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The debate is expected to focus on the new large scale write-off policy of arrears accumulated under the legacy 1993 and 2003 schemes that were administered by the Child Support Agency (CSA), and the use of collection actions and enforcement powers when there are arrears on a case.

The House of Commons Library has published a number of briefing papers relating to the issue of the statutory child maintenance scheme which applies in Great Britain.

In particular, the briefing paper Child maintenance: the multi-billion pound write-off of arrears on Child Support Agency cases (GB) sets out the background and details of the new policy.  The new policy marked a significant shift in the latest arrears and compliance strategy; the previous strategy that ran from 2012-2017 stated that: “The Government has no plans to conduct a wholesale write-off of CSA debt on the grounds that it is unlikely to be collected”.  The new policy was subject to a consultation, although views were not sought specifically on the principle of the new write-off policy.  The Government published its response to the consultation in July 2018, and made regulations to introduce the new policy which came into force in December 2018.

In deciding to take this approach, the Government highlighted the costs associated with maintaining the CSA arrears on the IT systems, and the financial burden (of some £1.5 billion) associated with seeking to collect the arrears coupled with the relatively low expected yield to people with care from such efforts (around £0.1 to 0.6 billion).

Arrears of £3.7 billion accumulated under the 1993 and 2003 schemes: £1.2 billion owed to the Government will be written off in full, while and £2.5 billion is owed to people with care (also known as “receiving parents”).  People with care who are affected are being invited to make representations to ask for their arrears to be collected if they meet the relevant threshold amount of arrears – cases under the threshold are simply written-off.  If a person with care who meets the thresholds does make representations, the non-resident parent will also be asked for their views.  The CSA will then decide if there is a “reasonable chance of collection” and, if there is, then “reasonable steps” will be taken to collect those arrears.  The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimated that only “around £415 million” on “around 90,000 cases” would progress to collection stage, although it did not estimate how much of this was likely to be successfully collected.

The large-scale write off programme commenced in December 2018.  According to the latest statistics published in June 2019 (for the position as of March 2019):

  • the CSA has commenced the parent with care representation process in 134,100 cases, which is 72% of the 185,100 cases eligible for representation;
  • of the 125,000 cases (93% of all eligible cases) where the person with care could be traced:
    • in 5% of cases (6,300 cases), the person with care asked for the arrears to be collected;
    • in 7% of cases (8,600 cases), people with care either asked the CSA not to collect the arrears, or had not responded to the letter within 60 days of the first letter being issued;
    • 88% of cases (110,300 cases) were still within the time limit for the person with care to respond.

No figures are currently available for the amounts of arrears involved in these cases.

In terms of the collection and enforcement powers that can be used to collect arrears, the CSA and also the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) – which is responsible for the current “2012” child maintenance scheme – have a broad spectrum at their disposal. 

 At the lower end of the spectrum are the “collection actions”, such as deductions from earnings orders and deductions from bank accounts.   If a court grants an application for a liability order, the CSA and CMS can use their enforcement powers, which can include imprisonment, driving bans and the recently introduced measure of confiscating a non-resident parent’s passport.  These can only be used on cases on the CMS’s “Collect and Pay” scheme.

The DWP told the Work and Pensions Select Committee in September 2016 that “all cases move across to enforcement immediately after the first missed payment was missed”.  However, the single parent charity Gingerbread has said that, in their experience, there could be “a lot of prevarication and foot dragging” before the CSA or CMS used their powers to collect arrears, and said that the CSA and CMS were “only willing to do it in the most exceptional case”.

A report published in March 2017 by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that “since 2012 the Department [for Work and Pensions] has reduced its overall enforcement actions to recover arrears on the 1993 and 2003 schemes”.  The report noted that, compared to 2012-13, the use of certain types of collection and enforcement action in 2015-16 in respect of arrears on 1993 and 2003 scheme cases (i.e. those now subject to the large scale write-off programme) had changed by the following: 

  • 15% increase in Deduction Orders (from e.g. bank accounts);
  • 69% decrease in the use of Deductions from Earnings Orders;
  • 73% decrease in Bailiff referrals;
  • 77% decrease in Liability Orders granted (allowing enforcement powers to be used);
  • 98% decrease in prosecutions.

More information can be found in the Library briefing paper, Child maintenance: enforcing payment of arrears (GB).

This note applies to Great Britain only.

Related House of Commons Library Briefing Papers

 ‘Effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service’, 22 July 2019

‘Child Maintenance: Enforcing Payment of Arrears (GB)’, 21 March 2019

 ‘Child Maintenance: Variations, Including the New Notional Income Criterion (GB)’, 8 March 2019

‘Child Maintenance: The Multi-Billion Pound Write-off of Arrears on Child Support Agency Cases (GB)’, 6 March 2019

‘Child Maintenance: Income in the CMS formula (including why gross income is used, and annual reviews’, 19 December 2018

‘Child Maintenance: New Steps to improve compliance and to allow arrears to be written off (UK excluding NI)’, 9 August 2018

‘Child Maintenance: fees (UK excluding NI)’, 10 January 2017

Parliamentary Material

The following PQs may be of interest:

Child Maintenance: Written Question- 286807, 4 September 2019

Marion Fellows: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what estimate he has made of the total amount owed by the 100 non-resident parents who have the largest outstanding child maintenance arrears under the Child Maintenance Service.

At the end of March 2019, the 100 non-resident parents with the largest amount of unpaid child maintenance arranged by the Child Maintenance Service collectively owed £3.5m, rounded to the nearest £0.1m.

Child Maintenance: Written Question- 286806, 4 September 2019

Marion Fellows: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many times the Child Maintenance Service has used its power to disqualify non-compliant paying parents from holding or obtaining a (a) passport and (b) driving licence.

Mims Davies: This information is not reported. However we do hold clerical data and can advise 15 driving licenses have been removed or suspended and 3 passports have been suspended.

The information regarding committal orders, or sanctions as they are called in the Child Maintenance Service, are reported in our published statistics and can be on found table 11 of the tables document on the attached link:

We reported enforcement activities in our CSA statistics until September 2017 when we reduced the number of tables published because most CSA cases had been closed or had begun the Case Closure process. The last publication including the enforcement activities can be found on table 22 of the attached link:

Child Maintenance: Written Question- 284195, 2 September 2019

Marion Fellows: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what guidance her Department issues to (a) non-resident parents and (b) parents with care on changes to their child maintenance calculations when their case transfers from the Child Support Agency to the Child Maintenance Service.

Mims Davies: Ahead of closure Child Support Agency send customers a series of letters advising about their case closing and what they can do should they want child maintenance payments to continue. This advice includes making an advance application to the Child Maintenance Service, t o ensure there are no breaks in child maintenance.

When the Child Support Agency case is closed, we write to non-resident parent during the stage where we are confirming the arrears position, to remind them of the amount we have worked out they owe. We advise them to contact us if they have any other relevant information which would impact this. A letter is then sent to receiving parent advising we have confirmed their balance of child maintenance. Where child maintenance is owed, we ask if the balance is correct and if they want their arrears written off or managed by Child Maintenance Service. Parents are provided with contact details to discuss their case, at all points.

In cases where the arrears are moved to Child Maintenance Service, a letter is sent to both parties confirming their Child Support Agency case is fully closed. We also advise the unpaid child maintenance is now being managed by Child Maintenance Service. This provides the parent with the new telephone number they will need if they wish to contact Child Maintenance Service.

Where there is a new Child Maintenance Service case, which was previously a Child Support Agency case, the calculation can change. This is because it is a fresh start under the new service, with new rules and data.

At the outset of a Child Maintenance Service case, we issue an indicative calculation letter to the parents. This explains the new calculation, including the information used in the calculation. This provides opportunity for the non-resident parent to provide any further information that would impact the calculation. Following this we issue an initial calculation letter which confirms the calculation and the details used.

Parents are advised they have the opportunity, throughout the application process and the life of the case as well as at annual review stage, to challenge the information used and request change.

Child Maintenance: Written Question- 266704, 19 June 2019

Jim Shannon: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is taking to retrieve money owed by absent parents.

Will Quince: The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) replaced the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission in 2012 and brought significant reforms to the Child Maintenance system in Great Britain. Child Maintenance in Northern Ireland is a devolved issue, although they run a broadly similar scheme. Any questions should be directed to the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.

We support separated parents to make their own family based arrangements wherever possible. This allows families to create flexible arrangements that work for their individual circumstances and, where parents are able to work together, this can be better for their children. Where this is not possible, the CMS offers an effective and efficient statutory scheme for those parents who really need it.

Under the statutory scheme, where paying parents fail to pay on time and in full, we aim to take immediate action to recover the debt and re-establish compliance. Where compliance is not achieved we are committed to using our wide ranging enforcement powers proportionally, and in the best interests of children and separated families.

Children: Maintenance: Written Question 285021, 5 September 2019

Marion Fellows: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what her Department’s policy is on registration of the child maintenance debt of a non-resident parent with credit rating agencies.

Mims Davies: Where a liability order has been granted for the purposes of pursuing child maintenance arrears, the paying parent is given a 21 day warning period in order to respond and agree to pay.

If the warning period passes and no payment has been received from the paying parent or a payment agreement has not been made, then registration with a Credit Reference Agency will be considered. The decision is discretionary and intended to act as a deterrent to those parents who may otherwise choose to evade paying their maintenance.

The number of liability orders granted is reported in our published statistics and can be on found table 11 of the tables document in the attached link:

Parliamentary Debates

Westminster Hall, ‘Effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service’, 23 July 2019, HC Deb 532 WH-555WH

House  of Lords, ‘Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019, 2 July 2019, HL Deb 1355-1364

House of Commons, ‘Family Law [Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019], 11 June 2019, HC Deb 584-591.

House of Commons, ‘Child Maintenance’, 6 November 2018, HC Deb 1396-1399.

Recent Early Day Motions

Shortcomings of the Child Maintenance Service, EDM 2667, 25 July 2019

Primary Sponsors: Marion Fellows, Martyn Day, Deidre Brock, Patricia Gibson, Gavin Newlands, Douglas Chapman.

Total Signatures: 23.

News Articles

Marion Fellows MP, ‘End the maintenance tax on families’, Politics Home, 6 November 2018

Maya Oppenheim, ‘More than one-third of single mothers in debt as former partners fail to pay child support, research finds’, The Independent, 13 December 2018

John Bolch, ‘Private Members’ Bill aims to improve child maintenance service’, Stowe Family Law, 15 November 2018

Tom Barnes, ‘Government could write off £2.5bn in child maintenance debts because it fears money may never be recovered’, The Independent, 14 January 2018

Reports and Government Statements

Ginger Bread Charity, Direct Pay Child Maintenance: Innovation or Failure? (March 2019)

National Audit Office, Child Maintenance: Client Funds Account 2017-18 (December 2018)

UK Government: Child Maintenance: Changes to Compliance Measures (December 2018)

Work and Pensions Select Committee, Comment on Child Maintenance Service & Letter from Justin Tomlinson MP, Minister for Family support, Housing and Child Maintenance (9-30 October 2018)

UK Government, Child Maintenance: A New Compliance and Arrears Strategy: Consultation and Reponses (July 2018)

National Audit Office, Child Maintenance: Closing Cases and Managing Arrears on the 1993 and 2003 schemes (March 2017)

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