As almost any family law specialist will tell you, agreeing – and getting parents to stick to – maintenance payments for any children is one of the areas most fraught with difficulties. Just the mention of it causes emotions to run high on both sides. For the parent with whom any children will reside, they are keen to ensure the absent party pays their fair share of support costs (at least). For the absent parent, often the father, they have to make sure the arrangement is within their means, fair and takes into account all of the circumstances.
Even when joint residence is agreed, effectively with the children splitting their time between both parents, the issue of financial support can still be a thorny one.
The Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up to help ensure that fair arrangements were made, and was charged with chasing those parents who were not sticking to the arrangements. It was found to be wanting on many occasions and so, in 2008 the more officious sounding Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) was introduced to us all.
Worryingly, Ministers are still suggesting there is a £4 billion arrears in maintenance payments and less than half of children whose parents are separated are adequately supported.
Now Families Minister Maria Miller has announced a consultation on proposals which, it is suggested, could help the situation. Separating couples who cannot reach a manageable solution to maintenance payments will be charged for state help in sorting them out. Ms Miller said the system would remain "heavily subsidised" and the poorest parents would only pay £20 up front. Others could be charged up to £100 for help.
I will admit I have not studied the proposals closely but it is fair for a government body aimed at helping parents with care who do not receive child support to charge those parents up front before they have helped secure a single penny in child support?
Before the Government thinks of making any charges for a service, it needs to ensure it can deliver one. Despite years of trying, first though the CSA and now CMEC, I don’t believe it is achieving this.
The proposals fail to appreciate how vindictive separated parents can be. For some they would choose to use CMEC to make the other parent pay. Many parents in conflict would rather see a third party like CMEC get the money than the other parent, not appreciating the only people really hurt are the children. So this proposal could be used to bully the other parent.
It also appears to have been forgotten that the CSA was brought into being to try to avoid the courts having to deal with child support. There is a real danger here of the parents applying to the court to resolve the issue, paying only the court fee and then proceeding as litigants in person – which is more time consuming for any court – and on securing an order registering it with the Magistrates court to enforce. That will cost the tax payer far more than CMEC can hope to recover charging separated parents.
This is an “everyone loses” scenario and has been very poorly considered. The answer to the problem is to make the child support formula even more simple and to make it automatic to deduct from the wages at source.
In my experience HMRC are the most efficient collectors of money owed.