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Entries in charging (2)


Audit Office criticises child support changes

On the day that the Welfare Reform Bill finished its passage through the Westminster Parliament, a critical report from the National Audit office raised  doubts on whether the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission can manage to make planned savings.

These planned cost reductions rely heavily on the introduction of a new child maintenance scheme and associated IT system, including changes made within the Welfare Reform Bill, such as charges to parents using the service. The report points out that IT costs have increased and the Commission risks repeating some of the mistakes made on the earlier child maintenance schemes.

There is already a £44 million shortfall in the £161 million reduction originally expected by 2014-15. The Commission is reliant on raising  £71 million in fee income from parents as part of its planned savings. These estimates are very uncertain, increasing the risk that additional cuts might be needed late on in the Spending Review that could have an adverse effect on services.

The existing child maintenance schemes were problematic from the start and large backlogs of work built up. Efficiency has improved since 2006 and the cost of administering child maintenance has reduced. There are strong indications that costs remain high. Comparisons with Australia are difficult, but the fact that the Commission spends approximately 56 pence for each £1 it collects for parents, while Australia spent 35 pence raises questions about the relative efficiency of the Commission.

The new child support scheme is due to be introduced this Autumn.


Maintenance charging concealed within consultation on abolition of CMEC 

The arms-length Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission (CMEC) is being scrapped in a move to give Department of Work and Pensions ministers "...  more direct control, responsibility, and accountability over the delivery of child support strategic and operational policy, and the ongoing and future reform of child maintenance." 

A consultation on this change was launched last week.  It consists mainly of a search and replace exercise on existing legislation (for “Commission” substitute “Secretary of State”).  

Slipped in at section 47 are the mention of new powers to charge for assessment and collection of maintenance, including the power to make provision for the charging of fees which are not related to costs. 

The original 1991 Act which established the Child Support Agency included powers to charge fees, although it did offer the safeguard that fees would not be charged to people receiving benefits. 

Full details of the new charging scheme will not be known until subsequent orders are made, but it is revealing that the controversial topic of charging should be slipped out in an otherwise uncontentious bit of secondary legislation.

Responses to this consultation are required by 3rd January 2012.  FNF Scotland suggests that if you do manage to prepare a response before the festive season, it could include the point that charging should not start until the operation of the yet-to-be-named successor to the CSA reaches acceptable standards of performance. 

And if you also wanted to suggest that the new agency should also be responsible to the Scottish Parliament or should be obliged to locate some of its key staff in Scotland, there's no harm in making suggestions.