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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 3:04 pm, 23rd July 2019

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Martyn Day on securing this important and timely debate.

My constituents continue to bring me their concerns and issues with the Child Maintenance Service. I am grateful for the way that my exceptionally capable casework team at Borestone Crescent in Stirling, Rachel Nunn and Euan Blockley, deal with them. There are undoubtedly good people at the Child Maintenance Service—I pay tribute to them for their hard work and service—but I am concerned about what my constituents and my caseworkers tell me when they come to my office to get help.

People understandably already feel fraught and upset—they are in a situation that they never anticipated, and feel vulnerable and sometimes deeply hurt and angry. That means that communication on these sensitive matters must be clear and understandable. Too many vulnerable people caring for children feel that the system is less than transparent and too confusing. Sometimes, for good reason, they feel lost or trapped in a process they do not fully understand, and they are frustrated and upset.

The good people at the CMS often deal with very sensitive cases; I can only imagine how hard it is. That said, I know too many constituents who feel they have been treated unfairly—being left hanging on the phone for ages, as has been mentioned; not being able to speak to the relevant people despite repeated attempts to contact them directly; being accused of lying and cheating. I am not saying those cases are typical—the Minister knows that—but they are the examples that are brought to my attention by my constituents, who have contacted me because they feel they are being failed by the CMS in some respect. I want to give them a voice.

I mentioned clarity of communication. When my constituents come to see me and my caseworkers, they usually bring the correspondence they have received from the CMS. The feedback I get, and my own experience, is that those letters are hard to read and even harder to understand. Notices of changes to payments come with little or no explanation. That is upsetting to people who already feel very insecure. There is the matter of backdated payments, which was also touched on. Sometimes it is just not clear to my constituents how a calculation has been made. People feel confused about what they are reading, but there are no immediate answers because communication with the CMS is not easy.

There is too often a problem with conflicting advice. My constituents say that they are told one thing on one day by one person they speak to at the CMS, and something different the next day when they speak to someone else. That concerns me, as I know it will the Minister. Quite rightly, the CMS tries to get parents to sort things out between themselves—that is a good principle—but when that fails, the CMS needs to take prompt action to give support to families with children. It is often slow, for some unfathomable reason, to escalate its support and to use collect and pay.

I am sure the Minister has heard this many times before, probably from me: I understand the 20% collection fee on the paying parent, but I still do not understand why the receiving parent should have to pay 4% on an ongoing basis. I can fully understand the principle of encouraging both parents to sort things out for themselves, but on an ongoing basis, where there is obfuscation on the part of the paying parent and where the receiving parent most often needs every penny they can get their hands on, why should they have to go on paying a fee on what is collected for their children?

I acknowledge the challenges of collection. There are challenges when the paying parent’s income is not evident or is disguised or hidden, or the person is self-employed, and through some invisible support they declare little or no net income year upon year, or they keep changing jobs and cannot be tracked down. But what difference have the measures announced a year ago made to the performance of the CMS in limiting child maintenance avoidance? What has been the impact, for example, of beefing up the financial investigation unit at the DWP? Is the Minister, a man I greatly admire and respect, satisfied that the current set of enforcement powers is adequate? Is it now beyond question in the Minister’s mind—because the question arises in other people’s minds—that the CMS is fit for purpose? May I seek assurances in respect to the actual day-to-day delivery of the CMS client services? I want to be specific about this.

First, does the client system that the CMS uses flag outstanding action points? My constituents have to go through the whole story every time they phone up. Why does not the system alert the CMS managers when actions and feedback are due to go to clients? In my experience, in just about every setting, too much communication is a bad thing. Secondly, is there a standard for answering calls and speaking to clients? Constituents tell me that they wait a very long time to get a call answered and then are kept waiting before they can speak to the relevant contact. Cutting waiting times on the phone alone will reduce the levels of frustration that people who need the help of the CMS experience.

Finally, is there a searchable system of frequently asked questions that CMS managers and officers can use to answer routine questions, so that the advice is not only correct every time, but consistent? Consistency in advice to vulnerable people is an undoubted virtue, and greatly desirable. We have put in place a system because it is essential for the sake of the people whom we should keep in focus—the children in families that have split up. It is no fault of the child if their parents decide to end their relationship. We should therefore move heaven and earth to support the welfare of our children. In most cases people will stand up to their responsibility and provide for their children, but where they do not, we must take all steps to see that support is paid. We have a duty to get that right and to be as fair as possible. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.