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New study reveals separated parents' views on child maintenance system changes

Published: 
27 August 2008

Results of a survey of around 2,000 separated parents, carried out by Professor Nick Wikeley of the University of Southampton's School of Law in collaboration with the National Centre for Social Research, reveal mixed views from parents on the forthcoming changes to the child maintenance system.

Their report, undertaken on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, and published this week, also points to some of the possible outcomes of these reforms.

The changes, which are to come into operation over the next couple of years, start with the establishment later this year of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission as a new non-departmental public body taking responsibility for the child maintenance system.

Its key aim is to increase the number of parents making child maintenance arrangements, by supporting parents either to make their own arrangements or to apply to a government agency, depending on individual circumstances. The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will manage the Child Support Agency (CSA), which will continue to exist for a number of years.

As part of the reforms, parents who are the primary carers of their children and on income support will no longer be compelled to apply for child support, and all parents, regardless of their benefit status, will have the same choices.

The study published this week is based on the views of parents with care - that is, those who are the primary carers of their children - as well as parents who are not primary carers, and includes CSA clients as well as separated parents who have never used the CSA.

It reveals that these various groups have different opinions on a number of important issues and that, in general, parents with care who currently use the CSA are least enthusiastic about certain aspects of the reforms.

Professor Nick Wikeley commented: "It is important to understand the views of parents on the potential impact of changes in this area."

The study findings indicate considerable support among parents for the principle that parents should make private child maintenance arrangements where possible, and suggest that effective (and relatively intensive) information and guidance services could play a key role in facilitating this.

However, the study also showed that more than two-thirds of the CSA's existing clientele saw themselves as likely to use the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, with parents with care who had used the CSA expressing especially negative views in regard to the possibility of making private arrangements.

In addition, a number of issues have been identified about which parents with care and non-resident parents appear to have differing opinions, particularly in regard to the proper effects of additional factors on the maintenance obligation. Where so many causes of potential disharmony are present, it is clear that encouraging more parents to make private arrangements will not be an easy task, the study team reports.

Key findings from the survey include:

* The principle of being able to make their own child maintenance arrangements, was backed by some groups of parents. Around half of non-resident parents and parents with care who do not currently use the CSA (53 per cent and 49 per cent respectively) thought that separated parents should ideally make child maintenance arrangements by themselves. However, support among parents with care who were involved with the CSA was considerably lower, with only 22 per cent sharing this view.

* Parents with care who had used the CSA were more concerned about the idea of making arrangements without the Government's support, than other parents: 24 per cent thought there were no advantages to this type of arrangement compared to less than 10 per cent of other parents, and they were more likely to be worried about the possibility of not getting paid maintenance, and that there would be no back-up if their arrangement with their ex-partner fell through.

* The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will be bringing in a new information and support service "Child Maintenance Options" to help parents make a decision about maintenance arrangements - and some parents were certainly keen to use this service. Around half of parents with care who had never used the CSA (47 per cent) and non-resident parents who had (56 per cent), said they would feel confident about making maintenance arrangements using this information and support service. Parents with care who had used the CSA, were less keen; only 24 per cent of them said they would be confident to make an arrangement this way.

* There are a number of areas where parents with care and non-resident parents disagree about child maintenance. Non-resident parents feel that shared care, informal support, new children and partners ought to reduce the amount of maintenance they pay. Parents with care, by and large, disagree. For parents where there are many points of disagreement, making maintenance arrangements between themselves will not be an easy task.

* Another of the Government's reforms will be that parents with care on benefits will no longer be obliged to use the CSA. The survey found that nearly a third (32 per cent) of these parents would try to make their own arrangement with their ex-partner. However 44 per cent said that they would still want to use the CSA, even if they did not have to. Around a quarter (24 per cent) though, said that they would probably not make any arrangements. This has implications for the attainment of the Government's child poverty targets, although the maintenance disregard for parents with care claiming income support is to be increased and extended.

* The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is likely to have a large caseload. Nearly eight in ten parents with care who currently use the CSA said they would be likely to use a successor organisation in the future to collect and enforce maintenance, and two-thirds of non-resident parents who use the CSA said they would be interested in using it to help them work out how much to pay.

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