It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate Martyn Day on securing this important debate, and on his comprehensive introduction to the subject. Like him and other hon. Members, I receive many complaints about the Child Maintenance Service. It is one of the constant themes in constituency surgeries—so much so that I recently took the opportunity in business questions to call for a debate on whether the service is meeting expectations. In my view, it often falls short. Following that request, the Minister’s predecessor invited me to come and meet him—to his credit, he took an active interest in the issues I raised, and I was impressed by his commitment to refine and update the system. It is true that there is a very difficult balance to be struck, and there are always examples of where the system is not working, so I welcome the opportunity to raise certain issues.
My constituents feel that the system is not doing as well as it could do. It is no exaggeration to say that the issues I will raise are matters that my caseworker and I were progressing through only last Friday. It seems to be a common theme that issues arise very frequently. It is not good enough, for a service that is supposed to support vulnerable people at their time of need. In an ideal world we would not need such a service because parents could reach an agreement between themselves, with no third-party involvement, and stick to those arrangements. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and it is quite often necessary for the Child Maintenance Service to get involved. It hopefully ensures, at least in theory, that the parents contribute to the cost of bringing up their children after a relationship has broken down.
Meeting the needs of children should be the most important thing. The reality is that child maintenance is a vital source of income for many families, especially those on low incomes. Gingerbread reports that child maintenance lifts a fifth of low-income, single-parent families out of poverty, so we cannot underestimate the impact that a good system has on improving children’s lives.
It is deeply concerning that we have several cases of non-payment at the moment. Of course, constituents do not come and see us to say that the payments are all going through smoothly. I am sure that hon. Members have very similar experiences—I am particularly talking about cases in which the paying parent has been on the collect and pay service, but after six months of compliance they request a move to direct pay, to avoid the fees that the collect and pay service incurs. Unfortunately, we often find that payments are not received once the paying parent has moved back to direct pay, leaving the receiving parent having to chase the matter through the Child Maintenance Service until it refers the case back again to collect and pay. That whole process can often result in several months of no maintenance payments being received; obviously, that can leave parents financially vulnerable. That is not just the case for my constituents; Gingerbread said in its survey that receiving parents are often forced into lengthy, time-consuming efforts to recover late payments.
Much more consideration should be given to the history of payments before it is agreed that someone can leave the collect and pay service. A history of many years of non-payment or late payments should not be disregarded just because of six months of compliance where compulsion is involved. Non-payment leads to arrears, which in the worst case can run to thousands of pounds and can add additional difficulties in getting regular payments made on time.
Although the Government have introduced measures to improve enforcement and collection of arrears, I am concerned that the level of arrears is creeping up. The lack of effective enforcement could be a cause, which would not surprise me since some of my constituents feel that the Child Maintenance System is often more concerned about meeting the priorities of the paying parent than the receiving parent. It seems to take the view that some payment is better than no payment at all, and it does not want to push the paying parent too hard for fear of losing everything. I understand that anxiety, but it can be interpreted as a desire to limit the number of cases administered through the collect and pay service. That view is bolstered by the Department’s evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions in 2017, in which it said that it knew that some parents were staying in an ineffective direct pay arrangement rather than moving to collect and pay.
The 25% threshold for changes in income that has to be reached before payments are recalculated is artificially high. If someone gets an annual cost-of-living pay rise each year, it could be a decade before a recalculation is needed.
My constituents are experiencing unreasonably delays with the complaints resolution team. In one case, we have been waiting two months for a response from the Child Maintenance Service. Despite regular chasing in another case, we have been waiting three months for a decision on reimbursement that was referred to the service by the Minister’s predecessor some time ago. Such long delays cause unnecessary emotional and financial stress, leaving the parent without the day-to-day support that they are trying to recover.
Finally, I would like to say a little about my caseworkers. We all benefit from the hard work of caseworkers, and I pay tribute to those who, day in, day out, work very hard for the people for Ellesmere Port and Neston. When they raise child maintenance issues, they usually use the MP correspondence unit in the first instance. However, there are occasions when the issue is more about the way the legislation works. In that case, it is appropriate for me to raise those matters with the Minister directly. However, my caseworkers find that even in those cases, they are sometimes referred to the director of the Child Maintenance Group rather than the Minister. That leads me to question whether the Minister sees the issues raised. I hope that the Minister, if he remains the Minister—he could be elevated to much-deserved higher office very shortly—will investigate those concerns.
I should make it clear that the Child Maintenance Service is operating far more effectively than the Child Support Agency did. I have an example of how poor the old system was. A constituent’s income had significantly increased but the CSA did not carry out any recalculation, so he assumed that he did not need to increase his maintenance payments. When his son reached 18 and his case was closed, it decided to recalculate and found that he owed £17,000. He clearly owed that money, but because the system did not work properly, he is now paying his ex-wife a considerable amount every month for the care of his son who is now an adult and living with him. That is an absurd situation, which I hope we will not see under the new regime.
With child benefit and child tax credits frozen since 2016, child poverty on the rise and nearly half of all children in lone-parent families in poverty, it is vital that we get this right. The Child Maintenance Service must deliver, and it must do so promptly, reasonably and fairly.