Select Committee on Work and Pensions Fourth Report

5  Enforcement

206. The CSA currently has a wide range of enforcement powers. In particular, once it has obtained a liability order from the court, crystallising the amount of the debt owed by the non-resident parent, the Agency may proceed with:

  • levying of a distress warrant involving bailiff action;
  • registering a county court judgement;
  • applying to court for a third party debt order;
  • applying to court for a charging order; and
  • applying to court for an order of committal to prison or disqualification from driving.[233]

207. Current CSA enforcement activity is shown in the following table:

Figure 9:
Apr 2004 -

Mar 2005

Apr 2005 -

Mar 2006

Jul 2005 -

Jun 2006

Oct 2005 -

Sep 2006

England and Wales
Liability orders granted 6,7809,600 10,97012,360
Distress actions4,450 8,55010,020 11,690
County Court Judgement orders 1,1802,020 1,8601,870
3rd Party Debt orders 1,2901,240 1,7301,890
Charging orders850 1,0701,090 1,710
Liability orders granted 470670 700890
Attachments90 120160 240
Arrestments240 430510 580
Bills of Inhibition 240560 670810
England & Wales and Scotland
Suspended committal sentences 220380 370390
Committal Sentences 1020 2030
Suspended driving licence disqualification sentences 2040 4040
Driving licence disqualification sentences -10 10-

CSA Summary of Quarterly Statistics September 2006.

208. We note that the most up to date enforcement statistics are not available and that these September statistics may contain errors. A recent written answer states that an investigation is in process and following this, a revised table and explanatory note will be published.[234]

209. The White Paper seeks an increase in these powers. The Government intends to do this by:

  • "enforcing the surrender of a non-resident parent's passport or imposing a curfew on them if they fail to pay maintenance;
  • removing the requirement to apply to the courts for a Liability Order before proceeding with enforcement action and replacing it with a swifter and more effective administrative process;
  • examining the scope for further strengthening and streamlining the enforcement process by removing the requirement to apply to the courts for a Charging Order;
  • bringing forward legislation to pilot withholding wages as the first means of collecting maintenance, working closely with business during the development of the pilot;
  • making much more use of information exchanged with, and drawn from, financial institutions and credit reference agencies in order to trace non-resident parents and collect and enforce maintenance;
  • exploring the scope for introducing powers to collect directly from accounts held by financial institutions; and
  • publishing, in suitable cases, the names of non-resident parents who are successfully prosecuted or who have a successful application made against them in court."[235]

The Government also intends to:

"explore two options in relation to the withdrawal of driving licences and the surrender of passports, providing a power for C-MEC to either:

  • apply to the Magistrates' Court, as is currently the case with driving licences; or
  • administratively issue an interim order to withdraw a driving licence or enforce the surrender of a passport at the same time as making an application to a court for a final order."[236]

210. It was put to the Committee by both NACSA and CPAG that the CSA currently had sufficient powers but did not use them successfully. NACSA stated that:

"The sanctions CSA currently have at their disposal are sufficient. C-MEC will inherit all these powers so there is no need for more. It is a sad fact that current enforcement is applied erratically. Cases are ruthlessly pursued without genuine cause, whilst others involve parents with care who have fought for years with only meagre attempts at debt recovery being evident."[237]

Similarly CPAG stated that CSA enforcement figures demonstrate:

"firstly that powers already exist in many areas and secondly that the extent of the usage of these powers has been low. In a properly functioning system with high compliance the use of sanctions should be low however in the current system with its poor compliance the current CSA is not fully using the powers it already has. The more important question is the extent to which existing powers are being used rather than the acquisition of new powers for C-MEC however politically attractive increasing enforcement powers may be."[238]

211. The DWP Research Report on the compliance of CSA clients found that many non-resident parents were unaware of the current enforcement powers of the CSA other then the Deduction from Earnings Order. The report also found that "There was little expectation that the CSA would try to do any more than recover the sums owed, so there was no incentive to be prompt with payment or being compliant." The report concluded that "A lack of expectation of penalties, or knowledge of those facing penalties, is a worrying situation for an organisation seeking to enforce compliance."[239]

212. Professor Stephen McKay told the Committee:

"People need to believe that they will be made to pay up eventually, which at present many of them do not think they will be."[240]

213. Stephen Lawson, a solicitor and member of Resolution said:

"At present there is a reluctance to use the powers available to the CSA to consider recovering arrears from sources other than income. The CSA will not, as a matter of course, use the powers available to them to ascertain information about the resources of the non-resident parent to enable a decision to be made about recovery - e.g. if a debtor in a civil case owes money a creditor will usually ask for evidence of the debtor's means and will want to see copies of bank statements, building society passbooks, life policy details, house equity details. The CSA is systematically incapable of obtaining or processing this information from capital. The drive to reduce administrative costs reduces the incentive for the CSA to conduct forensic investigation. The fear is that in the drive to reduce costs C-MEC will not make appropriate forensic enquiries and the parent with care will not be engaged or consulted in the process."[241]


214. Currently the CSA cannot take any enforcement action, other then placing a Deduction from Earnings Order, without applying to the Magistrates' Court for a Liability Order, a legal recognition of the arrears of maintenance. If these enforcement proceedings fail to gain payments from the non-resident parent the CSA can then apply to the courts for a Charging Order against the non-resident parent's property. If a charge is registered, and the property is sold, proceeds from the sale are used to pay off the child support arrears.[242]

215. Stephen Geraghty commented that:

"the CSA do not have any powers other than deductions of earnings orders, of which we have got 150,000 in use at the moment. Taking a driving licence is a power that the court has at its discretion […] and courts are very reluctant to use them."[243]

216. He advocated making the sanctions into administrative orders, as set out in the White Paper, so the CSA would not need to go through the courts to apply for them:

"instead of having to go through a criminal level standard prosecution we can actually say, "Because you have five or however many thousands of pounds unpaid child support, your driving licence will be suspended."[244]

217. Mr Geraghty compared the situation in the UK with other countries' child support enforcement operations: "we are the only one of the English speaking child support enforcement operations which has to go to court to get a liability order. In every other jurisdiction it is part of the maintenance order and in most of them the charging on your property just follows from the initial order."[245] The Secretary of State added that:

"It has taken on average about three months, slightly longer, to actually get a liability order from a magistrates' court, only 1% of them are ever turned down in magistrates' courts, but all through that period of time while we go to court someone is not getting their maintenance and then we have got a tougher job to recover the arrears."[246]

218. However, concern was expressed about moving from court to administrative enforcement. Stephen Lawson stated that:

"The justification given by the Government for the abolition of Court-based enforcement is not accepted. The Government complains that the Liability Order process is too slow. As a matter of law the CSA only have to give a non-resident parent seven days notice of an intention to apply for a Liability Order. Once a complaint is issued in a Magistrates Court a return date is issued very quickly - usually within a week or two. The Liability Order process should remain. […] Administrative enforcement is arbitrary, made without reference to ability to pay and is subject to no judicial scrutiny."[247]

219. NACSA told us:

"These parents often rely on "their day in court" as the only avenue to voice concerns over the alleged debt. The mere suggestion of removing this process is inconceivable. The National Association of Child Support Action would not support, and would wholeheartedly object to such a proposal until C-MEC has shown itself to be accurate and efficient."[248]

220. Resolution stated:

"Charging orders put at risk people's homes and Parliament should not sanction an enforcement regime that offers no safety net to address errors."[249]

They recommended that there should be safeguards, asking for example whether enforcement decisions:

"would be taken by a second case officer. Would it be taken by an independent person outside that team? What happens if the non-resident parent or the parent with care still disputed the assessment? What would be the appeals mechanism? Is there a basis in that case, if the non-resident parent for example did not want their driving licence removed and disputed the level of arrears, before any such draconian enforcement action was actually taken, that that person would be entitled to have an appeal hearing?"[250]

221. Resolution also pointed out that the White Paper does not mention the subject of appeals: "The appeals system has actually been totally ignored in the White Paper. This needs to be addressed."[251]

222. The level of inaccuracy in CSA liability orders was highlighted by the CSA Standards Committee Report 2003-04.[252] On examination of an (admittedly small) sample of 58 liability orders they found 65% of them to be inaccurate. When questioned on this figure Stephen Geraghty stated that the current accuracy level is:

"about 84% but the quantum of inaccuracies, according to the National Audit Office's last audit of our accounts, is 0.6%. These are errors to a penny. The figures I just gave you are not on liability order cases, they are on the book as a whole."[253]

223. He tried to reassure the Committee that:

"what we are doing both with the outsourced debt collection and the liability orders, [ ] [is]we work through the case again before we take action and we have 300 people in Kirkcaldy who are working through these cases as we do for any enforcement action who go through all the information we have and make sure the balance is accurate."[254]

224. In further written evidence the Department informed the Committee that in the year ending March 2006 the Agency applied for almost 12,000 liability orders and only around 50 were dismissed by the court. Although a number of cases were withdrawn - largely due to payment being received before the case was heard - in that same year the court granted over 10,000 liability orders.[255]

225. The Committee recommends that if C-MEC is granted powers to make administrative orders then these should be accompanied by safeguards to ensure against inaccuracy and to provide a swift, effective and independent process for a right of appeal. The Government should therefore set out what appeal methods it intends to introduce for C-MEC customers.


226. Of particular concern to many of those who contributed to the inquiry was the severity of the proposed enforcement powers. Resolution referred to "draconian powers."[256] One option that has been canvassed is that of publishing (on C-MEC's website) the names of those non-resident parents who are successfully prosecuted, and those who have had a successful application for a liability order made against them. Professor Stephen McKay commented that:

"Many US states make use of 'ten most wanted' webpages for those with the highest arrears - typically to help trace them. There is no real evidence on their effectiveness. Often those with relatively low-paying jobs are said to owe tens of thousands of dollars. This eye-catching initiative seems less familiar to the UK, where we do not have lists collated relating to very serious criminal offenders, lists of sex offenders, or ASBOs and the like. It would also, presumably, run risks of identifying the children affected and their reactions to seeing in their fathers on such a public site would be of interest (to say the least) and perhaps not in their best interests."[257]

Duncan Fisher from Fathers Direct added:

"One of the necessary tests is: does it damage the child's interests? Every enforcement measure needs to undergo that test. The naming and shaming one would fail immediately on the grounds that it is not in the best interests of the child for the embarrassment in his family to be known by everybody in the school playground; it is just intolerable from the child's point of view. That proposal was a decoy for the media and I cannot believe it was serious."[258]

Resolution said:

"'Naming and shaming', would […] only apply to the few and raises human rights issues."[259]

227. The White Paper also proposes bringing forward "legislation to allow Magistrates' Courts to impose curfews on non-resident parents, to be generally enforced via a system of electronic tagging. Breaching the curfew order would normally result in the non-resident parent facing a prison sentence."[260] A similar proposal for curfew orders was dropped from the Draft Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill in 2005 after the joint committee scrutinising it found it to be disproportionate and that it could be potentially difficult for the child.[261]

228. When questioned on whether the new powers were just gimmicks the Secretary of State replied:

"I think they are serious proposals and I hope the Committee and people will treat them in that way too. […]somehow we have to create a different culture, where the premium is placed on compliance […]These powers are, I accept, unprecedented in the area of civil debt recovery, but they need to be if we are going to turn this culture around. I do not think we should judge the success of these or any other enforcement powers by the number of times they are exercised by the Commission. That, in a sense, misunderstands the purpose and nature of these types of reforms."[262]

229. The Committee notes that section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991 already provides that the Secretary of State must have regard to the welfare of any child likely to be affected by any decision involving the exercise of a discretionary power (e.g. such as whether to, and how to, effect enforcement against a non-compliant, non-resident parent). The Committee recommends that the Government reaffirm that this requirement will still apply in the new scheme of enforcement powers. Furthermore, the Committee has serious reservations as to how far the proposal to publish on the web the names of non-resident parents who have been successfully prosecuted, or non-resident parents who have substantial arrears, is consistent with this principle, given the potentially seriously detrimental effect on individual children's welfare.


230. The Committee received evidence that the increase in enforcement powers could stigmatise C-MEC and dissuade people from using it. One Parent Families commented that:

"There are a variety of circumstances where it is easier for both parents if payment of child maintenance is done through the Agency - for example, where there is a tense relationship and both parties want an intermediary to avoid disharmony; or where the non-resident parent is disorganised and poor at budgeting. Too great a focus on the new Commission as dealing only with hard-core serial non-payers risks creating hostility among non-resident parents contacted by C-MEC, and may deter some parents with care seeking help from C-MEC when they need it."[263]

231. Anne Kazimirski of NatCen said that:

"if you do distinguish C-MEC as only hardcore cases where the father has never paid at all you might get situations where the parent with care is almost too scared to involve C-MEC because of the way that the non-resident parent would react, so even though she may really need the money she may be so scared that it would affect the relationship between them and the way that the non-resident parent would behave with the children."[264]

232. Duncan Fisher from Fathers Direct commented:

"Part of the brand has to be that it is helpful, that it is there to help parents, and, at the moment, the way that the child support reforms were announced in the media is exactly the opposite. There was a blitz of media coverage that this is a punitive system. So there is a lot of work to do on branding before any parents are going to trust anything that the state has set up."[265]

233. However, the Secretary of State did not seem to be perturbed by this. When questioned as to how people will use the Commission if it is solely marketed as a repository of hard cases he replied:

"If they do not want to be classified as such they should reach their own voluntary agreements, that is the whole point. We have got to make coming to C-MEC very, very uncomfortable for the non-resident parent who is not complying with their obligations to support their family. It has got to be their worst nightmare."[266]

234. If C-MEC is to concentrate on compliance and enforcement with severe sanctions for non-resident parents who fail to pay their child support, then the Committee recommends that another organisation provide the advice services on levels of maintenance and shared care at the point when parents separate. Such advice should be part of a more holistic approach to relationship breakdown when children are involved.


235. A further issue concerning enforcement is the monopoly that the CSA currently enjoys in this area. Under the 1991 Act only the CSA has the power to collect child support debts and enforce liabilities through the courts. This was tested in the Kehoe case in which the House of Lords ruled that neither a child nor a parent with care has the right to pursue this debt in their own right. Professor Stephen McKay commented that:

"it is a strange world in which the state, which often has no interest in collecting money privately, is the one who has to collect it and the individual who does have the interest in actually receiving it does not have that power."[267]

236. One Parent Families stated:

"It is intensely frustrating for parents with care, who see a non-resident parent freely spending sums of capital whilst owing large arrears in child support, that they are completely dependent for enforcement action on an often slow and ineffective bureaucracy."[268]

237. The issue was also flagged up by Sir David Henshaw:

"Under the current system, a parent with care has no right to enforce a claim for child support against a non-resident parent who fails to pay. A number of stakeholders have argued that the legislation should be changed to allow such independent enforcement. Such a step would fit with the logic of giving more individual responsibility to parents. However, it would also raise some risk of duplication of effort between the administrative and court systems. One option would be to allow parents with care the right to enforce, but only if there was clear evidence that the administrative service had failed to do so effectively (for example by not taking action within a defined period of non-compliance). This should be considered further in the detailed design of the new system."[269]

238. One Parent Families stated that it would like to see:

"The Child Support Act amended to allow a parent with care to be able to apply to the Family Courts for:

  • firstly, an investigation of means of the non-resident parent; and
  • secondly, permission to bring enforcement action for unpaid child support liabilities through the Courts, in circumstances where a sum has been levied against the non-resident parent by the Agency or C-MEC; he has failed to pay some or all of the maintenance due; and the Agency or C-MEC has failed to take effective enforcement action against the non-resident parent in the last three months in circumstances where such action could reasonably have been expected. The Family Courts would be able to grant leave for the parent with care to pursue enforcement action in circumstances where it was thought enforcement action stood a reasonable chance of success. Such a provision would hold the Agency or C-MEC to account for their action or inaction on an individual case, and allow Court intervention to prevent disposal of funds which could be used to pay off child maintenance arrears by the non-resident parent."[270]

239. A reform to give the parent with care and the child the power of enforcement would seem to follow the policy principles of individual responsibility and movement away from state interference. It is also a policy that has been adopted in the latest Australian child support reforms. However, the White Paper does not comment on this issue. In response to questioning by the Committee on this issue the Secretary of State replied that:

"I do not believe that it is likely that an individual parent left to his or her own devices is likely to be necessarily more successful than C-MEC."[271]

240. The Committee doubts that many parents with care would wish to use the court system to enforce child support liabilities. However, where there are substantial arrears, and the CSA has failed to take effective action to enforce those debts, then the Committee believes that it would be consistent with the overall policy thrust of the Government's reforms to allow parents with care the option to enforce such debts through the courts in their children's name.

233   Work and Pensions Committee, Second Report of Session 2004-05, The Performance of the Child Support Agency HC 44-II, Ev 68 Back

234   HC Written Answers, 28 February 2007, cols 1407W-1408W Back

235   White Paper p 69 Back

236   White Paper, p 69 Back

237   Ev 86 Back

238   Ev 98 Back

239   DWP Research Report 285 Investigating the compliance of CSA clients para 7.2 Back

240   Q 54 Back

241   Ev 64 Back

242   White Paper, p 73-74 Back

243   Q 197 Back

244   Q 197 Back

245   Q 197 Back

246   Q 197 Back

247   Ev 64 Back

248   Ev 101 Back

249   Ev 62 Back

250   Q 92 Back

251   Ev 61 Back

252   CSA Standards Committee Annual Report 2003-04, p3 Back

253   Q 199 Back

254   Q 199 Back

255   Ev 121 Back

256   Ev 60 Back

257   Ev 103 Back

258   Q 143 Back

259   Ev 62 Back

260   White Paper, para 5.27 Back

261   Draft Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill - First Report Volume I, HC 400-I, HL Paper No. 100 I para 89 Back

262   Q 149 Back

263   Ev 80 Back

264   Q 24 Back

265   Q 123 Back

266   Q 202 Back

267   Q 4 Back

268   Ev 80 Back

269   Henshaw Report, para 67 Back

270   Ev 81 Back

271   Q 201 Back

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