The government announced that parents who default on child maintenance payments will be referred to credit reference agencies, potentially leading to the refusal of loans and other credit instruments to parents in arrears. We should temper our optimism, however, says Janet Allbeson. There is a very clear danger that the new Child Maintenance Service will prove reluctant to use the new enforcement power.
For the over 700,000 families with dependent children who are presently owed over £1 billion in unpaid child maintenance, Minister Steve Webb’s announcement last week that the government is planning new tough action on parents who persistently refuse to pay child maintenance is very welcome. New regulations to be laid in Parliament in March 2015 will mean that details of a parent’s poor paying record could be passed on to credit reference agencies. In turn, this could lead to a parent with child maintenance debts being refused loans, mortgages, credit cards or mobile phone contracts.
The government’s declared determination to now “tackle this kind of irresponsible behaviour” could not come soon enough for the many single parents who are struggling financially due to unpaid maintenance. Non-payment of child maintenance can have serious and long-lasting consequences for single parent families, with a devastating impact on children’s wellbeing. It can mean struggling to pay the bills and keep a roof over children’s heads. Debts incurred as a result can take many years of hardship and stress to clear. Children can end up deprived of the things others take for granted – from the basics of decent food, a warm home and adequate clothing to things like a computer for homework, pocket money, school trips and holidays.
That’s why, even if paid months or years late, getting child maintenance which is owed really matters. And why, active and persistent pursuit of parents who refuse to pay for their children is a very important part of the job for the Child Support Agency (CSA) and the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS).
But single parents who are owed arrears of maintenance could be pardoned for not getting their hopes up too highly as a result of the latest announcement. Many have tried for years with little success to get the Child Support Agency to take effective collection and enforcement action. The Minister said that “For too long, a minority of absent parents [sic] have got away with failing to pay maintenance.” Too true; and the reason for this can be laid at the door of the CSA. An independent panel of debt experts, brought in by the government in 2011 to advise on collecting child maintenance arrears, concluded that arrears collection could be described as “extra-curricular” to the everyday activity of the Agency. With little central management information on parents in debt and limited performance indicators for arrears collection, the Panel took the view that the Agency was simply not structured for the pursuit of arrears. That structure has not changed.
It is a depressing fact that the newly announced power to inform credit reference agencies about a parent’s child maintenance payment record has been on the statute books since 2008. The fact that it will have taken seven years to implement by the time regulations come into force does not suggest any great urgency in improving enforcement options. Another reason which may temper optimism that money owed will be forthcoming anytime soon, is that – with the CSA or CMS only permitted to pass information to credit reference agencies once they have obtained a liability order from the courts – the number of liability orders the CSA is applying for has actually been falling. In April 2013 to March 2014 there were 31% fewer applications for liability orders than the previous year.
The Minister has already said he hopes the new power will be used only rarely, and that the threat alone will be act as sufficient deterrent to those considering avoiding paying what they owe. Too often in the past, tough talk has not been followed by delivery. The danger is that, if the CSA or CMS proves reluctant to use this new enforcement power, recalcitrant non-payers will quickly wise up to the fact and shrug off the new threat.
Will things change in the future? Over the next three years, all one million or so current CSA cases will be closed down, with the arrears owed to single parents and their children transferred to the new Child Maintenance Service for collection. Single parents will be hoping that that the new CMS will be better structured for the pursuit of arrears, and that getting parents to pay their child maintenance debts will be given greater urgency.
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