Child maintenance changes threaten children's wellbeing, warns charity

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 16 May 2013

The welfare of children whose parents have separated could be put at risk if proposed changes to how child maintenance payments are monitored go ahead, a charity has warned.

A foster mum and her child

Parents can choose whether to pay child maintenance through the Child Support Agency or directly to each other. Image: Morguefile

Gingerbread says Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) proposals not to check whether parents who pay child maintenance directly between themselves are fulfilling their obligations could result in the system failing to flag up if children are not receiving the financial support they need.

A consultation on proposed changes to the way the Child Support Agency collects child maintenance statistics indicates that while it will record if parental payments made via the agency were too low or not paid, the same information will not be collected for parents on a Maintenance Direct scheme.

Under this system, the Child Support Agency calculates the amount parents must pay, but the individuals pay each other directly rather than via the agency.

Caroline Davey, director of policy, advice and communications at Gingerbread, said the agency's decision to put faith in the Maintenance Direct scheme was not borne out by research; a DWP survey last year showed only about 28 per cent of Maintenance Direct arrangements were likely to be fully paid.

“The DWP is assuming that all Maintenance Direct cases are fully compliant – always paid on time and in full,” said Davey.

“It assumes that if something went wrong, a parent would say so. But a lot of DWP’s own evidence shows that you can’t make that assumption and its assessments of what may happen in the future show that’s unlikely.

“We would like the DWP to take on how you represent Maintenance Direct payment cases as well and be more honest about how much maintenance is getting to children.”

Davey added that child maintenance money is often used to pay for essential items: "Child maintenance payments can help single parents buy new shoes for growing feet, pay for school trips or simply make sure they have the basics of food and heating each month. Any missed payment has a real impact on children."

Davey also warned that the DWP needed to be clearer about its definition of compliance in payments.

The DWP counts payments as having a positive outcome if a parent has received a monthly payment at least once during a three-monthly period.

“While this consultation does take some steps towards addressing what really happens to parents under Child Support Agency arrangements, it does not go far enough to unmasking what’s not happening,” said Davey.

The most recent quarterly statistics for child maintenance cases show that in the first three months of 2013, 188,900 parents were making payments via the Maintenance Direct scheme.

The DWP was contacted for a response.

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