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Reforming child maintenance – taking a fresh approach


Supporting separated families and securing children’s futures is a powerful motivator for Ian Wright, Change Director for Child Maintenance at the Department for Work and Pensions, as he helps to deliver a fresh approach to child maintenance.

The challenge is a powerful one – to produce a system of child maintenance that meets the needs of the two and a half million separated families in Great Britain and in particular the one in three children not living with both their biological parents.

The evidence suggests that it’s important that both parents remain actively involved in their children’s lives, because children tend to enjoy better life outcomes when the same two parents are able to give them support and protection throughout their childhood (Cf. Coleman, L and Glenn, F, 2009, When Couples Part: Understanding the Consequences for Adults and Children, One Plus One). Children who have a positive relationship with both parents are more likely to do better at school, stay out of trouble, have higher levels of self-esteem and develop healthier relationships as an adult.

What is child maintenance?

Child maintenance is usually money that the parent without the main day-to-day care of a child pays to the other parent to provide help with a child’s everyday living costs. This includes things like food and clothes, and helping to provide a home. Sharing the care of children and buying things directly for them can also be considered to be maintenance.

In the past the child maintenance landscape has largely been focused on one thing – the Child Support Agency (CSA). The CSA frequently made the headlines in the 1990s and early 2000s:

  • "Payers angry at victimisation – the agency has created a nightmare world say fathers facing demands." (Guardian, 18 September 1993)
  • "CSA drove my gulf hostage son over the edge." (Daily Mirror, 4 January 1994)
  • "Child support complaints up by a third." (BBC, 3 July 2001)

Even after the implementation of a new system in 2003, the CSA was struggling with an IT system that was totally inadequate and notoriously riddled with defects. Cases were regularly disappearing off the system. The number of expensively-managed clerical cases hit 100,000 and the IT system was costing £74 million a year in operating costs alone.

The message was clear – child maintenance wasn’t working. Reform of the whole landscape of child maintenance was needed to help parents reduce levels of conflict after a separation and work together more effectively.

The child maintenance landscape

Turning to the statutory service doesn’t need to be the default option. Government intervention is expensive (every £1 of maintenance collected costs the taxpayer 35p) and it can also put an unnecessary barrier between parents, reducing the incentive to collaborate and increasing levels of conflict.

There’s another way, as Susan Park, Child Maintenance Group Director, explains: “Family-based child maintenance arrangements are often the best option for everyone involved. They can be arranged privately without Government intervention, are flexible and can be easily tailored to individual circumstances. Working together to agree a child maintenance arrangement can also help reduce conflict and keep both parents involved in their children’s lives.”

We knew there were opportunities to help parents to collaborate in the interests of their children – but we had to do more than just provide a statutory scheme. So, we set out a twin approach. Firstly, supporting parents to work together on the whole range of issues faced following a separation. Secondly, providing a reason to pause and think for parents. Providing an opportunity for them to think again about whether they could set up their own family-based child maintenance arrangement.

Supporting parents to work together

Child maintenance is just one of the many issues that parents face following a separation. The Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, working in collaboration with the voluntary and community sector, helps co-ordinate existing support services for those going through a separation.

Help and Support for Separated Families initiative

A Steering Group of experts from the voluntary and community sector, academia and across Government set out their vision for how child maintenance could be transformed to provide better co-ordinated support for separating and separated parents.

The Steering Group came up with an approach where the Government acts as an enabler to help co-ordinate support services that already exist. This consists of:

  • A web application that can sit on existing websites; co-ordinated telephone networks; and local and face-to-face support.
  • A new quality mark promoted and endorsed by stakeholders, so people know they are dealing with organisations they can trust.
  • A new Innovation Fund testing and evaluating a range of interventions that help parents to work together in the best interests of their children. Seventeen voluntary and private sector organisations have already been awarded funding.

A reason to pause and think

In December 2012 we started to introduce a new statutory child maintenance scheme. To make sure this is only used by those who really need it, in 2014 we are doing two things.

First, we are introducing charging for use of this scheme. This includes an application fee (we will not apply this fee to victims of domestic violence or abuse or to applicants aged 18 or under) and ongoing charges for use of the collection service. Charging is designed to act as an incentive, encouraging parents to think again before automatically putting in an application. Both parents have a responsibility to set up an effective arrangement and both will make a financial contribution towards the cost of the service, which remains heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

Second, we will begin gradually closing cases in the existing CSA schemes. By closing existing scheme cases – rather than just moving them to the new scheme – we will encourage clients involved with these cases to think again about their child maintenance arrangements.


Building a new system

Even with incentives and support, for some parents a statutory child maintenance service is the only option and in 2012 we launched a new child maintenance scheme supported by a new IT system. In the past the system has been the source of so many issues – remember those headlines?

We’ve been intent on learning from the past in building this new system, and there are plenty of lessons to learn. So, we’ve done things differently: we used off-the- shelf – tried and tested – software packages instead of building a complicated new system from scratch; we made sure there are very few data transfers from those existing systems that have been so problematic; and we designed the system in conjunction with our policy and operations colleagues – using their practical experience and knowledge.

Denise, who came from operations to work on the programme, says: “My 18 years operational experience means I’ve a firm grasp of what will work and what won’t, on a practical level. One of my roles on the programme has been as a subject matter expert and I checked process maps, compared processes with child maintenance policy and made sure the design of the new system met client and business needs.”

Marcus had five years experience working in operations before joining the programme. He says: “My role was to make the systems and processes as seamless and friendly as possible for caseworkers, so we can focus on managing client relationships instead of fighting with the system. A big part of making things easier is that the system will issue the right letters at the right part in the process automatically.”

A different approach to implementation

More than just designing and building the system differently, we’ve also learnt from the past: introducing the new scheme and system using a pathfinder approach. The pathfinder approach means, instead of going live with a ‘big bang’, we carefully controlled the volume of applications to the new scheme, and ramping up the number in stages over 12 months. This safe and slow build-up allowed us to be confident in the performance of the system from go-live – it has meant we are constantly learning and improving and have avoided those headlines which dogged us in the past.

We initially micro-managed every application and proactively made sure everything was working as we intended. This meant we could spot problems and quickly resolve them before they were visible to our clients. We constantly assured colleagues that we’d only increase volumes to the new scheme when we were content that everything was working as it should – a promise we stuck to, and which bought us a great deal of support.

Tom McCormack, Programme Delivery Director, picks up the story: “The first few weeks were pretty much as we expected – we did find issues along the way and as we came across them we fixed them.

“We were able to identify the wrinkles and deal with them while we had a small number of cases. For example, we identified an issue with setting up Direct Debits. When setting them up everything looked fine on our system, but the final step did not work – meaning that the payment was not set up correctly at the bank. Micro-managing the system meant we were able to fix this before clients even knew there was a problem.

“Part of the reason to go live with the new scheme and system as a pathfinder was to test and assure our new systems and processes, and spot and resolve issues in the real working environment – it achieved that.”

An important part of our pathfinder approach was having a series of escalation points for colleagues to raise issues to, Tom continues: “Our aim was to make sure we provided the necessary support to colleagues when all self-help avenues had been exhausted. The next step was for colleagues to discuss it with their team leader and then one of the operational support floor- walkers we had in place in each site. If resolution was not possible, then issues were raised to an Area Advice Centre and filtered to a National Advice Team. It’s all about client service – getting and keeping cases moving, improving colleagues’ understanding, and applying lessons learnt.

“Learning was shared with colleagues through face-to-face education events, and guidance is available in new and improved procedures for caseworkers to refer to when needed.”

The benefits of a pathfinder approach

You can test your systems, processes, and clients’ and colleagues’ journeys in a live environment with controls in place to manage issues.

  • You can make improvements and learn before you roll out fully.
  • Colleagues in future ‘waves’ benefit from more robust processes, communications and training.
  • Clients benefit from micro-management of their cases as processes are embedded.
  • Assurance can be given to Ministers that the system is working well before any additional rollout occurs.

A learning approach

The pathfinder approach allowed us to identify a number of areas to focus on before we completed our rollout. We worked hard to capture the experiences and learning from colleagues in the initial stages, to prepare new colleagues joining as the rollout continued.

For example, feedback from training and from operational performance led Training Design colleagues to expand one particular aspect of training for team leaders, to include additional learning on topics such as work allocation and querying. All with the aim of making workflow more efficient and the service parents get better.

We also used the pathfinder to test our clients’ experiences – identifying some crucial client touch points in the application process to see if our clients’ experience matched up to the experience we intended. The touch points included things like how long it took for our initial information pack to be sent to the applicant, how long it took for a provisional calculation letter to be sent, and whether the clients responded to the letter.

This has helped resolve some initial issues, and monitor which interactions have the biggest impact on our clients’ experiences.

The pathfinder has been a real example of learning by doing, allowing us to introduce the new scheme and system in a way that worked best for clients and avoid the mistakes of the past.

Rebalancing the child maintenance system

We’re well on the way to providing encouragement, incentives and support to parents to make their own family-based arrangements for child maintenance, while maximising value for the taxpayer. When parents can’t come to their own arrangement, then the new, more effective and efficient, statutory scheme is there to support them.

I’m pleased that we’re learning from the past to fulfil our vision to support separated families and secure children’s futures by providing a child maintenance system that meets the expectations of children, parents, stakeholders, the Government and its taxpayers. That’s a powerful motivator for me.

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  1. Comment by Siobhan posted on

    Your new policy leaves a large number of single parents powerless to encourage ex-partners to contribute to the financial burden of their children and the resposibility of caring for them. Ex-partners who claim unemployment benifits, but work cash in had too, refusing to pay for their children or commit to having them on a regular basis are now untouchable. The application fee that is charged to the applicant in this scenario, would be more than what is recouped from the CSA. Child support payments should also run between signing on and off benifits accumulating untill the expartner then signs on again.

    The policy also misses another point. Its not all about the financial support. Government policies need to enforce expartners to take their fair share of child rearing by enforcing fines or community service orders on partners who do not show up for regular contact sessions.

    If this were the case, the single parent would have more freedom to work, exercise, maintain the home and relax. Thus, the children would have a happier, healthier parent(less anxiety and depression amongst single parents) and have less weight upon their sholders.

  2. Comment by Sue posted on

    This system works well for the parents who want to support their children but what about the fathers who have no interest in the child and the mother who cannot afford to lose any money paying for the new system. A father who wants to dodge the responsibility will do so as there is no system in place to investigate the fact that he is not owning up to his full income - this is now apparently the responsibility of the mother to find out where he is working and how much he is earning. Why have the system at all if it has no authority/desire to help those that really need it.

  3. Comment by David posted on

    This new 2012 scheme is ridiculously late, all existing cases should have been closed by the end of 2013 (Lord Skelmersdale described even that as dismal), and it is being implemented in an utterly unfair manner. Those people who have fully paid their (excessive) maintenance under the original CSA scheme, the oldest cases still remaining, should be transferred first (as originally planned). Processing cases based on Nil assessed or Nil compliance basis is discriminatory with respect to the peaceful ownership and enjoyment of property, a human rights violation, it is therefore unlawful.

  4. Comment by Richard Bell posted on

    The failure to recognise that the new CMS allows men, yes a man, who has a Court Ordered Shared Care (since 2010) finally receive equality by the introduction of "Regulation 50" but then not allow them to transfer to the CMS from CSA until the end of 2017 (and I bet that's optimistic) because I have always made my stautory responsibility payments, is unjust and inequitable. I have to keep paying money to my ex wife but still do all the Doctors, Dentist and pay for their mobile 'phones etc. and provide everything else for them - no one listens. To be fair to Parliament they have recognised people like me and introduced "Regulation 50" but trying to get CSA to transfer me to CMS is proving to be a battle royale ! I'll not give un until I achieve justice in this biased system.

  5. Comment by Tricia posted on

    This blog talks of "micro- managing" a client's case and "spotting problems before the client is aware", yet my case has moved no further on for a whole year. Incompetent staff have moved my case no further on, making no excuse for their failure (Belfast office) to produce paperwork to forward on to the non-compliance and legal enforcement team (stating they had and then months later discovering paperwork- a financial assessment of monies owed had not been produced) and pursuit through the courts for the failure of my children's parent to contribute anything towards his children's upbringing. The only way paperwork is produced is after I phone their department to chase them along and even after that often this is not so.
    How does this new system intend to create some system of accountability or timescale that the staff have to complete the necessary paperwork for a case to move forward? A year of incompetent staff just adds to the monies my children are owed, with less and less chance of ever receiving anything. Who loses out in all of this? The children. And then there is the suggestion of charging the applicant to make an application, when they barely have anything to live on already! That is adding insult to injury.
    And if the non-present parent is trying their utmost to avoid paying for their children's upbringing what will this new system achieve? When father's purposely creates a company, to avoid declaring their income, why will the CSA not apply to the Inland Revenue/Companies House for details of their income/profits? If it can be seen that a parent is contributing to NI, then why cannot this be a means of discovering their accurate income?
    If I were to consider paying for this new system (which thankfully I will not as domestic violence as been part of this situation) then where are the accountability standards, so parent applicants are receiving a stipulated timescale for their application and processing of each stage, knowing there is a designated person who continues to be a point of reference for their case (rather than changing and not being available once errors are discovered by the client and never explained?) and holds responsibility for processing each stage of their claim within that timescale? Real children and families are being lost under a snow of paperwork, incompetent staff are contributing to the misery of the non-compliance of the absent parent.

  6. Comment by Carly posted on

    The whole csa system old or new is unfair to both parents. Csa have no power to impose anything on directors of companies and this is wrong.
    I also feel the paying parents are persecuted. The amounts are sometimes unreasonable.
    I think the whole system is ridiculous and hold no faith in it.

  7. Comment by Sue posted on

    Unfortunately the CSA departments do not appear to 'talk to each other'. The original CSA system was excessive to the extent that fathers were taken to the edge, resulting in suicides, I know this first hand as my son was taken right to the edge.
    After being told that he could not transfer from the original system, even though it was totally wrong, he was then told and confirmed in writing, that his case was complete and had been closed. Great - but hold on, he then received a call to say he owed them money and they will go do every thing to get it.
    The CSA is above the law, no legal professional will contemplate taking them in disputes.

  8. Comment by Steven posted on

    Why will I have to pay 20% on top my my payments because my ex insists on having the payment collection service. I have no objection paying directly to her for my kids but this means I will be £100 worse off every month. This is unfair. Also why change it from NET pay to Gross pay ??? Slightly less percentages but on about one third more money.... this is outrageous.

  9. Comment by IAN A Burke posted on

    Now I am informed that my case has moved to collect and pay. I will be liable to a 20% charge in addition to the incorrect maintenance award. This will cause considerable financial hardship to my family including my other daughter who lives with me. I understand the rate is high to act as an incentive for compliance and to encourage regular payments without default, but in my opinion there are flaws in the system. My first concern is what constitutes non-compliance? paying parents are often tarred as being "non-compliant" but in reality it is as a result of the Agency's inept administration. My second concern is that the CMS were not able to confirm how long a paying parent will remain on collect and pay. The process is completely arbitrary and dependent on the approval of the receiving parent. My experience from my divorce case which ran from 2012 to the end 2014 is that approval will never be given; it will be used as a form of harassment. I have come to the conclusion that there is no incentive for the CMS to move away from collect and pay in fact I think dispute and escalation to ‘non-compliance’ is probably incentivised within the CMS. A very lucrative way of obtaining a tax income of 20% from the paying parent and 4% from the receiving parent, and there is no right of appeal, how can this be democratic?

  10. Comment by Jo Archer posted on

    What the CSA/CMS fail to realise is that an awful lot of the NRPs use these schemes to jerk women around, to manipulate and control their ex-partners long after the relationship has failed - and they don'tseem to recognise what is happening and put in place mechanisms to stop it. The simple fact is that these women need a stable, predictable income in order to be able to plan their lives and the lives of their children. If the NRPs are determined to minimise their contribution, no amount of calculation and recalculation is going to help. Remember when it was acceptable to drive home from the pub? Why is is still acceptable to evade your financial responsibilities toward your children? You should be proud to do all you can for them, without taking the opportunity to bully and undermine their mother. Talk to someone neutral, who everyone trusts and convince them what you can reasonably afford, explain to them what you are trying to do and the circumstances that you have to work under - if work comes and goes, fine. If you can cheat the taxman - thats not exactly ethical, but don't cheat your children. What choices you make in the future - finding a new partner, having more children - has nothing to do with them! Can you afford it after you have met your existing responsibilities?