Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 2nd July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 4:15 pm, 2nd July 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation of these regulations, and all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly my noble friend Lord McKenzie; he always comes up with questions I would never have thought to ask, and they are always excellent. I hope the Minister had thought further ahead than I did—although I see someone running to the Box so perhaps she had not.

I very much agree with the points made about child poverty and the role that child support plays in helping to provide a platform on which single parents can build an income which helps lift their children out of poverty. So we do not oppose these regulations. It is important, wherever possible, that both parents should contribute towards the cost of raising a child after a break-up. An adult may leave their partner but they do not get to leave responsibility for their children.

I accept that the regulations are designed to provide a series of changes and clarifications to make it easier to collect arrears and maintenance payments under the Child Maintenance Service scheme. I will concentrate on a few specific points: the proposal to allow deductions for child maintenance to be made from universal credit where a non-resident parent has earnings and meets the criteria to be eligible for the flat rate; the increase in the amount, plus collection charges, that can go towards paying arrears; extending the scope; and the enforcement points.

The proposal to allow deductions of £8.40 from benefits for arrears in cases where the non-resident parent is no longer paying ongoing maintenance seems sensible. I can understand that for someone on a low income, £8.40 is a lot of money, but it is entirely possible that the single parent on a low income could also be on benefits, and both parents may well have suffered from the cut in living standards brought about by the benefits freeze and the other cuts in benefits. That seems to be an element of fairness that has to be addressed.

It is also very important that non-resident parents are clear that they will be chased for any arrears they owe. I ask the Minister for a broader update on this. She mentioned that we debated some child maintenance regulations last November. At that point the key thing the Government did was to write off billions of pounds of arrears from the old CSA system, and the quid pro quo for that, because we pushed them at the time, was that they would promise to pursue enforcement. This really matters because otherwise there is a moral hazard question. If a message goes out to parents: “If you just hold off long enough and don’t pay, in the end the Government will give in and write it off”, clearly that creates a disincentive to pay the money that should be paid for your children. So it is really important that we do not get back into that question. Ministers made the case in those regulations for a clean break with the old system, but that places a huge onus on them to make sure that arrears do not build up again in the new system.

I looked at the latest statistics and I am a bit worried. Since the new Child Maintenance Service began, a total of £259.2 million of child maintenance is unpaid, which should now be paid through the collect and pay service. That is 11% of all child maintenance due to have been paid since the service began. In the last quarter of last year, only 66% of paying parents using that collect and pay system were compliant; and compliant does not mean that they pay all of it but that they are paying some of it. So only two-thirds who were using the actual statutory system of compliance were paying anything at all. I may have misread those figures, but can the Minister confirm whether that is right? If the figures are right, is she happy with them? If she is not happy with them, how much difference does she expect these regulations to make to that performance?

The Minister mentioned the Government’s preference for parents making a private arrangement. We have been here before. Mrs Thatcher—as she was then—originally set up the CSA precisely because money was not being paid for children. People were leaving relationships and not paying money for their kids, so it really matters that the system works. Can the Minister tell the House what proportion of separated parents have a functioning child maintenance arrangement in place now, compared with before the reforms the Government brought in? I am worried that making people pay to use the system is going to be a disincentive, and that those who have to pay will struggle to afford it.

I have a few more specific questions. Can the Minister confirm when the deductions from universal credit proposed in these regulations will take place? It was originally intended that they would be introduced only when universal credit was fully rolled out. However, since that day seems to become ever more distant, can the Minister say if this is still the case? I see that during the consultation, at least one respondent suggested that the Government should not wait until universal credit was fully rolled out to bring in these deductions, but should start sooner. In their response, the Government said that they were considering it. Where are we up to on that? I cannot see from the regulations what the start date for that will be.

The other changes seem mainly technical or procedural. I will not pursue those, but I want to say a brief word about the proposal to amend the CMS’s powers of entry by allowing an inspector to apply to the relevant court for a warrant. Can the Minister help me on this? The department has used the 2012 Act to review whether they think the powers are being used appropriately, and whether they are needed. Clearly it thinks they are needed, but the only change being made is that inspectors will be able to seek a warrant to enter premises where they have previously been refused entry. However, in paragraph 7.12 of the Explanatory Memorandum, it seems not only that they may seek a warrant but that they must seek one, if they have been previously refused entry. I realise that we are firmly into geek territory here, but can the Minister say why we are going for “must” and not “may”? Why not leave it to the discretion of the inspector?

Can the Minister also say what evidence there is that this change is needed? What is the problem to which this is a solution? Have there been any complaints about these powers, or is it just that having used the 2012 Act, this was the only thing the Government could find to offer up in light of that recommendation? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.