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Introduction to the UK's CSA
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Introduction to the UK's CSA

Some reading matter

What the papers say!
Here is an index and commentary of newspaper articles about the CSA. It provides a year-by-year summary in that page, and links to separate pages for each year 1994 to 2003. (Since then, newspaper articles are cited and discussed in frequent Blogs instead of having pages to themselves).
Some comprehensive books and papers

If you are prepared to read just one book on the subject, read Child Support In Action. It describes in an approachable manner the political processes leading to the legislation, then the creation of the CSA and its first few years of operation.

When they make the film of this book, they will probably call it "Scary Agency". You know those films where everyone except the participants knows that something dreadful is going to happen? Where you want to shout at the actors "don't do that ... you can't be serious ..."? Well ...! (Casting for "Scary Agency" will be by the Casting Society of America, of course - the CSA ....)

Another good book, somewhat slimmer, is Trial and error: a review of UK child support policy. It also looks at some foreign approaches.

A useful academic paper, describing the legal background, is:
CHILD SUPPORT: A COMPARISON OF THE OLD AND NEW APPROACHES
by Susan Grace Jenkinson LL.M. (A Masters paper submitted to Staffordshire University).

Questions & Answers

Questions

Answers

Some basic facts about the CSA
Terminology Glossary of terms.
It's part of the DHSS, isn't it?

The Child Support Agency of Great Britain is an Executive Agency of the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions). This was mostly formed from the former DSS (Department of Social Security), which in turn was formed when the DHSS split into the Department of Health and the DSS.

The Child Support Agency of Northern Ireland is an Executive Agency of the DSD (Department for Social Development).

This site will talk as though there is just one UK CSA, since this makes no difference to any of the analysis or conclusions. (Other CSAs and similar bodies exist throughout the world).

Tell me more

They began operations in 1993 as a result of the 1991 Child Support Act (GB) and Child Support Order (NI). They both operate equivalent legislation for the same purpose, and in fact cooperate and to some degree work-share. They exist to trace the non-resident parent if necessary, to assess how much he (or she) should pay for Child Support Maintenance, to provide a collection service for this money if required, and to enforce payment if required.

(About 1 in 16 nonresident parents are fathers in GB, and about 1 in 20 in Northern Ireland. But for convenience this page uses the common convention of referring to them all with male pronouns. This can be construed as careless or as realistic, depending on your point of view).

Some half-truths & myths about the CSA

(MYTH: A female moth)

Isn't it to make "deadbeat dads" support their children?

How many myths can be implied by one short question?

- About 1 in 16 parents with care are men.

- The parent may already be paying money at time the CSA gets involved. (The CSA isn't simply called in by lone mothers as a last resort - if she is on Income Support it is called in anyway whether she wants it or not - and many don't want it).

- The father may not be absent or really non-resident, but may be sharing the care of the children. Indeed, the 2 parents could actually be sharing care equally, in which case by default the mother could still claim child support from the father (because of a sex bias in the legislation).

- The CSA often makes the children worse off (see below).

- The CSA often, through incompetence, fails to make them support their children (see below).

It isn't an objective here to make it appear that everything would be OK if the CSA didn't exist. About half of NRPs either don't pay all they should, or don't even pay any of it. If society believes they need to pay, and makes laws saying so, then an effective means of enforcing this is needed. The CSA hasn't shown itself to be that effective means! Instead, it has simply usurped the power of other means which may have been more effective.

Wasn't it designed to make poor children better off?

The CSA was primarily designed to prevent poor children being better off. It was designed to ensure that the social security payments to children in poverty were minimised, making taxpayers better off.

The CSA was secondarily designed to make not-so-poor children (those with a working parent) better off. A welcome part of the reforms in progress are designed to make some poor children a little better off too.

(There is often only a loose connection between how the CSA is portrayed by the government and its reality).

Isn't it an important part of relieving child poverty?

In principle, it may well have this effect in future. The reformed CSA, combined with other recent policies such as New Deal for Lone Parents and Working Families Tax Credit, had ingredients which will improve the lot of many children of separated parents. Many children are already better off as a result of the CSA.

In practice - so far the CSA has undoubtedly made many children worse off. Probably far more children than it has made better off. Reasons include:

1. There are often other children in the household of the nonresident parent, of which he is either the full parent or the step parent. If he is the full parent, then his payments simply make the household poorer. If he is the step parent, then whether the household is worse off depends on whether the other (non-resident) parent of those children is paying child support, and if so how much. Given the number of nonresident parents too poor to pay more than a small amount (or indeed anything at all), and the number who don't pay what they should, it is quite common for a non-resident parent to pay for children in another household but not receive money for children in his own household.

2. It was common for the parent, the father say, who didn't have the care of the children to pay something towards them, perhaps buy them presents on occasions, and perhaps help care for them, for example a bit of baby sitting. This help would tend to be considerably less than the true cost of supporting a child, but by not declaring it a mother on Income Support would gain the advantage of the full amount to add to her benefits. Once the CSA starts collecting money, typically much more than the informal amount, the father tends to stop paying the informal amounts. The children's household is reduced to basic benefits levels.

3. The CSA has often shown failure to collect what the courts could have collected. So the parent with care now has to use the CSA, but the CSA simply doesn't get the money to her. Yet she has no separate way of enforcing payment - she is dependent on an incompetent agency.

Absent fathers drive Porches and BMWs, don't they?

If you are prepared to read another book on the subject of the CSA, read Absent Fathers?. This describes research which shows just how many non-resident fathers are simply not financially capable of making a significant contribution towards their children - non-resident parents tends to be poorer on average than other men in the population. Sometimes the CSA simply moves small amounts of money from one poor household to another. Sometimes it just moves poverty around.

There has been at least one example of a Porche-and-BMW owning absent father (out of more than a million):
House of Commons Hansard Debates for 26 Oct 1998
They (if there are more than one) are in a minority. (They give the rest a bad name!)

Why should taxpayers pay for other peoples' children?

Good question! (I'm childfree and want other people to pay for their children and keep them from under my feet!)

Taxpayers have been doing so for a long time, and will continue to do so. The questions are "how much?" and "which children are we talking about?" Another problem is that taxpayers pay for the running of the Child Support Agency itself.

Isn't it just another way of filling the Treasury's coffers?

No. Contrary to popular belief, all the money paid by non-resident parents goes to the children's household. (Barring administrative screw-ups, of course).

But what then happens is that if the household claims certain means-tested benefits (currently just Income Support or Job Seeker's Allowance (Income Based)) those benefits are reduced by exactly the same amount. The child support is treated as "means". In other words, for the minority of CSA cases where these benefits are being paid, the CSA helps to reduce the depletion of the Treasury's coffers.

In most CSA cases, the children's household isn't on such benefits and becomes better off by the full amount of the payment. Then the Treasury isn't affected.

All those arrears must mean that people must have been avoiding payment

Often, this is not the reason for arrears. Often arrears arise because the CSA causes them to arise, by delaying things for months or even years without telling the non-resident parent how much he will eventually have to pay.

But in some cases the non-resident parent could sensibly have put money aside to cover the arrears.

Surely supporting their children brings the Absent Parent closer to the children?

Ha! An unintended consequence of the CSA is that it often relentlessly drives a wedge between the parents, sometimes leading to exclusion of the non-resident parent from the children's lives!

- Typically voluntary payments from the father cease once the CSA starts demanding much more money. (See above). So a lone mother on Income Support suddenly sees the father stop making the payments which were actually helping her and the children.

- The father often feels anger at the mother for unleashing the CSA, even though, if she is on Income Support, she had no choice in the matter.

- If the father requests a paternity test when the CSA demand arrives, this is likely to cause resentment, and some mothers have been known to criticise the father to their children. (About 1 in 7 such paternity tests show that the man concerned is not the biological father).

(The term Absent Parent was legally replaced by the term Non-resident Parent on 2001-01-31. Neither term is accurate).

Doesn't the CSA keep driving people to commit suicide?

Possibly - you would think so, wouldn't you? But convincing evidence is lacking. It may be "final straw" in a few cases.

Doesn't the CSA costs more to run than it saves in benefits?

No. It hasn't for years. It saves more than its operational costs. (The cost of the reforms will take a few years to recover).

But this may not be the case once the reformed scheme that introduces a £10 disregard for Income Support is fully implemented, and as the proportion of benefits cases reduces even further. The CSA will then probably cost more to run than it saves in reduced benefits. (That doesn't mean it should instantly be scrapped - any alternative would also have a cost).

Design versus intention

The CSA was intended by many worthy people to make poor children better off by ensuring that they received child support from their separated parent.

It was not designed by those worthy people. It was designed partly by people with different intentions - to reduce social security payments to out-of-work lone parent families. Their design was implemented. This often made these poor children even worse off by removing any informal child support they were getting.

This difference between design and intention, and also the difference between practice and theory, plagues many discussions about the CSA:

- Anti-CSA lobby and protest groups often attack the design and the practice of the CSA. Why not? It is what they experience. (Some protesters have long since ceased to accept that intention and theory can ever be any different from the design and practice).

- The government (and also some lobby groups and often the media) defend the CSA and counter-attack the protesters using the intention and the theory. In the case of the government this must surely normally be spin, but in the other cases it may often be ignorance.

Example 1

- Some of the ploys of anti-CSA activists involve collusion between the parents to prevent the CSA getting involved. For example, a lone parent on Income Support may claim fear of violence. The other parent can then pay informal child support - less than the CSA would set, but all of it making the children's household better off. The parents and the children are then all better off than they should be under the law.

- This ploy is portrayed by government and lobby groups and the media as a cynical attempt by non-resident parents to avoid supporting their children. (If so, why are so many lone parents willing to collude in this way?) In these cases, when the government criticises the nonresident parents for avoiding their responsibilities, it actually means their responsibilities to reduce the social security bill, not their responsibilities to make their children better off.

Example 2

- In other cases anti-CSA people really do simply want to pay less even if the children suffer (that is, when it isn't a benefits case). They are able to hide behind righteous indignation caused by the above practice.

- Their critics mix up the different cases and speak as though all protesters were of this form. This is a very convenient way of deflecting criticism, and delays having to face the harder problems of child support.


References

[1] Child Support In Action
Gwynn Davis, Nick Wikeley, Richard Young with Jacquelin Barron, Julie Bedward
Hart Publishing, 1998
ISBN 1-901362-70-1

[2] Absent Fathers?
Jonathan Bradshaw, Carol Stimson, Christine Skinner, Julie Williams
Routledge, 1999
ISBN 0-415-21593-5

[3] Trial and error: a review of UK child support policy
Helen Barnes, Patricia Day, Natalie Cronin
Family Policies Study Centre, 1998
ISBN 1-9011455-08-4

I'd explain it to you, but your brain would explode.

Page last updated: 4 August, 2005 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003