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Bairns come first, just not to all parents

This opinion piece is over 7 years old

Rhona Cunningham explains why she is campaigning for a better child maintenance system as too many absent parents are able to shirk responsibility

A couple of years back I was involved in organising an event for Children’s Services in Fife. Tam Baillie spoke at the event in his role as Children’s Commissioner. Much to my wry amusement one of our volunteers, who is not known for holding back, held up her hand to ask a question. She asked are we really serious about tackling children’s rights? Why is she and thousands of other lone parents feeling let down? Why were they struggling to feed children whilst absent parents walked away? Nobody cares, she said, and exclaimed that we really need to turn our attention on child maintenance.

Well that was us told good and proper. No messing – do something about it.

Rhona Cunningham

In Fife alone child maintenance arrears in 2013 were a staggering £17.5m. It’s estimated the debt for Scotland’s children is around £140m

Rhona Cunningham

Those questions bothered me, I replayed them a fair bit and I began to notice just how much support our agency and others were putting in place as welfare reforms took their toll on families. It struck me she had a real point, and more than that, others began to agree with me. The thing is though, nobody was talking about child maintenance, and more worryingly, nobody knew anything very much about it – unless you were directly involved in it.

The whole maintenance deal and the changes from Child Support Agency (CSA) to Child Maintenance Service were shrouded in mystery. The CSA descended into such disarray and had such a bad reputation with parents on both sides of the fence that the changes to the system were not of interest and went unnoticed. Those lucky enough to have live cases within CSA found that the introduction of the new system meant that they had their case closed. Surely, I must mean it was automatically transferred over to the new system? Nope, it was simply closed; with parents advised to make family based arrangements, in other words, "deal with it yourself now".

But what if parents couldn’t do that, what if they needed a statutory service to deal with it for them? Well then they were introduced to the shambles that is the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) Fees and Deductions. If you are the parent with care and want to make a claim you must now pay a £20 fee just to get the ball rolling. If you want to use the Collect and Pay feature of CMS, which takes money directly from the parent without care, be prepared to lose 4% of whatever you are supposed to received, and if you’re the paying parent, you will be charged a 20% fee on top of the amount you pay in child maintenance.

Needless to say, many parents involved in the old CSA have just given up, highlighting that the £20 charge is an obstacle and old wounds were reopened for both parents. Many resident parents new to the situation struggled to find £20 to access the system.

The result? Families are stressing and turning to foodbanks and charities more than ever to try and make ends meet.

So, we are doing something about it, we are now ready to start a conversation about what has to be the biggest disservice we have for our children today. In Fife alone child maintenance arrears in 2013 were a staggering £17.5m. It’s estimated the debt for Scotland’s children is around £140m, imagine the Scottish Government announced that amount of money was being dedicated to relieving childhood poverty? There would be global headlines. Instead, currently, we are ignoring these misplaced millions. We believe, that now, something has to be done to turn this situation around.

On Friday 30 September Tam came back to Fife for an event dedicated to child maintenance. This time he spoke about children’s rights and how child maintenance was vital to their quality of life. We launched the child maintenance campaign Bairns Come First (Fairness for Their Future) and the amazing piece of Fife research written by our partners in Poverty Alliance that shaped the campaign. We will work with our partners Citizens Advice and Rights Fife to support parents locally and One Parent Families Scotland will work nationally. Fife council is very supportive and there is a real appetite to be a trailblazer.

So in Fife there’s a bit of a buzz in the air, and over the coming months we will continue to let that buzz grow. We are starting to talk about it, and so the conversation begins but we need you to join in with us and we need this to be a big conversation. This really is about getting it right for every child. Parents need support to do the right thing and it’s our job to make sure the support is right for them.

Rhona Cunningham is chief executive of Fife Gingerbread