Guidance: Child maintenance

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 16th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

“(1) The Secretary of State must issue guidance relating to the payment of child support 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 support 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 support 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.” —

This 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.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am sure that we have all had constituents who have come to us because their relationship or marriage has fallen apart and their child maintenance agreement is being used against them by their former partner as a form of manipulation and abuse. New clause 18 aims to address that situation.

Withholding or artificially reducing child maintenance payments can be a way for abusers to perpetuate economic abuse. It can be especially hard for survivors to get the evidence necessary to succeed in getting the Child Maintenance Service to increase the amount that the abuser has to pay. We tabled the new clause to require the Government to issue guidance on child maintenance payments to survivors of domestic abuse that would have to address their specific concerns. Often, for survivors of domestic abuse, using the statutory child maintenance system is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of safety.

The Government must surely understand that the reality of domestic abuse is not confined to one area of people’s lives. It needs to be addressed across all services and Departments, including child maintenance.

Child maintenance, which is sometimes referred to as child support, can be vital for separated families and the wellbeing of the children, particularly in single-parent families. It is impossible to overstate the importance of child support for some survivors. It helps with the cost of raising a child, from the day-to-day expenses of food, clothing and school expenses to the cost of running a child’s main home and giving a child a decent quality of life. It is vital, as we have said often in Committee, for children who are often damaged by witnessing domestic abuse in homes.

Child maintenance arrangements can, as we know, take different forms. They can be made privately between separated parents, through the Government-run Child Maintenance Service, or, more rarely, through a court order. The statutory child maintenance system has seen big reforms, but there are still concerns over its effectiveness. In 2017, the Government introduced a fee waiver for survivors of domestic abuse who applied to the Child Maintenance Service. Although the reform has been welcomed, the way in which it works leaves many trapped in a dangerous dilemma: get financial support at the risk of abuse, or avoid abuse and face financial hardship.

Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2017 supports Gingerbread’s concerns that new charges in the CMS prevent parents and children from accessing maintenance. The findings also suggested that survivors of domestic abuse, who are perhaps most in need of a Government service to help ensure maintenance is paid, are some of the worst served by the barriers created by the charges and the dilemma that I mentioned.

Domestic violence can be a barrier to setting up a maintenance arrangement at all. It is estimated that one in four receiving parents cited domestic violence as a reason for not setting up an arrangement after the Child Support Agency case had closed. People who are already survivors are being asked to try to survive something else.

In 2017, Women’s Aid told the Work and Pensions Committee that the Child Maintenance Service had a

“rigid focus on incentivising collaborative arrangements between parents”.

It had

“the potential to increase survivors’ risk of abuse, including financial coercion and control.”

We need to publicise the fee waiver. It places an emotional burden on parents to voluntarily disclose their experience of domestic abuse in order to receive their exemption. It is simply not fair. Those who do not do that miss out.

Similarly, the Government have reassured parents and campaigners that processes would be in place to avoid the risk of abuse as a result of having to request payment and share personal details to set up direct payment arrangements. However, parents often discover that even CMS staff and banks can be unaware of provisions such as non-geographic bank accounts, where the receiving parent’s location would not be identifiable from a bank account sort code. Researchers have found that although one in five receiving parents surveyed said domestic violence had made it difficult to set up a direct pay arrangement, just 2% reported using a generic or national bank account. They also found that many parents reluctant to share details did not know that the CMS could help with providing this information.

A Gingerbread helpline example was of a single parent with a history of domestic abuse. The last incident had involved hospitalisation. She was told that she had to have a direct pay arrangement, and was given the option of using a non-geographic bank account or using a pre-paid card. However, both those options would reveal her new name, which was adopted to make her harder to trace. She felt at risk and was now considering dropping her case.

Ensuring payment can also be difficult when receiving parents fear domestic abuse, and the murky interactions between direct pay and collect and pay services does not fill parents with confidence. The Government argue that when direct pay is not working, parents can report the paying parent and come into the collect and pay service. In reality, some parents are wary of flagging non-payment for fear of rocking the boat or inflaming tensions with ex-partners who face hefty collection charges if the CMS steps in. Economic abuse of survivors of domestic abuse is unacceptable. Too many of us see too many of these people in our offices every week. This new clause would address their situation.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:15 pm, 16th June 2020

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for the exposition of her new clause and the way she did it, which was of real assistance to the Committee and certainly to me. Again, I absolutely commend and underscore the spirit and intention behind the new clause. I hope to provide some context that she will find reassuring.

Domestic abuse touches the lives of many DWP customers, and the Child Maintenance Service takes the safety of its customers extremely seriously. The new clause seeks guidance; the hon. Lady wants the Secretary of State to issue guidance relating to the payment of child support maintenance where the person with care of the child is a victim of domestic abuse. We have issued guidance already, and we have gone further by actually implementing—guidance is one thing, but it is when it moves on to training that it makes a big difference.

That training feeds into precisely the point the hon. Lady raises in subsection (2):

“Guidance issued under this section must take account of (a) the potential for the withholding or reducing of child support maintenance to constitute economic abuse under section 1(4) of this Act”.

Absolutely. We get that point, and that is precisely what the training is designed to achieve. It has been created with input from Women’s Aid, and it trains caseworkers on domestic abuse to identify the types of abuse, including economic abuse. By the way, that is not optional training; it is mandatory training—that is point one. Point two is that the DWP has introduced a complex needs toolkit, which includes a domestic abuse plan specifically, to give clear steps for a caseworker to follow in order to support customers, and it also outlines the support available to caseworkers. That toolkit is regularly reviewed and strengthened based on customers’ insight.

It may be helpful to the Committee if I set out other ways in which the Child Maintenance Service currently responds to cases involving domestic abuse. This goes to the point raised by the hon. Lady about how victims go about accessing support. First, the CMS can waive the application fee for victims of domestic abuse. Secondly, it provides advice and support to help victims of domestic abuse use the direct pay service where no further charges apply to ensure there is no unwanted contact between parents. Thirdly—picking up a point made by the hon. Lady—the CMS can act as an intermediary for parents to facilitate the exchange of bank details and ensure that personal information is not shared. Fourthly, the CMS will provide information to parents on how to set up a bank account with a centralised sort code, which avoids parents being traced. Fifthly, where the parents have reported domestic abuse, agents are trained to signpost clients to additional sources of support. I do not suggest that it is a one-stop shop, but, none the less, they are trained in what support is out there.

The bottom line is that the CMS will not tolerate parents failing to meet their obligations to support their children. Where a parent fails to pay in full and on time, enforcement action will be taken. I mention enforcement because the second limb of subsection 2 says:

“Guidance issued under this section must take account of…(b) the need for enforcement action to prevent non-payment”.

Let me turn directly to enforcement. The Child Maintenance Service has a range of strong enforcement actions at its disposal. They include deducting directly from earnings; seizing funds directly from a paying parent’s bank account, either as a lump sum or as regular payments; and a good deal in addition.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I deeply respect that the Minister is reading out exactly what should happen, but has he ever tried to get money out of the CMS for one of his constituents?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I have. I am perfectly prepared to accept that no organisation always works precisely as one might like. That is inevitably the case, but I am not suggesting that that is my usual experience. By and large, we have been able to deliver for my constituents in Cheltenham, while recognising, as I do, that there is always room for improvement. Perhaps we shall leave it there.

The Government have gone further and extended the powers to cover joint and certain business accounts, removing the opportunity for paying parents to put their money beyond reach. Where appropriate, the Child Maintenance Service will use enforcement agents to seize goods, forcing the sale of the paying parent’s property. The Child Maintenance Service may also apply to a court to have the paying parent committed to prison or disqualified from driving. In addition, we have introduced the ability to disqualify non-compliant parents from holding or obtaining a British passport, which we believe will act as a strong deterrent.

The impact of all that is important, and this goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. Of course, we have our anecdotal experience—mine, by and large, has been pretty good, but I accept that other colleagues will have had different experiences—but it is important to look at the data. Compliance with the CMS Collect and Pay statutory scheme has increased from approximately 57% in the quarter ending December 2017 to 68% in the quarter ending December 2019, according to Child Maintenance Service statistics to December 2019. In addition, 723,500 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements, reflecting an increase of 158,300—almost 30%—since the quarter ending December 2017. That is from the same statistics source.

Given all those measures, the central point is that, while the new clause seeks guidance, what is already in place is guidance and training, and that training is informed by Women’s Aid, as I said. In the circumstances, our view is that no new clause is necessary at this stage, because the Child Maintenance Service already has sufficient enforcement powers and has further strengthened its procedures, training and processes to support customers who suffer domestic abuse.

We will, however, continue to monitor the impact of Child Maintenance Service enforcement powers, as well as the support provided to help domestic abuse victims to use the service safely. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West, who clearly takes a close and principled interest in this matter, will watch that closely but, with that assurance, I hope she feels able to withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I thank the Minister for his reassurance but, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, he describes the ideal—it is not how we find it works. If we could get closer—just closer—to the ideal, we might all be satisfied. However, given his reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.