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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:22 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire 3:22 pm, 23rd July 2019

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

The question of the effectiveness of the CMS is one that my team and I frequently discuss in the office, after yet another case is brought forward. I suspect that all of us in the Chamber could have used up 90 minutes ourselves, talking about our experience. I am grateful that we have the opportunity to air some of the issues today. I want to focus on two cases that my office has been dealing with that sum up the issues that both paying and receiving parents often face.

One case that I have been working on for a long time, of which the Minister is aware, concerns a paying parent who has gone through much adversity throughout his life. Following the breakdown of the relationship, the receiving parent took the case to the CMS, which contacted HMRC and obtained the most recent income information from 2015. My constituent at that time had a well-paid job, so the maintenance calculation was substantial, but he had left that employment in the previous tax year and, combined with the breakdown of his relationship and the sudden death of his brother, who was killed in a hit and run, he struggled to cope mentally. Nevertheless, the maintenance calculation would obviously remain until he could prove that he no longer earned that income. He phoned up many times to start the process but could never follow it through because of a chaotic lifestyle and deteriorating mental health. He frequently went AWOL and would be uncontactable even by his family, who were having to help him with his rent and bills to try to get him back on his feet.

My constituent found the CMS unapproachable and difficult, and simply could not deal with the situation he was in. He did what many people do when they feel that they are at the bottom of a rut in their lives, and shut the whole situation out, not responding to or even opening letters. Despite a P60 the following tax year proving that he did not earn anywhere near the income on which the maintenance was based, the CMS refused to reconsider the decision. The paying parent was out of time to appeal, because he lacked the knowledge, capacity or support to do so, and is now thousands of pounds in arrears that are entirely incorrect, based on the CMS’s rules, and completely unpayable, owing to the dramatic decline in his income.

Of course, MPs frequently see receiving parents who have an incredibly difficult time getting the money they are owed. Recently, a receiving parent asked the CMS for a variation, as their ex-partner was earning about £100,000 per annum. As is common for someone on such an income, that paying parent had a rather good accountant and was able to disclose to the CMS an income of less than £400 per week—a completely bogus figure. The maintenance calculation was minuscule as a result. Other receiving parents have highlighted issues with their former partner diverting money into pension schemes and other arrangements, to reduce their income and hence their maintenance contributions.

While the CMS is there to ensure that paying parents pay their liabilities, it should have a responsibility to every person involved in the claim—the parent who is paying maintenance but in many cases is unable even to see their own child; the receiving parent who has lost a household income and is supporting a child, often on their own; and of course the child or children at the heart of the whole thing, whose family has broken down and who may now find themselves at the centre of an angry battle between their parents over maintenance. It is not right that some of our constituents are paying wrong amounts and incorrect arrears, and it is certainly not right that parents are not getting the money they are entitled to and are left struggling because of loopholes. The CMS has an incredibly difficult task, but while things have undoubtedly got better than they were under its predecessor organisation, it is not in my experience effective in handling particularly difficult or complex cases.

Relationship breakdowns are never easy on anyone, so it is essential to have a functional system, with an understanding that it is dealing with real people, who may be going through the most difficult times in their lives. Too often, dealing with the CMS can feel robotic and impersonal, with neither parent feeling properly listened to or supported. We can do better.