Plans to charge single parents to access the Child Support Agency (CSA) – or the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) as it should now be known – are causing quite a stir.
In late January, the House of Lords voted in support of an amendment to the controversial Welfare Reform Bill. It would stop parents who are simply unable to come to a private arrangement for child maintenance with their child’s other parent from having to pay the charges – an upfront application fee of between £50 and £100, as well as an ongoing collection charge of up to 12 per cent taken out of the maintenance paid, and an extra charge of up to 20 per cent added on to the amount paid by the parent who is not main carer.
The issue then went back to the House of Commons last week with Ian Duncan-Smith, who is behind the plans, pledging to defeat the amendments. And he succeeded. So works democracy.
The Government says the proposed charging will encourage more parents to make private arrangements for child maintenance rather than simply relying on the agency to sort out the payments, at a cost to taxpayers.
In the last quarter ending December 2011, 78.0% of all cases in which maintenance was due had either received maintenance via the CSA collection service, or had a maintenance direct arrangement in place.
The Child Support Act 1991 came into force in April 1993 and effectively removed recovery of child maintenance from the courts (except in limited circumstances) to the exclusive jurisdiction of the CSA. In November 2008, CMEC took over responsibility for the child maintenance system from the CSA.
It was intended that all cases should have been transferred to CMEC by the end of 2011 and CMEC will become fully operational from 2013-2014. CMEC aims to improve the collection of child support and simplify the assessment procedures. One example is that parents can choose to opt out of the CSA by reaching agreement between themselves. However, such agreement is not legally binding. Also it is no longer compulsory for the parent on benefits to apply to the CSA.
The truth remains that the system is difficult to follow and police. Our advice for any couple would be to reach a child maintenance arrangement between themselves and have an experienced family lawyer draw up an agreement that sets down what is expected from each party. This would mean they could steer clear of the confusion that surrounds the system and leave them untouched by these plans to charge. Of course, a solicitor will charge a fee to draw up the relevant documents but it would seem to be money well spent to get the issue settled.