Fair for who? Child maintenance and family tests.

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that he wants to see all domestic government policies subjected to a ‘family test’ in future, apparently to ensure that families aren’t undermined or made worse off financially.  But does the ‘family test’ itself pass the test?

Initially at least, it may be difficult to understand why anyone would be against such an approach. Indeed, we have been arguing that government should pay attention to a wide range of policy areas, such as employment, benefits, and family support services, to reduce child poverty and help improve the lot of poor families for many years.

One concern, however, is that it’s unclear whether the proposed ‘family test’ applies to lone parent families, too.

The Prime Minister says he makes no apologies for backing marriage. But families come in all shapes and sizes – they all need and deserve the kind of protection that a ‘family test’ promises to provide. We hope the proposed test does assess the impact of policies on all family types - proposals favouring some family types over others are exactly the kind of flawed policy a ‘family test’ should be blocking.

There is no similar lack of clarity however when it comes to child maintenance. Here, lone parents have been hit by a recent policy change that appears to comprehensively flunk the ‘family test’.

As from last week, lone parents who are unable to make voluntary arrangements for child maintenance payments will now be charged in order to use statutory collection services through the Child Support Agency. Not only will these parents be charged to simply make an initial application for maintenance payments in the first place, but any maintenance payments that are collected will also be subject to ongoing deductions.

In introducing this policy the government stated it wanted to see more separating parents make their own maintenance arrangements, rather than relying on the state to intervene. We all want to see that, but in the real world that’s often not possible. Where the state needs to step in, it’s very difficult to understand why the parent with care of a child is in effect the person footing the bill. It may also force lone parents to settle for an inadequate private arrangement.

Further, as our recent Cost of a Child research demonstrated, for a lone parent family, even the basic cost of raising one child from birth to 18 years has risen almost 10% in the past 2 years, far in excess of inflation. The rising costs of childcare and housing, combined with falling wage levels and minimal uprating of family benefits have all contributed to this situation. For lone parents in employment, the situation is becoming tougher, and for those who are unable to work, the picture is stark.

That’s why we said, in response to the child maintenance proposals, that having these fees is a big experiment, putting thousands of children at risk if it fails. We risk seeing more, not fewer, poor maintenance arrangements, where children lose out.

Undoubtedly we will  hear more details about the ‘family test’ in the weeks and months ahead but if it’s really serious about helping families then it needs to help all family types and if it’s serious about improving policies then it needs to apply to all current policies, not just future policies.

** Those advising families can find out more on child support rules, including all the recent changes, in our new Child Support Handbook 2014/15 published last week. **