Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Reforming Child Support and including non-resident parents

Submission of the Shared Parenting Information Group to the Consultation exercise based on the green paper: Children First: A New Approach to Child Support. Cmnd. 3992. HMSO 1998


1) About SPIG (Shared Parenting Information Group)

2) Failure of Current System

3) Key Points for Consultation Process

4) Conclusion

1) About SPIG (Shared Parenting Information Group)

The Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) was formed to encourage and promote the continuation of parenting after family breakdown. We believe that it is of vital importance that wherever possible both parents should continue to fulfil their responsibilities by retaining a strong positive parenting role in their children's lives, with the children actually spending substantial amounts of time living with each parent.

Shared parenting offers children the opportunity to build up and maintain meaningful relationships with both their parents and there are a wide variety of parenting arrangements to suit a range of situations, providing for time-splits from 30/70 to 50/50. This overcomes the widespread dissatisfaction of children and parents with the artificiality of traditional contact arrangements - which often relegate one parent to the role of a distant and infrequent visitor.

SPIG makes its resources freely available via its website at and this has received international acclaim. The website contains a wealth of information ranging from guidelines for separating parents to sample residence / contact arrangements and Parenting Plans. There are also book reviews and references to over 300 articles.

2) Failure of current System

If there ever were any doubts about the failure of the Child Support Agency these have been abandoned. The debacle of the C.S.A is now clearly acknowledged by the Government. In the words of the Green Paper (the CSA) ' a system that is failing; it is failing children, failing parents and failing the taxpayer'. The essential problem has been that the agency did not deliver on its promise for any of the key stakeholders in the policy. Neither: parents with care and their children, absent parents, or the tax- payer gets a good deal. Mothers with care do not seem to be deriving any significant financial advantage as a result of C. S. A. involvement. In fact parents with care seem set on not co-operating with the agency in great numbers. Further to this, following C. S. A. involvement there seems to be a pattern of worsening relationships all round with ex partners falling out and fathers relationships with their children deteriorating. Non resident fathers have not been served well by the legislation either. Many are angry over the issue of contact and the costs of non-resident parenting. There is a feeling of injustice that a powerful agency of the state has been set up to enforce the mothers right to child support but when it comes to securing and enforcing contact fathers are left to fight it out alone in the courts. A further concern is the relative failure of the formula to take into account the needs of second families. It is also clear that the agency has caused a great deal of distress with one pressure group estimating that 45 suicides are directly attributable to child support legislation (NACSA News. Issue 2. 1998). From the taxpayers standpoint the agency doesn't appear to be giving value for money. The promise was one of hefty savings and a bringing to book of deadbeat dads to the relief of the exchequer. It is clear that no such thing has happened and that the agency itself has cost the taxpayer dear. There have been a string of official reports saying that the agency is failing to deliver on its policy objectives. The enormous amount of money being spent is seen to be out of all proportion to the maintenance yield achieved. In addition to this there is a high rate of non-compliance from fathers and mothers alike and collusion has been widespread. There are massive arrears of unpaid maintenance with no immediate prospect of collection. All of these factors have significantly damaged public confidence and made the case for reform unarguable.

3) Key Points for Consultation

a) General philosophy

One issue is the general philosophy adopted in the Green Paper towards non-resident fathers. In many ways a very positive attitude is presented and the document is peppered with references to the importance of fatherhood. Early on the Government declares, 'we know that children benefit from a relationship with both their parents whenever possible'. Gone are the absent parents of current legislation to be replaced with the term non-resident parents. The difficulties of maintaining contact are acknowledged and it is further stated that 'parents living apart from their children also suffer'. The fathers lobby will be pleased with this pro father rhetoric and welcome an end to the denigration of non-resident fathers, so evident in past Government thinking. Many will however be disappointed that the Government does not progress beyond the rhetoric. There is still no wider strategy for the inclusion of non-resident parents. The recent announcement by the Lord Chancellor's Department on Parental Responsibility and unmarried fathers was encouraging in this respect but some will feel that this does not go far enough. Many will say that in spite of all the enlightened rhetoric the story remains the same and that the contribution of non-resident parents is still seen primarily in financial terms.

b) Rough justice

A further concern is the rough justice criticism. The formula has been simplified and this will mean that the system will be easier to run, assessments will take less time to complete and so forth. The criticism here will be that this approach of radical simplicity will create many new injustices because there is no attempt at all to take into account individual circumstances. The Government may be solving the inefficiency problem but it may not be adequately dealing with the question of legitimacy. For the new system to work it must be seen as being fair. Many will argue that the new system is unfair. Allied to this point is the question of progression in the new formula. Under the new arrangements there would be no progression at all when the non- resident parent has a weekly net income of above £200. Below that level it is progressive to a degree. On a weekly net income of below £100 the assessment would be the £5 minimum and between £100 - £ 200 assessments would be reduced on a sliding scale. In spite of this many commentators argue that the weight of the new assessment would fall hardest on the poorest. (Brindle. CSA reform hits low paid. Guardian. 7.7.98)

c) Shared Care

The new shared care provisions will also be of interest. At present, there is no allowance made in the formula for shared care except where a child spends more than the equivalent of 104 nights a year with the absent parent. Under the new proposal, what has become known as the two-sevenths rule will be changed and allowances will be made when the non-resident parent has the child for more than 52 nights per year. In these situations there would be a one seventh reduction in the assessment. If the number of nights were above 104 there would be a two-sevenths reduction and so on. This is a clear acknowledgement by the Government of the costs of non-resident and shared parenting and will be welcomed by groups campaigning for shared residence.

There are however some areas of concern. The measure of shared care is the number of nights that a child stays with a parent, this is an overly crude way of apportioning shared care. It may be that a more sophisticated measure of shared care could be developed that would take into account care given during the day. Another worry is that in a situation where there is a 50:50 shared care arrangement and both parents have the same income, the person deemed the non resident parent would have to pay half of the child support assessment, this is plainly unfair and discriminatory.

d) Second Families

The position of children living in second families is also likely to cause controversy. This was one of the issues that beset the original legislation and second wives, in particular, were very vocal in the first anti C.S.A. campaign. The Government has signalled its awareness of this problem and, as has been indicated made two alternative suggestions about how allowances for second families could be built into the new formula. In spite of this many will feel that the protection offered for second families will not be sufficient. The Child Poverty Action Group has already signalled its concerns about the danger of the new formula impoverishing children in second families (Child Support Handbook 1998-99, CPAG, 1998).

e) Rules v Discretion

A major question is the conflict between those who support a rules system based on a formula and those who would like to see a more discretionary approach. Already there have been calls from opposition MP's and others for a return to a family court or tribunal system. There is a troubling tension between rules and discretion in family law (see Schneider C. The Tension Between Rules and Discretion in Family Law :A Report and Reflection. (1993) 27 Fam LQ 229). Discretion has the advantage of flexibility, whereas rule based system is unable to fully respond to individual circumstances. Rules based systems, however, are said to bring about efficiency and a strategic planning function, that discretion is unable to achieve. The current rule based child support system is one of incredible complexity, designed to meet a wide range of situations. Proposals to simplify the scheme may be welcomed by some. However, this simplification may be not be realised in practice, since many new layers of complexity are likely to be surface with a vengeance when the scheme becomes operational. Lawyers, who have felt left out in the cold, may also find that fresh opportunities arise for involvement in the new scheme. Linked to this point there must be some concern about the new stage three appeals tribunals. The worry is that large numbers of parents unsatisfied with their assessment would resort to appeal.

f) Reduction of Poverty

A final point concerns the role of maintenance policy in the reduction of poverty among lone parents. It may be the case that the amount of maintenance that can in any event be recovered has been over estimated. Bradshaw, in a cross European study found that in other countries maintenance comprises only a small proportion of the income of lone parents. (Bradshaw et al. The employment of lone parents; a comparison of policy in 2 countries. FPSC. 1996). in Britain it is the mothers contribution to lone parent family income which is low. As the mothers contribution has gone down the states contribution has gone up. About 70% of British lone mothers are on means tested benefits as compared with 10% in Germany. The problem for lone mothers of course is that they are caught in a poverty trap. To replace £100 worth of benefits they need to earn £178. This replacement rate is one of the highest in Europe. It may be that we have to look to solutions beyond maintenance policy to alleviate lone parent poverty.

4) Conclusion and Summary

Current Child Support policy is clearly failing and there is an urgent need for reform. The proposals in the green paper will certainly simplify the system through the flat rate / rough justice approach. The proposals are however unlikely to deal with the legitimacy problem and the feeling that the child support system is unjust and unfair. Progress in this area will require a complete reappraisal of the role of non resident parents and a realisation in practical terms, that their contribution to their children is not just about money.

It seems that the great hopes previously held out for child support policy as a cure all have essentially collapsed. The new agenda is likely to be more modest and realistic. Harriet Harman said that her proposals would be 'cost neutral presumably this means that there will not be a further burden on the tax - payer. One thing is certain, the controversy over child support is far from over. The argument seems set to run. If anything, the whole process illustrates the pitfalls and perils of involving law and social policy too closely in these delicate areas of family life.

November 1998

Last updated - 16 August 1999

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