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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:12 pm, 23rd July 2019

I thank Martyn Day for setting the scene so well, with lots of detail. The thrust of the issue is this: no matter what constituency we hail from, I can guarantee that questions have been raised over the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service. Each of us who has spoken so far, and the others who will speak after, will reinforce that.

On the news I have read numerous reports of single parents being left with thousands of pounds of debt because of the loopholes that the scheme is cluttered with. In my own office, not a month goes by without several Child Maintenance Service cases, and each one is unbelievably annoying and frustrating for my staff and me. They are even more frustrating for those trying to get the money that they are owed. There are issues with non-resident parents finding a loophole through being self-employed.

The biggest issue is with the self-employed. My hon. Friend Mr Campbell referred to how their circumstances change. I will give a couple of examples, without mentioning any names. When we understand the resources that somebody had three months ago and what they suddenly have today or maybe a year later, we wonder what happened. Did they lose it all on the horses? Where did it go? I am talking about people who own properties and cars and so on. There are many such cases because of the complicated financial arrangements required, which raises the issue of the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service alone. We know that the Minister is really interested in his subject matter and is committed to what he does. I appreciate that, but there needs to be change, especially for the self-employed.

My constituents tell me that another problem is that when they phone up the Child Maintenance Service, they get a different person every time and have to tell their story again. There must be a methodology. I understand that there is a high turnover of staff in the Child Maintenance Service, probably because of the complications of the job. Some people stay, but not enough. I suspect that that is because of their knowledge of the subject. Despite the legal requirement for the ex-partner to help cover the expenses of the single parent, the majority of whom—not all—are women, it has been reported that that is not the case. According to a National Audit Office report in 2017, the DWP acknowledged that 75% of alleged arrears were impossible to collect. Are they impossible to collect? Perhaps some might be. It is possible that people could be out of work or could be ill, but I suggest they are trying to avoid making their child maintenance payments.

Some figures show that the DWP does not track compliance for the monthly payment scheme for seven in 10 cases. With respect, I say to the Minister that tracking compliance seems elementary for the DWP and should be done without any nudging or requests from anyone in this debate today. Clearly, the Child Maintenance Service has far to go before we can extol the work being done. I am also mindful of the civil servants working in one of the most highly pressured situations. They do their best, but are tied by what it is becoming clear to me is ineffective legislation and regulation. Some of the staff members tell me that we need better legislation, better regulation and resources as well. If that is the case, let us see whether we can do that.

Figures from UK law firm Slater and Gordon have identified that 11% of mothers have been forced to depend on food banks to provide food for their children. This is factual. It is a fact in my constituency and is a fact for the mothers as well. We have food banks in my constituency of Strangford. I have seen the mothers come in. A self-employed person who has a fairly high standard of living has left the mother with the children, and with the mortgage as well, because they have walked off and left it. They probably had a joint credit card and the male partner has run up the debt. I must be careful with my language and remember we are in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons. They have cleared off—I was thinking of another word, but I cannot use it—and left the credit card debt for the mother to find. It makes me, and I suspect others, very angry. The aim of the scheme was to ensure that that did not happen, and it is very sad that some parents—I stress the word “some”—will not play their part in feeding their family after they have left the home.

Other husbands who have left their wives have made payments voluntarily, so some people do the right thing, but then we come to cases such as the one I had in the office a month ago. The guy had multiple properties and a six-figure sum in the bank, and all of a sudden, within less than nine months or thereabouts, it was all away. Where has it gone? Why are the wife and the children not being looked after when clearly there were resources there? Again, circumstances change. He moves house and it seems to be a game of cat and mouse to try to get him, but it goes on and on.

Department for Work and Pensions figures show that CMS arrears rose in the three months between December and March by £7.4 million. Clearly, the DWP is not getting the money that it should. If the figures rise, it tells me that more cases are coming in, but it also tells me that the DWP is not being effective. The problem is not getting better or being fixed, which is why I support this matter being discussed in this House today and the call for action to be taken. At the end of the day—the Members who spoke before mentioned this; this is the real issue for me—it is the children who miss out, caught in the middle of this mess. It is grossly unfair. They deserve better, and it is up to us as Members of Parliament, and I gently say to the Minister it is up to the DWP, to ensure that they are given better. Those poor children should not have their parents turning to food banks to feed them when there is a parent in work, who should be doing the right thing by them. The system needs to be either reformed or completely reworked.

I have given examples, and there are others, with people who drive around in flashy cars. I know how the system works, and it is possible; but I will say this: it takes diesel or petrol to fill the car up. If someone is living in a fancy house, whether rented or not, and is going out to dinner at least twice a week, that is an over-indulgent lifestyle if there is an ex-wife down the road with children who is not getting the money. Those are the things in the stories I am told, and sometimes I see such things from people I know, never mind anyone else. I am pleased that the majority of people make their commitment and pay their money. There is another example fresh in my mind, concerning a guy who had a very successful business. He and his wife had parted company; it was not her fault, by the way. He decided one day to close the business, and had no resources. Yet he left her with a debt and the children to feed. People sometimes engineer circumstances to ensure that they do not have to make any payment.

The figures I referred to are outrageous. It is pretty clear from them that the CMS is not as effective as it could be. That is no fault of the staff. According to what they tell me, there is a need for better legislation, regulation and resources. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned someone being told to hire a detective to do a private investigation and to come back with the details. I know that it takes time to get together the detail and information, especially if someone is deliberately trying to avoid paying for their children. I know how difficult it becomes, but I stress that it is the children who miss out.

If not for the sake of the single parents out there, act for the sake of the children. The least that they deserve is a system that ensures their parents get the money they are entitled to, to feed and water them, and look after them. The cases of missed payments and the lack of action from the CMS need to disappear. We need a better system and a better way of handling things, before the next batch of children reach their teens and look back to see that their mothers have slogged and sacrificed and never got a penny of help. It is not only figures in a bank account that we are discussing; it is the quality of lives of children in the UK. Change is needed to get things right and make people accountable for their children, as they should be. As to those who deliberately try to avoid paying, we must catch them and make them accountable.