What is the child maintenance service, anyway?
Replacing the CSA
Like thousands of other single parents, I’ve recently been received a letter from the CSA, announcing that my existing child maintenance agreement, as run by the CSA, will end in a few months, and I need to make new arrangements.
Now I know it has a terrible reputation but I can’t lie – when the CSA got involved in our family maintenance arrangements, it was nothing short of a life saver.
Like many divorced couples, money is a touchy subject for me and my ex. Instead of monthly muttered near-arguments about late payments, or why isn’t it this, or that amount, or why aren’t you spending it on X or Y, with the CSA doing the sums and taking the money, there was… nothing.
We were lucky – first, because Flea’s Dad has reliably made payments, and wants to support our daughter. I know a lot of absent parents don’t do that, and it must make a hard situation unimaginably more difficult. And second, because the CSA worked for us – for many thousands of parents it was a tangled mess of failure to collect payments, and inaccurate calculations.
But that’s not to say the new system isn’t even worse.
How the Child Maintenance Service Works
First – and this is the option the government would prefer, it’s clear – I discuss the issue with my former partner and come to a civil arrangement about what should be paid, when, and how. And that all works out. I like to think of this idea existing in a bubble, sitting on a magical cloud, next to a unicorn and a sparkling rainbow.
Perhaps the unicorn is busy reading one of the helpful guides on the CMS website for parents, called things like, “Managing Feelings” designed to help you make your own arrangements with someone you’d frequently like to stab in the heart. Top tips include gems like this: Compromise involves a little bit of give and take on both sides. If you can both do this, you’re more likely to make arrangements that work for your family!
So choice number one? Possibly not for us. Option number two, meanwhile, involves paying the government £20 to calculate how much my ex should pay, based on how much he tells me he earns (he’s self-employed so declares his own income), and then I can discuss with him how and when it should be paid. Yeah. Budge up unicorn, I’ve got a mermaid here that needs a seat.
Behind door number three, I can ask the new child maintenance service to collect the money from my ex, and pay it to me. This relies upon my ex providing the right information (which to be fair, he probably will), agreeing to use the service AND then being prepared to pay a 20% service charge on top of the maintenance, to the new CMS agency. I will also have to pay a 4% charge to receive the money paid for my child’s care.
Which is nice.
Basically, the government is asking single parents to give them 24% of the funds intended to support their children – and thereby, one assumes, massively reducing the burden on the state to support those children.
Sure, we’re all adults and should be able to manage our own finances. I could probably suck it up and go back to having awkward silences over the phone with my ex every time we talk about money, and he can imply that I’m richer than Richard Branson, and I can imply that he’s an idiot, and everyone will be just a little bit unhappier as a result.
But what really worries me about this new policy are families that aren’t as lucky as ours.
What happens to the women with violent or abusive former partners? Are they really being forced into a choice between establishing regular contact with someone they might have struggled to escape from, or losing 24% of maintenance that might be desperately needed?
It’s a horrible choice to have to make. Do I need the money badly enough to get back in contact with a former partner who may be violent, or abusive, or hostile? Would it be safer, and less upsetting to try and manage without maintenance entirely?
However you look at it, I can’t help thinking that it’s poor and vulnerable families that are going to be hit hardest by the change – including, of course, some non-resident parents who may find themselves equally reluctant to make the same choices.
What do you think? Do you have any experience of the CSA or CMS, and these changes?