Select Committee on Liaison First Report

Committee Recommendations: Progress

Tenth Report: The 1999 Child Support White Paper (HC 798) Published: 10 November 1999

Committee Recommendations: Progress
Sessions 1998-99
Tenth Report: The 1999 Child Support White Paper (HC 798) Published: 10 November 1999

Government Reply: (Cm 4536) Published: November 1999
RecommendationGovernment Response Committee Response/Follow upFurther Government Action Notes
We recommend the Bill should provide for the Secretary of State to have the power to make regulations subject to parliamentary approval to adjust the standard percentage rates in the formula. The Government believes that the proposed flat rates represent a fair basis on which to work out child support liability for the majority of parents. We will allow for the basic rates to be changed in the future by regulations (which will need the approval of Parliament before they come into effect) should this prove necessary.
  Power to make such regulations is in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We recommend that in the case of any dispute the child support assessment should be made on the basis of the last year's assessment by the Inland Revenue. Our proposals for ensuring that accurate information is supplied for child support purposes, combined with the simpler definitions of income, should reduce the scope for dispute. Nevertheless, there will be cases where it is impossible to get accurate information from the parents concerned. For self-employed non-resident parents there will be circumstances in which the best information available will be the tax return for the last full tax year. In these circumstances, we will use information collected from the non-resident parent or, as a last resort, direct from the Inland Revenue.

  The CSA continues to work with the Inland Revenue to develop information exchange mechanisms.   
Whilst we agree with the view that all non-resident parents should pay something, we are concerned at the effect of the minimum payment of child support on children in 'second' families in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance. We recommend that, before minimum payment is imposed in cases where the non-resident parent has dependent children and is in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, further research should be carried out on the effect of such a minimum payment on the level of compliance and the well-being of the children in the 'second' family . The Government understands the Committee's concern to ensure that children living with non-resident parents on income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance should not suffer as a result of the child support reform.
We are convinced that our proposals for minimum payments strike an appropriate balance between protecting children in low income families and ensuring that non resident parents honour their responsibility to support their children. The programme of systematic research which has been set up to evaluate the impact of the reforms will enable us to observe any effect on the well-being of second families and these proposals will be closely monitored.
  Method of calculation in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We welcome the White Paper proposal to treat step-children in a 'second' family on the same basis as the non-resident parent's own children in the 'second' family. We prefer the alternative approach set out in the Green Paper that maintenance liability should be split equally between all children. Following consultation, the Government concluded that it would be unfair to treat step-children differently from natural children in the second family and that any maintenance received should be totally ignored. But, given this more generous treatment of second families, we remain convinced that the method of adjusting the rates should give a slight preference to children in the first family.
  Method of calculation in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We recognise that taking account of the income of the parent with care could introduce complexity into the simplified child support scheme. In the interests of fairness, we recommend that the Government should set a significant threshold at well above average male earnings beyond which the earnings of the parent with care may be taken into account in calculating the liability of the non-resident parent. Given that the child support rates are based solely on the non-resident parent's responsibility to his children, there is no reason why any additional support that the parent with care can provide should affect maintenance liability. She is making her contribution through the improved standard of living she can offer the child. Further, as in the current scheme, the need to consider a parent with care's income would add complexity in all cases, while actually affecting liability only rarely. The Government cannot therefore accept the Committee's recommendation as regards the income of the parent with care.
  Method of calculation in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We are persuaded by the case that the children of wealthier parents should have the right to continue to share in that parental wealth. We therefore do not support the introduction of an upper limit on the automatic application of the revised formula. The Government is pleased that the Committee accepts the logic of basing liability on a fixed percentage slice at all levels of non-resident parents' income, rather than imposing an arbitrary maximum.
  While the Committee had agreed with the Government that there should be no maximum liability, it was clear from the Government's consultation on the child support reform and the Committee's deliberations that the arguments were finely balanced. There was a substantial body of opinion in both Houses in favour of a maximum child support liability and it was argued that the absence of such a cap would make the job of the courts in setting up maintenance arrangements for very wealthy parents practically impossible. In the light of evidence that the financial affairs of the very wealthy are often complex, the Government decided that it was reasonable to set a maximum level of income on which child support liability should be calculated. This level was set at £2000 per week net - equivalent to a liability of £300 per week for one child. Parents with care will be free to go to the courts for "top-up" maintenance if their child support is capped.
We recommend that the Department of Social Security should commission research jointly with the Department of Health and the Lord Chancellor's Department into the consequences for the well-being of the children of linking child support liability to overnight contact of non-resident parents with their children . Our programme of research evaluating child support reform has been designed to collect information about the impact on children's well-being of these changes to the shared care arrangements. We will consult the Department of Health and the Lord Chancellor's Department on this programme and consider whether any further research is needed.
We would expect that in most cases it would be in the best interests of the child for both parents to share their responsibilities for care. We support the White Paper proposals to reduce the non-resident parent's liability in shared care cases. Both parents have an important role in their children's lives and we want to encourage their involvement with their children even when the family unit is no longer intact. Paying maintenance is an important part of a non-resident parent's ongoing responsibilities to his children but we think it right to encourage the sharing of care between both parents and, for this reason, we are planning to reduce the threshold at which shared care arrangements affect child support liability.
  Method of calculation in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We endorse the view of the Independent Case Examiner that the parameters of the discretion allowed to officials must be specified in Regulations carefully before the legislation comes into effect . The Government understands the Committee's concern that the exercise of discretion by Child Support Agency officials should be consistent. The majority of decisions in child support legislation are statutory. The rules governing the ability of officials to vary the child support liability in exceptional cases will, as with the current departures system, be set out clearly in legislation.
  The rules governing the ability of officials to vary the child support liability are being drawn up in draft child support regulations.   
We have reservations about the wisdom of allowing unlimited access to the CSA formula in all cases since the qualities of simplicity and rough justice, which may be necessary and appropriate for dealing with circumstances where the parent with care has had to resort to seeking benefit from the taxpayer, may not cope adequately with more complicated circumstances in which a private arrangement has been reached and where the taxpayer's interests are not involved. We are concerned that the CSA formula may be invoked to overturn settlements agreed to in court. It would be preferable if settlements reached in court paid attention to the CSA formula from the outset. We recommend that a statutory duty should be placed on the courts to take account of the CSA formula as a starting point in deciding child maintenance. As the 1991 White Paper Children First made clear, the then Government intended that the child support scheme would be open to all parents at child support rates.
The Government notes the Committee's preference for requiring the courts to pay attention to the child support rates from the outset but is not convinced that this offers the best solution. Allowing either parent to come to the CSA will help ensure that court orders are settled in the shadow of the CSA rates.
We recommend that the proposed right of access for 'private' non-benefit cases to the CSA after an agreement has been in force for a year should not be brought into force until the Child Support Agency has had time to demonstrate its effectiveness in handling the new formula. .
We recommend that further research be carried out into the extent to which the interests of the children concerned would be adversely affected by allowing parties to 'private' agreements to have recourse to the rough justice of the new child support formula, and that the results of that research should be published before Parliament is asked to approve any proposal to allow parties to apply for a CSA assessment to replace a court order or registered agreement. Under the new scheme, the Government wants to give all parents access to collection services of the CSA if court based maintenance arrangements are unsatisfactory. And, where the CSA is collecting maintenance, we think it right that child support rates should apply. These rates represent the Government's view as to the level of support that all non-resident parents should provide for their children.
We are concerned that having apparently similar cases being dealt with differently for a prolonged period may give rise to a sense of unfairness which may substantially undermine the credibility of the reformed child support scheme. We recommend that all parents with care in receipt of Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance should be permitted to benefit from the child maintenance premium from the date of commencement of the proposed reforms in 2001 The child maintenance premium is a central part of the Government's reform of child support, ensuring that all children see the benefit of maintenance paid. However, in practice, this extra help for families on income support will not be easy to deliver effectively- and without new computer systems the premium will be practically impossible to operate reliably. For this reason, it is essential that the timetable to implement this reform is the same as that for the other improvements in child support.
We recommend that the forthcoming child support legislation should contain a requirement to up-rate the child maintenance premium annually in line with inflation. The Government is committed to reviewing the value of the premium from time to time. However, a regular annual uprating would mean increasing the payment by a few pence each year. The Government believes that it is more sensible to have disregards in the income related benefits in whole pounds.
We agree with the Government that a State guarantee of maintenance owed by the non-resident parent would remove the incentive to comply with the Child Support Agency . The Government welcomes the Committee's endorsement of its policy in this area.
We consider that the removal of automatic CSA involvement in WFTC cases is a welcome and positive development for parents with care in work. The Government welcomes the Committee's support for its policy on Working Families Tax Credit.        
We recommend that the Government should give particular attention to the interaction of child maintenance with receipt of other benefits when considering its proposals for reform of Housing Benefit and also in the development of the children's tax credit. We recommend that the opportunity of the Housing Green Paper should be grasped to introduce a substantial disregard of child maintenance received by parents with care in receipt of Housing Benefit. In the current Housing and Council Tax Benefit schemes, there is a disregard of maintenance- the first £15 of any weekly maintenance payment is ignored. At £15 the disregard of child maintenance in Housing Benefit is more generous than the one proposed for Income Support. Along with the total disregard of maintenance in the WFTC this provides and incentive for people to move into full-time work. As with all our policies we will keep this level under review, to ensure that it continues to meet our aims for welfare.
We welcome incentives for parents to co-operate and comply with the Child Support Agency .          
We recommend that greater attention should be given to improving the CSA's internal processes for verifying information on the lines proposed by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate. The CSA is determined to build on the findings of the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate and they have already created a senior post with responsibility for taking this work forward.        
We recommend that the CSA should be required to include in its annual report to Parliament an account of its counter-fraud activities, including details of the use made of its existing powers . The Government will consider, as the work on counter fraud activities proceeds, how best to report progress.        
We support the introduction of severe penalties for those who deliberately persist in fraudulent evasion of their responsibilities to their children, but we recommend that the interests of the children should be taken fully into account before action is taken to seek the imprisonment of a delinquent parent. We will expect the CSA to use the new penalties in a way that is consistent with their responsibility to consider the welfare of any children affected. The decision to prosecute will be a discretionary one to which the statutory welfare of the child provisions in section 2 of the 1991 Child Support Act will apply.
We condemn the tactics of any group which seeks to encourage non-resident parents to evade their responsibilities to pay child support .          
We consider that it would be an unacceptable diversion of resources to pursue recovery of child support payments from parents below the age of 16 . The Government believes that children are entitled to the emotional and financial support of their parents. However, we accept that there are some groups who in practice are hardly ever likely to have the resources to pay child support and for the sake of simplicity we propose to exempt non-resident parents who are aged 16 or under.
We agree with the Government that there should not be a general amnesty for child maintenance debts . The Government welcomes this recommendation. It would be unfair on those responsible non-resident parents who have regularly paid their maintenance to write off debts owed by others who have, often quite deliberately, frustrated the efforts of the Child Support Agency to calculate and collect maintenance.
  The CSA continues to make every effort to recover arrears of child maintenance from non- resident parents. The Debt Management System is to be upgraded by January 2001 to improve identification and targeting of debt.   
We welcome the constructive use of debt management to encourage compliance. We recommend that the Government should take the opportunity of the forthcoming primary legislation to allow Parliament to decide whether the Child Support Agency's power to write off or suspend arrears should be protected from challenge in the courts, taking into account the rights of the creditor parent with care. The Government is grateful for the Committee's concern to protect the Agency from a challenge in the courts and intends to legislate to put the compensation scheme on a statutory footing in the Bill announced in the Queen's Speech.
  Compensation scheme in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.   
We want the new incentives to be given a chance to work and we therefore recommend that the application of the reduced benefit penalty should be suspended during the phasing-in period to assess whether the incentives alone are successful in achieving higher compliance. The Government believes that parents should understand that the taxpayer is not primarily responsible for supporting their children. Only a very small proportion of those parents with care who are found not to have good cause go on to receive a benefit penalty. Parents who have good cause not to seek child support will be protected as now- there will be no question of any benefit penalty being applied.
In the Government's view, it would be unfair on other parents to remove the penalty before it was clear that it was no longer needed.
We recommend that, in its allocation of funds for the Child Support Agency, the Government should distinguish between the resources allocated to the Agency to deal with cases under the present child support scheme, and the resources allocated to develop the systems, technology and training for the proposed new scheme which will be introduced from 2001. The Government intends to identify, in the explanatory notes to the in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, the expenditure needed to pave the way for reform, restructuring the CSA and investing in its human resources.
  Expenditure identified in the explanatory notes to the in Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.   
We recommend that the resources allocated to the Agency to deal with cases under the present child support scheme should be increased to reflect the anticipated year on year rise in present caseload which is likely to continue until 2001. Successful delivery of the child support reforms is one of the Department's top priorities. The forecast increases in the Agency's caseloads is a factor which will be taken into account in determining the allocation to the Agency for 2000/01 from within the overall resources available to the DSS.
We recommend that the CSA should remain within the Department of Social Security . The Report explores the arguments for placing the CSA under the responsibility of the Inland Revenue. The Government welcomes the Committee's conclusion that this is not appropriate.
The importance of effective computer systems cannot be exaggerated. We recommend that the new child support scheme should not be implemented until the new computer system is fully operational . The Government has no intention of introducing the reforms until adequate and reliable computer support is in place and sufficient staff are properly trained in its use.
  A new computer system is under development and existing systems are being modified to facilitate interfaces with the new system.   
We recommend that particular emphasis should be given in staff training to the need for concise and accurate records of all contacts between customers and the agency, both as good administrative practice and to assist in the swift resolution of complaints and disputes. One important function of any new computer system will be to retain and retrieve accurate records of all contacts between staff and customers.
We recommend that the role of staff rewards in staff retention should be addressed as a matter of urgency, for example by giving bonuses for individuals with long service or who have undertaken additional training. We recommend that in the longer term the Agency should put in place a performance-related system to link staff pay rises to the achievement of realistic but challenging customer-focused targets once the new system is introduced. Targets should be chosen carefully to encourage a properly balanced approach by the Child Support Agency and to avoid the distorting effects of concentrating on the easiest cases to the detriment of others. The Agency recognises that pay is one of the tools available to address retention issues, but is by no means the only one. The Agency is considering other approaches to reduce its turnover rates including new approaches to staff rewards systems in order to help retain staff.   A team bonus scheme is being piloted and a new individual bonus scheme is currently being developed.
A number of options are being considered for ensuring that staff will progress through the pay scales in line with their development.
We welcome the attention now being given across the board in the Department of Social Security and its Agencies to address the levels of sickness absence .      The CSA continues to monitor levels of sickness absence and has set a target of reducing levels by 10% during 2000.   
We recommend that the Agency should continue to give a high priority to training and re-training staff.      The CSA remains committed to delivering the training and development its staff needs to provide a customer- focussed service at a time of continuous change.   
We recommend that special efforts should be made to ensure the availability of all CSA forms in the most common minority languages in the United Kingdom. We recommend that interpreters should be provided for face-to-face interviews in the most widely spoken ethnic minority languages in the United Kingdom. The Government welcomes this recommendation. The CSA already provides a translation service for forms in the most common minority languages and interpreters are provided with the assistance of the Benefits Agency for face to face interviews.
We are concerned that there may be considerable pressure from affected parents to bring existing cases on to the new system well before any dispassionate view could be reached as to the extent to which the new system is 'working well'. The Government agrees with the Committee that there will be considerable pressure to introduce the new scheme for existing cases sooner than would be sensible operationally. We want to introduce the new scheme as quickly as we can but we have to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The current scheme failed because it was introduced too quickly.
Existing cases will be transferred to the new scheme when we are confident that it is operating properly.
We recommend that every effort should be made to bring existing cases on to the new system at an early stage . The Government accepts the Committee's recommendation to bring existing cases on to the new system at an early stage and will do this as soon as it is prudent to do so. The Government's view is that a gradual approach is wise, enabling us to iron out any initial problems while the numbers affected are still relatively small.
We recommend that provisional timetables should be drawn up for transferring existing cases, so that those within the system can at least have some indication of the length of time they will wait . Drawing up and publishing provisional timetables will raise public expectation and cause difficulties for the Child Support Agency in managing these expectations. But we agree that existing parents using the CSA will want to know at what point they will move onto the new system. We will use more general publicity to keep parents aware of what is happening.
We recommend that the Department of Social Security should give priority to funding a systematic programme of independent research into the operation of child support legislation. The Department is committing significant resources to assessing the impact and operation of child support reform. An evaluation programme has already been developed, which will involve: analysis of the administrative data on compliance and efficiency of the process; a series of large-scale surveys of CSA clients over a period of 5 years; attitudinal research with the general public; and qualitative research with specific groups of clients and with Agency staff.

  The contract for baseline survey of CSA clients has been let to an independent research consortium comprising University of Bristol (Professor Gwynn Davis), University of Southampton (Professors Nick Wikeley and Ian Diamond) and the market research company, Ipsos-RSL.
We recognise the Minister's efforts to listen carefully to all shades of opinion and we compliment her on the extent of consultation that has been undertaken. The Government's proposals for reform have been the subject of an extremely wide consultation process The views of key organisations and individuals are now well known and have been carefully recorded in this Report.
We are disappointed that it has not proved possible for the Government to fulfil its earlier intention of publishing its Child Support proposals in the form of a draft Bill. We understand the Committee's disappointment at losing the ability to consider the legislation before the Bill begins its Parliamentary process.
We recommend that the legislation on child support should be committed to a Special Standing Committee in order to enable its Members to take evidence directly on the details of the legislation which they will then proceed to debate and (if they wish) to amend. We cannot see that anything would be gained by remitting the Bill to a Special Standing Committee to hold further hearings. It is unlikely that, even informed by the legislation, significant new information will come out of the proceedings of a Special Standing Committee. Given the agreed need to make all possible haste with the reform of child support, the delay that this further stage in the Bill process could cause cannot be justified.        
We recommend that the Government should consider either extending the terms of reference of the Social Security Advisory Committee, or creating a Child Support Advisory Committee on similar lines, to scrutinise secondary legislation on child support, as part of the process of building public confidence in the new child support system . The Government appreciates and commends the Social Security Advisory Committee's work. The suggested extension of its remit could not be achieved without a dilution of its primary area of expertise. SSSC has played an important role in monitoring the development of child support and the Committee has considered regulations before they were laid before the House. Given these safeguards, the Government does not consider that the cost of setting up an Advisory Committee can be justified.

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