Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Families Need Fathers (CS 32)


  Families Need Fathers has as its guiding principle the belief that children benefit from the care and commitment of shared parenting. We fully support the Government in its assertion that all children have the right to emotional and financial support from both parents.

  It is in this context that our concerns with the proposals in the White Paper should be viewed. We concentrate on the barriers to shared parenting which will result directly from the White Paper—the issues of shared care, Child Benefit and "parent with care" income are central to our concerns for caring, involved, and sustainable parenting.

  It is our belief that the White Paper proposals in their current form will discourage shared parenting and result in a greater loss of contact between children and their non-resident parents (usually their fathers).

  Our evidence to this Committee lists ten areas of concern. Of these, the areas most likely to affect the operational success of the new system are undoubtedly those which deal with shared care. In our view, the proposals on shared care contained within the White Paper will, unless modified, ensure that child support remains a controversial issue for many years to come. We predict that the sense of grievance thus caused will affect compliance to a far greater degree than is anticipated by the Government. This prospect, we suggest, is entirely avoidable.

  The adoption of a fair system of child support, based on the reality of shared care, is attainable and uncomplicated in its application. Future co-operation and compliance may well depend upon it.

  Families Need Fathers would very much like to see child support as a contentious issue become a thing of the past. We believe that all children have the right to financial support from both parents. But we regret that there is no comparable right to contact with the children.

  Founded in 1974, Families Need Fathers is a registered charity which provides information and support to divorced and separated parents of either sex, married or unmarried, who face problems maintaining contact with their children.

  1.   Shared Care: the proposed scheme is set to financially penalise the most responsible and caring fathers, effectively preventing them from sharing the upbringing of their children.

  It is generally recognised[5] to be in the best interests of the child that s/he continues to live with both parents on a regular basis. This is known as "shared care".

  The Government proposes to reduce child support payments by 1/7th for each night of care provided by the "non-resident parent" (NRP). This proposal means that if parents care equally for their children (50/50) the "NRP" would still pay the "parent with care" (PWC) up to 12.5 per cent of net income, even if the other parent earned more (see Case Study 2).

  In shared care cases[6], both parents are at times the "NRP" and the "PWC", yet the Government plans to assess only one parent for child support.

  A 1/7th deduction per night of shared care[7] is necessary because the PWC does not have care of the child and is therefore not entitled to child support. In addition, however, the PWC must be assessed at 15 per cent of her income to contribute to the costs the NRP has when the child is with him. This ensures that child support follows the child and is applied equally whichever parent is providing care for the child.

  Assessing parents who share care of their children at 15 per cent of each of their net incomes (for one child) is therefore a fair, symmetrical, simple and transparent way to deal with shared care. It provides a just outcome and recognises the true cost of shared parenting. Proposals put forward by the Government do not do this because they ignore the parenting costs of the "non-resident parent" when he has care of the child.

  Allocation of Child Benefit compounds the discrimination faced by NRPs who share care (see page 4). It ensures that all money payable in support of children flows only to one parent, irrespective of who is actually caring for the child. Case Studies 1 and 4 illustrate this point graphically.

  The proposed "banding" [8] will further penalise NRPs who share care. This is unnecessary and is actually more complicated than calculating shared care on a proportional basis (as is currently done by the CSA).

  There are many countries which operate a fair "shared care" system.[9] As the White Paper proposals stand, the UK will not be one of them.

    (i)  Reducing child support maintenance by only 1/7th for each night that the NRP cares for the child discriminates against non-resident parents. While it recognises that money is not due to the PWC when the child is not actually in her household (hence the 1/7th deduction), it does not recognise the cost to the NRP (who is still paying 100 per cent of the cost for the child when s/he is with him). This is not a reciprocal arrangement.

    (ii)  Where "money follows the child" the NRP could expect to receive 15 per cent of the PWC's income when the child is in his household. This would be the PWC's contribution to the cost incurred when the child is with the NRP—just as when the PWC has care she receives 15 per cent of the father's income.

    (iii)  As illustrated in our Case Studies, the first night of care carries fixed costs (e.g. housing) and subsequent nights are less expensive. NRPs who have even one night of shared care per week incur these costs and should be entitled to child support from the other parent on a symmetrical basis.

    (iv)  If both parents were assessed at 15 per cent of their income, the difference between the two assessments would be the amount payable. This makes allowances for the fact that women tend to earn less than men. It also applies only to "private" cases—benefits shared care cases being exempt from the £5 minimum payment. As such it is entirely fundable from fees charged by the CSA.

  2.   Child Benefit: for cases of shared care the Government's proposal to continue awarding Child Benefit to only one parent will severely penalise the poorest non-resident parents.

  The Government proposes that in cases of equal shared care—where parents share care of their child 50/50—Child Benefit will nominally be split and deducted from the payments made by the NRP to the PWC. This is an important conceptual step forward in supporting shared parenting.

  The proposal, however, fails to apply the logic consistently. For those with less than exactly equal shared care, Child Benefit will continue to be paid to only one parent—even when the child is not with that parent for nearly half the week.

  This will affect all NRPs who care for their children.

  For a low income NRP, the failure to award Child Benefit in proportion to the number of nights his children actually spend with him per week is critical, if not prohibitive (see Case Studies 3 and 5).

  The awarding of Child Benefit irrespective of whether the child is resident in the household penalises children in shared care arrangements. The effect (particularly in cases such as Case Study 6, a benefits case) is to condemn children to entirely avoidable poverty when they spend time with their NRP.

  In shared care cases Child Benefit must be divided between the parents to reflect the actual nights the child spends in each household. Child Benefit, like child support, must "follow the child". The application of this is straightforward and applies only to shared care.

    (i)  Where both parents are on benefits, the award of Child Benefit solely to the mother leaves the father significantly worse off when caring for his children. While she receives Government support, he does not.

    (ii)  NRPs will get no help from the Government when they care for their children, even for 3 nights per week—no Child Benefit, no child support for when the child is staying with him, no childcare tax credit. This leaves the children financially deprived when they stay with the NRP and works against the White Paper's principle that children have the right to emotional support from both parents. It illustrates the failure of the proposed system to apply the logic equally and symmetrically to both parents.

    (iii)  In cases of shared care both parents are at different times "NRP" and "PWC" and must be treated accordingly. The money must follow the child.

    (iv)  The inclusion of working families tax credit (WFTC) and childcare tax credit further widens the gulf between "PWC" or "NRP" (see Case Study 4).

  3.   Parent with Care Income: under no circumstances will the income of the PWC be taken into account in the Government's proposals.

  The Government proposes that there should be no circumstances in which the income of the PWC is taken into account. The percentage payable by NRPs is said to represent half of what it costs to support a child. When the child is with the PWC she contributes her half and therefore (it has been argued) need not have her income assessed at all.

  Ignoring the income of the PWC works acceptably where she has care of the child 100 per cent of the time. This will account for around 70 per cent of current CSA cases.

  The problems begin, and are very serious, when there is shared care. The NRP pays the PWC when he does not look after the child. The PWC, however, never pays—even when she does not look after the child. The PWC also receives additional support—in the form of Child Benefit—irrespective of whether the child is actually in her household. The NRP does not receive Child Benefit even when the child is in his household (Case Study 1 demonstrates the effect clearly). All money paid for the child is flowing in the direction of the PWC, even when the child spends nearly half the week with the "NRP".

  Government proposals mean that a PWC earning £500 per week would still receive 15 per cent from an NRP earning £250 per week, even if both shared the child's care 50/50 (see Case Study 2).

  FNF proposes that in shared care cases the income of the PWC should be taken into account in the same way as the income of the NRP. This achieves an equal and symmetrical system of child support which recognises that in shared care cases both parents are at separate times NRP and PWC. It allows the money to follow the child. It applies the same principles to both parents, reciprocally.

    (i)  Ignoring PWC income for non shared care cases is justifiable because the percentage rate is set at one parent's sole contribution to the cost of the child (on the assumption that the other parent contributes when they are caring for the child). This assumes that NRPs do not share care of children and are therefore not contributing anything in addition to the child support paid.

    (ii)  Where there is shared care, however, both parents contribute when they have care of the child. But only the NRP contributes when he does not have care of the child (see Case Study 1).

    (iii)  Not applying the percentage to the "PWC" when she is in fact the NRP in a shared care case penalises one parent unjustifiably. It allows the parent labelled "PWC" to avoid contributing to the cost of the child when s/he is with the other parent. This is neither a symmetrical system nor a reciprocal one.

  4.   Contact costs: proposals to treat NRP's contact costs as "exceptional" are not in the best interests of the child.

  The Government's proposal to take into account the costs directly incurred in maintaining contact with the child are welcomed. That this will be done at the initial assessment is also welcomed.

  It remains unclear, however, whether all contact costs are seen as "exceptional" or whether only "exceptional costs of contact" will be considered in adjusting the child support assessment.

  Many NRPs spend considerable amounts of money maintaining contact. The evidence within FNF is that the costs of being an NRP can be as great as the costs of being a PWC. Costs of the child can often involve long distance travel and overnight accommodation, as well as the entertainment which is expected, particularly for weekend contact. The emotional support and practical commit-ment needs to be recognised when setting the level of child support payments.

  The Government proposes to ignore contact costs below set thresholds (£10 per week for low earners, £15 for those earning over £200). FNF submits that these amounts should be scrapped. Where contact is taking place it is money that will be spent on the child directly. Expecting low earning NRPs to pay £10 per week on top of their regular child support is unrealistic.

    (i)  FNF believes that no child should be denied the right to contact because one parent's "child support" payments are so prohibitive as to make contact unaffordable. We would like to see travel costs and overnight accommodation recognised in full, and made explicit within the "departures" system.

    (ii)  FNF has many members whose contact costs have not been taken into account by the CSA and who consequently cannot afford to see their children as often as before (if at all). Children are often moved many miles away from their NRP—who is, nevertheless, expected to meet the travel costs of contact.

    (iii)  Child support is about emotional as well as financial support.

  5.   Maximum payments: when child support is not child support. The wrong moral and economic message.

  The Government does not propose to set a maximum amount of child support payable. This means that the controversial issue of the spousal maintenance and the "carer's allowance" will continue.

  While it is the right of all children to be supported by their parents, failure to cap child support payments will mean that money intended for children will be used to support the PWC.

  Failure to impose a maximum payment or taper for high earners will undermine entirely the argument that "the money is for the child". This will affect the credibility of the new system and hinder compliance.

  Virtually all other countries' child support systems recognise the need to have measures in place for high earners.

  The absence of a maximum payment has the perverse effect of "serial mother-hood" becoming financially advantageous as there is no limit on the number of fathers against whom claims can be made. Payment for three children from three fathers produces a total of 45 per cent of net income. From one father this would be 25 per cent.

    (i)  FNF proposes that child support payments are either tapered for higher earners or capped at, for example, twice the average income. This would address the issue of spousal maintenance being paid in the guise of child support.

    (ii)  While it is true to say that spending on children increases in proportion to income, it is by no means established that this is a linear relationship. There is a limit to how much can "reasonably" be spent on the child, and a taper or cap would reflect this.

    (iii)  FNF believes that the way for children to share in the wealth of their parents is by encouraging shared parenting (see Shared Care, above).

    (iv)  The likely effect of not imposing a cap or a taper is a "brain drain" of high earners. The CSA would have little hope of reciprocal enforcement in other jurisdictions if it is based upon a dubious legal foundation.

  6.   £5 minimum payment: those on the lowest incomes will be expected to survive on £5.00 per week less than "subsistence" levels.

  The proposed deduction of £5 from all NRPs on benefits (except those with shared care) is unnecessarily harsh.

  A deduction from an allowance intended for personal support only will inevitably create hardship.

  The £5 deduction will penalise children in second families in order to make payments to those in the "first".

  The deduction from single person's benefit will inevitably prevent some NRPs from maintaining contact with their children. The £5 can make the difference between being able to afford to visit the child and not being able to do so.

    (i)  Deducting £5 from NRPs with children in their second family will create a poverty trap for second families and exacerbate the problems facing children of NRPs, carrying child poverty into the next millennium.

    (ii)  While the Government is rightly concerned that all parents should be seen to be supporting their children, there are times when emotional support is more valuable to the child than £5 paid in financial support (which may deprive a child of the little contact s/he has with the NRP).

    (iii)  FNF is aware of cases where contact which has been ordered "in the best interests of the child" cannot be continued because of the mandatory deduction in child support from those on benefits.

  7.   Second families: "First Children First" will disadvantage significant numbers of "second" and stepchildren.

  The Government's proposal to reduce the basic percentage rates (15/20/25 per cent ) to take account of "second" and stepchildren is welcomed.

  The proposed method of calculating the reduced percentage, however, favours `first' children. There appears to be little moral or practical justification for this.

  To ensure equality amongst all children of the family the Government must adopt its initial proposal as outlined in the Green Paper (1)—namely that the percentages should be divided by the number of children in the first and second families. In contrast, the White Paper proposal is confusing to parents and discriminates against `second' and stepchildren.

  To allow a reduction of just 2.25 per cent for one child in the second family will almost certainly continue the hardship currently experienced by second families.

    (i)  FNF would like to see each child, whether first, second or step, treated equally in legislation.

    (ii)  Each child of the family must therefore be accorded equal amounts of support dedicated to that child.

    (iii)  Children in "second" families should not be discriminated against in a bid to support children in "first" families.[10]

  8.   Benefit recovery cases: the proposed scheme will continue violation of existing statute.

  The liability of certain individuals to maintain others for Social Security purposes has been clearly defined and substantially unaltered since 1948.

  That liability to maintain extends to one's child(ren) and to one's spouse. It does not extend to any former spouse or partner.

  Where parents are divorced or never married, new Government proposals will lead to sums recovered in excess of those spent (and therefore legitimately recoverable) by the Government in respect of the child(ren) concerned.

  Where amounts in excess of liability are demanded, those excesses, however achieved, will result in abatement of the other parent's benefit payment and thus direct gain to the Treasury—gain to which there is no lawful entitlement.

    (i)  Section 42 of the National Assistance Act 1948 stated that: (a) a man shall be liable to maintain his wife and his children, and (b) a woman shall be liable to maintain her husband and her children. A woman's children included her illegitimate children and a man's children included any children of whom he had been adjudged the putative father. Various re-enactments up to and including the Social Security Administration Act 1992 have done nothing to alter this basic "parental liability" formulation.

    (ii)  Regulations laid before Parliament during the two day Gulf War debate of 1990 (now manifested in Section 107 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992), sought to circumvent the settled tenet of "parental liability" by giving the DSS, for the first time ever, the power to recover from (generally) fathers the expenses of personal Income Support for people whom they were not liable to maintain. Such a contradiction is self-evidently untenable, but it laid the foundation for an "Interim measure" of unfettered benefit recovery, pending wholesale implementation via the "carer" and "additional" elements within the Child Support Act of 1991.

    (iii)  While Ministers claim to be scrapping the "carer" and "additional" elements, it is in reality only the terminology which will have been removed. The "carer" and "additional" elements will remain in all but name.

    (iv)  The Government must realise that personal liability is not open-ended. The State has a role to play in the carefully structured division of responsibility for benefit expenses between itself and the individual. Child Support cannot continue as a camouflage for lone parent personal benefit recovery.

    (v)  Demands for Child Support must be capped at the actual amount paid in respect of the child(ren).[11] Additional and direct support of the child is a personal choice and opportunity, which any Government with the genuine interest of children at heart would look upon favourably.

  9.   Tribunals: the role of the Tribunal will be crucial to the just operation of any new system of child support, particularly one so lacking in discretionary powers.

  The Government is proposing to maintain the current appeals system, but to limit the criteria under which an appeal will be possible. Recourse to a Tribunal is expected by the Government to be "rare".

  The new proposals suggest that payments must be being made regularly and at a "safe rate" for appeals to be considered, even within the narrowed criteria allowed for appeal. FNF believes that there is no case for using denial of access to appeals as an enforcement mechanism.

  Errors in assessments will be dealt with by the case officer and corrected where appropriate. This is welcomed but should not replace the need for an effective appeals procedure where disputes continue.

  No system of child support can expect to deal with each and every individual's needs fairly. A discretionary element over and above that allowed for in the re-vamped "departures" is vital to counteract a rigid formula (which will inevitably create severe injustices and anomalies). The Tribunal Service must be fully resourced and independent in its ability to cope with such cases.

  Right of appeal should continue for initial assessments, change of circumstances and periodic case checks, as well as to challenge "exceptional circumstances" decisions.

  The role of the Independent Case Examiner is not referred to in the White Paper. FNF would strongly support a continued role for ICE.

    (i)  Reducing access to an independent appeals system is risky and increases the likelihood of injustice going unchallenged and unaddressed. Non-compliance is likely to be the result.

    (ii)  Assessments which are seen to have been reviewed thoroughly and independently have a greater chance of being complied with.

    (iii)  When appeals are initiated, personal information is disclosed to the other parent. Currently this is reciprocal, but, until shared care proposals are modified, only NRP's income and personal details will be collected in future. Protection of NRP's details will be crucial to their confidence in the system. Appeals lodged by PWCs who are simply curious as to the income of the NRP must be avoided.

  10.   The process: operational processes will need careful analysis and scrutiny.

  The Government proposes to convert existing cases to the new system within five years of new assessments being made, and at rates of change of £2.50, £5.00 and £10.00 per week to amounts payable. The lower limit is welcomed. The upper limit of £10.00 per week is likely to cause hardship, particularly for second families. Appeal on this point (where hardship is demonstrable) would go some way to addressing this issue.

  Concern has been expressed by FNF members that there is no "safety net". NRPs, particularly those with second families who may have high housing costs, will suddenly find that these unavoidable and largely unalterable costs are "disregarded". This may leave them unable to meet the housing costs of their second families. It is hoped that, in the interests of safeguarding parents and children, demonstrable hardship will not be excluded from the appeals criteria.

  It is unclear how the Government intends to prevent "cherry picking" between the old and new systems. A means must be found to ensure that "private case" PWCs do not leave the existing system only to re-apply several months later under a favourable new system.

  It is unclear whether arrears from the old system will be carried forward into the new, and if so, at what rate they will be payable. As no account is taken of housing costs and other commitments under the proposals, payment of arrears on top of a percentage rate will need to operate under the safeguard of appeal.

  The proposed 5 per cent of assessment required to trigger a change of circumstances is very high. An NRP earning £15,000 gross would have to live on £10.80 per week less before the assessment was adjusted for new circumstances. This is a sizeable amount of disposable income.

  The Government has proposed a new "default rate" to be set at the average assessment for the number of children. This rate must take into account shared care and second family if it is not to cause severe hardship.

  It is in our view appropriate that the legal beneficiary of child support is the child, rather than the PWC. Several European countries[12] adopt this option. The considerable conceptual advantage is that it makes it clear that child support is for the child. Practically, payment will still be made for younger children via an adult in many cases—typically the PWC.

    (i)  Any new legislation will benefit from public scrutiny and transparency. It is hoped that a draft Bill will be published for discussion with stakeholder groups and the Social Security Select Committee. Experience gained from the last Child Support Act suggests that hasty legislation is unlikely to produce a solid, workable system.

September 1999

5   For summaries of research see: Popenoe D, Life Without Father (Free Press 1996); Braver S, Divorced Dads (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998); see also Burgess A, A Complete Parent (IPPR 1998). Back

6   Shared care is one night per week (52 per annum) of care by the NRP up to equal shared care of 3.5 nights per week (182 per annum). Back

7   At least 25 per cent of the current CSA caseload. Back

8   Banding means that care is set at 1, 2, or 3 nights per week. Currently it can be set at actual amounts (e.g. 2.9 nights) and the assessment is reduced accordingly. Back

9   e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Norway and at least 14 states in the USA. Back

10   e.g. if there are two children in the first family they receive 20 per cent of the NRPs income. If there is one in the first and one inthe second, that 20 per cent should be divided equally, with the "first" child receiving 10 per cent and the "second" or stepchild receiving the same amount. Back

11   Actual amounts paid in respect of child(ren) can usuallybe calculated by the simple formula: I + F-C = Payment in respect of the child(ren) I = Income Support Allowance for the child(ren). F = Family Premium. C = Child Benefit. Back

12   Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden. Back

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