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10% of parents owing maintenance are untraceable

One out of 10 parents legally obliged to pay maintenance have either left the country or can’t be traced, according to reviews carried out by a special unit of the Department of Social Protection.

In cases where parents have been tracked down and forced to pay maintenance they have saved the State more than €3m.

Figures provided by the Department of Social Protection on the work of their specialised Maintenance Recovery Unit (MRU) last year revealed that 10,709 cases were reviewed and 1,098 liable relatives were either living overseas or could not be traced. In another 539 cases the liable relative could not be identified.

Following a review by the MRU, 3,263 determination orders were issued to relatives due to their apparent ability to make payments.

By year’s end 590 relatives had begun making payments, while another 51 relatives had begun paying the department directly. In the first instance the additional payments to the lone parent was, on average, €54.45 a week, while in cases where the money was paid to the department the average weekly payment was €61.85.

The department said as a result of MRU work last year almost €3.3m was saved — more than €390,000 in direct cash payments, and the remainder in projected savings through either disallowing One Family Payments (OFP) as a result of the maintenance being provided, or reduced OFP being paid.

A department spokesman said: "When assessing a One Parent Family recipient’s weekly entitlement housing costs, such as rent or mortgage repayments, up to a maximum of €95.23 per week, may be offset against maintenance payments. In 2013 One Parent Family recipients were an average of €37.68 better off as a result of liable relatives commencing or increasing payments to the lone parent."

The department said the MRU had pursued an increased number of liable relatives in 2013 including, in some cases those receiving a social welfare payment where there may be additional additional/alternate income. However, use of further evidence or an appeal might result in some people being found to have no liability.

Director of Policy at One Family, Stuart Duffin, said it was time for "an intelligent debate" on the issue of maintenance payments and recovery, as in some cases the MRU was "another sledgehammer to crack a nut".

He said the MRU was a "reactive" tool whereas an overhaul of the system could allow for payments to be set earlier in many cases, such as a Nordic model where maintenance can be recovered from wages.

As for the cases in which the relative was living elsewhere or could not be traced or identified, he said there were cases where domestic violence may have occurred, or there were reasons why the lone parent did not want the liable relative’s involvement.

Similarly, he said in many cases the liable relative’s economic circumstances may have changed, making it more difficult for them to adhere to previous arrangements made either formally or informally.