Critics are saying that more than 20 years after it was created, the Child Support Agency is driving people to suicide. The most recent case is that of Ian Sandywell, who hanged himself after he received a demand to pay £11,000 in child maintenance arrears for his son who is now 22. Mr Sandywell worked in car sales and had paid maintenance for 13 years following a divorce in 2001, far from a feckless father. When giving evidence at his inquest, Mr Sandywell’s second wife, now his widow, said there had been other warnings letters but the last one was for the highest amount and was the most threatening in its tone. She said that the CSA had been unsupportive and inconsistent.
Writing in a column for the Express newspaper, Ann Widdecombe said that during her time as an MP she had many people approach her with issues regarding the CSA. She stated that none of the complainants had ever disputed paying maintenance, but that most of them were driven to the brink of ‘insanity’ by the changing nature of the demands, flow of letters and constant forms. The smallest change in circumstances results in a re-assessments, followed by a demand on arrears based on the new assessment. Most of the people complaining just wanted to have consistency and understanding.
Widdecombe believes that the CSA makes assumptions that any separated father does not want to provide for his child, even if the divorce was the wife’s fault. She added that a man marries in the belief that he will be supporting his family in one house, only to find that the marriage breaks down and he is left trying to run two homes on the same amount of pay. Widdecombe states that a man in this situation needs to experience stability from the CSA, to know exactly what he is paying and when. She also speaks of her distress that the real child maintenance avoiders who the law is for are still getting away with not paying it- living ‘under society’s radar’ by not registering on the electoral register and working for cash in hand.
Of the constant reassessments, Widdecombe says that she once advised someone who had received five assessments for various sums in three months, without any changes in his circumstances. The man could rarely get through to the CSA on the phone and when he did, he was unable to speak to the same person.
Perhaps as a result of the criticism, the Child Support Agency is gradually dismantling and transferring its cases over to the Child Maintenance Service, which was set up in 2012. The CSA no longer accepts new cases and any ongoing cases will be transferred to the CMS. You will receive a letter advising you of what to do if your case is due to be transferred. The CMS hasn’t escaped criticism, with some people saying that its collect and pay service is unfair, or that arrears aren’t being chased up properly.
To find out more about child maintenance, call the CSA contact number.