The government is winding up the Child Support Agency (CSA) and replacing it with a brand new body – the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). With this administrative change will come a whole host of changes to the way that child maintenance works, affecting millions of parents in Britain.

The changes follow the 2011 Green Paper “Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibility: the future of child maintenance” which outlined a radical reshaping of the child maintenance system to move away from the current adversarial model in which the statutory scheme is seen as the default option for separating parents to one in which families are encouraged to come to their own agreements.

What is child maintenance?

Child maintenance is regular financial support that goes towards a child’s upbringing. The parent who pays maintenance makes regular payments to the receiving parent, who the child spends the majority of time with, to help cover the child’s everyday living costs. Child maintenance can be organised informally between two separated parents, known as family-based arrangements, or can be organised via the government statutory scheme, currently administered by the CSA, soon to be the CMS.

What are the proposed changes?

  • There will be a £20 application fee which the parent with care (95% of whom are women) will have to pay if they want their case to be handled by the CMS
  • The application fee will be waived if the parent declares that they are the victim of domestic violence and has reported it to the police or a relevant agency.
  • All parents with care needing the CMS to collect money on their behalf will have to pay an ongoing deduction from maintenance payments, regardless of whether they have been a victim of abuse or not. The proposed level is 7%.
  • The non-resident parent who fails to make direct payments will have to pay a collection surcharge equivalent to a proposed 20% of the maintenance payment.
  • Those who fail to pay once they are in the collection service will face fines from £50 to £300.

The Department of Work and Pensions predicts that it will reduce the current annual running cost of £500m and raise £813m in the first three years. Non-resident parents are expected to contribute over £2bn per year in collection and enforcement charges.

When will the changes come into force?

The changes will begin to roll out at the end of 2012 into 2013. By 2014 all of the 1.2 million current CSA collection cases will be closed and the non-resident parent will be given the chance to make payments directly to the parent with care rather than having them collected by the new CMS.

What are the criticisms of the new scheme?

Other than obvious criticism regarding application fees, women’s groups have highlighted the dangers of abusive ex-partners being given the option to pay child maintenance direct. The government has said that parents escaping violent relationships need not have any direct contact with their ex or provide any bank account details – they can use a “Direct Pay” anonymous money transfer system.

Final thoughts

It remains to be seen whether the new system will encourage parents to make their own arrangements and will operate more quickly and efficiently than the CSA which has come under continued criticism for its inefficiency. The new provisions could also threaten women already living in fear of abusive ex-partners although this does seem to have been thought through to some extent by the government.