Nearly 40% of parents who are supposed to contribute towards the upkeep of their children through the government-run child maintenance system are failing to make any payments.
Most parents owing maintenance arrange their own payments, but the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) created a scheme called Collect and Pay, which calculates how much maintenance is due and takes in the funds. It is often used by low-income parents who struggle to make payments.
Among the 164,500 non-resident parents who use the scheme, 37% paid no maintenance in the three months to March 2022 – the highest figure since mid-2018, and a marked rise since 26% failed to pay maintenance in the quarter to June 2021.
Only 43 percent of non-resident parents - those living away from their children - who use Collect & Pay made more than 90% of the payment they owed in the first quarter of 2022, down from 53% a year earlier.
Victoria Benson, chief executive of single-parents’ charity Gingerbread, said: “Research shows that 60% of single-parent families living in poverty and not receiving child maintenance would be able to escape the poverty trap if they were paid the money they’re owed. Parents have a legal and moral duty to contribute to their child’s upbringing whether they live with them or not, and where this money isn’t paid willingly the CMS needs to step in.
“Child maintenance simply cannot be seen as optional. The CMS needs to use its powers to stamp out persistent non-payment and ensure that no child experiences hardship or poverty because their non-resident parent won’t support them financially.
“It’s about time this government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) took the issue of unpaid maintenance seriously. It’s shameful that so many children are forced to live in poverty as a result of a lax Child Maintenance Service and a disinterested government department.”
The public accounts committee of MPs recently slammed the DWP, which runs the CMS, for “achieving no more for children of separated families than under the previous, discredited Child Support Agency”.
Collect and Pay performance has improved since 2016, but has slipped sharply since the height of the pandemic. The fall in universal credit claims has reduced the number of payments that can be automatically deducted from benefit payments, ensuring they are paid.
The withdrawal of the £20 weekly universal credit uplift has also had an effect. The DWP’s commentary on the figures states: “[Withdrawing the uplift] led to an increase in the number of UC claimants, who were due to pay via Deduction from Benefit, not having enough benefit remaining within the UC deduction cap to allow a child maintenance deduction to be taken.”
Up to 25% of a universal credit claimant’s standard benefit payment can be deducted, with other debts taking priority over child maintenance payments. Universal credit deductions have been criticised for driving claimants further into poverty.
The Public Accounts Committee report warned that the DWP’s ability to collect child maintenance is “limited by the affordability of payments” and that the system “risks creating a poverty trap” for some parents who owe money.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Child maintenance is an essential source of income for many lone-parent families, helping to lift 140,000 children out of poverty on average each year. Through continuous enhancements to its processes and powers, the Child Maintenance Service got a record £1bn to children of separated parents last year.
“Child maintenance is calculated so it is reasonable and affordable, according to a paying parent’s income, with the very lowest earners protected by a flat rate of £7 per week.
“Giving children the best start in life is the service’s priority, so parents who can afford to pay more must pay at a rate that reflects what they earn.”