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Children: Parental Separation

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prioritise the wellbeing of children when their parents are going through separation.

My Lords, we are prioritising the well-being of children by helping parents resolve conflict during separation. We have doubled funding for relationship support for couples to £70 million during this Parliament and our innovation fund has worked with around 30,000 separated families to help them collaborate in the best interests of their children.

My Lords, we are all aware that post-conflict separation is very harmful for children and is often exacerbated by disputes over child maintenance payments, especially when government agencies are involved. Will my noble friend update the House on how the 2012 child maintenance reforms are working as regards payments made within family arrangements?

My Lords, I am delighted to report that our 2012 reforms have been a huge success so far. They have incentivised separating families to make their own arrangements rather than using the statutory system as a default option, as co-operation between parents is clearly better for their children. Seventy per cent of clients using the service are choosing direct pay.

Will the Minister set out how her department is working with the Department of Health and the Department for Education to ensure that children whose parents are separating receive the support they need both through child and adolescent mental health services and counselling in schools?

My Lords, the department is working with other departments in a cross-government strategy to support children, with a lot more funding for mental health issues and co-operation between the various departments.

My Lords, “so far” is a telling phrase. The Minister talked about the CSA but the Government are in the process of shutting down all CSA cases and telling parents that if they want to apply to the new scheme they have got to hand over one-fifth of all the money to the DWP in fees. However, they are allowed to apply to the new scheme only if they first ring a phone line and let someone on the other end of the phone try to talk them out of it and tell them to go away and make a deal with their ex directly. Mrs Thatcher set up the CSA to make sure that parents pay for their kids even if they are separated from the other parent. If there are any grounds to the growing concern that parents will end up paying less money to children than they have in the past, will the Minister accept that the strategy has failed and needs to be reviewed?

The noble Baroness clearly has significant expertise in this area, but I have to say that the current system, which was set up in 2012, does not automatically take 20% of the payments. As I say, the point of the new system is to encourage parents to make their own arrangements. It is only if they do not use the direct payment method that they will pay the additional premium for that service.

My Lords, I am sorry. It is a declaration of interest. I apologise to the House. I should have declared a historic interest in that five years ago I was a board member of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. That is all I wanted to say.

My Lords, it is obvious that children who are not informed about what is happening to their parents when they are separating do much less well than those who are kept in the loop. What will the Government do to make this one of the really important aspects? Parents must let their children know, even at an early age, what is actually happening and make them part of the decision-making, or at least give them an understanding of what the future is going to be.

The noble and learned Baroness makes another good point. We have been trialling interventions with our innovation fund where we are using the voice of the child to make sure that we include children in the conflict situation. We are also working with the Ministry of Justice to make those interventions work.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the proposals from the Scottish Government, which will be implemented this summer, for every child in Scotland under the age of 18 to have appointed for them a state guardian whose job it is to make sure that the parents are doing their duty? Can she reassure the House that if Scottish parents or parents living in Scotland move south, this outrageous scheme will not be continued in England?

My Lords, does my noble friend support the idea of child contact centres being made available in every local authority area to enable parents who are not of wealthy means to have contact with their children? Were one fortunate enough to have a Private Member’s Bill on this in the next Session, would my noble friend support it?

My Lords, the Government are considering their future policy on children’s centres, which are currently the responsibility of the Department for Education, as part of the development of the cross-government life chances strategy. We will publish more details on that in the summer.

My Lords, the Minister said that since the 2012 Act, the new arrangements have been a great success. How much additional money has gone to separating parents and their children; in other words, how much better off are those children, knowing that in the past many fathers would change their job, their address, their country and their name to avoid paying maintenance? Can she tell us how much additional money is going to children? If she cannot, because a lot of this is now voluntary, how does she know that it has been a success?

I can assure noble Lords that we will be making a full report in the 30-month review of the scheme. However, the indications so far are that it has achieved its objective of helping parents agree between themselves how to arrange maintenance.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the cuts in legal aid have meant that parents, during the worst time of their lives, have been left to self-represent in court, struggling over the allocation of money to the detriment of the family. Will she tell the House if the Government have plans to reform the law on the allocation of money on divorce, preferably through my Private Member’s Bill?