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Child support chaos is finally set to be sorted

The CSA is about to hand over the baton to a new and better service, says Neasa MacErlean

As it gears up to reinvent itself in three months' time, the Child Support Agency is being applauded by some of the parents who deal with it, a turnaround from the days when its chaotic administration regularly made front-page headlines. The agency has been publishing details this month on the way its replacement body, the Child Maintenance Service, will work.

More emphasis will be made on encouraging parents to negotiate their own arrangements. Mediation help, other kinds of assistance and financial incentives, including the waiving of new charges for using the service, are to be introduced.

But problems remain. Men are now twice as likely as women to seek advice on dealing with the agency, as it pursues many of them for old debts outstanding to their ex-partners and children. Women, who account for 97 per cent of parents with care (PWC), find particular problems in cases where their ex is self-employed and decides to understate his income.

And administrative problems are expected to arise as most of the 145,000 PWCs who, through the agency, have managed to set up deduction orders from their ex-partners' salaries or bank accounts, are required to negotiate again with their exes under the transition to the Child Maintenance Service.

Nevertheless, the agency is performing as never before since Baroness Thatcher set it up nearly 20 years ago. It is collecting maintenance in a record 80 per cent of the cases it handles. Citizens Advice, for instance, has stopped campaigning in this area as its caseload has dramatically shrunk.

In 2011-12, it dealt with 34,000 cases, of which 70 per cent, 24,000, relate to the fathers in their capacity as the non-resident partner (NRP). Comparative figures are not available but, a few years back, Citizens Advice would have been dealing with well over 100,000 cases a year, coming mainly from mothers.

Liz Cowell, family law partner at solicitor Pannone, says: "I send a lot of people to the Child Support Agency. On the whole, they do a pretty good job. For the average person, it works pretty well. They were terrible but they aren't any more. They have helped a lot of people."

The government minister responsible, Maria Miller MP, accepts many criticisms: "There is little support for parents to work together and the present system provides little incentive for recalcitrant parents to take their financial responsibilities seriously without the state incurring enforcement costs. This has to change."

She told The Independent that the new system will be a complete break from the past: "Through better local support services and new incentives to collaborate, our reformed system will put the interests of children and families first. Parents who refuse to take financial responsibility will find themselves dealing with a state maintenance service with much more effective enforcement."

The new system starts being phased in from October. It will take several years for all the current caseload, relating to about 1.1 million children, to be switched over. All PWCs will be encouraged to make their own private arrangements with the NRPs. They will have a telephone conversation with an adviser from the new scheme, who might offer them mediation and other assistance, if that might help.

In cases where the parents cannot agree, the PWC can then ask the CSA to intervene. Under the new system, however, a controversial system of charging PWCs and NRPs will come in. Deducting money from sums that would otherwise go to the child's maintenance is "desperately unfair", says Caroline Davey, policy director at Gingerbread, the main body which campaigns on behalf of single parents.

Families Need Fathers is shocked at the doubling of the minimum weekly charge from £5 to £10 for NRPs on income-related benefits under the new system. "It is penal," says Ken Sanderson, chief executive officer at the charity. Its 54 branches are also seeing many cases of fathers being pursued for old debts by the CSA. "It's coming up more and more," he adds.

The CSA can chase debts due from its start date in 1993 as, under rules, it is not bound by the Statute of Limitations and cannot write a debt off. "Some parents can be hit with substantial bills for arrears," says a spokesman.

The 2011-12 CSA statistics show 29 per cent of the £3.8bn of unpaid debts are for between £20,000 and £50,000. Not all of these sums are due to the PWCs as half of the £3.8bn is owed to the CSA in levies on unco-operative NRPs.

As more of these cases emerge, the controversy about them will grow. Liz Cowell is getting "a lot of calls" from men in this position. "The CSA is enforcing against fathers whose children may be in their late 20s," she says. "I would like to see someone take it to judicial review."

Gingerbread believes these debts must be chased. "The CSA has often deprioritised chasing arrears," says Caroline Davey.

"Arrears sometimes built up because the procedures of the CSA were so inefficient in the past. In cases where the child is over 18 now, that money can be really valuable in paying for their education or getting them started in adult life. It is an important principle that the money be repaid."

The CSA estimates £1bn of the £3.8bn can be collected. It now liaises more closely with HM Revenue & Customs to get address and income data on NRPs, one reason for its reopening of some old files. It is the only body which has power to get "deduction orders" from people's bank accounts.

More than 1,000 of these are in place. In almost 200 cases, the CSA has been granted "orders for sale" through which it could proceed to sell an NRP's house.

"We will go after these debts," says the spokesman. "But we don't seek to make people bankrupt or chase them for money they do not have." At the moment, the CSA can only negotiate over the timing of the repayment of debts. In future, the CMS is expected to have the powers to write off the debts if the NRP dies or if the PWC agrees to the write-off.

About 10 per cent of CSA cases relate to self-employed NRPs. In some (see case study), the NRPs appear to be understating their income in order to reduce their maintenance liability.

They can set up limited companies to do this, using the company to hide some of their income, paying themselves in dividends and getting a very low salary. The CMS is to get more flexibility to pursue these cases.

In total households with up to 3 million children in Britain are eligible to receive child maintenance, according to government statistics. Their financial circumstances continue to be difficult.

The Public Accounts Committee's report on the CSA, published in April, said: "Around half of all children in the UK from separated families are being brought up in poverty".

Case study: Partner can't pay much, so what about the Jag?

Susie (not her real name) has been back and forth between her ex-partner and the CSA over payments for their four-year-old son.

After they split up during the pregnancy, her former partner volunteered to pay £50 a week but he "disappeared and cancelled the direct debit" after a "major fall-out" five months later.

Since then she has been yo-yoing back and forth, as she called in the CSA and he challenged her requests and statements. She has variously been assessed to get sums of £6.50 a week, £82 and £33. Much of the time her ex has not been paying.

One issue is how much he earns and can afford to contribute. He has claimed that he earns £123 a week, that he supports his new girlfriend's child and that he should contribute less as their son sleeps over with him more regularly than the CSA realised. To challenge his low-income claims, Susie has taken photographs of his Jaguar and of the inside and outside of his house.

After tribunal hearings, she is receiving £33 but battling on. "I'm doing this on principle," says Susie, who does not need the money. The CSA have "been brilliant". To others in a similar position, she says: "Keep going because eventually you will get there."