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.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.