Whilst the broader welfare reform agenda has gained considerable attention in recent weeks there is another aspect of the Welfare Reform Bill that has received less coverage in the media – namely the long-overdue reform of child maintenance, which will be debated in the Lords today. Perhaps the media has presumed that everyone will see the common sense of replacing the current failing statutory child maintenance system, which does little to encourage parental responsibility and can entrench conflict. It is yet another example of embedded state dependency for families.
What we do know is that with the right help around half of mothers and fathers currently using the CSA would prefer to work together to agree their own financial arrangements. Why is this so important? Because research shows that agreements between parents without the state interfering are better for children and are more likely to work long term. Yet at the moment the support to make those agreements is difficult to find, leaving parents with apparently little option but to turn to the state-run CSA. Our reforms will change that.
The government will continue to have in place support for lone parents who are struggling financially. This year we will spend more than £6.5billion to support directly the incomes of lone parents through income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. To support parents to take responsibility and make maintenance agreements themselves, outside of the state run system, there will be a new family support service that has been designed by Relate, Gingerbread, Families Need Fathers and the Centre for Separated Families. It will be paid for by money we are saving by reducing the scale of the CSA. Maintenance Direct, which is already up and running, will continue to be a zero cost way for families to make ongoing maintenance payments.
As for the state-run system, we will follow the recommendations of Sir David Henshaw and enact legislation passed by Labour to put in place a charge for using a new statutory system. It will remain heavily subsidised and continue to be there for those who need tough enforcement. Yes, it will mean parents will have to pay for something that has been free in the past. But in line with Sir David Henshaw’s recommendations, charging will help parents, both mothers and fathers, not to simply default to the state to sort out the financial needs of their children.
The current statutory Child Maintenance system fails children and parents – and it fails the tax payer, too. At the moment every £1 of maintenance that moves between parents costs the tax payer 40p – in total, £440 million every year. At a time of austerity this is unsustainable. At the heart of all of the Government's welfare reform is the need to support people to take responsibility for their lives. Nowhere is that change needed more than in child maintenance.