visibly up its game, to get fair support for parents in the most difficult circumstances, and to send a clear signal that avoiding responsibility for your children is unacceptable.

The evasion of child support under the guise of ever changing "self-employment" is also an evasion of tax. It is a double hit to the tax payer in the form of lower tax receipts and also benefit payments to parents with care who can't then make ends meet. It is therefore essential that the Government reviews this as part of its comprehensive review of self-employment."

Further information

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