Child maintenance warning for parents

Parents who fail to contribute to their children's upbringing have been told to pay up or face jail as figures revealed more than �50m was owed in Norfolk in child maintenance arrears.

Parents who fail to contribute to their children's upbringing have been told to pay up or face jail as figures revealed more than �50m was owed in Norfolk in child maintenance arrears.

Last night both the government agency which collects the money and a charity supporting single mums and dads condemned those who refuse to provide financial help for their youngsters, saying they were depriving their own children of essential funds.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, which oversees the Child Support Agency (CSA), showed just how many parents were refusing to pay up.

In December 2009, �52.4m was owed in child maintenance arrears by non-resident Norfolk mothers and fathers who had been deemed eligible to pay.

Of that, �51m was owed by men and �1.4m by women - although the CSA said there was no evidence that fathers were any less likely to pay up than mothers.

The overall total had risen by �300,000 from �51.1m in March 2009.

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The information also revealed 2,180 of the county's parents - or about 20pc of all those on the CSA's books - failed to make a single payment between April and December 2009.

Over the past three years - since April 2007 - 1,330 mums and dads missed every one of their payments, while more than 1,000 have failed to make any contribution since April 2005.

Last night the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission issued a stark warning to non-resident parents.

Richard Percy, principle legal enforcement manager for Norfolk, said: “Parents who are able to but fail to pay are depriving their children of essential money needed for their upbringing.

“For those parents who repeatedly refuse to accept their financial responsibility for their children, we make no apologies for taking firm and effective enforcement action - with the ultimate penalty being committal to prison.”

The CSA said, although in Norfolk child maintenance arrears had risen slightly, nationally the figure was dropping thanks to concerted efforts by enforcement officers.

A spokesman added: “The Child Support Agency has made good, steady progress in Norfolk over the past few years. Annual maintenance collections and arrangements have increased by up to 45pc since March 2005 and the number of children benefiting from maintenance payments is up from 8,530 to 11,610 over the same period - an increase of 36pc.”

Gingerbread, a charity supporting single mums and dads, said the payments -based on the non-resident parent's income - were often the difference between whether a family could afford the basics or not.

Spokesman Jane Ahrends said nationally child maintenance payments were responsible for lifting 100,000 children out of poverty while a further 100,000 youngsters would be helped if all parents with a liability to pay did so.

The charity, which runs a helpline for single parents, said child maintenance could enable a single mum or dad to get back to work, with the money being used to cover child care.

The CSA acknowledged, despite attempts to improve the service, some parents were still having to wait too long for payments to come through.

But it insisted it never gave up on cases and would never write off money owed by non-resident mums and dads.

The agency also pointed to its record on taking people to court for repeatedly refusing to pay.

Between April 2005 and December 2009, 1,180 Norfolk parents faced enforcement action with a 95pc success rate. That action can include taking deductions directly from earnings, bringing in bailiffs or a six-week prison sentence.

In addition, in 33 cases heard at Norwich Magistrates' Court so far this year the CSA has pushed for imprisonment - the most serious penalty available.

Enforcement officer Mr Percy said a reorganisation of system next year which could provide even stronger powers.

A consultation is set to take place over plans which would allow courts to impose curfews on non-resident parents and prevent them from travelling. It would also give the CSA the right to deduct payments directly from bank accounts.