Child Maintenance Service — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 27 February 2024.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 9:30, 27 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Child Maintenance Service.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this debate, prompted by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiry on the Child Maintenance Service. We published our report last April, and the Government their response in July. The Child Maintenance Service, which I shall refer to as the CMS, was introduced in 2012 to replace the Child Support Agency.

Child maintenance is paid in three ways: non-statutory, family-based arrangements, in which the CMS plays no part; direct pay, where the CMS calculates the amount due and draws up a schedule, but the parents themselves arrange payment; and, thirdly, collect and pay, where the CMS calculates the maintenance owed, collects it from the paying parent and transfers it to the receiving parent. For direct pay, there was, until yesterday I think, a £20 application fee, waived for under-19s and in cases of domestic abuse. For collect and pay, the paying parent pays an extra 20% of the maintenance owed and the receiving parent receives just 96% of what they would have under direct pay.

The Department for Work and Pensions reported 2.5 million separated families in Great Britain in March 2022, with 4 million children in those families. The National Audit Office says that about half receive at least some child maintenance, and one in three has an arrangement that is satisfied in full. Of those with any arrangement, around 500,000 were on direct pay or collect and pay, but nearly 1 million had a family-based, non-statutory arrangement. The National Audit Office made the point that take up of the CMS has been lower than expected, for reasons that the Department does not know, and that setting up the CMS has not increased the number of effective child maintenance arrangements.

Our report made recommendations about the calculation of child maintenance. The maintenance assessed for some parents—I think this is now widely acknowledged—is unaffordable in some cases, causing serious hardship. The bands for calculating maintenance are in primary legislation, so it is hard to change them. Christine Davies, who is honorary senior lecturer in mathematics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told us that because inflation over the past quarter of a century has not been allowed for, someone earning £15,000 today should, according to the scheme’s original intentions, be paying £364 per year in maintenance, but is actually required to pay almost 10 times that or £3,500 per year.

The Callan review called for the formula to include both parents’ income, instead of only the paying parent’s. The Government rejected that, but said they would explore the possibility in their review of the calculation formula. The Government have committed—I welcome this—to a “fundamental review” of the child maintenance calculation. The Minister in the Lords told us in correspondence that the review would be wide ranging and take some time. When the Minister winds up, will he tell us whether we can expect changes before the election?

This is urgent. We have heard of paying parents taking their own lives, because the demands being made of them are simply impossible for them to meet. I was in touch yesterday with Mr Ian Briggs, whose son, Gavin Briggs, took his own life. Mr Ian Briggs told me that on 26 June 2020, the CMS sent his son a letter telling him he owed nearly £16,000. His son took his life a few days after that on 1 July, and on that day his account showed less than £4,000 in arrears. Mr Briggs asks:

“How can this be possible?”

He has had no answer to that question.

The CMS was established to deliver more effective maintenance arrangements, but there is little data on how many direct pay arrangements are effective. We do not know how much child maintenance is not being paid. We asked DWP to monitor the effectiveness of the arrangements proactively—for example, with yearly surveys of parents with direct pay arrangements—but the Government said no to that. My question to the Minister is: what are the Government’s plans for monitoring that for research on the subject? Does the Department think that it understands the effectiveness of direct pay? If so, what evidence is it using? We do not think that it does. How many direct pay arrangements switched to collect and pay or family-based arrangements in the first 12 months? Does the Department know why that is happening?

The Committee also raised concerns about collect and pay. About half of paying parents with those arrangements do not pay or pay less than they should. We heard that enforcement is slow and often ineffective, so we welcomed the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023. That was taken through the House by Siobhan Baillie, who I am delighted is in her place this morning and who makes a distinguished contribution to the work of the Committee. The Act aims to speed up enforcement by allowing CMS to make administrative liability orders when a paying parent has not paid and deduction of earnings is not appropriate. Previously, CMS needed to apply to a court for a liability order, taking up to 22 weeks. The secondary legislation on that will specify the notice that CMS must give to the paying parent before making an order—seven days for those living in the UK and 28 days for those overseas—and set out the process for paying parents who want to challenge a liability order. The Government published their response to the consultation on that two weeks ago, on 12 February. Can the Minister tell us when the secondary legislation will be introduced?

Another set of recommendations in our report was about domestic abuse. In October 2021, the Government asked Dr Samantha Callan, who I already mentioned briefly, to conduct an independent review of CMS processes and procedures for supporting parents subject to domestic abuse. Her report was published in January 2023, and the Government accepted eight of its 10 recommendations. On the first recommendation, the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 received Royal Assent last July; I am pleased to see Sally-Ann Hart in her place this morning as well. Where there is evidence of domestic abuse, a parent can set up collect and pay at the start instead of first trying direct pay, so the two parents need not be in contact. Last September, a written answer said that bringing the Act into force would require consultation and secondary legislation. Can the Minister tell us what the timetable is for those?

Our report asked for a timetable for all the work arising from the Callan review. One strand of that is a pilot of single, named caseworkers for complex domestic abuse cases. In the written answer that I referred to earlier, the Minister said that the Department had started a pilot and it would be evaluated. Can the Minister tell us when that will be and how the pilots went?

I am worried about that, because yesterday I spoke to Rachel Parkin, who gave evidence to the Committee’s inquiry. She is an abuse victim. The former CMS chief executive apologised to Rachel for how her case was handled, assured her that she would be on collect and pay permanently and that she would be in the pilot of a single caseworker. She had a single caseworker for a period of eight months. Her calls in that period were automatically routed to the right caseworker—it worked very well—and she made real headway in resolving long-standing difficulties, but now, without any explanation, she is being put back on direct pay. She has simply been told by the service that it is not bound by promises made to her by a former chief executive. She will be back to random caseworkers and the debilitating need to go through her story every time, which so many people talked to us about during our inquiry.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I am reluctant to interrupt the right hon. Member in full flow, but while he is talking about the failures to give adequate support to people who report that they have been living in an abusive relationship, may I ask whether he was as concerned as I was to realise how completely unaware CMS senior management seem to be that very often the abuse or controlling behaviour starts only after the relationship has ended, and that until about a year ago that was something that just did not seem to have occurred to anybody at the CMS?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

The hon. Member makes a very important point, and I think he is right. I very much welcome his work and that of his colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee in drawing attention to a number of these problems.

I ask the Minister whether the idea of a single caseworker has now been abandoned. Is a domestic abuse team still in place or has that whole initiative, which the CMS talked to the Public Accounts Committee about last year, I think, now been given up? Why is it that someone such as Rachel Parkin has gone back to the arrangements that she was promised she would not?

In our report, we also raised concerns about paying parents who fraudulently attempt to reduce their maintenance assessment and about the fact that the Department does not estimate levels of fraud and error. The Public Accounts Committee, in its 2022 report— two years ago—said that the Department had

“not taken responsibility for detecting child maintenance fraud” and had shifted the burden to receiving parents, who were expected to challenge false assessments. The Committee pointed out that a paying parent who was notified of being investigated for understating their income would no doubt guess that their ex-partner had reported them, and as a result, the Committee warned, many receiving parents would not report. I think that the Committee was right to make that point. In response, the Department said that it used risk profiling and threat scanning to target fraud in the child maintenance system and that it already had proportionate and cost-effective controls. Can the Minister tell us what exactly risk profiling and threat scanning are in practice?

We recommended that there should be specialist caseworkers for cases in which the paying parent’s income is from self-employment. In correspondence, the Minister in the other place who has responsibility for this part of the Department’s work, Lord Younger, pushed back on that, on the grounds of “funding implications”. However, the Department has said that it will legislate to ensure that unearned income, such as savings, investments, dividends and property income, is taken into account automatically when maintenance is calculated, to make it more difficult for

“the small number of parents who avoid paying the correct amount.”

Can this Minister tell us when that legislation will be introduced?

The Government have just introduced, as I mentioned earlier, secondary legislation to remove the £20 fee for all parents who apply for a statutory maintenance arrangement. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that took effect yesterday as planned. The same secondary legislation also introduced new powers for the Secretary of State to write off maintenance arrears under £7 in certain circumstances.

Finally, I want to make this point. There are, as all of us in the House well know, unending complaints about very poor customer service from the CMS. It is very difficult to get through; calls go unanswered. There are incorrect assessments, and people are having to tell their story again from scratch on every call. The service does have a very tough job, against a backdrop of pain and conflict; it is very difficult to provide a good service in that situation, but can the Minister offer us any prospect that the improvements needed will be made?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Seven colleagues wish to speak. You have six minutes each. If you are on the list to speak and you intervene, that might reduce your time to four or five minutes if you are at the end of the list. I call Dr Thérèse Coffey—six minutes, please.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 9:45, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, on securing this important debate.

I recognise the importance of the Child Maintenance Service in trying to help children in low-income households. I give credit to Arlene Sugden, the former director of the CMS: she did a tremendous job and made a lot of changes. It is sad to hear that some of the reforms that she brought in might now have slid, but we should recognise that thanks to the CMS, more than £1 billion a year has made its way to the parents who look after the child for the majority of the time.

Several of us will have distressing stories. When parents come to us, they and their child are struggling. It is terrible to see how children are often used as pawns in a dysfunctional or non-existing relationship. That is why I really care about the Child Maintenance Service. In my time in the Department, I worked with my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott to see what we could do to improve the experience for parents. Our priority was to reduce child poverty. With only one parent working, perhaps not full time, extra income from child maintenance was critical to boosting opportunities for the child.

I am conscious that in the majority of situations, whether they involve hiding assets or getting someone else to do a DNA test to avoid being identified as a parent, it is women and children who are affected. Men are also affected, however; I do not want to dismiss that in any way. Some of the most harrowing cases that I have heard have been those in which a father has been left with the children while the mother has been trying to avoid responsibility and, in some instances, lying to my face. Nevertheless, the Department continues to fund the Reducing Parental Conflict programme. The Child Maintenance Service is never seen to take sides between the two parents; it is seen to be on the side of the child. That is a vital approach.

I have already laid out how the issue matters to me. We started a strategy; it is good to see significant elements of that. I was delighted when my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) took legislation through the House on the issue, with the support of the Government. As the right hon. Member for East Ham says, we are still waiting to bring into force these important Acts of Parliament with the important changes that are needed, and we are still waiting for commencement orders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud says, it is vital for section 25 of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 to come into force.

I appreciate that the Minister is very competent, but this matter is not in his brief; he is speaking for my noble Friend Viscount Younger and for the Government more broadly. In July 2022, the Department issued a call for a consultation—not a call for evidence—on enacting section 28 of the 2008 Act, which is about curfew orders. We have still not had a response to that consultation.

By the way, it is perfectly acceptable for a new Secretary of State to come in and change the approach taken by their predecessors and different Prime Ministers. I have no issue with that, but it is important that we hear from the Government what their intentions are. I am not a huge fan of doing lots of pilots. The Government have put forward legislation and Parliament has voted for it, so we should get on with putting it in place. That is one of my key messages. I will take this matter directly to the Minister when I meet him in March, but it could be useful to pre-empt some the questions.

One thing I discovered during our deep dive is that, for people who are not working or are on benefits, there is a “nominal” payment—it is actually quite a significant one for someone who does not really have an income—of £7 a week, to be paid from their benefits to the receiving parent. There are also challenges with universal credit when not everyone is not working, and there may be different elements of income support. One challenge with child maintenance is that those who do not pay everything may end up paying nothing, so over time they end up accruing money to which the child should be entitled. We need to look again at that. We also need to focus a lot more on work coaches getting people into work so that they can start paying for their children.

I will keep to my six minutes, Sir Charles. In essence, we need parents to cough up the cash for their children, and the Child Maintenance Service needs to facilitate that. I am glad that it seems to have dropped the idea that it would potentially do all collect and pay. The state does not need to be involved in every interaction between two parents, but when parents ask it to get involved it must do so to the best of its ability. I look forward to the commencement orders getting under way so we can make sure that children are put first.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Thank you for being so helpful to the Chair and setting a fine example.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:51, 27 February 2024

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on his speech. I will comment not only from a Northern Ireland point of view, but from a personal point of view and on behalf of my constituents.

We brought in the Child Maintenance Service to ensure that when a parent—a mother or a father—leaves the family unit, the child is cared for. It is so important. We deal with these cases nearly every week in my office. Unfortunately, they are not always good to hear about, because the contribution—in most cases from the father, but in some cases from the mother—is not always up to scratch.

The Government give parents a small amount of money to help with childcare, but not many people can raise a child on less than £25 a week. Subsequently, it is incumbent on parents to do the bulk of the financial giving. For some parents, child tax credit helps to fill the gap, yet when there is a relationship breakdown, finances are inevitably strained. Instead of just one rent or one mortgage, there are now two. There are two sets of heating bills and two sets of electricity, yet the income has not doubled. I completely understand that it cannot all be done, but there can never, ever be an excuse for a parent not providing for their child.

The CMS was set up to facilitate things when a relationship breakdown means that an agreement cannot be reached. Its role is to ensure that help is there to work out how to pay the bills and provide for the children. That is the theory, and it is all great, but in practice I have parents coming to my office upset because their partner will not meet their obligations. I know of one who has holidays, nights out, a big car and a lavish lifestyle, and he is absolutely suntanned to the eyeballs—this is all detailed on social media! Everybody else seems to know what he is doing, but the CMS seems not to. I find that quite frustrating. What is he paying? He is paying £5 a week in maintenance. How can that be right? The computer will say that people are paying what they are able to pay, but the reality is that they have turned their back not only on their relationship, but on their child and on their obligation. Their life is so expensive. It hits you right between the eyes when you see that.

The most recent statistics that I have found, for Northern Ireland’s separate but very similar system, show that the compliance rate for paying parents on collect and pay remained relatively stable from September 2020 to September 2023. Between 75% and 83% of parents paid some child maintenance; in the quarter ending September 2023, compliance was at 79%. It is interesting that one in five parents are not paying towards their offspring, but to me the telling phrase is “some child maintenance”. That £5 a week example shows a real shortfall. How much is “some”? Is it £5 short? Is it £5 a week? It could mean the difference between a child who can afford to have swimming lessons in school and a child who has to sit on the sidelines and is made different from their peers because one parent has decided, “No, I’m not paying that.” That is absolutely unacceptable.

It is a difference that we need to know about. We cannot accept a reporting system that appears to say that any amount paid is a victory. Try explaining that victory to a struggling single parent whose mum is giving money out of her pension to keep the lights on! That is the reality for the CMS.

There is a mechanism by which those who are not paying can be taken to court. A 2018 review of the Northern Ireland child maintenance reform programme, commissioned by the Department for Communities, found that from the introduction of enforcement charges in 2014 to December 2016, £7,200 had been received in enforcement charges. I suggest that there needs to be a bit more action on that. On collect and pay, the review noted:

“Collection charges were introduced in August 2014. Up to December 2016, £432,100 have been received in collection charges from paying parents with £83,400 received from receiving parents.”

Part of the problem with parents pursuing CMS is that they speak to a different officer every time. How many times have we, as elected representatives, had to explain the whole case again to a different officer? If it is going to be one officer, that is okay, except for one thing—it does not work out either.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The point about case officers not being fully au fait with the issue is an extremely frustrating one that more and more parents are describing. They are experiencing delays on the phone, and then they have to start from scratch to explain their case from A to Z. It is extremely frustrating for all concerned.

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

It certainly is, and that is one of the problems. The Minister is a very compassionate and understanding Minister, and hopefully he will come back with the answers that we all seek. I am very keen to hear his thoughts on how we can we ensure better continuity.

Reforms have been happening, thanks to Siobhan Baillie. Like other hon. Members, I want to thank her personally, because it was her determination and commitment that enabled the Department for Work and Pensions to impose tougher sanctions on non-paying parents such as forcing the sale of property and taking away passports and driving licences through a quick and simple administrative process. The Child Support (Enforcement) Act was designed to see families being paid faster, as it gives the DWP the power to use a liability order to reclaim unpaid child maintenance instead of applying to court and waiting for up to 20 weeks. My goodness me! How frustrating to wait that long for something to be done.

I want to keep to my six minutes, Sir Charles, so these will be my last few sentences. The reform is great, but more is needed. I look to the Minister to see what improvements can be made throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s thoughts on discussions between the DWP and Northern Ireland to ensure that in a bitter breakdown, the child is not the one ultimately paying the price. That is what this debate is about, and that is what we should try to achieve.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 9:57, 27 February 2024

As ever, Sir Charles, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, on securing this important debate.

The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, has made the point that when constituents come to our surgeries to discuss their Child Maintenance Service concerns, cases and complaints, it is almost invariably a very distressing meeting. I will not rehearse every case that has been brought to me, but I will highlight some issues that I have encountered recently.

A man was in tears because he simply could not get the Child Maintenance Service to adequately explain the arrears on his account. On the phone, he would be told that he owed nothing, but days later he would get a letter telling him he was several thousand pounds in arrears. A deduction from earnings order would then be attached to his employer, the Ministry of Defence. It became very difficult for him professionally, because he was not allowed to be in debt, yet whenever he spoke to the service on the phone, he was told that he was not in debt. There are complexities and confusions that still prevail within the system.

Another issue that I would like to highlight is the flip of that. There are several live cases that I keep raising with the Child Maintenance Service involving 17, 18 and 19-year-old children who are no longer in college, but whose parent is still in receipt of child benefit. The paying parent is still being asked to make contributions, yet they can produce evidence from the colleges to show that those young people are no longer attending. The parent with care is claiming that the child is still in full-time education, but the child is not. They are effectively fraudulently claiming child benefit, as a result of which the paying parent is still expected to pay their child maintenance contributions. They are not averse to supporting their children; they are just trying to make the point that this is a young person who is no longer in education. When they raise that with the CMS, the CMS takes it at face value when the parent with care says, “Yes, yes, yes—they are still attending college.” It is hugely problematic.

I think there are times in this place when we should confess our sins. Previously, for 12 months of my life, I was the Minister with responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service—a Commons Minister. I pay tribute to the Minister here today, who I know is going to do an admirable job in responding to us, but I want him to take a very strong message back to the DWP: there remains a great deal of unhappiness about how the system is or is not working.

During my time at the DWP, I was desperate to have the power to remove passports from non-paying parents. Several successive Ministers—my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse and my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the latter of whom eventually delivered on that power—all followed in my footsteps to make the point that taking a driving licence away from a non-paying parent hampers their ability to go out to work. Taking their passport hampers their ability to take their new partner on a weekend to Paris. I know which would be more likely to be effective in my mind.

In the intervening years, we have taken only a handful of passports from non-paying parents. My hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, who has done so much good work on this, passed me a note that told me it was seven in 2022. It is just not good enough. If we are to have powers in place, like the curfews suggested by my hon. Friend Dr Mullan or those advocated for by my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, they have to be used. We have to make the point to non-paying parents that powers exist and they are going to be used robustly. If they do not cough up for their children, they will suffer the consequences. I regret that I still do not think we are getting that message across adequately.

Finally, I have veered away from the many times when I have accompanied constituents to tribunals and sat with them while their cases were heard by telephone; I have always sought to support them. I recently had a really concerning response from the DWP about a constituent who had sought a deduction from earnings order for a parent who had not paid for years for their children. The DWP responded that it could not grant a DEO because it was not confident of the non-paying parent’s address. We know that the DWP has the powers to look at HMRC records and that it can see where someone is employed, yet it was not confident of the individual’s address.

That sends a very clear message: if anyone wishes to be a non-paying parent, then they can just disappear. If they ensure that their partner cannot trace their address, the DWP will back off. To be quite frank, we should never be in a situation where the DWP backs off. Parents have a duty to support their children and I urge the Minister to take the message back that we must redouble efforts to ensure that non-paying parents are compliant.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 10:02, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on securing the debate on this important issue. The Child Maintenance Service can play a vital role in lifting children out of poverty, but despite significant improvements since 2012, further reforms are needed.

Last summer, I was delighted that my private Member’s Bill, which ensures that victims of domestic abuse can receive child maintenance without contact from their abuser, received Royal Assent. The Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 will allow the CMS to intervene in cases where abuse is evident, using its powers to collect and make payments. That set-up, “collect and pay”, is already used by about 37% of parents using the CMS. It provides extra protections for parents who have experienced domestic abuse by managing payments and avoiding the need for contact, preventing perpetrators from inflicting financial abuse and control. It builds on the CMS’s existing procedures to protect both the paying and receiving parents who are vulnerable to domestic abuse, ensuring that more children in separated families are supported.

The commencement of the 2023 Act, as already highlighted, is reliant on secondary legislation to be developed and approved. When I contacted the Minister in January, the consultation details were being finalised—perhaps this Minister can update me on that. That Act and the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023, brought in by my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie, provide the basis for the CMS to act swiftly, progressing enforcement action faster with the aim of getting money to children more quickly, establishing compliance, preventing further arrears and bolstering domestic abuse protections for parents. I look forward to the secondary legislation coming into force to give effect to those two Acts as soon as possible.

However, I have a point to make about the collect and pay service: the CMS charges the paying parent 20% of the maintenance collected, and the receiving parent forgoes 4% of the collected money. It is not right that a victim of domestic abuse must effectively pay for the privilege of being abused. They should not be penalised by the fees, which should be scrapped. In addition, as per the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee, to help parents on low incomes there should be means testing for collect and pay fees. The fees should not apply to the lowest-income households. The children’s needs must come first, and it is important that available family moneys are for the maintenance of children to help lift them out of poverty.

Improving the effectiveness and speed of enforcement is also key. We are all aware of the fraudulent efforts of some parents who seek to avoid paying for their children, and the complication that arises when children live with both parents. For example, I have a current case with four children. Three of them live with parent A, who is not working and claims benefits, and should pay child support to parent B for one child, while one lives with parent B, who is working and pays child support to parent A for three children. Parent A has not been paying child support to parent B. Parent B cannot deduct the payment from the child support she is paying to parent A, because they are considered to be two different cases and there is no linking up. Parent B is struggling and the CMS cannot seem to get its head around it. There seems to be a need for better co-ordination within the CMS, as well as with other departments such as the family courts, to access financial information when non-resident parents are actively seeking to avoid paying maintenance. Information sharing is key, and better IT is also needed to enable joined-up enforcement activity. All public services need to remember that they are dealing with people who are often struggling.

I attended a departmental briefing in November last year with the Minister, who outlined the work in train to increase enforcement action. I welcome the further steps to improve the CMS, including the liability orders consultation to speed up enforcement action, the removal of the £20 application fee and longer-term changes. The scrapping of the £20 fee to the CMS signifies a shift towards inclusivity and accessibility. The fee can deter parents, especially those in vulnerable situations.

All parents need to take financial responsibility for their children. It is not fair on the children if they do not receive the support that they are due for essential food, clothing, education and healthcare. Financial support is also vital to reinforce a child’s overall quality of life, and their sense of security, wellbeing and stability. Knowing that both parents care about them and for them fosters emotional wellbeing. The CMS process must not add delay or hardship. Streamlining processes, improving enforcement and going after parents who will do anything to get out of paying for their child will help create a fairer system and provide financial security for children and parents.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 10:08, 27 February 2024

I congratulate the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, on arranging this debate.

It is not too naive to say that we would all like parents who separate to reach an amicable arrangement on access and maintenance for their children, so the state does not have to get involved at all. However, I suspect that is somewhat unlikely to happen in every case, hence why we need to have this service. The problem is that the service is not sufficiently effective. It creates more need for itself because some parents think that they can get away with it and try not to pay, so we force the family through the system to try to fix the situation.

If there was a general feeling that a parent who did not pay their maintenance would get caught and have to pay more, we might actually push more parents to reach an amicable arrangement rather than try this route, and we would not end up having to be the referee or the battering ram that we were desperately trying to avoid in the first place. I remind the Minister that having a service that actually works is not inconsistent with the Government’s overall aim of not getting involved unless they really need to: that would stop some of the demand in the first place.

The cases that most frustrate me are the ones that are superficially easy. The parent who should be paying is in employment and has a relatively stable income, which we can see through a real-time information feed, and they either do not pay at all or do not pay regularly. It is incredibly frustrating to see how long it takes for any enforcement action to be taken in that situation. We see scenarios where that person does not pay for a bit, finally gets some threats and starts paying for a couple of months, and then stops paying again, and the whole process has to start again. It is effectively just a game that they are playing. We end up with huge arrears building up, the parent with care struggling financially and the child losing out.

I hope that, now we have administrative liability orders in place that can be brought in much more quickly, we can stop those situations from arising. I certainly hope the CMS can monitor how fast arrears are building up and how quickly the orders are being put in place, so that we can show real progress and so those arrears do not get to the stage they have been getting to in the past.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am grateful to my colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee. He and I were at the roundtables we had in Greater Manchester where we heard from both paying and receiving parents. There were harrowing stories of parents who were in arrears. We heard a story of someone who unfortunately had died. Is he as concerned as I am about the reports around the deaths of both paying and receiving parents, and the fact that that has not been adequately considered in the handling of those parents by the CMS? What does he think we should be doing about that?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I agree with the hon. Member that those stories were incredibly concerning. That reinforces the point that if we get this right early, and everyone knows what they should be paying and it is enforced, hopefully some of that stress goes away. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, rightly made the point that we should be looking at the thresholds and the calculations to ensure that they are fair on all parties.

The other situation that frustrates me concerns when somebody has arrears and is sent the demand. I have seen cases where someone is sent five demands in a week, all with different numbers and vastly different by thousands of pounds. I naively assumed that when somebody is sent a demand with arrears, a calculation is made on the system to come to that number and that when somebody asks for it, CMS can just press a button and it will be emailed over, so the person can work out how it has come to that number. That is not the case. It takes weeks and weeks. The chief executive said before the Select Committee that it is a 12-week turnaround.

How can the CMS send a demand out for arrears without calculating it? When that person finally gets the calculation, they think, “I’m paid monthly, and there is a certain percentage I have to pay. I get paid two grand a month and pay 15%. That is £300. I have paid £200, so I owe £100”—a simple calculation. What they get is 16 sides of calculations and, for some reason, it is done by weekly income. It is totally unfollowable. I would seriously urge the Minister to look through some of these calculations, if he has not done so. There must be a better way of doing it, so that everybody understands what they owe and can check it to prove whether it is right. It cannot be that complicated.

Finally, will the Minister look at where child maintenance arrears sit in the universal credit deductions? They sit a long way down, and below debt owed back to the Department. If we really think this money is essential for child welfare, we should be letting the parent with care have that money before we take it back to pay debts owed to the state, and it should be much higher on the list.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 10:13, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank Sir Stephen Timms for securing a debate on this topic, on which I have campaigned consistently during my time as an MP. I campaign on this issue because I feel strongly that there is a pure moral obligation and benefit to hard-working taxpayers of cracking down on delinquent parents.

I have said before and I will say again that having children, then not contributing to the cost of raising them is morally reprehensible. I certainly think it is worse than shoplifting, fraud, dropping litter, selling counterfeit goods and a whole range of other things for which individuals can and do regularly face much tougher sanctions. This is not about some idealised view of families or saying that families should be one size fits all; it is about saying that whatever the relationship between parents, both maintain a moral obligation to provide for their children. Recently, children have seen a win with the successful passage of the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for introducing the Act, and I fully support its aims. We have had the necessary consultations ahead of enactment and, like others, I would welcome an update from the Minister on when we can expect to see the powers being used, because they are very much needed.

According to Gingerbread, total arrears sit at £547.9 million. Imagine the positive impact we could have had on children had that money been paid. The non-payment of maintenance is a key driver of child poverty. If all maintenance due was paid, 60% of children of single parents who are not benefiting from payments would be lifted out of poverty. Let us be clear that in many respects taxpayers pick up the bill indirectly. Although I praise these advances, I worry that they will not be enough, and represent a partial acceptance of an unacceptable status quo, in particular for those parents who do not earn, or earn very little, when they could reasonably have expected to earn more.

This is where we need one of two fundamental rethinks. When it comes to out-of-work benefit payments, we expect recipients to make an effort to find work and earn more, because they have a moral obligation to the rest of us who pay for their benefits. Surely, the obligation to earn to care for one’s children is even greater. We should subject parents to the same reasonable expectations to find work and earn more as we do for those who claim benefits.

To enforce that and other expectations, I continue to ask the Government to make use of the home curfew powers available. The use of already established but unused powers to impose a home curfew, I believe, would have a positive impact on those who shy away from their parental financial duties. Indeed, spending six months with no social life would certainly provide time to reassess responsibilities and allow people to be made an example of.

That brings me to the second fundamental rethink. The current system ignores the moral aspect of this debt. This is not a commercial debt; people should be punished for not providing when they reasonably could. At the moment, the system simply asks them to start paying money again and, if they do that, everything falls away. There is no punishment for their moral failure to make an effort to pay, when they could, or for deliberately seeking to avoid paying. We need to create moral hazard for individuals to behave in that way.

A home curfew has the added benefit of providing time for a parent to go out to work, so arguments about punishments hampering earnings, particularly custody, fall away. Of course, these powers should not be the first port of call. Cases must have a clear evidence base that a parent has actively made attempts to deny sharing money, or made no effort over a long period of time to find work and increase earnings. I am also clear, for those who are concerned about this and write to me when I raise it, that custody and benefit arrangements are separate.

I recognise that there are parents who want to pay, do pay, and do not get access to their children. That is wrong and I encourage all of them to use the courts to secure the access to which they are legally entitled. That does not mean that someone should not pay in the meantime. If there is a genuine dispute about maintenance payments, I can understand why these cases arise, but I question the priorities of a parent who only wants to pay maintenance for their child when they have custody. Surely, payment of maintenance should come first, and custody rights should be pursued separately.

I will finish by asking the Minister to explain why we have again moved away from using home curfews, and ask him to reconsider that, or at least commit to doing so, if these newly enacted powers fail to bring down the maintenance backlog, which, unfortunately, I am confident they will not. Children deserve nothing less, and wider society should rely on us to uphold these basic moral standards.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 10:17, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I give my full support to Sir Stephen Timms and the Committee, and everything he asks for today. He had the foresight to bring this matter forward after the publication of the NAO report, and is smart enough to follow up and start poking the Government again, to ensure that we can get some changes. This is a serious issue that everybody up and down the country experiences in their postbags.

I am grateful to colleagues for being so kind about the Bill which I introduced. I am committed to changing the law and improving enforcement, but I must give credit to my right hon. Friend Claire Coutinho, who initially introduced the Bill but was then made a Minister, and to the Government for their support under the direction of my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey. Having Government support always makes it easier when trying to force through change. In that respect, it is a big team effort.

I care so much about the CMS because of my work as a family lawyer and because of personal family experience. My dad still stares off into the middle distance when he talks of his experience of the Child Support Agency back in the day, because it was a disaster. The service goes far beyond the impact of putting money in people’s pockets, important as that is, and as much as we are right to focus on the poverty of children. It affects every single child of every demographic caught up in the difficulties of separating parents. If the system does not work for them, parents often have an impact on their children. They do not mean to; it just happens. If a parent has had to spend a whole week fighting with the CMS on trying to get a calculation, and then there is the handover, the kid is caught in the middle of that frosty handover—or worse, if there is shouting and frustration. I cannot emphasise enough the need to get the system working. As colleagues have said, getting it right early on and making early interventions deters others and changes the lives of families.

I want to say a little bit about dads. They really feel under attack whenever we talk about changing the Child Maintenance Service. It is often dads in my surgery who are in tears, because they care deeply about their children. They often have residence of their children and shared care, but the system does not recognise that or has ignored a court order. The round robins and the constant nightmare with correspondence is very damaging, and sadly it is often dads who are taking their own lives or pointing to problems with the CMS.

It is right to recognise that 93% of paying parents in the system are dads. However, we cannot ignore the fact that non-paying parents include dads, and that the liability orders that were sought in the past were sought against dads. I ask all the dads listening to this, when they hear of the push for curfew orders, societal changes and so on, to stay angry. They should not necessarily stay angry with MPs in this room, because they will just join a long list of people who are angry with us, but rather stay angry with the dads who are letting down their kids and not paying, because they poison the well for the good dads who are trying their best.

One of my constituents said that he feels—and colleagues have said this too—that there is an institutional bias in favour of the receiving parent. Even when it is proven that a receiving parent is not being honest or true, the burden of proof is often on the paying parent, and that is causing a huge amount of stress.

I am trying to calculate how much time I have left to speak. In the complex cases that we are trying to fix by tightening up enforcement, parents are seeing the lifestyle of non-paying parents far outstripping their own. The non-paying parents are going abroad and having a lovely time with their new families, but the process of taking evidence of that to the CMS is falling down. A mum wrote to me saying that she was experiencing considerable stress. She was not receiving any money. She was working between 40 and 50 hours a week just to keep her kids clothed, and that meant, because of her work ethic, that she did not qualify for any benefits. However, she could see the non-paying parent treating himself to several luxurious holidays a year to faraway shores. That is hugely detrimental to the children in that family, and we have got—

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

On the hon. Lady’s point about complex cases, some of the most egregious cases which I and other hon. Members have seen in our surgeries involve the paying parent concealing income because they are self-employed, so they are not paying what is owed. One mother came to me who is owed £18,000 in arrears, and I met another who has been fighting for six years for £22,000- worth of payments. The way in which arrears are treated is different from live cases, where a small amount being paid is accepted. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need a full review of how those complex cases are dealt with and reform of the CMS?

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

One of the biggest issues is that people’s lives are complex—families are complex and blended. We have wonderful ways of living, which must be reflected in how CMS caseworkers are trained, but we also need a bespoke approach to each case, because this is incredibly difficult. I give credit to the CMS; I am always impressed by it and I thoroughly enjoyed working with it to try to make changes, as well as with Lord Younger and Baroness Stedman-Scott, who are amazing parliamentarians who are working really hard.

The National Audit Office says that we are heading for £1 billion-worth of arrears by 2030. When the Child Support Agency had a controlled explosion from 2014 to 2018, the figures were not anywhere near that. The reality of the long wait for decisions, a lack of clarity about maintenance paid, poor communication, unclear calculations, poor service and bad handling is poisoning the well for all families. I urge the Minister to take that strong message back to the Department.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

I will give Wendy Chamberlain two minutes in which to speak; she has been here from the start of the debate and has been trying to catch my eye.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:24, 27 February 2024

Thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak; I am very grateful. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

There were two aspects of this issue that I wanted to raise. The first is domestic abuse cases about which many Members have spoken so eloquently. I have a particularly egregious case in my constituency. The children are now adults, but the coercive control is still being applied to the receiving parent by the withholding of money. I agree with Nigel Mills that we need to examine how we consider arrears in terms of debts and that people need to be pursued quickly, because the legacy of these issues is ongoing for these children into adulthood.

Secondly, we say that we want the system basically to work so that we do not make the situation worse when the CMS becomes involved. However, the reality is that even those parents who engage with the system in good faith are being let down.

I will just the case of my constituent, Kevin, who was medically discharged from the military 18 months ago. He reported his falling income to the CMS and continued to make payments for his children. However, the CMS then did everything wrong: it took overpayments; it wrongly moved him to the collect and pay route; and it pursued him for £12,000 of debt that never existed, because the systems work on the basis that there is a consistent salary and income going forward. The 12 weeks that was talked about earlier means that Kevin has gone through a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and we are left in a situation where those children have been negatively impacted as a result. It is clear that this issue is complex and difficult, but it is also clear that the Government need to do more.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Thank you very much. I now call Peter Grant. Mr Grant, you have 10 minutes in which to sum up for your party.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 10:26, 27 February 2024

Thank you very much, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak; I am grateful for the chance to begin summing up in this debate.

First, I commend Sir Stephen Timms, the Chair of the Select Committee, for securing this debate. I thank him and other Members of that Committee for giving me the chance to attend, as a guest, some of the hearings when they have had the Child Maintenance Service before them. Also, I want to give the right hon. Gentleman more than the usual token 20 or 30 seconds at the end of the debate to sum up, so I will try to keep within the 10 minutes I have; those who know me will know what a struggle that will be, but I will do my best.

I think this is the third time I have participated in a Westminster Hall debate on the Child Maintenance Service and I am again struck today by the fact that there has been very little disagreement in the Chamber; everybody accepts that the CMS is not working, that the time for talking about changing it is long past and that we need to start seriously changing it.

It was very noticeable in this debate today that the overwhelming majority of contributions have come from the Minister’s own party, with two of them from people who have been there with ministerial responsibility: the right hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Incidentally, while the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North was speaking, I made a quick check and found that, since she moved from the Department for Work and Pensions in 2017, we are now on our fifth Minister with responsibility for child maintenance. Maybe that partly explains why it has taken so long to get anywhere. There are obviously reasons why there have been so many Cabinet changes in that time, but I think the Child Maintenance Service is far too important to be one of the things that gets added to the portfolio of someone who stays in post for six months before they get moved on, because it is complex and, if a Minister is in post for only a year, they will not get the time to get on top of the service and drive forward significant changes.

As I have said, this is a system that is simply not fit for purpose. I do not think that we can beat around the bush and look for minor changes; we need a complete overhaul and review, starting from a blank sheet of paper and redesigning the whole thing.

To illustrate that point, I will ask a question. If somebody came in who did not know what the Child Maintenance Service was for and just looked at what it did, would they ever be able to work out what its purpose is? If they did, I will guarantee that they would not conclude that its main purpose was to make sure that no child had to live in poverty simply because of the family circumstances that their parents have found themselves in. If we accept that aim as a valid purpose for the Child Maintenance Service, we begin to understand just how far away from hitting that target we are just now.

Depending on what figures people believe, the United Kingdom is probably the fifth or sixth wealthiest economy in the world, yet 4.2 million children in the UK live in poverty, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. Again, we can argue about the exact number of children in poverty, but we cannot argue that the number of children living in poverty in an economy with so much money spilling around in some places is simply not acceptable. By fixing the Child Maintenance Service, we can certainly reduce the number of children living in poverty, and in such a way that the people who pay for it are the people who should have been paying for it all along. The parents have had the children, but for one reason or another are simply not meeting their responsibilities to pay financial support for their upbringing.

One of the previous speakers—Nigel Mills, I think—talked about the fact that debt owed to the Child Maintenance Service is not seen as important or as such a high priority for collection as debt owed to the Government. Again, that is simply wrong. Why do we not have a system in which the DWP pays all the child maintenance due, and then the DWP chases the people who are fiddling the figures or trying to hide and not pay the money? I can guarantee that if the DWP were chasing an absent parent for the money, they would not be living on a fancy yacht in the Bahamas or in the Mediterranean, as mentioned by Jim Shannon. If they were doing that, but the money was owed to the Government, they certainly would not be posting on Facebook to boast about how much money they had or how much they were able to hide.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to listen to my points about moral hazard, but does he agree that his proposal for the taxpayer to pick up directly the payments of absent parents who are not paying would double the impact of saying, “You don’t have responsibility. The taxpayer will step in directly and pay it for you.”?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I was saying, he would realise that that is exactly what I am not saying. I am saying that the full force of collection and enforcement that is in the hands of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or DWP should be brought to bear not only on those who refuse to pay what they are assessed as being due to pay, but on those who are lying, committing fraud and stealing from their own children. Ultimately, they would still be stealing from their own children, but HMRC has powers to enforce in a way that a single parent does not have. That is what I am saying. It is not a simple solution, but I think it would make a significant difference. As has been mentioned, the DWP’s own figures reckon that since the Child Maintenance Service was set up, £590 million of debt has not been collected. That does not include the undetected fraud or the under-declaration of income, assets and so on.

Something else that I always find concerning about the CMS is that it does not seem to have any curiosity about a parent who fights and fights to get a settlement but then just disappears off the system and gives up. In Child Maintenance Service cases I have dealt with, I have found that probably the single biggest outcome is that the parent with responsibility for bringing up the children simply gives up in frustration, deciding that it is better for them just to get on with their life and to struggle through—very often in or near poverty—because they can no longer cope with the stress of dealing with the Child Maintenance Service. That is a shocking indictment of any Government service, in particular one whose only point, whose only reason to exist, is to make lives better for vulnerable young children.

I have often noticed that, when speaking to parents, the paying partner always talks about how much they are having to pay to their ex-partner. They often do not see it as paying for the upkeep of their children. Something about the language we use here, we need to look at. Something raised by one of my constituents at a roundtable held by Fife Gingerbread, which I hope the Department has picked up and started to act on, is that CMS letters get addressed to the parent—the parent’s name is on it—and it does not say “To the parent of” with the name of the child, which would be a simple way of making it clear that this is about the children.

There will often be bad will between two partners who have split up. Whether they split up amicably or acrimoniously, once they start disagreeing about money, it is likely to become quite a bit more acrimonious. The children, however, should never be made to suffer as a result.

I mentioned Fife Gingerbread. I again need to commend the outstanding work that it has done, and not just within the boundaries of Fife. It is one of the organisations that has influenced the way in which the Child Maintenance Service now operates. On the scrapping of the £20 fee for being able to claim child maintenance, for example, I am convinced that Fife Gingerbread is one of the organisations that can claim part of the credit for having achieved that, as well as a number of other changes that we are seeing.

We have had reference to the fact that IT systems are not fit for purpose. This is the 21st century—we are almost a quarter of the way into the century—and we are using systems that are 40 or 50 years out of date. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, and other members of the Work and Pensions Committee and of the Public Accounts Committee will remember only too well what happened to the payment of state pensions when the Department carried on using systems that were no longer fit for purpose. We could be heading for an equally massive injustice in the assessment, payment and collection of child maintenance if we do not get those systems sorted out. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, it should not take three or four months for somebody to be told why the assessment is the number that it is. In some of the queries to HMRC, when people are assessed on self-assessment, they could go online, and sitting in front of them would be exactly why HMRC had assessed them for that amount.

The final thing is that one way to reduce the need for child maintenance is for Governments to take other action on children in poverty. This Government could undertake actions that have already been shown to be successful by the Scottish Government. There is the child payment, which has lifted about 50,000 children in Scotland out of poverty; if we do that down here, we are talking about half a million children being lifted out of poverty. Actions taken by the Scottish Government are estimated to reduce the cost of bringing up a child by somewhere in the region of £25,000 to £26,000 during their childhood. Policies similar to those would reduce the demands on child maintenance, reducing the need either for children to live in poverty or for their parents to almost literally come to blows arguing over who should care for their child.

I entirely agree that nobody should feel that they can just leave their children to be the responsibility of someone else. I find it interesting that financial neglect, which is what we are talking about here, is treated differently from any other forms of neglect. If a parent neglects their child in any other way, we do not just stand back and leave the parents to sort it out. If a parent is deliberately neglecting their children financially, they cannot be allowed to get away with it. I do not have confidence that the existing Child Maintenance Service will ever be able to address that, which is why we need to design an entirely new service fit for the 21st century that recognises the wide variety of circumstances that people live in today.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 10:36, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I thank all colleagues who have contributed, in particular the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, for bringing forward the debate. As we heard from all the serious questions asked, it is important.

The Minister has quite a number of important questions to answer, so I will try to be swift. It is clear from this debate that on both sides of the House we all want parents to meet their responsibilities and pay what their child needs—no ifs, no buts; just get it done. We know from Gingerbread, which was mentioned by many hon. Members, that 60% of children of single parents not benefiting from child maintenance could be lifted out of poverty if that support were paid in full. That is why we want to get it sorted. The current situation is just not acceptable, which is why it was good—if a little tardy—that recently we the Government finally removed the fee for the service, after many people had warned for a number of years that it would remove its effectiveness.

Listening to colleagues, it strikes me that it would be helpful if the Government could provide a timeline or working update to help colleagues to know which improvements to CMS they are making and the status of those improvements. There are areas where the Government could do that and help us: on issues relating to domestic abuse, to customer service—I think particularly of the contribution made by Nigel Mills about the complexity of calculations; it cannot be beyond us to have clarity and be able to inform citizens of the information that the Government have on their behalf—and to enforcement. Members have made it absolutely clear how long we have been trying to get enforcement improved, and having a working update from the Government on where we are with that would really help colleagues. I want the Minister to consider that.

When the Minister and I last met across Dispatch Boxes, I had some questions about research undertaken by the Government. The Minister was kind enough to write to me on 21 February to say that Ipsos is commissioned currently to research direct pay customers. That is really helpful, because we really need to understand what is going on for parents. Can he say more about when that will be published? That would be really useful.

In the letter to me, the Minister also mentioned a particular tool that the DWP has developed, which I think gives us some hope in this area. Members have rightly expressed frustration and distress from listening to cases involving people who have had to deal with having a calculation that they knew was wrong. I am thinking of the person that the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned at the beginning of his speech—the dad who had lost a son. These are really heartbreaking cases.

However, I think that there is some hope in the letter that the Minister sent to me where he mentioned the “Get help arranging child maintenance” tool that had been developed for unbiased advice and support and designed to be convenient for parents and to support people into the most suitable arrangements for their circumstances. I would like to ask the Minister what lessons the DWP has drawn from the development of that tool. From listening to the contributions of colleagues, it strikes me that if we could have a focus also on early advice, help and support so that people knew, at the very distressing time of relationship breakdown, what the best steps were for them, that would be hopeful and point to a better direction, so I would be grateful if the Minister could say what lessons the DWP is drawing from the development of the tool.

Sir Charles, I said that I was going to be swift and I will be. I will sum up by making three brief points that I think we can all agree with.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

There could be a change of Government by the end of the year. I welcome the warm words, and the hon. Member may go on to describe specific policy pledges, but I would like to hear specific policy goals that her party has in mind. For example, do you support the introduction of home curfews? Rather than just speaking warm words, what will you actually do differently should you end up in government?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Order. Can we not use the word “you” in the Chamber when referring to another Member?

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Thank you, Sir Charles, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will just say to him that not a single vote in an election has been cast yet.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman may have said “could”, but I am not the Minister and I would not be so arrogant as to assume that that will be certain to happen. My aim was to leave space for questions to be directed to the Minister, to assist colleagues. I simply say this to Dr Mullan: I could point to the record over the past 14 years and the number of occasions when Labour spokespeople have called for the removal of the fee and stronger enforcement. Some of that, including on the issue of the fee, the Government have now done, which is good. However, as I have been saying, we all know that a range of improvements need to be made. I think that we would all find it helpful if the Government could undertake to regularly update us—through the Select Committee, if necessary—on what is happening.

As I was saying, and as we all know, the children’s needs must come first. Members have described the pain that parents experience in this system, which affects children very deeply. That is why this issue really matters to us all.

The second point that I think is uncontroversial is that the service also has to react to some complex realities of life, and one of those realities is the power dynamic in a relationship. Anyone can find themselves a victim of domestic abuse, but unfortunately, domestic abuse tends to work along the lines of the imbalance in power between men and women in our country. That then leads us to a heightened concern about how domestic abuse is handled within the system, and I hope that the service will hear that concern.

I want to end on a hopeful note, because although there has been deep dissatisfaction, I felt that in the Minister’s letter to me there were some signs that the civil service is working hard to improve the quality of the service for all parents. If we can do that early, we can avoid some of the deeply distressing situations that Members have described today.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Thank you, shadow Minister. Minister, will you just leave a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion?

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:44, 27 February 2024

Provided that you cough strategically, Sir Charles, because my eyesight—

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

I will—I actually have a cold, so I will be coughing and sniffling throughout.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My eyesight cannot quite determine the numbers on the clock any more—such is my venerable age. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank Sir Stephen Timms and my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for applying to the Backbench Business Committee to obtain this debate, and all hon. Members for their participation.

We have had a constructive, wide-ranging and, for my part, very interesting debate. We have discussed the original findings of the Select Committee report, which I very much enjoyed reading. Indeed, I always enjoy reading difficult, challenging reports when they are not in my brief, because I find them much more reassuring to read knowing that thinking is going on. We discussed the Government’s response at the time, the progress since that response, what is being done and how far that has got.

I will try to cover as many themes as have been raised today, but if I run out of time or there is insufficient detail, I will make sure that we write to all hon. Members. I know that Viscount Younger has already spoken to the right hon. Member for East Ham to have a further briefing. I am sure that all hon. Members here today will be interested in what Viscount Younger has to say, so I will try to ensure that all that information is properly communicated.

I do not normally do this, but I particularly thank Alison McGovern for speaking in such glowing terms about my letter to her. There were some helpful comments about the progress the Government have been making. That might give other hon. Members some optimism that things are moving in a more rapid direction than they might hitherto have realised.

The Child Maintenance Service makes a real difference to the life chances of many thousands of children. That is why we are reforming it for the long term on an ongoing basis to continually improve outcomes. The service plays a crucial role in securing financial support for children when parents have separated, mandating and, when necessary, enforcing arrangements so that money flows from paying parents to receiving parents, which can benefit children and help prevent them falling into poverty. Indeed, payments for both child maintenance and private arrangements delivered an estimated £2.6 billion annually to parents between 2020 and 2022, keeping around 160,000 children out of poverty.

The vast majority of parents strive each and every day to give their children the best possible start in life. Those who shirk the financial responsibilities they have for their children must be quickly held to account. That is why we continue to improve the Child Maintenance Service to ensure it works as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, it is currently still too easy for parents to avoid paying up if their income does not come through normal PAYE. That is why we are looking at changing the rules so that child maintenance calculations include a much broader range of earnings, such as property income.

We recognise that some parents will find it more difficult to afford their payments if they have built up substantial arrears. The Child Maintenance Service will continue to prioritise collection of ongoing maintenance, but we have committed to reviewing the calculation. We have begun the process of updating the underlying research to consider how we ensure the calculation reflects current and future societal trends. Any changes made to the child maintenance calculation will require amendments to both primary and secondary legislation. The calculation formula underpins every Child Maintenance Service case. Furthermore, those with private arrangements can also use the online calculator to get an estimate to inform their own arrangement, which is doubly crucial. It is essential, therefore, that we undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the calculation formula and consider the potential impacts on all parents and children. That requires time to ensure we take an informed and co-ordinated approach, to ensure the calculation is fit for purpose and future-proofed.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

Clearly, there has been an error at set-up that the calculation needs primary legislation to be updated. Given that it is now 25 years out of date, is it not time to bring forward legislation to change it once and for all, so that future changes can be made through secondary legislation or by other means? There have been examples recently where other DWP payments were uprated through statutory instruments and it did not take nearly as much bureaucracy to get that done. We should be able to do that with the child maintenance system as well.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Member makes an interesting point that may risk becoming a digression. I note that the secondary legislation he refers to is regarding automatic uprating of particular indicators. This is a more fundamental change to how the entire structure of child maintenance is conducted, so is perhaps not suited to secondary legislation. We often hear criticism that too much goes through secondary legislation, unscrutinised by this place. As a Member rather than a Minister, I always think that I would rather such a fundamental change be scrutinised properly in the form of a Government Bill. That is an important point.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will. I am in danger of making things up now, which I should not do.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I take the point entirely about the complexity of the review’s underlying formula, which the Minister has just been talking about. Can he give us any sense of how long he envisages that review will take to complete?

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have made a lot of comments today about the drumbeat of ongoing changes and how we implement some of the private Members’ Bills that have gone through, for example. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the progress and the drumbeat, but I am not sufficiently close to the actual data and the information that he seeks. I will ensure that he is written to, along with other Members present today. I am sure that will be discussed when he meets Viscount Younger.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

While I am pleased to have cheered the Minister up, I can assure him that I will certainly be giving the Government down the banks yet again. But that exact point is why I thought it would be helpful if we could have some sort of regular update out of this debate. Can the Minister feed that back to the Secretary of State, if necessary? I am sure it can be discussed whether that is a statement that the Government place in the Library or a regular update to the Select Committee, but for those reasons, Members need to know what is happening with the different streams of improvement to the service.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have already heard that point, and in my preparation for the debate, I noted the complexity and the number of workstreams going on in this area. I will certainly take that point back to the Department. Another theme that we have heard today is the importance of not just having an enforcement process but having an efficient and effective one. That is done partly by deciding what actions are appropriate on a case-by-case basis and using the existing powers that have the greatest chance of ensuring that parents meet their obligations to pay for their children.

The CMS has made a number of improvements to processes, for example by making better use of deduction from earnings orders so that they can be set up faster. The CMS has also brought forward the point at which deductions from bank accounts are made, which not only has increased the volume of deductions from bank accounts but means getting money to children faster. Working alongside His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Child Maintenance Service has improved court processing times by introducing virtual court presenting and the electronic exchange of documentation.

Following the Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023, the Government propose to bring into force a legislative change to accelerate the enforcement process. The change will introduce a simpler administrative process to obtain a liability order against those paying parents who actively avoid their responsibilities. That will enable the CMS to take faster enforcement action, affecting at least 10,000 cases a year. They will also publish a consultation shortly on how the Child Maintenance Service collects and transfers payments to support survivors of domestic abuse, following the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023 receiving Royal Assent.

In addition, operating a scheme where parents are not paying their maintenance liability and where the Government guarantee child maintenance payments is not the intent of the Child Maintenance Service’s policy, which is the philosophical issue that we are stressing. The role of the CMS is to encourage parents to take financial responsibility for their children. The scheme is designed to encourage parents to agree their own family-based arrangements wherever possible, and that tends to be in the best interests of children. The CMS must always work in the best interests of children. The statutory scheme exists as a fall-back if parents are unable to reach those voluntary arrangements. The Government do not believe that the state covering the shortfall of unpaid maintenance is the right way to target additional funding appropriately, given that there is no means test for receiving parents.

We are also bringing the Child Maintenance Service into the modern age, having made a number of improvements to ensure that it delivers to the highest standard with a more digital customer focus. In order to get help arranging child maintenance on the digital service, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are making it more accessible for parents to decide what type of arrangement is most suitable for them and to make an application online. Those improvements have already seen new applications rise by 13% in the year to September 2023, and I look forward to seeing further progress in the future. That is a welcome increase that we expect to continue with the removal of the £20 application fee. The upgraded online service allows customers to access and maintain their CMS cases themselves. Twenty-six different changes of circumstances can now be reported online. The advantage of digital systems means the service is, as I have said, available 24 hours a day. Many customer requests are now fully automated, so it is much quicker for parents to manage their own arrangements.

We have also, as I have said, improved the speeding up of enforcement processes. In the quarter ending September 2023, around £33.5 million—more than half—of the child maintenance collected through collect and pay was from parents who had a deduction from earnings order in place at the end of the quarter. Those improvements deliver a modern and efficient service for customers while enabling caseworkers to focus on parents who have more complex issues.

I will try to deal with specific issues that were raised. I might not succeed in three minutes, but I will at least try. I can confirm that the £20 fee has been removed as of yesterday, along with the eradication of debts of £7 and under, which we achieved through delegated legislation—the draft Child Support (Management of Payments and Arrears and Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.

I was equally as concerned as the right hon. Member for East Ham to hear of the case of Rachel Parkin regarding the continuity of the support that she received from that single nominated caseworker. The Department will write to the Chair of the Select Committee to make sure that we properly understand that case and what can be done about it. There will be more to come on that point.

I was asked for updates on the progress of various Acts. It might be unhelpful to confirm that consultations are ongoing, because we want the measures to be proportionate, robust and targeted appropriately. It is never easy to rush consultations through. We are often criticised should we rush a consultation. Equally, I understand, not least from when I was a Back Bencher, that when final reports have been issued by the Government, people like to see action, so that point has been heard. I do not wish to pre-empt any Government decisions on curfews—those are not mine to take—nor would I wish to pre-empt the meeting of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, with Viscount Younger when that will be fully discussed, I have no doubt. I, like her, await the outcome with great interest on what is discussed.

I have been told I now have one minute left, not three minutes. I would love to talk about fraud, but one point I have observed from my own casework is that very often people know that something is not right. They have suspicions that fraud might be occurring, but when they engage with the CMS it is not always taken forward. One thing that we hope to be able to do by the end of this month, in order to avoid vexatious frauds, is to provide to those making claims an illustrative list of evidence that the financial investigations unit will require to take an investigation forward. That then avoids the disappointment when someone thinks that something is going on, but they cannot prove it. I think that will help the individual stuck in that situation and perhaps also our caseworkers who try to guide people who ring our offices on how to go about it.

Anything that I have not covered I will cover in a letter to Members. On that note, I will sit down.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 10:58, 27 February 2024

I thank everybody who has contributed to this important debate. We all deal with people who struggle with the Child Maintenance Service, so I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I welcomed the very constructive contribution that my hon. Friend Alison McGovern made from the Front Bench. She is absolutely right that if there were more regular updates to Members about what is going on, that would be really helpful, given the changes that are happening.

On a couple of areas that we have touched on in the debate, first is the concern about paying parents. I am grateful to the Minister for his commitment that that fundamental review is under way. It would certainly be helpful to know how long he anticipates that review is going to take.

I was struck by the example given by Caroline Nokes about somebody who was told over the phone that he did not have any arrears, and yet he received a demand and deduction of earnings order to pay arrears. Nigel Mills made a point about people receiving several notices with contradictory figures. Such muddle and confusion is terribly damaging. The stakes are really high. People are losing their lives. We must be able to come up with a system that delivers basic competence.

On the single caseworker, I was very concerned— I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance about a letter about that—but the implication was that that would be spread out to the whole system. I really hope that it is.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).