18.Before applying to the CMS, either as a new case or moving from the CSA, parents must first explore the possibility of an FBA. A principle underpinning the Henshaw report was that, where possible, parents should have the “lead role” in arranging support for their children. This was not only a moral argument: it found that FBAs led to improved outcomes for children:
Evidence suggests that where people are able to make their own arrangements they benefit from greater satisfaction and higher compliance levels. As a result, child welfare is improved as maintenance is more likely to flow, and conflict between parents is likely to be reduced.
Adopting this approach, the 2012 scheme was designed to reduce use of the statutory child maintenance and to increase numbers of FBAs.
19.Witnesses concurred that FBAs were the most desirable child maintenance method. Janet Allbeson, Senior Policy Advisor at Gingerbread, said “we all agree that family-based arrangements are good. If they work they are helpful”. Michael Lewkowicz, Business Manager at Families Need Fathers, a charity that promotes shared parenting, agreed that “the principle of family-based arrangements is sound and good [ … ] it encourages responsibility and parents should be responsible for maintaining their children”. NatCen, a research body commissioned by the Department to review the child maintenance outcomes in ex-CSA cases, found that parents with FBAs appreciated the flexibility and ease of FBAs and were keen to take responsibility for their maintenance arrangements. We heard concerns, however, about the operation of FBAs in practice.
20.The acrimony that often surrounds the end of a partnership can make reaching a mutually acceptable maintenance agreement difficult. The quality of the ongoing relationship between separated partners is an important factor in determining whether an FBA is established. The overwhelming majority of cases in the CMS follow relationships that ended bitterly. The Department told us that CMO staff, who act as the gateway to the CMS, are trained with the “aim of breaking down barriers to making family based arrangements”.
21.One Parent Families Scotland, which supports single parents, told us that 43% of parents they had surveyed found the support offered by CMO unhelpful. One parent said that CMO was “not set up to be best for kids” and that there was “not enough help [ … ] expectations are you get on with it”. Janet Allbeson told us that if the Government wanted to encourage FBAs then it should offer more support to separated parents to agree them:
You want the assessment that family-based arrangements work best to be backed up by real investment in infrastructure to make that possible for parents. The truth is, if you look at what has been behind, at the same time as they are introducing charges and encouraging people to go away and do it themselves, there is not all that much out there for parents.
She said that Sorting Out Separation, a Government-funded helpline, was not widely used. Other schemes were small in scale and there was insufficient investment to scale them up to national level “to really help people”.
22.Caroline Nokes MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery (the Minister), told us that £70m was being invested in relationship support over the five years. This money, which is administered through third party contracts, was not, however, targeted at promoting adequate and sustainable child maintenance agreements.
23.For many former partners, an FBA will simply be unsuitable. Parents are, however, required to explore that option before applying to the CMS. This raises the prospect for some PWC of having to contact an abusive ex-partner. The PCS union told us that this deterred some parents from engaging with the scheme entirely:
They therefore are unable to receive maintenance without re-establishing some form of contact with the abusive ex-partner and the risk that would involve for them and their children.
One parent told us she was encouraged to set up an FBA even though there was a history of abuse in her case:
[CMS] constantly use sentences like, “Other families have managed to make a family-based arrangement” as in why couldn’t I. You have to justify it again and again and again. There was some abuse in my relationship when I first made my CSA case and I was threatened to drop it. He threatened to release pornographic pictures of me on to the internet, stuff like that, and because I suppose I was vulnerable at the time I did not have the knowledge to realise that was wrong.
24.Women’s Aid, a charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children, told us that the CMS’s “rigid focus on incentivising collaborative arrangements between parents” had “the potential to increase survivors’ risk of abuse, including financial coercion and control”. The Minister acknowledged that it was possible for one parent to use an FBA to exert control over the other but said that in such cases parents could enter the CMS and not be required to contact the other parent.
25.The 2012 scheme introduced charges for use of the statutory system:
Introducing the 2012 scheme, the then Government said these fees were “designed to act as an incentive for parents to collaborate, encouraging them to think again before automatically putting in an application to the Child Maintenance Service”. The primary motivation was not to generate money, and the Minister told us that the money raised by charges covered a “very small proportion” of the costs of running the scheme.
26.One parent told us that the £20 application fee felt like “upfront punishment for the parent who’s just trying to get a fair deal for their child”. Others said the charge was poor value for money. One PWC on Mumsnet said:
I have five children. In the two years since he left, we have not received a penny. The only money to change hands is my £20 to the CMS.
Another PWC told us:
I paid my fee for them to work on my behalf, and was full of hope that my children would finally get some support financially from their father. Almost 12 months on, the only thing that has happened is that I have received a couple of letters, a few phone calls, and am £20 out of pocket, while my child’s father has paid not a penny.
Walthamstow Single Parents cited a further case:
I’ve not had a penny. Basically he owes through CSA nearly £14,000. Then from April ‘15 until June ‘16 with CMS he owes nearly £12,000 and then they said about this attachment of earnings, first payment due Aug 19th of course it never came ! I joined April ‘15 paid £20 , spent small fortune on phone calls, have put two formal complaints in and still nothing even now with an attachment of earnings order !”
27.Others were similarly frustrated that, despite charging for their services, the CMS was reluctant to use enforcement powers, an issue we consider in the next chapter. Child Poverty Action Group argued that requiring parents with closed cased in arrears on legacy schemes pay an application fee was “particularly harsh, even if an application fee for those who apply to the statutory scheme for the first time is thought justified”.
28.Other parents could not afford the application fee to access the statutory system when they needed it. An anonymous CMS official told The Guardian:
Every day I see parents who qualify for child maintenance get their applications rejected, simply because they are too impoverished to pay the fee.
One PWC said they could not pay the fee because they were “scraping by” and felt it was easier and safer to give up on receiving maintenance payments. NatCen found that of those PWCs who had opened cases with the CMS following the closure of their CSA case, one third had found the application fee difficult to afford. These parents were concentrated in the categories that received least support from former partners.
29.Stakeholders suggested a number of options for reforming the application fee. A number of PWCs suggested the application fee should be paid by the non-compliant NRP. Gingerbread recommended low-income families, defined by a means test or benefit eligibility, should be exempt from the application fee. Child Poverty Action Group, a charity, said it supported an exemption from the fee for low-income families and called on the Department to consider abolishing the fee altogether.
30.We heard a variety of criticisms of Collect and Pay charges. Mother’s Union, a Christian membership organisation, told us that the 4% charge on PWCs was detrimental to the children that maintenance is intended to support:
Such charges act first and foremost as a punitive measure towards parents, and ultimately their children, who lose out through the 4% charge, on money that is intended to support them.
The PCS Union told us the charges acted as a disincentive to making maintenance payments, resulting “in thousands of children not receiving child maintenance payments or receiving smaller and irregular payments”. Gingerbread told us that parents may opt not to report missed Direct Pay payments because the “threat of Collect and Pay charges and accompanying messaging can create a perverse incentive to stick with non-compliant Direct Pay arrangements”. PWCs also felt “penalised” by charges levied because of a former partner’s non-compliance.
31.Other witnesses agreed that the charges for using Collect and Pay deterred parents from using it, even in cases when payments via Direct Pay were low and inconsistent. One mother told us she tolerated missed payments because of the charges :
When I faced the prospect of making a decision whether to ask the CMS to go back from Direct Pay to Collect and Pay, knowing that there would be 4% charges to myself and 20% charges to my ex-partner, I did delay. He missed a payment or did not pay quite enough [ … ]if I had not gone back to collect and pay knowing that he was going to have to pay more and we were going to have to pay some, we would be getting just whatever he chose to pay.
32.PWCs told us that CMS staff were also reluctant to allow parents to use the Collect and Pay service, even where there was a record of non-compliance by the NRP. One parent told us she had to continually justify why she needed the service rather than Direct Pay, or an FBA. Another said
After my ex has been messing me around with payments for the last year I asked to move to Collect and Pay. Turns out they don’t think that being completely financially controlling/manipulative with the payments is enough to warrant a change. [ … ] My ex always underpays every single month. Because it is a small amount CMS say there is nothing I can do.
33.The Government state that the statutory scheme is available to those who genuinely need it. Some parents who clearly need the system are, however, unable to afford the application fee. This is leading some parents to give up on pursuing maintenance payments altogether. We recommend that CMS applicants on means tested benefits be exempt from the £20 application fee.
34.We find it difficult to justify charging an upfront CMS application fee to parents with care to transition legacy cases with a prolonged history of non-payment, especially as such cases appear a low priority for enforcement. These parents, and their children, have been failed by their ex-partners and failed by the system.
35.Charges for using Collect and Pay are discouraging some parents who require the service. In many cases a parent with care has no choice yet 4% is deducted from their payments. In addition, parents report a reluctance by CMS staff to allow them to move onto the scheme and a readiness to move cases out of Collect and Pay even when non-resident parents have failed to make regular payments in full. It is far from evident that the charges and criteria used for determining whether Collect and Pay can be used are acting in the best interests of children. The Government should conduct a review of whether Collect and Pay charges and access criteria are achieving the intended outcome of increasing the number of more collaborative arrangements.
36.Throughout our inquiry we heard that abusive and controlling behaviour was prevalent in former relationships that required CSA and CMS intervention. A 2013 DWP survey found that almost half of CSA clients had experienced domestic violence or abuse from their former partner. Mother’s Union said that, in these cases, the CMS may be the only way for a PWC to receive maintenance:
Domestic abuse takes many forms and does not necessarily end with the end of a relationship [ … ] the CMS may provide the only realistic chance of child maintenance being paid and received, with some sense of safety and freedom from abuse.
37.Michael Lewkowicz told us that controlling behaviour could also be exerted by a PWC, usually by denying access to children:
We have some dads who, for example, are told that if they do not pay on top of what they have already been asked to pay by CMS then they will not see their children next weekend [ … ] Coercion and control can and do happen both ways and unfortunately we hear about an awful lot of them, and the denial of the relationship is probably the single biggest factor that we hear about.
This was reflected in evidence we receive from several NRPs. One father told us his ex-partner had denied him access to their children as he was unable to afford maintenance payments. Another NRP told us:
I have three children who I am not allowed to see. I do not even know where they live or what school they go to. I cannot go through mediation with my ex as I was a victim of domestic violence.
38.Those with registered cases of domestic abuse are exempted from paying the £20 application fee when applying to the CMS. Before applying, however, parents who have been victims domestic abuse must attempt to establish a collaborative arrangement, either through an FBA or Direct Pay, and prove that their expartner was a poor payer, before they could use Collect and Pay. Women’s Aid told us:
These incentives demonstrate a serious lack of understanding around the dynamics of domestic financial abuse and how it can escalate around child maintenance. Enforcing and incentivising continued contact in this way poses significant risks to women and children.
39.Stakeholders also told us that CMS staff were not trained properly in issues surrounding abuse. DWP said that frontline CMS staff received “empathy and negotiation skills training [ … ] to help them deal with the difficult emotions people sometimes experience during separation.” Women’s Aid, however, said it was:
seriously concerned that CMS professionals do not currently receive any training in the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, how to recognise it, or how to respond to cases in which it is evident.
Gingerbread said CMS staff should receive mandatory training on domestic abuse, which should “enable staff to raise the question of domestic abuse proactively”.
40.While the application fee is waived in registered domestic abuse cases, Collect and Pay charges are not. The PCS Union said that it had received reports of both PWCs and NRPs using charges as “a mechanism for administering control or punishment within the relationship”. Women’s Aid told us that charges for either parent, even when they were for the perpetrator, may only serve to escalate an already difficult situation.
41.Janet Allbeson said charges deterred some domestic abuse victims from reporting a non-compliant Direct Pay arrangement:
It is just that knowledge that you will get retaliation for the fact that he then has to pay 20% extra. We have even had one case where the single parent wrote in and said, “I really need the collection. Can I pay his fees because I am so afraid of what would happen if he does have to pay, but I need the money?” The collection charge does act as a barrier to people who need the service but are worried.
42.Mother’s Union recommended that Collect and Pay charges be dropped for the victim, whether this be 4% for a PWC or 20% for a NRP. One Parent Families Scotland were among those who advocated the “fast tracking” of victims of domestic violence into the Collect and Pay system.
43.The Department’s own survey of CSA clients found high levels of domestic abuse. The evidence we received shows that abuse, control and coercion can continue even when a relationship has ended, and can be exerted by either parent. We welcome the waiver of the £20 fee for domestic abuse survivors but further changes are required to make the system safe and effective for survivors of domestic abuse and, ultimately, their children. A system that leaves victims with the choice of re-engaging with their abuser and risking further coercion and control, or declining money owed to them for their children, is clearly not working.
44.All frontline CMS staff should receive training on domestic abuse, including understanding abusive behaviour and demonstrating sensitivity in dealing with its victims. Those victims are often reluctant to admit to having been abused, so CMS staff should also be trained in identifying abuse. In registered cases of domestic violence, or where CMS staff have identified it themselves, parents with care should be able to proceed directly to the Collect and Pay service and should not be charged. As part of its review of Collect and Pay charges, the Department should consider the impact of charges for the non-resident parent in cases of domestic abuse.
45.In 2012, DWP estimated that of around 330,000 CSA clients who would choose not to apply to the statutory service, 185,000 (56%) would make a family-based arrangement. NatCen’s survey of former CSA clients, conducted between June 2015 and September 2016, found that three months after CSA case closure, only 18% had an FBA in place. A similar number had opened new cases with the CMS. More than half, 56%, were not even in the process of setting up any sort of arrangement.
Figure 1: Child maintenance arrangements three months after CSA case closure (%)
There were also a very small number of court arrangements, accounting for less than 1%.
46.The Minister told us that there would be “a significant number” of FBAs the Government would know nothing about as state support was not required. However, Janet Allbeson told us:
There is very little evidence that parents are going off and making family-based arrangements at the moment. [ … ] Our worry is that people are being encouraged to go off and try it [ … ] but they are not really succeeding. That is a worry, because this is about ensuring that more children are supported financially by both parents, and at the moment the jury is out on whether that is happening.
She added that the number of parents making FBAs after contact with the CMO, which would involve some state support, was declining.
47.We heard concerns that the Government had no reliable means of monitoring the adequacy of child maintenance arrangements outside the statutory scheme. The DWP highlighted a number of different sources of data it can draw on to assess the impact of the 2012 changes. These range from existing large household surveys, the Understanding Society Survey (USS) and the Family Resources Survey, into which a section on child maintenance will be added, internally-conducted surveys of the statutory system’s client base, such as CSA exit surveys and surveys of those who contact CMO, and externally commissioned reviews such as those conducted by NatCen.
48.Each of the Department’s sources, however, has significant limitations as a means of monitoring the effectiveness of the system. The large surveys are broad, covering a wide range of areas relating to households. They can say little about FBAs beyond their prevalence and provide little insight into their effectiveness. The timescales involved also mean that the data can be out-of-date by the time it becomes available. The internal reviews of clients are limited to those who have had CSA cases or who contact the CMO. The studies conducted by NatCen were also limited to a sample of former CSA clients and those who had been through the CMO’s gateway consultation to enter Direct Pay. Neither can assess the circumstances of those single parents who are outside the statutory system.
49.The DWP predicted that 63% of CSA clients who went through the case closure process would open new CMS cases. The latest official data show that only 18% had done so by December 2016. The closure process is ongoing and rates may yet rise. It is clear, however, that far fewer parents are continuing in the statutory scheme than had been anticipated.
50.NatCen’s research demonstrates that the options of FBAs and the CMS were not offering an adequate outcome for many vulnerable single parent families. Of former CSA cases that were “nil-assessed”, meaning there was a maintenance liability but because of the NRP’s circumstances that liability was zero, or “non-compliant”, whereby the NRP had failed to meet a child maintenance liability for at least three months, just 12% had agreed an FBA within 12 months of CSA case closure. A further 14% were in the CMS. Less than half of arrangements in those two categories combined were, however, working satisfactorily. There was no arrangement in 72% of nil-assessed or non-compliant former CSA cases 12 months after CSA case closure.
51.Gingerbread said that there was “a widespread lack of awareness and understanding around eligibility for child maintenance among parents with care”, exacerbated by cuts to legal aid and a paucity of targeted support. A recent survey by PayPlan, a provider of free debt advice and management plans, found that more than half of single parents surveyed did not know whether they were even eligible for child maintenance.
52.The foundation of the Government’s approach to child maintenance is to encourage separated parents to come to voluntary agreements where possible and, where such agreements are not possible, provide a statutory system as a safety net. It is apparent, however, that many families may be slipping through that net. Such families are disproportionately likely to be in the most vulnerable groups. The Government’s existing means of monitoring the quantity and success of family-based arrangements are, however, inadequate to properly understand the causes and consequences of the trend. In seeking to encourage separated parents to take more responsibility for their children, the Government must not abdicate its own duties to them. Monitoring must be improved to establish the extent to which parents are adequately supported in making child maintenance choices and whether incentives intended to result in better support for children are in fact having the opposite effect. Only then can it have confidence in meeting its commitment to increase the number of children receiving maintenance.
53.We recommend the Department establish a CMS stakeholder group, including parents with care, non-resident parents, charities such as Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, and advisory organisations such as Citizen’s Advice. This group should review the effectiveness of the CMS, recommend improvements to its operation and consider its response to wider social and economic trends such as the increase in self-employment.
28 Sir David Henshaw Cm 6894 2006 p 12–14
29 Sir David Henshaw Cm 6894 2006 para 11
30 Department for Work and Pensions ()
31 (Janet Allbeson)
32 (Michael Lewkowicz)
33 DWP Research Report 935 December 2016 p.98–9
34 E.g Ireland, E., Poole, E, Armstrong. C and Purdon, S.(2011). Evaluation of the Child Maintenance Options Service. Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission; Wikeley, N. (2006). Child Support Law and Policy. Oxford: Hart Publishing. Wikeley, N. (2007). “Contact and Child Support – Putting the horse before the cart” Family Law, 343–346
35 DWP 2016 Table A.32 p 118
36 Department for Work and Pensions ()
37 One Parent Families Scotland ()
38 One Parent Families Scotland ()
39 (Janet Allbesson)
41 and (Caroline Nokes)
42 PCS Union ()
43 (Parent 1)
44 Women’s Aid ()
45 (Caroline Nokes)
46 A “case” is single relationship (mother, father and all the children from it). So one individual could be involved in more than one case if they have children through more than one relationship.
47 For a maintenance payment of £100, the paying parent pays £120 and the receiving parent is paid £96. Charges are also levied on the Non-Resident Parent for any enforcement action taken against them.
48 DWP, , 2014
49 E.g. DWP Supporting separated families; securing children’s futures 2012 p 18
50 and (Caroline Nokes)
51 Walthamstow Single Parents ()
52 Provided by Mumsnet: user name “Whateverloser” ()
53 Name Withheld ()
54 Walthamstow Single Parents ()
55 (Parent 1)
56 Child Poverty Action Group ()
57 “We do our best at the Child Maintenance Service but lone parents still lose out” 10 December 2016
58 One Parent Families Scotland ()
59 DWP Research Report 935 December 2016
61 For example see Name withheld (), Walthamstow Single Parents ()
62 Gingerbread ()
63 Child Poverty Action Group ()
64 Mothers’ Union ()
65 PCS Union ()
66 Gingerbread ()
68 (Parent 2)
69 (Parent 1)
70 Mumsnet ()
71 DWP 2013
72 Mother’s Union ()
73 (Michael Lewkowicz)
74 (Parent 3)
75 Name Withheld ()
76 DWP, , June 2014
77 Women’s Aid )
78 Department for Work and Pensions ()
79 Women’s Aid ()
80 Gingerbread ()
81 PCS Union ()
82 Women’s Aid ()
83 (Janet Allbeson)
84 Mother’s Union ()
85 One Parent Families Scotland ()
86 DWP, August 2012. This number was split between parents who did not wish to enter the statutory service (185,000) and those who were deterred from doing so due to the application fee (145,000)
87 DWP Research Report 935 December 2016 Table A.108, p 162
88 (Caroline Nokes)
89 (Janet Allbeson)
91 DWP December 2014 p 25–30
92 Gingerbread ()
93 DWP December 2014 p 25–6
94 DWP August 2012 para 163
95 DWP 19 April 2017
96 DWP Research Report 935 December 2016 p 66
97 DWP Research Report 935 December 2016 p 66
98 Gingerbread ()
99 PayPlan, , May 2016
28 April 2017