In spite of reforms introduced in 2003, the Child Support Agency (CSA) was heavily criticised for failing to meet its objectives. With nearly £4 billion worth of unpaid child maintenance estimated to be outstanding, clearly something had to be done. To this end, in July 2008 the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) – a statutory non-departmental public body – was established to take on the work of the CSA.
Also in July 2008, the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act (CMOPA) removed the obligation for new claimants who are on benefits to use the CSA. Unsurprisingly, statistics based on the first quarterly figures since this change was made show that the number of new cases being brought to the CSA has declined.
In October 2008, the obligation for existing CSA clients claiming benefits to continue to use the Agency was removed. All parents can now choose the child maintenance arrangements that best suit their individual circumstances. This could be a private arrangement or the statutory maintenance arrangements. A new Child Maintenance Options service has been established to provide information and support to help parents reach a decision.
Since October 2008, the benefit disregard level has been increased. Parents claiming benefits who have primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of a child can now keep up to £20 per week of any child maintenance receipts before their benefits are affected. The Government’s stated intention is that from April 2010, child maintenance will be fully disregarded when calculating out-of-work benefits.
In November 2008, the CMEC took over responsibility for the work of the CSA.
During 2009/2010, new enforcement powers will be introduced under the CMOPA to ensure that parents meet their child maintenance responsibilities. These will include allowing the CMEC to seize the passport and/or driving licence of parents who fail to pay, without the need to involve the courts as is currently the case. Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell says that the Government is keen to support parents in these tough times, but for those who choose not to support their own children, “We will not stand by and do nothing. If a parent refuses to pay up then we will stop them travelling abroad or even using their car.” The Commission will also be able to seize money from bank accounts, where a parent has failed in their financial obligations toward their child, without having to go through the courts. Furthermore, the CMEC will also be able to apply for a curfew or to recover money from a dead person’s estate.
If the timetable goes according to plan, in 2011 a new ‘gross income’ scheme will be established. This is intended to reduce the time taken to calculate child maintenance by basing the amount a parent pays on gross income as per the latest available tax information held by HM Revenue and Customs. At this stage, parents still using the statutory scheme will be encouraged either to make their own arrangements or to move to the gross income scheme.
It is hoped that by 2013/2014, a single system of child maintenance will be in operation.