Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by National Association for Child Support Action

  National Association for Child Support Action is pleased to submit the following response to questions posed in the Government White Paper: A new system of child maintenance. This response is a condensed view due to the word limit, a more in depth response will be provided to the re-design team.


    —    Given the history of the CSA and the problems that led to its failure, we feel that whatever replacement is introduced its foundations have to be solid and focused in these areas.

    —    The new system should be focused on the welfare of the child as opposed to recovery of monies for the Treasury.

    —    Providing an efficient, accurate, and speedy administrative process, executed by well trained and experienced staff.

    —    With an IT system that is stable, and fit for the purpose, having the facility to record all communications, and to supply an appropriate audit/paper trail to ensure continuity of evidence.

    —    Backed up by an efficient enforcement regime, robustly applied in the right place acting as a deterrent to the majority of non compliant NRP's.

    —    And inaccurate and incorrect debts to be written off.

Question 1.   Are the key principles and areas for detailed work that we have identified the right ones?

  1.  The White Paper does identify appropriate key principles, but how will the success of these be measured? Strong focus should be made on appropriate advertising with simple, plain English information given to parents from an extensive range of sources.

  2.  We would add that the realisation by the Government that children should benefit in preference to the Treasury is most welcome, and the removal of compulsory application to C-MEC is a positive step to help in the struggle to eradicate child poverty. Also, that the disregard will eventually be increased for those PWCs on benefit and who do have to use C-MEC. Caution has to be observed in limiting high disregards which could be seen as an incentive to apply to C-MEC in preference to making private arrangements.

  3.  We welcome the proposal to introduce a register on which details of private arrangements are recorded. This would help prevent PWCs from denying any private payment as being made should difficulties in the arrangement occur. Experience has shown us that the word of the PWC is believed over that of the NRP leaving the NRP in many cases, having to pay twice for certain periods. The official recording of payments agreed—and paid, would prevent this situation from continuing.

  4.  Other ideas for consideration might be:

    —    Incentives could be introduced to encourage parents to agree to private arrangements.

    —    Staff training should be thorough and comprehensive.

    —    Face-to-face discussions of the benefits of making private arrangements, with guidelines of what they would pay under C-MEC.

    —    Applications to C-MEC to undergo certain checks on what attempts at private arrangements had been made.

    —    Inspection as to whether valid reason for application to C-MEC.

    —    Start off team ... job to make preliminary enquiries to see if private arrangement is appropriate.

Question 2.   Do you think the three aims set out in Paragraph 3.14 are appropriate?

  5.  NACSA agrees that these three aims are appropriate, in particular "ensuring the delivery of a high-quality and efficient service through its commissioning role", as stated in the White Paper. However, we have been given these assurances before and been sorely let down; we hope that lessons have been truly learned and the new system delivers the service it promises.

Question 3.   Do the principles for moving forward set out at paragraph 3.21 provide the right approach?

  6.  NACSA is disappointed by the apparent back pedalling that is implied by the use of the phrase "transition to the new regime". Transition is a word now associated with moving from CS1 to CS2 and which failed in the public view. "A clean break" was the term used originally and this is the only way to attempt regain public confidence. Transition from CSA to C-MEC would surely also move all the complexities onto the new system? Particularly so if the IT contract remains with EDS. NACSA totally disagree with such a move; a clean break should mean just that! For the rest of the principles we would agree.

Question 4.   Is our approach of combining a simpler assessment formula with an exceptions regime the right one?

  7.  NACSA does not believe that C-MEC needs to be any simpler than the current CS2 procedure. To simplify further would be to force a wider view of the picture which in effect would mean less flexibility to handle individual circumstances.

  8.  The illustration chosen to describe the use of gross pay as a basis for assessment confirms that in the main the amount assessed would be higher for most NRP's, bringing potential risk of an increase in non compliance and subsequently more PWCs fighting to secure maintenance.

  9.  We acknowledge the suggestion that the basic rates can be altered more readily than is currently the case. We would like reassurance that such increases are limited in regularity.

  10.  We believe that the client should have a single point of access, preferably a nominated case officer who handles a case from start to finish, including being the initial contact in the complaints procedure. This officer would be accountable if the case was not maintained correctly, or maintenance not flowing quickly.

  11.  NACSA would accept the need for the new powers to access information from financial institutions only if they were used against non-compliant NRP's. However, due to the potential risk of NRP details being accessed easily once in the financial institutions we would express concern over the proposal to upload information about non-compliant NRP's to such institutions.

  12.  Using HM Revenue and Customs would be useful source of information to secure up to date income and for keeping tabs on the whereabouts of NRP's. Using HM Revenue and Customs would be useful in capturing those (mainly self employed) NRP's who manipulate their income details to avoid high assessments or to disguise their lifestyle.

  13.  The variations scheme is acceptable but should be more inclusive, i.e. taking into account all the demonstrable expenses incurred by the NRP. Further simplification of the system will not guarantee a happier—and thus compliant customer—only an efficient system will.

  14.  We would agree with the proposal to increase the flat rate amount from £5 to £7 pw.

Question 5.   Which of the three approaches outlined in paragraphs 4.25 to 4.27 should be employed to determine child maintenance liabilities in a case of this kind?

  15.  As the focus of C-MEC is to encourage private arrangements for child support, recognition should be shown for any such agreement. However, to avoid situations whereby private arrangements are manipulated to reduce other maintenance payments, we feel that all relevant children should be considered within the calculation procedure, even though this may result in a different amount to that actually being paid under the private agreement.

Question 6.   Are there other approaches to enforcement that we should consider?

  16.  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 PWCs who have fought for years with only meagre attempts at debt recovery being evident. This cannot be allowed to continue into C-MEC if confidence is to be restored.

  17.  We believe the onus should be upon C-MEC to process and maintain the account accurately. This will reduce the opportunity for debt to be disputed and enforcement can be applied more efficiently. The figures detailed in Table 5.1 indicate that a large proportion of the cases that go to court are either thrown out or are withdrawn which represents a very wasteful cost to the taxpayer, as well as bringing confusion and distress to both parents.

  18.  We would fully support the notion that Child Support is a subject that could be incorporated into PHSE lessons for sixth formers to educate future generations of parents about their responsibilities towards children.

Question 7.   Is the shift from a predominantly court-based enforcement system to an administrative approach the right way to make enforcement more effective?

  19.  Current processes for debt recovery often take place against inaccurate assessment debts, collected from fully compliant parents with little or no regard given to the accuracy of the case or the effects the enforcement action may have on families. 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. NACSA would not support, and would wholeheartedly object to such a proposal until C-MEC has shown itself to be accurate and efficient for a minimum period of two years.

Question 8.   Are we right to give more focus to chasing collectable debt?

  20.  NACSA would urge that before any enforcement action be taken the debt should be proved to be ACCURATE and TRUE; not the result of procrastination or error on the assessors part. NACSA disagrees with the proposal to factor (sell) debts which would only lead to bigger debts as a result of interest being added by the new owner (who will be looking to make a return). Genuine debts however should be recovered where possible.

  21.  Lord Hutton has said that Contractors engaged in debt recovery will "Be encouraged to be innovative, within existing legislation". It is well documented that many debt collection operatives in the field abuse their powers in order to get a result. As the DCA will be driven by the profit motive NACSA is concerned that if the DCA is not robustly monitored, then such unlawful, strong-arm tactics may be used to intimidate NRP's as we so often see now. NACSA shares the concerns of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, who expressed concerns with handing over sensitive data to private firms.

  22.  If it is decided that collecting debts is to be contracted out, then NACSA would be looking for reassurance that: the cost will bourne by the Department, that only reputable organisations will be engaged, that all successful contractors will be subject to strict codes of practice and will be required to adhere to all relevant legislation such as child support, human rights and data protection legislation. We would ask who would be responsible for ensuring such codes of practise were adhered to.

  23.  Where the debt is to be collected from the estate of a deceased NRP due regard should be given to the financial status of any surviving dependents that may be pushed below the poverty line by such payments.

Question 9.   Is our approach in seeking write-off powers in strictly limited circumstances the right one?

  24.  It was recommended by David Henshaw that the outstanding debts were to be written off; it has now been decided not to do so but "... that we should revalue some overstated debts". During evidence to the Select Committee session 15 February 2006, (question 106) Mr Geraghty said;

    "We have interim maintenance assessments where we made up a number to frighten people into compliance, effectively, an estimate of assessment, which when we do get the data in tend to be over-valued by about two-thirds. We have close to £1.3 billion of those in the debt mountain ...."

    NACSA totally disagrees with the ruthless debt recovery against debts created in this manner when experience has shown that a large proportion of these IMA's should have been either converted many years ago, or never applied to the debt account as they pre-date the required legislation to enforce . These notional and dare we say illegal debts should be written off immediately, especially if charged against a deceased NRP.


  25.  NACSA agree with some of the proposals, but has some reservations about the confidence The Government has in the success of the new scheme (given the history so far). Certain proposals we feel could be the downfall of C-MEC as they will prove to simply reflect the current failings. But we cannot re-iterate enough—that no proposal will work unless the system operates as it should.

8 January 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 15 March 2007