10 years since it replaced the previous agency, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) say the Child Maintenance Service is “achieving no more” than its discredited predecessor.
The replacement of the Child Support Agency left billions of pounds of unpaid child maintenance debt remaining from its schemes written off.
Around half of children in separated families – 1.8 million children – continue to receive no support from their non-resident parent, and “enforcement can be too slow to be effective”.
Unpaid maintenance owed to parents on Collect & Pay has increased by more than £1 million a week to a total of £440 million in October 2021, and the NAO recently concluded that unless the department for work and pensions (DWP) writes more off, outstanding arrears will grow to £1 billion by March 2031 and “indefinitely thereafter”.
“The scale of unfulfilled obligations once again looms as a major issue” that DWP “has no long-term strategy for tackling”, today’s report complains.
DWP’s reforms were based on the assumption that most parents can come to agreement on child maintenance between themselves, but the PAC says the department “has done little to ensure this is the case, or to address concerns that its approach risks causing a further deterioration in the parents’ relationship or exacerbating abuse and coercive control”.
DWP has shifted responsibility for detecting child maintenance fraud onto its customers, and will only investigate a parent understating their income if it is reported by a parent receiving child maintenance – something they “can be understandably reluctant to do”.
PAC say that “serious constraints on parents’ ability to pay will inevitably hamper” any new DWP effort to collect maintenance or enforce the collection of arrears – with some Paying Parents facing a “poverty trap where there is little incentive for them to work more”.
Fewer customers are satisfied with the CMS and “DWP upholds more complaints for every 1,000 customers on child maintenance than any other area of its business”.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier MP, said upon the publication of today’s new report: “There are still thousands of children not getting the money they need from non-resident parents. Even if the promise to improve compliance actually materialises, DWP will only buy itself a couple of years before child maintenance arrears reaches £1 billion again. There’s no strategy to bring that down except adding to the billions of owed child support that it’s already written off and won’t collect.
“The PAC would like an explanation how it’s going to fix this now, as we head deeper into a cost-of-living crisis that’s worsening the UK’s already shameful child poverty rates. Now more than ever children need this money.”
A DWP spokesperson said following today’s report: “The Child Maintenance Service got a record £1 billion to the children of separated parents last year and is a significantly better service than its predecessor, managing over half a million arrangements which support over 800,000 children. It helps lift 140,000 children out of poverty each year and we continue to improve it through automating simple processes, spending more time with vulnerable customers and strengthening powers to tackle those parents who stubbornly refuse to pay what they owe.”
They also stressed that PAC’s forecast until 2031 remains based on the assumption that the legislative and economic environment will remain materially unchanged.