Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by PCS—the Public and Commercial Services Union (CS 19)


  1. PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union, represents the overwhelming majority of staff employed by the Child Support Agency.

  2. PCS, and its predecessor Unions, have long argued the need for fundamental reform of the child support legislation . We therefore welcome the White Paper and broadly support its proposals for a radically simpler maintenance formula. We are pleased to see that many of the comments we made in our submission to the green paper have been included in the white paper.

  3. The current system has proved unworkable, particularly the current maintenance formula. The formula is too complicated to both administer and explain. This in turn has led to delays in assessments and a widespread loss of confidence in the whole system. A simpler formula will not just be easier to understand, it will also be quicker and more efficient to administer.

  4. PCS firmly believe any simplification of the child support formula must see resources shift from assessment to improving compliance and customer service, primarily through an efficient and well resourced administration. We believe that never again can inadequate staffing levels be allowed to contribute to the delays and inefficiencies that have dogged the CSA since its inception.

  5. PCS strongly believes that the administration of the reforms should remain with the CSA, as part of the Department of Social Security. CSA staff have worked hard, with impossible legislation and under unprecedented public criticism, to keep the current system afloat. They have shown enormous commitment and acquired invaluable experience along the way. It is essential to ensure that these assets are not lost.

  6. It would be simplistic to believe that all the problems of the CSA can be solved by new and better legislation in isolation. Experience has shown that any legislation must be underwritten by a high quality IT system and proper resources. The lack of both these in 1993 were major contributory factors in CSA's disastrous start. We must not make the same mistake again.

  7. The new formula promises lower average assessments as well as a simpler formula. We believe these to be necessary for CSA to acquire the confidence of the public and to persuade non-resident parents (NRPs) that they should fully maintain their children.

  8. PCS particularly welcomes the child support premium proposals. These measures will also contribute to the system gaining acceptability with the public as they start to see all children benefiting directly from the reforms.

  9. While PCS broadly agrees with the Government's proposals, we do have some points of difference regarding matters of detail. These principally are in the areas of extending minimum payments, the definition of income, retaining "good cause", overly cautious transitional arrangements and the treatment of certain exceptional cases. Details of our views can be found in our main submission.




  Parents have a clear responsibility to provide for their children so that they make the most of their lives.

p.1 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

1. PCS fully supports the White Paper's central theme that parents have a clear responsibility to provide for their children. PCS agrees that it is a proper function of Government to create and administer a system to ensure that the children of parents who live apart get the care and financial support that they need and to which they are entitled.

  2. The history of the CSA has not been an easy one and it has always been the view of PCS, and its predecessor unions, that fundamental reform of the child support law was necessary if the Agency was ever to become fair and efficient. PCS therefore welcomes the Government's White Paper "Children's Rights and Parent's Responsibilities" and many of its proposals.

  3. PCS accepts the White Paper's conclusion that the current CSA system has failed to deliver regular maintenance and has become discredited with the public at large.

  4. It is widely recognised that the principal flaw in the existing child support law is the complexity of the formula used to calculate maintenance liability. This has made the process of assessing liability excessively time-consuming for CSA staff and incomprehensible for CSA's customers. PCS therefore welcomes the proposals to replace the current system with a simpler and more deliverable system based on percentage rates of the non-resident parent's income.

  5. PCS particularly welcomes the proposals to introduce a £10 maintenance premium for customers in receipt of Income Support and to disregard child maintenance for recipients of Working Families Tax Credit. This will not only directly benefit the children, it should also go along way to dispelling the myth that the CSA is no more than a Treasury Support Agency.


  A simple and consistent system of percentage rates will form the basis of maintenance liability for children.

p.9 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

New Rates

  6. PCS supports the proposals to replace the formula with one based on percentage of NRP's income. The present system produces relatively high assessments that are in itself a disincentive for NRPs to pay. This problem is compounded by it being almost impossible for a layman to understand how the maintenance figure has been reached.

  7. The proposed new formula will have the double advantage of producing average lower assessments as well as assessments that are easily understood. This will in turn encourage more NRPs to pay their full liability and go a long way to ensuring that the Agency's current problem of non-compliance is addressed.

  8. At present a large amount of CSA's staff time is spent collecting and adjudicating on information in order that an assessment can be made. Once the assessment process is simplified this will free up staff time to concentrate on what should be their core task; ensuring maintenance is actually paid. The lesson of the current scheme is that there is no point pouring resources into telling someone how much to pay if that leaves insufficient resources to ensure the person actually does pay.

  9. PCS believe the proposed percentage rates (liability) are broadly correct. We particularly welcome the link between the amount payable and the number of children requiring support. This will remove one of the worst anomalies of the current system.

Balancing responsibilities to different families

  10. PCS welcome the change proposed to the treatment of second families. The proposal to reduce net income by a percentage calculated according to the number of children in the second family is fair to both parties and crucially recognises the rights of the children of second families too. It is also correct that step-children should be included.

Protection for the low paid and the effect of the new rates on the level of maintenance

  11. The reductions in liability for the low paid are important and welcomed. But PCS does not agree with the proposals to extend minimum payments to those on Income Support/Job Seekers Allowance who are currently excluded and to those in receipt of the other state benefits listed in Annex 2 of the White Paper.

  12. In many cases the current levels of state benefits are not sufficient to expect someone to support themselves and pay maintenance. Increased hardship will inevitably result, further driving people into poverty. This can only increase child poverty and exacerbate the problems facing that family.

What counts as income?

  13. The definition of income is a vital area to be resolved. The white paper is correct that there is little point in simplifying the maintenance formula if income is still highly complex to define. In PCS members' experience income is probably the principal cause of most reviews and appeals at present. The reliance on income in the "relevant week" often produces an accurate picture of average income, which commonsense dictates should be the determining factor.

  14. It is important that the new legislation's definition of net income is less prescriptive than at present and allows greater discretion for CSA staff to reach agreement with NRPs regarding their income. An NRP who has agreed their net income figure with CSA will surely be more likely to agree to pay.

  15. Regular overtime should be included as net income along with bonuses and other work-related remuneration. We can understand the reluctance to exclude unearned income, such as savings and investments, but when the income from these sources is substantial it should be included. Unearned income below a certain figure (possibly £3,000 pa) could be ignored and so staff time would not be wasted gathering information about small amounts of income. The number of cases where there is significant unearned income will be small, but it would be wrong to exclude these from assessment.

  16. Given the aim of the radically simpler formula then it is right to exclude other items like pension contributions and housing costs. Where there are genuinely exceptional reasons to take other costs such as these into account, this can be done through the appeal system.

Maximum assessment

  17. PCS agrees with the abolition of the maximum liability under the new scheme. It is correct to argue that children should share in the wealth of their parents.


  Our reforms are for all children, but we recognise that children in poorest families gain least from maintenance under the current scheme. The new scheme will direct extra help to these children.

p.17 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

The child maintenance premium

  18. PCS, like the Government, believe a key aim of any child support system must be the alleviation of child poverty. PCS therefore warmly welcomes the proposal to introduce a premium for parents with care (PWC) on Income Support (or income based Jobseeker's Allowance). It will also provide a major incentive to NRP to comply with their responsibilities as they can see their children benefit.

  19. The premium will be a big selling point for the new scheme to both PWCs who may be reluctant to use the CSA and to NRPs who presently see all their maintenance go straight to the Treasury. We believe the premium is the White Paper's single most important and progressive proposal and will undoubtedly increase the number of regular payers and the total amount of maintenance paid. This will in turn of course reduce the benefit bill overall.

Tax Credits

  20. The plans to ignore maintenance when calculating entitlement to Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) are also welcome for very similar reasons. PCS also welcomes the decision not to make applying to the CSA a condition of receiving WFTC.


  A new service that supports children and responsible parents and acts promptly and effectively to tackle abuse and lack of co-operation.

p.21 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

Safeguarding child support

  21. PCS supports the broad proposals in this chapter aimed at ensuring the correct information is used to calculate maintenance and that self-employment is not used as a means to avoid payment. The CSA does need extra powers in this field. However it would be wrong to assume that the problems of "disappearing" NRPs and the undeclared income of the black economy can be solved by just additional legislation. In addition to extra legislative powers the CSA will also need resources to trace those who set out deliberately to avoid the Agency and to enforce payment when they are found. Such cases are time-consuming and resource intensive but are essential ones for the Agency to address. Otherwise the tag of only going after "soft" targets will remain.

Child support for children on benefit

  22. The "Good Cause" rules have always been a problem to PCS and its predecessor Unions. We believe it is wrong to plunge a family further into poverty, that is already by definition on the poverty line. Yet that is the inevitable result of the imposition of a Reduced Benefit Direction on families on Income Support. It is also perverse that some of the worst NRPs, those who have been violent to their partners or children, in effect get away without having to pay maintenance. It is also interesting to note that before 1993, under the voluntary Liable Relatives (LR) scheme, the risk of harm from ex-partners was rarely raised as an issue and the level of co-operation by PWCs was much higher.

  23. Clearly the tax-payer has an interest in ensuring that benefit recipients do apply for maintenance. The question PCS would raise is whether compulsion is the most effective means of ensuring this. Past experience of the LR scheme indicates that the child support premium will be a major carrot to persuade PWCs that it is in their interest to co-operate. The negative image that CSA has suffered from has definitely encouraged many PWCs not to co-operate thus far. But if the new system is able to emerge fairer, quicker and offering real cash benefits for PWCs, this attitude is likely to change.

  24. PCS is therefore of the view that the requirement to co-operate rules should not be part of the new system.

A new service focused on the needs of children

  25. PCS warmly welcomes the conclusion in the White Paper to retain the administration of the child maintenance system within DSS. Experience has shown that the courts are unable to assess or collect maintenance quickly or equitably. Different courts have very different procedures, practices and attitudes. These are then reflected in the varying amounts of orders made and the inconsistent approaches to enforcement that different Courts will produce.

  26. While the Inland Revenue has a good track record in collecting money from reluctant taxpayers, it has no procedures for, or experience in, paying money out. Essentially the Inland Revenue lacks the practical expertise and experience required to deliver a child support system.

  27. PCS firmly believe that it would have been quite wrong for the child support system to be administered in the private sector. Customers would be outraged at companies profiting from their separations and family difficulties. Huge question marks would be raised over the confidentiality of DSS records, such as the Departmental Central Index which would be handed over with unlimited access if CSA was privatised. Also privatisation would be extremely badly received by the existing CSA staff. Their experience and commitment is essential for a successful transition to the new scheme to be achieved.

  28. CSA staff, many of whom are PCS members, have had to endure unprecedented levels of abuse and criticism from customers, the media and even politicians. It is entirely to the credit of those staff that CSA has survived as long as it has. Those staff have earned the chance to deliver a system that is workable, that is fair and that has the potential to end the stigma of working for the CSA. CSA staff were not responsible for the unworkable legislation of 1993 and they were not responsible for the disastrous under-funding of the early years of CSA. It is entirely correct that they should have this chance to prove what they can do when the playing field is level.

  29. However, it will take more than new laws and experienced and committed staff to ensure the CSA does not repeat the problems of 1993. Sufficient resources are crucial and we welcome the Secretary of State's promise of exactly that.

  30. Political support is also essential. We can have no repeat of 1993 where our political masters deflected the blame for the Agency's problems onto the CSA staff and away from those who had voted for the legislation. Any transitional period in particular is bound to be difficult, both administratively and as customers adjust to new levels of payments. There will be an inevitable outcry and controversy, but this time we expect the support not the criticism of the government and politicians.

  31. Investment in a fast, accurate and comprehensible IT system for child support is vitally important. Again we welcome the assurances that such a system will be funded and developed. Much of the early administrative problems of the CSA were caused by the decision to use a cheap second hand IT system to support the business. Recent events in other Government agencies such as the Passport Agency and the Immigration Service go to show that new procedures combined with inadequate IT systems can produce disasters. It is crucial that CSA learns from these examples.

  32. Improving the levels of customer service must be a top priority of child support reform. While most dealings with the Agency can be satisfactorily conducted by phone or letter, the sensitive nature of the CSA business demands that a more human face is available for those customers who require it. PCS therefore has already publicly welcomed the appointment of 600 face-to-face officers to provide such a service in advance of the reforms.

  33. However, in stark contrast, PCS is still concerned that at the same time the Agency (in apparent contradiction of its face-to-face initiative) is proposing to close most of the 170 local CSA offices. We would strongly urge that the local CSA offices are retained to ensure that no customer is too far from an office where they can see a CSA officer to discuss their case face to face. Local CSA offices also provide a valuable reserve processing capacity for the CSAC's, if and when they become overloaded. The benefits to customers of centralising the processing of a sensitive business like child support in large, remote centres are at best unclear. PCS believes the Agency should retain some processing capacity at local level too.

Charging for the new service

  34. The charging of fees was possibly the least popular element of the original CSA scheme. It was seen as the final straw by many and contributed greatly to the levels of non-compliance. Accordingly any re-introduction of fees must be handled extremely carefully.

  35. PCS is not convinced that the advantages outweigh the discontent and administrative burden that reintroducing fees will create. NRPs should definitely be excluded from all fees so as not to jeopardise compliance. At most, only "private client" PWCs should be liable for fees, and only then retrospectively once an adequate level of service has been provided.

Moving to the new scheme

  36. PCS believe that the proposals to delay transferring existing cases to the new scheme is excessively cautious and likely to alienate a significant number of customers. In the experience of PCS members working in CSA customers are already eagerly anticipating the reforms and asking when their case will be transferred to the new scheme.

  37. PCS is firmly of the view that the new scheme should be introduced as quickly as possible. If a "big bang" approach is too risky from an administrative point of view then a commitment to transfer all cases within a period of no longer than one year should be made. The DSS has a track record of converting large caseloads from one system to another, (e.g. Supplementary Benefit to Income Support in 1988 or Income Support to Job Seekers Allowance in 1995). As long as adequate resources and an improved IT system are available, such a transition should be achievable.


  A system for deciding liability which is focused on the needs of parents and children—and which allows disputes to be settled quickly and with minimum fuss.

p.31 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

The decision making process and making contact

  38. PCS welcomes the proposals for a stream-lined decision-making process. However, there are certain factors that need to be borne in mind.

    —  Such a system must be adequately resourced if delays and mistakes are not to occur too frequently.

    —  There are risks in over reliance on the telephone as the primary means of contact with the Agency. Can CSA guarantee that the public will be able to get through? Is it acceptable to ring customers at work without any prior warning or at home at weekends?

    —  Verification of the NRP's circumstances is essential and this inevitably builds delays into the process.

  42. A customer-focused service for parents and children that is quick and accurate is obviously important. The experience of CSA staff will be crucial in seeing it delivered. Urgent steps will therefore be needed to deal with the causes of the high turnover of CSA staff and the problems in recruiting new staff.

  43. Streamlining of the assessment review and change of circumstances processes is also important. We welcome the proposals to do this in the White Paper, especially linking the tolerance level for a change of circumstances to a percentage of the assessment, rather than the current flat rate which has discriminated against those on lower incomes.

  44. The great advantage of the new scheme is that a change in income will be able to be processed far quicker than at present. This will benefit all parties, not least our members who are as frustrated as anyone at the unavoidable delays inherent in the complex formula.

Resolving disputes and tribunal consideration

  45. It is essential that all customers have the right of appeal to an independent tribunal. It is also sensible that straightforward disputes are initially decided upon by CSA staff, notwithstanding the subsequent right of appeal to a tribunal.


  We recognise that a few families may experience exceptional difficulties in paying child support and this should be recognised in the maintenance that they pay.

p.39 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

  46. Experience of the Departures scheme shows that it is very difficult to legislate for all exceptional expenses that it will be just and equitable to allow. Practical experience is bound to show the law refuses to allow an exceptional expense that commonsense dictates should be allowed. That is why we would recommend a catch-all clause is inserted that would allow tribunals to vary assessments even if the specified criteria had not been met. Such a clause could be invoked for example if there existed a risk to the health, safety or welfare of the child or customer.

  47. Payment of the mortgage on the marital home must be treated as a payment of maintenance. Given the present rules on payment of mortgage interest to new Income Support claimants, which appear to be designed to force families into repossessions, it is essential that NRPs are encouraged to pay the mortgage in lieu of maintenance. Separation is bad enough for families without the benefit/CSA systems driving them into homelessness as well.


  48. The change from 104 nights to 52 nights per year for qualifying for shared care is to be welcomed. There has never been any logic in ignoring shared care of one day a week.

  49. The link between contact and maintenance is a particularly difficult issue. There may be no legal link between them, but there most certainly is a link in the minds of parents. This can either be a NRP believing they must be entitled to contact on the grounds that they pay the maintenance, or it could be a PWC who does not want to receive maintenance because they feel that this would force them to grant contact.

  50. The White Paper is on balance correct not to link maintenance legally to contact, but if this position is to be maintained there needs to be better information provided as to the reality of the link along with genuine encouragement to all parties to maintain contact.


  The need for regular and reliable payments of maintenance—and a system that addresses non-compliance quickly and effectively.

p.51 Children's Rights and Parents Responsibilities

  51. It is very important that CSA continues to provide a collection service for parents. More regular and more reliable maintenance payments will be the marker as to the success of the new scheme.

  52. Much greater use of direct debit and standing orders is sensible as research shows these to be the most effective means of collection. However, it would be wrong to deny customers the choice of transcash. There are still a lot of people who are paid in cash and who deal almost exclusively in cash. Proportionally many of these will be more likely to be CSA customers.

  53. Resourcing of the collection service will be most important, particularly in the area of enforcement through the Courts which can be costly and time-consuming.


  54. In our response to the Green Paper, as well as arguing that "the greatest asset the Child Support Agency has are its staff" and for the need of government to recognise this, we argued for the administration of the system to be properly resourced;

    investment in a fast, accurate and comprehensible IT system for child support; and

    the emphasis of a new, reformed CSA to firmly be one of customer service

  55. We believe that there is no reason that the proposals in the White Paper cannot meet all of these aspirations.

  56. Whilst PCS do have some minor concerns about the White Paper's proposals we do welcome many of them and its overall broad thrust of providing for children so they can make the most of their lives. We believe, when enacted, the proposals will make PCS members jobs significantly easier.

  57. Any concerns and criticisms we have made in this paper are made in a spirit of partnership. We will be happy to meet with both ministers and CSA management in order to discuss the implementation of the paper's proposals in more detail.

September 1999

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