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Debate (1998) - Some conclusions from the Debate


Some conclusions from the DEBATE John Ward - 04/29/1998

This attempts to identify key themes and conclusions from the DEBATE threads started late in march.

They are in a form which could probably be edited and shown to MPs, etc, to help influence the Green Paper in June (or whenever). (If YOU don't do this, who else is going to?)

I couldn't possibly take everyone's views into account (even assuming that my news-server received their posts, which isn't always true). There were getting on for 100 posts, some complicated, off-topic, even incoherent. There was massive lack of consensus. Therefore, I have allowed my own prejudices to creep in. (If you object - sue me!)


The concepts "Parent/Person With Care" (or "Resident Parent", or whatever) and "Absent Parent" (or "Non Resident Parent", or whatever) simply do NOT exist as two simple categories in our society. They are figments/fantasies of someone trying to write simple rules to be imposed on a different and more complicated world. They can lead, and HAVE LED, to massive injustices. They can't help but lead to fudges in order to cater for reality.

We have all cases from parents with 0% to 100% caring time, including some near the middle. (Both fathers and mothers can and do occupy any position on the spectrum). It is clearly completely potty for someone who cares for a child for 183 days (or nights, or whatever) to be significantly different in any way from someone who cares for 182 days/nights. How can the difference be worth more than a few pounds? Why is 3 nights a week sometimes called "contact", while 4 nights a week may be called "residence"?

Legislation should avoid any polarisation of parents in this way. Instead, we should focus on sharing of care, and reward it, and not push people into undesirable and self-fulfilling categories.


If we assume (Labour Party mantra) that a child should have the financial and emotional support of both parents, wherever they live, then a suitable basic rule should be:

On any day/night, a parent either cares for a child or pays someone else to. (It is not clear whether "day" or "night" should be the criteria - there are arguments both ways).

Payment is not a bribe to obtain access, it is a payment because of lack (deliberate or not) of care.

Where access has been decided by any means such as a court, it should not be to the financial benefit of a parent to deny the other access. (For example, a parent who should have access for X days per year should not have to pay maintenance for more than 365 minus X days to someone who breaks the rules, and the taxpayer should not make up the difference).

Qualifier: where one parent can't pay (no income) THEN the other parent should pay before falling back on the taxpayer.

There needs to be some way of linking access to maintenance. The current situation doesn't persuade parents to behave reasonably, and can't be in the best interests of the child. These shouldn't remain totally separate topics.


There MUST be no steps & traps at various points such as 103/104 days/nights, or 182/183 days/nights. (How can someone who has cared for 103 days/nights sensibly be judged to be significantly different from someone who has cared for 104 days/nights? How can it be worth more than a few pounds?)

Each step of this form is an invitation for someone to behave badly - play the system, blackmail the other, commit fraud - either alone or in collusion, etc. It can't be in the interest of the child for parents to be calculating "it makes sense for my ex to look after Fred tomorrow, but that will give my ex more than 182 nights per year so I'll pick up Fred and drive him back overnight".

It is very well known in the field of Social Security that steps like this cause traps which lead to bad behaviour and terrible consequences. There is no excuse for perpetuating this for child support.


Many parents want to cooperate with a maintenance scheme, and it should be as easy as possible to do so. Preferably they should not be dependent on a Government agency to behave reasonably. (Surely we have to achieve a society where behaving reasonably is something that people can do without help from the Government?)

(Equally, some people do not want to cooperate, even with a reasonable scheme. They should be screwed into the ground. But let's not confuse the 2 sorts of people).

There should be benefits, or at least no penalties, for parents who decide to work out what their financial arrangements should be and to make arrangements to pay. This should include the case where a parent has a change of circumstances which needs to revise the payment up or down. It should be possible to make the change immediately, and certainly not get caught up by a Government department for months.

The best suggestion so far about how to have a system which takes personal circumstances into account yet which doesn't impose unreasonable delays on people who actually want to cooperate is a "self-assessment, pay & file" scheme. The agency responsible for sorting out child maintenance can monitor the "filed" amount, and doesn't have to be involved in setting it.

A key to this is "reconciliation". In other words, you may pay too much or too little for a while, but eventually the whole lot is balanced to the last pound/euro. Errors are not permanent, they get corrected eventually. This will take a lot of the anger out of the system.

(A side effect of this policy is that adjusting your circumstances TEMPORARILY for best effect WILL NOT WORK! You may arrange a few weeks of payslips which appear to show a low wage, but the reconciliation will be based on the total over, say, a year, and so will ignore a few ups and downs. Any really good fair scheme will reward the cooperative people but screw or cancel-out the ones who play the system!)

The suggestion is for reconciliation at 3, 6, 12, 24, 36, ... months.


A maintenance account is a special new type of account set up especially to enable cooperating people to transfer maintenance payments under their own steam, while having evidence that they are doing so.

Imagine the Midlands Bank (used by the CSA) offering a maintenance account. It might charge £20 per year, or offer it free to someone with a cheque account with the bank. (Obvious marketing opportunities).

The account would include a "contract" which the separated parents would sign, saying that it was for the purpose of child support/maintenance. This OUGHT to be accepted by the CSA. (If there is doubt, the bank would come to an agreement with the CSA over the words, etc). Being a private sector bank, there would be no problems with setting it up very rapidly after separation - no waiting for Government to react.

The agreement would include full statements, which could be used to prove to Benefits Agency and CSA what was being transferred. So means-tested benefits and maintenance payments should be easier to process - this is not attempting to bypass the system where benefits are adjusted according to maintenance payments (or any other scheme), it simply enables payment to happen without relying on the Government or risking disbelief and penalties later.

Payment could start very soon after separation. The PWC could rapidly get a flow of money. The AP could do the right thing with the child, and also be avoiding arrears later (and keep in the PWC's good books, which can be useful). The bank could offer advice on how to calculate the right amount ("sort of") or point to the NACSA site. The receiver could obtain money by direct debit or hole-in-the-wall, etc.

The ability of the payer (AP, say) to vary the amount easily (compared with DEO, direct debit, or tax) would avoid the massive delay in changes of circumstances and trying to correct errors. APs who tried to pull a fast one would pay eventually, for example in interest charges on the difference or penalties (just as for tax - penalties could start at £100, then escalate). There would be reconciliation at 3 months, 6, 12, 24, 36, etc. This wouldn't just mean getting the amount right for the future, but would mean getting the totals correct so far.

(Getting a clear balance over the whole of the history of payment is very important - apparently-random adjustments with inadequate financial statements are intolerable and inexcusable in today's financial-services-aware society. EVERY bank etc can sort this out, so any Government department should also).


There is a widespread view of the need to take some personal or relevant circumstances into account. A flat rate (say X% of wages from one parent to the other) nearly always has significant problems, both for individuals AND for society.

The most obvious problem for society and children is that if the time spent sharing care is ignored, then there is a discouragement to spend time caring for the child. It costs extra money to do so (meals, pocket money, etc), and doesn't reduce the fixed maintenance payment. And why should that parent pay money for that day when no-one else is caring for the child? This is pretty potty! Some parents will still share care even though it costs them to do so, but let's not put financial obstacles in their way, and let's preferably encourage them.

At the very least, the payment formula has to take into account the sharing of care. It may take other things into account as well, but that deserves a separate discussion.

Therefore, a simple scheme for paying a flat rate via tax can be seen to be an anti-care, anti-child, policy. (The only body which gains is Government administration - but how should that stack up against the interests of the child?)


Any system involving significant amounts of people's income should react in approximately the same time as wages/salary, etc. About 1 month at the most, and preferably 2 weeks.

It is not acceptable for the scheme to slip to greater times than this while claiming "reasonable endeavours". A scheme that takes (say) 12 weeks has to be a different sort of scheme from one taking 4 weeks. It is intolerable to have a system designed on the assumption that it will react within very few weeks (which might make temporary errors tolerable) which then takes many times that to react - such a system would not have been agreed in the first place.

So if the scheme will take a significant delay, a means of catering for the intervening time should be available - see "self assessment, etc" and "maintenance account" above. It is probably best to build in such schemes from the start, and avoid any pressure for rapid response.


There are 2 separate problems here which keep getting merged:

1: There is the problem of what happens to people who are ALREADY in a situation which would be screwed up by such a scheme. These are people who planned their life on one set of assumptions, and who may find that the assumptions are wrong and they may need to adopt a completely different lifestyle at massive total cost.

2: There is the problem of the set of principles that society makes for people IN FUTURE, which may include the suggestion that people who have separated and have (possibly enforced) commitments to their previous families may HAVE to delay or cancel the creation of a second family. (People typically don't assume they can accumulate descendants while in an unseparated family without vast cost and deprivation and possible hardship, so why should they assume they can do so when separated?)

If the legislation is intended to achieve some form of social engineering (which is very likely with the current Government, which is massively into social engineering), then it HAS to solve "2". There is no point in fighting this - it WILL happen.

The trick is to see how it can solve "1" as well. Perhaps it needs some temporary concessions (equivalent to the "clean break concessions"). Legislation should at least identify the 2 cases and state what is happening to cater for both of them.


There is no consensus. It MUST encourage care, but apart from that a separate debate may be needed.

Page last updated: 17 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003