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Child Maintenance Service

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 16 November 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

It is perhaps not surprising that while Brexit dominates most political debate, issues of huge importance sometimes slip through the scrutiny of this place, and I believe that the Child Maintenance Service falls into that category. After several months of working through the formalities of this House, I am delighted finally to have the opportunity to raise my concerns and highlight in the Chamber the real struggles faced by my constituents.

My constituency office has dealt with a huge variety of problems with the Child Maintenance Service, including the tax on survivors of domestic violence—the Minister may be aware of that issue since I have been campaigning on it for some time. I would also like to raise further constituency cases beyond that campaign, and I hope that the Minister will respond to my remarks.

The Child Maintenance Service was established in 2012 to replace the Child Support Agency—an organisation that was arguably worse. The new system was built on the ethos that children fare better when their parents have a positive relationship. However, that is not the case for all former partners, and some of the ill-judged changes made in the transition to the CMS included glaring oversights in the administration of the system. The stubborn refusal of the Government to acknowledge their mistakes has meant that the current system is not always fit for purpose.

The essence of child support is simple. When both parents are not in a relationship, or if they break up, the child should not suffer financially. For some children, the CMS is their means of avoiding poverty. As a result, that organisation forms one of the most important roles of government—the protection of children. It is therefore vital that such a service should be treated with no less complacency than any other Department.

To allow the CMS to fulfil its important duty, some changes should be made. It currently operates three different payment systems, two of which—the family-based scheme, and the direct pay scheme—operate without charge. The collect and pay scheme, however, has a number of charges. The family-based scheme essentially runs without the involvement of the CMS. Parents can sort out financial arrangements without the bureaucracy of Government interference. It is designed for former partners who can maintain an amicable relationship, and it is the most advantageous scheme for all those involved. It is cost-neutral to the Government, beneficial to the child, and ideally involves no ill-feeling between the parents.

The direct pay scheme is where child maintenance is directed to the receiving parent without using the CMS. That happens after a maintenance calculation has been made by the Department. Parents essentially agree between themselves how and when maintenance will be paid, and the onus is on both parents to monitor the payment and highlight any discrepancies within the agreement. The direct pay scheme does not check whether maintenance has been paid, and neither does it offer any enforcement for either parent. Instead, if the scheme does not work, the CMS offers a move to a managed service—the collect and pay service. That scheme is available to those who have failed to receive payment, and if there is a reason why someone may not wish to interact with their ex-partner, or if the parent requests to use that scheme, in many cases the CMS can collect child maintenance payments and pass them on to the parent with day-to-day care of the children.

Paying parents must pay a 20% collection fee on top of their usual child maintenance balance, and receiving parents must pay a 4% per cent collection fee that is deducted from their usual child maintenance amount. There is a £20 application charge for the collect and pay scheme, which is waived should the receiving parent be a survivor of domestic abuse. This scheme is the safest of all. Even in this instance, however, the system can be open to exploitation and abuse. The protections include wage deductions and the removal of any possible contact with an abusive partner. As the Minister will know, one of the biggest barriers to independence for survivors of domestic abuse is financial control, which is why it is welcome that the £20 application fee for the collect and pay scheme is waived for survivors of domestic abuse.

I welcome the waiver, but it leads to the question that if the collect and pay scheme is the most secure mechanism for survivors of domestic abuse to exercise their right to child maintenance, and is free to apply, why is there an ongoing monthly charge for the survivors’ continued safety? The 4% collection charge is removed from the child’s entitlement. This is support that the Government have already determined through their calculations that a child is due, yet they see fit to remove it, taking vital financial support from families and penalising children.

In previous correspondence with the Minister’s Department, I was informed that the charges were to cover administering the cost of the service and to incentivise the use of other schemes within the CMS. Logically, however, that runs counter to the Government’s removal of the £20 charge. The Minister is essentially saying that the initial charges are intended to incentivise the use of other schemes, but the ongoing monthly, and more costly, charges are there to penalise those where this is not possible. I am sure that that is not the intention, but the Government are using the charges to encourage some of the most vulnerable individuals in the country to engage with their abusive ex-partners and to rely on Government bureaucracy or worse. That is unacceptable and it must stop.

The 4% tax on survivors of domestic abuse has rightly caused major concern with support groups and charities, including Women’s Aid, the White Ribbon Campaign, Gingerbread, Engender and One Parent Families Scotland. Those organisations all signed a letter in March this year, alongside Members from every party in this House with the exception of Government Members, calling for the abolition of the tax. Since then, the Government have lost their majority and this could carry the majority of the House. I therefore implore the Minister to do the right thing by vulnerable parents and send a message that the Child Maintenance Service should be a place of safety and security where individuals can exercise their right to child maintenance without fear of recurring abuse. I have been campaigning for this change for some time and have heard many weak excuses from the Department for its inaction. If the Minister in his reply plans to give me some of the same lines I have heard in the past, let me assure him that I have heard them all before. Let me try to counter them in advance and save him some time.

The Government have consistently advised me that the direct pay scheme is a safe scheme and that the collect and pay scheme is the best way to ensure that both parties are protected. The Prime Minister has told me that users can utilise anonymous sort codes and therefore hide their location and that, if a payment is not made, the domestic abuse survivor can move on to the collect and pay service. Let me tell the Minister why that answer is at best careless and at worst negligent. Giving abusers access to communication with their former partners through bank transfers, and the ability to leave messages while doing so, continues the cycle of abuse. Allowing abusers to pay late without fear of enforcement also continues the cycle of abuse. The system is open to exploitation and abuse, and I hope the Minister will take that into consideration.

Finally, while the collect and pay service offers the protection required, the charges come into play if a domestic abuse survivor is moved on to it. I am sure that that is not the intention. There is no way, even by the Government’s logic, that a survivor of domestic abuse can escape the tax applied by the Government without subjecting themselves to the possibility of continued abuse. Surely the Minister would agree that that is a flaw in the system? It must be reviewed and addressed accordingly.

Another argument proposed by the Conservative party is that the tax is so small that it does not matter. I would question whether it is the place of the Government to define what matters and what constitutes small or large. Is it the place of the Government to define what is materially impactful when vulnerable families rely on the service? In response to a letter, the former Minister highlighted the fact that the 4% charge was “minuscule” and, in her interpretation, was not materially impactful. That is not a position I would expect of a Minister. I would expect the Minister to listen and adopt the views of Opposition Members as well as Government Members.

I believe that the Minister’s response is contemptible at best, and I seek a better response from the Department. I want to raise two points. First, if it is not materially impactful, why apply it at all? Secondly, it might not have a huge effect on the Government’s budget, but for families living on the breadline, every penny counts. In advance of next week’s Budget, I ask the Government to consider who needs the 4% of child maintenance more—a family who will feel its material impact or the Treasury, which will not? I hope he will feed that back to the Chancellor along with my determination that the tax be scrapped.

The Government consider it a success that more people are using the systems outside the intervention of the CMS, but with one third of those applying for children maintenance citing domestic abuse as the reason, I wonder how many individuals are being put at risk to avoid these punitive charges. The CMS should be protecting, not punishing, those who have fled domestic abuse. It is time that the tax was scrapped. I have spoken at length about the domestic abuse survivors tax—an issue I have campaigned on and which needs attention—but it is just one aspect of the service that is not working, yet, as much of my constituency casework shows, it could very easily be addressed.

I wish to highlight a few further issues with the CMS, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond. Several issues with its administration have clearly had an impact on my constituents. One of them had been in an abusive relationship but managed to cut off all contact while receiving maintenance for their child. However, the Department sent her a letter meant for her ex-partner, which caused her great concern, as she was worried that he would get mail meant for her and find out her new location. It is unacceptable that a simple administrative error could strike such fear and alarm into an individual and that any Department, no matter how easily administrative errors might occur, could allow someone to feel endangered in that way.

I rise to mention the case of lady in my constituency who approached the CSA back in 2005 and was assessed as only getting £18 a week. Eventually in 2013, after multiple letters and failures, it recognised that it should have been £68 a week. By that time, though, there were nearly £20,000 of arrears. That woman has been left in debt, and until recently we were told that the arrears would be cleared over the coming 15 years. By then, she would have been left servicing debt for 27 years. We have managed to get it sorted, but the idea that someone could write back to a woman who has raised children for 12 years on her own and say, “Don’t worry. In 15 years, it’ll be cleared,” shows a lack of comprehension of the real world.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that such errors, so glaring and so obvious, should be addressed by the Government.

The service levels offered to my constituents are often inconsistent, and CMS rules are often not followed by departmental staff. For example, requests to use the collect and pay service are often discouraged by advisers. I have previously raised the case of a constituent whose ex-partner was falling behind on payments and had requested to be put on the collect and pay scheme. She was told by a CMS adviser that this was not possible because the shortfall in payments was less than 10%. My constituent had not heard of this rule and, on asking where this was written in the legislation, was told to look it up herself.

I could not find it written down anywhere either, and on questioning the Department, I was informed that it was not policy. Will the Minister tell me if there are targets for staff to keep people off collect and pay? I sincerely hope that there are not. If not, why are excuses being made not to use the scheme? In calculating the amount owed by the paying parent, income details are taken from HMRC, but they are not always taken from the most recent tax year. In fact, HMRC can use historic income data from any year in the past six for which it considers it has complete details.

While this might work for most people, as was outlined in correspondence with the Department, it fails those who are self-employed or who tend to work on a contractual basis. For those people, income figures can vary dramatically year on year, so the calculation often does not reflect real incomes. The CMS system of annual reviews does not work for contractors, particularly when the annual review takes place before the end of the tax year. That simply causes more issues, with CMS payments being calculated on the basis of inaccurate income figures. There is currently no facility for a mid-year adjustment, and I ask for that aspect of the policy to be reviewed.

An additional failure in the system of calculation is that, should a contractor submit payslips to try to prove current income, the amount shown on them is extrapolated to produce an estimated annual income. The contracts are often, by nature, short-term, and a few months of high income may be followed by months of no work. This is what happened to my constituent George Gillan, from Carluke. As the Minister knows, I have written to one of his colleagues about it.

George worked offshore on a contractual basis, with a high income during the months when he was working, which were followed by periods when he could live on those earnings when out of work. At present, the CMS is calculating his payments on the basis of income from the tax year ending April 2015. George tried to submit evidence of a change in his circumstances by sending 12 weeks of payslips, but that was extrapolated across the whole year. The total estimated income did not breach the 25% threshold for a new calculation, so it could not be changed.

That left my constituent owing payments that he simply could not afford to make. His annual review takes place in February, and because a mid-year adjustment could not be offered, he cannot afford to take short-term contracts, as he will be expected to make payments based on his higher income from 2015. He has not worked since December 2016, because he is fearful that he will be penalised on that contractual basis. If mid-year adjustments were possible—I hope the Minister will consider them—things would be much easier for those who are self-employed or work on a contractual basis. I hope the Minister will agree that that would be an easy accommodation to make. There is a fundamental flaw in the current procedure for identifying accurate income details, especially those of contractual workers.

I am sure that I have given the Minister more than enough material to respond to, but Members and the public will know there are many issues I have not been able to cover today. Let me recap. I am asking the Minister to make the system fairer for survivors of domestic abuse by scrapping the 4% tax for those who use the collect and pay service. I am asking him to address the administrative problems that plague the CMS. I am asking him to ensure that its service is managed to a high standard and that policies are clear and correctly interpreted by staff. I am asking him to ensure that the CMS works for contractual workers by allowing accurate income details to be taken and allowing for mid-year adjustments. I realise that it is difficult for policy changes to be made, but I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to some of the injustices that my constituents and people across the country have experienced in their dealings with the CMS.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. It took me rather a long time to secure the debate. I urge the Minister to take my pleas on board and to seek to improve the system to protect and support families, which is what the Child Maintenance Service should be doing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing the debate. There was a debate on the subject in April, but this is the first debate that the hon. Lady has been able to secure. I thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for her contribution. Let me deal with that at the outset. The Minister with responsibility for the policy would very much like to know about any specifics of what is clearly a very regrettable story of illness.

I had a meeting with the appropriate Minister earlier this week, and it has been found that the person who should pay has money to pay, but if that had not been the case, the response would have been “another 15 years”, which seems inhuman to me.

I am very pleased that my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), has met the hon. Lady and has the matter in hand. I am sure that she will be addressing both the individual case and the long-term issue of assessments made on that basis. I should pass on her apologies. I am not the responsible policy Minister, but my hon. Friend has been answering a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon on the support that the Department for Work and Pensions offers care leavers, so asked me to step in on her behalf.

I also apologise if the letter in relation to the constituent identified with the self-employed issue had not reached the hon. Lady. My understanding is that it was sent on Tuesday. I was able to hand-deliver it today, but I offer my apologies if it had not made it into the hon. Lady’s hands prior to that. Clearly, there are answers to some of the points in relation to the self-employed in the letter, but if, upon sober and long-term perusal of that letter, the hon. Lady wishes to respond, I am sure that the correspondence can be continued.

I will briefly set out the Government’s approach to the Child Maintenance Service. The Department has since 2012 been delivering a comprehensive package of reforms of the child maintenance system, which is intended to support parents to take responsibility for paying for their children’s upbringing. For many years, the old system, under the Child Support Agency, did not provide the right support to parents. That is why the Government are closing cases under the Child Support Agency and giving parents the opportunity to apply to the Child Maintenance Service.

The new system run by the Child Maintenance Service is designed to encourage collaboration between parents, which we know has a direct positive impact on child outcomes, including health, emotional wellbeing and academic attainment. Parents can obtain free advice and support from the Child Maintenance Options service on making an arrangement that is right for them, whether that is a family-based arrangement or a statutory one.

More than a quarter of those who have contacted Child Maintenance Options have a family-based arrangement, and 82% of these arrangements are effective. The charges introduced in 2014 provide a further incentive for parents to consider making a family-based arrangement. The total income from fees and charges is less than 10% of the costs of providing the service, which remains heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. The statutory scheme is available for those who are unable to set up a family-based arrangement. These parents are therefore most likely to have conflict and difficulties meeting their child maintenance responsibilities.

There is a range of strong enforcement powers, and the Government are ramping up the usage of them. We aim to take immediate action to re-establish compliance wherever a parent fails to pay what they owe. In June 2017 the Government instigated 550 more enforcement actions than in June 2016, and the intake of cases to civil enforcement increased by 670 on the previous year.

Last month, we announced plans for new legislation to allow deductions to be made from jointly held bank accounts, closing a loophole that allowed a small minority of parents to cheat their way out of paying towards their children. Our efforts on compliance and debt recovery are firmly focused on helping today’s children. We have continued to uphold this principle since it was set out in the arrears and compliance strategy in January 2013.

We have also been frank about the shortcomings of the previous Child Support Agency schemes, which included the build-up of debt through unpaid maintenance payments, and the Department is currently working on a new strategy that will maintain the principle of focusing our efforts on collecting money for today’s children while looking at creative and innovative ways to maximise compliance in the system.

This new system introduced simplified calculations and increased automation, allowing cases to be processed with a higher level of accuracy than under previous schemes. Additionally, survey data published in December 2016 showed that 91% of parents receiving payments through a direct pay arrangement were receiving all or most of the maintenance due to them. The most recent statistics show that 85% of new applications were cleared within 12 weeks and 81% of change of circumstances actions on live cases were cleared within 28 days, and the level of complaints received remains extremely low, at less than 0.1 % of the case load. No one is complacent, but in the grand scheme of things, 0.1% is relatively low. The caseload on the Child Maintenance Service is still growing, however, and we are taking every opportunity to maintain compliance and deal with non-compliance before enforcement action is needed. We are continuing to increase the operational resources allocated to enforcement, with 290 full-time enforcement case managers in place as of September 2017.

Turning to fees and charges, the one-off £20 application fee for the Child Maintenance Service is intended to prompt parents to consider whether they can make a family-based arrangement. We want to help parents to reduce levels of conflict after a separation and work together more effectively, as we know that this is in the best interests of their children. The application fee is waived in three cases: for the most vulnerable clients; for applicants who are under 19 years of age; and for those who have been victims of domestic abuse. For parents who need to use the statutory scheme, there are no further charges for using the direct pay service, where parents manage payments between themselves. I will go into the direct pay service in a bit more detail later.

Collection charges apply only to the collect and pay service and are intended to encourage both parents to collaborate. The 4% charge for receiving parents ensures that both parents have an incentive to work together and to try direct pay. The collection charge for the receiving parent is deducted only when maintenance is paid, so they do not owe money to the Child Maintenance Service if maintenance is not paid. In addition, charges make a modest contribution to the cost of running an expensive service, which remains heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

In relation to domestic abuse cases, the Department is committed to ensuring that victims of domestic abuse get the support they need to use the Child Maintenance Service. I have explained about the waiver of the £20 application fee, and the fact that the more expensive enforcement charges are levied on the paying parent. Where a direct pay arrangement is in place, no fees are required. Research from the 30-month review published in December 2016 showed that receiving parents who had experienced domestic abuse were just as likely to have an effective direct pay arrangement as other receiving parents. We are supporting those parents to use the direct pay service safely without having contact with an ex-partner by: facilitating the exchange of bank details; ensuring that personal information is not shared; and providing information about setting up bank accounts with a centralised—rather than personalised—sort code which does not allow parents to be traced. I have very much taken on board the hon. Lady’s suggestion about bank transfer messages, and I will ensure that the Minister looks into that and gets back to her, in respect of that matter and any others that I have not addressed in the limited time available today.

In addition, we have worked with stakeholders to develop a new training package to ensure that all caseworkers are able to understand and recognise domestic abuse and respond appropriately to clients who are victims of abuse. This training has been piloted and is being rolled out nationally from September 2017. The Government are genuinely committed to continued evaluation of the effects of the child maintenance reforms, including the impact of charging. We will continue to consider our current position in the light of any further evidence that our evaluations produce.

I want to touch briefly on the 30-month review, which included the report on the impact of charging that was published in August 2017. The review consists of a series of independently conducted and internal research reports, official statistics and administrative data. The survey data showed that most direct pay arrangements were in force 13 months after the original direct pay calculation, and that 91% of parents who were receiving payments through a direct pay arrangement were receiving all or most of the maintenance due to them. I accept the need for continued evaluation of the impact of charging as we complete the Child Support Agency case closure process.

If there are any specifics that I have not addressed, I will ensure that the Minister who holds the portfolio responds to them. I want to make it clear that there are no targets to keep people from moving from collect and pay. I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government are absolutely committed to promoting parental responsibility and collaboration and to providing an efficient, effective statutory scheme to be used as a last resort. Our priorities remain ensuring that as many families as possible have effective arrangements in place that are appropriate for their circumstances and taking action to maintain compliance in the statutory scheme, so that today’s children can benefit from maintenance payments.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.