In 1991, the UK government introduced the Child Support Act to enforce the requirement that all parents who were liable to pay child support to their partners should do so. The Child Support Agency was formed in 1993 to implement the provisions of the Act, but it achieved limited impact during its first decade of operation. It was heavily criticised for its failures of management and communication, the poor quality of its information, and its lack of fairness and effectiveness in enforcing maintenance payments. The child support system subsequently underwent major reform in 2003 and 2012.
In the 1980s, the UK was facing rising public expenditure on social security benefits for lone-parent families and declining numbers of lone parents in work. There was also growing dissatisfaction with the existing system of assessing and collecting child maintenance through the courts and via the Department of Social Security (DSS) "liable relative" officers.
The recognition of lone parents as a distinct group with distinct problems was already a matter of public concern in 1969 when the Finer Committee (dedicated to lone-parent families) was set up by Richard Crossman, the then secretary of state for health and social services.
By the end of the 1980s, lone parenthood accounted for one of the fastest growing areas of public expenditure. “In 1980, there were 330,000 lone parents in receipt of Income Support (IS) and by 1989, the number totalled 770,000. Public expenditure was inevitably significant, given the heavy reliance of most lone parents on benefit. In 1989, 70 percent of lone parents were in receipt of IS, and the cost of benefit had risen from £1.3 billion in 1981-2 to £4.3 billion in 1990-1. This image of lone parents as welfare dependent was further compounded by the apparent failure of the existing legal and administrative systems of child support. By 1989, only 22 per cent of IS claimants were receiving maintenance, and only 30 percent of lone parents in total. Rates of maintenance were also typically low.”
In February 1991, the UK government introduced the Child Support Bill, which was passed into law as the Child Support Act 1991. It was designed to ensure that all parents who were liable to pay child support in the UK were obliged to do so. The bill was created to help combat the problem of parents who were refusing to help their partners look after their children financially. The law stated quite clearly that “every parent – if they are divorced or separated and no longer share the family home – have a legal responsibility to ensure that their child or children are provided for financially."
The Child Support Agency (CSA) was formed in 1993 to enforce the provisions of the 1991 Act. Soon the CSA came in for criticism and attracted large amounts of negative coverage in the media.
Partly in response to this, the 1997 Labour government began to reform the policy and the agency. The government brought forward proposals in 1999 to simplify the child support system, which were subsequently enacted by parliament in Part I of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act of 2000. “These reforms included a simpler formula for calculating child support liabilities, based on a percentage of the non-resident parent’s (NRP’s) net income, new enforcement powers and the promise of a better service for the Agency’s customers." The new reforms came into force on 3 March 2003.
Under the coalition government, a new child maintenance scheme was introduced in December 2012, which was to be managed by the Child Maintenance Service instead of the CSA.
The public impact
The policy had a difficult start in the 1990s, facing widespread criticism and limited results. It was not until multiple amendments over time that positive impact started to be recorded:
- The operation of the CSA in the 1990s (after its creation in 1993) appeared to make little difference to the proportion of lone mothers receiving child support payments, which remained at around 30 percent during that decade.
- A study published in 1996 of the Act’s effects on 53 low-income lone mothers and their children found there had been no financial gains among this group. Furthermore, in about a quarter of these cases, the assessment process had had adverse effects on relationships between former partners or between partners and their children.
- As of February 2006, a policy evaluation found that out of 670,000 cases assessed as having a positive maintenance liability, just over 400,000 parents with care actually received payment, and there was a backlog of over 300,000 cases. Also, more than £3 billion of debt had built up. The report stated "only 30 percent of lone parents receive maintenance. Fewer than 15 percent of lone parents on benefit receive any maintenance through the CSA. There is little evidence to suggest that outcomes are any better than under the courts system it replaced."
- Procedures became inconsistent, and a 2013 report indicated that the Agency was dealing with 1,117,400 cases of which 875,000 cases were operating under 2003 Scheme rules and 242,500 cases under 1993 Scheme rules, and 720,300 cases were paying maintenance out of 885,000 cases with a child maintenance liability, a maintenance outcome rate of 81.4%.
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Weak
The main government stakeholder in the 1991 Act and in the CSA was the DSS. Because of the government's significant budget deficit at the time, there was opposition from another stakeholder, the Treasury, which sought to reduce public expenditure.
The 1991 Act was criticised for being "suggested, discussed and implemented in an incredibly short time with surprisingly little opposition". The government was accused of ignoring the doubts expressed by major civil society stakeholders such as the child poverty lobby and of failing to consult officials who had direct experience of collecting payments and information from the poor – the managers and staff of social security offices.
Political Commitment Fair
There is evidence of the government's commitment to the policy during the progress of the 1991 Act and the creation of the CSA in order to address the burden of child support, but there are no indications of the government’s willingness to spend political capital on the initiative.
The CSA was initially established as a response to high rates of welfare dependency among parents with care, which resulted in taxpayers rather than non-resident parents supporting large numbers of children financially.
By 1992, the issue of child support was becoming a major item of expenditure for the government. During the Thatcher era, the cost of child support had trebled to £6.6 billion, and was an increasing tax burden for the country. Existing family statistics also indicated a growing pressure on the system, so the establishment of a new body became necessary to replace the court-based system of maintenance provision under the DSS.
However, the creation of the agency was criticised as being inadequate, with claims that the CSA had been formed as a tax-alleviating measure rather than to improve the challenge of child poverty – which raised questions about the purpose of the CSA, and the government's commitment to its success.
Public Confidence Weak
The limited success of the CSA diminished its credibility with political actors as well as the public. "The Child Support Agency (CSA) became notorious for its disorganisation. Since its launch in April 1993, it has fallen some £3.8 billion short of its target for monies due from absent parents. Critics say that instead of prioritising the worst offenders they are simply picking off soft targets."
In addition, the CSA was criticised for being unreasonably tough on debt punishments, without clear criteria for choosing those that it prosecuted “Growing numbers of fathers are being sent to prison for missed child maintenance payments, prompting complaints that the sentences are disproportionate and undermine any chance of dads supporting their children.”
Clear Objectives Good
The objectives of the Act and the CSA were defined at the outset, but were modified over time as the initiative faced several constraints.
The Act took effect in April 1993 and aimed to:
- “Increase the amount of maintenance paid by former partners and thus curb the growth in public spending on lone parents
- “Tackle differences in levels of maintenance received by lone parent families which bore little relationship to their needs
- “Encourage lone parents to move from social security benefits into paid work."
The scheme was subject to a succession of reforms throughout the 1990s. The Labour government then introduced a new scheme in 2000, which simplified the old one by bringing in a standard child support formula, among other reforms. The new scheme was due to be introduced in April 2002, but finally began to operate from March 2003 for new applications and linked cases.
The initiative was implemented without extensive research into parents' attitudes or any pilot testing of the system. It was only after a few years of recurrent problems that several research projects were launched and reforms were put in place. "The Child Support Act 1991 had introduced a new system of child maintenance in 1993. However, the new system had been designed without the benefit of adequate research on parents’ attitudes and behaviour towards child maintenance. Both the Act itself and its implementation were controversial and compliance with the new regime was very low."
Similarly, there was no transition testing of the initiative or technical systems before the CSA's launch, which would have allowed to identify problems in time. A later paper reviewing the initiative concluded that the proposals set out in the 1991 Child Support Act would have 'substantially' benefitted from a pilot run. "Piloting or simulation runs would have highlighted the problems with the IT system, the difficulties of applying the formula, insufficient training of staff, and the naivety of the targeted time it would take to process a case. Isolated pilot runs might have also highlighted the degree of opposition and public unrest that the policy was likely to attract."  This was supported by Ombudsman Reports documenting the investigations at the time.
It was only several years afterwards that studies were launched to compile evidence and benchmark the initiative. Research conducted by Christine Skinner in 1999 was the first national survey. This research was conducted over an 18-year period and impacted significantly on the development of child maintenance law and practice throughout the period 2008-13. “This work and research expertise informed the radical redesign of the UK child maintenance system after this time, with a shift from a coercive, administratively imposed system to one that stresses parental negotiation and agreement. Equally, this work also influenced the development of a support infrastructure to underpin the new system’s implementation."
In addition, an evaluation of similar systems in other countries was conducted. "In April 2006 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) [the successor to the DSS with regard to child support] issued an Invitation to Tender for a project to undertake international comparisons of child maintenance schemes covering the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada (Ontario), Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the USA. It was hoped that the evidence from this project would contribute to thinking about the redesign of the child maintenance system."
The 1991 Act set out the CSA's basic principles, but the feasibility of the initiative was compromised because of the way it was managed, resourced and planned.
The feasibility of the policy itself was challenged from the outset. "This was partly prompted by a report from the parliamentary Select Committee on Social Security (SSC) in the years 1993-4. In their first report on the CSA they found there were flaws at both policy and operational levels, as they saw targets of relieving the tax burden as highly unrealistic."
Similarly, the staff assigned to the CSA had no experience on the issue or even of working in public sector. "Mrs Ros Hepplewhite was the pioneering chief executive, appointed in 1993. She was recruited from the voluntary sector and had no previous experience working in a public service operation. Around half of the 5000+ staff were recruited from the Agency's predecessor the ‘liable relatives unit’ of the DSS, and thus had worked under the inefficient and ineffective organisation that preceded the CSA. Other staff were recruited from the private sector and thus brought little public sector experience to the table."
In its first decade of operation, the CSA was unable to pay for itself, accounting for a cost of £200 million to the government by 2005.
The CSA was formed in 1993 following the provisions of the 1991 Act, and reported directly to the DSS. Its purposes were fourfold: “to trace the NRP, to assess how much he or she should pay in maintenance, to provide a collection service if required, and to enforce payment if necessary."
Some of the problems included: delays in processing maintenance assessments – for example, 19 of 53 lone mothers interviewed for a study of the programme in 1996 had returned their Maintenance Assessment Form more than a year before and the assessment had still not been completed.
There was also little information available to mothers on the progress of their cases, and when contacting the CSA they often received contradictory, ambiguous or inconclusive information. “One enduring criticism of the Agency has been that its processes and procedures are too complex, difficult to understand and therefore to administer. Partly in response to this, the New Labour Government set about reforming both aspects of the policy and the organisation of the Agency itself. The 2000 Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act aimed to reform the Agency primarily through addressing the problem of complexity."
The CSA did not consider itself to be properly included in the decision-making process of the activities for which it would be accountable. "The main issue regarding such a system was, and still is, that the measures and targets being set were beyond the control or influence of the Agency's managers. Targets were set by ministers and central policymakers and in the case of the CSA have been criticised for being ‘unrealistic as well as inflexible'." It was argued that ministers set unrealistically high targets in order to appease the public, without taking into account the operational aspects and liability.
Therefore, indicators and targets were partially ignored and remained unaccomplished. "In reality the performance measures were not being met and inefficiency persisted, indeed ‘inefficiency was freely admitted’ to exist by representatives of the CSA. There were seen to be ‘regular breaches of confidentiality [and] letters that were unacknowledged’.” The achievement of targets was very poor: both benefit savings as well as the number of maintenance payments secured were well below target.
There was inadequate alignment between government departments as to the aims of the CSA and a lack of clarity in its implementation, which also affected recipients. "The birth of the CSA brought many 'huge and unwelcome changes' (Jenkinson 2001). One of the key arguments that support this negative outlook... was that the CSA had been formed as a tax-alleviating measure rather than [an] attempt to rid the country of child poverty. This raises questions about the exact purpose of the creation of the new agency.
During its operations, there was little evidence that the CSA had provided financial incentives to encourage lone mothers into employment, mainly because the scheme could not guarantee them a regular and reliable income from maintenance once they no longer received IS. “Where lone mothers knew their former partner was likely to be unreliable, it was even more important that the Agency could offer a reliable, alternative route for maintenance. However, so far the Agency was failing to do this.” Similarly, a lack of accurate, up-to-date information given to many of the mothers on IS meant that they were largely unaware of how much maintenance they might benefit from, were they to move into employment.
Failure Foreseeable and Foreseen: An Analysis of the Limitations and Failings of the British Policy-Making Process; with reference to the 1991 Child Support Act, Leanne-Marie Cotter, February 2015, Department of Politics and International Relations School of Law and Politics Cardiff University