The broken Child Support Agency is being replaced by the new Child Maintenance Service. What improvements can we expect?
If you have just gone through a divorce you will know how expensive it can be. (See How to get Divorced Cheaply for tips on keeping the cost down).
There are inevitably further complications if children are involved – particularly if the parties can't come to an agreement.
Who deals with disagreements?
In the past the Child Support Agency has been the sole body tasked with dealing with the collection of maintenance payments for children whose parents have split. Since its inception it has received much criticism for maladministration and general ineffectiveness, resulting in low public faith in the Agency.
The last thing you need during a stressful divorce is the added misery of delays and mistakes from the very people who are meant to be helping you.
Of course, the Agency claims its error rates are minimal, and blames the majority of them on a ‘faulty’ computer system. But a report from a Whitehall spending watchdog claimed that in 2009-10 there were actually about £25 million worth of financial errors, which is no small sum!
Other complaints include a lack of fact checking by the Agency, such as discrepancies between the earnings absent fathers declare and their actual income going unchallenged. Taking these figures at face value has left many single mothers seriously out of pocket.
The launch of the Child Maintenance Service
Because of unhappiness with the current system, the Government has decided to introduce a brand new statutory scheme for arranging the payment of child maintenance. While the old Child Support Agency is not going to disappear entirely (at least for the time being) it will be run alongside a new (and hopefully greatly improved) service.
Run by the Department of Work and Pensions – which also deals with the administration of benefits – it is hoped that the new Child Maintenance Service will reinstate public confidence in the system.
The schemes will initially run alongside each other for the next three years. During this time, the Child Support Agency will work to close the cases it currently manages in preparation for transferring entirely to the new scheme.
What improvements have been made?
Recognising that significant problems have dogged the running of the Child Support Agency for most of its existence, the Government has given assurances that there will be ‘significant’ differences to the way this scheme is to be run.
For example, it has promised that the method for calculating maintenance will be simplified, and it will use gross income figures provided by HM Revenue & Customs, rather than relying on those provided by the individuals involved.
Who can use the Child Maintenance Service?
At the outset, the new scheme will only affect those who have four or more children. The children must have the same two parents, and the family must have had no previous involvement with the Child Support Agency.
This means that only a few new applicants will enjoy the benefits of the new scheme to start with. The idea is that all applicants will apply to the Child Support Agency in the normal way, with only ‘appropriate’ cases being sent to the Child Maintenance Service.
However, this is only because it is very early days for the scheme at the moment. The plan is that anyone who applies for maintenance, regardless of their circumstances, will have access to it in the future.
It is important to note that – as usual – there is no such thing as a free lunch. Applicants will be charged a fee to apply for maintenance under the new scheme, and they will also have to attend an interview to show that they have considered other ways of arranging maintenance before being accepted.
However, if you claim certain benefits this fee will be reduced. And if your relationship has broken down as a result of domestic violence, no fee at all is payable (contrary to reports in the press claiming that battered women are going to have to pay through the nose to escape an abusive partner).
An interesting alternative
There is another option for those who don’t fit the current criteria for the Child Maintenance Service, or for those who don’t want to be subjected to fees in the future.
Couples who are separating can try to sort out arrangements for their children using the services of a website called Child Maintenance Options. This service is also run by the Department of Work and Pensions but gives parents the opportunity to access FREE information and support, initially through an online and telephone service and later by face-to-face assistance. It is hoped that this service will help parents come to amicable child maintenance agreements on their own, and only those who are completely unable to reach an agreement will have to take the next step and use the Child Maintenance Service.
So, unless you are already dealing with the Child Support Agency (in which case you have to continue to deal with them until the Child Maintenance Service is fully up and running) then your best bet is to use the Child Maintenance Options website and work hard with your (soon-to-be-ex) partner to come up with the best possible arrangement for your children.
Contact them in the first instance via their website. Alternatively you can ring them on 0800 988 0988 to start the ball rolling over the phone.
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