Child support payment arrears rising – 7,959 children in NI affected

Windscale became Sellafield. The Child Support Agency became the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division.

child support maintenance appears - CMED - via The DetailThe Detail have been taking a look at the levels of arrears in child support payments across Northern Ireland. (The figures released do not cover private maintenance arrangements agreed between parents.)

  • A quarter (27%) of the 28,966 children entitled to receive maintenance payments through the child support system did not receive any money in the last three months of 2011.
  • The total outstanding arrears have risen dramatically in less than two years – increasing from £80.7m in March 2010 to £87.1m in December 2011.
  • Only £2.6m of debt was collected by the Department for Social Development’s Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division (CMED) during the 2010/11 financial year.
  • In Northern Ireland there are nearly 92,000 lone parents with 150,000 children. Between 20% and 25% of all families are one-parent families.

Graphing the outstanding amounts (which have been broken down by council district) alongside the number of children affected by non-payment, you can see the scale of the problem.

Behind each statistic of 7,959 children not receiving support from an absent parent in the last quarter of 2011 lie thousands of individual stories. I’m conscious that there are two parties involved in every case, and generalisations are dangerous.

But knowing a little of the story of one parent who has to fight to receive anything through the CMED system while her child’s father claims poverty but buys new cars and expensive gear, the government agency tasked with collecting and distributing the payments seems powerless and at times easily deceived.

While its predecessor was described as “one of the greatest public administration disasters of recent times” by the Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee in 2007, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division is having reputation and delivery problems too.

Serious concerns have been raised many times by the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly and these were highlighted once again in his latest report based on CMED’s accounts for the 2010/11 financial year.

The report, dated June 30th 2011, raises concerns about errors in maintenance assessment calculations and within arrears balances and that only £2.6m was collected in arrears during the year. Mr Donnelly said that at this rate it would take the department over 12 years to recover the current level of outstanding arrears which relate to 30,700 individual cases dating back to 1993. Tens of millions of pounds have been described by DSD as “uncollectable”, partly because of the current economic climate.

The annual accounts also showed £333,000 was languishing in CMED’s bank account because “inherent system weaknesses” meant the department was unable to determine who it had been received from or was due to be paid to. Mr Donnelly’s staff examined 30 cases and found 13 had errors (70%) including mistakes in maintenance calculations and missing case papers.

The IT system systems administering the CMED records are not up to scratch either. The data received by The Detail was accompanied by the caveat:

Child maintenance financial and accounting records are maintained on the department’s child maintenance computer systems. There are two child support systems in operation and both systems have a long history of problems. As a result of the underlying problems in the IT systems, the department is unable to generate a complete and accurate listing of individual cases. Consequently the information the department has provided in response to the query has not been subject to audit validation. The accuracy and completeness of this information is therefore limited.

Oh, and which department is responsible for overseeing the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division? The Department for Social Development, which is in the middle of further social welfare reform discussions. Hopefully those outcomes will have more success than CMED with its increasing gap between potential and reality achieved.

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  • carlota martinez

    Is it beyond the wit of man to devise a system whereby a non custodial parent would pay, at regular intervals, a sum of money to a custodial parent in respect of the maintenance of a child or children?

    In the current social climate the answer appears to be a resounding Yes!

    I suggest that there are two issues to be considered here:

    Firstly, an objective attempt must be made to differentiate between those absent parents who cannot pay, as opposed to those who will not pay. I acknowlege that there is a middle group who do not consistently fall into either category. Those who can pay. but will not, should be pursued and there ought to be real consequences if they continue to refuse to meet their obligations. This should include attachment of earnings, sequestration of property and, ultimately. imprisonment.

    Secondly (and more difficult to accomplish) there should be a considered and consistent campaign to render it utterly socially unacceptable for a parent, who can afford it, to fail to support a child or children.

    It is my experience that many non custodial parents consider that it is optional whether or not they choose to pay child maintenance. No stigma whatever attaches to those who opt not to pay. Can that be right?

    Happily in our society children whose parent/s will not pay for their maintenance are provided for, to some extent, by the State. This is right and proper. However, this minimal provision by the State should not permit a parent to abrogate his or her obligation to provide for his/her children. The State has a right, or perhaps an obligation, to pursue those parents who are in a position to, but refuse to maintain their children.

  • cynic2

    Surely this is exactly what one should expect in a recession?

  • Reader

    I am sure there would be more activity in this topic if the figures presented allowed us to work out if themmuns or ussuns were worse at (a) breakups and (b) picking up the tab.
    Cynic2 is right that it is no surprise that the figures increase during hard times; the shock is that the figures are high in absolute terms. There are a number of people who are not willing to support their own children, and the system seems to allow them to get away with it. No doubt there are also disputes about parentage, calculations and whether the custodial parent is fit to manage a budget, but surely those can only be a small proportion of the deficit.

  • hfmccloy

    I have a fair bit of knowledge in this area: this article while showing the money owed its only a indicator. There are several flaws, some of which I have met with DSD managers about:

    The outstanding debt include:

    1- Parents who are now deceased and will not be able to pay.
    2- Includes outstanding payments in contested parenthood cases.
    3- Includes parents in where the mother said, “its your baby” and refuses to allow a paternity test.
    3- With the new system and considering the amount of mis-calculations who knows what the actual figure is.
    4- calculations based on property and land values that are now obsolete

    The figure will be high as its the high flyers who have dodged the bullet more than the lay man.

    That is only a few points, if you take for example my postcode, roughly it states £1.2 million is owed by 88 parents, that works out on average £15,000 per child. This is an average dating back to the 1993 and including the above. Sort of brings the sensational figures into perspective.

    More is needed before action is taken, Before the hate comes, I am a father who spent 18 months fighting in a family court to regain contact with my child, I paid through the case, pay for my time with my child and my time without my child. We have built a society where one parent pays child support, one parent does not get any housing or social benefit, tax credit anything and that’s the father and sometime people might want to wonder why they are broke.

    the laws regarding social aspects of children is not connected with child support, maybe if it was we would not see the above sensation, everyone should pay their dues and raise their children without question.

  • hfmccloy

    And to finish since 1993 there are over 7,000 children who have not received any payments, in the past 3 years 9,000 fathers have fought through the courts to see their children, but this is not recognised as its no seen as acceptable.

  • hfmccloy

    “Happily in our society children whose parent/s will not pay for their maintenance are provided for, to some extent, by the State. This is right and proper. However, this minimal provision by the State should not permit a parent to abrogate his or her obligation to provide for his/her children. The State has a right, or perhaps an obligation, to pursue those parents who are in a position to, but refuse to maintain their children.”

    This is untrue, David Cameron used last fathers day to wreck into fathers, and all fathers who are reported to CSA when they sign on for benefits will have £5 a week deducted from their payment.

  • hfmccloy

    BT45

    Total outstanding arrears (£): 1,298,263
    Number of entitled children receiving no maintenance payment: 86
    Number of children receiving maintenance payments: 301
    Percentage of entitled children not receiving maintenance: 22

    £1,298,263 / 86 children = £15,096 average

    Since 1993 = £15,096 / 19 years = £974

    The problem with the above is that significantly it has no bearing on the 86 children, we dont know how much they are owed individually, or from what year.