Select Committee on Social Security Tenth Report


SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The Formula

1. We recommend the Bill should provide for the Secretary of State to have the power to make regulations subject to parliamentary approval to adjust the standard percentage rates in the formula (paragraph 17).

2. We recommend that in the case of any dispute the child support assessment should be made on the basis of the last year's assessment by the Inland Revenue (paragraph 18).

3. Whilst we agree with the view that all non-resident parents should pay something, we are concerned at the effect of the minimum payment of child support on children in 'second' families in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance. We recommend that, before minimum payment is imposed in cases where the non-resident parent has dependent children and is in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, further research should be carried out on the effect of such a minimum payment on the level of compliance and the well-being of the children in the 'second' family (paragraph 27).

4. We welcome the White Paper proposal to treat step-children in a 'second' family on the same basis as the non-resident parent's own children in the 'second' family.[1] We prefer the alternative approach set out in the Green Paper[2] that maintenance liability should be split equally between all children (paragraph 29).

5. We recognise that taking account of the income of the parent with care could introduce complexity into the simplified child support scheme. In the interests of fairness, we recommend that the Government should set a significant threshold at well above average male earnings beyond which the earnings of the parent with care may be taken into account in calculating the liability of the non-resident parent (paragraph 36).

6. We are persuaded by the case that the children of wealthier parents should have the right to continue to share in that parental wealth. We therefore do not support the introduction of an upper limit on the automatic application of the revised formula (paragraph 41).

7. We recommend that the Department of Social Security should commission research jointly with the Department of Health and the Lord Chancellor's Department into the consequences for the well-being of the children of linking child support liability to overnight contact of non-resident parents with their children (paragraph 45).

8. We would expect that in most cases it would be in the best interests of the child for both parents to share their responsibilities for care. We support the White Paper proposals to reduce the non-resident parent's liability in shared care cases (paragraph 48).

9. We endorse the view of the Independent Case Examiner that the parameters of the discretion allowed to officials must be specified in Regulations carefully before the legislation comes into effect (paragraph 53).

Private Cases

10. We have reservations about the wisdom of allowing unlimited access to the CSA formula in all cases since the qualities of simplicity and rough justice, which may be necessary and appropriate for dealing with circumstances where the parent with care has had to resort to seeking benefit from the taxpayer, may not cope adequately with more complicated circumstances in which a private arrangement has been reached and where the taxpayer's interests are not involved. We are concerned that the CSA formula may be invoked to overturn settlements agreed to in court. It would be preferable if settlements reached in court paid attention to the CSA formula from the outset. We recommend that a statutory duty should be placed on the courts to take account of the CSA formula as a starting point in deciding child maintenance (paragraph 61).

11. We recommend that the proposed right of access for 'private' non-benefit cases to the CSA after an agreement has been in force for a year should not be brought into force until the Child Support Agency has had time to demonstrate its effectiveness in handling the new formula (paragraph 62).

12. We recommend that further research be carried out into the extent to which the interests of the children concerned would be adversely affected by allowing parties to 'private' agreements to have recourse to the rough justice of the new child support formula, and that the results of that research should be published before Parliament is asked to approve any proposal to allow parties to apply for a CSA assessment to replace a court order or registered agreement (paragraph 63).

Support for Parents with Care

13. We are concerned that having apparently similar cases being dealt with differently for a prolonged period may give rise to a sense of unfairness which may substantially undermine the credibility of the reformed child support scheme. We recommend that all parents with care in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance should be permitted to benefit from the child maintenance premium from the date of commencement of the proposed reforms in 2001 (paragraph 69).

14. We recommend that the forthcoming child support legislation should contain a requirement to up-rate the child maintenance premium annually in line with inflation (paragraph 70).

15. We agree with the Government that a State guarantee of maintenance owed by the non-resident parent would remove the incentive to comply with the Child Support Agency (paragraph 71).

16. We consider that the removal of automatic CSA involvement in WFTC cases is a welcome and positive development for parents with care in work (paragraph 73).

17. We recommend that the Government should give particular attention to the interaction of child maintenance with receipt of other benefits when considering its proposals for reform of Housing Benefit and also in the development of the children's tax credit. We recommend that the opportunity of the Housing Green Paper should be grasped to introduce a substantial disregard of child maintenance received by parents with care in receipt of Housing Benefit (paragraph 75).

Compliance

18. We welcome incentives for parents to co-operate and comply with the Child Support Agency (paragraph 76).

19. We recommend that greater attention should be given to improving the CSA's internal processes for verifying information on the lines proposed by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (paragraph 81).

20. We recommend that the CSA should be required to include in its annual report to Parliament an account of its counter-fraud activities, including details of the use made of its existing powers (paragraph 82).

21. We support the introduction of severe penalties for those who deliberately persist in fraudulent evasion of their responsibilities to their children, but we recommend that the interests of the children should be taken fully into account before action is taken to seek the imprisonment of a delinquent parent. (Paragraph 85).

22. We condemn the tactics of any group which seeks to encourage non-resident parents to evade their responsibilities to pay child support (paragraph 86).

23. We consider that it would be an unacceptable diversion of resources to pursue recovery of child support payments from parents below the age of 16 (paragraph 87).

24. We agree with the Government that there should not be a general amnesty for child maintenance debts (paragraph 88).

25. We welcome the constructive use of debt management to encourage compliance. We recommend that the Government should take the opportunity of the forthcoming primary legislation to allow Parliament to decide whether the Child Support Agency's power to write off or suspend arrears should be protected from challenge in the courts, taking into account the rights of the creditor parent with care (paragraph 89).

26. We want the new incentives to be given a chance to work and we therefore recommend that the application of the reduced benefit penalty should be suspended during the phasing-in period to assess whether the incentives alone are successful in achieving higher compliance (paragraph 94).

Operations

27. We recommend that, in its allocation of funds for the Child Support Agency, the Government should distinguish between the resources allocated to the Agency to deal with cases under the present child support scheme, and the resources allocated to develop the systems, technology and training for the proposed new scheme which will be introduced from 2001 (paragraph 99).

28. We recommend that the resources allocated to the Agency to deal with cases under the present child support scheme should be increased to reflect the anticipated year on year rise in present caseload which is likely to continue until 2001 (paragraph 100).

29. We recommend that the CSA should remain within the Department of Social Security (paragraph 103).

30. The importance of effective computer systems cannot be exaggerated. We recommend that the new child support scheme should not be implemented until the new computer system is fully operational (paragraph 106).

31. We recommend that particular emphasis should be given in staff training to the need for concise and accurate records of all contacts between customers and the agency, both as good administrative practice and to assist in the swift resolution of complaints and disputes (paragraph 107).

32. We recommend that the role of staff rewards in staff retention should be addressed as a matter of urgency, for example by giving bonuses for individuals with long service or who have undertaken additional training. We recommend that in the longer term the Agency should put in place a performance-related system to link staff pay rises to the achievement of realistic but challenging customer-focused targets once the new system is introduced. Targets should be chosen carefully to encourage a properly balanced approach by the Child Support Agency and to avoid the distorting effects of concentrating on the easiest cases to the detriment of others (paragraph 108).

33. We welcome the attention now being given across the board in the Department of Social Security and its Agencies to address the levels of sickness absence (paragraph 109).

34. We recommend that the Agency should continue to give a high priority to training and re-training staff (paragraph 110).

35. We recommend that special efforts should be made to ensure the availability of all CSA forms in the most common minority languages in the United Kingdom. We recommend that interpreters should be provided for face-to-face interviews in the most widely spoken ethnic minority languages in the United Kingdom (paragraph 113).

Transition

36. We are concerned that there may be considerable pressure from affected parents to bring existing cases on to the new system well before any dispassionate view could be reached as to the extent to which the new system is 'working well' (paragraph 116).

37. We recommend that every effort should be made to bring existing cases on to the new system at an early stage (paragraph 120).

38. We recommend that provisional timetables should be drawn up for transferring existing cases, so that those within the system can at least have some indication of the length of time they will wait (paragraph 120).

Scrutiny

39. We recommend that the Department of Social Security should give priority to funding a systematic programme of independent research into the operation of child support legislation (paragraph 121).

40. We recognise the Minister's efforts to listen carefully to all shades of opinion and we compliment her on the extent of consultation that has been undertaken (paragraph 122).

41. We are disappointed that it has not proved possible for the Government to fulfil its earlier intention of publishing its Child Support proposals in the form of a draft Bill (paragraph 124).

42. We recommend that the legislation on child support should be committed to a Special Standing Committee in order to enable its Members to take evidence directly on the details of the legislation which they will then proceed to debate and (if they wish) to amend. (Paragraph 125).

43. We recommend that the Government should consider either extending the terms of reference of the Social Security Advisory Committee, or creating a Child Support Advisory Committee on similar lines, to scrutinise secondary legislation on child support, as part of the process of building public confidence in the new child support system (paragraph 126).


1   Cm 4349, Chapter Two page 11 para 15. Back

2   Cm 3992, Annex One page 48. Back


 
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