UK – New child maintenance service will cause deeper hardship for single parent families

The Government wishes to save money by encouraging more separated parents to arrange child maintenance payments between themselves without involving the state. Currently, parents may apply to the Child Support Agency (CSA) to arrange child maintenance payments.

From 2012 the Government is replacing this with a new service that will be managed by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC). The CSA will eventually be abolished.

The new service is a result of the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently being debated by Parliament. The Bill requires single parents to take reasonable steps to agree child maintenance with non-resident parents before applying to CMEC, although victims of domestic violence are exempt from this requirement.

Single parents who use the service will have to pay an application fee of £100, or £50 if in receipt of state benefits. In addition, CMEC will collect ongoing commission of 7% to 12% from child maintenance payments. Single parents who only require a calculation of potential child maintenance payments will be charged £20 to £25. Non-resident parents do not have to pay application fees, but they will have to pay 15% to 20% commission if they refuse to pay child maintenance directly to the resident parent. These application fees are not currently payable under the present system but existing CSA users will soon be asked to arrange their own child maintenance payments or transfer to the new scheme and pay the new fees.

In a recent survey conducted by the charity Gingerbread, 46% of the parents in the survey who currently use the CSA said that they would stop using the service because they could not afford the application fee. 76% of those parents also felt that they would be unable to privately agree arrangements with the other parent and so would not receive any child maintenance at all.

Ultimately this system risks considerable hardship to the poorest families who greatly depend upon child maintenance payments because they will not be able to afford the application fees. Numerous charities and organisations have warned that many poorer families will either cease claiming child maintenance or will accept lower payments from the non-resident parent than the amount to which they are entitled in order to avoid paying any additional fees. It is understandable that there is a wealth of opposition to the new arrangements for those families on lower incomes.

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