Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (CS 27)

  The CAB Service appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the child support White Paper.

  In the year 1998/99 bureaux throughout the country dealt with over 72,000 enquiries relating to child support. During the year we also received nearly 800 reports from bureaux highlighting concerns on behalf of clients. The following response is based on this experience.


  The Citizens Advice Bureaux Service:

    —  Welcomes the proposal for a simple system of child support rates

    —  Welcomes the lower rates for non-resident parents on very low incomes

    —  Welcomes the move to a more customer focused child support service

    —  Supports the proposal for a £10 maintenance premium but recommends that it should be increased to £15 per week

    —  Accepts the need for a tougher sanctions regime but urges that great care is taken to ensure that the sanctions are based on correct information and applied sensitively

    —  Recommends the abolition of the benefit penalty which results in many children living below the poverty line


  1.  The CAB Service appreciates the opportunity to respond to the Committee's inquiry into the White Paper. The Government's proposals are the latest in a series of reform programmes designed to address problems with the child support scheme. Success for the scheme is crucial. It is vital for the Government to address the problem of three million children growing up in poverty, and child support represents a substantial element of this problem.

  2.  Last year (1998/99) bureaux throughout the country dealt with over 72,000 enquiries about child support, most of them arising from the very complex and difficult nature of the present system.


  3.  The proposal to move from the current very complex system to the radically simplified scheme, based on a simple percentage of the non-resident parent's net earnings will be welcomed by CAB advisers throughout the country. They have struggled to explain the present scheme, and to check the accuracy of assessments. The new formula will be easier to understand, explain and calculate. This is an important and very welcome proposal in the White Paper.

  4.  Citizens Advice Bureaux regularly report problems experienced by non-resident parents on low incomes who cannot afford their child support payments. We support the proposal to apply a minimum rate of £5 a week for non-resident parents earning £100 a week or less and lower rates for those earning between £100 and £200 a week.


  5.  The introduction of Working Families' Tax Credit with 100 per cent disregard of all maintenance paid to claimants will benefit many children and is greatly welcomed by the CAB Service. However, there are children growing up in homes where employment is impossible. These families will gain only £10 of any maintenance paid.

  6.  In 1994 the CAB Service published a report `Child support: one year on'. We included as a key recommendation that there should be:

    "a maintenance disregard of £15 for parents with care who are in receipt of income support, in order that they receive a direct financial benefit from any child support paid by the absent parent."

  7.  Since that report we have continued to call for a disregard. Governments have previously stuck to the view that child support payments to people receiving state income maintenance benefits should lose some benefit as child support is paid. We welcomed the view expressed in the Green Paper that this represented meant `hassle, but no cash'. The CAB Service has taken the view that it is of prime importance that children in the poorest families should receive the benefit of additional child support income. We take this view because we believe it necessary to ensure support for the scheme and because of the contribution the money could make in alleviating poverty.

  8.  The Government claims it is putting children first, yet those in the poorest families will continue to face a restriction on the amount that they receive from the child support scheme. We believe this is as important as ensuring that maintenance is paid, in order to show that child support is based on the principle that parents and society as a whole should invest in the future of children. We therefore welcome the introduction of a child maintenance premium but repeat our belief that this should be up to £15 per week.


  9.  The CAB Service fully supports measures taken to ensure that non-resident parents do not avoid their responsibilities to pay child support. Effective enforcement action is central to the success of the child support scheme. Monthly reports from bureaux continue to highlight the very real difficulties faced by families when maintenance goes unpaid:

    A CAB in Eastern England reported a client and her daughter who had only £17.10 a week to live on when maintenance payments did not arrive, as happened regularly. She could not claim income support because the maintenance would take her above income support level.

    A CAB in the Midlands reported a client who was assessed to receive £80 a week child support. She was lucky if she received £20 a month. However, her family credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit were all calculated on the assumption that she received the full maintenance. She was therefore doubly deprived as these benefits were reduced.

  10.  Enforcement powers must be operated in a fair way and care must be taken to ensure that they are based on correctly assessed liabilities. Bureaux all over the country have been involved in cases where Deduction of Earnings Orders (DEOs) have been administered incorrectly, often causing hardship and much distress.

    A CAB in the North West reported a client earning £179 per week who was having over £100 deducted each week from his wages in error. The child support assessment had used figures that unusually included overtime payments although he had supplied the correct payslips.

    A CAB in the West of England reported a client who received a phone call in January telling him that he owed £5000 and an attachment of earnings order would be enforced if he could not pay. His income is £174 per week, he pays rent of £75 a week and £60 a week is deducted from his wages to cover child support. He had received no letter warning him of the DEO.

  11.  The CAB Service wishes to urge extreme caution in introducing criminal sanctions and to seek assurances that the process would be applied sensitively.

  12.  The White Paper describes new methods of applying for maintenance for those making claims for income support. In future claiming income support will be enough to start the child support process. A parent with care can specifically ask the CSA not to pursue maintenance because of `good cause'. However those who refuse to help trace non-resident parents may have a benefit penalty imposed after a cooling off period of four weeks. The CAB Service recommends the abolition of this benefit penalty which results in many children living below the poverty line. CABx frequently report clients who have provided all the information they have yet they suffer a benefit penalty.

    A CAB in Southern England reported a client in some distress who sought advice about how to find out her ex-partner's address. She had suffered a reduction in benefit but had no idea where he might be.

    A CAB in Eastern England reported a client who sent full details of her baby's father to the CSA on an A4 sheet. She suffered a £20 a week reduction in benefit because the information was not given on the correct form. Another client who did complete the correct form suffered the same penalty because the Benefits Agency had mislaid the form.


  13.  The CAB Service welcomes the emphasis on moving away from impersonal written contact to more contact by phone and in person. Some of these changes are already in place and are very welcome. The number of reports received from bureaux complaining about the CSA is dropping and we have been pleased with the introduction of CAB hotlines which enable CABx throughout the country to communicate with the CSA to resolve clients' problems.

  14.  We are also pleased to note the emphasis the CSA places on working with other agencies and family support services.

September 1999

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