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The gradual replacement of the Child Support Agency (CSA) came into effect from Monday.
Since its establishment in 1993, the CSA has been beset with problems which have led to its demise. In June 2006, the National Audit Office revealed that it cost the CSA 70p to collect every pound of child support and £3.5bn in payments had not been collected since 1993. Reforms introduced at a cost of £539m failed to deliver any improvements, the National Audit Office concluded.
The new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) should bring tougher enforcement on orders for absent parents to support their children and open up the option for parents on welfare benefits to make their own private maintenance arrangements voluntarily.
All parents with day-to-day care of children are now free to choose the child maintenance arrangements which best suit their own circumstances. Previously, those claiming benefits - currently around 400,000 - have been required to use the statutory service provided by the CSA.
The change coincides with the doubling from £10 to £20 per week of the amount parents with day-to-day care can keep before their benefit entitlement is affected. It paves the way for a full 'disregard' in 2010 when all connection between the benefits system and child maintenance will end.
Janet Paraskeva, Chair of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission said: We need to put the interests of children first and disconnecting maintenance payments from the benefits system is an important step forward. From now on, parents who are able to make private arrangements will no longer be compelled to use the CSA.
"But whenever parents are unable to agree their own arrangements, or if those arrangements break down, the statutory service will still be available. Over the past three years, the efficiency of that service has improved significantly."
Andrew Woolley, managing partner at family law specialist Woolley & Co, believes stronger powers to enforce orders, for instance stopping travel abroad, using debt collection agencies, and naming and shaming non-payers, should all help ensure more money is paid for dependent children where it is due.
"Anything which can help in getting people to honour financial agreements made to support their children has to be a good thing," said Mr Woolley.
"But there seem to be many cases where the payer - and sometimes the payee too - think the amount ordered is impossible to pay. We have had a lot of contact from people who find the appeal process very slow and difficult to work through. That has not been overhauled in this change. Tough enforcement in those cases might well bring the CMEC into disrepute in exactly the same way as the CSA. New name, same problems.
"I think it's always been rather odd that people and courts can decide on figures of maintenance for the parent but not for the children. It's hard to do the former without the figure for the latter! Now it seems people can have all done together by agreement and thus by the court. I think most people, who can, will go down this route.
"I can't see any incentive for people on benefit to make any agreements and I suspect they'll leave things to the CSA. So it should become much more openly what it really started for - a method of getting money in to reduce the cost of benefit for single parent families."