Select Committee on Work and Pensions Fourth Report


The White Paper represents a radical shift in child support policy. We welcome the Government's attempts to reform the system of child maintenance and recognise the boldness of the proposals to seek a new solution with a move towards private agreements and away from administratively imposed arrangements. However, we have reservations. We are concerned that at this stage in the policy redesign there is insufficient detail for proper scrutiny over how the new system will work. In addition, there appear to be a number of inherent tensions and contradictions within the White Paper between the principles and the practicalities of reform.

There is a fundamental shift proposed towards private agreements. All parents with care will be free to make their own maintenance arrangements. No one knows what the behavioural responses of parents may be under the new system: will they stay with CSA assessment, move to a C-MEC assessment, come to a private agreement or make no arrangement at all for maintenance?

The key to preventing a return to the situation before the 1991 Act which introduced the Child Support Agency (CSA) is the Government's proposal for provision of advice and guidance services. These services could help to remedy the potential power imbalance of private arrangements and encourage parents with care who are no longer compelled to claim child maintenance to pursue an agreement with the non-resident parent. However, we are concerned by the lack of practical proposals in the White Paper on such a fundamental issue to the success of the reforms. There is no detail as to who will provide the information, what form it will take and how it will be funded. The evidence we received highlighted that the current providers of advice services do not have the capacity to fulfil a greater role. The Committee is doubtful about C-MEC's ability to procure and/or directly provide an independent advice service, especially when it is trying to market itself as an enforcement agency - these two roles do not sit comfortably together and will lead to questioning over the impartiality of guidance.

A key principle of reform, outlined in the White Paper, is to ensure transition is driven by child poverty considerations. Child maintenance payments currently lift 100,000 children out of poverty and the Government aims to increase this figure. However the £10 child maintenance premium, which is recognised to reduce child poverty, will not be extended to all cases until the end of 2008. In addition it will not be significantly increased until 2010/2011, missing the Government's interim child poverty target. We recommend that the Government should investigate the costs and benefits of introducing a full disregard. Additionally, child poverty rates are at risk of being inflated within non-resident parent's households by the proposal to increase the flat rate of payment a non-resident parent on means-tested social security benefit must pay from £5 to £7, a 40% increase. The Committee, although appreciating the Government's aim to help the poorest families first, believes that the transition should be planned with administrative efficiency at its heart because making the system work will reduce child poverty in the long run.

A further contradiction within the proposals is the promise of a clean break with the past and a plan to transfer existing cases onto the new scheme. The Secretary of State has described the reforms as a clean break but it is not the clean break envisaged by Sir David Henshaw. The Committee is not convinced about C-MEC's ability to run what could ultimately amount to three systems of child support - the old old (1993-2003), the old new (2003 - 2008) and the new C-MEC assessment (expected post 2008). The difficulty of the task for the new body could be complicated further if the transition arrangements are not well thought through.

There are proposals that do not fit easily with the principle of parental responsibility. For example, the constraints on the courts in making child maintenance assessments as part of an overall package in ancillary relief proceedings are not being removed. Similarly the 12 month rule remains, enabling consent orders made by the court to be overridden by an Agency calculation after a year, which has the clear potential to undermine private agreements. Shared care, which promotes parental responsibility, is ignored in the White Paper and it would seem that C-MEC retains its monopoly on enforcement thus denying parents with care the choice to pursue arrears themselves.

Finally, we are concerned that whatever the merits of joint birth registration, this highly sensitive matter is being tagged onto child maintenance legislation when it potentially has wider ramifications through the family law system.

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