Strong support for role of state in enforcing child maintenance

Single parents are being left to their own devices. Flickr/stephanski

In most countries children in lone parent families are at increased risk of experiencing poverty. In 2011, the proportion of lone parents below the poverty line in EU countries reached 33.5%, compared with an overall poverty rate of 16.8%.

One means of tackling this high poverty rate, in addition to increased employment, is through the payment of maintenance from ex-partners when families separate. However this is something that the UK has long struggled to facilitate with any consistency.

Administrative failures

The introduction of the Child Support Agency (CSA) in 1993 was supposed to turn around a situation where too few lone parents received child support. Instead, it has become a byword for administrative failure. A number of subsequent reforms tried to streamline administration processes and simplify the assessment formula. These efforts met with some success, but largely failed to achieve the desired step change in numbers receiving child maintenance.

In most countries, the collection of child support is also used to offset any safety net benefits being paid to low income families. That used to be the case in the UK, and was part of the rationale for reform in the 1990s. This led to organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group condemning the government for putting the Treasury before children.

Reforming the role of the state

This was changed in 2010 so that recipients keep all of their child support, rather than seeing it used to reduce benefit payments – and parents looking after children have no obligation to take forward an application. Whilst these changes may be seen to be to the advantage of low income parents, in practice it means that government has no direct financial interest in being involved in the successful payment of maintenance.

This lack of financial interest, plus a general concern to reduce state spending (the CSA previously costing over £½ billion a year to run), and a feeling that the best arrangements would be achieved if parents could come to their own agreements, has led to the gradual reduction of the state’s role in assessing and collecting maintenance.

Under recent reforms, parents may seek advice and check online guidance on child support, but the expectation is that they will be able to agree on how much child maintenance will flow between them. Those needing state assistance will pay handsomely in terms of an initial charge, plus ongoing fees that affect both the payer and the recipient.

The public have their say

In research published this week with a number of colleagues for the British Social Attitudes 30th Report, we see how far this move towards private arrangements is supported by the British public.

Given how many parents are affected by family break-down, many will either have direct experience of the child maintenance system, or know people who have. We also looked at how the public think that the level of child support should be assessed, something which is surprisingly rare.

The findings are stark. Whilst some people were unsure how to respond, some 60% thought that the law should be setting a minimum amount for child maintenance, rather than leaving it to parents to decide. Only 17% disagreed with this view.

There was also strong support for the thought that the state should be using the law to enforce child maintenance obligations. Only 20% of the public believed that the law should never force fathers who are not living with their children to pay child maintenance, compared with 59% who disagreed.

These views tended to hold across the political spectrum, and among those of differing incomes and educational backgrounds. Parents at the sharp end of policy decisions – those who have an obligation to pay child maintenance – were only a little less likely than others to favour government involvement. Almost twice as many people supported a role for government as those who opposed it.

An underlying issue in setting rates of child support is the extent to which it should be about children sharing in the living standard of the absent parent, as opposed to just keeping children out of poverty. Under the current scheme, parents living apart from children pay a set percentage of their income based on the number of children being supported, with a reduction for any overnight stays.

The amounts of maintenance believed by most people to be suitable go beyond the current levels, except for some poorer fathers. In short, child maintenance was seen to be set at too low a level. People believed that payments should aim beyond reducing poverty, and there was also a reluctance to reduce child maintenance levels for a limited amount of overnight care.

What’s next?

The CSA has been subject to strong lobbying from many parents, and others, concerned at its apparent inability to deploy its far-reaching powers and achieve regular payment of maintenance. Only relatively small amounts of benefit payments were ever reclaimed, and in recent years that clawback has ended. Effects on reducing child poverty appear to have been muted.

The next phase of reform will see a continued decline in the role of the state, and a greater emphasis on parents coming to their own arrangements. Recent changes to legal aid also reduce the support available for going to court on family matters. When it comes to arranging child support after relationships break down, many low income families may feel that they are largely on their own during one of the more stressful periods of their lives.