Janet AllbesonBehind the attention-grabbing headlines presented by the coalition government, the reality for single parents who are owed child maintenance is very different. In this article, Janet Allbeson examines what exactly is going on and argues for a stretching of the arrears collection target, dedicated arrears enforcement teams, and greater transparency and accountability to single parents to whom the maintenance is owed.

Minister Steve Webb was tackled this week about the latest audited figures on child maintenance arrears which show that total arrears on Child Support Agency (CSA) cases had reached a grand total of £3,980 million, of which £2,917 million (73 per cent) had been designated as “uncollectable”. Only £512 million of all CSA arrears are now officially regarded as ever “likely to be collected”, with a further £563 million seen as “potentially collectable”. When challenged, the Minister pointed to his department’s success in getting non-resident parents to pay child maintenance now. He argued that “contributions towards child maintenance in the CSA are now running at an all-time high of 86.5%”.

For the hundreds of thousands of hard-pressed single parents who have been left waiting months, if not years, for the Agency to take effective action to collect the child maintenance arrears they are owed, the Minister’s upbeat comments make a mockery of their situation. There are currently over 726,000 single parents with dependent children who are collectively owed over £1,126 million in unpaid child maintenance. There are also a further 532,000 parents of children who are now grown up (called “yesterday’s children” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)), whose maintenance arrears totalling a further £1.1 billion have been deemed a low priority for collection.

So how can the Minister and his Department be boasting of their success, when so many parents and children are still waiting for the maintenance they are owed to be paid and only a tiny fraction of the total is deemed “likely to be collected”? One reason is that the DWP counts it as a success if a parent has made any maintenance payment, however small, at least once in the last three months. Drill down below the 86.5 per cent headline, and the CSA’s own figures show that in a quarter of cases in the CSA’s collection service (25.5 per cent or 128,750 cases where maintenance was due) non-resident parents are paying less than half of their liability – including almost 20 per cent (18.4 per cent or 92,902 cases) paying nothing at all.

The DWP wants public attention to be on current maintenance. But every time a parent fails to pay the full amount due, debts start to build up. Focusing simply on a snapshot of the numbers paying some maintenance now, is to overlook all the past payments which have been missed.

Maintenance arrears are not just history. Non-payment leaves a huge financial hole for many parents bringing up a child on one income. It means debts which can take years of  hardship and stress to pay off, the loss of much-need savings, and it means children missing out: from having decent shoes and warm coats, to lacking school equipment and the chance to participate on school trips and have holidays.

The DWP says it has an “Arrears and Compliance Strategy” yet the focus is overwhelmingly on the latter. Of all non-resident parents with a CSA arrears liability, less than a fifth are paying anything towards their arrears. In more than half of all CSA arrears cases, no arrears payments have been made at all in the last two years.

The DWP has admitted that – in order to concentrate on preventing future arrears (i.e. compliance now), “there has been a reduction across enforcement activities in the last year”. The neglect of past missed payments of maintenance has meant that total child maintenance arrears are rising. After adjustments, the ‘true’ rise in arrears last year was £90.6 million. This is 70 per cent higher than the previous year’s ‘true’ increase in arrears of £53 million, which was itself more than double the £24m arrears increase for 2011/12.  

The Minister hit the headlines recently promising new tough action on child maintenance debts, by reporting non-payers to credit reference agencies. But this will only happen if the CSA or new Child Maintenance Service has obtained a ‘liability order’ from the courts. The CSA’s own statistics show that, in the year 2013/14, the number of liability orders applied for actually fell by 31 per cent and the current year’s totals look likely to be even lower. Again, behind the attention-grabbing headlines, the reality for single parents is very different.

Of the £1.1 billion in existing CSA arrears owed to children today – the group the DWP say is its top priority – the department’s strategy document admitted that, between 2013 and 2018, it only expected to collect between £250-333 million of existing CSA debts over the five year period. This is shameful.

Active and energetic pursuit of child maintenance debts matters for two main reasons. First, child maintenance arrears – even if paid years late – can make a huge difference to single parents’ precarious family finances. Secondly, if child maintenance debts are let go, it contributes to a culture of non-compliance, where non-resident parents know that – if they delay long enough or pay just a little – they will not be pursued.

In 2010 when the present government first took office, it criticised the previous government for dropping an arrears collection target for the year 2010-11. It said “Arrears collection is a key priority and it is the coalition government’s intention to reintroduce an arrears target.” Is it a priority? Five years later, as the coalition government draws to a close, it is telling that an arrears recovery target has yet to be set.

I and my colleagues at Gingerbread want to see a stretching arrears collection target to ensure that money owed to children is given the priority it deserves. We also want to see dedicated arrears enforcement teams at the heart of child maintenance operations, plus greater transparency and accountability to single parents to whom the maintenance is owed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: David Spender CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Janet AllbesonJanet Allbeson is Senior Policy Adviser at Gingerbread. Formerly she was Committee Specialist to the Work and Pensions Select Committee and a lawyer specialising in social welfare law.

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