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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 3:39 pm, 23rd July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank Martyn Day for securing such an important debate and for his continued work on this issue.

Before I address the substantive and specific issues about the Child Maintenance Service, I want to start by recognising the timing of the debate and the context in which we are having it. This week, many schools across my constituency break up for the summer holidays, and of course, in the constituencies of Scottish Members, many have already done so. Summer holidays should be a time for fun, activities, rest and relaxation, but for far too many children, their experience—and, tragically, their future memories—will be of hunger, hardship and sadness.

A recent report from the Trussell Trust showed that food banks experienced a 20% rise in demand for emergency food parcels for children last summer. More than 87,000 food parcels went to children in the UK during the summer holidays in 2018, which was an increase of one fifth on 2017. Shockingly, the Trussell Trust is concerned that the summer holidays will be even busier this year, as overall demand continues to rise across the UK.

Whatever the challenges or otherwise of the administration and technicalities of the Child Maintenance Service, it is important to recognise, as hon. Members have argued, that it does not operate in isolation from the wider pressures and challenges on children and families. When we discuss it, we do so with the objective of ensuring that those children, who are often the most vulnerable, can access the support that every one of them deserves, as rightly argued by Stephen Kerr.

Child maintenance payments can be vital for families, especially those on low incomes, to protect children from poverty. As my neighbour, my hon. Friend Justin Madders, highlighted, research shows that they alone lift a fifth of low-income single-parent families out of poverty. We must remember that lone parents are particularly vulnerable to poverty. One in four is in persistent poverty, twice as many as in any other group, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The inadequacy of social security arguably makes child maintenance an even more vital source of income for struggling single parents.

We recognise the importance of ensuring that families and children receive what they are entitled to. However, as we have heard today, it is fair to say that there is limited evidence that the system is achieving that aim. A recent report from the charity Gingerbread has shown that there are major problems with the system of direct pay and, worse, that the Government are not doing anything to effectively address them. The Department for Work and Pensions does not track whether payments are made, which means that it cannot report on compliance in two thirds of cases.

According to Gingerbread, collect and pay charges are not sufficient to deter parents from not paying in full and on time, nor is there any evidence that it encourages collaboration between parents. Furthermore, it found that

“arrangements are prolonged by unclear thresholds for enforcement”,

with the Department experiencing a 69% decrease in the use of deduction from earnings orders,

“with inconsistent follow up from caseworkers and poor communication”,

as many hon. Members have highlighted. That is despite a previous ministerial pledge that the Department would act within 72 hours of a missed payment.

The Gingerbread report continued:

“The hands-off approach, compounded by poor administration, places the burden of responsibility for pushing for Direct Pay enforcement onto receiving parents”.

That will sound familiar to many hon. Members, who have constituents with similar stories from many other areas of the DWP’s responsibility. The fact that it feels so familiar suggests that the problem lies not with individual professional members of staff, but with the culture and leadership at the top of the Department. Indeed, some of the testimonials make it abundantly clear that the system is not working.

We must not forget that this is not simply a question of processes or systems; it is about children, relationships and emotions. A system that divorces itself from the realities, or ignores the consequences, is not fit for purpose. Parents interviewed by Gingerbread said:

“The balance of power is completely wrong. I have to basically keep him sweet so that he contributes” and

“We had no other option…it’s just unbelievable that the child would have to pay 4 per cent out of their money when they’ve never done anything wrong.”

If the Government’s objective is to ensure that children do not become the victim, financial or otherwise, of relationship breakdown, it seems clear that that is not being met by the current approach. As we have heard, 33% of paying parents were non-compliant in the first quarter of 2019 and by the end of March 2019, cumulative arrears under the CMS were £275.3 million. That is £275.3 million that should be going to children. The cases that we have heard leave even more gaping holes in a system that should be supporting children.

We have several clear asks of the Minister. First, does he accept that the current system—not just the Child Maintenance Service, but many other aspects of social security, such as the five-week wait for universal credit, the benefits freeze and the two-child limit—is not fit for purpose and needs to change? Secondly, will he introduce tighter monitoring of direct pay compliance, so that we have a clear picture of its effectiveness? Thirdly, will he commit to introducing an improved and more transparent service so that we can ensure effective enforcement for late payments and offer hard-working staff the appropriate guidance, training and, importantly, as highlighted by hon. Members across the Chamber, resources? Fourthly, will he review the effectiveness of collect and pay charges for receiving parents?

There appears to be little evidence that the current arrangements encourage payment or communication between parents. The result is that many children end up paying a further penalty and some parents are forced to collaborate with a previous partner, which can create a toxic environment for the children.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I very much hope that if we return to this subject in 12 months’ time, we will have an improved picture that fundamentally puts children centre stage.