Amendment 158

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 8 February 2021.

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Baroness Burt of Solihull:

Moved by Baroness Burt of Solihull

158: After Clause 72, insert the following new Clause—“Guidance: child maintenance (1) The Secretary of State must issue guidance relating to the payment of child maintenance where the person with care of the child is a victim of domestic abuse.(2) Guidance issued under this section must take account of—(a) the potential for the withholding or reducing of child maintenance to constitute economic abuse under section 1(4) of this Act;(b) the need for enforcement action to prevent non-payment; and(c) the difficulties faced by victims of domestic abuse in obtaining evidence to support an application for a variation of a child maintenance calculation.(3) The Child Maintenance Service must have regard to any guidance issued under this section when exercising a function to which the guidance relates. (4) Before issuing guidance under this section, the Secretary of State must consult—(a) the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and(b) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(5) The Secretary of State must publish any guidance issued under this section.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the Child Maintenance Service to tackle the problem of abusers continuing economic abuse by withholding or reducing child maintenance payments.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for adding her support to this amendment, in which we return to the issue of economic coercive control, which we explored in today’s group 7, this time in respect of child support payments, which help with the cost of raising the child and can be used for everything from daily subsistence to helping to provide a home. They are vital for the security of a child who is often the victim of abuse himself.

When domestic abuse has occurred and the partners have separated, getting money out of the abuser for child maintenance and other things can, as we have already heard, be difficult and dangerous. The abuser will have the instrument of non-payment as a further tool of economic abuse, despite the fact that not only the ex-partner will suffer but so too will the children for whose benefit the payment is made. Child maintenance arrangements can be organised privately, through the government-run Child Maintenance Service or, more rarely, through a court order. When I was an MP in 2005 to 2015, in quite an affluent area, failure to pay child maintenance was a frequent issue that came up in my surgery. The Child Maintenance Service was severely criticised for failing to enforce payments to the parent with care, and for slowness to act and to process claims. Therefore, when looking at the Commons discussion on this amendment, which was raised by my honourable friend Christine Jardine, I was glad to read that the Minister, Alex Chalk, asserted that matters regarding the CMS’s performance had improved. That is great news, and I commend the Government on the work they have done with input from Women’s Aid and other charities to improve matters, and particularly on issuing a fee waiver in 2017 for survivors of domestic abuse who apply to the CMS for help. However, that fee waiver needs to be better publicised. Many victims are unaware of it.

I also welcome other improvements that the Government have introduced, including avoiding the risk of abuse as a result of having to give up new personal details, such as bank details, when setting up direct payments. However, parents often discover that banks and even CMS staff are unaware of some provisions, including non-geographic-specific bank accounts, which would avoid having to reveal the victim’s location to the perpetrator. These improvements can work only if people know about them.

Domestic violence can be a barrier to setting up child maintenance arrangements at all, with an estimated one in four receiving parents citing domestic violence as their reason for not going to the CMS for help. So many survivors are still trapped, facing the unenviable choice of applying for financial support and risking further abuse, or avoiding abuse and facing financial hardship. We know that many parents covered by the CMS, even with all the improvements to the service, still fail to pay.

In his response to Christine Jardine, Alex Chalk points to improvements in compliance with the collect and pay service, which has risen between 2017 to 2019 from 57% to 68%. But that is still nearly one-third of victims whom the system is still failing. Victims can report the perpetrator and come into the collect and pay service, but many are fearful of doing this for fear of inflaming tensions with an ex-partner who will then face hefty collection charges if the CMS steps in. The Government have made some good steps in a horrendously difficult situation but, despite their claims of not only issuing some guidance and some training, the system could do better. That is why, in further consultation with charities such as Women’s Aid, the Government should look again at how this group of victims can get their lives, their children’s lives and their economic freedom back. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 10:15, 8 February 2021

My Lords, I shall speak briefly on this, as I think that the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, is one of those that would help to close a little gap in the whole issue. When people think about domestic abuse, they often think about physical abuse, and perhaps about emotional and mental abuse, but tackling economic abuse is just as important if we are to stamp out domestic abuse.

I have signed this amendment, as it is important that the child maintenance system is not misused as a tool of abuse. Domestic abusers must not be allowed to continue their domestic abuse by withholding or reducing their financial support for children. This amendment, like so many of those tabled to this Bill, is a reminder of how multifaceted domestic abuse is, and how abusers will exploit any opportunity they possibly can. We must deny them those opportunities and punish them for what they do.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Amendment 158 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the Child Maintenance Service to tackle the problem of abusers continuing economic abuse by withholding or reducing child maintenance payments. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said, we have just had a debate on the issue of economic abuse post separation, and one of the examples given of such abuse was through the perpetrator failing to pay child maintenance.

Child maintenance is an essential source of income for many single parents in enabling them to meet their children’s basic needs, including food and clothing, and is of particular importance to victims and survivors of economic abuse, who often rely on such payments for economic stability after leaving a perpetrator. Perpetrators of economic abuse are only too aware of this, however, and withholding or unreliably paying child maintenance can be a way in which they continue to control victims and survivors, including post separation. This issue does seem to highlight the importance of agencies such as the Child Maintenance Service that provide front-line services carrying out training to recognise and respond to economic abuse, as a means of domestic abuse, as part of how they operate.

Economic abuse perpetrated through child maintenance is not new, of course; it has been used by perpetrators for some time. However, the coronavirus seems to have exacerbated the situation through providing perpetrators with increased opportunities to interfere with child maintenance payments. During the present pandemic, it has been reported that the Department for Work and Pensions has redeployed a number of Child Maintenance Service staff in order to deal with the spike in universal credit claims. It has been said that this included staff tasked with enforcing or following up child maintenance.

The media have additionally reported that the Child Maintenance Service was accepting verbal evidence from paying parents seeking to stop or reduce payments in relation to their income decreasing during the pandemic, when this would usually require evidencing through documents such as payslips. In their response, could the Government indicate whether there is validity in these reports and what guidance has been issued by the Government to the Child Maintenance Service on tackling the problem of abusers continuing economic abuse by withholding or reducing child maintenance payments—not only prior to but during the pandemic?

We support the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, in raising this issue and await the Government’s response.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for outlining her amendment. I certainly agree with her and all the noble Lords who have spoken that guidance for front-line staff on tackling economic abuse through the withholding or reduction of child maintenance payments is extremely important. I assure her and, I hope, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that the Child Maintenance Service takes the issue of domestic abuse extremely seriously and is committed to ensuring that victims of abuse get the help and support that they need to use it safely.

The service has recently substantially strengthened its procedures to support people who are experiencing domestic abuse: in particular, a new programme of domestic abuse training is currently being delivered to all Child Maintenance Service caseworkers. However, before that, the service had already implemented training in this area, designed with input from Women’s Aid. That included: recognising that domestic abuse can take various forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and financial abuse; appropriate signposting to domestic abuse support groups; and advice on contacting the police and, if people did not feel able to do so, asking whether they were content for the Child Maintenance Service to call the police on their behalf. The service has also introduced a complex needs toolkit for its caseworkers which includes clear steps to follow in order to support people who are experiencing abuse. It is regularly reviewed and strengthened on the basis of feedback. The Child Maintenance Service will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of its guidance and training in this area.

Beyond that guidance and training, there are a number of ways in which the Child Maintenance Service responds to cases involving domestic abuse. It might be helpful to outline some of them. They include waiving the application fee for victims of domestic abuse; providing appropriate advice and support to help victims use the service safely and to ensure that there is no unwanted contact between separated parents; acting as an intermediary to facilitate the exchange of bank details and ensuring that no personal information is shared; providing advice on how to set up bank accounts with a centralised sort code, which does not allow victims of abuse to be traced; and providing advice and directing people to a number of specialist domestic abuse support organisations as well as providing advice and information on how they can stay safe.

The Child Maintenance Service also has a range of strong enforcement powers, which can be used against people who consistently refuse to meet their obligations to provide financial support to their children. First, it can make deductions directly from earnings and seize funds directly from a paying parent’s bank account, either as a lump sum or regular payments. We have extended this power to cover joint and certain business accounts, thereby removing the opportunity for paying parents to put their money out of reach. Secondly, it has the capacity to seize goods or force the sale of a non-paying parent’s property. Thirdly, it can seek to have those who wilfully refuse to recognise their obligations either committed to prison or disqualified from driving. Finally, we have also introduced the ability to disqualify non-compliant parents from holding or obtaining a UK passport, which we believe acts as a strong deterrent.

We are therefore confident that the Child Maintenance Service already has sufficient enforcement powers and that it has further strengthened its procedures for supporting people who have suffered domestic abuse. I assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords who have spoken in this brief but important debate that we will continue to monitor the effectiveness of these enforcement powers and the support that they give. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the speakers who have contributed to this short but, as the Minister says, important debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke very supportively about the importance of child maintenance to the family and how it is abused as a tool of control. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made an interesting contribution about the role of coronavirus and the redeployment of CMS. Obviously that is a concern.

The Minister talked about further strengthening procedures and training, which is what the Minister Alex Chalk said in the other place. I am reassured that the evaluation of the effectiveness of the guidance is continuing, and I hope that the success rate continues to rise so that more families have the wherewithal to survive economically. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 158 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 159. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.