Fundamental overhaul of Child Maintenance Service needed

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate about Child Maintenance  on 17th January 2023, Jamie Stone MP called for a fundamental overhaul of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

The Lib Dem member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said: “I will re-emphasise my opening point that currently the CMS is not working for anybody. In my own office, the bulk of cases come from constituents who are paying parents and who are being unfairly treated by the CMS. We have found that it is often the case for parents who have shared care that one parent has the child for more days than the other and is entitled to various child benefits but then asks for maintenance on top of that, despite the other parent caring for the child for two to three days a week without receiving any support from the Government. So there are different ways of looking at this issue.  In my office, we have also seen cases where parents have been making their payments properly and on time, but they have had those payments treated as being “voluntary”, and so they are not counted towards assessed payments.”

Shared Parenting Scotland agrees with Jamie Stone’s call for the CMS to better protect paying parents from economic abuse and the threat of poverty as well as not chasing paying parents for payments they do not owe. We hear from MPs that a high proportion of their casework is concerned with trying to get corrections or even explanations from the CMS about its decisions and demands.

For us the bigger issue is that the crude division between ‘paying parent’ and ‘receiving parent’ undermines any progress towards the wider objective of genuinely sharing parenting. Other areas of government aspiration acknowledge that the continuing involvement of both parents in the life of their children is in most cases beneficial to their emotional and psychological wellbeing. When asked in public opinion surveys there are large majorities in favour of the idea that both parents should be allowed to co-parent. Unfortunately, it has been explicit since the inception of the CSA in 1993 and its successor, the CMS, that the agency has no interest in parenting, only in transfer of money.

Only 23% of families with statutory maintenance arrangements have any shared care, measured by the CMS criterion of the number of overnights a child has with the ‘paying parent’. Anything under the first hurdle of 52 nights will not be counted even if it is set out in a court order. Daytime parenting becomes invisible. Only 3% have equal care status according to DWP’s  quarterly statistics from December 2021.

We recently wrote to Viscount Younger of Leckie, the UK Minister responsible for child maintenance. We asked  whether the the UK Government is looking at ways to support the amount of shared care within the Child Maintenance and Child Benefit systems.

We know of several examples of the situation cited by  Jamie Stone in which the fact that one parent is receiving Child Benefit was used to reject a claim for equal care by the other parent. Child Benefit cannot be split. In previous discussions with ministers and CMS officials it was acknowledged that allocating Child Benefit always to one parent is by way of administrative convenience. Child Benefit is also the gateway to a raft of other funds and supports intended to assist low income parents do their best by their children.

We have also been concerned in several cases that CMS Staff are not fully aware of the process which should be used to determine equal shared care.

Lord Younger advised us in his reply that: “… there are currently no plans to change the child maintenance calculation policy.”  He also stated that: “The statutory scheme aims to provide the best overall outcome for all its clients.  It is not intended to offer a bespoke service that is unique to a client’s individual circumstances.”

This complacent approach seems to close the dialogue that existed with his predecessor, Baroness Stedman-Scott. It doesn’t sit well with the despairing stories arising in our casework or with the concerns raised at the Westminster Hall debate. It looks the other way from the frustration and distress it causes to parents who are safe, willing and able to share the care of their children but who feel they don’t count no matter what they do or what their court order says.