The cost of separation: why the proposals to reform child maintenance make sense

This week has seen the launch of a government Green Paper, a consultation on the future of the child maintenance system. The proposals it contains are far reaching and some of them quite radical, not least the concept of charging for the use of the Statutory Maintenance Scheme (the replacement for the beleaguered Child Support Agency).  Beyond the rhetoric and the  hysteria surrounding the idea of charging for such a service, the reforms that are proposed, actually herald a much needed shift in the way that we approach family separation in this country.

No longer it seems are we going to automatically give one parent a state funded stick with which to beat the other. Under the proposals put forward by the Green Paper, before anyone gets the chance to strike the first blow in the financial battle after separation, each parent will be required to consider whether it is possible to make a private agreement for payment of child maintenance.  Only after that will it be possible to ask the state to intervene through the statutory maintenance scheme and that will come at a financial cost, to one or both parents.

The proposal to charge for the use of the statutory maintenance scheme provides a perfect smokescreen for those who want to resist plans to reform the child maintenance system.  Focus on charging allows the idea that all separated parents are impoverished mothers abandoned by feckless fathers to continue to flourish.  The majority of separating parents however, do not fit these stereotypes.  It is true that some mothers are abandoned by some fathers, but this group is only one of many different stories behind family separation these days.  The truth is that parents separate for many reasons and many try to keep their arrangements for ongoing care and provision for their children under their own control.  Only when parents encounter the divisive intervention of the legal system or, in the past, the child maintenance system, does the rot of conflict really begin to set in.

The proposals for reform of the child maintenance system acknowledge, at last, that widening the gap between parents through the automatic use of a state sponsored maintenance scheme is unlikely to benefit children.  In 2008, parents were given the choice to make their own arrangements for payment of child maintenance, an important move away from compulsion to use the statutory scheme. Since then, at least sixty thousand private agreements have been made.

The proposals for further reform go even further than that and suggest that all parents will be required to consider the possibility of a making a private agreement, with support being made available to help them to do that.  For those of us working in the field of delivering that kind of support, these reforms make absolute sense and are long overdue.

At the point of separation, many parents have no idea where to turn and no real idea about how to deal with issues like housing, money and care for children.  Some parents separate acrimoniously, arguing their way into a different place, physically and emotionally. Others make every effort to be co-operative and to share the responsibilities that change brings.  For each of these groups of parents, the changes proposed by the Green Paper are positive.  Positive because they offer time to reflect and consider the options available to them for continued financial provision for their children and positive because they offer the kind of support that parents need as they do that.

Currently, too many parents separate and find themselves heading into an adversarial system, aided by solicitors and a statutory maintenance scheme which is framed around the right of one parent to force the other parent to pay.  Little wonder so many parents end up mired in conflict and bitterness.  When feelings run high, giving one parent the absolute power to make the other pay both financially and in other ways, is akin to pouring petrol on an already burning building.

Of course there will always be a group of people for whom the statutory maintenance scheme is necessary. Those parents who experience family violence or those for whom negotiation of a private agreement is impossible  due to deliberate evasion on the part of the other parent. The proposals however, make provision for these parents, who will be fast tracked into the statutory scheme.

For the other groups of separating parents, the message from these proposals is clear.  Your children remain your joint responsibility after separation and support will be on offer to help both of you achieve the kind of collaborative arrangement that works best for children. Maintaining your ongoing responsibilities, however, will remain your own private business.  Contrast that with the messages from previous incarnations of the child maintenance system, all of which were framed around the idea that ‘non resident parents’ must be chased, threatened and forced to pay for their children and the radical shift that this Green Paper heralds becomes clear.

The time for a respectful engagement with separating parents may finally have arrived. I have long been of the opinion that parents who are separating deserve our support, respect and our belief in their ability to do the best for their children.  In my experience, the very worst that parents do to each other is encouraged by the outdated legislation that governs the post separation landscape.

This Green Paper is a major step towards supporting different expectations and different behaviours as parents make the transition to post separation relationships.  The proposals contained within it are radical and designed to encourage parental co-operation.  This change brings with it a move away from the kind of punitive rhetoric that has surrounded the issue of child maintenance for too long.  Looking beyond the resistance from the poverty lobby, for whom separation is only about the transfer of finance from one parent to the other, we may be just about to  take the biggest step forward in our approach to family separation for over four decades.

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