We're over half way through January, and as always at this time of year there has been a glut of news stories highlighting that it's the busiest month for couples to separate. After what can be a difficult time for family relationships over Christmas, lawyers dub the first working day in January 'Divorce Day', and both Relate and One Plus One have launched new online guides to support parents who are in the process of separating. It's a busy month for us at Gingerbread too, with a high number of calls to our helpline and plenty of questions submitted for our forthcoming online advice session on separation.
Ending a relationship is always hard, and particularly so when there are children involved - and we know that establishing regular and reliable arrangements for the payment of child maintenance can often be far down a list of priorities when parents do separate. Understandably, many parents start off by making their own private arrangements to share financial responsibility for their child; and of course, it's great if you can reach an agreement that you're both happy with, and stick to it.
However, some parents find that over time - in the months and years after separation - private arrangements for child maintenance can break down, and what were previously reliable payments to support a child can become sporadic or stop altogether. The government's own survey data show that the majority (64%) of new applicants to the statutory child maintenance service had separated over a year before applying to the service; and a third of new applicants were applying because a private arrangement had broken down - mostly because the other parent had stopped paying. As one single parent told us:
"We started trying to sort things out between us, but after 3 months of paying he stopped, saying he couldn't afford to pay anything"
So what help is available if you need support to collect maintenance from your child's other parent? The government is currently in the final stages of introducing a new statutory child maintenance service which will replace the Child Support Agency (which, as many people are well aware, has had its fair share of problems over the years). The good news is that the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) should - in theory - provide a more efficient and effective service to calculate and fast-track payments of maintenance. We all know that children cost money, and many parents who have struggled with the CSA over the years will welcome a more efficient replacement.
But there's also a catch. In the past, the statutory child maintenance service has always been free for parents to access. However, parliament is about to debate a series of changes which could actually make it harder for parents to get help with collecting the child maintenance their children are owed. As well as an upfront fee of £20 to apply to the service, those parents who have to ask the CMS to step in to collect the payments directly (due to non-payment) will also face the loss of 4% of every payment collected. This is despite the fact that single parents who use the service will be doing so out of necessity: they will only be able to access the CMS collection service in future if the CMS itself reaches the conclusion that maintenance is otherwise "unlikely to be paid." [In this situation, the non-paying ex-partner will also face collection charges which will add an extra 20% to the amount due].
Whilst there is a logic to introducing a financial penalty on the 'paying' parent for a failure to pay maintenance that is due voluntarily, we just don't think it's fair to also take 4% of the money that would otherwise go to the child. Why punish a child for one parent's failure to meet their child maintenance obligations? We believe it is wrong in principle to charge a parent in need of maintenance for their child for the non-payment of the other parent - and we're gathering support to get this message through to the government loud and clear. Gingerbread has launched a petition calling on the government to drop this proposal, and with the final debates due in parliament in the next few weeks it is more important than ever that we show the government just how wrong it is.
Breaking up is hard to do. But if one parent won't meet their financial responsibility for their child, it shouldn't be made harder for a single parent to get the maintenance their child deserves. Show your support. Sign our petition here - and then tell your MP why you want the government to change its mind.