Gingerbread’s new report, ‘Missing Maintenance,’ uncovers millions of pounds in unpaid child maintenance arrears.
A new report published today finds hundreds of millions of pounds of child maintenance arrears owed to children are failing to be collected by the government – with new debts piling up in the new system worth an average of £668 per family.
Missing Maintenance, published by single parent charity Gingerbread, finds that in total, almost £4bn of unpaid maintenance arrears has accumulated over the 23-year lifespan of the Child Support Agency (CSA), which is in the process of being shut down and replaced by its successor, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). Yet the government estimates that only around 12 per cent of this amount is ever likely to be recovered.
The mounting costs mean that, according to government figures published just last week, the average CSA maintenance debt owed to more than a million families is £2,067. This is money that could make a huge difference to children’s lives; yet for families still using the CSA, debt collection activity is declining.
At the same time evidence suggests that decreasing effort is being put by the government into collecting more than £700m of arrears on existing cases.
Meanwhile, within the new CMS, a new system of incentives and penalties was intended to prevent arrears arising in the first place. Yet, after almost two-and-a-half-years of full operation, £52.5m has accumulated in CMS maintenance arrears, with almost half of all non-resident parents in the system having some child maintenance debt. And these figures will increase as cases are gradually transferred across from the old system.
Gingerbread Chief Executive Fiona Weir said:
“Britain’s child maintenance system is contributing to a culture where too many parents think it’s optional, rather than obligatory, to pay their child’s maintenance.
“The accumulated level of CSA arrears is staggering and completely unacceptable. With analysis showing that one-in-five families are lifted out of poverty by child maintenance payments, this is vital money that parents, and their children can’t do without.
“And with the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating that poverty rates for single parent families will double by 2020; more than ever that child maintenance owed for children needs to be collected by the government.
“Yet worryingly, it remains unclear what will happen to money still owed for children once the CSA closes for good. The government is keen to move on and have a fresh start. But there should be no fresh start for those who still owe child maintenance for children today.
Ms Weir added: “The government cannot walk away from its obligation to collect the millions that are owed to Britain’s 400,000 families with outstanding maintenance claims. The CMS is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past unless it sends a clear signal that non-payment will not be tolerated and child maintenance debts must be paid.
“That’s why we’re calling on the government to allocate some of the millions of pounds of fee income it is now making from charging parents to use the CMS into child maintenance debt collection work. We want an intensive push on child maintenance debt collection in the next few years, and a clear message that that non-payment of parents’ legal obligations to maintain their children will not be tolerated.”
• A total of £3,708m in child maintenance arrears is outstanding within CSA
• More than £739m in CSA arrears is currently owed to parents
• Less than half of eligible families receive child maintenance
• An estimated 70 per cent of closed CSA cases are expected to have outstanding arrears
• £52.5m is owed under the Child Maintenance Service
• In 2014/15, the CMS collected just 53 per cent of maintenance charged via its collection service
Karen from Stockport
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that the resident parent is put in a position where they have to fight for every scrap from the non-resident parent. It’s money that’s owed to the children but there are also repercussions when it does not arrive in your account.
“Parents are not pursued sufficiently, and the government has failed to live up to its own legislation on this. At the end of the day the system penalises the resident parent. It’s not fit for purpose.
“Respective governments have tried to change it but the structure and people remain the same. The system’s processes don’t work efficiently. Nowhere else would it be acceptable to work like that.
“The current system is neither a carrot nor a stick; it’s absolutely nothing.”
Zoe from Oxford
“I’ve been dealing with the CSA on-and-off for 12 years. Originally my husband wasn’t paying enough, and then all the job-hopping started. I’m now owed more than £3,000.
“£100-a-month might not sound like a lot, but it is when you really need it. And if my ex-partner skips a payment, it’s never paid. Instead it’s added to your imaginary arrears total, which keeps changing.
“He’s a serial penalty dodger, so I’ve had to find out each time where he works. I was finally (after much detective work on my part) expecting a payment from the CSA from my son’s father…joy because my oven broke the week before. When it didn’t arrive the agency assured me it would be in their offices within three weeks otherwise they would investigate immediately. If not, they would chase it up (this would take another week). This man has dodged payment for eleven years…and all I want is a cheap working cooker to be able to cook my son a proper meal in the evening.
“Another time I contacted the CSA about a deduction from earnings order. I was told it would definitely be paid, but it dragged on and was left unresolved for months. So I phoned the CSA the day before Christmas Eve but the person on the phone had no idea what was going on. I was left there under a lamppost just sobbing, like some sort of Dickensian character.
“I felt completely powerless. I was left on the verge of a breakdown and considered going to a doctor to ask for antidepressants.”
Callie from Suffolk
“In total I’ve probably received maintenance for seven months out of more than five years that I’m actually owed. And I haven’t received anything for the last 18 months.
“My ex-partner quit his job as soon as the CSA found him. At the time they said it was such a clear indication of evading payment that they would look into legal proceedings, but then they closed my case and now I’m back to square one and owed thousands of pounds.
“The CMS weren’t made aware of the history by the CSA. So then you have to start again from scratch and doubly justify why you need the “collect and pay” service.
“When we first separated I had childcare costs of £900-a-month, and I was only earning £1,200-a-month. Although I received tax credits I was still forced to take out a payday loan. So the child maintenance payments would have prevented me from falling into debt and below the breadline.
“My ex-partner says he does not care about the CSA or CMS, he will continue to evade the payments. So now we have to go through the whole rigmarole of giving him a chance to pay. Promises of better links with HMRC are great but you it’s about giving more powers on the collection side.
“I don’t need the maintenance payments for my daily living expenses, but that’s purely because I have never had it. It would alleviate some of the financial pressures that I’m under due to childcare costs. But it’s not about the amount; it’s about the reliability, so that I can count on that money.”
Notes to editors
The full Missing Maintenance report can be found here: http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/content/2297/Missing-maintenance