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Entries in CMEC (7)


Scottish MP suggests minutes of agreement the answer for child support

Sheila Gilmore MP  Edinburgh MP Sheila Gilmore's suggestion that Scottish Minutes of Agreement could be useful throughout the whole of the UK met with support during a recent House of Commons debate on child support (from column 107WH)

In Scotland separating parents can enter into a minute of agreement which is registered with the court.  This is enforceable for a year, and prevents either party form seeking maintenance through a child support assessment.

Sheila suggested that this procedure could be applied n the rest of the UK, and that agreements could last for longer than one year.

The Commons debate came as we await final details of the new child maintenance scheme.  One change took place at the start of August, when the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission was 're-absorbed'into the Department of Work and Pensions.

Many more changes to come, including a decision on the name of the new maintenance service - how about calling it the Child Support Agency?


Shared parenting recognised at last in child support

Parents will no longer have to pay child maintenance when they share the care of their children equally, once changes to the UK child support system come into force.

The Government's response to consultation on draft child support regulations was published this week.

In the announcement, Maria Miller MP stated "A widely resented Child Support Agency rule is to be scrapped. This rule required some parents to pay maintenance even though they share the care of their children on a 50-50 basis. In future no maintenance will need to be paid where care is shared exactly equally."

The changes confirmed in the Response also include:

Removing students from the nil rate;

A caseworker, in the absence of an agreement by the parents or acceptable evidence of a pattern of shared care, can assume a level of one night’s shared care on the part of the non-resident parent where the fact that there will be shared care is not in doubt but parents cannot agree on the actual amount;

The rates for relevant other children will be reduced to 11% for one child, 14% for 2 children and 16% for t3 or more children;

The flat rate when a non-resident parent receives a specified benefit or has weekly income of under £100 will be set at £10 when the new scheme is open to all new applicants

The Government intends to increase the default maintenance rates (when there is insufficient information about a non-resident parent’s circumstances to make a full calculation) to £39 for one child, £51 for two children and £64 for three or more children.


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.


Child Maintenance by phone

The sternly named Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) has a softer side - persuading resident parents to make what they call "family-based arrangements".  This means that parents avoid using the statutory CSA collection service by reaching agreement with each other on how much is paid.

FNF Scotland took part in a recent visit by Scottish voluntary organisations to one of the key components of this service - the Child Maintenance Options call centre in Doncaster.

140 staff work from here, taking phone enquiries and also making outward calls to newly separated parents who have made benefit claims or notify change of circumstances to the HMRC.  The centre is operated by Ventura, an outsourcing company which handles services for organisations ranging from Next to the RSPCA as well as CMEC and the Pensions Service.

They handle 20-25,000 phone calls per month, all focusing on child maintenance, but giving signposts to other services (including Families Need Fathers) for people who require support on other issues.

While we were impressed by the sensitivity of the call handlers, who were having to make what could be tricky calls to newly separated parents, these conversations only skated round the issue of child contact.

The resident parents were asked whether the other parent sees the children only as an indicator of the degree of communication between the ex-partners, and no further advice or help with child contact was offered.

This would seem to be a missed opportunity to at least reinforce the message about the benefits to children of spending significant time with both parents, alongside discussion of financial arrangements. 

Child Maintenance Options do offer the Kids In the Middle leaflet as a download from their web site, but we have suggested that their telephone and face-to-face staff should spend more time re-inforcing the message in person.