Covering letter to David Laws, Liberal Democrats spokesman

This was a covering letter accompanying two enclosures:
My 2002 paper: "Child Support should be for Children" - A proposal for reform
And "An open letter to Frank Field"

(Address removed)

The Hon. David Laws MP
House of Commons

14 September 2005

Dear Mr Laws

I am writing to you because of your Liberal Democrats Party role for the Child Support Agency. This letter is not about personal matters, but about the reform of the UK's child support system. (I am separately writing to my own MP, the Hon Andrew Stunell).

I enclose a paper I wrote in 2002 that proposed a simplification of the CSA intended to reduce its caseload and workload. I also enclose a copy of an "open letter to Frank Field", which I have sent to him in response to his famous "open letter to Tony Blair".

Although childfree, I have been studying child support systems for 8 years. I made a substantial contribution in response to the Green Paper on CSA Reform in 1998. I gave evidence in person in 1999 to the Social Security Select Committee at the White Paper stage, and submitted some of the written material in their report. I appeared in a debate on BBC TV, along with Frank Field and others, on the day before the "new scheme" started. I have been interviewed on BBC Radio's "Today" programme, although not by Mr Humphrys!

In 2001, I became convinced that it would be necessary to reform even the "new scheme" before it was fit for the 21st Century. I therefore created "Child Support Analysis", which is both a small independent think-tank, comprising myself plus whoever has a contribution to make, and the world's largest non-governmental web site on the topic of child support. The focus is on knowledge and solutions, not blame or point scoring.

The last paragraph of my 2002 paper speaks for the paper as a whole:

"This will reduce the operating costs, and improve the likelihood of success, of the reformed CSA. (Anything that can help this is desirable! There is nothing in this proposal that would make the CSA's task harder)."

The paper proposed that the CSA should cease to attempt to reduce benefits expenditure. It should treat Income Support in the way it treats tax credits, and "disregard" it. A consequence would be that the CSA would never get involved if neither parent wanted it, even if one was on benefits. There is an obvious disadvantage. But the advantages would be: a smaller caseload, as cases which neither parent wants are cancelled; no interaction with the benefits system; a single clear objective that few would disagree with; more money going to children.

This proposal is contrary to one of the original objectives of the CSA. It is probably contrary to the 1997 Government's requirement that the CSA reforms should be "Treasury neutral". Frank Field objected to it on the TV programme. Steve Webb, MP, and Baroness Hollis, the minister at the time, both wrote letters to me objecting to the idea. But time has moved on.

Predictably, the objections stated that savings taxpayer's money was a good objective. As a childfree taxpayer, I obviously understand that position! But a dysfunctional CSA serves no one well, including taxpayers. The nature of the CSA's client-base has changed, making those old objectives less relevant. For example, I estimate, from the (inadequate) statistics published by the CSA, that only perhaps 15% of the CSA's caseload should, under the new scheme, yield any benefit to the Treasury. And the amount they contribute to the Treasury may be only 10% to 15% of the total amount of child support that should be collected. The other cases include lone parents in work, and non-resident parents who are required to pay no more than the £10 disregard. Even in cases that should yield a Treasury-benefit, the first £10 is disregarded. The CSA really is primarily about child support nowadays.

I do not pretend that this proposal would be an easy solution to the problems of the CSA. There is no such thing. But it would make any other changes more likely to succeed, and help rehabilitate the image of the CSA. As I said on TV the day before the "new scheme" started:

"Until we can get the Treasury out of the loop we won't be able to think of how child support should work for families and children".

I have also sent copies of my 2002 paper to the Rt. Hon. David Blunkett and to Mr Stephen Geraghty, the CEO of the CSA, who were not in their current posts when I first published this paper.

Yours sincerely

Barry Pearson

Page last updated: 14 September, 2005 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2005