Agenda for the 21st Century
Child Support Agenda for the 21st Century
Parents should have equal status by default
Partners should know about paternity
All children should have been accepted children
Eliminate sex discrimination from child support
There should be no Treasury saving or state compulsion
Child support should be formally awarded to the children
Use a formula to determine the amount
Have closer ties between child support administration and family courts
Use a symmetrical formula that treats both parents similarly
Household benefits/credits should not be treated as income
Amounts should relate to spend on children, not wealth
Also - Exclusions from the Agenda for the 21st Century
Also - A method of judging proposals
Also - International Agenda for the 21st Century
Related topic - Can Child Support Agencies ever work?
Related topic - The 21st Century is making the reformed scheme obsolete
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Child Support Agenda for the 21st Century

An aim of this web site is to help answer the question: "what should replace the reformed system so that the UK has child support suitable for the 21st Century?"
This is the opportunity to interrupt the informing and analysing, and to start answering. These are the currently proposed answers.

A vital question throughout is "how should a proposal be judged?" This isn't a perfect science, but it is still possible to do better than "this feels right" or "lots of people think this".
I propose a method of systematically evaluating a proposal. Another useful question is "what proposals have been excluded, and why?" These are identified in Exclusions from the Agenda for the 21st Century.

The reformed scheme (2000 Act) really looks back to the late 20th century. It is an attempt to put right a scheme (1991 & 1995 Acts), also intended for the late 20th century, that went badly wrong.

The nature of the reformed scheme, and the features included in it and omitted from it, are more determined by political and administrative advantage than by the nature of children and parenting. It is as though every feature were chosen for what is politically or administratively expedient. None of it properly relates back to research or analysis of the topics concerned.

The social context for child support

Any particular child support system will work, if at all, only in some types of society. Rather than make proposals that are so general that they will work in any society (and therefore say very little), this page starts by describing the social context that the proposals are being considered for. This doesn't mean that they will only work if all of these social proposals are completed. Instead, the reasoning is that if a society intends to implement a child support system of any kind, these are some useful features of the society that will enable an effective child support system to be devised. The later proposals will work more effectively, and with less friction, if these trends proceed in parallel.

Unfortunately, there is a history of governments starting with a broad picture of social & administrative changes, then "copping out" and implementing just the administrative changes which may not then work properly. This occurred during the reform of the UK's child support system, see the political drivers of the reformed scheme. In the year between the Green Paper and the White Paper, non-financial statements concerning "emotional support", "families", "care" disappeared, leaving "We will put the need for regular and reliable payments of maintenance at the heart of the new system and we will introduce effective and prompt sanctions for those who try to avoid providing for their children".

Parents should have equal status by default

By default, both parents should have equal status & rights & responsibilities, de jure and de facto.

The statement above emphasises that this is to be achieved in practice, not just in law. It is clear first that options for inequality left open in law tend to be taken up, and second that signs of inequality get picked up and amplified by others who don't understand, or perhaps don't agree with, the original intentions.

Partners should know about paternity

The aim is that "all children born have a paternity which is known and accepted by the husband or male partner".

This proposal is based on the simple logic that trying to sort things out after the child is born is too late. It is better to ensure that such dilemmas don't arise. It is better to have a society where, because of the certainty of being found out, women don't give birth to children whose paternity would be a surprise to their husbands or male partners.

All children should have been accepted children

The aim is that "all children born were wanted, or at least accepted, by both man & woman when they had sex".

The main means advocated here is simply the next generation of male contraceptives - safe, reliable, reversible, and unobtrusive. They will enable either person to veto conception.

Key principles of child support
Whatever the details of a formula, some principles are focused on what child support is really about - financial support for children.
Eliminate sex discrimination from child support

There is explicit sex discrimination is child support & social security law. When there is a dispute, the mother can claim Child Benefit, and when all is equal, the person claiming Child Benefit can claim child support from the other.

This explicit sex discrimination needs to be removed.

There should be no Treasury saving or state compulsion

All child support paid should become extra income for the children's household. There should be no reduction in any benefits or tax credits caused by child support payments. (The terminology is "all child support payments should be disregarded").

Compulsion tends to cause resentment all round, and sometimes drives a further wedge between the separated parents. All case should be private cases with no compulsion.

Child support should be formally awarded to the children

Child support should be formally awarded to the child, not to the parent with care. When the child is young, this only makes symbolic difference, but as the child gets older, it may bring to the surface what child support is REALLY for - goods & services for the benefit of the child. And the child may want someone other than the parent with care to provide these goods & services sometimes.

In most European countries, the child maintenance is awarded to the child. This applies to at least Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. In the Netherlands, the beneficiary is normally the parent with care for younger children, but older children may receive child maintenance in their own right.

Administering the child support system

Many different ways of operating a child support system have been tried in the UK, and also in the rest of the world. The perfect approach has not been found, and commentators sometimes appear to act according to the principle "the grass is greener over there", or "the next radical change will work, honest".

Much of the choice appears to be between "a simple scheme which can't hope to be fair in all details, but may be implementable", and "a complicated scheme which can't hope to be fair in all details, but which relies on very fallible human beings and is incomprehensible to all concerned". When in doubt, KISS!

Use a formula to determine the amount

The amount should be calculated according to a formula, and not rely on the whim of decision makers. This should be predictable, plausible, and practical.

All of the features above - predictable, plausible, and practical - are simply characteristics that most people want from the systems that impact their lives.

Have closer ties between child support administration and family courts

There has been discussion about whether the CSA should belong to the Department of Work and Pensions (before that, the Department of Social Security), or the Inland Revenue. These choices are really because the CSA is concerned with Treasury savings, although they also apply because the CSA is an administrative agency.

It would probably be better to be part of the Lord Chancellor's Department, alongside the family court system. In the long term, this would help it become more family-friendly.

Formula / guidelines for child support

This assumes child support continues to be needed during the 21st century. If relationship breakdown continues, and children still continue to cost lots of money to bring up, and if parents tend to get off benefits and work to bring in money, surely there will still be a need to sort out the finances over the childhood period?

A formula has to be devised according to what society/government wants the system to achieve. A society doesn't even have to have a child support system if this doesn't satisfy some objectives of that society. Therefore, this doesn't attempt to devise a complete formula by logic or analysis. Instead, it proposes some features that any system should have to gain credibility and reduce friction.

However, the assumption, both in the social context and here, is that the child support system should be primarily designed for and measured against outcomes for children, rather than other (probably temporary) objectives such as reduced social security expenditure or spousal maintenance. There is a gradual trend world-wide towards thinking of policies from the children's point of view, and that applies here.

Use a symmetrical formula that treats both parents similarly

The UK's current child support system starts with a 2-stage process: 1st, use a very limited amount of information to determine who will pay whom; 2nd, use much more information to determine how much will be paid.

So the fundamental logic of the UK's system has ruled out the possibility that this "much more information" could determine that the "very limited amount of information" has made an unfair or inappropriate decision about who should pay whom. The "very limited amount of information" is deliberately very limited, in order that the case can proceed quickly with stage 2. It doesn't include such information as income, ability to pay, or environmental factors such as the quality of house the child has with each parent, so it has nothing useful to do with ensuring that each parent supports the child in the most effective way.

Many nations and states avoid this blunder. So should the UK - the same information should (simultaneously) identify who should pay whom, and how much.

If a child is cared for part time by one parent and part time by the other, then each parent is, for part of the time, spending money directly which the other parent should contribute to.

The formula should be symmetrical between the parents, using the incomes of each parent, to enable a much wider range of personal situations to be handled fairly.

Household benefits/credits should not be treated as income

The rule should be: don't attempt to treat tax credits as net income. (This would apply to all current & future tax credits). But if the household receives any tax credits, operate the "basic rate" (15% / 20% / 25%) at all income levels.

Then if & when tax credits become available for all low earners, even those without a family (perhaps 2003) - remove the concepts of "flat rate" and "reduced rate" for low earners from the child support formula entirely! In other words, try to make the whole scheme vastly simpler than it is. The positive way of presenting this would be: "the child support formula is 15% / 20% / 25% - but if the household doesn't receive a tax credit, there is a protection mechanism for low earners based on a "flat rate" or a "reduced rate"".

Amounts should relate to spend on children, not wealth

Even if it is felt desirable for children to share in the wealth of their parents, sharing can't be done just by the NRP handing over lots of money to the PWC. It won't all be spent directly & fully on the children, for example as pocket money, food, clothes, etc. Research shows that children in better off households don't get such a large amount extra directly spent on them. The better off parents spend on average perhaps 20% more than the poorer parents. The advantage children get isn't mainly from the easy to measure direct expenditures such as these.

For future consideration
  Statutory rape of under-aged boys should not result in liability for child support.
  The social security (benefits) system should recognise that children don't always have just one household.
  The system should relate to the expected work patterns of lone parents with children of various ages.
  Children get support from their parents catering for a much longer time, eg. investments.
  Provide on-line information and estimation.

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Page last updated: 19 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003