Western Mail, 12th June 2010
NEARLY 15,000 more children in Wales are receiving child maintenance payments than five years ago.

Official figures from the Child Support Agency show 78% of children who are eligible for support are now receiving payments, up from 62% in 2005, with nearly 50,000 children who are living in separated families in Wales now receiving child maintenance.

Only one in five parents with a liability for child maintenance failed to make a payment during the three months to March 2010, compared to more than a third failing to take financial responsibility for their sons or daughters five years ago.

A willingness by the Child Support Agency, part of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, to take tough enforcement action against parents who fail to take financial responsibility for their children may be behind the increase in payments, according to experts.

Steve Harrison, the senior legal enforcement team leader for Wales, said: “It’s a growing area for the agency where an aim is to get to people who are not prepared to pay for their children much quicker, getting them to make regular payments.

“We’ve been able to deal with more cases. There’s less chance of people evading us.

“It is having a change to the culture – as the man down the pub says ‘They took my house off me’.

“It does contribute to the idea you can’t evade paying for your children.”

Enforcement action generally starts when letters and phone calls asking for child maintenance have been ignored. Steps include deductions from earnings, bailiff action and bank accounts been frozen.

During the past year five people in Wales have been sent to prison for not paying their child maintenance and a further 55 people received suspended sentences.

Five non-resident parents could be forced to sell their homes if they do not comply with orders to pay arrears they owe their children. In one case, a non-resident parent living near Cardiff was forced to sell their home to raise £10,500 for their children.

Mr Harrison said: “A lot of people realise if they’re about to lose their home, or a second home, they’re in the last-chance saloon as far as the Child Support Agency is concerned.

“During the 18 months that we’ve been using these orders, we’ve referred about 450 cases across the UK but we’ve only had to take possession of a handful of homes.”

Changes to the way the child maintenance system works have meant that from April this year parents claiming out-of-work benefits have been able to keep all of their child maintenance without it affecting the amount of benefits they receive.

Since October 2008, parents who are on benefits are no longer compelled to use the Child Support Agency and have the choice of setting up a private arrangement instead.

A free national information and support service Child Maintenance Options was also launched to help parents make informed choices about child maintenance.

A CSA spokesman said the scheme was receiving about 1,000 calls a day and had led to the setting up of 60,000 private maintenance arrangements.

He said: “We’ve got examples of dads who’ve been able to re-establish a better relationship with their children because they’re providing for them voluntarily.”

From 2011, the agency will introduce a new statutory maintenance scheme, based on latest available tax year information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

But Rhian Howells, partner at Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, said the experience of the firm’s clients was that the changes were having little impact on the ground.

She said: “A lot of our clients have had a bad experience.

“They’re taking a long time and they’re still making mistakes with the calculations.”