I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This Bill is an important measure designed to improve the recovery of arrears from parents who have failed to meet their financial obligation to pay child maintenance. It will help to ensure that the Child Maintenance Service continues to deliver a modern, efficient and reliable service that parents can have confidence in. The Bill plays an important part in that by getting money to more children faster to enhance their life outcomes.
I think that it is important that I offer my sincere gratitude to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, who, owing to her rock-solid commitment to her constituents, cannot be here today. It is an honour to pick up on her hard work introducing the Bill, leading Second Reading and shepherding the Committee. I am proud to be able to bring the Bill before the House again, and I am delighted that it has such received such excellent support from the Government thus far.
My thanks must go to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, for her work on Second Reading and in Committee. I am also most grateful to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove, whom I thank profusely for his support. The cross-party support throughout the Bill’s passage has also been extremely welcome, and I hope that it will continue.
For the benefit of those who were not present for the Bill’s previous stages, I will give a brief recap of its policy background and purpose. The purpose of the Child Maintenance Service is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance between separated parents who are unable to reach their own family-based agreement following separation. Once parents are in the system, the CMS manages child maintenance cases through one of two service types: direct pay or collect and pay. For direct pay, the CMS provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but the payments are arranged privately between the two parents. For collect and pay, the CMS calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent.
Collect and pay cases tend to involve parents for whom a more collaborative arrangement has failed or has not been possible to achieve, so paying parents in collect and pay arrangements are considered less likely to meet their payment responsibilities. We all know the difference that child maintenance payments can make to children’s lives—they can be critical—so it is absolutely vital that the Child Maintenance Service take action to tackle payment breakdowns at the earliest opportunity to re-establish compliance and collect unpaid amounts as quickly as possible. Where compliance is not achieved and the parent is employed, the CMS will attempt to deduct maintenance, including any arrears, directly from their earnings. Employers are obliged by law to co-operate with that action.
I know how much these matters can affect families, including children such as Caleb and Isa.
I support the Bill and the work that has been done to make it happen. Does my hon. Friend agree that it will make a massive difference for many families across the country? Many people, including my constituents in Watford who come to my surgeries to ask about this topic, will welcome the Bill, and I hope that other colleagues will support it in its passage through the House.
My hon. Friend is correct, as usual. Many hon. Members see people in surgeries and through casework with difficulties in accessing the vital childcare payments that help to support a child. Many people are dealing with delays, like Louise from Buckshaw in my constituency. This is an important piece of legislation.
Let me explain how the Bill will speed things up. CMS enforcement powers also allow for deductions to be taken directly from bank accounts, including joint and business accounts should somebody be self-employed, either in a lump sum or as a regular amount. That is a useful power when the parent is self-employed and taking deductions from PAYE earnings is not possible. When such powers prove inappropriate or ineffective under current legislation, the CMS must apply to magistrates or sheriffs courts to obtain a liability order before the use of further enforcement powers such as instructing enforcement agents or sheriff officers or even more stringent, court-based enforcement actions, such as forcing the sale of property, disqualification from driving, holding a UK passport, or even potentially commitment to prison for not paying child maintenance.
The Bill would amend uncommenced primary legislation —laws that have been previously passed—to enable the Department for Work and Pensions to take further enforcement action without the need to apply to a magistrates or sheriffs court. Instead, it would allow the Secretary of State to make an administrative liability order. This power, once enacted, would allow enforcement measures to be used more quickly against parents who have failed to meet their obligation, reducing administrative steps and therefore speeding up the process. While getting child maintenance to our children more quickly has to be of primary importance in introducing this power, it is also important that the Bill does not simply allow the CMS to forge ahead with its most invasive and stringent enforcement measures without some protections for paying parents who would potentially be subject to the liability orders.
With that in mind, the Bill and any regulations developed in support of it, would ensure that those important protections are in place. They will provide an assurance that these new administrative enforcement measures are appropriately considered before an administrative liability order is imposed. Using a process similar to this has worked well in respect of administratively authorised deductions from bank accounts over a number of years. This provision further clarifies the picture. Those protections will also ensure the paying parent has a right of appeal to a court by setting out in secondary legislation: the period within which the right of appeal may be exercised; the powers of the court in respect of those appeals; and for a liability order not to come into force in specified circumstances.
It is important to reiterate that the provisions being introduced in the Bill and the supporting regulations will not place any additional or unreasonable constraints on a parent’s ability to seek an appeal, while allowing the CMS to move swiftly and appropriately to enforcement measures, reducing what is at the moment primarily an administrative step.
As I hope I have made clear, the Bill is important to ensure that the Child Maintenance Service can make essential improvements to processes of enforcement and get money to children more quickly. I hope that we can all agree that this is an uncontentious measure that is worthy of support today, and I look forward to its making progress in the other place.
I congratulate Siobhan Baillie on her hard work in seeing the Bill through to its final stages. I was honoured to be on the Bill Committee a couple of weeks ago, and she already knows that it has my full support. Katherine Fletcher has been a very able proxy for her today.
In my office we are no stranger to cases related to the Child Maintenance Service. They are some of the most frustrating cases, because they often come down to exactly the same problem, which drags on for years and is nigh-on impossible to resolve: non-custodial parents who are not keeping up with their financial responsibilities to their child and are intentionally avoiding making payment to the receiving parent.
The CMS technically already has the power to take further action where non-compliance has become a persistent issue. However, I know from my casework that it is not that straightforward. It will often require a court order. Waiting for the case to make its way through the already overburdened legal system can feel endless—and that is when the CMS actually investigates the more serious cases. I have seen far too many that have not reached the enforcement stage that they should have reached months or even years before.
I have a case open in which a non-compliant parent was investigated and a court date was set, but they never showed up. The sheriff issued a warrant for their apprehension in September last year, but the letter I received from the CMS just last week mentions that only in passing; it does not seem to have been followed up since then. For someone like my constituent, the Bill could really make a difference. I have seen CMS statements showing the child support that my constituents are owed. Sometimes the arrears have crept up into the thousands: one constituent was owed £10,000, but no enforcement action had been taken despite her pleas.
Another serious issue that is allowed to continue while payments are not enforced is the re-victimisation of survivors of coercive control, domestic violence and economic abuse. Too many women have reported how their ex-partner has been allowed to continue to exert their control and abuse them by exploiting the system. That cannot be allowed to happen: there must be consequences for it.
I do not want to derail the debate by going into all the systemic issues with the CMS and the real need for its reform, but it is so important that we all remember who loses out when support is not paid. Too many people look just at the often fraught relationship between two ex-partners, but it is the children who are losing out. It is the children who are living in financial difficulties when they might not need to—innocent children who have absolutely nothing to do with their parents’ quarrels.
That is particularly true in the current economic climate, with all the difficulties that the cost of living crisis and rising inflation are presenting to households across the United Kingdom. The number of children living in poverty in this country is already unacceptably high, yet research shows that if maintenance were being paid in full just in cases in which the custodial parent is currently receiving no financial support from the non-resident parent, it would lift 60% of those children out of poverty.
The Bill will not fix all the problems at the CMS. It is the job of the Government to understand the root cause of the problems and legislate to fix them, but the Bill will make a real, tangible change for a lot of single-parent families. I am delighted to be here today to watch the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud get ever closer to making that difference.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie on introducing such an excellent Bill, and my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher on supporting its final stages in this House. It is a brilliant example of MPs working together to make brilliant legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has been an extremely doughty campaigner in this field of policy. The scene has been set for the Bill for more than the past decade. It is important that we recognise the work that the Government have been doing to improve the child maintenance system, from introducing the 24/7 digital service to supporting those who are trying to decide what arrangements are most suitable for their situation, and increasing the number of referrals to enforcement agents. The Bill adds to that work.
The CMS is a vital service that makes a huge difference to families who have separated. That said, the improvements in the Bill are welcome. We saw an excellent example of improvements recently in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill of my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, which I was glad to support just a couple of Fridays ago.
I am sure that I am not alone in the Chamber in regularly reading in my postbag about parents who use the CMS. I am always taken aback when I get the emails or correspondence from a constituent who is having problems getting a former partner to pay for child maintenance. They have an agreement; they have been through the courts, have separated legally and have maintenance support in place, but the partner not living with the child is not paying. It has always struck me when, no matter what arguments or problems adults may have in the former relationship, the parent who is supposed to pay for the child refuses to do so. It is the child who loses out and is probably not having a the relationship with the partner not living in the household, which adds to the further pain of a broken relationship between parent and child. I hope that the Bill may go some way to improving the situation between a child and a parent who does not live with them, no matter what the relationship with their former partner.
Some 3 million children across the country live in separated families, and 60% of those families have a child maintenance arrangement. That adds up to £2.4 billion a year in child maintenance payments. For the most part, the transactions are regular and reliable. However, in some cases—as we have heard, it is always the acute cases that Members of Parliament are aware of—regular child support maintenance payments are not forthcoming. For that reason I am pleased that the Bill improves enforcement measures against parents who have failed to meet their obligations. It is a sad state of affairs that we have to legislate to enforce parents paying for their children’s maintenance, but for the minority of cases, needs must. That is why I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for South Ribble for introducing the Bill.
Sadly, the pandemic added to enforcement delays for failed payments. It has had so many knock-on effects for us as individuals and as a society. Most of that was down to existing technical or capacity issues, be that complications with liability orders or streamlining who can facilitate enforcement. The Bill could come at no better time. Improving enforcement measures and strengthening the CMS will have a huge impact on ensuring that payments are collected in a timely manner. Clause 2 is so important because it grants the Secretary of State greater powers to intervene without the need to apply to the magistrates or sheriff court, and to ensure that CMS disputes are resolved in a timely manner. We cannot expect a child and the parent who they are living with to have to wait for the money to come through. In a cost of living crisis, that money can make a huge difference to a child’s wellbeing.
Replacing the existing requirement under section 33 of the Child Support Act 1991, the Secretary of State will be able to apply to the courts for a liability order. That will go a long way to reducing the backlog of cases and is very welcome. Likewise, there are clauses that speak to a parent’s right of appeal and steps to ensure that a lack of payment does not become an increased driver of child poverty. Much of the Bill deals with the way in which child support payments are recovered in cases in which arrears have accumulated.
I have no doubt that the Bill will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country who have to go through the CMS. Therefore, it is essential that we press forward with the sensible, thoughtful and practical reform that it provides. I look forward to seeing the legislation on the statute book shortly.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this morning’s debate, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for bringing this Bill before the House. I will first look for a moment at the Government’s record on improving child maintenance services, which I will comment on briefly before coming back to the Bill, because that will perhaps set it in more context.
Some 64% of paying parents using the collect and pay service paid some of their scheduled child maintenance in the quarter ending September 2022, an increase from 60% in the quarter ending March 2018, so there has been an improvement. Over the past 12 months, the Child Maintenance Service has arranged over £1 billion in child maintenance payments. The majority of applications are now made digitally, making it even easier for parents to access support for their children. The upgraded online account, “My Child Maintenance Case”, allows customers to access and maintain data for themselves. An increasing number of changes of circumstance can also be reported, and the 24/7 digital service “Get help arranging child maintenance” makes the CMS more accessible for customers deciding what type of arrangement is most suitable for them.
I am pleased that the CMS has brought forward the point at which deductions from bank accounts can be made. It is now making better use of deductions from earnings orders so that they can be set up much more quickly, reducing the time required to process those payments. In 2021-22, the Government made more referrals to enforcement agents than in any other year, and the number of liability orders applied for each year is now back to pre-pandemic levels. My final point in this section is that the CMS works with other Government Departments to improve the use of enforcement powers and explore the possibility of introducing new powers for cases in which people are wanton. That is the context in which I would now like to comment on my support for the Bill that is before the House.
The key points of the Bill are that where the DWP agrees that a person has failed to pay an amount of child support maintenance, and a deduction from earnings has not been possible or is not appropriate, the Bill will enable the DWP to make a liability order in respect of that amount against the person, rather than going first to the courts. The person against whom the liability order is made has the right to appeal to a court against the making of that order, but the amount of child support maintenance cited in the order cannot be challenged. Currently, the Child Maintenance Service aims to recover arrears from the non-resident parent—alternatively, the paying parent—within two years, and expects them to pay up to 40% of their income to clear their arrears.
As my hon. Friends, and indeed Margaret Ferrier, have commented this morning, the delays that currently exist cause huge problems for families. I have seen that very much from the emails and pleas for help that I have received from my constituents in Clwyd South, many of whom are involved in the receipt of child maintenance services. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to support this Bill, which will be of considerable help to not only my constituents but many other people across the UK. Like many of the Bills that we discuss on sitting Fridays, it seems to me that this one will make a really important change to legislation that will be of huge benefit to many people across the country.
Happy St Patrick’s Day, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Simon Baynes, and I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for initially tabling the Bill, and to my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher for being Manchester’s top hon. Member for Stroud tribute act. As everybody knows, she has a clear and consistent record on this subject, and it is very good of her to step in on behalf of our colleague, who—as she says—is committed to something else in her constituency, but dearly wanted to be here.
I also put on record my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, and the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove, for the work that they have done on this Bill. We often consider important Bills on sitting Fridays, but we do not see all the work behind the scenes to make them into functioning legislation after the Government decide to back them. It is a tribute to the Ministers that they got this Bill into good order.
It is a privilege to speak on this Bill because it addresses some of the key gaps in the current child maintenance collection system. I was recently asked whether I had a special interest in this area, and it will come as a shock to no one in the Chamber that I do not have children—my biological clock is ticking—but I am a child of divorced parents. I am very lucky, as my parents are happily divorced. They like each other much more now they are not married. There was never any acrimony in that relationship, but the truth is that around half of marriages now end in divorce, and some of them do not end in the best circumstances.
Although we rely on the best human behaviour for parents to come to an amicable arrangement, and many can do that, there will be instances in which it simply is not possible. With the best will in the world, interfacing with the courts, especially post-covid, makes it an almost insurmountable task for some parents to get the money they need to bring up their child.
I will try to be brief and to the point, because this is an excellent Bill that I actively support. The welfare of children will be drastically improved by this Bill. Delays in obtaining a court order for the payment of child maintenance have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of children all over the country. My hon. Friend Nickie Aiken made the eloquent point that this is about the welfare of children. It baffles me that there are parents who genuinely have a casual disregard for the wellbeing of their own offspring in the bizarre game they play with their former partners.
One of the Bill’s central tenets, enabling the DWP to make a liability order in certain circumstances without first going to the courts, addresses a key problem in the current system and is particularly pertinent given the rising cost of living. I welcome clause 2 and the administrative liability orders, which are an elegant solution to the problem of attrition whereby some parents can afford to wait out their former partners—I think that is extremely cruel.
I agree with Margaret Ferrier that it is incredibly frustrating to read about some of these cases. Some individuals exercise coercive control over a partner who then takes the very difficult and sometimes painful step to separate themselves from this person who has dominated their life so much, only for that person to exercise further coercive control by withholding the funds needed to bring up their child. I have dozens of examples from my own casework, but I will highlight just two.
Absolutely. We will be here all afternoon.
In one case, a lady spent 12 years trying to get payments from her former partner. Her son is now 25 years old and is a qualified accountant dealing with child maintenance cases. That is the absurdity of the system.
In another case, a woman had fought for more than 10 years and had six court dates before she was finally paid the £16,000 she was owed in unpaid maintenance. She was working multiple jobs just to put food on the table, even though her former partner had the ability to provide the funds her child needed.
I was pleased to support the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, as it takes into account the role abuse can play in this process. The two Bills are obviously different, but they have an underlying connection.
The two cases I have highlighted magnify some important points. First, they establish that delays in child maintenance harm children. Secondly, the Bill will help to re-establish trust in the system, as single parents will not have to battle for decades to collect child support. It is important people have faith that the system will be there for them when they need it.
I am proud to support this Bill, which will give financial certainty to thousands of families up and down the country. My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for South Ribble, and everyone at the DWP who has worked on this, can be extremely proud that they are doing something that, while seemingly simple, will make a massive difference to a large number of people.
May I first acknowledge that my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, who is not here today, has done some excellent work on this Bill, as has my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher in moving its Third Reading today? I was lucky enough to be called on Second Reading in December. Previous speakers have acknowledged, as would everyone in the House, that many parents are struggling because of recent price rises. I welcome the fact that supporting parents, both single parents and those who are together, was a key theme in this week’s Budget. Childcare provision has been expanded to 30 hours per week for children aged nine months to four years to help drive down household costs, as well as to give parents breathing space to pursue both personal and professional opportunities. However, I am aware of cases, both in my constituency and across the country, of parents struggling further because of a lack of financial support from co-parents with whom they no longer reside.
Parents have a duty to support their children, and that duty remains even if they are not the main day-to-day carer and/or residing parent. I understand that relationships and marriages can break down, for an array of reasons, and parents can often wish for limited communication with their former partner. But in the cases where parents look at ways of minimising child maintenance payments to their former partners, that ultimately means less money available to their children day to day: less money for school uniforms, for food and for extra-curricular activities, which are a vital part of developing skills for children at a young age.
My constituency is home to a lot of young families. One of these constituents, Nicola, came to visit me at my surgery in Croxley Green in April 2022. She is a single mother of two daughters and she came to discuss the difficulties she had experienced in getting paid fairly by the children’s father. What struck me most—this goes back to my point about how these cases can often punish the children most—is that there had been multiple instances of her daughters crying in school because of the nature of their parents’ relationship. Nicola told me about her frustration with the enforcement by the CMS; by September 2022, her former partner was in arrears by more than £13,000. Although the DWP have identified that there are issues with the amount the children’s father has to pay, it has highlighted difficulties in enforcement and delays in carrying out further financial investigations. It has now been a year since Nicola first came to see me, which highlights the difficulties I know many parents have in receiving the child maintenance payments they deserve. It is also a perfect example of how the DWP and CMS are somewhat limited in their powers in investigating and enforcing in these cases.
That is not to say that the CMS and the Government have not done a good job in ensuring that correct payments are made. In the past 12 months, the CMS has arranged more than £1 billion in child maintenance payments. In 2021-22, the Government made more referrals to enforcement agencies than in any other previous year, and the number of liability orders applied for each year is now back to pre-pandemic levels. The CMS works with other Government departments to improve the use of enforcement powers and to explore the possibility of introducing new powers for cases in which people are being wanton.
I welcome the fact that this Bill has been introduced and that it addresses the gaps in the DWP’s enforcement powers. The Bill will amend not-yet-commenced primary legislation to enable the DWP to take further enforcement action without the need to apply to the magistrates or sheriffs courts, instead allowing the Secretary of State to make an administrative liability order. That power, once enacted, will allow enforcement measures to be used more quickly against parents who have failed to meet their obligations. It is crucial that the system is built to ensure fairness for hard-working parents and, most importantly, that it supports the children, who in these cases are the most important. To support people such as Nicola up and down the country, I will be supporting this Bill.
In common with everyone today, I rise to support the Bill. First, I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for the work she has done on this matter. As we have heard, she could not attend today, so I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher, who did an able job in representing her. Some valuable contributions have been made in this debate, but I particularly wish to mention those from Margaret Ferrier and my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), because they have illustrated very well the necessity of this Bill. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Nickie Aiken also deserves fulsome tribute—[Laughter.] And perhaps a Locket or a Tune to help her clear her throat!
The Bill is largely technical, but that does not alter its significance, because it will greatly improve the process of enforcing unpaid child maintenance. It is an example of how a Bill can bring the House together to help some of our most vulnerable families. I believe, as do the majority of people, that it is parents’ legal and—more importantly— moral duty to contribute financially to their child’s upbringing. It is completely right that absent parents honour their child maintenance payments and that, when they fail to do so, there is robust enforcement.
In our country, people should never see paying for their children as an optional extra, but according to the last set of published statistics, 872,000 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements. The service saw an increase in 25,700 children between June and September 2022. In that quarter, it was reported that 61,500 parents—36%—who should have paid via the collect and pay service paid no maintenance. As a father, I find that a scandalous state of affairs and I am sure that all hon. Members agree it should change.
There are only six clauses in the Bill, but I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will recognise its implications, as it will help to get much-needed money to children more quickly. The substance of the Bill is largely contained in clauses 2 to 4, with provision to make regulations that will ensure that the powers are used appropriately and provide parents with the opportunity to challenge the decision if they think it is wrong.
Clause 2 amends existing powers that, once commenced, allow the Secretary of State to make an administrative liability order where the paying parent has failed to pay an amount of child maintenance. They will be able to do so, however, only where a deduction from earnings is inappropriate or ineffective. It is hoped that that new power will prevent unnecessary overuse in cases where there are more suitable alternatives. Clause 3 broadens the capability created in clause 2 by allowing the liability order to be varied if, for example, the amount of arrears on which the liability order is based is subsequently found to have been incorrect or where investigations reveal further details about the paying parent’s finances. Clause 4 provides for appeals against liability orders to the first tier tribunal, and amends the route of appeal to allow a right of appeal to a court, and provides for consequential amendments. Clauses 5 and 6 relate to minor consequential amendments and the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill.
To conclude, it takes two to make a baby, so unless a parent is deceased, it is perfectly reasonable to expect two to pay for a baby. The Bill will help to ensure that that happens, so I am happy to support it.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon and to listen to my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher expertly introduce the Bill on behalf of my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, who cannot be here today. I know how passionate she is about families because of her time in legal practice as a family law solicitor; how expert she is on such matters; and why she was a great choice to bring the Bill to the House.
Before I turn to the Bill, I want to put on record, because I did not have the chance to speak in the debate, my happiness and delight that the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill passed its Third Reading an hour or so ago.
I commend my hon. Friend for her work on childcare, which she has consistently championed in this place, to some considerable effect as we saw in Wednesday’s Budget. I know that the changes that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made will make a real difference to my constituents, to the constituents of all hon. Members, to new families across the country and, particularly, to mothers who want the choice of being able to go back to work and to be supported by the state as they do so.
This is a short Bill, but no less effective for that—in the best tradition of private Members’ Bills on Fridays. From reading my inbox and hearing about some of the cases that my staff work hard on, I know how important the good functioning of the Child Maintenance Service is to many families. When things go wrong, the consequences for the receiving parent and, perhaps more crucially, the children can be profound.
It is frustrating to see people refuse to honour their responsibilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, it takes two to make a baby, it takes two to raise a child and it takes two to pay for a child as well. While I understand that some parents struggle to afford to pay in difficult situations and when there is a change of circumstance—and I will always support constituents, whichever side of the argument they are on, in trying to make that case to the CMS—it is obvious that in some cases parents are deliberately and willingly choosing not to pay what they owe, not financially supporting their children and leaving the other parent, usually the mother, high and dry.
The difference that those payments make to children’s lives is critical. The Nuffield Foundation, a social mobility charity, estimates that as many as one in five single parents on benefits is lifted out of poverty by receiving those child maintenance payments, which means a better future for their children. Parents who receive that money, and in many cases rely on it, should be able to trust the system to move as swiftly as possible to help them recover maintenance arrears when that becomes necessary.
I pay tribute to the CMS’s work and the action it takes to tackle payment breakdowns at the earliest opportunity, to re-establish compliance and to collect unpaid amounts that have accrued. When that is not achieved and the parent is employed, the CMS attempts to deduct the maintenance, including arrears where appropriate, directly from their earnings. As we all know, employers are obliged by law to co-operate with such action, but unfortunately that does not mean it always happens.
Turning to the wording in clause 2, sometimes there are cases where that does not work, either because
“(i) it is inappropriate to make a deduction from earnings order against the person (because, for example, the person is not employed), or
(ii) although a deduction from earnings order has been made against the person, it has proved ineffective as a means of securing that payments are made in accordance with the maintenance calculation in question”.
That happens worryingly often, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is trying to address through this Bill. Under the current legislation, the CMS must apply to the magistrates or the sheriff court to obtain a liability order before the use of other enforcement powers, such as instructing enforcement agents or sheriff officers, or even more stringent court-based enforcement actions such as forcing the sale of a property, disqualification from driving or holding a UK passport, or even, in extreme cases, commitment to prison.
This Bill will amend the uncommenced primary legislation to enable the DWP to take further enforcement action without the need to apply to magistrates or sheriff courts. Instead, it allows the Secretary of State to make an administrative liability order. That will allow enforcement measures to be used more quickly against those parents who have failed to meet their obligations and will reduce the pressure on our courts, since I understand that liability orders at the moment take approximately 20 weeks. The simplification of the system will make it more efficient and get that money more quickly back into the pockets of the people who need it.
This Bill is of great importance in ensuring that the CMS can make the necessary improvements to enforcement processes and get the money to the parent and thus to the children more quickly. We must ensure that parents who are messing about, choosing to avoid their responsibility to their children, know that there will be sanctions against them and that the action taken against them will be swift—thereby not only putting that case right, but providing a deterrent to others who might be tempted to do likewise.
In conclusion, the most important thing is that any changes we make in this area should always have the children at their heart and should benefit the children in what can often be difficult and emotionally charged situations. It is important we have them at the forefront of our minds whenever we do anything in this area. This Bill will enable us to get the legal and the money issues out of the way so that we can focus on the welfare of the children.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend Aaron Bell. He always speaks incredibly well on a Friday, and today is no exception. It is also a pleasure to support my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, who has done such a lot of work in this sphere and done a wonderful job in highlighting this issue and piloting the Bill through Parliament. I give credit to my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher, who has also done a wonderful job standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. I would certainly not know the difference—particularly without my glasses on.
Child support is such an important issue. I was delighted to be in this place to support another Bill on the same topic towards the end of last year, the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, brilliantly championed in this place by my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart. The fact that there are two Bills on child support before Parliament underlines what an important issue it is and shows that reform of the system is needed so that, in the very unfortunate event of a family breakdown, parents—we must be honest, it is usually fathers—are not allowed to financially abandon their children.
Having children, looking after them and supporting them financially is a huge responsibility, and no one should be able to decide that they simply do not want to pay for a child that they have had. I am therefore very pleased that the Bill means a parent will no longer be able to get out of paying the amount of child maintenance cited in a child maintenance order by playing games, and in particular playing games with our court and administrative system. The Bill will be hugely beneficial to mothers who are doing the incredibly difficult but vital job of providing the day-to-day care that these children need: they will not have the continual, nagging worry about whether a father will pay his dues.
Failure to pay child maintenance has a massive impact on the families who rely on it, as is amply demonstrated by the number of cases and queries that appear in all our postbags and inboxes. I want to raise a particular case with which I have been involved. Quite soon after I entered the House, a lady came to my constituency surgery. Her relationship with her partner broke down, very sadly, while she was pregnant. She discovered at that stage that her partner had been cheating on her, and she has described him as an abusive liar. I cannot imagine the trauma that a woman must experience when she finds out that her partner is cheating on her while she is still carrying his unborn child.
My constituent’s ex-partner has never made his child maintenance payments consistently, apart from a few sparse payments here and there. He works full time, but as soon as the Child Maintenance Service sees that he is working on a PAYE basis for longer than a few months, he either changes jobs or claims that he is not working, and works “cash in hand” to try to get out of paying. He has also been convicted of breaking two non-molestation orders. He has been taken to court before and made to pay some money, but unfortunately as soon as the court has seen him make a few payments, the case is transferred back to the Child Maintenance Service and he very soon stops paying. Obviously arrears then accrue, and he now owes more than £10,000 in unpaid maintenance. He is living the life of a rich man, yet he supposedly cannot afford to pay for his child.
No one should have to go through what my constituent has been experiencing, and I am delighted that the Bill will go some way towards ensuring that parents do not have to go through it any more. Sadly, as we all know, since the CMS was set up 11 years ago, nearly £500 million of maintenance has not been paid. I am pleased that the Government have taken steps towards resolving that, and I believe that the Bill will continue to improve the position.
We have already heard some explanations of the two child maintenance payment systems, direct pay and collect and pay. It is quite complicated, but I think that it bears repetition. For direct pay, the CMS provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but payments are arranged privately between the two parents. That is, of course, far the most favourable way to proceed. Where necessary, for collect and pay, the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent, and pays it to the receiving parent. Collect and pay tends to involve cases in which a more collaborative arrangement between parents has failed or not been possible to achieve, or there are high levels of conflict. Paying parents on collect and pay are therefore considered to be less likely to meet their payment responsibilities and, indeed, evidence shows that to be the case.
Clause 2 in particular will assist in the collection of payments from unwilling paying parents. It provides for the Secretary of State to make a liability order when the paying parent has failed to pay an amount of child maintenance, and a deduction from earnings order is inappropriate or has been ineffective. The clause provides an assurance that administrative enforcement measures will be appropriately considered before more stringent measures are taken. As I understand it, in practice, that will mean that enforcement measures will be able to be taken much more quickly against parents who have failed to meet their obligations. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that in his summing up.
Clause 3 expands the power to make administrative liability orders by setting out in regulations provision for the variation of a liability order, for example, where the amount of arrears upon which the liability order is based is subsequently amended as more information about the paying parent’s income is obtained. This is important to constituents such as mine where the father has consistently lied about his earnings. Clause 4 gives the Secretary of State the power to set out in regulations provisions that relate to a parent’s right of appeal against a liability order. Those provisions will include the paying parent’s right of appeal to a court, the period within which the right of appeal may be exercised, the powers of the court in respect of those appeals, and provision for a liability order not to come into force in specified circumstances. The provisions in clause 4 will prevent court time from being used to consider day-to-day CMS business that can be completed operationally, again speeding things up. Importantly, the provisions will, therefore, not place any additional or unreasonable constraints on a parent’s ability to seek an appeal.
The Bill is important in ensuring that the CMS can make the necessary improvements to enforcement processes and get money to children more quickly. We must ensure that, when someone asks for help through the CMS, they get help quickly and in a way that makes them feel supported. We must also ensure that parents who are messing about with court procedures know that there will be sanctions and action against them.
This is an incredibly important Bill. It will allow parents in situations like those of my constituent to receive the money they are owed much more quickly and efficiently, and it will help to protect vulnerable children; I am delighted to see that it has support today from across the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who is not here today, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue and for her sterling efforts to ensure that children receive the money that they deserve.
We all know that being a single parent increases the risk of falling into poverty, and that is even more the case when an absent parent does not fulfil their maintenance obligations. We all wish it were not so, but it is, as we know; we have heard examples in contributions this morning and I am sure all of us know from our casework that there are occasions when the absent parent, usually, but not always, the father, will act abominably in seeking to avoid their obligations. I have certainly had such instances in my constituency—and not always, it has to be said, involving those on the lowest incomes.
Labour completely supports the principle that non-resident parents should meet their responsibilities for child maintenance and that where they fail to do so the state needs to step in to enforce payment. As has been reinforced this morning, timely meeting of responsibilities is crucial, because when payments fall behind and the parent with care has to take action and wait for payments, that can cause financial distress and massive psychological distress. So I, too, congratulate Siobhan Baillie on introducing the Bill and Katherine Fletcher on stepping up this morning and taking it through the final stages.
As my hon. Friend Matt Rodda, the shadow Pensions Minister, said on Second Reading, not only do we support the principle, but we recognise that enforcement of child maintenance obligations needs to be improved. This Bill will improve enforcement. It is a largely technical set of measures, but we hope it will make a significant contribution to speeding up the process by which the absent parent can be made to pay. However, we do not think it will resolve all problems with the CMS. Nor, it is fair to say, is it intended to, as I am sure Conservative Members would agree. I think everyone recognises that we are a very long way from having a Child Maintenance Service that ensures that all absent parents meet their responsibilities and that all families receive the financial support to which they are entitled.
As my hon. Friend the shadow Treasury Minister pointed out in the Committee that considered the Bill, last year’s report by the Public Accounts Committee concluded that, in the 10 years since the Child Support Agency was replaced by the Child Maintenance Service, there has been effectively no improvement in the system for parents, children and families. Around half of children in separated families—1.8 million children—receive no support at all from their non-resident parent.
We have heard a lot of stories today, and they are always about the very difficult cases, where people work cash in hand, or try to avoid things, and it is important that we pursue those people. We also have people coming to us who say, “I play by rules, but I am pursued all the time, because I am an easy person to get hold of, whereas some of the others are not.”
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is really distressing when we see these cases. After separation, often, families will find themselves in financial stress. Even so, many parents will do absolutely everything that they can to put their children first and to meet their obligations. They are of course very angry about the behaviour of those parents who simply do not play by the rules and who, as we have heard, do everything that they can to avoid those commitments—they drop in and out of work, create shadow companies, and conceal their incomes in every way that they can. They do so because, sadly, money is so tied up with emotions after a relationship breakdown that it is often used as a tool to continue to cause emotional damage to those families.
It is concerning that Child Maintenance Service performance seems to have declined over recent years. Of course, enforcement action was negatively affected by the pandemic, as staff had to be redeployed to manage universal credit claims, and the courts were closed. However, performance was already showing a worrying trend before the pandemic, with the number of liability orders in process falling from 6,900 in the first quarter of 2019 to 3,700 in the last quarter of 2019. Things have improved on the most recent data, for the third quarter of 2020, but, at 5,300, numbers remain far below the earlier level. Meanwhile, the number of enforcement agency referrals in process is less than half what it was in 2019. It would therefore be helpful if, in replying, the Minister could update the House on how the Government intend to address these apparent shortfalls in Child Maintenance Service performance since 2018, and reassure the House that this legislation will not lead to any relaxation of efforts to improve performance in the round.
Having said that, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud. I have no doubt that this is important and useful legislation and we on the Labour Benches give it our wholehearted support.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher for promoting the Bill here today. We have rightly heard many tributes to her during the debate. She has been a dextrous stunt double for our hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie. I can think of no better steward or co-sponsor of this Bill to deliver on these Third Reading proceedings today, and she should be incredibly proud of the contribution that she is making to the Bill’s passage. I am also most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I congratulate her on navigating the Bill successfully through its previous stages in the House.
I welcome the broad cross-party support that we have heard from both sides of the House during the debate. That has been reflected in the various contributions, many of which have been impactful and drawn on constituency cases brought to colleagues’ attention. In that spirit, I thank the Opposition for their support for the Bill and extend my gratitude to all hon. Members who spoke during previous stages of the Bill to highlight important points. I am appreciative of their insight. I pay tribute to the Minister responsible for social mobility, youth and progression—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies—who has so excellently supported the Bill through to this stage, and to my noble Friend Viscount Younger of Leckie, who has recently taken over ministerial responsibility for the CMS. He has undoubtedly hit the ground running and has been strenuous in his efforts to further improve the service that it provides. I know that he is wholeheartedly committed to continuing in the other place the support for the Bill’s important measures that it is my privilege to provide in its final stages in this place.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble highlighted so eloquently, the Bill is so important for securing money for children more quickly from parents who fail or who simply refuse to support them. We all understand how child maintenance payments can play an effective role in helping to lift children out of poverty and enhance the life outcomes of children in separated families. The Government are absolutely committed to improving the efficacy of the CMS. The Bill is another significant step forward to ensure that the right action is taken at the right time.
I know and understand why the performance of the CMS is a matter of concern for many colleagues who regularly deal, as I do, with inquiries from constituents who may feel that they are not receiving the level of service that they and their children deserve. However, the CMS has made and continues to make substantial improvements to the service that it provides to many of our most vulnerable constituents. It is committed to delivering service and support to the highest standard and is working hard to transform itself into a more customer-focused, digital organisation, which I am sure is something we all welcome. Although there is still much more we can do, the CMS should no longer carry the stigma with which its predecessors were associated.
That is where I would argue the Bill has an important part to play. It will speed up the enforcement process, which in practical terms will mean getting money to children more quickly, as many hon. Members highlighted in their contributions this morning. It will remove an administrative step while retaining an important appeal right. I understand that the appeal mechanism is tried and tested and works well elsewhere.
It is unsurprising that the Bill has received such a wide welcome. Ultimately, there is no disadvantage to anyone in speeding up the processes and removing the burden on them. The Bill will achieve that by ending the current situation, which requires us to get a liability order through the court. Let me put that into context: applications to the court for a liability order typically take up to 20 weeks to process, which means five months in which no tangible activity can take place to get money to children who are waiting for it. That cannot be right, and it is certainly not preferable. We also want to focus on reducing the burdens on courts as a result of the processes they have to work through, which we want to see streamlined wherever possible.
After the Bill comes into force, we will make regulations under the affirmative procedure, which will allow further scrutiny before their commencement. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble explained, hon. Members and their constituents can be assured that the powers will be used proportionately. The regulations will be developed to help provide that assurance. The secondary legislation setting out the appeal provisions in more detail will follow the affirmative procedure, as I say, so hon. Members will be able to vote on our proposals.
More broadly, we are looking at our enforcement processes and carefully considering how we can make the system work more efficiently overall. Hon. Members may be aware of the excellent work that the Department and my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart are doing to ensure that parents using the service who have suffered any form of domestic abuse will benefit from the additional protections in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, which went through its Report stage and received a Third Reading in this House on
In conclusion, it is to the huge credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that she has successfully brought the Bill forward on a cross-party basis and navigated its passage through its earlier stages, most ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble today. Let me also place on record my thanks and those of my ministerial colleagues to officials for all their efforts in helping to get the Bill to this stage and for the work that I know that they will do to help us take it forward.
With that, I am delighted to restate that the Government support the Bill and will continue to support it as it moves through Parliament. I wish it every success. As my hon. Friend Aaron Bell said, ultimately, this reform is about getting money to children quicker. It is very much a reform with children at its heart.
With the leave of the House, I take the opportunity to thank the Minister and Members on both sides of the House for their support. I extend my appreciation and that of my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie to the Public Bill Office and officials in the Department for Work and Pensions for their guidance.
I am very grateful for the cross-party support that the Bill has received. We have heard from Members from all the nations of the United Kingdom. I particularly give my thanks to Margaret Ferrier and my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Southend West (Anna Firth).
I would point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud who, as we have all acknowledged, has done so much work on the Bill, has legal training, so I will leave it Members to decide whether potential libel has been committed today by their suggesting that I could possibly be her stunt double. I know that she believes very passionately in this Bill, as do I, and it is an honour to pick it up. On behalf of people in South Ribble and across the country, I am proud to support it. It will make essential improvements to child maintenance processes and, importantly, it will get money to children more quickly. I wish it success as it moves to the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.