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

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

I agree with everything my hon. Friend says. That type of scenario is one of the recurring themes that I have seen repeatedly in the 55 cases that my office is dealing with.

After five months and numerous interventions, it was eventually accepted by the Department for Work and Pensions’ financial investigations unit that the paying parent did have additional unreported income, yet my constituent’s hardships continued when she was asked to complete a variation form that would start an investigation, as there had been no record of contact before 12 February 2016. My office forwarded a complaint that was finally responded to 10 months later, in December 2016.

Six months after that, Susie found herself in a similar situation and had to make another formal complaint to the Child Maintenance Service because of its inefficiency, which resulted in a second conciliatory payment being made to her. Then, in October 2017, she won an appeal that the paying parent had raised, and wrote to the Child Maintenance Service with some queries about the award. However, despite numerous calls and letters, she received no response until January 2018, after seeking my intervention again.

I could continue to relay the consistent and ceaseless catalogue of errors that constitutes Susie’s case; suffice it to say that, currently, the paying parent has raised yet another appeal, while Susie is still waiting to receive the award from the first tribunal and has had to make another formal complaint, due to the Child Maintenance Service again ignoring her correspondence and thereby not complying with its own guidelines. Four years down the line, and around 90 recorded interventions on my constituent’s case later, there is no conclusive resolution to her difficulties.

Despite the availability of a spectrum of collection actions and enforcement powers to collect arrears, they are seldom used. Indeed, the single parent charity Gingerbread has contended that there can be

“a lot of prevarication and foot dragging” before the CMS uses its powers to collect arrears; the Work and Pensions Committee said in May 2017 that the data published by the Child Maintenance Service

“reinforced the impression provided by stakeholders that the CMS is reluctant to use its enforcement powers.”

Sadly, Susie’s is not an isolated case. Another constituent, Anne-Marie, contacted me last August after enduring three years with no financial support from her child’s father. In this case, the paying parent had been so unco-operative with the Child Maintenance Service that he had been put on to a deductions from earnings order, where his employer was obliged to make maintenance payments directly from his wages to the Child Maintenance Service. However, to avoid the 20% charge that that method of payment incurred, the paying parent requested to go on to the direct pay system, cutting out both his employer and the Child Maintenance Service, and leaving the receiving parent dependent on his sense of fairness. Without my constituent’s permission, his request was granted.

Anne-Marie eventually received an apology from the Child Maintenance Service for doing that, but the admission of regret did not prevent her difficulties from escalating. The Child Maintenance Service did not tell the paying parent’s employer that it had changed the payment method, resulting in another payment being sent to it that it refused to pass on to the receiving parent. By August, when Anne-Marie contacted me, she had not received any child maintenance for nearly six months and that continued, despite the deductions from earnings order being reinstated, for another four months. By the time she finally received a payment, nearly 10 months had passed.

The reinstated payments were short-lived and they lapsed again after a payment on 25 January 2019. Instead of the service complying with the evidence given by the DWP to the Work and Pensions Committee in 2016 and 2017 that

“all cases move across to enforcement immediately after the first missed payment was missed”

Anne-Marie had to contact the service herself on 4 March. She discovered that, once again, no action had been taken. On 11 March, she wrote to me again, explaining the reality of her frustrations. I quote from her correspondence:

“I am finding it difficult to get in constant contact with them as I am on hold for at least 20 minutes before I even get through to someone then I need to explain the whole case to a stranger which then takes at least 30/45 mins. I cannot always do this during my work time and after work they are reduced to skeleton staff at CMS and are unable to help. I am at my wits’
end and do not know how I can progress with this.”

This was a common sentiment in many of the cases.

One of my staff members contacted the Child Maintenance Service on 26 April to try to understand the failings in this case. When she asked why immediate action was not being taken when the deductions from earnings order was not being complied with, she was told that although the CMS is alerted as soon as a payment is missed, it does not have the resources—the staff—to deal with it immediately, as the staff work chronologically. When she further enquired why no enforcement action had been taken against the employer, despite it not complying three times, she was told that any court action raised is stopped if there is subsequently compliance, which means the whole cycle has to start again if the employer makes another payment and then it stops again. It is a constant stop/start process. My staff member was ultimately advised that the procedures for enforcing the payment of arrears in child maintenance were not being adhered to because the operational powers laid out in legislation fall short in practice.

Speaking to Anne-Marie again on 10 July revealed that, after all this time and despite my involvement, things have still not improved for her. That is hardly surprising. During the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, the Minister said:

“We are continuing to increase the operational resources allocated to enforcement, with 290 full-time enforcement case managers in place as of September 2017.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2017;
Vol. 631, c. 701.]

In answer to a written parliamentary question, I was advised last week that the overall head count of part-time and full-time enforcement case managers on 30 June 2019 equated to an overall full-time equivalent resource of 220.91, with 104 being employed full time. Clearly, operational resources have not been increased; they have actually decreased. It is therefore also unsurprising that Department for Work and Pensions figures show that arrears owed in respect of child maintenance rose by more than £7 million in just three months, between December 2018 and March 2019.

It is not only the receiving parents who are being failed by the Child Maintenance Service. One of my constituents, Craig, had a shortfall of direct payments due to work circumstances. The shortfall amounted to about £90, which he paid after the Child Maintenance Service contacted him. He contacted me in February, because even though he provided proof of payment to the CMS several times, it continued to arrest his wages without any warning. Three weeks later, the Child Maintenance Service found the evidence that Craig had in fact paid the outstanding amount that he had been contacted about. However, he was not refunded the 20% charge that had been incurred, or even offered an apology.

It has been well documented that the 2012 child maintenance scheme was designed to encourage parents to work together following separation and, where possible, make private, family-based arrangements for the child. That premise was reiterated in the Commons Chamber when the statutory instrument to the child support regulations was commended to the House last month. Yet, although both Craig and the receiving parent in this case agreed that direct pay would work best for them, that option was not facilitated by the Child Maintenance Service.

On 6 March, a payment breakdown was requested to clarify what payments were to be paid and when they were to be expected and, up until yesterday, that had still not been received. Craig’s experience has been that he was not listened to and was, in fact, harassed; it made him feel that the system was biased against the paying parent. That feeling has been echoed in correspondence that I have received over the last four days from people in other constituencies all over the British Isles—one of whom actually said that the Child Maintenance Service

“encourages parental alienation and assists financial abuse and coercive control.”

I find it deeply regrettable that the situations I have highlighted here today, and those I have very recently become aware of but have been unable to highlight due to time constraints, indicate that the Child Maintenance Service is not fulfilling its charter commitments to keep the interests of children at the heart of everything it does, by being responsive, reliable and respectful of the best ways to manage individual cases.

In each of the three constituency cases that I have highlighted, and in others beyond, the lack of communication between the Child Maintenance Service and the paying and receiving parents has been a significant factor. That could be so easily remedied, yet would be an important amelioration for the service users. I hope the Minister will take that on board.