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Child Maintenance Service

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reform the Child Maintenance Service.

My Lords, in the few days since I secured this debate, I have been contacted by a large number of organisations and individuals expressing strong views based on very difficult experiences as either paying or receiving parents in the child maintenance system. The parliamentary digital engagement team did sterling work to publicise this debate and elicit testimony from the public to inform it. I am very grateful to every one of the 1,524 people who took the time to respond and I hope to do some justice to their stories in my remarks.

That the number using the Child Maintenance Service across Great Britain is high is unsurprising, given that an estimated third of all children grow up in separated families. In December 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions reported that 756,500 children—roughly equivalent to the whole populations of Bristol and Newcastle cities combined—were covered by CMS arrangements. This fairly small cohort of speakers today does not represent the importance of child maintenance reform to those directly involved, their extended families and wider society. At least we will have longer to unpack properly our concerns in this highly contested area of policy. To quote Professor Patrick Parkinson, a key architect of the Australian child support reforms, it

“involves making compromises between the conflicting interests of mothers, fathers, children and the state … A win for one interest group … is a loss for another. Child support policy is a complex and contentious area involving zero sum calculations in political terms.”

No pressure then, Minister.

The contention is wholly understandable: the process of separation, however amicably achieved, is usually emotionally and financially stressful. A once-intimate relationship undergoes significant change, sometimes at the behest of one partner and strenuously resisted by the other. The indissolubility of parenthood and the important shift away from clean break divorce mean that both parents will still need to co-operate, at the very least around money and contact.

History has taught us there are no silver bullets and a whole host of potential unintended consequences when it comes to reforming child maintenance. Nearly 40 years ago, the seminal Finer report proposed a dedicated agency for administering maintenance payments. The ground lay fallow until 1993, when the Child Support Agency first opened its doors following the Child Support Act 1991. Just two years later, more legislation was required to fix its considerable problems, setting the tone for the sporadic reforms that produced the current system, in place since 2012.

We appear overdue for another wave of change, especially as universal credit is now a much more mature welfare system. The interaction of benefits with child support payments is a particularly salient issue. A reformed child maintenance system must do even more to ensure that paying and receiving parents, and the children both are raising, albeit not under the same roof, are not living in financial poverty as a result of its operation.

Looking briefly at how the current system works, many separated parents agree and adhere to private family-based arrangements. The Child Maintenance Service, which replaced the Child Support Agency, is for parents who have been unable to do this. Around two-thirds of children are covered through direct-pay arrangements, where the CMS calculates maintenance liabilities and parents arrange payments between themselves. A third are covered through collect-and-pay arrangements, where the CMS collects and manages payment between parents. Paying and receiving parents experience this system very differently, as evidenced in responses to the parliamentary survey. Almost half were from paying fathers and almost all the receiving parents, 40% of respondents, were mothers.

Emerging themes from this exercise map on to those in the academic literature and other cases I was sent. First, paying parents highlighted how the nature of CMS calculations could lead to financial hardship, which was unalleviable by working longer hours, as any additional money would be directed towards child maintenance. The Social Security Advisory Committee recently asked the DWP to examine ways of improving the child maintenance formula and its link with earning thresholds to address such concerns. My first question to the Minister is this: has there been any progress on this issue, given the DWP’s commitment to inform future policy development with the views expressed in SSAC’s consultation?

Secondly, as the receiving parent obtains less money if children stay overnight, this can disincentivise sharing care. Thirdly, and correlating with these previous two themes, paying parents reported impacts on their mental health, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. Fourthly, many reported issues with customer service, errors in calculations and inconsistencies, as did many receiving parents.

Three other areas stood out among receiving parents’ responses. First, they were dissatisfied with the effectiveness of action taken to collect payments. Secondly, they felt inadequately safeguarded in situations involving domestic abuse; for example, the continuation of control by withholding payment. Finally, self-employment and zero-hours contracts were deemed to create loopholes, so paying parents could hide income. I hope other noble Lords will go into more detail on this wide range of issues, which I have been able only to touch on, and suggest solutions to the Minister.

Paying and receiving parents diverge in what they perceive to be acceptable ways of resolving systemic difficulties. For example, internationally, many child support systems now rely on both parents’ income when determining liabilities, where most women work. In the parliamentary survey, 93% of paying parents said both parents’ incomes should be included, compared to 18% of receiving parents. Admittedly, counting mothers’ income can reduce incentives for workforce participation, but changes in Australia actually increased incentives for more qualified mothers, such as nurses and teachers, to return to work or increase hours. Their reforms, which have helped diminish the extent to which child support is a source of mass grievance, required designing a markedly complex formula, which had to be fair across a broad cross-section of circumstances. This took an expert committee eight months and significant research. A similarly intense process would be required here.

The other health warning is that, as child support systems interact with a country’s welfare system, translating ideas from one jurisdiction to another is always problematic. However, can my noble friend say whether the Government have any plans to consult on the merits of aligning Great Britain to other child support systems by including both parents’ incomes?

Finally, one theme that did not emerge in the survey but was raised by the Social Security Advisory Committee in 2019 was whether separated parents are getting the support that they need through a challenging and stressful time in their lives. The committee pointed to the need for an overarching, joined-up government strategy for separated parents, covering all relevant departments and child maintenance. Necessary, but not sufficient, is the commendable cross-departmental work to reduce parental conflict.

I declare my interest as a director of the Family Hubs Network and say that access points to services offering far more holistic support could be provided in the family hubs that the Government have promised to champion. Such access was instrumental to the progress made in Australia: family relationship centres, integral to its 2006 family law reforms, provide a gateway to the many different kinds of advice and support that parents need. The germ of such an idea was in our own landmark Children Act 1989, which specified that local authorities should provide family centres, where families could get help to overcome difficulties, including when parents separate. Can my noble friend the Minister inform the House how different departments of government are working together, including to deliver family hubs?

In conclusion, child maintenance will always be a system under scrutiny or being “reformed”, but state action must also be accompanied by a cultural shift in attitudes towards parental responsibility. We need to get to a place where there is a strong and pervasive expectation that, first, both parents will always share the cost of raising children, and, secondly, with the holistic support that I have described, they will sort out the thorny post-separation issues that stem the flow of child maintenance.

My Lords, my link with this service goes back a long time. When I became Lord Chancellor in 1987, I quickly discovered that many parents who had been deserted had been successful in getting orders from the court for maintenance. But, unfortunately, no sooner had they got the order than the husband disappeared, and they had no resources available to them to try to find out where he was or to raise the money that was due. Needless to say, his attitude was not to come forward—that was not his business; his attitude was to hide himself as much as possible.

I found this an extremely difficult problem. By that time, I knew a little bit about Northern Ireland, which had a state system for enforcing decrees of the court. It seemed to me that this was what we would need: some form of state system that helped to find the person in question and formulated the responsibilities that he had. Eventually, this became government policy in the Act to which my noble friend Lord Farmer has already referred, which set up the Child Support Agency.

As the Lord Chancellor at that time, I had responsibility for divorce law, and a question arose as to whether we should take into our department the necessary work to set up the computer necessities of the CSA. My department very wisely suggested that that was better done in the department that my noble friend represents today. That was very wise advice. Originally, it was thought that this new organisation, with its mighty computer, would be able to adjust the requirements of each case according to the circumstances; but, first of all, that was a very major task, and, secondly, the circumstances changed very rapidly, and therefore quickly became out of sync with the requirements.

The real difficulty in arrears from that source was the arrears of the CSA following the paying parent. It took a long time to get around that problem, with the gradual simplification of what was done via the computer—in the end, it became a job that depended on help with the revenue and so on, and with the fixed sum which was due by the paying parent in respect of the child. That shortened the process quite a bit.

Unfortunately, divorce arrangements remained the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor’s Department. It is now the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice to adjust the kind of arrangements that will be needed to adjudicate on these where necessary. My view is that it is important that a separation happens with as little animosity as possible. Animosity is a natural reaction to it in many quarters, and a degree of help is needed to overcome that. At the moment, I think that is with the Lord Chancellor’s Department, along with the process of mediation and so on, which we discussed so fully all those years ago in the original proposal for no fault.

I have never seen how allegations of fault get rid of the animosity, because it is very seldom that the parties are agreed about what happened. People who can tell what actually happened are rather scarce, because they will not have been there on most occasions when animosity is shown and the basis for fault arises. It seems to me that that kind of investigation must be in a higher court than any that we can have; it is a matter that should not be allowed to blossom in our system, as I think has now happened.

Collecting money is still an important matter. So far as I can see, at the moment, it is a distinct factor and function in trying to resolve problems with the family. I was very concerned about this when our first Conservative Government after I left office came into power. I was anxious about the arrangements that were made, as they seemed to be fairly heavily disposed against the receiving parent, as well as the paying parent. I am glad to see that the system now operating is 20% extra to the paying parent and 4% to the receiving parent, but I still find it very difficult to accept the view that, because of the attitude of the parents, this particular system is required to achieve payment. The difficulty is that the 4% is really coming off what is due to the child—

Yes, I shall wind up quickly. I understand that the difficulties in the present business of sorting out the money have created the difficulty that my noble friend Lord Farmer referred to, and which I mentioned in my communication with the Minister. I do not know whether it is true or not, but I think it is worth considering.

My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is continuing his efforts to find information on and a resolution to the issue of child maintenance, and I thank him for his comprehensive introduction. It is always a great pleasure to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, share his knowledge and experience, and I thank him too.

This is a vital issue affecting thousands of children and blighting some family relationships. Parental tensions, for whatever reason, affect a child’s stability and mental health. Unclear or unfair systems of support for families cause such tension. We need to ensure child-friendly arrangements for child maintenance. As the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states, the welfare of the child is paramount.

In 2019, the Social Security Advisory Committee published a report examining separated parents and the child maintenance system. It raised concerns about the formula used to calculate child maintenance. For example, the formula did not reflect the true cost of raising a child—regional variations or the age of the child are implied—and not reflecting the household earnings of the receiving parent. A paying parent may be on a low income and struggle with costs and a receiving parent may have partnered with someone on a higher income. The reduction in payments for overnight stays with the receiving parent may create perverse incentives. Maintenance payments are reduced if the paying parent has their child stay overnight but are not enough to cover the fixed costs of looking after children, including needing a spare bedroom.

I understand that the National Audit Office is carrying out a consultation to examine whether the child maintenance system is

“delivering value for money for children, separated parents and the taxpayer.”

What is the progress on this?

I have just completed a report for the Council of Europe on the impact of Covid-19 on children’s rights. I interviewed a number of people—professionals, politicians and children—to inform my concerns. There was a general consensus that family tensions could result, in the extreme, in violence against children, domestic abuse and harm to child mental health. Child poverty was one cause. All countries, of course, have different attempts to combat poverty and other family difficulties. Our situation in the UK seems particularly complex. A contributing factor to family difficulties could be arrangements for child maintenance, and it is important to get them right.

I hope that in this debate, we shall receive more information about the impact of government reforms in creating the Child Maintenance Service: for example, the charging for both parents and the notion of pushing parents to make private arrangements rather than use the CMS at all. I wonder how many parents are making private arrangements. It seems that there is no responsibility for collecting child support money unless the parents have tried a direct payment arrangement and it has failed. So what next? What do the statistics say? I realise that more are due very soon. When will we see a dynamic development plan from the DWP? Perhaps the Minister can comment.

The CMS has many problems. I will name a few and will be interested to know what the ways of dealing with this could be. First, the collect-and-pay service charges a large fee to administer payments between parents, yet evidence shows that missed payments are spiralling into millions of pounds. What can be done to prevent this?

We know that many single parents are struggling, and this has become more intense during the pandemic, Many are in severe financial difficulties. How will the department address this?

How many staff were redeployed at the beginning of the pandemic from their CMS roles? What has happened to those staff?

How is enforcement action being carried out? Are video interviews in place? If so, what is the reaction from parents? A quarter of paying parents are not paying towards their liabilities. What action is being taken to redress this?

What is the most recent estimate of current arrears owed from missed payments during the Covid crisis, and what plans will be put in place to resume reinforcements, and how? Is there a timeline for when paying parents will be reimbursed?

How will the DWP deal with staff shortages? I believe that there are now reduced assessment periods for parents. How will this affect changes in earnings, especially given the risks of unemployment, such as during Covid?

It is essential that the statutory child support body is properly funded and functioning well. Is the Minister confident that the problems I have mentioned can be resolved to the benefit of parents and children? I very much look forward to hearing her response.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for initiating this debate.

Only yesterday I read a rather distressing case of a father who feels that the service has treated him unjustly, left him in a poor financial position not of his making and caused him to lose his job. It left me wondering how many feel the same way. I suppose it is inevitable that some couples will be unhappy with what they regard as unjust arrangements, but does the Minister have any idea of the extent of these problems and how readily they can be put right? For instance, is the appeal system straightforward?

Could the Minister tell us about the progress of the Government’s commitment to supporting parents to make family-based collaborative arrangements, which free them from having to pay the Child Maintenance Service? Could she update the House on the surveys that were commissioned looking at direct-pay and case-closure clients?

As the rates of family breakdown are the reason why so many children are living in separate homes, should we not be focusing on preventing this situation? We need an effective campaign to strengthen families before, during and after separation in order to minimise the effects of unresolved and damaging conflicts.

My Lords, I join the other speakers in thanking my noble friend Lord Farmer for initiating this important debate.

The fact that £1 billion is secured by this service for the benefit of children, lifting 120,000 children out of poverty every year with child support payments, is hugely welcome. The statistics show that 756,000 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements. I am especially pleased to learn of the success of the CMS investigators who, through the courts, pursue fathers who try to avoid supporting their children when they are financially well able to do so.

Some recent reforms to the service are most welcome, including the “apply online” service that is available every day throughout the year. It is encouraging that the service is consulting until August on additional proposals to modernise and improve the service, and that it is continuing to keep child maintenance policy and operational delivery under review.

That large numbers of children are supported by the service is good news but it is also a sad reflection on the number of relationship breakdowns that have occurred, putting children in this position. It is important that we recognise the very valuable work being done through the Government’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme. If help can be given at the start of relationship breakdown, the conflict can often be reduced. Too often the Child Maintenance Service has to deal with two people who hate each other, which makes complex circumstances more difficult when arranging child maintenance payments.

Additionally, it is good to see the support being given by the Government to the family hubs, so ably mentioned by my noble friend Lord Farmer. The support that families can receive from the family hubs is hugely beneficial. They are sometimes described as the place that starts the repair. The general public often hear a narrative of uncaring non-resident parents refusing to meet their obligations to help to provide for their children. I know that in many cases the reality for parents on low incomes is very different.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to look at what appears to be a flaw in the regulations. I am a great supporter of universal credit, which makes work pay, but the interaction with child maintenance appears to undermine UC. This point has been referred to in two reports by the Centre for Social Justice, in 2014 and 2018, and by the Social Security Advisory Committee in 2019. The problems arise from the basic structure of the scheme. The basic rate of child maintenance is a percentage of the income of the non-resident parent. No self-support allowance—a deduction from income to allow for essential living—is included; the liability is a percentage of the whole income.

The schemes in 2003 and 2012 were set up without reference to the system of welfare support. The interaction between welfare support and child maintenance is problematic. The child maintenance scheme has two thresholds. Below the first threshold, parents pay only a nominal amount—a flat rate—and, above the second threshold, they pay the full basic rate amount. In between, there is a catch-up region where parents have to pay a larger percentage of each pound earned—the reduced rate—so that the full basic amount is paid by the time the second threshold is reached. The parents paying the reduced rate can be worse off for every £1 earned, and parents paying the basic rate are only a few pence better off for every £1 earned. In effect, those parents get no financial benefit for being in work. The better option for them is to be unemployed.

It is also interesting to note that the values of the two thresholds were decided in 1998 and have not been changed in the 23 intervening years. In 1998, it was decided that a non-residential parent should not pay more than a nominal amount of earnings—less than £100 a week—and not pay the full amount until earning more than £200 a week. These thresholds no longer make sense in terms of affordability, but changing them will not resolve the issues of the 2003 and 2012 arrangements.

A great deal of very positive work is being achieved by the Child Maintenance Service, but I urge my noble friend the Minister to look at these flawed regulations.

My Lords, I remind the Committee that, a long time ago, I was a non-executive director of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and, even longer ago, chief executive of One Parent Families.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Famer, for securing this debate, as we rarely get to discuss child maintenance, which is really important. His opening speech began with a history lesson, capped fascinatingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who reminded us just why we need an effective statutory Child Maintenance Service—a cause he has long championed. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, also gave us a tour d’horizon of many of the key policy issues relating to child support, with the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, offering some more in her contribution.

I will focus on more operational questions, but I start by agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that it is important, wherever possible, that both parents should contribute towards the cost of bringing up children after a relationship has broken up. Children are a lifelong responsibility for their parents, and it can be important for them to know that both parents continue to support them. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord McColl, about the importance of good support for families at every stage.

There is also clear research evidence demonstrating the role that child maintenance can play in helping to lift single parents out of poverty. This is really important, given that we went into the pandemic with 4.3 million children living in families in relative poverty. Given the scarring effect in later life of living in poverty as a child, the stakes are very high.

Ministers often say that work is the best route out of poverty, but working poverty is now at a record level of 17.4%. Interestingly, a recent IPPR report found that the poverty rate for couples with one full-time earner is now 31%. Since single-parent households tend to have just one earner, it is perhaps not surprising that almost half of children living in single-parent households are in poverty. But if a single parent is already working full time, they cannot really make much more money by earning more, so getting maintenance paid in full and on time may be their best chance of lifting their children out of poverty.

Unfortunately, too much maintenance goes unpaid, and it must be said that the Child Maintenance Service has not had a good pandemic. That is not a reflection on the hard-working staff of the CMS. When Covid hit, a large number of staff were redeployed away from the CMS to help process universal credit claims. Can the Minister tell us how many? My noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen was pushing on that as well. I understand the need for more staff processing universal credit claims, but single parents paid the price for that. Victoria Benson, CEO of Gingerbread, said that for much of the pandemic, the CMS was

“running a skeleton service, meaning they are now as a rule not enforcing payment and are allowing paying parents to reduce or withdraw maintenance payment without any proper evidence.”

Single parents are still complaining to Gingerbread that CMS is not enforcing child maintenance owed to them.

I looked up the last official child maintenance statistical report, which covered the last quarter of 2020—it came out on 23 April, so we are due another one any day. It said that the CMS had resumed virtually all areas of service delivery and was now focusing on the recovery and enforcement of outstanding arrears. Can the Minister tell us what the current situation is? Is CMS now operating a full service in all areas? Is it using its full range of enforcement powers? Crucially, are there as many staff now in the CMS as there were before the pandemic? Does it have a plan for tackling those arrears?

My noble friend Lady Massey raised the question of the reduction in the period of time for considering a paying parent’s maintenance liability where their income had changed because of Covid. That was cut from 12 weeks down to two. It protects paying parents but of course hits receiving parents. CMS said it will revert to 12 weeks as soon as possible. Can the Minister say whether that is still in force and, if so, when will it revert?

The statistics show that in the last quarter ending December 2020, of paying parents who pay via collect and pay 50% paid over 90% of their child maintenance—that counts as fully compliant; 22% paid something; and 28% paid nothing at all. Does the Minister think that is acceptable? If not, is there a target to improve it? We need to look at those stats in light of the fact that more people have moved on to benefits; they are more likely to pay child maintenance as it is knocked directly off their benefit payments before they get it. Indeed, 40% of all collect-and-pay cases now involve deductions from benefits, whereas it would normally be more like 21% to 24%. So that is flattering the compliance rates.

What about the amounts? In the quarter to September 2020, the statistics say that £41.1 million was paid through collect and pay. But by the last quarter, when things were allegedly back to normal, that went up only by £1 million. That seems to leave £15.2 million of maintenance uncollected in that quarter alone. That is £15 million that could have been spent on feeding and clothing children.

Since 2012, when the Government created the Child Maintenance Service, £395 million in unpaid maintenance is owed through collect and pay. That is roughly 9% of all the maintenance ever due to be paid since the new service started. The Government closed down the previous service, reformed the system and created what we have now. It is their baby. Are they happy with how it is doing?

That is just those who get into the statutory system. Like my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I worry about the impact of charging and I would also like to know how much maintenance is being paid through private arrangements.

Finally, a consultation was launched just last Friday on making some changes to CMS. I read that the proposals are to change how unearned income is treated, to enable the writing off of low amounts of debt, to allow CMS notifications to be sent digitally, and some other stuff about who has to provide information. Can the Minister tell us whether all those changes which the consultation is addressing can be made in secondary legislation? Will the DWP analyse the responses to the consultation before it publishes the draft legislation? I know that sounds obvious, but it does not always happen. The NAO is also preparing a report on the CMS. Will the department await the final NAO report before making any changes?

Child maintenance matters to parents and to society but, above all, it matters to children, since, as my noble friend Lady Massey always reminds us, the welfare of the child is paramount. We owe it to our children to have a well-functioning, supportive system of child maintenance in Britain. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for his question, which has led to this important, albeit short, debate. I also thank all noble Lords who have participated and made many excellent points. I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock—indeed, we all agree—that this is an important subject and area of work. In summing up, I will try to address as many of the points made as I can. If I cannot address all of them, I will write to colleagues in detail.

I hold surgeries every quarter with MPs from the Commons, and for all MPs who have written to me personally about cases, I have dealt with each and every one. So I commit to organising an all-Peers child maintenance session so that we have the time after this debate to get into the detail, as I know all noble Lords want to do.

My noble friends Lord McColl and Lady Eaton wanted to know that the child maintenance system is working. We continue to keep the child maintenance policy and our operational delivery under constant review. I was pleased that my noble friend Lady Eaton referred to the new digital services, such as the apply online service that has been introduced; it has reduced average application times, is available 24/7 and allows greater flexibility for separated parents to contact the Child Maintenance Service. Operational reforms such as these help to improve outcomes for children by enabling parents to set up and manage child maintenance arrangements in ways that suit their own circumstances.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Sherlock, raised the National Audit Office report. I am pleased to confirm that our officials are working well with the National Audit Office—it is work in progress. It is a value-for-money study and will be completed during October and November.

On child maintenance performance and track record, I know that many noble Lords will have experience of the various child maintenance schemes—already referred to by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay—that there have been over the years. This is an area where the Government have learned a lot. They are completely committed to ensuring that parents play their part and take responsibility for supporting their children. The child maintenance system has had a difficult history in our country, but I am sure most colleagues would agree that the Child Maintenance Service is a significant improvement. As has already been referenced, more than 750,000 children are now covered by child maintenance arrangements. In the past year—2019-20—more than £1 billion was due to be paid through direct pay and the collect and pay service. The compliance rate for parents on the collect and pay service has increased significantly, rising by six percentage points between the quarter ending December 2018 and the quarter ending December 2020.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, during the Covid public health emergency, a number of temporary changes were made to the Child Maintenance Service. On the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked me, 1,507 FTEs were redeployed in the Covid emergency to make sure that we could get money to people. I can give noble Lords a categoric assurance that they are all back and we are back in full service mode.

In December 2020, more than 40,000 paying parents on the collect and pay service had a deduction from earnings order in place, collecting more than £25 million. More than 60,000 deductions from benefits were in force and more than 3,500 deduction orders were in place, collecting a record £3.3 million from bank accounts. I am confident that we will maintain these improvements as we move forward.

My noble friend Lord Farmer and the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of enforcement powers. The Child Maintenance Service’s enforcement powers are strong and are used widely against those who consistently refuse to meet their obligations to support their children. I have been absolutely staggered at the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid paying their child maintenance. There was an absent dad who owed £80,000 in child maintenance and thought that he could avoid paying it, despite having a great lifestyle. The financial investigation and enforcement teams were right behind him and managed to get that £80,000, which was a life-changing amount of money for the receiving parent. He had £175,000 in the bank. So we are not having any of it—I can tell you that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of child maintenance and child poverty. We know that child maintenance can play an effective role in reducing child poverty and enhancing the life outcomes of children in separated families. Child maintenance helps to reduce the chances of children being raised in the lowest 20% of the income distribution, and we know that approximately 120,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty as a result of child maintenance payments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of lone parents, who are much more likely to live in low-income households. Extra money coming in through child maintenance can make a real difference to these families, as it is disregarded in full in universal credit. Lone parents get to keep every pound of maintenance paid, and we encourage lone parents on benefits to make a claim for child maintenance. I am pleased to say that my very first visit as a Minister was to Gingerbread and that my colleagues and officials have a very good ongoing relationship with both Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, and we consistently listen to the issues that they raise with us.

I come now to parental conflict, which the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, my noble friend Lord Farmer and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay all raised. When two people fall out, the repercussions are felt far and wide by children, and we are only too aware that we have to try to intervene at the right time to reduce this conflict. That is why we have our Reducing Parental Conflict programme, and we are very pleased with the impact that it has had to date. In government, we have a cross-departmental working group on it, involving the Department for Health and Social Care, the Home Office and MHCLG.

Of course, at this point, I want to raise family hubs. We have five government departments working together on family hubs, and we hope that the Reducing Parental Conflict programme can be one of the tools in their armoury. We know that the sooner we intervene in the breakdown of a relationship, the better the outcome can be—and I would be very happy to give more information to noble Lords about that when we meet again.

Before I close my remarks today and deal with some of the other issues that were raised, I will touch on domestic abuse, which I know is a matter of deep concern to all noble Lords. It is vital that the Child Maintenance Service plays its part in supporting victims of domestic abuse. We will continue to waive the application fee for domestic abuse victims and to provide support to allow victims to set up maintenance arrangements safely. The Child Maintenance Service has ramped up domestic abuse training for front-line staff and will continue to review its ways of working to further address a culture where victims of domestic abuse are in absolute poverty—they are a priority. In that vein, I am in the process of commissioning an independent review of ways in which the Child Maintenance Service supports victims of domestic abuse.

Noble Lords raised the issue of the consultation, which we have issued and are embarking on. I give an invitation to all noble Lords: if they have other things they want us to consider, the door is open and they should let us know what those things are. I would now like to cover other important issues that have been raised.

We are grateful to SSAC for raising issues and we have had the opportunity to discuss them with concerned stakeholders. The views expressed will be used to inform future policy development. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I think I have already said that the system is now fully operational, and the number of staff on child maintenance has gone from 5,500 to 4,700 due to the last CSA cases being closed. Capacity of the system is broadly at pre-Covid levels.

Noble Lords raised the issue of aligning Great Britain with other jurisdictions. We are in close contact with officials in other jurisdictions. As my noble friend Lord Farmer observed, it is hard to transplant measures from one jurisdiction to another, but we continue to monitor international developments in this field. I believe that covers the issue of the situation in Australia. Dual income adds significant complexity to a child maintenance calculation and measures that work in one place do not necessarily work in another. I am happy to continue to discuss that and keep the issue under the review.

On family-based arrangements, we recognise that conflict is harmful to children and the intent of the 2012 maintenance reforms was to try to promote collaboration between separated parents. We know that a family-based arrangement is not for everybody, so we offer people other ways of paying. I think my noble friends Lord McColl and Lord Farmer raised the issue of the appeals process and whether it works. We have made changes to the appeals process and, if a complainant is still unsatisfied with the response they have, they can escalate it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Noble Lords asked me to tell them about the progress of the Government’s commitment to supporting parents to make family-based arrangements. The survey we did will be published in due course.

I am sorry to have run out of time, because this is a subject dear to my heart; I could spend all day talking to noble Lords about it and answering your questions, believe me. Please go away from here understanding that we know child maintenance is important, we are on it and we are going to make the changes we need to make to take children out of poverty so they can get the best chances in life.

Thank you, Minister. That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.

Committee adjourned at 6.38 pm.