The UK Government has been accused of failing to collect hundreds of millions of pounds in child maintenance arrears, much of which could be owed to single parent families living in poverty, with new debts alone worth £668 per family.
A new report from the single parent charity Gingerbread reveals that almost £4bn of unpaid child maintenance arrears has accumulated over the 23-year lifespan of the Child Support Agency (CSA).
The CSA is in the process of being closed down and replaced by a new Child Maintenance Service (CMS), but the UK Government estimates that only 12% of CSA maintenance arrears is ever likely to be recovered.
Mounting CSA arrears means the average maintenance debt owed to more than a million families is £2,067, which Gingerbread says could make a huge difference to children’s lives.
The new CMS system was designed to prevent arrears from occurring, yet only two-and-a-half years since it began operating, £52.5m has accumulated in CMS maintenance arrears. Gingerbread warns this is likely to rise even further, as more families are transferred from the old CSA system.
Evidence also suggests that the UK Government is decreasing its efforts into collecting £700m of arrears on existing cases, Gingerbread says.
Gingerbread Chief Executive Fiona Weir said: “Britain’s child maintenance system is contributing to a culture where too many parents think it’s optional, rather than obligatory, to pay their child’s maintenance.
“The accumulated level of CSA arrears is staggering and completely unacceptable. With analysis showing that one-in-five families are lifted out of poverty by child maintenance payments, this is vital money that parents, and their children can’t do without.
“And with the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating that poverty rates for single parent families will double by 2020; more than ever that child maintenance owed for children needs to be collected by the government.
“Yet worryingly, it remains unclear what will happen to money still owed for children once the CSA closes for good. The government is keen to move on and have a fresh start. But there should be no fresh start for those who still owe child maintenance for children today.
Ms Weir added: “The government cannot walk away from its obligation to collect the millions that are owed to Britain’s 400,000 families with outstanding maintenance claims.
“The CMS is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past unless it sends a clear signal that non-payment will not be tolerated and child maintenance debts must be paid.
“That’s why we’re calling on the government to allocate some of the millions of pounds of fee income it is now making from charging parents to use the CMS into child maintenance debt collection work.
“We want an intensive push on child maintenance debt collection in the next few years, and a clear message that that non-payment of parents’ legal obligations to maintain their children will not be tolerated.”