UK Politics

Parents face fees for child maintenance rulings

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Media captionMaria Miller, the government minister responsible for child maintenance, discusses the charges

Separating couples will get more help to agree child maintenance payments - but will be charged for state help if they cannot under government plans.

Families Minister Maria Miller said the current system "drives a wedge" between parents and leaves 1.5m children without effective financial support.

But there are concerns that charging for statutory help will "hit the poor".

Ms Miller said the system would remain "heavily subsidised" and the poorest parents would only pay £20 up front.

The much-maligned Child Support Agency was effectively axed in 2008 when it was rolled into a new body - the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission.

Ministers say there is a £4bn arrears in maintenance payments and less than half of children whose parents are separated are adequately supported.

They are consulting on changes to child maintenance in England, Wales and Scotland which they say will "better support families" to make lasting arrangements and will save the taxpayer money - the current system costs £460m a year.

The aim is to encourage parents to come to their own arrangements rather than relying on the state to set child maintenance payments.

Under the proposals parents unable to agree could be charged about £100 - the document suggests those on benefits could pay about £50, £20 of which would be paid up front and the rest in instalments. The charges would not apply in cases where there has been domestic violence.

'More enduring'

Ms Miller told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The real driving force behind the recommendations we are putting forward today is about getting parents to be able to have more support to come to their own arrangements, which we know are more enduring.

"For those people who can't come to their own arrangements we will be making sure that the current system, the statutory system, actually works harder and has more depth."

She said parents were more likely to stick to arrangements made independently and dismissed suggestions warring parents were unlikely to reach an agreement: "All the research we do says the majority of people currently using the system would want to come to their own arrangements if they had the right support in place."

Nicholas Cusworth, vice-chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said he broadly welcomed moves to help more parents come to their own arrangements and said everyone accepted the CSA had not worked.

But he said it had been set up to deal with absent fathers who were not supporting children whose mothers were on benefits. While couples with assets to divide up may well be able to come to an agreement, he said the change "will hit the poor".

"Scrapping the scheme and starting again is a thoroughly good idea. Charging everyone who uses the scheme - unless there is domestic violence - is not such a good idea," he said.

'Punishing families'

Barnados also asked for assurances on parents unable to reach agreement and who could not afford a charge.

Chief executive Martin Narey said: "If the welfare of the child is to remain paramount then the system must make allowances for vulnerable families whose hands are tied by the strain of living in poverty."

And Janet Allbeson, from single parents' charity Gingerbread, said discouraging people from seeking state help was "punishing those families who need the most help".

"Money can become an incredible source of tension between couples when they separate and the CSA does a very valuable job in insisting that responsibility for your children does carry on after you separate," she said.

Ms Miller told the BBC: "The new system will have not just support for people to make their own arrangements but the statutory system will be there to help people who can't come to their own arrangements.

"There will be a charge in place for them to use that, but for the poorest people in society, the up front charge will be £20, so we are not talking about an enormous amount of money. This will still remain a heavily subsidised state maintenance system."

Under the proposals parents will get free advice from voluntary and charitable bodies before deciding whether to reach an independent settlement or opt to use the statutory service.

The proposals are designed to build on changes introduced by the Labour government designed to ensure parents living apart fulfil their responsibilities to support their children financially.

The government is reviewing the future of the Child Support Agency, which still handles maintenance cases on a day-to-day basis. It wants more focus on vulnerable children and tackling evasion.

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, which took over responsibility for assessment, guidance and enforcement, says it is making progress in pursuing parents in arrears and more than 850,000 children are now receiving support - 260,000 more than in 2006.

BBC News website readers have been sending in their reaction to the story:

I've used the CSA for around eight years and by-and-large I am happy to pay for the commitments through them. There have been problems but I agree with it in principle. However, in opposition to the minister's comment, the big problem I have with the system is that if my former partner finds herself in receipt of state benefits, my son receives no benefit from my earnings. Instead my salary is used to pay the state benefit, paid to my former partner. She receives no extra income and my earnings disappear into the social security system somewhere. Far from being "a heavily subsidised state maintenance system" I find my earnings are subsidising the state. Stephen, Fife

This is a cynical and shameful attempt by the government to earn money from a relationship breakdown and to try and make savings. These proposals mean I could lose over £500 a year in maintenance and my ex-husband could be charged over £900. That earns the CSA £1,400 per year which is extortionate. I have no objection to paying a reasonable amount but I do not believe doing an annual calculation on what maintenance is due and then setting up a direct debit, would cost that amount of money. For that money, I would expect decent customer service, not something the CSA currently offers. Claire, Romford

After our separation, my wife and I agreed to share the repayments on a significant loan and agreed maintenance payments based on CSA calculations. To help her get a mortgage, I took over the loan in my sole name. She then decided to stop her share of the loan payments and involved the CSA who, of course, were unable to take any account of her responsibility for the joint loan. The CSA was used by her to dump her debt on me. Had they made a charge for their services, it possibly would have made her act differently. The CSA was founded to gain payment from non-contributing parents, as always, it's been easier to interfere with the honest parents, than to pursue non-payers. I think it's a good idea, and long overdue. Chris, Manchester

My wife and I currently have an arrangement through the CSA to obtain maintenance payments from my wife's ex-husband. He has repeatably failed to inform the CSA of changes in circumstances and the CSA has failed to ensure that correct payments are deducted from his wages. We are not in a position to speak directly with him and rely on the CSA. However, there is currently around £1,000 of arrears owed to us that the CSA appear to be unable to collect. Rather than charge parents who have no choice but to use the CSA, a full review of the CSA practices should be undertaken. From my experiences I can guarantee that this will identify efficiency savings that will not only reduce costs but will also improve the collection of arrears. Rob, Derby

As one of the many, many responsible fathers who has always paid the appropriate child maintenance, I support this proposal wholeheartedly. My ex-wife went to the CSA in order to extract more money from me and ended up with less.This means that we, the taxpayers, paid an awful lot in administrative costs but nothing of benefit to the children was achieved. The CSA was set up to go after those who refuse to pay and they're not very good at that. At present, their numbers are boosted by the inclusion of the large number of cases where an adequate "voluntary agreement" already existed and payments were already being made. I would like to stress that in my experience the individual staff of the CSA are trying to do a good job under very difficult circumstances, as ever, it's the "system" that is a waste of time and money. Simon, Yeovil

My husband paid regularly for his son through private arrangement, every month without fail, for three years, plus a large lump sum on separation, until his ex-partner decided she was "going to use the CSA to have him for every last penny" (her words). The CSA were of no help to us at all and very in favour of the resident parent. It was never disputed that we would pay maintenance. We both felt it is a very unfair system. It caused my family a whole lot of unnecessary grief, stress and upset, with constant form-filling and hassle. The CSA also lost forms, and said we had not paid, even though we had a standing order set up with them. Angie, Northampton

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