Giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on CMEC’s cost reduction plans, the permanent secretary for the Department for Work and Pensions said that applying charges such as an upfront application fee and a surcharge on any money transferred between parents would reinforce that “coming to the state is the least best option” for those struggling to agree maintenance arrangements with estranged partners.
“Ministers’ conception of what is wrong and needs to be fixed is bigger than fixing the collection system,” he said. “The whole idea is to get parents to be more self-determining in the way they sort this out. All the evidence suggests that as soon as you put a third party in the room, relationships deteriorate and that is not good for the children,” he said.
Instead of intervening after family breakdowns to chase absent parents, Devereux explained, the coalition wants to help families to stay together in the first place; or, if they do choose to separate, to help them to remain on good terms and agree a child maintenance settlement. “The point is not to turn them away, but to say: ‘We’ll support you to reach your own agreements’,” said Devereux, explaining that if such support fails, the government will help parents to set an appropriate level of child maintenance and, ultimately, chase recalcitrant parents for the money.
Devereux also confirmed that the CMEC’s new IT system, which is essential to the planned £151m of savings and to implementing the new fees system, will not be turned on until it is quite ready. He was responding to MPs’ concerns that previous IT projects, such as the Rural Payments and Criminal Record Bureau systems, went live despite civil servants and ministers knowing they would not work properly.
“You are right to be concerned… We’re not going to hit the live button until we’re sure it works,” he said. “We’re perfectly aware of the history. We’re spending an awful lot of time looking at plans for testing”.