The UK’s formal system for child support arrangements between separated families, without involving the courts, is provided by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). This succeeded the Child Support Agency (CSA), first established in 1993 with the Child Support Act 1991.

Originally gaining cross-party support, the service has faced much criticism. Historians Pat Thane and Tanya Evans argued in 2012 that the CSA’s launch, its complex rules, and accrual of arrears was “arguably the greatest fiasco of the century in British social security policy.”

But during the 2019/20 financial year, an estimated 15 percent of separated families were solely reliant on the CMS and received around £0.7 billion in payments through it in the financial years ending 2018-2020.

This Insight looks at why the 1991 Act was introduced and a brief timeline from the CSA’s creation to now.

The first proposal: 1974

An alternative to a court-based system for organising child support payments was first proposed in 1974 by the Labour Government’s Finer Committee. This was rejected by the then-Secretary of State for Social Services, Barbara Castle, as too bureaucratic and reliant on means testing and Labour instead created a universal child allowance.

 “Children Come First” White Paper: 1990

Sixteen years later, then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, said the Government would publish a White Paper proposing a child support agency. The resulting Child Support Act passed in 1991.

The then-Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, described the 1991 Act as a “natural adjunct” to the recently passed Children Act 1989, which emphasised court and family resolution. Whilst both gave “primary responsibility” to parents for securing the welfare of their children, the 1991 legislation emphasised the state’s role in ensuring separated parents financially supported their children.

The chart below sets out the Thatcher Government’s arguments for introducing the Child Support Act, including the rising cost of benefits to the Treasury and getting more “separated mothers” into work.

A graphic explores the reasoning behind the Child Support Act in the UK Government's Children Come First White Paper (1990)

The 1993 Child Support Scheme: Reducing welfare costs

The CSA, the body set up to manage the new system of child maintenance, began operation in 1993.

The agency’s scheme was first offered to parents without a court or written agreement before phasing in parents receiving certain benefits, and then non-benefit cases. The CSA was compulsory for those receiving income support or family credit until 2008.

Until 2008, child maintenance paid to the “parent with care” may have reduced the level of benefit received from the then-Department for Social Security and its successor, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). “Parent with care” is the legal term for the person who the child lives with and holds most day-to-day care responsibilities.

All benefits were taken out of the equation for those receiving child maintenance from 2010. This followed the 2006 Henshaw report, which argued that by reducing benefits because of maintenance, both parents were disincentivised to cooperate with the CSA. The report argued that parents with care gained little or no increase in income and non-resident parents had their payments going to the state.

Calculating child maintenance under the first CSA scheme

To make an assessment for parents under the first scheme, up to 148 pieces of information were required, including the income of both parents and the new partner of the non-resident parent (if applicable), travel to work costs and debts incurred before the parents separated.

The scheme could also make new assessments if the parents’ income changed by at least 5 percent (in contrast to 25 percent in the 2012 scheme). Changes were also introduced in the Child Support Act 1995, allowing some discretion in the formula used to calculate maintenance liability.

Critics argued that this system caused multiple reassessments. The Labour Government’s 1999 Command Paper estimated that CSA staff spent an average of 90 percent of their time making or updating assessments and argued this built delays into the system, causing arrears to accrue.

Labour’s reforms: Child maintenance from 2003

The Labour Government proposed reforms to the CSA in 1999. At this time, around 942,000 parents who did not have majority of care responsibilities (‘non-resident parents’) were assessed by the CSA. As of May 1999, a third were not paying any child maintenance.

The resulting legislation sought to simplify the system from 2003 onwards, including reducing the number of factors used in calculating maintenance allowances.

Ongoing concerns for the CSA

The National Audit Office (NAO) described the 2003 reforms as an “unsuccessful attempt” to deliver the policy behind the 1993 scheme. It noted that 923,000 cases remained on the more complex 1993 scheme and that it cost £0.70 to collect every £1 from a paying parent in 2004/5.

The growth and write-off of CSA arrears, 1994-2018

DWP indicative estimates from 2013 suggest CSA arrears grew thirteenfold from 1994 to 1999 and then doubled from 2000 to 2010.

The Government said in 2017 this was the result of “policy, operational and IT issues.”

In 2018, a write-off policy was announced for the £3.7 billion of child maintenance arrears under the first two schemes.

A chart shows that estimated CSA arrears grew thirteenfold from 1994 to 1999 and then doubled from 2000 to 2010.

Streamlining maintenance: The system from 2012

The Labour Government commissioned the Henshaw Report to redesign the child maintenance system.

Governments in 2008 and 2011 proposed and consulted on a new system for calculating maintenance, which was introduced in 2012 (a 2017 NAO report compares the 2012 scheme with its predecessors).

Following continuing concerns over slow rates of collection and arrears growth, a compliance strategy was launched in 2018 to better establish the non-resident parent’s income and support enforcement (allowing, for example, the removal of driving licenses for non-payment).

From compulsory to voluntary

30 years after the 1991 Act, joining the scheme has moved from being compulsory for some to voluntary for all.

Both Labour and Coalition Governments made changes aimed at encouraging and supporting family-based arrangements, arguing that parents working together results in better outcomes for children, including increased contact.

Forming part of this was the 2010 full disregard of benefits and the reintroduction of fees from 2014 for some applications and collection and enforcement activity (previously suspended from 1995). The Child Maintenance Options service was also launched to help parents make alternative arrangements, if appropriate.

Further reading

The DWP cautions against making comparisons between CSA and CMS statistics. The House of Commons Library has, however, addressed how the schemes have:

About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher specialising in social services at the House of Commons Library

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

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