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Child Maintenance Arrears

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2022

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

I am grateful to have this opportunity to talk about this incredibly important issue. While the topic is very broad, my speech is very focused.

I am seeking to encourage the Government to move forward rapidly and robustly with proposals for home detention for people who do not pay child maintenance—something I have concentrated on campaigning for in my short time in the House. When discussing this issue, we are talking about the most important building block in our society: the need for parents take responsibility for their own children. The overwhelming majority of parents do exactly that. Whether together or separated, they take care of their financial responsibilities. My parents are divorced, and that had no bearing whatsoever on both of them continuing to look after me and my siblings. But sadly, not every parent does.

As a Conservative, I am of course wary of the state’s unnecessary involvement in family life. It is disheartening that the Government have to be involved in this issue at all, and whatever failings I might go on to talk about, the people who most deserve our frustration, unlike campaigners who put all their effort and energy into blaming the Government for everything, are the people not living up to their responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, that sort of campaign does not get brand endorsements and social media favour.

One thing we all agree on in this place is that part of the role of the state is to penalise the worst kinds of behaviour when that behaviour is beyond the pale. We do that most commonly in criminal law, but we also have civil law. In both, we right wrongs and punish people who behave in a way that the rest of society has decided we will not accept. Let me be clear: people who do not contribute to the upkeep of their own children when they could are the lowest of the low, but there is absolutely no system of punishment for that. Do we really think that, as unacceptable as it is, graffitiing a wall or vandalising a park bench is a graver offence than having children and refusing to contribute to their upkeep? I think the latter is one of the most deplorable things someone can do, but absolutely nothing is done to punish people for it—nothing. We fine people who do not send their children to school. We punish that, but not failing to support them.

In a completely perverse contrast, if someone has the much more onerous responsibility of having primary custody of their children and they neglect them, they are punished. What kind of contrast is that? What kind of message does that send?

For all the tough talk about sanctions, which I expect the Minister will cover, all they are aimed at is recovering moneys owed to children. How is that narrow approach working? Certainly there has been some improvement, as described by a recent National Audit Office report. The Department collected a record £54 million in the quarter ending September 2021. The percentage of paying parents contributing more than 90% of ongoing maintenance due in a quarter increased from under one third in March 2016 to around half in September 2021.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. Child maintenance arrears are a massive issue in my constituency, as they are in his. Does he not agree that with the cost of living crisis, single-parent families are under more pressure? There are 20,000 children in Northern Ireland alone whose cases are with the Child Maintenance Service’s advisers, and they deserve an up-to-date, functional service to ensure that payments are adequate, correct and timely.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. My focus today is on the need to change regulations, but I accept the wider concern about the functioning and efficiency of the agency. I will go on to talk about his point about the cost of living crisis. Figures suggest that 16% of children who are not in receipt of maintenance payments would be lifted out of poverty if they were, and that shows the level of concern we are trying to address.

We have seen some improvements. The NAO found that the internal processes for moving towards enforcing compliance were better, but the bigger picture is not positive. Of separated families who have a Government-mediated arrangement in place, the NAO found that only one in three see it paid in full, so two in three are not getting the payments in full to which they are entitled. Sometimes, the sums people are expected to pay are incredibly small. At the end of September 2021, total cumulative arrears under the current child maintenance scheme were £436 million. That amount is increasing at roughly £1 million a week, and the total will hit £1 billion by 2031. That is a huge amount of money that is not being paid by non-residential parents, and we have a responsibility to hold to account and punish individuals who behave in this deplorable manner.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the children who suffer most? The way that the Child Maintenance Service is writing off arrears means that these children will be permanently disadvantaged, with no more holidays and no more of the things that most children would take for granted.

The hon. Member pre-empts the exact point I was going to go on to make, which is that between December 2018 and March 2021, the predecessor agency wrote off about £2.6 billion of owed maintenance. That is the Government stepping in and legally excusing a parent of their responsibilities to their child. Whether or not it is realistic to recover it, morally I am not sure the Government should be doing that in a child and parent relationship. That is not a success in my book.

As of September 2021, 38,000 paying parents with an ongoing arrangement had not paid any maintenance for more than three months, and 22,000 had not paid for more than six months. That is tens of thousands of individuals happy to let other people pick up their most fundamental responsibility of providing for their child. All too often, it is strangers picking up the pieces through the tax system. In theory, the Department has some tough powers, including imprisonment, but the figures I have quoted clearly show that they are not working. Imprisoning someone, although perhaps morally warranted, stops them being able to earn and is not a practical solution to use at the scale needed to tackle the tens of thousands of non-payers. Those delinquent individuals have learned that if they just start paying a bit again, the whole system resets.

The Department’s civil enforcements are restricted to the collection of arrears at the time when a liability order is granted and cannot be used to enforce ongoing maintenance, which is another reason why an element of punishment would serve a wider purpose. It is not surprising that the evidence shows that overall, maintenance arrears continue to build up, even when the Department begins enforcement action. The NAO found that on average, parents had arrears of £2,200 before the enforcement action began and £2,600 afterwards. As if it were not bad enough that taxpayers have to top up the income of less well-off families when one parent is not contributing, we have to put time, money and effort into chasing up payments with no consequences for those who are not paying.

Taking stronger steps is broadly supported. According to a survey by Mumsnet and Gingerbread, 93% of parents believe that those who regularly avoid paying child maintenance should face more serious penalties. Not only would punishment be morally warranted, but I expect that it would have a powerful effect on compliance and put people off not paying in the first place. As I said, tougher restrictions to ensure that people are paying their child maintenance could lift 60% of children not in receipt of payments out of poverty. With the cost of living crisis, there is no better time to tackle the issue.

A change needs to be made to the system to ensure that the continuous rise in non-payments is tackled, and that is where home curfew can play a role. When the Government originally introduced enforcement measures, they crafted the legal framework to introduce home curfew measures but the powers were never enacted. I am not clear why, but I have campaigned for some time for those powers to be put to use, so I was delighted that, earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced plans to do exactly that. I hope that today’s debate helps to encourage the Government to make progress towards that commitment.

I would welcome the opportunity for my constituents to contribute to a consultation; perhaps the Minister could meet me and some of them as plans are developed. It will be no surprise to him that I think it is important that we use this power not just as a mechanism to encourage payments but to punish. If we could meet ahead of the consultation so that we can ensure that that is part of the proposals, it would be appreciated.

Home curfew could remain in place for the designated period regardless of whether a parent started to pay—for example, for three months. I imagine that spending three months at home every night, pondering their responsibilities, would be a powerful reality check. People need to understand that we as a society do not find non-payment acceptable and that they will be punished for not paying for the upkeep of their children.

On a related note, not earning any money should be accepted as an excuse for not paying maintenance only when there has been a genuine attempt to find work, which should be determined in the same way that the Department assesses that as part of the wider work of the welfare state. If someone has responsibility for children, they should be out there doing everything they can to find a job. If they are not doing that, they should not be out socialising of an evening.

Importantly, unlike imprisonment, home curfew can be used in a way that does not prevent a person from looking for a job and earning, as it can be tailored to their circumstances. It would typically be an evening and overnight curfew to allow people to find and take work during the day, but it could be switched around for people who find night work.

I sound a note of caution. As constituency MPs, we have all had cases of people for whom the administration of maintenance by CMS has gone wrong. Of course, if we are seeking powers to restrict someone’s liberty, we need to ensure that the cases are watertight, but we know that tens of thousands of people are not paying and would be fair targets of this policy.

I understand that home detention equipment is available, so we can make the change work. I would welcome people who are not paying having to explain why they have an ankle tag and cannot go to the pub in the evening. I have no doubt that many would say that they are guilty of a minor crime before admitting that they do not pay for their own kids, which tells us all we need to know about how badly we have got it wrong.

I acknowledge that there are many loving parents who would and do contribute to the care of their children but who are prevented from seeing them by the parent who has primary custody. When I first raised the issue of home detention for non-payers, many such parents contacted me and were clearly distressed. I make it clear that I am in no way minimising that and I fully support every parent in exercising their clear legal right to secure access to their children. Of course, it is abhorrent for any parent not to act in good faith when it comes to access, but two wrongs do not make a right and, as with every MP, I have to choose what I campaign on.

I am clear that every child deserves parents who step up and look after them and that no taxpayer should be left filling the void when they do not. On behalf of a society that I believe wants to see tougher action, the Government need to proceed at speed to secure it.

What an honour and a privilege it is to speak in this very important debate, which relates to every single constituency in the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) should be congratulated on raising a really important issue that has great relevance up and down the land, and every constituency Member will benefit from the fact that he has brought forward this issue in an Adjournment debate. I congratulate him doubly because, as I understand it, this is his first ever Adjournment debate. Obviously, no Member can have an Adjournment debate, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, without being blessed by an intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I know has supporters in the Gallery and, frankly, across the House of Commons.

It is not, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is an honour for my hon. Friend to be blessed by such an intervention.

My hon. Friend knows, because we have discussed this before, that I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for this issue in the Department for Work and Pensions; that is the noble Baroness Stedman-Scott. I have already informed the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who has a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, that another Minister will be responding to that debate. As she knows, I have long booked that day off—I have a birthday—so the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), will be responding to her debate on Thursday.

I want to deal with a number of key points at the outset. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich asks whether there can be a meeting very shortly between him and the Minister concerned. I have spoken to the noble Baroness tonight, and she has assured me that on Monday or Tuesday, subject to the demands of his diary and hers, they will meet either in the House of Lords or in the Department for Work and Pensions to take this matter forward.

We should not forget that the purpose of the Child Maintenance Service is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance from one separated parent to another when the parents are unable to reach agreement on how to care for their children following separation, but the interests of the child are at the heart of this policy. The key issue my hon. Friend raises today—this is a perfectly legitimate point that any Member would genuinely want to grasp—is the desire to get the best outcome for the child, namely the payment of the sums to support the child. There is also a desire, as he rightly outlined, to punish the parent who is not participating in the payment. However, the public policy point that always has to be grappled with is that it is very important that the punishment of the offending parent does not impact on their ability to make the payment for the child, because the most important thing is that the child is supported. There are balances to be struck, and that is the really difficult issue that the Child Maintenance Service has to grapple with at every single stage.

The Minister is absolutely right about the importance of the child, but the system sometimes falls down, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) mentioned. One of the ways it falls down is in consistency in the officers who look after each case; they often change. Is there any way that that could be looked at, so that each case is looked after by one officer, rather than three, four, five or six?

The hon. Gentleman has forestalled one of the issues that I was going to raise. I remember the debate secured by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw on 21 January 2021, in which there was discussion of how the CMS was managing during covid. It was a struggle, to be perfectly blunt; all such services were struggling to provide assistance during the pandemic, and there were complications. I would like to think that all colleagues accept that the Child Maintenance Service has improved as covid has disappeared, as people have been able to return to work, and as consistency has returned because people are no longer getting ill, having to shield and having all the problems that follow.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of numbers. There are approximately 4,000 staff working for the Child Maintenance Service in the United Kingdom. That is a lot of people who are addressing this problem on an ongoing basis. I take the criticism, and the constructive criticism, about consistency in dealing with a case. In every MP’s office up and down the country—whether on this issue, on passports, on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or on any public services—there are desires and hopes for consistency, so that people can build up a relationship with a particular individual. Clearly individuals working in the public sector are free to move on to other things, but the criticism is legitimately made, and I take it on board; I am certain that the noble Baroness does, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about collections in his outstanding speech. Collections are increasing. The criticism can be made that they are not increasing enough, but despite the difficulties of the pandemic, CMS collections have continued to increase; they rose by 8% between 2018 to 2021, and in 2021 some 71% of paying parents who used the collect and pay service were complaint.

In the quarter ending December 2021, a total of £46.6 million was paid through the collect and pay service; in addition, £210 million was due to be paid through direct pay arrangements. As a result of child maintenance payments, between 2018-19 and 2020-21—the most recent period for which there are statistics—the households of some 140,000 children were taken out of the category of low-income households. That goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford and emphasises the desperate importance of this issue. It is particularly relevant in a cost of living crisis. Those payments are made both through family-based arrangements and the CMS.

The main point of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was about enforcement, and I turn to that now. When a parent fails to support their child and fails to fulfil their financial responsibilities, a number of options cut in. If arrears have begun to accrue, the CMS aims to take immediate action to re-establish compliance. For example, £3 million was collected between October and December 2021 through CMS civil enforcement action.

There are other enforcement powers, too. If a non-compliant paying parent is employed, the service will first attempt to deduct the maintenance and any arrears directly from their earnings. That is done by a deductions from earnings order or request; employers are obliged by law to take that action. This represents a quick and efficient way of going directly to the source of income to obtain the money. We learn these lessons from those who are the best at this: the taxman, who basically goes to earnings directly and ensures that they get immediate recovery.

That works in the civilian world, but not always with certain military people. There are real issues with chasing them for child payments.

I will reveal the product of a conversation I had earlier with the hon. Lady. I take note of her point, and if she gives me details of specific examples, particularly if there are regiments where this is a problem, I and the Department will be most interested to know about them. Of course, it would be best if we could respond to them before her important Westminster Hall debate on Thursday.

Where earnings cannot be accessed directly and there is a solely-held bank account—an absent father or mother has a bank account in their name—deductions can be taken directly from that account, and administrative methods can then be used to take control of goods, passports and other things on an ongoing basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about sanctions. We clearly use them only as a last resort, but a paying parent found guilty in court of wilful refusal to pay, or of culpable neglect in relation to payment of arrears, may be prevented from holding or obtaining a driving licence for up to two years, or alternatively may be committed to prison. As I indicated, we have also got the power to disqualify non-compliant parents from having a passport. Those are pretty serious penalties, but I take the point that that is not a direct penalty for the offending behaviour.

The important point is that those powers tend to be at the end of an extensive, long-winded process, but people get very good at dropping in and out of it and, as a result, are no worse off. They can play the game all the way to the end and then say, “Okay, fine. I’ve got some money that I’ll give you.” They give money for a couple of months and then drop back out. They are no worse off as a result—they have not paid an extra penny in maintenance or served any punishment. It is about tackling that wider behaviour. That is not to say that the powers are not used effectively on occasion—as the Minister said, the deduction orders work well for some people—but a contingent of people are playing the system and not getting punished for it.

My hon. Friend makes a totally fair point. As always, a way forward is to take up specific examples with the CMS and Ministers directly, and I urge him to go to the Minister next week with those specific examples so that she and the director of the Child Maintenance Service can be challenged on why a particular individual is not being pursued in a particular way. Although there is the public policy thing, I keep coming back to how, ultimately, one is trying to encourage payments to be made. That is the difficult bit that one must address.

I want to touch briefly on sanctions, because these are pretty major powers. Between January 2020 and December 2021, the CMS initiated almost 6,000 sanctions against paying parents, so there are not one or two examples but thousands. While the majority of those do not involve the courts as compliance is achieved, between 2020 and 2021, £3.5 million of child maintenance was collected from paying parents undergoing sanctions actions. The trigger of a sanction producing payment does work, albeit I accept that in individual examples there are not sufficient amounts. I mentioned prison sentences, and in that period there were 249 prison sentences and a multitude of driving licence suspensions.

I come finally to curfews. My hon. Friend raised a number of points in respect of the curfew policy, and it is very much the case that we are proceeding with that. He was right to raise it with the Secretary of State, and she agrees with it. We are required by law to consult on it, and I want to give him the specific dates and how he, his constituents and fellow colleagues in the House can get involved. First, he—and his constituents through him—can feed into the consultation process prior to it happening. A public consultation on the power is intended to run from 13 June to 22 July, with the aim of its being published on 12 October. The order will then be commenced, subject to the approval of Parliament—it must pass through this place. He therefore has two windows: the first to influence the consultation before 13 June; and, secondly, he, his constituents and other colleagues can feed into the consultation in the normal way. [Interruption.] I need to face the front of the House. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I meant no discourtesy to you—I was attempting not to be discourteous to my hon. Friend—and I accept the implied criticism.

It is very important that representations are made in that way, and that there is the opportunity for my hon. Friend’s constituents to ensure that the extra power is a strong enforcement power and that there are more options, so that they can use the right lever to obtain compliance. The existing sanctions clearly disrupt a paying person’s earnings and that is the key conflict with the desire to get money to the children. The benefit of the power is that it is likely to disrupt a paying person’s lifestyle, rather than their earning capacity. Given that curfew orders will not affect employment or the ability to earn, we feel that that is the right way forward.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I hope that I have addressed some of the points he considers important. I want to finish on one key outside point. We are in very difficult times with the pandemic having ended, but more particularly with international breakdown and the war in Ukraine. The Government’s priorities are: growing the economy to address the cost of living; making streets safer; funding the NHS; and providing the leadership we need in challenging times. One of those bits of leadership, unquestionably, is ensuring that the Child Maintenance Service, particularly in challenging times, is genuinely performing to the best of its possible ability, getting the best outcomes for individual children and the constituents who we all serve. This reform and the work we are taking forward, I hope, will get that outcome.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.