More than a year after sweeping changes were introduced to the UK’s child maintenance system, there remains significant criticism of how it operates from parents, politicians and unions.
The Falkirk Herald first reported last July on concerns regarding changes to the Child Support Agency (CSA), which no longer accepts new cases - meaning separated parents can no longer apply for help to work out financial arrangements to support their children.
Those who cannot agree payments between themselves are now charged to use the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS).
The Public and Commercial Services union criticised the change, claiming money meant for children was now being used to line the Westminster Government’s pockets.
Now a row has broken out over whether the CMS is breaching privacy laws by revealing salary details between separated partners.
One Grangemouth father in full-time employment, who asked not to be named, said he was happy to pay the amount owed to the mothers of his children as set by the CMS. However, he was dismayed to learn that the current CMS policy is to disclose the weekly salary details of the paying parent to the receiving parent.
“Both of my ex-partners see what I earn down to the last penny. But I’m not allowed to see how much they are bringing in,” he said.
“What I earn is disclosed by HMRC to a third party - the CMS - and they calculate a percentage and allocate it accordingly. That makes sense. However, I do not understand why my earnings are then disclosed to my ex-partners as well. The CMS have told me it is due to transparency - but I think it makes a mockery of privacy laws.
“In general I find the lack of communication between the previous system (CSA) and the new system (CMS ) appalling. There’s no sense of urgency when it comes to handling the paying parents’ queries or requests.”
The father’s case has been taken up by East Falkirk MP Michael Connarty.
“I have written to the minister responsible asking him to rectify the problem identified by my constituent,” Mr Connarty said.
“It’s clear to me the system is wrong. There are privacy issues at stake.”
The CSA and CMS is a major Falkirk employer. Staff at its Callendar Park base handle cases from across Scotland and north-east England.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “Income information is disclosed in a child maintenance case for two reasons. Firstly, child maintenance liability is based upon a percentage of the paying parent’s earnings. Either parent may disagree with a maintenance calculation. Therefore, details of how the calculation has been made must be made available to both parties, who can then determine that it is correct or decide to ask for it to be reconsidered, after which they may choose to appeal.
“Secondly, where a parent believes there are special circumstances that have not been captured within the standard maintenance calculation, they can ask the Child Maintenance Service to look at the circumstances and this can lead to an adjustment to the maintenance calculation.”
More payments but same issues
The Child Support Agency collected a record £1.2billion in maintenance over the past 12 months, it was reported this week.
A total of £330million of that comes from 184,000 earnings deduction orders taking the money straight from wage packets.
Child maintenance minister Steve Webb said: “We’ve turned this super-tanker around thanks to smarter processes and tougher enforcement.”
But despite this apparent success, figures vary wildly as to just how much uncollectable money is owed to the CSA.
One report suggests arrears amount to more than £3 billion - but the Department for Work and Pensions claim the real figure is more like £244 million.
Martin Cavanagh of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents the majority of CSA staff, said: “It’s been on public record for quite some time that the CSA has experienced a number of issues over the years since its inception in 1993.
“IT failures and bad organisation have contributed significantly to the deficit we currently have in arrears.
“I think it’s sometimes forgotten that the staff and the members we represent in the PCS, bear the brunt of that Government policy.
“Some of our enforcement powers just did not exist previously.
“The problem with the definition of arrears is it depends on who you speak to what the final figure will be. What we do know is that there is close to £4 billion in arrears that are uncollected and the members that we represent in PCS are determined to try to pursue those arrears wherever possible.
“There will be, with such a large debt, times when we will ne unable to collect that in its entirety, and hopefully we will continue to have the staffing levels to do that, which is a big concern for us.”