It’s emerged that independent investigators who handle complaints about the child maintenance system are taking an average of 16 months to start looking at them.
The government says the team responsible has seen more referrals since the pandemic. The single parent charity Gingerbread told NationalWorld it showed the Child Maintenance Service was “failing” and people needed to be able to rely on it to claim “every penny they are entitled to”.
How does the complaints system work?
The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates, collects and pays out child support on behalf of separated parents in England, Wales and Scotland - if they haven’t been able to come to an agreement themselves.
If one parent isn’t happy with the service - if, for example, there was a delay in processing their case or documents were lost - they first have to complain in writing to the CMS itself. They can ask for a review if they’re not satisfied with the outcome.
If they’re still not happy, they can go to the Independent Case Examiner’s (ICE) Office. It can suggest ways an agreement might be reached, and makes recommendations about what should be done to resolve the complaint.
How long does the process take?
In response to a written Parliamentary question by the Labour MP Stephen Timms, Mims Davies - a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) - revealed on Thursday (25 May) it was taking an average of 71 weeks - around 16 months - from the time a complaint was received to the point an investigator was assigned to it.
Davies said that in the year to March 2022, the number of complaints referred to ICE rose by 17% - while the number accepted for investigation jumped by 68%.
ICE received 1,153 complaints over that period. Of those that weren’t resolved to the parent’s satisfaction before a full investigation began, more than 80% were fully or partially upheld.
What’s been the reaction?
The chief executive of Gingerbread Victoria Benson said the rate of complaints upheld showed the CMS wasn’t working - and non-payment of maintenance had reached “unprecedented levels”.
She said: “Children have a legal right to be supported by both parents, and yet the service designed to protect this right is failing them. Since the CMS was established in 2012 over half a billion pounds of maintenance has gone unpaid and this figure is rising. Non-payment of maintenance contributes to the shocking level of child poverty in the UK”.
“Single parents must be able to rely on the CMS and the CMS must be effective in collecting maintenance owed to children. It simply cannot be right that a government service is responsible for leaving children in poverty”.
What has the government said?
The Department for Work and Pensions said ICE was “continuously reviewing its processes to reduce the length of time investigations take without compromising quality”.
It added that another 18 investigators have been hired in the last year “who will become increasingly productive” as they move beyond their initial training. Another five staff are due to join the team from July.
Separate legislation is also going through Parliament to make it easier to punish parents who fail to pay child maintenance. Under the plans, the CMS would no longer need to apply to the courts to take enforcement action.