|Letter on behalf of Malcolm Wicks
||Commentary by Barry Pearson
Dear Mr Pearson
Thank you for your letter of 22 May to Malcolm Wicks concerning
the shared care arrangements in the new child support scheme. I
hope you will understand that due to the large numbers of letters
received by Mr Wicks, he is unable to reply to all of them personally.
I apologise for the delay in replaying.
Child support is based on the premise that both parents are responsible
for the support of their children and that where parents live apart,
one parent will tend to have greater involvement in the day to day
care and support of the child than the other. In identifying which
parent is the parent with care and which is the non-resident parent,
the CSA is seeking to determine which parent is, to a greater extent,
contributing both in cash and in kind towards their children's needs.
In the most clear-cut of cases, all the care and support will be
provided by the parent with care. However, many non-resident parents
will have some involvement with their children, even if the children
spend most of the time with their other parent. This is why both
the current and new child support scheme make allowances for non-resident
parents who provide a material amount of shared care, by reducing
the amount of child support otherwise due.
I think it is a pity that I cannot engage Malcolm Wicks personally,
in the way that I previously managed with Baroness Hollis.
Although in the original letter it was surely obvious that I am
an expert in this topic, this response explains elementary details
as though to a novice. I accept that it is good practice in a dialogue
to start by establishing common ground, but it doesn't have to be
at such length.
|The amount of the reduction increases
with the amount of day-to-day care provided. But as you will be aware,
in cases where Child Support recognises that there is equal shared
care, one parent will still be regarded as the non-resident parent
and liable to pay maintenance.
I am indeed aware that, in the case of equal sharing of care, the
government and the CSA insist on finding some way, however spurious,
of ensuring that the parents can be distinguished into a PWC and
a NRP. Note that in the second sentence here, the possibility of
not polarising the parents into PWC and NRP doesn't
| In the new scheme liability will
exist although the maintenance otherwise payable will be reduced by
half plus £7.
Compared with the case where one parent is completely absent, it
is reduced by half then by a further £7 per child, subject
to a lower limit of £5. The £7 represents about half
of the amount of Child Benefit, as though this were relevant to
the matter, which it isn't.
|It may seem odd that in cases of
equal shared care, one parent remains liable to pay maintenance. However,
it should be remembered that the child support definition of care
of a child only relates to overnight care, so there may be aspects
of care which the CSA will not be called upon to consider. Therefore
the Government believes that there are very few cases where care in
its broadest sense is shared exactly equally, and it would not be
possible to identify a parent who in some way has primary responsibility
for the child. Such a parent is likely to be the one who receives
The logic here is as follows:
The child support system needs to use a simple criterion for adjusting
its formula, such as "nights of care". However, this criterion
does not encompass all the factors that need to be taken into account
when each parent cares for the same number of nights.
Therefore, the child support system uses an extra criterion in
the equal sharing case - "who gets Child Benefit". The
assumption is that this decision caters for those other factors.
This enables to child support system to rely on a judgement made
So this relies on the decision about "who gets Child Benefit"
to reflect those other factors that need to be taken into account
when each parent cares for the same number of nights. But does it?
There is no evidence that it does. In
fact, it is basically a way to ensure that, all other things being
equal, the father pays the mother.
A test of this is: "under what circumstances will the CSA
accept that neither parent need pay the other"? If there are
no such circumstances, the system is clearly inherently biased.
|The only possible alternative treatment
would be to provide that no maintenance would be paid in equal share
No, that is not the only possible alternative! Another
approach was described to government during the consultation stage
in 1998, then
again to the Social Security Select Committee in 1999. The latter
explanation was both verbatim and written (as
an appendix to the Committee's report). It
is comprehensively described here.
In effect, the approach is to recognise that each parent is PWC
part-time and NRP part-time, and so the formula should be symmetrical.
The better-off parent ends up paying the poorer-off parent - "the
money follows the child". (It doesn't make people in benefits
worse off, neither does it cause an extra load on the taxpayer).
|However, since many parents with
care receive benefits, this would mean that the taxpayer would end
up supporting those children.
Note how this letter suddenly talks about "parent with care".
But in the exactly-equal sharing case there isn't a justification
for calling one of them the "parent with care"! What has
happened is that the government and the letter writer cannot grasp
that there may not be a valid polarisation into PWC and NRP. Despite
the lack of justification, they slip into this terminology.
Suppose the father is on benefits and the mother is in work. The
government's scheme wouldn't reduce the benefits-spend on the father.
But my alternative would! My scheme does not cause problems for
the government's (increasingly irrelevant) desire to use the child
support system to reduce benefits expenditure. On the contrary,
by looking at the incomes of both parents, it actually stands a
chance of getting it right!
At November 2002, 37% of PWCs were on Income Support or JSA(IB).
So were 29% of NRPs. 47% of NRPs were neither employed nor self-employed;
for example, some of these were on other benefits or were retired,
I hope this explains the Government's position.
Ministerial Correspondence Unit
I already knew the government's position!
What this does not do is justify the government's position, or
answer the key points I made in my original letter.