Single parents are being pushed into thousands of pounds of debt because of a Child Maintenance Service that’s ‘littered with loopholes and unfit for purpose’.
That’s according to parents who claim they’ve been abandoned by the very system designed to enforce compulsory payment laws.
In many cases, parents – nearly all women – say they’ve been left unable to cover bills and living expenses because their exes have refused to pay their way, despite it being a legal requirement to do so.
The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) was introduced in 2012 to act as a “safety net for the most vulnerable children”.
Under the scheme, parents that are unable to come up with a financial arrangement after a break-up can have one enforced for them, for a £20 fee.
It’s part of laws that state all partners must contribute in the event of a relationship breakdown where children are concerned.
In theory it works, according to charity Gingerbread child maintenance alone lifts a fifth of low-income single parent families out of poverty.
But there are gaps – with £3.9billion currently owed to parents who, sometimes decades later, are still waiting for their former other half to cough up.
In the past six weeks, Mirror Money has heard from hundreds of parents who believe they’ve been let down by a system that appears to be failing to enforce the very powers it claims to have – to make partners to pay their way.
It comes after a National Audit Office (NAO) report in 2017 said that the DWP itself acknowledged around 75% of alleged arrears are impossible to collect – meaning while arrears will build up, this money may never actually be paid.
On top of this, while the ‘direct pay’ element of the CMS ‘forces’ the partner to make a monthly contribution, the DWP does not track these and therefore cannot report on compliance in nearly seven in ten of its cases
Former nursery teacher Tanya Matthews has been fighting her injustice for more than a decade.
During this time, the mum, whose name has been changed, spent £20,000 trying to make her ex partner pay his way for their two sons, 13 and 17, after they split in June 2008.
Tanya, now 56, said she’s riddled with anxiety, stress and has been in therapy for years.
“I’m full of anxiety, I no longer work, can’t travel, have had to remortgage the home I inherited from my late mother to pay my bills and have had to cash in my pension to cover our family expenses,” she told Mirror Money.
“Since 2008, I’ve been through three tribunals, one appeal, have written 15 letters to my MPs and had five complaints to the CMS upheld.
“I am now owed £91,534 in arrears and the CMS finally admit they can do nothing to collect these huge arrears as they simply do not have the powers to enforce payment.”
Tanya said when she speaks to her ex partner, he simply laughs in her face and says he can’t be touched.
When the CMS speak to him, he simply says he doesn’t have the money,” she said.
Tanya, whose life has been shattered by her experience has written to home secretary Amber Rudd pleading for support on a system she says “has let down some of the most vulnerable adults and children in society”.
She says the CMS won’t force her partner to pay up because non-payments aren’t treated in the same way as unpaid tax, for instance.
“My case has been to a tribunal three times, and it has been determined that he is a habitual resident within the UK and therefore within the Child Maintenance Service’s (CMS) jurisdiction; however, the CMS has been unable to determine where he is living. This means they cannot force him to pay.”
“I am basically trapped in a loophole.
“On 10 July 2018, the CMS said it was helpless as they could not prove his living situation. He was found to owe £77,857. This has since risen to £91,534.
“I appealed the case and in May this year received a letter from the CMS outlining further reasons for its decisions.”
The letter, which Mirror Money has seen, states that the CMS “does enforce its powers where possible”, instructing bailiffs to collect arrears, and forcing the sale of property where necessary.
It adds that new rules in December 2018 also gave it fresh powers to deduct child maintenance from bank accounts using a ‘deduction order’ and disqualifing parents from holding or obtaining a UK passport.
However, it goes on to say it’s unable to take enforcement action without a “confident UK address” for a paying parent or proof that they have assets in the UK. It says it is also unable to prove that Tanya’s former partner has a bank account in the UK.
In one case, she was also told by her local MP “that there seems to be no avenue for you to follow as long as your children’s father continues to avoid his responsibilities”.
Tanya now says the “biggest mistake” she ever made was to take the case to the CMS as more than a decade later she’s still fighting what feels like a “lost cause”.
Worse, when she asked to close the case and escalate it privately through the courts, she was refused, and told this would be “unfair and counterproductive”.
“During the tribunal I spent thousands paying for forensic accountants to help prove where he lived and that he had the money in his accounts.
“I remember the day I was at work when the CMS told me they couldn’t do anything and that I’d lost the case. I was devastated and I had a breakdown – which I’m still recovering from.”
Tanya’s biggest fear is that with her eldest son due to turn 18 next year, the CMS may close her case as he’s no longer a minor.
The DWP has told me that I will still be able to pursue backdated arrears after my son turns 18, but it’s already been 11 years, how much longer can this go on for?”
“What I’ve learned is that there’s a big difference between how the Government treats money it’s owed, versus what’s owed to the public, in this case the children. These are the people that will ultimately suffer from this unfit for purpose system littered with loopholes.
“It will soon reach the ridiculous point that my eldest son will reach 18 and I’m worried his share of the arrears will no be a priority. HMRC would charge interest and penalties for unpaid tax.”
Tanya’s case is not unique, we’ve heard from many parents who claim to be in similar positions, out of pocket and locked in a waiting game on the scheme’s database.
They argue the scheme – along with the Government’s latest raft of new enforcement powers – are merely part of a wider box ticking exercise. The reality, they say, is devastating.
“Regular child maintenance is absolutely essential to stability in a single parent family and the stresses of raising children alone is hard enough without the added worries of not having enough money,” Tanya added.