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Overhaul of child maintenance arrangements promised

13 January 2011

A further overhaul of the child support system for separated couples was promised today by the coalition Government, with the launch of a consultation on proposals to provide more help to agree child maintenance payments, or be charged for state help if they cannot.

Ministers say the current system, run by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, the successor to the Child Support Agency, costs £460m a year to run while processing £1.1bn worth of payments, which represents poolr value for money to the taxpayer – and there are still £4bn of arrears in maintenance payments.

The new proposals are designed to "better support families" to make lasting arrangements of their own, rather than relying on the state to set the level payments.

There are also questions in the consultation on how to better integrate child support with other aspects of family support during separation.

Levels

Families unable to make arrangements without assistance would have access to free advice from voluntary or charitable bodies, followed if necessary by three possible levels of intervention: a proposed, non-binding, calculation of maintenance; a statutory arrangement under which one party would then agree to pay maintenance direct to the other; and an ongoing collection and payment service. 

The first two levels would attract upfront charges only but the third would have ongoing deductions from payments made.

Initial charges are suggested at £100, though the document suggests those on benefits could pay about £50, £20 of which would be paid up front and the rest in instalments from any money paid. The charges would not apply in cases where there has been domestic violence, which would be fast-tracked through the system.

Families Minister Maria Miller said the current system "drives a wedge" between parents and leaves 1.5m children without effective financial support. The system would remain "heavily subsidised" and the poorest parents would only pay £20 up front.

She added that research had told the Government that the majority of people currently using the system would want to come to their own arrangements if they had the right support in place.

Nicholas Cusworth, vice chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said he broadly welcomed he proposals, but commented: "Scrapping the scheme and starting again is a thoroughly good idea. Charging everyone who uses the scheme – unless there is domestic violence – is not such a good idea."

Janet Allbeson of the single parents' charity Gingerbread said that discouraging people from seeking state help was "punishing those families who need the most help".

Click here to access the paper. The consultation runs until 7 April 2011.

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