Under divisive new plans recently unveiled by the Department for Work and Pensions, the Child Support Agency (CSA) is to be replaced by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). The move has been justified on efficiency grounds by the government, who say that the new plans will offer “great fairness to the taxpayer” by encouraging parents to take responsibility for their own maintenance arrangements, reducing the role of the state. However, there are growing fears amongst family solicitors and others that victims of domestic abuse will suffer as a result of having to stay in contact with violent ex partners.
The CSA has been widely criticised for “failing children, parents and the taxpayer”. It was introduced to make the collection of child maintenance payments more straightforward by removing the need for family law litigation. However, in practise, the CSA has delivered little return in terms of service quality for its unjustifiable cost. £500 million has been spent each year collecting child maintenance and the massive cost of replacing it is likely to anger taxpayers further.
The CMS does not look like it will prove any more popular though. The 1.2 million child maintenance cases currently open will automatically be closed when the new changes come into play. Many parents and their children suffer as a result of absent parents refusing to pay their child maintenance, or paying sporadically or belatedly. However, whereas the CSA will currently directly extract maintenance from the bank accounts of absent parents, the CMS will instead require direct payments from the absent to the resident parent. The absent parents history will be considered irrelevant by the CMS, who will only step in if the absent payment refuses to pay. What will particularly irk resident parents is that both parents will be charged if the CMS is forced to intervene, rather than just the absent parent as was the case under the CSA.
This raises a number of serious issues. Firstly, it has been argued that the new system will penalise single parents for the disregard of their ex-partners. Furthermore, the government has conceded that the CMS will have to step in to recover payment when the absent parent fails to deliver, however this is effectively already the case under the CSA.
Most alarmingly though, it is feared that the safety of domestic abuse victims is to be jeopardised by being forced to be in close contact with their abusive ex-partners. The Department of Work and Pensions stresses that this will not be the case because transfers will take place via a direct pay system, meaning that personal contact will not be required. A new website offering advice to single parents is also being set up at a cost of £20 million, giving details of help-lines and voluntary organisations who can help. However, this may be of little comfort to single parents who are now likely to have to pay for their ex-partner’s negligence.