I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am pleased that we have time today to debate this Bill, which is an important measure to help safeguard victims of domestic abuse who use the Child Maintenance Service. MPs from across the House will have experienced casework where constituents—predominantly women—who are struggling financially find it very difficult to make their former partner pay child maintenance and have to chase this through the CMS.
We have all seen the impact, mainly on women, and children, when abusers have made it difficult for their formers partners by using money as a means of controlling them. Although the majority of separated parents do all they can to make sure they financially support their children, we have all had casework on the non-payment of child maintenance. I praise in particular the work of Baroness Stedman-Scott, the Minister in the other place, for her focus and hard work on this issue, as well as the CMS staff. Chasing non-payers, even when victims sometimes just want to give up, lifts thousands of children out of poverty. Since 2019, more than £1 billion of child maintenance support has been collected and arranged each year through direct pay and collect and pay. Until fairly recently, financial abuse has been under-recognised as a form of domestic abuse, in which victims, predominantly female, are cut off from sources of money by their partner as a form of control. I therefore cannot discuss this Bill, which is concerned with a niche aspect of domestic abuse, without mentioning the work of consecutive Conservative Governments on this serious issue. The most recent piece of legislation against domestic abuse is the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, landmark legislation that significantly enhances protection for victims of domestic abuse.
Some 2.4 million people in England and Wales are estimated to have suffered some form of domestic abuse. In the UK, some reports estimate that one in eight adults—5.9 million people—experience economic abuse in their lifetime from a partner or family member. Some 4.2 million of them are women, and this financial abuse can leave women with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothing. Financial abuse also has an impact on children, who are real but all too often overlooked victims.
In my former role as a magistrate, I witnessed at first hand how perpetrators of domestic abuse can sit in a courtroom, lie, make sounds or move in a certain way that, to the victim, is terrifying. I have also witnessed those who try to use money or access to money as a means of control, leaving victims feeling worthless and powerless.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I support her Bill wholeheartedly. She is right to point out how children are victims. In my former role as a GP, before coming to the House, I used to see the impact of domestic abuse on children, and not only when they were young but throughout their lifetime. The real key is to ensure that we clamp down on domestic abuse so that it does not have that long-term impact on the rest of someone’s life.
I thank my hon. Friend for his incredibly good intervention. I absolutely agree.
Before I go into detail on the Bill’s aims, it may be helpful if I explain, for hon. Members who may not be aware of it, how the Child Maintenance Service operates. In an ideal world, the Child Maintenance Service would not be needed. It is certainly not a service that many people would want to use, but it is a safety net when parents who have separated cannot reach agreement on financial responsibilities, especially when one parent is deliberately trying to evade paying their share. It goes without saying that even when a relationship between parents breaks down, their financial responsibilities to their children continue at least until their children reach adulthood. It takes two to tango. Responsibility must be shared.
The purpose of the Child Maintenance Service is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance between separated parents who are unable to reach their own agreement following separation. It is a challenging job that is done in very difficult circumstances. Getting a maintenance arrangement in place for children improves their life and improves their chances in life. Ensuring that parents take responsibility for their children, including financial responsibility, means that they are giving them the best start in life.
Many hon. Members will have had some experience with the Child Maintenance Service. Some experiences will have been positive and some negative, but those who remember the Child Support Agency will know how much work has been done over the past few years to improve the system. I am sure all hon. Members will acknowledge that the Child Maintenance Service performs well—much better than previous child maintenance systems. Improvements include bolstering enforcement powers to tackle parents who refuse to pay what they owe, and moving more of the service online. Passports can be removed if a paying parent will not pay up, for example, and eight out of 10 new claims are now made online.
The Child Maintenance Service manages child maintenance cases through one of two service types: direct pay, and collect and pay. With direct pay, the Child Maintenance Service provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but payments are arranged privately between the two parents. With collect and pay, the Child Maintenance Service calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent. Under current legislation, direct pay is the default option unless the paying parent agrees to use collect and pay or demonstrates an unwillingness to pay their liability. The Bill aims to extend the collect and pay service to victims of domestic abuse, regardless of the payment history.
I know that the Child Maintenance Service already has safeguards in place for victims of domestic abuse. For example, it ensures that there is no unwanted contact between parents and provides information on how parents can set up a bank account with a centralised sort code so that they cannot be traced. I look forward to reading the independent review of domestic abuse support in the Child Maintenance Service, which was completed earlier this year and which I hope will be published as soon as possible. I am sure that we can all acknowledge that any situation where former partners have to co-operate is always going to be difficult for some people. That is particularly the case where there has been domestic abuse in the relationship.
These proposals are about giving victims of domestic abuse the choice to use collect and pay, so that they can decide what is best for their personal circumstances. Thus they can avoid entirely any need to transact with the other parent where that is appropriate, which will help them to feel as safe as possible using the Child Maintenance Service, particularly if the relationship with their former partner was abusive. That will protect them from ongoing coercion and abuse in their financial arrangements.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Can she just set out how the system will work? She mentions that she was a magistrate, and she knows that I also carry out that function. Would it be that, at the conclusion of a domestic abuse trial or sentencing, there would be a court order in place to ensure that the payments were made, or would it be some other way?
This Bill represents the change to primary legislation, and I understand that there will be secondary legislation on how the system will work in practice, including what evidence of domestic abuse will be required and whether there will be a court order or some other mechanism, such as a finding in a fact-finding hearing. That will become apparent in due course through secondary legislation.
The Bill will amend primary legislation to allow victims of domestic to use the collect and pay service without the consent of the other parent where there is evidence of domestic abuse against the requesting parent—it could be against the paying or receiving parent—or even abuse against children in their household by the other parent involved in the case. As hon. Friends may be aware, there are collection charges for the use of the collect and pay service of 20%, on top of the maintenance liability for the paying parent and 4% of the maintenance received for the receiving parent. While the Minister is clear that charges are the right approach for current users of this service, I am grateful to him for indicating that he is willing to consider whether an exemption may be appropriate in these cases.
I want to thank the Minister and Department for Work and Pensions officials for all their help with the Bill, as well as all hon. Members in the Chamber for being here to debate it; I very much hope it will receive their support today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and thank her for bringing forward such an important piece of legislation. As she rightly said, some of the most harrowing casework we deal with is often in this area.
North Devon Against Domestic Abuse reports that one in five women and one in seven men have reported experiencing economic abuse as part of a relationship. That can lead to severe financial hardship, debt and emotional distress. The charity offers advice and support to victims of domestic abuse across North Devon as they rebuild their lives, and helps them to build financial resilience and learn money management skills.
Economic abuse is when perpetrators seek to reinforce or create economic dependency and instability, limiting victims’ choices and their ability to access safety. It does not require physical proximity, so it can continue after separation. Economic abuse was defined in the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and can include taking control of family finances and not keeping partners aware of bills or debts, refusing to contribute or taking victims’ contributions beyond a fair balance, and forbidding the claiming of universal credit or benefits, or insisting they are put into an account that victims do not have access to, to name but a few.
Those actions can all leave lasting marks on victims who are trying to rebuild their lives and their families’ lives. Pushing them into a situation where they are financially exposed to their abuser can impact their ability to build a healthy life. It is also a continuation of abuse, using children as a tool to cause distress. Testimony shows that the legacy of that abuse can lead to some victims’ not pursuing the legal entitlements of their children. One said, “I haven’t arranged any child maintenance because I don’t want to have any aggravation from him.”
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic start to her speech. That is exactly why we need the Bill: it circumvents that and protects victims of confirmed domestic violence, so they do not have to go through that heartache and stress, and do not have to front up against difficult perpetrators of domestic violence. It makes sure that there is stability and safety for them and the family that they are now supporting.
I agree with my hon. Friend; what we hear is really harrowing. The next testimony says, “The Child Maintenance Service is his last avenue of financial control, so he uses this wherever possible.”
I also sit on the Work and Pensions Committee, which is currently hearing evidence on this issue. One person said, “In my case, my ex-partner declared an income of less than £8,000 per annum, yet sent my children postcards from all his holidays—skiing in France and Italy, two three-week trips across the whole of the USA, spa weekends and city breaks. Then they had postcards of their father’s new cars: a McLaren and a Bentley. He moved into a three-bedroom house in a desirable area of Cheshire. How on earth is that possible for someone who earns less than £8,000 a year? Meanwhile, I was struggling to pay my utility bills, let alone their after-school clubs and school trips. I am left wondering why none of the evidence was taken into consideration by the CMS.” Some joined-up thinking and common sense is needed. Even when the other parent provides ample evidence that income is being under-reported, the paying parent is simply taken at their word.
We often hear about women experiencing that, but the Select Committee has heard equally harrowing evidence from gentlemen. One said:
“I have 3 children from my previous relationship. Despite the narrative often spun, I am not a dead beat dad, and not all mothers are saints deserving of children. I am a loving father who is paying the consequences of a malicious partner who is using a government tool as part of her domestic violence campaign. During this relationship I was subject to physical, psychological and financial damage… Since I fled, the physical aspect has ceased. Yet abuse at the hands of my ex-wife continues. I don’t report this flippantly. However, the vehicle for her abuse is the Child Maintenance Service, who she uses to continue to financially and psychologically control me from afar, while also denying me access to my children. I’m exhausted by the situation, and with the current cost of living crisis and constant squeeze on my finances, I can honestly say that if I commit suicide, it will be as a direct result of my ex-wife’s abuse in combination with the Child Maintenance Service.”
Although non-payment is not a new tool, it has been exacerbated during covid-19, as the non-resident parent has had increased opportunities to abuse the system, and there have been lower risks associated with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye has done great work to bring the Bill before us today, and I am delighted to support it, because it is an important step to alleviate the burden on families who have already experienced trauma, and puts the onus on the perpetrator, rather than the victims.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on bringing forward this incredibly important Bill. I also welcome the new Minister to his place—I am sure we can expect great things over the coming months. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is a real champion for women and children in this place. As a fellow lawyer, I know the importance that she places on ensuring that we have good laws that are implemented properly to protect children and mothers in particular.
This is a vital Bill. The breakdown of any relationship is obviously sad, but especially when children are involved. It is a fundamental part of our system, however, that no mother should be left to support her children alone following the breakdown of a relationship. That has been true in our country for centuries, but the Child Maintenance Service, which was launched in 2012, was supposed to enforce that basic right.
To put the Bill in context, there are an astonishing 2.3 million separated families in the UK, and 3.6 million children are part of those families. Of those 3.6 million children, almost 850,000—not far short of 1 million—are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements. It is vital that those arrangements are fit for purpose and that children are not left high and dry. Sadly, that system is not always fit for purpose, which is why we need this vital Bill.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. Many of my constituents have been in touch to highlight that, when they have requested to move to the collect and pay service, they have been rejected due to arrears from the paying parent. Does she agree that ensuring that arrears are not a barrier to entry to the collect and pay service is vital for the victims of domestic abuse?
Yes, this is another way in which the father, or the estranged parent, uses money as a form of control. Dealing with the arrears part of the system is vital.
The other week, my brilliant caseworker, Charles, brought to my attention one case that, frankly, appalled me, but these are common cases; we all receive such cases in our inboxes every week. The marriage of one of my constituents broke down in 2018, and she became the primary carer for the three sons. The Child Maintenance Service decided on an amount to be paid by the father, but the father had not disclosed a large personal income. My constituent appealed against this and it took two-and-a-half years before the Child Maintenance Service agreed with her that the father was underpaying. It then set a new repayment schedule and allowed the father to pay off that debt in small instalments each month, thus penalising my constituent and her children through absolutely no fault of their own. As I understand it, he did not start paying off the debt; it is still accruing and the Child Maintenance Service is doing very little to help.
My constituent has had to fight every step of the way to ensure that her children’s father actually pays what he needs to, and we have still not reached a conclusion. Quite frankly, this sort of behaviour is abuse. It is using money as a weapon. It is a form of domestic abuse and no one should have to go through it. The Child Maintenance Service must be informed to ensure that mothers are not left out of pocket by their ex-partners. This Bill is a vital way of advancing us on that journey.
The Bill, so ably spearheaded by my hon. Friend, will amend primary legislation to allow victims of domestic abuse to use the collect and pay service where there is evidence of domestic abuse against the requesting parent—this could be the paying or the receiving parent—or even children in their household by the other parent involved in the case.
As other hon. Friends have mentioned, there are collection charges for the use of the collect and pay service. I do not complain about the 20% on top of the maintenance liability for the paying parent, but the 4% charge that the receiving parent must pay is wrong and should be amended. I understand that, although the Minister is clear that charges are the right approach for current users of the service, he is willing to consider whether an exemption may be appropriate in these cases. I look forward to hearing him clarify that point in his summing up.
Clearly, the system has to be funded, but the right level of evidence needs to be put in for those who are convicted of domestic abuse. Does my hon. Friend have an idea about how the Government might be able to work that through? It could be that the victim of those who are fully convicted does not have to pay those charges. That might be a nice solution and would allow the removal of fees for those victims to go ahead.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, evidence has to underpin this service to make it fair, but in instances where there is clear evidence, which can be assessed, it seems only right that the parent can use the collect and pay service without being financially penalised in any way.
We would all agree that domestic abuse, including financial abuse, is horrific and that no one should have to endure it. As a country, we want to support victims of domestic abuse. None of our state systems should be allowed to make the survivors suffer more than they already have. The Bill will improve the Government’s offer to victims of domestic abuse in how they receive child maintenance payments. We must not forget that these payments often form a vital part of the recipient’s overall income and finances, especially those who have endured domestic abuse.
I am pleased to be here to support the Bill, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye for giving us an important opportunity and for spearheading this vital measure to stand up for women and children.
It is a privilege to be called to speak for the third time today and to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), who is also my very good friend, on the Second Reading of her hugely important Bill. As I said earlier, I know only too well the privilege of doing well in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, but I also know the difficulties of guiding a piece of legislation through the House. As my Bill progressed through the House I was honoured to have the support of colleagues across the House, and I am delighted to support my hon. Friend and her Bill.
Violence against women and girls is rightly a key focus for the Government and for everyone in the House. That was detailed in the recently published “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy, which builds on a long heritage of legislation introduced by Conservative Governments, including the Children Act 1989, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, all of which contained steps and measures to protect people.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. He has made it clearly and it is on the record, and I welcome that investment.
As I have served on the Women and Equalities Committee and the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, and I engage regularly with my local police, domestic abuse refuge and the night-time economy—including my shift last week at the newly established Number Forty night-time hub in Darlington—I am only too aware of the need for society to do more to protect people. I am therefore grateful to all hon. Members who are taking part in today’s debate.
Domestic abuse is a crime. It is perpetrated in the privacy of a place where everyone should feel safe by those who exploit and abuse their position. It is right that we do all that we can to restore a position of trust and safety for victims, and protect and support children who are witnesses to domestic abuse and punish and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Domestic violence as a crime has both an instant impact and a long tail of consequences, putting pressure on our charities, local authorities, schools and prisons. At the root of this crime is the perpetrator, wreaking havoc on a partner and often children too, creating huge costs to our society both in money and in impact.
An incredibly sad part of the covid-19 pandemic was the increase in domestic abuse. I still meet my local police force, but during the pandemic when I met it and discussed the issues that it was dealing with, domestic abuse was always high up the list. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the local organisations that we all have in our constituencies, such as Safenet and Lancashire Women in my constituency? We could all probably name-check organisations that do a great deal of work in this area.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about the work that was done in the covid lockdowns. I, too, regularly met my local police force to discuss that issue, and it is right that we do all that we can in Parliament to highlight that.
I want to pay tribute to all those charities and community groups that work to support victims of domestic abuse—for example, Family Help, an independent refuge charity in my Darlington constituency that has done incredible work over the past 45 years. I wish it well for its fund-raising event in Darlington tomorrow evening. I firmly welcome the fact that the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, for the first time, established a cross-Government statutory definition of domestic abuse, to ensure that domestic abuse is properly understood, considered unacceptable and actively challenged across statutory agencies and in public attitudes. Domestic abuse is abhorrent, but regrettably I doubt that there is anyone across the House who has not heard a constituent’s story about the abuse that they have suffered. Indeed, since being elected, I have met numerous victims of domestic abuse, each with a moving personal story of their ordeal. All too often, the abuse continues after a relationship ends—something that this Bill seeks to tackle.
The Bill is hugely important, as it will take further steps to protect people who use the Child Maintenance Service and will complement the work that we have already done. I welcome the changes that it would make to the system of payments. At this juncture, I would like to ask the Minister to address in his summing up a point not specifically covered in the Bill—namely, how the banking system is abused by perpetrators as a form of abusing victims. It will be interesting to hear what discussions the Government are having with the banking sector to tackle that particular issue.
I welcome the fact that the Child Maintenance Service has substantially strengthened its procedures and processes to support customers who are experiencing domestic abuse. In particular, it has introduced a programme of domestic abuse training that has been designed for and delivered to all CMS caseworkers. This training takes the form of recognising that domestic abuse takes different forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and financial abuse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that lack of money and fear of living in poverty due to lack of support prevents a lot of women from leaving a domestic abuse setting in the first place, and that the measure is, therefore, absolutely essential to giving women the freedom to be able to make that first step?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is clear to all of us with any knowledge of domestic abuse that perpetrators use the tool of coercion and financial control in all sorts of forms against victims.
In autumn 2021, the Government commissioned an independent review of ways in which the child maintenance system supports survivors of domestic abuse. The review was completed in April 2022 and its findings are now being considered. Could the Minister provide a timeframe for when we might be able to expect the Government’s response?
Child maintenance payments are key to reducing the net number of children living in low-income households, through both family based arrangements and Child Maintenance Service arrangements. It is estimated, as we have heard, that there are 2.3 million separated families in Great Britain, comprising 3.6 million children. Some 60% of those separated families have a child maintenance arrangement; two thirds are non-statutory and one third statutory. Some 846,300 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements, with 526,000 of them covered through direct pay arrangements, and 298,000 through the collect and pay service. The number of children covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements also increased by 26,300 between March and June 2022.
The Child Maintenance Service manages cases through two service types: direct pay and collect and pay. In direct pay cases, the Child Maintenance Service calculates how much maintenance should be paid, and the paying parent pays the maintenance to the receiving parent directly. For collect and pay, the Child Maintenance Service calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent. There are collection charges for the use of the collect and pay service—20% on top of the liability for the paying parent, and 4% of the maintenance received for the receiving parent. Under current legislation, direct pay is the default option unless both parents request collect and pay or the receiving parent requests collect and pay and the paying parent is deemed unlikely to pay by demonstrating an unwillingness to pay their liability. This is so that paying parents have the option to not incur additional charges should they pay in full and on time. This applies to all cases irrespective of any other personal circumstances between parents, including domestic abuse. By requiring receiving parents who are the victims of domestic abuse to use the direct pay service, the current system in place for child maintenance forces them to have continued contact with their abuser, increasing the harm and risk posed to victims of domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse services have reported examples where Child Maintenance Service staff have asked a victim or survivor of domestic abuse to try to put direct pay arrangements in place first, before asking for intervention by the CMS. Refuge has also reported that CMS staff have asked victims or survivors of domestic abuse to try to find out details of their abuser’s earnings and workplace themselves, which carries a significant risk by forcing the victim to have contact with their abuser.
It is absolutely wrong that under current legislation a paying parent who has been abusive towards the other parent can refuse the collect and pay option, meaning direct pay must be used. Direct pay gives the abusive parent access to the abusee’s bank account details, allowing abusers the opportunity to use the banking system to continue their abuse through harassment using payment.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you just can’t have too much of a good thing.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and relevant speech. On the payment arrangements for collect and pay, the payer has to pay 20% but the recipient has to pay 4%. Does my hon. Friend agree that the arrangement should perhaps be looked at more thoroughly, so if somebody is forced to use this arrangement because of the bad behaviour of the other party, they should not be liable for that extra 4%?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure the Minister will, having heard him, address it in summing up.
To return to the use of the banking system as a means of perpetrating abuse, I have worked with a number of banks on this and know that many are working on ways to stamp it out. Abusers can also use non-payment and deliberate payment on irregular days to interfere with means-tested benefit entitlements. No victim or survivor of domestic abuse should ever be told or forced to contact their abuser; it is unquestionably a moral wrong.
I understand that these issues have been a source of controversy since the inception of the current CMS and the introduction of the direct pay service and charging, and the Bill will bring a long overdue and welcome change to the system. I am also glad that the Bill will extend not only to England but to Scotland and Wales, providing consistent protections to victims of domestic abuse across Britain. It is regrettable, however, that the current suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly means it has not been possible to extend the protections to the entirety of the United Kingdom.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye has introduced a highly commendable Bill, putting further steps in place to right a wrong that has existed in CMS payments since inception, and providing a further level of protection to some of the most vulnerable in our society by preventing abusers from further torturing those who have escaped from a cycle of abuse through the CMS.
This Bill clearly commands cross-party support and I offer my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend for bringing it forward. I wish her well as she continues to guide it through its legislative process and hope to see it pass all its parliamentary stages and make its way on to the statute book.
I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this important debate. We support this important Bill and see it as a welcome step forward. Domestic abuse has an appalling impact on women and families. As the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), said,
“everyone has the right to live in freedom from fear.”
This Bill will make some welcome changes to the law to protect parents, children and wider families who are the victims of domestic abuse. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for her work on this important Bill and I thank hon. Members from across the House for their support today. I thank all those who have campaigned on this important issue and in particular Refuge, Gingerbread and, in my own area, Berkshire Women’s Aid.
As I mentioned before, we support this important piece of legislation. However, I hope the Government will clarify some important points to reassure survivors and consider doing more to help former partners, children and wider families in a number of ways that are related to the Bill. Turning to points of clarification, I hope the Minister will explain what evidence will be required to allow the Secretary of State to collect child maintenance payments in the way that we heard earlier. We have been told that the evidence will be set out in secondary legislation, and it is important to remember that the effectiveness of the Bill hinges on the evidence requirements in these regulations. It would be helpful if the Minister reassured the House about the nature of the evidence that will be needed.
In addition to providing further clarification, I hope the Government will consider introducing measures that offer further help and support to the survivors of domestic abuse. For example, will the Minister consider reviewing the fees associated with using the collect and pay service? That was a point raised by a number of hon. Members. Carrying out a review would allow the Government to make an informed decision about whether to scrap some of the fees for domestic abuse survivors.
As we have heard, it is still far too easy for perpetrators not to pay child maintenance and withholding it is a common form of post-separation abuse. Could the Minister tell the House when the DWP will publish the findings of the independent review of the Child Maintenance Service’s domestic abuse operational policies and procedures? I remind him, as we heard from a Government Member, that this investigation was due to finish in April and yet, six months later, we have still not heard from the Department. On the CMS’s treatment of survivors of domestic abuse, concerns have been raised that, sadly, there have been times when CMS staff could have offered a better service to survivors. I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on plans to improve staff training.
Finally, an important point raised by social workers who work with domestic abuse survivors is that the cost of living crisis has a far worse impact on victims of domestic abuse and, in some cases, it may even create another significant obstacle to finding help. I encourage the Government to consider taking additional measures to understand how they can help survivors to manage in the cost of living crisis. I hope the Minister has listened to these points and will consider them carefully. If he is not able to respond in full from the Dispatch Box, I ask him to write to me and the shadow victims Minister to update us on the Government’s response to these important issues. Time is pressing, so I will conclude by emphasising that this important Bill could make a significant difference to a group of women and children who have suffered appalling domestic abuse, and I urge the Minister to consider the points I have raised.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is an honour to speak in this important debate and to assume my new ministerial responsibilities that so directly relate to bettering people’s lives across our country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for raising this important issue and for introducing the Bill.
For context, as a former Victims Minister and a former Policing Minister with responsibility for domestic abuse and VAWG, I believe that the Bill is a welcome step forward that will help victims of horrendous domestic abuse. I am pleased to confirm, in that spirit, that the Government intend to support this Bill.
The Child Maintenance Service provides an important service helping separated parents who are unable to make a family-based arrangement to support their children. Child maintenance payments provide vital support to single-parent families, and the CMS provides support to many of the poorest single-parent families. We know that, on average, approximately 140,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty as a result of child maintenance payments. This includes payments through both family-based arrangements and arrangements made through the CMS. As my hon. Friend said, the CMS has collected and arranged more than £1 billion-worth of child maintenance payments each year since 2019.[Official Report, 25 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 5MC.]
I will now say a few things about how domestic abuse victims are dealt with in the service. The CMS is committed to ensuring that all parents, no matter what their circumstances, feel safe when applying for and using the service. We have already considered the issue of domestic abuse and how it is best handled in the CMS, and we have learned from cases where domestic abuse has been a factor. To answer the shadow Minister’s point, training in this area has been considerably improved in recent times to ensure greater awareness.
Training is indeed very important. We talk a lot about the victims of domestic abuse, but the CMS might be a place where we can pick up on domestic violence and domestic abuse on the first presentation. Is there training to make sure we pick up those cases when they come forward?
My hon. Friend asks a very good question, and I am keen to obtain an answer for him on that point. He will appreciate that I am only a few hours into the role and this is quite an involved question but, of course, he raises an important point. I will make sure he receives a full response following this debate.
The CMS also ensures that there is no unwanted contact between parents, and it provides information on how parents can set up a bank account with a centralised sort code so they cannot be traced. The application fee is also waived for victims of domestic abuse, and CMS caseworkers can provide information to our customers on a number of specialist domestic abuse organisations.
In recent years, the CMS has strengthened its domestic abuse training to ensure that caseworkers are well equipped to support parents in vulnerable situations. However, the domestic abuse landscape is always evolving and we are, of course, ready to listen to feedback from customers, customer representatives and stakeholders on this sensitive area. We already engage regularly at ministerial and official level with MPs, interested parties and the domestic abuse commissioner, and we will continue to do so.
In the autumn of 2021, the Department commissioned an independent review of the way in which the CMS supports survivors of domestic abuse. The review was conducted by Dr Samantha Callan, who is a leading expert on domestic abuse. The review has now completed and is with the Government for consideration. We welcome the opportunity to learn lessons and take whatever practical steps we can to help separated parents who have experienced abuse to set up safe maintenance arrangements.
My hon. Friends have spoken about the importance of this Bill, but I would like to explain why the Government support it and see the need for it to be enacted now. The CMS manages cases through one of two service types: direct pay or collect and pay. For direct pay, the CMS provides the calculation and a payment schedule. The payments are arranged privately between the two parents. Just to be clear, if necessary this can be done without the parents having any direct communication. For collect and pay, the CMS calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent. Under the current legislation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye said, direct pay is the default option unless the paying parent agrees to use collect and pay or demonstrates an unwillingness to pay their liability. With collect and pay, paying parents pay an extra 20% on top of their liability, so cases are generally moved to collect and pay only when the paying parent is non-compliant.
There are some limited circumstances in which requiring a receiving parent to continue to manage relations directly with the other customer in their case seems inappropriate. I know that the CMS has experience of such circumstances and is keen to give customers the best service it can, but is bound by the current rules. The Bill will directly address the situation. It will allow a CMS case to be placed with the collect and pay service when either parent applies for it on the grounds of domestic abuse and when there is evidence that that is the right thing to do in their case.
Normally, it is only the receiving parent who can request a move of their case to collect and pay, on the basis that they are not receiving their payments. However, we recognise the importance of supporting any parent who is a victim of domestic abuse. Whatever their role in the case, either a receiving or a paying parent will therefore be able to request collect and pay.
To enable that, the Bill will provide the Secretary of State with the power to make secondary legislation setting out the details of circumstances in which the power can be used. That legislation will deal with the types of domestic abuse evidence that the CMS will accept in determining whether those circumstances apply in a particular case. The House will have the opportunity, which I think is welcome, to scrutinise that secondary legislation. The details need to be in secondary legislation because the evidence requirements may be complex and are likely to change over time as the Government do further work—not only in relation to child maintenance, but right across Government—to ensure we do all we can to minimise the incidence of domestic abuse. The affirmative procedure will be followed so that hon. Members have the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation in this place.
We will, of course, consult widely when formulating our proposals. We will aim to produce requirements that are sensitive to the needs of domestic abuse victims and that have been carefully evaluated and tested before being brought forward.
Given the importance of domestic abuse issues to hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom, I should say a few words about our work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations. I will not mention Northern Ireland, where child maintenance is a devolved issue, except to say that we will be working with Northern Ireland colleagues to ensure that domestic abuse victims are protected throughout the whole United Kingdom. However, I will say a few words about how we will implement the Bill in Scotland, as I know that colleagues who represent Scottish constituencies are keen to be reassured that the Government are considering child maintenance customers across Great Britain in the context of the Bill.
The Bill uses the definition of domestic abuse set out in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. That Act does not extend to Scotland, where the definition generally used is set out in separate, devolved Scottish legislation. However, for ease of implementation in an area as complex as child maintenance, in which cases frequently fall within more than one jurisdiction in the United Kingdom, the Bill allows for the Act’s definition to apply throughout Great Britain for the purposes of the Bill.
The collection of child maintenance is governed by the same statutory provisions in England and Wales and in Scotland. We are keen to avoid the administrative complexity that could result from different definitions applying in each jurisdiction, but I acknowledge that the legislation will need to sit comfortably alongside devolved legislation dealing with similar issues. We will therefore work with legal colleagues and the Scottish Government to ensure that the policy aim is effectively delivered in Scotland.
Understandably, various colleagues—particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Anna Firth), for Hastings and Rye, for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—have raised the issue of charging. Collection charges are applied to all CMS collect and pay cases. The charges are 20% on top of the liability for the paying parent, and 4% of the maintenance received by the receiving parent. Running the collect and pay service incurs costs for the taxpayer. It is therefore reasonable for most parents to contribute towards running an expensive service. However, we recognise that many of the parents whom the Bill aims to support could be among the most vulnerable.
May I press on the Minister a point that I raised in my speech? I appreciate that I may be catching him off guard today, but I really think that the Government need to take a strong look at the use of the banking system by others as a means of perpetrating abuse; to work with payment reference services and with the industry as a whole; and to talk to banks to ensure that they do not become a means of facilitating such abuse. If the Minister does not have the knowledge at hand, I would be grateful if he wrote to me on that point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point about the interaction with the banking system. What I do know is that the CMS ensures that there is no unwanted contact between parents and provides advice on how to set up a centralised sort code for the parent’s bank account so that their location cannot be traced. The service also signposts to charities and support lines that victims can contact for support.
To go back to this point about collection charges, it is important to say that they do not form part of the primary legislation and are set out in secondary legislation. Consideration is being given to exempting victims of domestic abuse in these cases from collection charges. I hope that that gives some reassurance to colleagues from across the House about the fact that that active policy consideration is taking place.
Finally, I wish to touch on the important point from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth about detecting abuse. I am happy to provide further information in writing, in the way that I suggested I would earlier. However, I am able to advise now that the CMS has substantially strengthened its procedures and processes to support customers who are experiencing domestic abuse. In particular, a programme of domestic abuse training has been designed and is delivered to all CMS caseworkers. The training takes the form of recognising that domestic abuse can take various forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and financial abuse. Appropriate signposting to domestic abuse support groups takes place and advice is given on contacting the police if necessary. If customers do not feel able to do that, this is about asking whether they are content for the CMS to call the police on their behalf.
The CMS also has a complex needs toolkit for its caseworkers, which includes clear steps to follow in order to support customers who are experiencing abuse. The toolkit is regularly reviewed and strengthened on the basis of customer insight, which is very welcome, because, for the very reasons that he identified, these are important and serious issues. Where domestic abuse happens, we want to see it dealt with swiftly and responsibly and we want to ensure that people are able to access the care and help they need.
In conclusion, this Bill is of great importance to victims of domestic abuse and to colleagues from across the House, as reflected in the debate. They have experience of using the CMS when following up on what has been in their postbag and what they have encountered in their constituency work. I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced and I wish it a speedy passage through this House.
With the leave of the House, I wish to thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for highlighting the economic abuse in her constituency, which is suffered by men, women and children; my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth), who highlights the importance of good law to protect women and children; and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who highlights the work of Conservative Governments to address violence against women and girls, as well as the role of banks in helping to prevent or facilitate the continuation of economic abuse. I also wish to thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for his positive comments and support for the Bill, and the Minister and the Department for Work and Pensions officials for their advice and support.
There are areas to consider further, including the secondary legislation as regards evidence of abuse and the question of fees. I am also looking forward to the independent review, as discussed in the debate, being published as soon as possible. The Bill will strengthen the support that domestic abuse victims are offered when using the CMS by allowing them to decide what service type is best for their child maintenance case and their circumstances, and I hope that it will progress through the House with full support.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).