Child Maintenance Service should support shared parenting

Shared Parenting Scotland has challenged the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to support shared parenting by making it easier for parents to establish that they are sharing the care of their children.

We have written to Baroness Stedman-Scott, the UK Minister responsible for child maintenance. We have asked her to ensure that CMS staff ask about the reality of care arrangements as they work for the child or as ordered by a court.

Government policy at both Westminster and Holyrood supports promoting the best interests of children, and research strongly indicates that equal shared care is generally the best option for children in separated families.

At present CMS practice, for the agency’s own convenience, is to designate the parent receiving Child Benefit as the ‘receiving parent’.   This approach puts the onus on the other ‘paying’ parent to prove how much care (overnights and daytime) he – in most but not all cases the father – has with the child.

While this might require the CMS staff to do more work initially, it changes the emphasis from accepting sole care after separation as the norm to one of supporting and encouraging shared care.  Baroness Stedman-Scott is on record as acknowledging that CMS instructions to staff and clients is not very clear in situations where shared parenting is sought or even established. We are therefore urging her to take action to tidy up these ambiguities and shift the balance towards a positive view of shared care.

Since it was setup as the Child Support Agency in 1993 the official position has been that its role is purely financial and that the quality of parenting the child receives as a result of its calculations are not its concern. That was not good enough in 1993 and is 30 years out of date now.

At present, only 23% of families with statutory maintenance arrangements have any shared care. Only 3% have equal care, according to CMS statistics.  Some changes, such as splitting welfare benefits between separated parents or radically altering the Child Maintenance calculation, would require primary legislation. That would be bound to be controversial. But a simple change in the way child maintenance is administered by the CMS staff could help to increase these shared parenting rates.

We also suggest that the parents who do manage to achieve shared care should receive a financial bonus to reward them for this child-centred approach.  While this might be criticised as rewarding them for having separated the reality is that parental separation has become widespread, and separated parents are often both under financial stress.