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Separated Families Initiative

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2014

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I understand that the Minister for Pensions, who normally leads for the Government on this area, is unable to be here today, but I am sure we can have a helpful and productive debate. I welcome the Minister for Employment in his place.

Within the past year, the Government have made significant changes to child maintenance policy, implementing the legislation that went through as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. First, the Child Support Agency has been wound down. Pre-existing child maintenance arrangements, which are used by nearly 2 million parents, are being terminated over the next three years. Secondly, all would-be applicants to its statutory replacement, the child maintenance service, must first talk to the child maintenance options service, where they are encouraged to make their own arrangements instead. Finally, for those parents who choose to use the CMS, a £20 application charge has been introduced, along with collection charges if parents fail to pay maintenance.

The clear policy intent is to encourage parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown. The Government’s argument has been—and, I presume, remains—that family-based arrangements, as they are being called, will be better, because payers will be happier to pay if they have made the arrangements themselves. Further to that, the Government have asserted that the statutory system that has been in place for some years makes relationships between separated parties worse, because it creates bad feeling and anger. They think that the system might reduce willingness to pay, and encourage payers to look for a way to avoid payment.

Throughout, I have been a sceptic about that line of argument. In my experience, the circumstances of separation generate considerable anger and distress, and it is those feelings that often have to be worked with and worked through. As the period of separation continues, a failure to pay maintenance causes ongoing bad feeling. We know that parents with care suffer considerable financial detriment after separation. Indeed, generally both parties to a divorce suffer financial detriment, but the parent with care, whatever their gender, is the one who, in all the research, suffers the most. If proper payment arrangements are not in place, considerable resentment and anger can build up.

Given the Government’s approach, and that the reform is partly about trying to get people to change their behaviour, it is hugely important to ensure that parents get the sort of practical help and support they need to enable them to come to workable arrangements, especially given the changes to legal aid, which mean that people might not be getting the level of legal assistance they once had. That is where the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families programme is supposed to come in. I will henceforth refer to it as HSSF, rather than saying the entire mouthful. I know it is not always terribly friendly to use abbreviations, but not using this one would become cumbersome and clumsy. I am afraid that the research I have undertaken shows that the programme of support for separating and separated families is piecemeal and inadequate.

There are four main initiatives that come under the HSSF programme, and I will set out my concerns on each in turn. The first is the Sorting out Separation service, which is a key online information and support resource for separated parents, signposting them to relevant help. Between November 2012 and January 2014, only 9,132 users clicked on a signpost to an external organisation, compared with the original target of 260,000. More people visited the front page, but the important thing is whether people are following through to get the more detailed help they need, because the initial information on the website is not sufficient to allow people to enter into arrangements. Given that the website cost more than £400,000 to set up—that was the figure by January, at least—it has cost more than £45 for every user signposted. I emphasise that the figures for this year come after an attempted redesign, which has clearly had a limited effect.

An evaluation commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and carried out between February and June last year reported that users were often unclear about the purpose of the site and the range of information it offered. They were frustrated by the low level of detail supplied prior to signposting. Videos on the site were felt to be “unreal”, with unrealistically positive endings, and a potentially useful action planning tool was criticised for offering only general signposting and not tailored information. Of particular concern, given that existing formal statutory arrangements are coming to an end, was the finding that the site was “less relevant and useful” for longer-term separated parents. Some 70% of the parents who will have their CSA cases closed have been separated for five years or longer, 40% have no contact with the other parent and 14% describe relations as “not at all friendly”. The inadequacy of the Sorting out Separation service might mean that they will find it unhelpful, and if they find it unhelpful, they will not be able to enter into new informal arrangements and will find themselves back in the formal system through the new CMS.

In April, the Minister for Pensions said that the Department was

“in the process of considering the future direction of the Sorting out Separation web app and will shortly be taking steps to improve the profile of the app through search engine optimisation.”—[Official Report, 8 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 214W.]

Can the Minister for Employment tell us what the future of the service is, whether usage beyond the home page has risen and what steps have been taken to improve the content so that long-term separated parents are catered for?

The second arm of the HSSF programme funding is the co-ordinated telephone network. It is a telephone service provided by four organisations: Relate, Family Lives, the National Youth Advocacy Service, and Wikivorce. The service began full operation in March 2014 at a cost of £344,000. While I respect all the organisations concerned and the work they do, it is questionable whether they can provide the scale of support necessary for separating and separated parents across the country. Can the Minister tell us more about how the network is working in practice and how many parents have used it?

The third initiative of the HSSF programme is what the Government’s original White Paper referred to as a “quality mark”. It was to

“become a mark that parents can recognise and trust, so they know the service they are accessing is of a consistently high quality and will be able to help them to work together with the other parent.”

It was developed at a cost of £136,500, and 35 organisations have so far been awarded what is now called the HSSF mark. My concern is that the mark is not well understood or even recognised by parents. My impression is that the organisations that put a lot of work into applying for and being awarded the mark have seen little in return. I am unaware of any promotion of the mark to parents by the Department, so I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what steps are being taken in that regard.

The fourth and most significant element of the HSSF initiative is the innovation fund, which accounted for £14 million of the total £20 million to be spent in the current spending review period up to March 2015. According to the White Paper that preceded the legislation, the fund was set up

“to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children”.

In the first round of funding in April 2013, £6.5 million was awarded to seven projects across the country over a two-year period. Between them, they anticipated reaching just over 280,000 parents. A second round of funding worth £3.4 million came on stream in April 2014 and was awarded to 10 further projects aiming to reach some 12,800 parents. For the first time, projects aimed at longer-term separated parents were also included. I accept that this is relatively small-scale innovation funding; bearing in mind that nearly 2 million parents who have arrangements through the CSA are being taken off that following the new legislation, innovation projects coming in that will reach only perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 parents will not make much of an impression on the large number of parents affected by this major change.

Since starting in Scotland on 14 March, the family decision making service—one of this year’s funded projects that provides internet and telephone advice from Children 1st, One Parent Families Scotland and the Scottish Child Law Centre—has seen more families making informal arrangements. A particularly innovative aspect of its work has been designing publicity material to appeal more to fathers, which has led to more men using the service than would typically be expected. However, only 13 months’ funding was made available, which is a very short time in which to judge the success of any project.

Moving beyond anecdotal evidence of performance is difficult. In the 18 months since the first tranche of money was awarded, we have received little in the way of objective information. In March, we learned in a parliamentary answer that, as at 31 January 2014, 3,724 parents had participated in the seven first-round projects. Although it was early days—I know that the Relate project started late—that does seem low nearly halfway through the two-year funding period compared with the expected figure of over 280,000 parents by the end of the round-one projects. Unless there has been substantial take-up since then, we will fall far short of what is still a modest number of parents coming into contact with such help and advice. Will the Minister give us an update on the numbers of parents who have participated in the seven round-one projects so far and how that compares with expected levels at this stage?

Evaluation has also been significantly delayed, partly due to Department concerns around data protection. That is particularly problematic given that many projects are coming to an end and closing, and staff are likely to move into new employment, meaning that any evaluation that does take place will happen while the projects are winding down, which seems unsatisfactory. Earlier this year, the Minister for Pensions confirmed that the Government were in the process of appointing an external specialist to lead on the evaluation work. Is the Minister who is present today in a position to tell us whether an external evaluator has been appointed, who they will be and what the time scale of the evaluation will be?

This is about not just getting the evaluation started, but what the criteria will be. It was disappointing to hear the Minister for Pensions state in January that the evaluation criteria for the 17 projects would be published with the final results. We therefore do not know the criteria, and will not know them until the evaluation has been carried out, so people have not had the opportunity to comment on whether the evaluation is appropriate. The difficulty that that presents is that, as far as I can establish, the evaluation will not include receipt of child maintenance as one of the criteria by which the success of the projects aimed at improving parental collaboration will be judged. That is despite the fact that the innovation fund projects flow directly from the child maintenance reforms, and despite the White Paper stating that the initiatives would

“seek to support parents to reach their own arrangements, therefore avoiding both the statutory child maintenance system”.

It seems odd that that particular aspect is not to be evaluated in the process. We will not necessarily know, even at the end, whether there has been any significant success in getting people to not only meet and talk, but enter into family-based arrangements, and in getting maintenance flowing.

The HSSF funding ends in March 2015. My final questions concern what future funding will be made available to support the initiative.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important subject, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She mentioned the schemes that have gone ahead, but is she as concerned as I am about the parts that did not go ahead—the local and face-to-face support that people were to be get in places where they felt comfortable? I know from personal experience how difficult separation is when one has a young child. There are many new agencies to contact, but is it not important that people can access advice from places where they feel comfortable?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That is a hugely important part of the process. It is all very well to have information available through modern methods of dissemination—being able to get basic information online cannot be a bad thing—but signposting to other places appears to be lacking.

The process is personal and can lead to difficult periods in most people’s lives, and people do not necessarily get the best information from word of mouth. Family and friends can offer emotional support, but they do not always give people the best advice in such situations. As a family lawyer, I met people who had been told weird and wonderful things about what they could or could not get. Such sources can also be out of date, because people will talk about things that happened to them in the past. However useful such advice can be as a starting point, it is crucial that those who want to get more personal advice—many will—can do so, whether one-to-one, or in a group setting where people feel comfortable and can ask the silly questions that it takes confidence to ask. We do not appear to have reached the stage of even looking at that, but it is important that we do.

On the March 2015 date, and the innovation projects set up to test what worked and what did not, it would be helpful to know how much information we will have, because there has been little evaluation so far. What guarantees do we have that what has been found to work will be scaled up to the numbers necessary? Even beyond 2015, more than 1 million parents will have arrangements with the CSA that have yet to be closed down. In addition, all the people with new separations, whose relationships are only beginning to break down, will want to come forward for help. What system will be in place to help those families sort out their child maintenance collaboratively? If the Government are serious about wanting people to make such arrangements so that maintenance is paid for the benefit of the children, we have to ensure that proper support and advice is in place.

I disclose an interest as chairman of the Mindful Policy Group, which has done some work in this area. I have listened to the hon. Lady’s comments with great interest. May I take her to a related issue, which is the point at which parents split up in the first place? Does she agree that everything she is talking about in the relationship after the separation of the parents would be so much better if children were placed rather more at the centre of proceedings in the courtroom, so that the parents remembered that although they may divorce, children cannot? The continued welfare of their child should be their prime consideration.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Most people, at least in theory, believe that they are putting their children first; they might not be doing so in practice, but the reason for that is often the huge emotional upset in their lives. In the midst of that, especially if they are not getting the help that they need, they are not best placed to put their children first, even when sometimes they think that they are doing so. I know how difficult it is for many people to behave in a collaborative manner at such a time and to act out the issues around putting the children first.

We need people to be able to work together, not only on maintenance, but in the wider context. The particular change made, however, was about maintenance, and it is crucial to people’s ongoing relationships to get that right. That is crucial to children, not only to ensure that the money is flowing, but because if it is not, the relationship between the parents must be even worse.

Ultimately, given the scale of the task—a huge task has been taken on—and the reality of people’s lives, the £20 million so far allocated to the programme is a drop in the ocean. Given the low use of the Sorting out Separation service, the limited nature of the HSSF telephone network, the lack of promotion of the HSSF mark, the small number of families supported by the innovation fund and the lack of local and face-to-face support, the money being spent is simply not helping enough families.

Family-based arrangements have to be made and also sustained. Relationships change, and what happens when people first separate is not all that matters, because as time passes relationships sometimes worsen; they do not necessarily get better. Sometimes that is because of other constraints that come into people’s lives. The financial reality of separation sometimes bites after months or even years of separation, and new relationships can come into the picture, changing the dynamics of the original relationship and what is financially viable for the people involved. Ongoing support, not only initial support, is therefore likely to be required. Family-based arrangements, even if entered into successfully at the outset, might break down under those pressures.

As I have done in similar debates, I put in a plug for the Government seriously to consider copying and promoting the Scottish minute-of-agreement system, which, without going anywhere near a court, can transform a family-based agreement into something that is legally binding and enforceable. The system has been in operation in Scotland for many years. It has enabled many couples to get something down at a time when they are in agreement. It is as enforceable as a court order, and gives the agreement a status and sustainability that is valuable, although the agreement can be changed if that is required.

I am not familiar enough with English family law to know whether such a system needs legislation. If so, however, I strongly recommend it to English colleagues as one that combines the best of both worlds: people may not only reach their own agreement, rather than having one forced on them, but have something that is enforceable and sustainable through the vicissitudes of separation, which is a process rather than an event.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to my questions and set out what the Government will do to address my concerns. I would be grateful in particular for greater clarity on the monitoring and evaluation of all four strands of the HSSF programme to ensure that the Government’s stated objective, which is to reduce families’ need to rely on the statutory maintenance service while ensuring that maintenance still flows to the children who need it, is met.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on bringing this subject before us for debate and consideration, and on the balanced way she laid out the legislative change and her opinion of what we have before us. I also commend the intervention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who referred to families and to children in particular. I will focus on that, because for me the effect on children is one of the most significant issues.

More than 100,000 children are affected by divorce and it is estimated that one in three children in the UK will experience parental separation before the age of 16. Approximately one half of couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child aged under 16, and more than one fifth were under the age of five. Those figures are truly distressing, as I think everyone acknowledges, because the family is something that we all cherish. The debate in Westminster Hall at 9.30 this morning, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, was also about the family. In a way, we are following on from that this afternoon, giving the CSA flavour to the wider debate.

I believe passionately in families and in the need to have them stay together as much as possible for all those reasons and for the sake of those birthdays, Christmases, new years, fathers’ and mothers’ days, and all the things that bring parents and children together. Good-quality couples, families and social relationships are the cornerstone of our society and they are vital for the well-being of our children as they become adults and enter relationships themselves. Often, what children see at home is the relationship that they will build themselves over the following years. Poor relationship quality and instability are associated with a wide range of negative outcomes for children and adults, and the impact on adults can include ill health, depression, stress, financial difficulties and unemployment. I welcome the initiative because it sets out to reduce conflict and improve parental collaboration to focus on the needs of children—something which is sometimes overlooked in messy divorces.

However, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East also set out some examples of how we can best bring those things about—perhaps the Minister could confirm those for us. As a Member of Parliament, I have to deal with two or three cases involving CSA problems each week. They are very real to the people affected who come to my office—more often it is the ladies, although occasionally it is a stay-at-home husband who finds himself in a position where, because of the difficulties, he is seeking money from the wage earner. But more often than not it is the ladies, and when they come in, their children are with them, and it is the children I want to focus on.

Looking through my notes before this debate, I came across an important quotation about one gentleman’s experience:

“Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times. It’s family that brings up children, teaches values, passes on knowledge, instils in us all the responsibility to be good citizens and to live in harmony with others.”

Clearly, the family is the core.

The hon. Gentleman follows these issues carefully. The point I was making earlier was about the effect on children. The cost of family breakdown is estimated at something like £48 billion, yet many non-resident parents pay their full dues through CSA, but do not get access to their children because of constant breaches of contact orders. Does he agree that parental alienation, which is an offence in other countries, is another form of child abuse? That is why it is so important that, before we get to all the wrangles in the court system that result in CSA settlements, parents remember that the children are the most important thing and their welfare must be paramount.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly. There are unfortunately occasions on which one parent is restricted from visiting, as he will know, because of circumstances in their past—so it does happen, although there are exceptions—but by and large, for 99.9% of cases, I wholeheartedly agree.

It is important to consider not just divorce, but separation and conflict within families. The evidence proves that stable homes, where the family enjoy good relations, have a far better impact on children and adolescents than homes where that is not the case. For example, children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships and where parental conflict is low—whether the parents are a couple or are separated partners—enjoy better physical and mental health and better emotional well-being, and sometimes higher academic attainment and a lower likelihood of engaging in what I would refer to as risky behaviours. At the same time, evidence shows associations between parental relationship breakdown and child poverty, behavioural problems and emotional health problems, as well as an increased risk of the children’s own relationships breaking down. Very often, when the partnership between a man and woman breaks down, the children and the effect on them go unseen, but the children are the ones I see when people come to my office.

Arguments over money rank as the No. 1 source of conflict in relationships. When parents break up, arguments over money continue, only this time as legal arguments through the courts. Research by Relate shows that the couples who were worst affected by the recession were eight times as likely to suffer relationship breakdown. I note that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that the budget for relationship counselling is to be doubled to £19.5 million. Perhaps that is an indication of the Government’s commitment to trying to address this issue. Will the Minister say how the money will be distributed and whether there are areas in the country with greater problems than others?

Wages remain stagnant and the price of living continues to rise, particularly for the thousands of families in the UK facing mortgage repayment issues, negative equity and the need to provide for children. Financial hardship is difficult to escape, so I cannot say I find the statistic I have quoted particularly surprising. Again, it underlines the issue of how the system can work best for the children and the separated partners.

Money continues to be an issue even if separation occurs. For example, statistics show that children in single-parent families are twice as likely as children in couple families to live in relative poverty. Over four in 10 children in single-parent families—some 43%—are poor, compared with just over two in 10, or 22%, of children in couple families. Again, that is an indication of the problems we have.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the poverty of many separated families, particularly those with the main care of the children, as I mentioned. Is it not particularly important that financial arrangements are put in place and are secure? The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about parental alienation, but money can be used as a bargaining tool as well. If arrangements are too informal, is there not a risk that that will happen?

That is very much the case. In my constituency, many partners came to an agreement before the legislative change. In many cases that has worked, but in others, money becomes another weapon in the armoury to create division or a reason to hit back at the other person and restrict access. I know of such examples, and there were some from other parts of the country in the Library information pack—I have not cornered the market in those examples. For example, the male partner in the relationship might have a job but then decide to go self-employed, and then when he makes his books up at the end of the year, they show a much lower income than he actually has. I cannot prove emphatically that he is making x amount, but we can always judge what someone is making by the car they drive, the house that they live in or their lifestyle—for example, do they eat out? Sometimes people are quite clearly living a lifestyle that does not accord with their tax returns—that could be worth looking into. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: money becomes a bargaining tool. Some people try to make it work and others do not; it is those others who we are trying to get at.

Just over a quarter of households with dependent children are single-parent families, and there are 2 million single parents in Britain today, a figure that has remained consistent since the mid-1990s. That is one reason why I feel the HSSF initiative merits some support. There is too much divorce, separation and division. It is sad that many of our children are unable to grow up with mum and dad together. For that reason, we should encourage counselling for couples to help them work through issues and, we hope, stay together.

The initial information we have indicates that there is a £20 charge for some single-parent families. Nearly two fifths of the UK’s 2 million single-parent families receive child maintenance payments from the child’s other parent. Perhaps putting a £20 charge on those families has meant that the take-up has not been as good as it could have been, which would indicate that the system needs to be reviewed. Again, will the Minister give us some information on that?

Not every child who has experienced divorce and separation will experience long-term harm. I see that with those who come to my office. The quality of parenting, a lack of financial hardship and whether parents go through multiple relationships following separation are also thought to be key to the well-being of the child. Evidence suggests that helping more parents to work together throughout a child’s life means that the number of children missing out on relationships with both parents and their extended families is likely to reduce. If, as I believe, that is the goal of the initiative, we should support it, but we need to address the issues raised by hon. Members in this debate.

There is no doubt in my mind that a constructive and non-confrontational approach is important. Often, fighting through courts can become tit for tat, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East has suggested. That in turn will have only a negative impact on children as time goes by and the problems between the couple remain unresolved.

Of course it would be wonderful if divorce and separation did not have to occur, but at times they do. The least we can do in those situations is to ensure that children remain the focus and the priority. Break-ups will affect children; however, by following the aims of the initiative, the impact can be short term and minimal. I ask the Minister to take on board the issue of the initial cost. A system that tries to get a working agreement between both parties is commendable, but will she tell us what action can be taken if it does not work? As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, we do not want the two parents fighting over money in the courts. The fact that two parents are separating or getting a divorce does not mean that they are separating or getting a divorce from their children. Children are an integral part of all this, and we must do all we can to make that very clear to the children who are affected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing this important debate. I will not repeat the points hon. Members have made, but this is a welcome opportunity to discuss the impact of HSSF, as well as the expectations of it and of the new CMS.

The goal of the CMS must, of course, be to ensure that children are well provided for and looked after by both parents when those parents are separated. At a time when child poverty is rising—latest figures show that one in four children in my constituency live in poverty—maintenance has a crucial role to play. For the poorest single-parent families, it can provide up to a fifth of their household income, which is a huge amount for them. It is therefore important that the Government make this good new project a success, and if they are to reduce the use of a statutory maintenance service, which they have said is their goal, and to support families to form their own maintenance agreements, the success of HSSF will be absolutely fundamental.

The service is in its early stages, but the case of a constituent who came to my surgery last week gave me some concern about its success so far and about how it might be improved. My constituent’s case made me feel that it is not really clear when a case is eligible to be referred to the CMS, and I would love the Minister to give us some clarity today. At the moment, parents are required to seek advice first and then to get a reference number to go to the CMS. I should have thought that that would happen when the parents had exhausted all other avenues in trying to come to an agreement on their own.

My understanding from the information my constituent gave me, however, is that he had paid maintenance regularly every month for more than 10 years and had, indeed, upped the payment following a request from the receiving parent, but that he then received a letter from the CMS with a payment plan. My understanding is that he was not contacted previously about any mediation and was not involved with HSSF, and his record of paying monthly on time for more than 10 years was not taken into account.

As a result, my constituent was assessed as having to pay £236.71. Previously, he was paying £250; now, he has to pay £283.99 because of the 20% fee. There must be a failure somewhere in the HSSF process in my constituent’s case, and I worry that the problem is more widespread. The child in this case now has less money per month, while the father is paying more per month. How can that possibly be of any benefit to the child or the parents involved?

I am quite disturbed to hear of that experience, because it sounds very much like the criticisms we made of the previous Child Support Agency. Often, the non-resident parent was chased for extra money without having gone through an understandable reassessment. That is quite concerning, because the whole point of the new system was to sort cases out long before they got to the CMS itself.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The reason the issue has upset and angered me enough that I have come here to make my case today is that we were all very hopeful when we knew a new child maintenance service was required. As constituency MPs, we all have big CSA work loads—like others, I have personal experience of this issue—and we wanted the proposals to be a big success. I therefore hope that my constituent’s case is indicative just of teething problems, not of how the CMS will work in the future.

My constituent’s case also underlined my general concerns about the introduction of fees and how they will impact on children and families. I therefore renew my plea for the Government to publish, at the earliest opportunity, the information and analysis they have on the impact the measures are having on children. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today when that might be.

The debate also gives me the opportunity to discuss the closure of cases from the 1993 and 2003 schemes and how those might go through HSSF and into the CMS. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made? My understanding from a written answer from the Minister for Pensions is that the closure process is due to go on until May 2018 and that the last cases to be covered are those in which

“Enforcement action is under way”—[Official Report, 1 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 526W.]

In many ways, those are the cases deemed most difficult to deal with.

To return to the matter we are debating, I am concerned that the HSSF initiative is due to be funded only until March 2015, whereas the process of case closure is due to go on until May 2018. The cases involved are the most difficult and would, I imagine, need the support HSSF offers to make a successful transition. Does the Minister share my concerns? Are the Government considering extending the funding of the HSSF initiative beyond March and indeed until after May 2018, when the case closures are due to end?

Let me finish my short remarks by returning to where I started and to the reason why we are all here. Child maintenance is a crucial part of fighting child poverty and making children feel not only financially supported, but supported by both parents, and that is important for their well-being. The Government are continually telling us they are putting families at the forefront of their policy, and I hope they are doing everything they can to make their proposals a success.

It is a pleasure to serve in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Unlike the Minister—it is good to see her in her place—I am not moonlighting. I am a former director of the National Council for One Parent Families, which has since merged with Gingerbread, so this is part of my brief. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) in thanking Gingerbread for the helpful briefing it has given many of us in preparation for the debate.

I welcome the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue in relation to the separation of parents and the financial arrangements that follow separation. The issue is perhaps too little in the public eye these days, which is in stark contrast to the 1990s, when child support issues dominated MPs’ postbags. I fear that the reason is not that the difficulties we saw in earlier years between parents have gone away, but that too many parents have given up hope of ever seeing any maintenance at all.

I recognise that there were considerable difficulties with the legacy 1993 and 2003 schemes, and I strongly recognise the need for reform. I also acknowledge that the new 2012 scheme is being introduced carefully by a stable and respected team in the DWP—there are lessons there for other DWP projects. However, I have long been concerned about the overall objectives of the 2012 scheme. I cannot help feeling that the overarching objective is to get as many parents as possible out of the statutory scheme and into voluntary arrangements to bring in fee income for the Government—according to a written answer from 10 December last year to Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, the income is estimated to reach approximately £1.2 billion by 2022-23—and to cut costs. While it may be argued that voluntary arrangements between parents, freely and equally entered into by them, will often produce the best outcomes, the new scheme means that many more parents will not choose those arrangements but will, effectively, be coerced into them. The jury is out on what that will mean in practice for their success.

Of course, the overarching objective of the new scheme should be to get maintenance flowing for the benefit of children. Yet neither the Government’s express intentions, nor the monitoring data that we have been able to get, nor the help and support for separated families initiative described by my hon. Friends, have focused, as far as I can see, on that specific goal. Yesterday I received a written answer from the Minister for Pensions, who said he could not tell me, with respect to new applications to the scheme, what change there had been in the proportion of children receiving maintenance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East said, the DWP’s early iterations of the purpose of the HSSF innovation fund gave two key objectives: increasing the number of children who benefit from child maintenance arrangements, by reducing conflict and improving collaboration between separated and separating parents; and testing a wider range of interventions to understand what is effective in encouraging such collaboration and reducing such conflict. However, in later iterations, the object of increasing the number of children to benefit from the arrangements has disappeared.

I can understand that the 17 HSSF innovation pilots differ greatly with respect to the groups that they deal with and the approach that they take; but surely a simple, measurable way to test their success and compare them would be to assess whether something, at least, is being paid towards the cost of raising children by the parent who is not the one with care. Hon. Members have acknowledged that ensuring the flow of maintenance to separated families is one of the best forms of support that can be established. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the pressures put on family relationships by poverty. It is right that the arrangements that we are discussing should be aimed at reducing that poverty.

NatCen Social Research and Gingerbread say that regular child maintenance can lift one in five one-parent families out of poverty. Those families are at a particularly high risk of poverty, and escaping poverty is the route to a host of other improved socio-economic outcomes for families and their children. However, although it is early days, the introduction of application fees this June, under the new scheme, seems already to be having an effect. In May, before they were introduced, there were 9,700 fresh applications to the scheme, but by August the number of fresh applications had dropped by 38% to 6,000. The Government expected a drop of 12%, with 250,000 fewer cases in the statutory scheme by 2018-19; so the rapid fall-off in new cases seems to be well out of line.

Meanwhile, the number of parents contacting the options service who say that they would consider a voluntary arrangement is also falling. According to a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the number who say they are considering one is down from 5,540 in August last year, to 3,590 in March 2014. Ministers responded that the phenomenon would be temporary, and that it resulted from the fact that people are now for the first time being required to go through the options gateway. However, the two sets of statistics, showing a decline both in new applications and in the number who think that they will make a family arrangement, are clearly cause for concern. The unavoidable implication must be that some families—perhaps many—will end up with no arrangement at all. That is a worrying prospect. What is more, as has been pointed out this afternoon, the early statistics cannot yet tell us much about parents who intend to make a family arrangement and try to do so, but find that they cannot, or that they cannot sustain it. Will those parents attempt to go on to the statutory scheme, or will they give up at that point?

We will shortly be able to get more information. The Pensions Minister told me in a written answer on 14 October that the Government intend

“to publish the results of the Child Maintenance Options survey by the end of the year.”

I welcome that. The survey is carried out quarterly by the options service and it goes back to callers who telephoned the service in the previous six months or so, to find out what child maintenance arrangements they made, and whether they in fact receive any maintenance. It has its limitations, but it will at least offer some measure of what callers actually did about child maintenance after their call.

Perhaps I can push the Minister for a little more information. Is it the intention to publish the options quarterly surveys of caller outcomes on a continuing basis, rather than as a one-off? What continuing tracking of parents will there be, with respect to their arrangements and the flow of maintenance after the first six months? If we are serious about improving outcomes for children, we need to know not just what families agree or do at first, but what maintenance actually flows and continues to be paid regularly. When exactly does the Minister expect the Government to publish the first results?

On the question of the pilots, I recognise that the Government want parents to reach their own arrangements wherever possible, and in the past Ministers have said that 51% of parents with care and 74% of non-resident parents said they would make a family arrangement if they had the help and support of an expert and impartial adviser. I assume that that is, in part, exactly what the HSSF initiatives are intended to provide. However, we must also remember the figures given to Members by Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, which have been mentioned this afternoon: 13% of parents with care and 14% of non-resident parents say that their relationship with the other parent is not at all friendly; and 42% of parents with care and 41% of non-resident parents say they have no contact with the other parent at all. It would take a heroic effort for those parents to make private arrangements, and I fear that the HSSF will fall well short of what will be required.

In cases where there is no contact at all, or where there is considerable hostility between the parents, it will be particularly difficult and challenging to reach private arrangements, and will need specialist and specific support. Yet most of the pilots appear to have been quite generic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, only the most recent, quite small-scale pilots have focused on those whose relationships might be seen as the most intractable, or those who have been separated for a long time. My hon. Friend also pointed out other difficulties with and deficiencies in the pilots. Some began late. We should bear in mind that they are short term, so a late start has a significant bearing on their impact. Some are offered by only a small number of organisations. Those are, as my hon. Friend said, highly respected, but none the less with only a small number of charities and other bodies engaged in the pilots, there must be some concerns about coverage. As she highlighted, use of the Sorting out Separation online application has been at a level well below what Ministers expected; just 9,132 unique users had clicked through to a signposting action by January this year, whereas the Government said that there would be 260,000 users in year one.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out, there were plans to strengthen co-ordination of local face-to-face services by identifying and utilising touch points that parents have contact with, providing information and links, appointing regional co-ordinators to develop regional networks of contacts, recruiting and training advocates to promote collaborative parenting across delivery organisations and promoting quality mark use, but those pilots have been dropped from the scheme. It is not clear why, especially when we think of those parents with more difficult or long-standing separations who may need highly skilled and longer interventions that that local face-to-face support could best provide. Perhaps the Minister will explain the rationale for dropping that initiative.

There are questions about the impact of the kitemark. It is welcome, but we must know how widely it is used or recognised, and what improvements in service it has helped to bring about. I understand that 35 organisations have been awarded the kitemark, but there is little evidence that parents are aware of its significance and little effort has been made to communicate that to them.

The innovation fund that the Government have set aside has been underspent. With little time left to complete the pilots, it would be useful if the Minister could explain why, and whether they intend to get the rest of the money out of the door before the pilots are due to conclude and to be evaluated in spring 2015. Meanwhile, very little information has been published about parents’ participation in the 17 projects financed under the innovation fund, nor have details been made public of the evaluation process to assess what works in assisting parents to collaborate. Will the Minister say more about that? Who will carry out the evaluation and what will be the criteria for success?

Most disturbingly—colleagues highlighted this—no commitments have been given to scale up the lessons learned from these projects of what works and can be implemented on the scale necessary throughout the country, yet we are now heading into the period when not only new applications but thousands of case closures from the legacy systems will be coming into the new scheme. In truth, the HSSF initiative is way too limited an offer for the almost 2 million parents who will be steered towards making their own child maintenance arrangements over the next three years.

On the limited offer from HSSF, does my hon. Friend share my concern about couples who have been separated for a long time? It seems that many of the pilots are aimed at those who are separating imminently or have done so recently. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions have shown that 70% of couples who are using child support allowance have been separated for more than five years.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern and I find it puzzling that it was so late in the organisation of the pilots that we began to see efforts to address that specific and challenging group of separated parents. It is hard to imagine how people would be able to make a private arrangement easily with someone with whom they have had no contact or only hostile contact for a long time. I am puzzled at the lack of attention, given the effort that has been put in to, for example, planning the transfer of the legacy cases. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government intend to offer more support or different support to couples who have had a long period of separation and little or no contact with each other.

Funding for the HSSF pilots ends in March 2015, whereas the CSA legacy cases closure programme runs between 2014-15 to 2017-18. Will the Minister say whether there are any plans to extend HSSF funding to cover the period of CSA case closure? Can she tell us now what financial resources will be made available post-March 2015 to support the HSSF initiative? What funding plans, if any, are in place to implement the lessons learned from the 17 HSSF innovation fund pilots on a wider scale when they have been evaluated? Without decent answers to these questions, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the HSSF initiative, with its pathetic budget of £20 million over three years, has been intended only as window dressing for the scheme.

In scaling up to meet the level of real need, those 17 projects come nowhere close. How can the Government claim to be serious about the HSSF programme when the £10 million awarded to 17 projects is expected to help at best only around 24,000 families face to face plus around 270,000 online while around 300,000 couples separate every year, and around 1 million CSA cases face closure over the next three years? If the Government are to succeed in reducing use of the statutory maintenance service and at the same time enable more parents to collaborate in fixing and paying their own child maintenance, the success of the HSSF initiative is fundamental. Today’s debate raises big questions about whether it is up to the task.

It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions could not be here today, but I am happy to respond as best I can, and if I do not have the full information, I will write to hon. Members individually. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) for securing this important debate. As a former family lawyer, she takes a close interest in the matter. I welcome the opportunity to talk about the support that the Government are putting in place for separated families, including through our child maintenance system.

Before I explain what we are doing and what we are putting in place, it is important to look at the present system—the Child Support Agency. We may view it with rose-coloured spectacles but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, how many people have come to our surgeries complaining that it does not work and has not been helpful? How many people have said they have never seen the money they hoped they would receive? That system has not functioned since it was put in place; only about half of parents receive child maintenance, and we remember the significant IT failings at the beginning.

The system is expensive to run, costing almost £500 million; it awards about £1 billion. It has complex calculation rules and a slow assessment process. We must take that on board when talking about it. On top of that, it never really put the child at the centre, nor did it resolve conflict.

Was the system not set up because the preceding arrangements, which were a mixture of people trying to make their own arrangements and the courts intervening, also had severe failures? This is a complex subject that requires a lot of care and attention. We should not necessarily think that the problem lies in having a statutory system, although that seems to be the Government’s view.

No, we have to look at what has worked throughout this journey, so that we can use whatever worked with the CSA and on the ground with families. We must go into the process knowing that, without a shadow of doubt, it is complex. This is about families, emotions and relationships that are not working, but what are we trying to do? We all agree that the sad reality is that too many people are affected by separation and, too often, it is the children who suffer the consequences. In Britain today, there are 2.5 million separated families, and one in three children live in households in which their mother or father no longer lives at home. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the cost of family breakdown is £48 billion, and he spoke about parental alienation; what are we going to do there, too?

This Government believe passionately in strong families who can provide the stability that is vital to enable children to thrive. The family environment provides the foundation for raising a child, and we are committed to supporting safe and loving family environments. When parents’ relationships break down, we want to help parents to work together more effectively, so it is important to reduce levels of conflict after a separation and to minimise the negative impacts on the children. That is key. As I think we have all agreed today, this is about moving the child to the centre of what we are doing and focusing on their needs.

We do not need to increase conflict; we want to minimise that as best we can. Where we can help people to have a more conducive family environment, that has to be key, because conflict between parents puts children at a greater risk of anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour, but when children continue to have positive relationships with both parents, they are more likely to do better at school, stay out of trouble, have higher self-esteem and develop healthier relationships as an adult. That was part of the “Impact of Family Breakdown on Children’s Well-Being” evidence review, so that is the context in which we have to view the changes. How do we support those young children going forward? How do we do the best for them?

That is why we have invested some £14 million in the Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, which has various parts to it: the Sorting out Separation online information tool; the HSSF mark; telephony training to promote parental collaboration; and the innovation fund. On the Sorting out Separation service, we have looked at how many people are using that and going on to the website. Some 205,000 visitors have accessed it since it was launched, 120,000 of those being unique visitors. That is close to what we had hoped for, and not to the numbers mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East.

I recognise the overall figure that the Minister gave for the number of visitors to the site, but the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and I were making was about the number of people who then click through to a signposting element of the site. I wonder whether the figures that the Minister is quoting are actually about those people, because clearly, merely visiting is not about taking action, or even thinking about taking action, beyond the initial turning-up.

I have spoken to people who use the site, and I have been on the site myself. There is a lot of information that people can get from it, and there are names and links to the various organisations that they might want to go to. It is not a site where people would do everything at once. They would jot the names down, follow up what they want to, and speak to friends and to other people who would signpost them to the relevant places. What I am explaining is that people do not need to link through; they could get all the information just by going through the site. However, the actual linking through is nearly double what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said; it is over 9,000. I think we need to look at this in the round. Could people get all the information they want? Could they go back to Google and put in the names that they got from that website? Yes, they could. There are different things that people can go to via that website.

Although I would acknowledge that people might want to go back and do it later, one test of a good website—anybody who is designing one or using one will look at this—is whether it is click-through, and how many people do that. Opening up the website up is not sufficient. Why would we think, “It is all right; we expect people to write it all down, and then type it all in,” when it would be just as quick to go through and get that information? Surely the Minister has to look at that and say, “This may be failing.”

As I said, I have talked to people I know who have used the site, and I have used it myself. The number of click-throughs is nearly double what has been claimed. Equally, it is a usable site in its current form, and people can get all the information that they want from it, then and there. People might reflect and, later on, type all the information into a Google search, so I do not necessarily follow the logic that everybody straight away would have to click through. I have done research among people who have used it, and they did not feel that they needed to do it that way. We are measuring all those who have accessed the site, unique visitors and click-throughs.

We have already begun work on improvements and enhancements to the site. One of those, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions talked about, was optimising the service online, making it easier for people to reach out and go to that website. Search engine optimisation also means that users can find the relevant pages without necessarily going via the homepage. More people are coming to Sorting out Separation, clicking beyond the homepage and spending more time on specific pages. If they are spending more time on specific pages, that shows that the information has reached out and is speaking to them, and that they are taking more time to read what is on the page.

There are now over 350 HSSF mark holders; the overwhelming majority of those have been awarded the mark via our five umbrella organisations, which is a real indication that the appetite for the mark remains high, and we continue to receive applications from organisations that wish to be assessed. It is particularly reassuring to see the diversity of organisations keen to carry the mark, and the range of excellent support and expertise for families. I want to pay tribute to all the organisations that do valuable work to support families at what can be, as we all know, a very distressing time.

On the question of promotion, mark holders have told us that they are best placed to promote the mark to their clients. It is encouraging that these organisations want to support the HSSF initiative, and we are working closely with them through regular forums to develop a promotion strategy that can take into account the pivotal role that they play in targeting properly the promotion activity, in explaining to parents what the mark stands for and what to look out for, and in parents knowing what they are getting when they see that mark.

The HSSF telephony training is designed to make sure that separated parents get consistent information, messaging and onward support. It is not a network in the traditional sense of one phone line supported by one piece of infrastructure, but over 300 agents have received the tailored training, meaning that the benefits of collaboration can be promoted to parents, regardless of which of the partner organisations’ helplines parents choose to use.

The bulk of the HSSF investment—some £10 million—is being spent on the innovation fund to support separated families, with the aim of helping parents who are going through separation to work together to resolve that conflict. The 17 projects have collectively engaged with 53,500 parents up to September 2014. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) asked whether we were reaching out to those who have been separated longest, who might have the most trying of relationships, and yes, indeed, that is what we are trying to do. We have gone for really innovative projects, looking for greater engagement. Those are the kinds of people whom we will look to help. The hon. Lady also asked about a specific case. I am happy to get my officials to look at that case, see what is happening, and see how we can resolve that issue.

Hon. Members will know that one of the projects, the family decision making service, funds three key Scotland-based organisations to work much more closely together to enable parents to get help on the wide range of issues that they face during separation. For example, a father recently called Children 1st in Scotland for help. He wanted to know about his rights, and to find out what he should do with regards to arranging contact with his son. Children 1st advised him of the family decision making service and asked if he wished for further advice. The father agreed that he did, and he was transferred to the Scottish Child Law Centre, after which the organisations worked together to provide the help that he needed on all the issues that he faced.

This is what we are trying to do—to get all the agencies working together to best provide the support that is needed. In these instances, the information that we are getting back is that the system has helped. People have managed to follow a clear process and have got the result that they needed. This method of transfer ensured that the father I referred to did not need to repeat himself, and that all the elements of the situation were dealt with through one joined-up service. As a result, the father said that he left feeling clear about his options and very confident about setting up an amicable, family-based parenting arrangement that covered finance and his contact arrangements with his son. Those are the outcomes that we want to pursue and obtain. We want people to be able to follow the path that that family followed, although we know that everyone’s circumstances are different.

As part of these interventions, most projects try to work with parents to establish parenting arrangements, which include child maintenance. Measuring the success of the projects in helping parents to establish those types of arrangements will form part of the evaluation. Evaluation will be crucial to determining the learning from the projects, and we are in the process of procuring an external evaluator to ensure that there is an independent assessment of the projects. The independent evaluator will assess the performance of each project separately, and those results will be published after the projects close and sufficient time has passed to analyse and assess performance. We do, however, have some good news stories about what has happened so far to help families.

The Minister appears to be telling us that the process of finding an evaluator is still ongoing. Can she say how close that is to being done? We are virtually in November, and many of the projects are due to finish at the end of March next year; that is a very short time in which to carry out an evaluation, and it is very unusual to be evaluating so late in the process, not having set up the arrangement in advance. Is it true that part of the reason for the hold-up was the Department for Work and Pensions having concerns about data protection? Will it be possible to scale up the projects in any sensible way soon after March next year?

I can tell the hon. Lady that we will provide further details as part of our overall evaluation strategy, which we expect to publish by the end of this year.

I was giving details of what was working, what we know is happening and various innovative projects. For example, a Birmingham project run by Malachi recently worked very closely with both the mother and the father of a boy who had been excluded from school because of bad behaviour, and who had not seen his father in three years. Now, following the intervention, the father spends time with his son regularly and contributes financially to the child’s household, and the child’s teacher has confirmed that his behaviour at school has dramatically improved. That is what we want to happen. Those are the outcomes that we want.

Of course this is about finances; we know that. The CSA was not necessarily providing that. We need to work with families and the child’s surroundings more generally, and get the father seeing the son. We need the son not to be excluded from school and to have better attendance, which will allow him a better education and support him later in life. It is right that a key strategy and raison d’être of this Government is fighting child poverty, and fighting poverty full stop. How do we go about that? It is through education. It is about getting people into work. It is about supporting the family. All these things have to be key, and not just now, for those parents who have made their decision. They have brought a child into the world; how do we as a society protect that child? That is the only way to prevent poverty.

The Minister is being rather ambitious if she thinks that the HSSF projects will provide all those very laudable outcomes in and of themselves. The anecdotes are very helpful and give us a flavour of the projects that are being conducted, but can she assure us that the evaluation will go well beyond anecdote? We want to be able to look at data and trends. In particular, Opposition Members want to see the number of parents who are receiving maintenance, the amount that they are receiving, the sustainability of that maintenance and the proportion of children who are benefiting from it.

As I said, we will provide further information on that, and hon. Members will have that by the end of the year.

A point was raised about the 38% drop in applications. Of course we felt that there would be a drop, but not that great. However, as the application fees have been in effect for less than four months, it would be imprudent to draw any meaningful conclusions from the early data—the data that we have so far. The Department will continue to monitor the rates of application to the 2012 scheme, but the correct time frame in which to consider the effects of the reforms will be in the 30-month review. That is what we have to continue to do. The overall objectives and aims were set out in our strategy, in the bids. That is what we are looking for. Of course the projects will be evaluated and monitored. As I said, we are hoping to bring that information to the House by the end of the year.

In addition to the help and support for separated families, it will be helpful to touch on the support available as part of our reforms to child maintenance. We know that after a relationship breakdown, most parents still want what is best for their children. It is increasingly the norm for parents to be doing what is right by their children and contributing to the children’s upbringing, even if they do not live with them any more. Central to our reforms of the child maintenance system is our belief that turning to the statutory service need not be the default position for all families. We do not believe that Government intervention in setting up a child maintenance arrangement is either necessary or beneficial in the majority of cases. It not only puts an unnecessary barrier between parents, but can increase conflict and reduce the incentive for them to work together.

I am grateful to the Minister for reiterating the Government’s position, which is what we have heard ever since the proposals were put into the Bill that became the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The aims are very clear. The issue is: is that happening? Is it working? Is the kind of support and advice that has been set up scalable? Are there any plans to fund this beyond next March?

I will come to those points, but I believe that it is important that we put in context what we are doing, who we believe should be sorting out the arrangements and how best we can help these families—the mum and the dad—to put the arrangements in place. That is why we believe that family-based child maintenance arrangements are often the best option, and we want to encourage and support families to achieve those. We also recognise that separated parents will need a service that helps them to consider all their options in the light of the introduction of charging for the statutory child maintenance system and the process to close Child Support Agency cases, so, since November, the child maintenance options service has also become the gateway to the statutory child maintenance service. The gateway is flexible and personalised to each individual. It uses the same empathetic approach and is designed to ensure that parents can consider the full range of options, including making family-based child maintenance arrangements.

Where appropriate, the child maintenance options service promotes the benefits of making a family-based arrangement with parents, helps them to overcome the barriers that they face to working together, and provides them with the tools to make effective arrangements. The service also continues to signpost to other specialist sources of support.

The Government are committed to helping and supporting the family, which is why the HSSF initiative and child maintenance reforms are a key part of our overall social justice strategy. As part of that, we are bringing relationship support policy into one Department, with the DWP investing £30 million to deliver successfully marriage preparation, couples counselling and relationship education.

We will take forward recommendations from the family stability review. We will introduce perinatal pilots to provide information to expectant couples about the impact that having a baby will have on their relationship, as well as strategies on how to address conflict. All of that is part of a journey—having a family, and understanding those extra pressures and what will happen in a way that maintains family stability. The hope is that parents will not get to the point at which they are looking to separate and have to deal with the fallout from that. All this has to be part of an ongoing strategy.

We have also announced our plans for local family offer trials—

Order. Our time is done. We must move on to the next debate. Will colleagues leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?