Child Maintenance Service — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk 2:30 pm, 23rd July 2019

No problem—I appreciate that.

The last request for a debate on improving the Child Maintenance Service was made by my hon. Friend Angela Crawley, who secured an Adjournment debate on the Child Maintenance Service some 20 months ago, to highlight concerns about the inadequacies of the service that she had become aware of through her constituency work. Those concerns include the struggles and inconsistencies faced by constituents dealing with the Child Maintenance Service, as well as sensitive safety issues faced by domestic abuse survivors.

I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts to remove the 4% charge that parents with care who have survived domestic abuse have to pay when they are left with no option but to use the collect and pay service. Besides effectively meaning that 4% of children’s maintenance entitlement goes to the Treasury, it is also a means for an abusive paying parent to perpetuate their control over the receiving parent, thereby continuing the cycle of abuse. As my hon. Friend highlighted in November 2017, it is commonly known that one of the biggest impediments to domestic abuse survivors achieving independence from the abusive relationship relates to financial control.

All those months ago, the Minister responding to my hon. Friend’s debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, advised that the Government aimed

“to take immediate action to re-establish compliance wherever a parent fails to pay what they owe” and that one of their priorities was ensuring that action was taken

“to maintain compliance in the statutory scheme, so that…children can benefit from maintenance payments.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2017;
Vol. 631, c. 701-704.]

It will shortly become evident that that prioritisation is not happening, certainly in the cases that I will raise.

Another way the Child Maintenance Service has been raised is through a private Member’s Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend Marion Fellows. The Child Maintenance Bill aims to remove certain fees charged by the Child Maintenance Service, and to make provisions for child maintenance payment calculations. The Bill was read the First time on 6 November last year, but still awaits its Second Reading. Perhaps the time has come for it to make some progress.

Furthermore, just last month the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019, which amend child maintenance legislation to enable the delivery of the child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy, were approved in the House. The then Minister, who is also present today, announced that the Child Maintenance Service was working well, and pointed to the

“tough new sanctions for those who evade their responsibilities”.—[Official Report, 11 June 2019;
Vol. 661, c. 583.]

However, I called for today’s debate because, as its regular appearances in parliamentary matters, which I have just highlighted, clearly show, the Child Maintenance Service might be working well for some but is certainly not working well for all. The debate requests that relate in particular to the processes and performance of the Child Maintenance Service show that many constituents across the British Isles, both paying and receiving parents, are being let down by the current system.

I warmly welcome the introduction of tough new sanctions for those who evade their parental responsibilities, but if the enforcement actions are not applied they are a blunt tool that does nothing to encourage paying parents to meet their obligations. We must not see a repeat of the National Audit Office report of March 2017, which noted that, compared with 2012-13, in 2015-16 there had been, with regard to the use of some types of collection and enforcement action in respect of arrears due for the 1993 and 2003 schemes, a 69% decrease in the use of deductions from earnings orders; a 73% decrease in bailiff referrals; a 77% decrease in liability orders, which allow enforcement powers to be used; and a 98% decrease in prosecutions.

Today’s debate will consider the difficulties faced by so many of our constituents and the reasons why the Child Maintenance Service is failing them. In doing so, our discussions will hopefully also consider what can be done to remedy those failings, so that all children can benefit from receiving maintenance payments that are consistent and compatible with the paying parent’s income level.

In my constituency alone, I have been contacted by 55 people who have essentially reached crisis point due to the treatment that they have received because of the Child Maintenance Service procedures. Those 55 cases represent the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. It has an impact across extended families as well. A father of one parent with care felt compelled to speak to me independently to describe the financial and emotional devastation that his daughter and grandchildren were experiencing because the paying parent was doing everything in his power to dodge his responsibilities.

I will momentarily discuss that case in more detail, and others in my constituency, but there must be a fundamental deficit in any system that allows that to happen. We must do all that we can to address that deficiency. The numbers that I am seeing suggest hundreds of detrimentally affected family members in my constituency alone, and tens of thousands across the UK. Clearly, the ineffectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service has a negative impact on a significant number of people.

That is certainly supported by the nearly 1,000 people who responded to the House of Commons Facebook post and the Mumsnet thread that invited comments ahead of the debate. I thank each and every person who made the effort to share their experiences on those forums —many of them were quite traumatic tales. Unfortunately, time limitations restrict me from disseminating individual accounts, although I will highlight the stories of my constituents, which mirror many of the issues raised on those forums. However, I can state that almost none of the paying and receiving parents who responded had had a positive experience in dealing with the Child Maintenance Service. Recurring themes included problems arising from payments being calculated on gross income and on incorrect and out-of-date information, and how calculations result in poverty and debt, which lead to mental health impairment and even suicidal tendencies. Additionally, users experience inconsistent information and standards of service.

My constituent Susie first approached me nearly four years ago, in September 2015, after the father of her children moved to self-employed status and dramatically decreased the maintenance he paid for his children’s upkeep. Indeed, during the non-resident parent’s change of employment status he paid nothing towards his children’s upkeep for almost a year. Susie suspected that he was not being truthful about his declared earnings, as they did not equate with the lifestyle he enjoyed. She approached the Child Maintenance Service to investigate but was duly advised to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which in turn told her to contact a private investigator—an unlikely financial priority when someone is struggling to provide for their children. HMRC procedures are arguably another matter for debate in this place, but that will have to wait for another day.

Before the 2012 child maintenance scheme was introduced, the resident parent could apply for a variation if a non-resident parent had either a lifestyle inconsistent with their income or assets of more than £65,000. In May 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee called for those provisions for parents to challenge child maintenance awards on the grounds of assets and lifestyle inconsistent with income to be reinstated—a call that I reiterate and support—and two private Members’ Bills have been introduced since April 2017 that have, thus far unsuccessfully, sought to implement such a change. However, although the Government’s position is that they have

“no plans to reintroduce this provision”,

they have, since December 2018, introduced a new notional income criterion that they say would

“be useful in a range of scenarios including where we believe paying parents have made an effort to use complex financial arrangements to evade their responsibility.”

At least one step has therefore been made in tackling that type of liability dodging, but it needs decisive action to back it up, not the decrease in action that I have witnessed.