Absent parents to pay just third of £3.7bn bill

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LESS than a third of the £3.7bn child maintenance bill owed by absent parents is ever likely to be paid, a committee of MPs has revealed today.

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC), in charge of securing payments, only believes it can collect £1bn from mothers and fathers who fail to support their families.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said it “beggars belief” that such a huge sum of money is being written off.

They said parents left to raise their children alone or with other partners are frustrated at not being paid the right amount of money, or any at all.

In a report published today, Committee members also raised concerns that parents will be made to pay fees for the service in an attempt to fill a black hole in its budget, which they branded a “high risk” strategy for cost reduction.

They said aspects of the commission’s work remained unacceptable and it was difficult to forecast how parents would react to being billed when they lack confidence in the system.

And they have urged the quango, which plans to charge up to £100 in application fees, to demonstrate it has a service which is worth paying for.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee, also raised concerns about delays in a new IT system for the commission..

“I am concerned that the commission’s cost reduction plans seem to rely heavily on charging parents to use its services,” she said. “The commission must ensure that the introduction of fees does not end up making child poverty worse.

“Many parents are frustrated at the lack of support they are receiving, too often not being paid the right amount of money or any at all.

“It beggars belief that outstanding payments total some £3.7bn but only £1bn of that is considered collectible and less than half of that can be collected cost-effectively.

“The commission has to reduce its costs by £117m by 2014-15, and is already £16m short.

“It is introducing a new IT system to try to save money but the system is already late. To meet the current timetable, the critical testing will need to be done at the same time as the system is being delivered, a recipe for failure in the case of many previous government IT projects.

“Every month of delay will cost the Commission £3m – money it can ill afford to waste.”

The committee said the organisation has made real progress in recent years, with more money than ever before going to children.

They noted backlogs were also being reduced and a higher proportion of non-resident parents were now paying some child maintenance.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We thank the Committee for its report and will carefully consider its contents before responding fully in due course.

“Child maintenance presents serious challenges which have tested successive administrations.

“The Government’s fresh approach will encourage and support parents in making their own maintenance arrangements whenever possible - benefiting children, parents and the taxpayer.”