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A consultation or a cover up of child maintenance failings?

This opinion piece is over 6 years old

Rhona Cunningham critiques the Department for Work and Pensions consultation on child maintenance and urges people to respond

This blog is basically made up of jaggy wee questions that the government will never answer. First question, what is the point of asking people what they think if you don’t really want to know their answer? Is the point of a public consultation really just to tick a box and pretend you are playing a fair game? Is it really just to validate what you are going to do anyway and ignore anything you don’t want to hear?

These questions haven’t randomly popped into my head; they are there as a result of the Department of Work and Pensions launching a public consultation into child maintenance arrears on 14th December that will be open until 8th February.

If the DWP really wanted input, surely this consultation would be on the news, in the press, all over social media – yes? No, it was very unobtrusively rolled out and sits on the government website nice and quietly.

It’s not as if it’s a really important issue is it? It’s about child maintenance, and nobody really cares about that. It doesn’t impact on anybody really, well, except thousands upon thousands of children of course.

Rhona Cunningham
Rhona Cunningham

Essentially the consultation is the DWP wanting to know if they have the people of the UK’s blessing to write off the child maintenance arrears accumulated in the shambolic Child Support Agency (CSA) system, suggesting it’s a waste of public money to chase the £3.7billion (yes that’s billion with a b) owed to parents, and the lesser amount of £1.2billion owed to the government.

Wiping off debt is standard practice though isn’t it, after all that’s how we deal with benefit fraud, the infamous poll tax and HMRC debt – right? Oh no, we don’t – do we? Any other debt is aggressively pursued until it is settled, why should child maintenance be any different? For me the big thing about wiping out the debt is that it sends out the message that child maintenance is optional; you can choose to pay it if you like but if you don’t and accrue thousands of pounds of arrears then that’s ok too, as eventually it will be written off by the government.

The consultation gives an overview of the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) and suggests it is far more effective than the old system, with the measurement of success being that it is racking up debts at a slower pace. For the financial year 2016-17, £110m was due to be paid to parents by the CMS collect and pay method, of which £56m was actually collected, meaning in only one year £54m is already owed to parents. This 51% success rate of collect and pay is considered a successful number by government standards; I wonder if there is a comparison with HMRC debts that the government chase?

The 27 pages of waffle in the consultation does a good smoke and mirrors job of hiding that the CSA car crash has been replaced with the weak and ineffective CMS that has a £20 fee to access. This fee is massive barrier to a lot of families, particularly if they have had bad experiences with the CSA, not to mention the government admitting that only 51% of collect and pay case was actually collected, meaning there’s absolutely no guarantee that paying the £20 fee will lead to any child maintenance being paid.

Unsurprisingly, lower numbers are using the new system, which is also presented as a success. That must mean the fee deterrents are working and families are setting up family based arrangements and don’t need a government service – right? No, families simply have no faith in the service, and so do not use it, meaning the parent misses out on crucial money to look after their child leaving them at risk of experiencing child poverty.

Thankfully the Scottish Government has child poverty squarely in their sights, but you simply cannot talk about children living in poverty and not tackle child maintenance. The trouble is it’s not our ball to play with; the responsibility is not devolved and sits squarely in the hands of Westminster. But what we can do here in Scotland is challenge our culture and give child maintenance a face; we could see the child, not the system.

We need to raise awareness that providing for children is a lifetime responsibility, no ifs or buts, just a responsibility that is culturally met, and met with dignity and pride. Not providing for children is absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable. It’s shameful that children are cold and hungry because one parent doesn’t provide for them, and as a country we currently do nothing to right that wrong. Instead we sit idly by, blame everything else and ignore the obvious issue.

The consultation is open for feedback by anyone until the 8th of Februaryor you can email your comments to [email protected] and they will be included on our response.