Child Maintenance Service: Reform — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 19th May 2022.

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Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 1:30 pm, 19th May 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reforms to the Child Maintenance Service.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means for allowing me to secure today’s debate on child maintenance reform. I honestly did not know how to start this debate. I have been campaigning on this issue for seven years, and in a debate in July 2019 I asked for sweeping reforms of the Child Maintenance Service, which is a cry I repeat today. At the risk of repetition, deviation and very little hesitation, here I go again—that is the only funny in my speech.

I thank One Parent Families Scotland, Gingerbread and Mumsnet for their helpful briefings, and I thank One Parent Families Scotland and Gingerbread for the work they do to support families with child maintenance issues. I reaffirm that my interest and campaigning on this issue is based on the needs of the children involved, on the Child Maintenance Service being able to work effectively to support them, and on ensuring that those children receive the maintenance they are due.

It can be difficult for folk in a stable relationship to understand the difficulties faced by parents with care when trying to receive child maintenance from previous partners who renege on their responsibilities. There are millions of relationships that have fallen apart, but at no point should a relationship breakdown mean that parents do not have a responsibility for their children. It is a fact of life, however, that some parents just walk away and try to shrug off those responsibilities. At that point, I believe that the responsibility should fall on us all to support those children and make their lives better, yet in these rich nations children fall into poverty, and the Department for Work and Pensions fails them with a system that does not help them, writes of huge debts to them, and does not adequately enforce payment.

Child poverty in the UK is a national disgrace and a reflection on the Government’s attitude to welfare. This is a Government who think it is fair to impose a benefit cap on families, for example, but children do not ask to be part of one-parent families where the paying parent is not facing up to their responsibilities. The Government and the DWP should not be failing them too.

Single parents with children are more likely to be in poverty, so any reduction in income is likely to be particularly harmful. In the face of the Tory-made cost of living crisis, maintenance matters even more in protecting children from poverty. That is why the SNP has been calling on the UK Government to introduce a minimum maintenance payment, to provide parents with care and their children a guaranteed income, and to prevent hardship and ensure a dignified standard of living.

Child maintenance arrears have also been exacerbated by shortfalls in making payments to parents who lost income during the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in January this year showed that nearly half the children in lone-parent families live in poverty, compared with one in four children in couple families.

The workings of the CMS have been criticised by colleagues from all parties, either here in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber, and all Members will, at some time, be asked to help constituents with issues relating to the CMS. When the National Audit Office recently spoke to parents involved with the service as part of its report, they confirmed what many parents tell third sector organisations and their MPs: the system does not work for them or their children. In advance of this debate, I forwarded a list of asks to the Minister in order that I may have a fuller response today, and I really hope that will work.

The DWP is meeting its objectives in reducing reliance on state-administered maintenance, but Gingerbread is deeply concerned about the laissez-faire approach to understanding why so many families have no maintenance arrangements in place. One Parent Families Scotland states:

“A functioning CMS needs to offer bespoke advice and support to parents to reflect individual circumstances. It needs to give confidential help to those with more challenging living arrangements, such as domestic abuse, to safeguard the vulnerable. For instance, it should remove face-to-face meetings with ex-partners who have carried our domestic abuse to avoid power imbalances and coercive control. The CMS needs to advocate better on behalf of single parents to ensure that their voices are heard. However, the feedback from parents suggests that these objectives are not at present being met.”

A Mumsnet survey states that just 11% of parents described their experience of using the CMS as positive, with 73% describing it as negative, and 72% saying that using it has made their mental health and wellbeing worse. Paying and receiving parents told the NAO investigation that the CMS was not working properly for them.

The recent NAO report explores the failures of the CMS, showing that it is simply not working for far too many single parents. The report found that the UK Government have not learned one of the key lessons from the now-defunct Child Support Agency, and that in preventing arrears build-up, enforcement can be too slow to be effective. The report suggests that unless the UK Government write off more CMS debt, outstanding arrears will grow indefinitely. Indeed, they are forecast to reach £1 billion by March 2031 at current rates.

The DWP does not yet fully understand why those without an effective arrangement do not use its service, and it could do more to help prevent around half of direct-pay arrangements from failing, leaving maintenance unpaid. The DWP still has significant problems with its customer service, which undermines trust in the CMS. According to the latest DWP figures, in the quarter ending December 2021, out of over 158,400 paying parents due to pay via the collect and pay service, 32% paid no maintenance, 68% paid some maintenance, of which 23% paid up to 90% of the maintenance due for the quarter, and 45% paid over 90%. I do not like to use statistics in debates like this, but it is absolutely incredible that 32% of parents paid no maintenance.

The percentage of parents paying something toward their child’s maintenance has fallen by four percentage points to 68% since the last quarter. The last time a compliance rate of 68% was observed was in March 2020. There has been an eight percentage point decrease in the percentage of parents paying over 90% of the maintenance due for the quarter since the quarter ending March 2021, falling steadily from 53% to 45%.

All concerned organisations representing parents and children involved with CMS are calling for the abolition of the £20 application fee and a 4% deduction from collect and pay arrangements, as those are a barrier to the poorest parents becoming involved with CMS in the first place. It might be hard for some of us to imagine the difference that £20 or 4% of a maintenance arrangement would make, but to some people that is a huge amount of money.

I am calling on the Minister and the Government to reduce the income charge threshold—currently 25%—to ensure that low-income non-resident parents are not disproportionately charged, and that higher-income non-resident parents pay their fair share. That is important when people change or lose jobs, as it affects the ability of some parents to pay the amount of maintenance due.

The withholding or restricting of child maintenance payments can be used as a tool for economic abuse. According to DWP data, in the quarter ending in December 2021, 60% of new applicants to the CMS were recognised as being survivors of domestic abuse, which is why the way they are treated is so important. When will DWP introduce a trauma-informed service delivery and appropriate training for staff to identify ongoing financial abuses, given the increasing number of CMS customers who have experienced domestic abuse? When will the service introduce better customer service and management for parents, such as having the same caseworker for individual cases? Having to phone up repeatedly, and getting someone different every time, is almost an abuse in itself.

The Government announced in March that they have plans for future changes to the CMS, such as including unearned income in child maintenance calculations, for which I have been calling for quite a while. The caveat, however, is that the Government have said they will do so

“when the legislation timetable allows”.

How long is that long grass? Why is this not a priority now? There is a cost of living crisis going on, and think of the difference it would make to children.

DWP figures also show that since 2021, when the CMS began, £451.1 million in unpaid maintenance has accumulated. That amounts to 8% of all maintenance due to be paid since the start of the service. The SNP has repeatedly called for effective enforcement action to be taken in the collection of maintenance arrears. Much stronger systems and resources need to be dedicated to tackling parents who attempt to avoid or minimise child support payments, and those who do not pay what has been agreed. Many parents game the system—they know that if they do not pay and are then called to account, they can pay a little and slip off the immediate register, and the children suffer even more.

The CMS simply is not working for some parents, and closer attention has to be paid to what parents are saying. One parent said:

“I tried to claim child maintenance and received a few erratic payments. It had to be collected through earnings arrestment. Every time the dad moved job, payments stopped and wouldn’t restart for months. CMS said they couldn’t find him and they were not allowed to search for him…I was told I should write him a letter that would be passed onto him. I didn’t/couldn’t…so I didn’t make a new claim.”

Another said:

“I would improve the customer service;
those working with communicating with parents using the service can be so insensitive when discussing personal situation and lacking in knowledge about the services provided.”

Another parent said:

“I’ve had to wait for more than a year for a response on more than one occasion (despite chasing) which is completely unacceptable. Upon phoning, any random person becomes your case worker and as my case is complex this is soul destroying. I’ve had complaints closed down without my agreement. Calculations performed incorrectly. The actual running total has had technical issues twice, so I don’t know how much is owed etc and it’s taken months to sort out. If you don’t chase nothing is actioned. The portal can be like a black hole.”

Another said:

“Although I am on Collect and Pay the paying ‘parent’ is still getting away with non-payment and nothing is being done about payment of the arrears. Then they have the audacity to charge me 4% even though none of this is the child’s fault and it’s the child who is being deprived of what she is owed.”

When will the CMS stop writing off arrears, some still from the Child Support Agency? That money is due and should not be written off as children reach adulthood.

Dr Mullan secured an Adjournment debate on Tuesday on the specific issue of maintenance arrears, which he was correct to raise. He suggested home curfew as a consequence of not paying child maintenance. Although that sounds like a positive thing, it has unintended consequences in cases of domestic abuse and control, so I would urge caution on that. However, at present the DWP does have sanctions, such as confiscation of passports and driving licences. DWP figures show that from the quarter ending December 2019, four passports have been subject to either suspended or immediate confiscation orders, 10 driving licences have been disqualified either immediately or under a suspended order, and 362 prison sentences, suspended or immediate, have been passed. Do any of us really believe that is good enough?

I will not go over the list of asks because I have done that so often. I know the Minister will respond, but I want to reflect on what the organisations that deal daily with parents in the CMS system have said. The chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland, Satwat Rehman, said:

“Parents are facing huge delays in hearing back, poor customer service, and ultimately a failure to collect the payments. At a time when the cost of living is rising to impossible levels, with many families forced to choose between food and fuel, addressing these issues is more important than ever. No child should have to go without because one parent is choosing not to provide them with financial support when they are able to.”

The chief executive at Gingerbread, Victoria Benson, said:

“Child maintenance is not a 'nice to have' luxury, in many cases it makes the difference between a family keeping their heads above water or plunging into poverty.”

She also said:

“It’s clear that urgent changes need to be made to ensure the child maintenance system is fit for purpose and works for those who need to use it. Without reform more single parent families will experience poverty and more children will be exposed to ongoing disadvantage. Single parents and their children should be supported to thrive because of their family make up—not in spite of it.”

Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts, said:

“Providing for your children is a fundamental responsibility, and it’s genuinely surprising that the Child Maintenance Service allows so many adults to evade it. Children from these families deserve better than to be treated as collateral damage when relationships break down.”

In this debate, I have tried to raise some of the issues expressed by those who use the service, because it is important that their voices are heard. The Child Maintenance Service has not been working effectively for years. I know there are huge numbers of parents who use direct pay, who are involved in collect and pay services, and who pay on time, but I am not here to press their case. I am here to make the case for children affected by parents who do not face up to their responsibilities—indeed, I think all hon. Members are here for that reason. Let us try to make the CMS work for the children who need it.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West 1:49 pm, 19th May 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate Marion Fellows on securing a debate on a service that is not often seen as a priority despite the essential issue that it should tackle.

When the Child Maintenance Service replaced the Child Support Agency in 2012, it was done under the guise of creating a more efficient system that would foster more collaboration between parents and ensure that children are properly supported financially. The Government are bringing forward further legislative reform to the service, and although that reform is absolutely necessary and long overdue, it must be done right. We cannot let another decade pass with problems going unaddressed. Parents have to pay to access the service, but the level of satisfaction is appallingly low.

In Scotland, about 92% of lone parents are single mothers. The poor accessibility of child maintenance is intrinsically gendered. Thirty-nine per cent. of children who live in single-parent families live in poverty, which is much higher than the average for all Scottish children. Research shows that if child maintenance were being paid as it should be, some 60% of those children would be lifted out of poverty. There is no excuse for that not to be immediately addressed.

In September last year, 59% of new claimants were recognised as victims of domestic abuse, as the hon. Lady said. Those women and men—they are overwhelmingly women—have been through some unimaginable things. We live in a society that tends to blame victims, whether consciously or not. We ask, “Why doesn’t she leave him? Why does she allow it to happen? Why isn’t she doing the right thing to protect her kids?” In most cases, domestic abuse happens slowly, so a victim might not realise it is happening until it is too late. There are so many barriers to leaving such situations, but they would not occur to someone who had not been through it.

When a victim does leave and manages to get the children out as well, she is further victimised by a system that allows her ex-partner to continue to exert his control without consequence. She is left to pick up the pieces and become the sole provider to children they both created. Too many see child maintenance as some unjust tax that they have to pay to fund their ex’s lifestyle. They do not see it for what it is: their financial responsibility towards ensuring that their children have what they need to survive.

My office is no stranger to CMS complaints, and each complaint is as frustrating as the next, with the same problems and the same inadequate response. Most commonly, constituents come to me after receiving a mandatory reconsideration notice prompted by a request from their ex-partner to the CMS to lower payments. Sometimes, those payments are not even being made when a parent requests such a review. The notice invites the custodial parent to submit any evidence that they have in their favour. It does not explain on what grounds the reconsideration has been requested, however, and if the receiving parent does not know what the paying parent’s argument is, how can they provide evidence to counter it?

At the moment, I have two almost identical open cases that are completely unrelated. They both concern single mothers to two young sons and ex-partners who were working full-time until child maintenance was calculated. In a successful effort to avoid payment, the fathers went under the radar by claiming universal credit while working full-time for cash in hand. Both women have extensive evidence of that, which they have shared with the CMS and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs only to be told, “Sorry—nothing we can do.” In one of those cases, a CMS adviser even told a member of my staff over the phone that it was really frustrating and unfortunate because although my constituent had done everything right—everything she possibly could—it just would not change the outcome. That cannot be right.

I have seen parents’ statements showing that the paying parent owes them thousands in unpaid maintenance, yet the CMS has no power to address that—the same CMS that custodial parents are paying to provide that service. We have now reached a point whereby many parents do not even bother making a claim for child maintenance because it is more stress than it is worth for the pitiful amount that they will receive if they are lucky enough to receive any at all.

The National Audit Office’s March report found that there was no clear change in the number of families with functional maintenance arrangements, including those made outside the CMS. It estimated that for only one in three separated families—one third—is the agreed level of maintenance being paid in full. That is shocking. The NAO found the following:

“As at September 2021, 38,000 paying parents (around one in four) with an ongoing arrangement had not paid any maintenance on their Collect &
Pay arrangement for more than three months, and 22,000 (around one in seven) had not paid for more than six months”.

The report also highlighted the issues about enforcement, and that enforcement of arrears did not necessarily impact on future compliance. There is really no consequence for avoidant parents.

Although reform of the system is of course hugely welcome, it must get to the root of the issues; it cannot be another plaster over the cracks. The DWP must be sure that it fully understands the heart of the issues, and any proposed solutions must work for the receiving parent. It is categorically wrong that the receiving parent, who already shoulders the overwhelming burden of providing for their children, is charged to use the service. One Parent Families Scotland reports that the minimum cost of raising a child in the UK is £190,000 for single-parent families. That is £30,000 higher than for couples. It is no secret that child maintenance is rarely equitable. The custodial parent will almost always pay significantly more. They should not be charged for the small amounts that they are able to recoup, especially in the worst cases. Although victims of domestic abuse are not charged the 4% on the collect and pay service, that exemption requires disclosure, which can be incredibly difficult for victims.

Ministers must also create strong cross-agency measures that change the way enforcement works, creating faster and better means of sharing intelligence and for how intelligence is then, more importantly, acted on. The CMS needs to be better resourced to respond to the needs of the parents using the service—both receiving and paying parents. I have spent a lot of time dwelling on the worst kind of avoidant parent, but there are many paying parents out there who are compliant, or would like to be, but need some adjustments. Cases need to be reviewed individually; it should not be one size fits all. Communication by the CMS in the round—both to constituents and to MPs’ offices—needs to be much, much better.

I have spent so much of my speech talking about the impact on parents. It is important to remember that at the heart of this are innocent children who are missing out, many having already been through the trauma of the breakdown of their family unit, often exacerbated by a deteriorating relationship between the parents where maintenance is an ongoing issue. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will keep those children at the forefront of their minds when looking at the CMS and what it could do better. A child should not be living a poorer quality of life than they have to because the parent they live with cannot access the support to which the child is entitled.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:58 pm, 19th May 2022

May I apologise to you, Ms Rees, for being a few minutes late to the Chamber? I was in the Pass Office. It has moved, which I did not know, and there was a queue, so I apologise for not being here for the whole introduction to the debate.

This subject is very close to my heart and one that I am very pleased to speak on. I spoke, in the form of interventions, in the Adjournment debate on this issue the other night, and Marion Fellows was also there. I thank the House of Commons Library for its notes and advice. It always gives us lots of good information.

I think I should start by saying that I understand that the figures show that an estimated one in three separated families in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a child maintenance arrangement that is paid in full. That is good news, and something to say before we start. As elected representatives, we will always be the ones people come to with their problems. People do not come to us all the time—as you know, Ms Rees, and I know—to say, “That’s a great job. Well done.” They come to tell us their complaints, so unfortunately, Minister, although I am not being negative, I want to say some things about where the fall-downs are.

The NAO report stated that the aim of increasing the number of effective maintenance arrangements overall was based on a wider, cross-Government set of policies on separated families. However, that broader set of cross-Government actions have yet to emerge as the chances that we hoped to see. In most of the cases that people bring to me, it is often the man who controls the money and that is where the problems lie. It is a fact of life that relationships break up. I am always sorry that it happens, and I do not like to see it, but sometimes it does happen, for various reasons. We are not here to condemn or identify why that is, but relationships do break down.

The DWP research does not explain why take up of the CMS is lower than expected. The CMS has improved its maintenance calculations and was designed to limit fraud and error, but the DWP has not estimated how many calculations are incorrect due to fraud and error. When an MP is presented with the case as the elected representative, it is very hard, especially when there is a lady sitting across the desk who is in absolute floods of tears and does not know what to do next. There are probably two or three children who are outside in the office, or maybe with their mummy. We can see the pressure on that lady in the office at that time.

CMS debt money is not collected, and outstanding arrears will continue to grow indefinitely. They are forecast to reach an eye-watering £1 billion. I find that quite hard to understand. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is being done to collect the arrears. I know the Minister is a man who understands the issue very well, and always responds to MPs in a way that gives us some hope for the future. We are looking for that same consideration today, and I want to make some constructive comments.

I want to give some examples of real difficulties from my office. As I mentioned in the Adjournment debate on Tuesday night, the inconsistency of not being able to get the same person at the end of the phone to speak to about a constituent’s case is infuriating. I know that during covid people were ill and that meant changes every day, but even before covid, it was difficult to speak to the same one person about a constituent’s case. Then, when I got put on to somebody else, what happened? It all started again—the process just started with each new person. The timescale it took for things to happen was infuriating. Perhaps the Minister can give us some indication of what is happening in that regard.

There are also the pressures of the job. In Belfast, even before covid-19, many staff were moving on. I hope the Minister can give us some reassurance on what can be done or needs to be done to retain staff. Can the Minister give us some figures for the internal movements in civil service jobs? I do not expect him to have all the answers today. The DWP is under the control of Westminster, so will the Minister give us figures for movement on child maintenance within the DWP Belfast office in particular?

I have had mothers come to see me at the end of their tether with children under their care and without the wage and income that they once had. I have witnessed blatant attempts to not make child maintenance payments. In almost every case—99.9% of cases—it is the man, although sometimes it may be the lady who has the bigger income. In all those cases, it was husbands who had closed their businesses, transferred moneys and removed moneys from bank accounts prior to those accounts being checked, and who had handed valuable properties to parents or new partners. I know that marriages and relationships break down, but that anyone should try to walk away or abandon their children is outrageous.

I am aware of people who are property millionaires on paper and had large bank accounts, yet the hesitancy of the CMS to pursue them effectively was truly frustrating. They returned financial accounts showing a profit of less than £15,000 per year, when they are driving a car worth more than 30 grand and are sitting in properties that show their income is higher than that. If someone is withdrawing moneys from the bank account before a relationship break-up, there is a case to answer.

Why is it so important? Ladies are squeezed financially. They cannot pay their mortgage when they are left with all the bills. They cannot pay the electric. In some cases, they cannot even buy food for the house. They are desperate.

My constituents have given me lots of examples. In my office, as I am sure is the case in everybody’s office here, we quite regularly get such cases. We find it frustratingly difficult to negotiate through their process with constituents. I want to raise some points to the Minister. First, is it possible to put urgency into the request from us, as elected representatives, to the CMS? There is real urgency to get things done quickly and to, importantly, have a process at the end of it. Secondly, can we assign one officer or staff member to look after each case? I am ever mindful that officers might be off sick, but there should be someone who knows the case, so that we do not have four, five or six people. Thirdly, checking the bank accounts before the breakup would give an indication, I suspect, of where the process is.

We should listen to the wife in those cases, the lady who knows. She knows where the dead bodies are buried. She knows where her husband’s moneys are. She knows what property he owns. She knows about the bank accounts. She knows. We should be looking towards that evidential base. It is not right that husbands can abscond or ignore CMS letters. The legal authority to investigate must be central to the obligations. I know that the Minister has great understanding and that he wants to assist. I ask him to hear the four requests and others have made. I appreciate the evidential base that they have, but I do feel that the DWP can do better and must do better.

I am probably old fashioned. I am a traditional person, and I believe in the sanctity of marriage and commitment. That is just me. A man must remember his obligation to his wife and children. We need the law of the land tightened, thereby ensuring impartial treatment for men and women. There is much to do, Minister—much to achieve and change. I value the Minister’s help and commitment to trying to make changes that ensure we have a system that really works for the lady. I think that is the way it should be.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 2:07 pm, 19th May 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend Marion Fellows on securing the debate. She has campaigned on the issue for many years now, and I hope that much of what she has said will be taken on board by the Minister and that action will be taken.

The SNP is clear that, at a time of a cost of living crisis, child maintenance matters even more to protect children from poverty. We are calling for a long-overdue root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service so that it can work more effectively for the children it is supposed to serve. I also want to take the opportunity to ask the Minister about the 91,000 civil service jobs that are supposed to be disappearing. I know you will appreciate this point, Ms Rees, as a friend of the worker. A press release last Friday said that 91,000 civil jobs will disappear. I would hope that not one of them is from the Child Maintenance Service, because it seems to me they need more workers. No worker in the Child Maintenance Service should find themselves out of work as a result of those changes.

What we want to focus on today are the clear, systemic errors that happen and affect so many people. That is why in the root-and-branch review, we have to come back first to the fact that the Government introduced charges for parents seeking support from a former partner through the child maintenance service. There is a fee of £20 for using CMS, unless someone is under 19 or has suffered domestic or violent abuse. The paying parents must pay an additional fee of 20% to use the service, and the receiving parent 4%. The fees imposed on receiving parents using the child maintenance service include the 4% surcharge for using collect and pay and the original £20 charge. I believe that that unfairly penalises receiving parents who are not receiving proper payments, and charging lone parents to access their right to support for their child is deplorable. We would certainly demand an end to that tax on child support, and we should continue to demand an end to Child Maintenance Service fees for parents receiving the payments.

A recent National Audit Office report, which was touched on earlier by previous speakers, exposes the failures of the Child Maintenance Service and shows that it simply is not working for far too many lone parents. The report found that the UK Government do not appear to have learned one of the key lessons from the now defunct Child Support Agency about preventing appears from building up, and that enforcement can be too slow to be effective. The report suggests that unless the UK Government write off more CMS debt, outstanding arrears will grow indefinitely. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, they are forecast to reach £1 billion by March 2031 at current rates, and the Department for Work and Pensions does not yet fully understand why those without an effective arrangement do not use its service. It could do more to help prevent around half of direct pay arrangements failing and leaving maintenance unpaid. There seem to be significant problems with its customer service, which undermines trust in its service, as Jim Shannon, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, and Margaret Ferrier identified in their contributions.

The latest DWP figures are for the quarter ending in December 2021. Of the 158,400 paying parents due to pay the collect and pay service, 51,300 paid no maintenance and 107,100 paid some maintenance—and of those, 36,500 paid up to 90% of the maintenance due for the quarter, and 70,600 paid over 90%. The Department for Work and Pensions figures also show that since 2012, when the Child Maintenance Service began, £451.1 million in unpaid maintenance has accumulated. That amounts to some 8% of all the maintenance due to be paid since the start of the service. The SNP has made it clear that we are calling for effective enforcement action to be taken in the collection of maintenance arrears.

Like the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I am grateful for the excellent briefings that we have received from One Parent Families Scotland, Gingerbread and Mumsnet. In the survey that Gingerbread and Mumsnet did in England in 2020, 86% of Child Maintenance Service customers said that the service had allowed their ex-partner to financially control or abuse them post separation. Some 83% said they would likely never receive what they were owed in arrears, and just 11% of those parents described their experience of using the Child Maintenance Service as positive. That really cannot continue, and people need more confidence in the Child Maintenance Service going forward.

Lone parents and their children are facing increased hardship as a result of the combined effects of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, which is why it is vital that family income must be protected for over 800,000 children across the United Kingdom who rely on it. Some 803,000 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements—an increase of 5,000 since September 2021—with 510,000 covered through direct pay arrangements and the rest covered through the collect and pay service. The number of children covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements has increased steadily over the last two years.

Lone parents of children are more likely to be in poverty, so any reduction in income is likely to be particularly harmful, which means that, in the face of the cost of living crisis, maintenance matters even more for protecting children from poverty. That is why the SNP is calling on the Government to introduce a minimum maintenance payment to provide parents with care and their children a guaranteed income, in order to prevent hardship and ensure a dignified standard of living. We are also clear that a long-overdue root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service is needed—not only to enforce the payments, but to ensure that the process does not put vulnerable families through additional stress. It is ultimately the children who are being permanently disadvantaged.

The Scottish Government are using their devolved powers to ensure that children and families are supported during this difficult time and prevent them from being pushed into fuller hardship. The Scottish Government have invested £770 million per year in cost of living support, including in a range of family benefits not available elsewhere in the UK, doubling the Scottish child payment, mitigating the bedroom tax and increasing Scottish benefits by 6%, which was the figure in April. The Scottish Government are putting money into the pockets of families now and helping them to deal with that cost of living crisis.

I look forward to the Minister’s remarks and response. I would hope that he can confirm that there will be a root-and-branch review, and that he will give us some positive news on staffing and other matters.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:15 pm, 19th May 2022

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I begin by thanking Marion Fellows for securing this debate. All of us constituency MPs deal with child maintenance cases on a regular basis, and we owe her a debt of service for bringing this extremely important debate. To pay back a little bit, I am going to be brief, because she set out the case for reform very well, as did other Members who have contributed. I want to make three very brief points on behalf of the Opposition to ask the Minister a few questions. I know that we will all be keen and enthusiastic to hear what the Minister has to say. The case for change is broadly accepted and has been well made.

I will briefly respond to Jim Shannon. He says that he is a traditionalist; I am a progressive. We differ on very many things, but I feel sure that we agree, as will every Member of this House, that what matters in this discussion is the children who should be supported by this money. I am sure that we will all put them first.

First, hon. Members who have spoken in this debate have been right to highlight the connection between being a single parent and the risk of poverty. We know that that is true. It has held true for a very long time in this country. That is why we believe that children are entitled to support from both parents, and that the Government ought to play their role in making sure that that happens, but also that children should not grow up poor in this country. It is anathema to all of us that there has been an increase in children needing support via food banks and other emergency charities. Every pound we can get into the pockets of their parents helps, whether it comes from this source or the welfare state.

This debate matters because this country should have a mission to end child poverty. Many of us still believe that. What we do with the Child Maintenance Service can make a real contribution to that. I put on the record my thanks to Gingerbread and two other charities that work very hard, year round, to stand up for single parents and make sure that the specific and different challenges they face as families are recognised in the system. As the NAO report pointed out, in the quarter ending September 2021, paying parents moving from direct pay on to collect and pay owed an average of £1,100—around five months of maintenance. Given the price hike of basics such as bread, putting petrol in the car or buying bus tickets, I can only imagine what that £1,000 means to a single-parent family. It is huge. Single parents are at the frontline of making ends meet in this country. We must put this debate in the right context, which is about stopping families from suffering the inequity and indignity of poverty.

Secondly, as other Members have already said, every Member of Parliament knows only too well what happens when the service goes wrong. The problems in my own case load have two features: the time taken to resolve issues is simply too long, as people find the length of time they are waiting incredibly stressful, and the enforcement action taken by the service is often not effective—a point that has been very well and amply made. That is frustrating and, as has been said, often dissuades people from using the service at all. I cannot believe that a Government of any colour or hue would want an important public service such as this one to put people off.

I am anxious to hear from the Minister about the plans for reform. I hope that we can move quickly to get a better service, not least given that the NAO found that it could take years before payments are made. The NAO also uncovered the issue of enforcement, and said that it

“has not been properly built into the Universal Credit system”.

I think the Government will want to address that.

Finally, I agree with fellow Members on the issue of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, I know only too well from my own constituents that parents who are victims of domestic abuse often see that abuse continued via the officers of the state. Again, I do not believe that a Government of any kind would wish their own services or operations to be used by perpetrators of abuse to continue their abuse once a relationship has come to an end. I simply do not believe that any Government would want that.

We are learning much more about how this continuation of abuse is done and how institutions of the state can protect against that. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, it is crucial that we have a trauma-informed service in every function of DWP work and that we continually look to reform, given that we now know more about how domestic abuse is perpetrated. I hope the Minister will respond to those three points about poverty, improving the service so that it actually does what we want it to and making sure that it is informed by the suffering and trauma of victims of domestic abuse, and I look forward to listening to what he has to say.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:22 pm, 19th May 2022

It is an honour, as always, to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate Marion Fellows on championing this cause and bringing this debate before us today. She is a recognised and well-respected champion on these matters.

Notwithstanding her strong loyalty to Motherwell and to Wishaw, I am sure she will join me in congratulating Rangers Football Club on their achievements this season which, despite the vagaries of the penalty shoot-out, were magnificent.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I thank the Minister and, as my constituency takes in Ibrox stadium, I associate myself with his remarks. I inform the House that an early-day motion will be tabled, praising the Rangers team for their achievements in the Europa League this season.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

I have never said this in public, but my late husband was a Rangers fan, man and boy, and I could feel his presence when I watched the match last night. It was such a sad ending.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I loved the comments made by Chris Stephens and, in particular, Marion Fellows. I also associate myself with the Minister’s comments. I have been a Rangers supporter since I was a wee boy. Rangers may not have won last night, but they made this great kingdom of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland better together. It was a showcase for us all.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I agree. Other hon. Members may not quite agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman just said, but I think we can all agree that it was a remarkable achievement.

We can all also agree that this debate is important. Even though my current ministerial brief does not cover this area, it is vitally important. The Child Maintenance Service plays a valuable role in ensuring that children are supported in instances where parents do not live together and where they come to a private arrangement. We know that the vast majority of separated parents quite rightly take their responsibilities extremely seriously, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out. Our aim is to help parents to support their children and we are sensitive to the needs of both parties. The CMS is designed to promote collaboration between parents, and it offers a statutory scheme where collaboration is not possible.

The central focus in all of this is that the children are supported. The intent of child maintenance reform is to encourage parents to meet their responsibilities and provide their children with the financial support they need to get a good start in life, and that intent is well supported by the evidence. I will come on to that point in a second.

We are committed to maximising the positive impact of the Child Maintenance Service and ensuring that good arrangements are put in place for children, no matter where they are growing up. As the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, parents need to honour their responsibilities to their children. We believe the CMS has made substantial improvements in the pre-covid period, notwithstanding that there is further room for progress, and the statistics support that. The compliance rate for parents on the collect and pay service has increased significantly, with the percentage of parents paying something rising by eight percentage points between the quarter ending March 2018 and March 2020. From March 2016 to December 2021, the percentage of CMS cases where no maintenance is being paid fell by about 30%, from 46% in March 2016 to 32% in December 2021.

CMS investigators have the power to deduct directly from earnings and to seize funds owed in child maintenance payments where requests for payments are consistently refused. For example, the CMS has the ability to seize funds held by a third party that they owe to the paying parent. Over 800,000 children are now covered by the Child Maintenance Service arrangements, up from 700,000 in mid-2019. We are making a difference to the support that children have been receiving: since 2019, over £1 billion in child maintenance has been arranged each year through the direct pay service and the collect and pay service. Alison McGovern made an important point about poverty. She and I have regular debates on this subject, but it is important to note that around 140,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty as a result of child maintenance payments. That is good progress, but clearly more work needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw rightly raised points about the fee for an application to the Child Maintenance Service, which is set at £20 for all CMS participants. That fee is intended to encourage parents to consider whether they really need a statutory scheme case, but it is not so high that it creates an insurmountable obstacle. Applicants who are victims of domestic abuse or under the age of 19 are exempt from paying the application fee. It is not our intent to create a barrier for vulnerable customers; in fact, around 60% of applicants do not pay that fee. Collection charges, which are 20% for the paying parent and 4% for the parent with care, only apply to the collect and pay service, and are intended to provide both parents with an incentive to collaborate. The collection charge for the receiving parent is deducted only when maintenance is paid, so the receiving parent does not owe money to the Child Maintenance Service if maintenance is not paid. If there were no charge for receiving parents, there would be no incentive for them to use the direct pay service.

The Child Maintenance Service may also review the income of a paying parent if earnings decrease or increase by 25% over a year—a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. That 25% threshold ensures that liabilities remain stable so that both parents can budget with certainty, which aims to provide ongoing certainty for the child as well.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will, but can I just make one further point, which I think might answer the hon. Lady’s question? Most people’s income does not change to that degree over the course of one year. The threshold also ensures that minor changes in income do not interfere with the efficiency of the system, thereby increasing costs for the taxpayer. I recognise that there is an important issue here, and I assure hon. Members that DWP Ministers will keep that tolerance under very active review.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

I just wanted to thank the Minister for that, because it is a very important point. I know those changes are not frequent, but they can prevent money from going to children, which is the issue that this debate is all about.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I underline for the record that that issue is kept under active review.

Within the CMS, arrears are written off in exceptional circumstances only. With regard to CSA arrears, the Department carried out its compliance and arrears strategic review. Over the course of that review, 250,000 receiving parents were written to, explaining the situation. There are fewer than 60,000 cases remaining with CSA debt, and more than 35,000 of those are undergoing collection and enforcement activity. In instances where the receiving parents ask, the CMS undertakes further action to seek to recover the funds. Crucially, this exercise has allowed the CMS to focus its effort on parents who told us they wanted us to try to collect the money that they are owed and the money that will benefit children now.

We are determined to go further and not content to stand still. We are always looking to improve the way we deliver this vital service. The Department continues to keep child maintenance policy and our operational delivery under review. Those who have met Baroness Stedman-Scott will know that she is also a redoubtable champion on these matters and not somebody to be messed with. She is very keen to drive further action forward.

We are also considering how other countries arrange child maintenance. We are gathering examples of good practice and looking at what can be learned from other systems. This includes researching what interventions are used to encourage parents to make their own maintenance arrangements without Government involvement. The CMS has introduced new digital services such as the apply online service that allows parents to make an initial application more easily. That option is available 24/7 and allows greater flexibility for separated parents to use the CMS and manage their child maintenance arrangements in a way that suits them.

That brings me to the standard of service that customers receive when they go to the CMS—a point raised by numerous colleagues today. The CMS is committed to delivering service to the highest standard and has created a more customer-focused culture over the years. In the past, the CMS has experimented with personal caseworkers —a point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford—but it was found that that does not offer the best service. Instead, the CMS organises caseworkers into more tightly formed teams, which allows for knowledge and expertise sharing, so any caseworker can deal with any of their team’s cases. We find that that is the best way forward, but I will gladly pick that point up separately with the hon. Gentleman later.

The hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised the incredibly important issue of domestic abuse survivors. The CMS takes domestic abuse very seriously and has substantially strengthened its procedures to ensure customers can use the CMS safely. The CMS updated its domestic abuse training programme to give clear guidance to caseworkers on how to support victims of domestic abuse. The Department also commissioned an independent review of ways in which the CMS supports survivors of domestic abuse, including those facing and suffering from financial abuse.

The review was conducted by Dr Samantha Callan, who consulted a range of domestic abuse stakeholders and leading charities, as well as CMS customers who have, sadly, experienced domestic abuse. The Government will, of course, carefully consider the findings of the review and any recommendations.

Moving on to the issue of unearned income, we are also looking to take new measures to ensure that income gained from sources other than earnings is distributed fairly. The CMS compliance and arrears strategy 2018 introduced powers that allowed notional income from assets such as coins and gold, income derived from capital, and any foreign income to be used in the assessment, but we want to go further. We propose making changes in legislation that enable the child maintenance calculation to include unearned income that is not currently captured—for example, savings and investment income, and dividends.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister very much for what he has said so far. I think that each and every one of us here today—and, indeed, those who are not here—have the very same issues, particularly that of men trying to hide their incomes. For instance, before a couple separates, money could be moved out of bank accounts and properties could be shoved sideways into the ownership of parents, brothers, sisters or new partners. Does the DWP have the power to investigate such cases in a thorough, almost forensic way? That is really what is needed.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—with conviction, as always—but until an application is made to the CMS, it has no jurisdiction to investigate finances. It is important that applications are put in place so that that sort of action can move forward.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Does that mean that there is going to be a review of the system and that it will lead to such action? If it does, that is a giant step forward.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That is a point on which the redoubtable Baroness will need to come back to the hon. Gentleman. I will write to him on that point.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is very persuasive. I will allow him one last intervention, because he is a good man, but then I think we better move on.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I thank you as well, Ms Rees, because I would not be able to intervene without your say-so.

I also made a point about the evidential base. The ex-wife has great knowledge of where the money is. I referred to her knowing “where the dead bodies are buried”. She knows everything. Discussions with the wife are really important. Can that also be part of the process that the Baroness is considering?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will ensure that the Baroness hears these views. We have all had cases as parliamentarians that have shown us that there are real challenges. We want to lean into this and tackle the challenges appropriately. I have a couple of concluding remarks, which I hope will give Members some confidence.

We have talked about dividends and unearned income. This addresses the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, to some extent. Including that income will reduce the scope for parents to organise their financial affairs in such a way as to reduce their financial liability for their children, which is the situation that we need to stop. Parents need to honour their responsibilities. I also recognise the current cost of living pressures as a result of rising prices around the world and the impact of the Ukrainian war. We will strive to introduce this change as soon as possible.

On enforcement, between January 2020 and December 2021 we arranged a total of 14,300 deduction orders, which represents about 33% of non-paying collect and pay parents. We also referred 15,000 parents to enforcement agents, which represents about 35% of non-paying collect and pay parents. These enforcement actions are taken before sanctions are considered.

During the same period, where further action was needed the CMS initiated almost 6,000 sanction actions against non-paying parents, which represents about 13% of non-paying collect and pay parents. That led to 249 prison sentences—244 suspended of them and five immediate.

We are always looking for new, innovative and effective ways to encourage paying parents to provide the financial support that their children need. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has set out, we are aiming to introduce curfew powers before the end of the year—I understand the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw—and changes to the measures on unearned income after that, which will increase the range of enforcement measures available. Having listened to today’s contributions, I think that those changes will meet with the approval of the hon. Members in attendance.

I thank hon. Members for their participation in this important debate and I hope they will join me in agreeing that the CMS provides an important service. We will continue to keep under review options with regard to CMS policy and operational reforms. Hon. Members can be assured that we will strive to continue addressing the needs of separated parents and producing better outcomes for children—it is a clear priority.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 2:38 pm, 19th May 2022

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I know that this is not a particularly popular time, so I really appreciate them being here. I thank the Minister for his response, although I will be investigating it further. I did not want to say this, but I think I have to. The noble Baroness plays an important role—I have had meetings with her and she is redoubtable—and also speaks well of her Department and tries to move things forward, but it is a pity that she is in the other place and is therefore unable to be directly scrutinised in the Chamber of the House of Commons. That often makes it difficult for Ministers to respond directly to folk like me and other Members present. I am well aware that there was a push on enforcement last year, but I will be writing to the Baroness directly to ask whether that push is going to be continued. I still do not think I have had an answer to, “How long is the long grass?” regarding when legislation will appear. [Interruption.] The Minister is indicating “quite short”, but I think everyone involved would like some more surety about that.

I thank you, Ms Rees, for presiding over today’s debate so well, and I thank all the organisations that have helped us to have it. We are all concerned, and the Minister can take it that we will remain so and will keep a very careful watch on folk in the DWP. The staff in the Child Maintenance Service work hard and do their best. They do not need to be reformed; what needs to be reformed is the systems, and the way in which they are enforced.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered reforms to the Child Maintenance Service.

Sitting suspended.