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Ministers put cash first, children second

It had a hurried birth with hastily arranged midwives, came into the world largely unloved, and, almost 20 years later is being killed off.

Given that it grew up to be an exercise in cross-party confusion, chaos and serial ineptitude there may not be too many attendees at the wake for the ill-starred Child Support Agency.

Before anyone is tempted to hang out the bunting, a close look at the successor body, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), is well advised. The consultation process on tidying up the final process ended last Friday and the omens are ominous.

For starters the existing database is essentially being scrapped, at least so far as payments taken directly from the bank accounts of the non-resident parent is concerned. So parents with full-time custody, overwhelmingly mothers, will no longer have maintenance money automatically paid to them from the bank accounts of the absent partner.

Instead they'll find themselves back at year zero with the non-resident parent offered the chance to pay the carer rather than via the new CMS.

Given the current system was mostly put in place to protect full-time carers from the problem of non-paying partners, or those sending variable amounts, this is bound to cause great anxiety, and hit the poorest families hardest.

The Government insists this period of re-assessment will not apply to those whose spouse has had a history of violence, and that in these cases money will still be directly debited by the new agency. But there remains a fear the abusing partner will take this opportunity to vary payments, or dates, as a form of harassment.

Even more controversial is the intention to charge carers for the collection and payment service, with a £20 application fee to get on the books. If the non-resident parent doesn't pay, the department will operate sanctions – but both parents will be charged for getting money owed.

Think about it; you are a single parent whose child maintenance from the absent one isn't forthcoming, yet if you want access to the only statutory agency available to you they will charge you for your former partner's negligence.

As One Parent Families Scotland said in their submission to the consultation: "It is unfair the parent with care should be asked to pay for the failure of the non-resident parent to meet their responsibilities."

Nor does it chime well with the Department of Work and Pensions stated aim that "the needs of vulnerable children are central to our reforms". The problem with this reform, like every other attempt to ensure both parents support their children, is that the centre of attention is the bottom line rather than the welfare of the child.

As Dr Tanya Evans of the Centre for Contemporary British History suggests: "Many of the CSA's problems have been caused by the state prioritising saving money rather than providing for lone-parent families. If a one-parent benefit had been implemented, state money would have been spent supporting families rather than being squandered on the failed implementation of the CSA."

The original CSA came about because of arithmetic which showed the number of single parents with dependent children had mushroomed, while the amount being paid from absent partners had nosedived. Like too many responses born of departmental panic, it came into being with undue haste and no pilot programme. In essence it was set up to reduce taxpayer liability rather than tackle child poverty.

Computer failures and foul ups became the stuff of legend and ultimately spawned a website cashell.com detailing the horror stories of those logged on, chewed up and spat out by a computer system which was fired up despite a pre-launch audit which identified more than 50 critical faults.

Just three years into its life, it was the subject of a despairing report which concluded, among other failures, that the CSA had been prioritising the chasing up of middle-class parents, mainly fathers, on the grounds that tactic would "maximise the maintenance yield". In other words a quicker hit for the department, but a longer queue for those parents struggling at the bottom of the income heap.

Despite taking that route the three-year-old scheme was still battling to recover debts totalling over £3 billion, and cases were taking over a year to be dealt with. Children can get very hungry over 12 months. And, as the Cambridge historian Dr Thomas Nutt observed in an investigation into CSA failings: "Lone parents lack the means to pursue child support."

That statement holds even more true in today's recessionary times, yet again the imperative in this latest re-organisation seems aimed at saving money rather than supporting needy families. As One Parent Families Scotland notes: "The Government has openly stated the purpose of charging fees is to deter parents from using the statutory scheme and to alleviate the burden on the taxpayer. At a time of record job losses, price rises and benefits/tax credit cuts, regular child maintenance payments become more crucial than ever before."

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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