All change on maintenance for separated families

Couples will be encouraged to set up their own arrangements, says Neasa MacErlean

From Monday morning, parents with two or more children who decide to separate and then use the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) are expected to find they are put on a new system. A set of carrots and sticks will be used to encourage these couples to sort out their maintenance payments between them, rather than relying on the Government to do it on their behalf.

At present, just over half of the country's 2.5 million separated families have their own arrangements in place. But research from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Government department in charge, suggests well over 500,000 other couples would like to follow suit. These couples also believe they could do it themselves if they had some help and support. If this research is correct, about three-quarters of separated couples could end up with their own arrangements, rather than relying on the state to browbeat them into compliance. The thinking then is that such co-operation on the financial side could be a positive influence on relationships overall.

"It is always better for parents to agree terms," says Liz Cowell, family law expert at solicitor Pannone.

After Monday, the next landmark is in November/December when the system will be opened up to new cases of single-child families. From next spring, a three-year roll-out will begin to switch over the 1.2 million families who are on the current CMS system.

But Monday's change is causing some controversy. While many agree that the aims of the new approach are laudable, some groups fear that many families will lose out in practice.

But the most controversial measure – charging for use of the service – is being held back until early-to-mid 2014. What will happen immediately, however, is the giving of encouragement to parents to bypass the CMS and make their own arrangements as far as possible. The Government estimates that some 280,000 parents will be able to get local help in areas such as mediating, negotiating and budgeting.

Under the new system, either parent can ask the service to calculate what will be owed by the non-resident parent (NRP) to the parent with care (PWC). A £20 administration fee is payable per couple for this calculation and initial help.

It will takes days, rather than months, to establish how much the NRP earns. This is because the service is now linking in directly to HM Revenue & Customs' earnings data, rather than having to wait for the NRP and other sources to provide the information.

"We get the data back very, very quickly," said Steve Webb, minister of state for child maintenance, in an interview with The Independent.

Once the earnings are established, the maintenance figure can be calculated almost immediately. In the past, thousands of PWCs – 97 per cent of whom are women – wasted years simply trying to establish their ex's earnings figure. Only a third of families entitled to maintenance actually received anything, according to research conducted in 2008. Now, however, DWP data suggests that significantly more families are getting something.

After these preliminary stages are reached, it looks as if the clear majority of couples will try to make their own arrangements. All sorts of systems and schemes are coming in to help them. For instance, from the end of this year parents on the new system are due to have their own online account to show them clearly what payments have been made, what is due and what is unpaid.

Couples whose relationships were particularly troublesome could make use of a special payment feature offered by the service. This allows transfers to be made to the mother's bank account (as it usually is) but without revealing her account details – and, therefore, her probable location – to the NRP. This would be useful in cases where there is a history of violence or stalking.

But hundreds of thousands of people – particularly those involved in the most problematic separations – will stay within the ambit of the service. So it also has new powers which, it says, will make the whole procedure "quicker and a lot of smoother". If NRPs do not pay up, the CMS has "far tougher enforcement powers and fines", which could see errant NRPs fined up to £300 for first cases of non-payment. And the CMS is also considering a scheme through which the NRP's credit or debit-card details would be kept and used to make good any missed payments.

While controversy surrounds some aspects of the new approach, Mr Webb – a lifelong welfare benefits specialist – is cautiously optimistic.

"We are trying to learn as we go along," he says. "The big bang approach to reform has failed twice," he says, talking of overhauls in 1993 and 2003, which created chaotic results and sullied the scheme's reputation.

But Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers are alarmed about some changes. Families Need Fathers is particularly worried about the forthcoming charges. The basic rule is that NRPs who stay in the CMS system, rather than opting out, will have to pay a fee equal to 20 per cent of each payment.

"It's a huge, extra chunk of income," says Ross Jones of Families Need Fathers. "It's likely to push many of those parents into very desperate circumstances."

Asked to respond to this criticism, Mr Webb says to those NRPs: "Pay the maintenance [directly] then."

Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, is unhappy about a 4 per cent charge that will be deducted from the money received by PWCs who remain in the CMS system. Speaking of the typical mother, Janet Allbeson, the charity's maintenance expert, asks: "Why should she lose 4 per cent of her money to put him under pressure?"

Mr Webb says that without such a charge there would be "absolutely no reason" for the PWC to seek a voluntary agreement, rather than one policed by the CMS.

As the service goes into its final countdown on the new approach, many other questions and doubts remain on, for instance, the calculations, collection of old debts and even on the level of maintenance.

Research in June's British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the NatCen research institute, suggests that the public would like to see PWCs receiving "considerably higher levels of child maintenance than are set by the formula currently used".

It could be that, if the new system works well, higher payments will be a longer-term result.

SWEET 16: ‘TORMENTED’ YEARS OF CHASING PAY MENTS

As her daughter approaches her 16th birthday, single mother Alison Bradford can celebrate two years of receiving £19 a week from her long-gone ex-partner.

The couple split up immediately after Ms Bradford discovered she was pregnant.

"The Child Support Agency [the CSA, predecessor of the Child Maintenance Service] got involved early on," she says. "But he quit his job in order not to pay maintenance."

Problems continued on the financial side for 14 years. When he was in work, Ms Bradford's ex either did not pay or paid erratically and in small amounts. But finally, the agency managed to force him to pay.

But even today, the £19 payments quite frequently peter out. "Quite often I have to give them a call. They threaten to take it out of his pay, and the payments start again," she says.

Ms Bradford gives the money to her daughter.

But the part-time book-keeper is horrified at having to negotiate with him again when the new system's changes are applied to her.

"If I say 'We need to agree', he'll say, 'Of course I'm not going to pay'...The service doesn't take into account that he's been an appalling payer."

Under the new system, non-resident parents will get the option to try to avoid the 20 per cent charges by negotiating their own arrangements with the parent with care. If charges were just imposed overnight, government lawyers believe the Child Maintenance Service could be sued.

Ms Bradford dreads having to go back to the service when their talks break down – as she is sure they will – in order to get it to start from scratch in enforcing payments. She deeply resents the idea that 4 per cent of the £19, as well as a £20 admin fee, will be deducted from her receipts.

She and her daughter feel so "tormented" by the situation when they have to wage war to get the money that Ms Bradford might just give up.

"What's the point? It's causing so much upset," she says. "There are so many single parents out there, and it feels like the Government has said, 'We don't care.'

"They spent millions on the CSA. Finally, they seem to get things right and then they pull the rug out from underneath us."

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