Ten years after reforms designed to improve child maintenance, the Department for Work & Pensions is achieving no more for children of separated families than under the previous, discredited Child Support Agency (CSA). Around half the children in separated families (1.8 million children) continue to receive no support from their non-resident parent. The Department’s reforms aimed to reduce reliance on the state by encouraging parents to make their own family-based arrangements. But, while there has been an increase in family-based arrangements, this is offset by fewer separated families than expected using the Department’s statutory schemes and a dramatic increase in the proportion with no arrangements at all.
The Department assumes that most parents can reach an amicable agreement for child maintenance but has done little to ensure this is the case or to address concerns that its approach risks causing a further deterioration in the parents relationship or exacerbating abuse and coercive control. Similarly, it has done little to understand or address why take-up of its statutory Child Maintenance Service (CMS) scheme is so much lower than expected, particularly amongst some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Delivering the Department’s aim of maximising the number of effective child maintenance arrangements will rest not only on the Department improving its management of the CMS, but also on far better cross-government leadership to address barriers within legislation and to ensure child maintenance is fully integrated with other areas of public policy.
In the meantime, there is much more the Department can do to improve the current system. The Department has improved the operational performance of the CMS, which now calculates more than 99% of awards correctly and has improved maintenance collection through its Collect & Pay service, so that 49% of paying parents pay most of the maintenance due, compared to 31% in the quarter ending March 2016. However, more needs to be done to ensure children receive the support due from paying parents and that the Department provides a high-quality service. Enforcement can be too slow to be effective when parents do not pay. Fewer customers are satisfied with the CMS than under the old CSA and the Department upholds more complaints for every 1,000 customers on child maintenance than any other area of its business. The Department relies on reports from parents receiving child maintenance to trigger an investigation into whether income has been understated, which parents can be understandably reluctant to do. Meanwhile, balances of unpaid maintenance owed to receiving parents are forecast to increase to £1 billion by March 2031, similar to the level of unpaid legacy maintenance from the CSA that the Department recently wrote-off, meaning the scale of unfulfilled obligations once again looms as a major issue.