by Ceri Smith, Head of Policy and Campaigns
The National Audit Office (NAO) has today published a landmark report into the Child Maintenance Service. It paints a stark picture of how the CMS simply isn’t working for far too many single parents.
The NAO’s review found that the Government hasn’t learnt one of the key lessons from the now-defunct Child Support Agency (CSA) in preventing arrears building up. It’s dismaying to see that there is no way for the Government to avoid arrears rising to £1bn by 2031 – a clear demonstration that there are fundamental flaws underpinning the CMS.
Although the Government has never made a secret of the fact that part of the principle of the CMS was to achieve less reliance on the state to manage maintenance, it is simply not acceptable that the rate of families with no arrangement in place has almost doubled since the CMS was established. The NAO has uncovered that this is affecting children in some of the poorest families and families with higher levels of conflict.
We are also deeply concerned to see the delays in enforcement uncovered by the NAO, and the fact that many paying parents leave enforcement owing more than they did when the DWP started action against them.
Action needs to go further than simply addressing debts accrued and ensure that the paying parent actually meets their maintenance obligations on an ongoing basis.
It is vital that the DWP has a far better understanding of parents who use the CMS, and there is an urgent need for the department to improve its data collection and transparency – not least in terms of understanding the key demographics and characteristics of parents using the service.
Single parents need to be able to access a service which they trust can work and can keep them safe – both as a parent in receipt of maintenance and a parent paying.
This is particularly crucial given the increasing complexity of the 1 in 5 separated families who use the CMS, with 60% of new applicants to the Service in September 2021 recognised as being survivors of domestic abuse.
We welcome the NAO’s recommendation for legislative review of the CMS, in particular for the DWP to be more focused on understanding and differentiating customers, and ensuring that the maintenance that is promised to parents with care has a truly realistic prospect of being paid. But this also needs to be backed up by improving the DWP’s overall understanding of how CMS customers interact with other government agencies, and improving its understanding of how to improve efficiency and customer service.
Single parents and their children are reliant on maintenance payments to ensure they have enough income, and this is increasingly vital given the intense cost of living squeeze facing single parent families. Single parents risk being left high and dry if the hundreds of millions of pounds of arrears they are owed are simply written off, as they were when the CSA closed.
The Government urgently needs to undertake a holistic review of the income support offered to single parents as part of any further reform.