Commentary on the Letter on behalf of Malcolm Wicks

My original letter to Malcolm Wicks
Letter responding on behalf of Malcolm Wicks

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.

Some observations:

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 exist!

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 Child Benefit.

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 elsewhere.

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 cases.

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, etc.

I hope this explains the Government's position.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Russell
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.

Page last updated: 18 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003