Single parents in Scotland owed more than £182m

More than £182m is owed to single parents across Scotland in unpaid child maintenance, The Ferret can reveal.

The amount in arrears dates back 23 years with fears that much of it might be written off as responsibility for collecting payments switches over to a new system.

Westminster Work and Pensions Committee member Mhairi Black MP warned of the impact on children and called on the UK government to ensure that all money owed is collected.

“Child maintenance helps to ensure that single parents can still provide for their children and sadly the millions in uncollected payments will hit children the hardest,” said Ms Black.

“The UK Government must work to protect children from falling into poverty and therefore must take action to ensure that all outstanding maintenance is paid in full and on time.

“The SNP will continue to press the UK Government to take action to ensure that the support owed to children is paid.”

Uncollected child maintenance figures reveal £182,118,000 outstanding in the 59 UK Parliament constituencies across Scotland. Data was obtained by the Gingerbread charity under Freedom of Information laws.

Arrears include those owed since 1993 through the Child Support Agency and its successor, gradually introduced since 2012, the Child Maintenance Service.

Glenrothes, in Fife, has the highest amount of arrears with £4.6m outstanding, while Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Outer Hebrides, has the least with £865,000.

The CMS was hailed in 2013 by then work and pensions minister Steve Webb as “empowering” parents to make their own arrangements.

But it too has run into problems over uncollected maintenance, with a near three-fold increase in 18 months.

Government figures reveal monthly arrears across the UK of £25.9m in March 2015 rising to £77.5m in August 2016 as the number of cases rises.

It comes amid accusations from campaigners that the CMS is too slow to act with enforcement powers when non-resident parents fail to pay – leaving single parents to shoulder the costs of raising a child alone.

UK-wide data also shows nearly half (46 per cent) of non-resident parents in August this year had some outstanding payments, while one in eight (12 per cent) paid nothing.

Marion Davis, Head of Policy and Strategy at One Parent Families Scotland, said the variations are down to different numbers of single parent families from area to area.

Poor urban areas can have a high proportion of families headed by single parents, while maintenance can be difficult to collect because the non-resident parent can be struggling financially too.

Ms Davis blamed uncollected maintenance on a lack of powers for agencies and said historical arrears might be written off as the CSA is replaced by CMS.

She called for a zero tolerance approach with unpaid maintenance treated the same as tax avoidance and extra resources ploughed into debt collection work.

“They are big figures and reflect the fact the child maintenance not being collected is a historical problem,” said Ms Davis.

“Agencies collecting child maintenance have faced resistance and they haven’t been given enough powers.

“Child maintenance, along with benefits, is a contribution to family income, particularly for single parents who might be on jobseekers’ allowance who are finding it difficult to survive and get by.

“As benefits have been frozen or cut, child maintenance has become more important and to not receive it amounts to income forgone.

“The crux is that parents who have left the family home often have a good income but are not paying child maintenance. Of course, others have new families to support.”

One Parent Families Scotland has submitted evidence to the on-going Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into CMS.

A survey of nearly 100 single parents revealed:

  • 78 per cent believe CMS is performing poorly or worse
  • 80 per cent felt enforcement was ineffective or worse
  • 27 per cent said the £20 application fee deterred them applying for maintenance at all

“With the new CMS system, parents are being asked to contribute to the costs of the service which is making people really concerned and can be off-putting – which is very frustrating,” said Ms Davis.

Campaigners including One Parent Families Scotland are calling for a guaranteed system of child maintenance to replace the current voluntary arrangement.

“There are other systems in other countries,” said Ms Davis. “The present government is pursuing a voluntary arrangement where parents make their own arrangements.

“We’d like to see a guaranteed maintenance system, like in Australia, where the Inland Revenue take an amount of wages.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson confirmed historical arrears are being transferred from the CSA to CMS and existing enforcement powers included taking deductions directly from earnings.

“We actively pursue those parents who are not meeting their financial responsibilities and in almost 90 per cent of cases, parents are paying the money owed,” added the spokesperson.

“We have measures in place to ensure that no client will get lost when debt is transferred from the old system.”

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