BRITAIN’S child maintenance system is “broken”, a Work and Pensions Minister has admitted as new figures reveal taxpayers now spend 40p for every pound which is moved from one separated parent to another.
Conservative Minister Maria Miller has defended the Government’s plans to introduce charges for parents who are unable to settle their own maintenance agreements, and so are forced to do so through the long-criticised Child Support Agency (CSA).
The coalition Government’s proposal to introduce fees for parents of up to £100, as well as taking a percentage of each maintenance payment, were defeated in the House of Lords this week, in the latest in a series of set-backs to its controversial Welfare Reform Bill.
Ms Miller made it clear that child maintenance assistance must now be seen as a “service” – but one that must be “worthy of a fee”.
She said: “As anyone who uses the Child Maintenance system in this country knows, it is broken.
“I’m sure anyone reading this who had the misfortune of being forced to use the CSA will agree that at the moment it is not a service that parents should pay for.
“But we do pay for it. We ask the public to fork out £450m every year, because it costs 40p to move pound in maintenance from one parent to another.
“Cases that last from birth through childhood cost typically £25,000 – and that’s without the cost of enforcement that can push this up to £40,000.
“On top of this, we know the current set up is divisive, pitting parent against parent and still fails to get money from more than one in five parents. Complaints run at 20,000 every year. This whole system is long overdue for reform.”
The move to introduce charging for CSA services has been heavily criticised by peers, including senior Conservatives in the Lords.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who was Lord Chancellor under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, led last week’s Lords rebellion, insisting struggling mothers and their children should not be made to pay when they need help.
“This is about fairness,” he said. “It’s unfair for a lady who has done all she can, for the chap to come along and pay, and then get told here’s a charge – and you don’t get in without paying. After all, this is money for the child.”
Adding that almost half of parents actually receive less than £20 a week, he said: “You are applying charges to these sums... It’s just a question of fairness about people who have very little money.”
But Ms Miller said the CSA should be seen as a service which people paid for when they needed it, rather than as a free benefit.
She said: “Everyone agrees the collection of child maintenance is necessary, but it is now a service rather than an extension of the benefit system, as it was originally designed to be.
“I believe that if parents are paying something towards the service, then it must be worthy of that fee. The new statutory scheme will have better enforcement powers, be faster, more accurate, and maintenance assessments will be reviewed annually to make sure they stay correct.”
The Government is gearing up for a major battle in the Commons next week when the reform Bill comes back for further debate.
It was defeated six times in the Lords, including over the controversial benefits cap, as well as the reforms to child maintenance.
Direct action group UK Uncut joined members of disability campaign groups to protest against the cuts yesterday, saying the neediest people in the country would be hit by the plans.
Richard Whitehurst of Disabled People Against Cuts said: “Cuts to disabled people’s benefits will ultimately cost the taxpayer far more, as pushing disabled people into destitution and withdrawing care services will lead to an increased demand for NHS care.
“With the cap on benefits, some single disabled people living in London will be left with only £25 a week to meet all their needs for food, heating and all other costs after paying their rent.”
Laura Miller of UK Uncut added: “Anybody could get ill, have an accident or lose their job. Any one of us could need welfare at some point in our lives.
“The Government is destroying our safety net.”