Published on 26 March, 2024 | Katie Welton-Dillon

When it comes to family life in England and Wales, change is something of a constant.

Yet the rate and type of change is very much dependent on a number of different circumstances.

The impact of household finances, for instance, has been demonstrated afresh by new data published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

It has revealed that during the financial year ending in April 2023, there were 2.4 million separated families in Britain with 3.8 million dependent children (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/separated-families-statistics-april-2014-to-march-2023/separated-families-statistics-april-2014-to-march-2023).

Both are significant values but, even so, represent a drop on the figures recorded during the previous 12 months.

One of the possible explanations for this, I believe, is that 2022 saw a rise in the cost of living start to bite.

Economic pressures have also been cited as one of the reasons why the most recent divorce figures were almost 30 per cent down on the year before  (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2022).

Both sets of data bear out a pattern which myself and my colleagues have seen in recent years.

Lockdown, for instance, may not have prevented relationships falling apart but it did stop many of the people involved from going their separate ways – quite literally, in fact, when the measures designed to limit the spread of Covid were being enforced most rigorously.

Even though the number of separations increased once the world returned to normality, there has since been something of a return to earlier levels – at least, before economic turbulence struck.

We can’t tell from the DWP statistics how many of the families who broke up in the last financial year were married, civil partners or cohabiting.

What we do know is that 59 per cent of those couples whose splits were recorded by the Department subsequently put a child maintenance arrangement in place.

That might seem a relatively low number but there are many individuals who manage to agree on child support without utlising the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

Nevertheless, the most recent CMS’ figures indicated that almost one million children were dealt with under its arrangements by September last year – an increase of 25,000 in only three months (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/child-maintenance-service-statistics-data-to-september-2023/child-maintenance-service-statistics-data-to-september-2023).

An agreement doesn’t necessarily mean, it should be said, that maintenance is paid.

Out of 180,000 parents due to pay maintenance via the CMS in September, 97,000 paid only some of the scheduled amounts or none at all.

That is why a briefing published by the House of Commons’ Library last month showed that the total amount of maintenance arrears last autumn stood at just over £590 million – a rise of 145 per cent in five years (https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7774/CBP-7774.pdf).

An earlier piece of research by the National Audit Office (NAO) forecast that the shortfall was so acute that it could exceed £1 billion by 2031 (https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Child-Maintenance.pdf).

It should be said that the CMS has powers to enforce payment, including having non-payers jailed.

The Service’s own data tells how 14 individuals have been handed immediate custodial sentences since 2019 with a further 998 people given suspended prison terms during the same period.

They are figures which prove that some non-payers at least are not allowed to escape their parental obligations.

Those penalties are only the result of a significant effort and no little time, during which dependent children go without very necessary financial support.

Unless the maintenance collection and enforcement process can be accelerated, there is a very real risk that more families will find themselves in a straitened situation at a time when household finances are already stretched.

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