Child Support Agency

What is the Child Support Agency?

The Child Support Agency (CSA) is an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for administering the system of child maintenance under which non-resident parents are required to pay towards the upbringing and support of their children.

The role of the CSA is to assess the appropriate amount of child maintenance in any given case, to collect payments, and to enforce payment. It has jurisdiction in relation to cases in which the child and person with care live in the UK, and the non-resident parent lives in the UK or is living abroad while working for a British employer. Cases in which the CSA does not have this jurisdiction are dealt with wholly by the courts.

Although any parent with care can apply for an adjudication from the CSA, it is usually compulsory for parents with care in receipt of Jobseekers' Allowance or Income Support to do so.

The formula for assessing child maintenance awards was previously very complex, but it was amended by the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 to a far simpler "flat rate" system. Under this scheme a system of rates is used based on the net weekly income of the non-resident parent. The four rates are: basic rate (if they have an income of £200 a week or more); reduced rate (if they have an income of more than £100 but less than £200 a week); flat rate (if they have an income of between £5 and £100 a week); and nil rate (if they have an income of less than £5 a week).

Refusing to give or delaying information or lying to the CSA can lead to fines of up to £1,000. Refusing to pay maintenance can lead to court action, including withdrawal of the driving licence or imprisonment.

In 2008 the CSA became part of the newly established Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission which took over responsibility for the child maintenance system. The CMEC has two bodies: Child Maintenance Options which provides an information and support service, and the CSA which administers the statutory schemes.

Towards the end of 2011, the Government announced that it intended to abolish the CMEC using powers under the Public Bodies Act 2011 and transfer its functions to the Department for Work and Pensions.
 

Background

The first proposal for a dedicated agency for administering maintenance payments made by non-resident parents was put forward in the Finer report of 1974, but no action resulted.

By the late 1980s, however, it was apparent that the system of court orders was not working. In 1979, 50 per cent of lone parents on Supplementary Benefit (the forerunner of Income Support) received child maintenance. By 1989 the proportion of lone parents on Income Support in receipt of child maintenance had fallen to 23 per cent. Courts tended to make small awards in the belief that the social security system was adequate, and applied inconsistent rulings in the absence of authoritative guidance. At this time, many other countries were opting for new solutions to the growing concern.

The Child Support Agency began operation on April 5 1993, with the launch of the Child Support Scheme under the Child Support Act 1991. It is widely acknowledged that this legislation was rushed and poorly drafted, and as a result, the new CSA was left with a very complex maintenance formula to apply and inadequate administrative resources.

The system was subject to delays and a number of high-profile mistakes. The 1991 Act regime was also widely criticised for discouraging parents with care from working. The Child Support Act 1995 attempted to address this, introducing a new system with greater flexibility ("departures") and incentives (the Child Maintenance Bonus). However, the impact was not as significant as had been hoped, and the Government was considering new adjustments to the system - such as requiring absent parents who failed to pay maintenance to forfeit their driving licences - right up until the 1997 election.

On coming to power, Labour declared that reform of the whole social security system was a priority. The Government's preference for a flat-rate maintenance system was widely reported long before the publication of a Green Paper in July 1998. A year later, a White Paper presenting the Government's plans was published. Shortly afterwards, the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill was introduced, and although some amendments were accepted - including the £2,000 per week liability cap - the White Paper plans survived relatively unscathed.

Implementation of the new formula was to be left to regulations, however, and with the CSA suffering from a large backlog and arrears in excess of £500 million, it was postponed. It was not until March 2003 that the new system came into effect for new claims. At that time, the CSA had 1.1 million cases in operation under the old system.

Problems continued under the new system and in December 2006, Work and Pensions secretary John Hutton announced plans to set up the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) to take responsibility for the UK's child maintenance system. The CSA became part of the CMEC which was established in 2008. The new Commission was provided with enhanced powers to ensure all parents meet their financial responsibilities.

A new statutory maintenance scheme -  the 'gross income scheme' - is planned to be introduced from 2012 based on the latest available tax year information from HMRC. It is anticipated that using information from a single source will reduce considerably the time taken to calculate child maintenance.

Controversies

The Child Support Agency has been one of the most controversial public bodies of recent times, because of the social and economic impact of its inability to handle its workload.

It is widely argued that the 1991 Act set the CSA an impossible task by making maintenance calculations too complex and under-resourcing the Agency. As a result of delays to decision-making, many clients were amassing arrears before an award was made. Many were not in a position to make the payments demanded, and the delays in payments had harmful effects for the lone parent families - 63 per cent of which lived below the poverty line in 1997.

The 1990 White Paper which led to the creation of the CSA cited the 7 week average decision time of the courts as evidence of the system's failure: in 1998-1999, the average decision time for the CSA was 22 weeks, while as at March 31 1999, 47,720 maintenance applications had been outstanding for over 52 weeks, representing 32 per cent of the total number of outstanding applications at that date.

The time required to process maintenance claims, moreover, prevented the CSA from spending enough time on securing compliance. The Social Security Committee's report of November 1999 suggested that only 10 per cent of the Agency's work was on compliance. Its 1998-1999 accounts admitted that £511.45 million was outstanding in child support debts and that a further £387.57 million had been classified as probably uncollectible.

In recent years, the CSA has been also hampered by its failure to complete its new IT system. The new formula was delayed as a result of computer problems, and doubts persist as to whether the new system can be made to work at all. The 50 per cent increase in complaints to the CSA in the year up to July 2004 are widely put down to the IT problems.

The CSA's problems must be regarded in the context of its rapidly growing caseload - between 1995-96 and 1998-99, the live load of cases more than doubled from 460,800 in 1995-96 to 923,960 in 1998-99 - and diminishing resources. During 1998-99, staff numbers declined from 8,445 to 8,156, a decrease of 3.4 per cent, while funding fell between 1997-98 and 1998-99 from £209 million to £205 million. Since 1991, moreover, there have been over 70 changes to the rules on child maintenance introduced through regulations.

The child maintenance system has been criticised generally for the strain that maintenance orders put on relations between former partners and the number of loopholes that existed - particularly in relation to proving paternity. The activities of the CSA have been blamed in the media on numerous occasions for suicides and mental illness amongst absent parents.

The switch to the new formula was controversial, insofar as it necessarily created winners and losers. It was feared that the new system would fall most heavily on non-resident parents on Income Support, who would have their benefits reduced by the £5 flat rate charge. It was also widely argued that the new system was not discriminating enough, while the process for applying variations could signal a return to the complexity of old.

The proposals - which Labour ridiculed in opposition - for withdrawing non-compliant parents' driving licences were also widely criticised as likely to cause further poverty and compromise contact arrangements. Furthermore, the system's failure to take account of the income of the parent with care was widely believed to give grounds for a challenge to the system under the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Coalition government has stated that the proposed abolition of CMEC and transfer of its powers to the DWP will enable Ministers to have more direct control, responsibility, and accountability over the:delivery of child maintenance strategic and operational policy, and ongoing and future reform of child maintenance.

Statistics

New BMRB research published January 2012 shows separated parents who work out their own child maintenance arrangements are more satisfied with their set-up than those using the Child Support Agency (CSA).

More than two thirds of parents with a family-based arrangement said they were happy with their situation. Only a third of CSA clients said they felt the same.
Almost 90% of non-resident parents complied with their own arrangements, compared with just under two thirds of those who had payments assessed and enforced by the CSA.

Most parents with family-based arrangements (74%) considered those to be fair, compared to only (42%) whose payments were calculated and enforced by the state system.
Respondent on benefits (88% of whom had no arrangement) and those on incomes of less than £9,000 per annum (37% with no arrangement) were much more likely than other groups to have no child maintenance arrangement at all. The most common reasons given were; not wanting any contact with the other parent, ignorance of their whereabouts or a history of domestic violence.

The BMRB survey was based on telephone interviews with just over 2000 parents who had contact with the Child Maintenance Options information and support service between July 2008 and January 2010.

Source: CMEC – January 2012
 

Quotes

"The present system, which completely ignores family relationships, has channelled hundreds of thousands of unwilling parents into a costly bureaucracy. That’s why we plan a fresh start for child maintenance with all parents given much better support and a fair chance to make their own, family-based, arrangements."

Work and Pensions Minister Maria Miller – January 2012

"Any encouragement by government for separated families to come to their own arrangements rather than use inflexible state-enforced calculations is a good idea. Too often, in the past, the CSA has been seen by some as a means of creating problems and hardship for ex partners and apportioning blame - we have to move away from this."

Ken Sanderson, chief executive of Families Need Fathers – January 2012