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Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill

Volume 829: debated on Friday 21 April 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am very pleased to introduce the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill to this House. After it gathered significant cross-party support in the other place, I hope noble Lords will continue this and back these important measures.

As noble Lords may be aware, I have a long-standing interest in separated families. I co-founded the Family Hubs Network Ltd alongside Dr Samantha Callan, my parliamentary adviser. I declare my interest as director and controlling shareholder of the Family Hubs Network Ltd, which advocates for family hubs and advises local authorities on how to establish them. Our work with local authorities includes help to improve the relationship between separated parents, for their and their children’s benefit.

This has contributed to my interest in the Child Maintenance Service, the CMS. I was also pleased to bring forward a debate in this House in 2021 on reforms to the CMS. The CMS has made progress in improving its service for parents since I called the debate, which needs acknowledgement. I know my noble friend the Minister is committed to making the CMS the best it can be, to ensure that separated parents get the support they need. One area in particular is how the CMS operates for victims of domestic abuse. In autumn 2021, the department commissioned an independent review of the ways in which the CMS supports victims of domestic abuse, conducted by Dr Callan. I was pleased to see the review published in January. Before moving on to the details of the Bill, I should like to provide some background to the CMS.

As my noble friend the Minister will confirm, the purpose of the CMS is to encourage parents to work together wherever possible and make their own private family-based arrangements, as these types of arrangements tend to be better for children. However, some parents find it impossible to make their own arrangements, which is why the CMS offers a statutory scheme for those parents who need it. Notwithstanding concerns raised by the Social Security Advisory Committee about low-income paying parents’ liabilities, the CMS aims to operate fairly for both receiving and paying parents by ensuring that the maintenance liability appropriately reflects the paying parent’s income, while recognising the overall responsibility of the primary carer, the receiving parent.

Once parents are in the scheme, the CMS manages cases through one of two service types: direct pay and collect and pay. For direct pay, CMS provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but payments are arranged privately between the two parents. For collect and pay, CMS 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 both parents agree to collect and pay, or the paying parent demonstrates an unwillingness to pay their liability.

This Bill would amend Section 4 of the Child Support Act 1991 to extend the collect and pay service to victims of domestic abuse regardless of the payment history. Although I am aware that the CMS can act as intermediary for parents in direct pay, any situation where former partners have to co-operate will always be difficult for some people. This is particularly the case where there has been a history of domestic abuse in the relationship. These proposals are about giving victims of domestic abuse the choice to use collect and pay if they decide that is best for their personal circumstances, avoiding entirely any need to transact with the other parent in a case where that is appropriate, and helping them feel as safe as possible using the CMS.

The Bill 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 abuse of the paying or receiving parent, or even children in their household, by the other parent involved in the case; the CMS recognises that abuse can be suffered by either parent, or children, in the household.

The evidence requirements for domestic abuse will be set out in secondary legislation. The requirements are expected to be complex, which is why they need to be set out in regulations rather than in primary legislation. As my noble friend the Minister will confirm, they will be subject to more detailed policy development, including engagement with stakeholder groups and other government departments, to ensure that parents are supported appropriately and that the measures are proportionate for both parents.

Noble Lords may have questions on the issue of charging. For the use of the collect and pay service, paying parents are charged 20% on top of their maintenance liability while receiving parents are charged 4% of the maintenance received. I know my noble friend will touch on this in more detail, but I can say that the charging structure will be looked at as the secondary legislation is developed.

Finally, I will add that this Bill extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am pleased that its provisions will apply throughout the United Kingdom, ensuring that victims of domestic abuse throughout the devolved Administrations benefit from the Bill.

In conclusion, I am privileged to present this Bill before the House and I hope that noble Lords agree that it will provide victims of domestic abuse with an additional layer of support, which many of them may need when using the CMS. I look forward to working with my noble friend the Minister as we aim to secure its swift passage through the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing this small but important Bill forward. I am also grateful to Dr Samantha Callan for her work as the author of the Independent Review of the Child Maintenance Service. Noble Lords will remember the tragic circumstances that led to that review: the murder of Emma Day on 25 May 2017 after she had made claims under the CMS.

In a cost of living crisis, child maintenance payments can be a crucial part of income. It is perhaps not surprising that, in some domestic abuse situations, the coercive and controlling behaviour continues when the caring parent and the non-resident parent are using the direct pay mechanism of the Child Maintenance Service, as outlined so ably by my noble friend. The non-resident parent may, or instance, pay 90% or 95% of the assessment amount, or payments may be made a few days late, causing much distress and perhaps even debt. Let us imagine if an employer changed pay day by a few days without any notice.

This behaviour would require the caring parent, who may have been abused, to chase the missing money and potentially be exposed again to the controlling and manipulative behaviour of the non-resident parent whom they fled. Opening up the collect and pay system in these situations means that the Commons, not the caring parent, would do the chasing. Hopefully, these examples of dilatory payment behaviour would then reduce, if not end, as they would no longer achieve their purpose of getting contact with the abused person.

I recognise that there is much to be worked out in secondary legislation concerning the level of evidence needed to establish the need to use the collect and pay system and the use of charges and deductions, but I believe that the principle of the legislation is sound.

I also want today to ask my noble friend the Minister to provide an update on the Government’s progress in implementing the changes that were provided in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In the context of family separation, with which your Lordships are concerned today, His Majesty’s Government announced last month that there will be a review of the Matrimonial Causes Act, which governs financial matters on the divorce or annulment of a marriage or civil partnership.

The grounds for divorce are now, of course, on a no-fault basis, so considerations of domestic abuse are, thankfully, not relevant to that matter—but should they be relevant on a claim for financial relief on divorce? It seems that under current case law, for conduct to be considered under the Matrimonial Causes Act, Section 25(2)(g), the domestic abuse would have to be of a “gasp” not a “gulp” order of magnitude. Is that high threshold consistent with the policy aims and objectives that sit behind the Domestic Abuse Act—or what an ordinary member of the public would think just and equitable when a court is dividing up matrimonial property on the breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership that has been blighted by domestic abuse, as now defined and understood by the norms set out in the Domestic Abuse Act? Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the question of the role of domestic abuse when granting financial relief on divorce will be considered under the Law Commission’s Matrimonial Causes Act review?

There are multiple other examples where domestic abuse could be relevant but is not obvious at first sight. Financial advisers have to have an FCA-recognised qualification to operate, but does this now include teaching on economic control and coercion?

His Majesty’s Government are now aided by the independent domestic abuse commissioner, so I hope there will be an overall strategy to assess existing laws and public service procedures for any other changes that are needed to implement the Domestic Abuse Act. Such a strategy would enable changes to be dealt with more swiftly than in this case. It will be over five years since Emma Day’s murder before the CMS is changed to protect other victims; I believe, sadly, that that is too long.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords on all sides of the House in commending this Bill today. I would like to thank Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs and her team, as well as the charities Gingerbread and Surviving Economic Abuse and our excellent Library service, for their input.

I well remember discussing the issue of withholding maintenance as an instrument of coercive control during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. It was not tackled at the time and I am very glad that the Government are supporting this Private Member’s Bill today.

The death of Emma Day, which has already been alluded to—killed after she refused to cancel a child maintenance claim—was a shocking wake-up call and the logical consequence of making direct pay the default service in cases of domestic abuse.

In evidence to Dr Samantha Callan’s report, which was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions to look at how the Child Maintenance Service supports survivors of domestic abuse, Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, revealed how pervasive domestic abuse is among claimants for child maintenance: 58% of new claimants in one quarter alone were victims.

So it is to the Government’s credit that they accepted the majority of the Callan recommendations and, most importantly, backed this primary legislation. However, more needs to be done. It is important that undue emphasis is not placed on the risk of false allegations and the requirement to provide evidence of domestic abuse to access the new provision. We saw during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill how insidious and below the surface coercive control can be, but it currently stipulates that satisfactory evidence of domestic abuse needs to be provided. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for his comments on the review. We do not know what will constitute “satisfactory evidence”, but research shows that many cases of domestic abuse are not disclosed to agencies, so victims may struggle to provide evidence. My first ask of the Minister is that he confirms that the requirement for evidence will not prohibit victims who have not yet made disclosures of domestic abuse to agencies from coming forward.

My second ask echoes points made by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and Members in the other place about the fees for the collect and pay service. The paying parent, as he said, pays a 20% collection fee and the receiving parent a 4% fee. Will the Minister look closely at whether that 4% fee could be waived? Even given that the majority of applicants are victims, surely that sum would be very small in relation to the overall costs of running the CMS. In any case, victims will doubtless need access to other forms of subsidised support from the public purse. I will call for an amendment to the Child Support Fees Regulations 2014 to that effect. However, if time in the parliamentary schedule is tight, can the Minister indicate that he will consider this matter in the accompanying secondary legislation?

Victims have no choice in needing protection via the collect and pay service and should not be penalised for it when they are already undergoing hardship as a result of leaving a controlling or abusive relationship. I was heartened to hear that the Minister, Mims Davies, said in the other place that consideration would be given to exempting the 4% for survivors. I have a heart full of hope.

That brings me on to my third ask, which is being called for by the commissioner, the charities Gingerbread and Surviving Economic Abuse, and others. By the time maintenance payments eventually come through, a receiving parent and her children can be at the point of destitution. Gingerbread and many others want to see minimum payments made while the claim is assessed, while the payments are set up and if the paying parent fails to pay promptly, to help prevent them from sliding into poverty as a result. I hope there will be time to table an amendment on that subject too.

My fourth and final point relates to appropriate training for CMS staff in applying the new legislation and the implementation of the protocols. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner recommends that the DWP should commission a specialist gender-informed service to deliver training on recognising and responding to domestic abuse, including economic abuse, for CMS staff. This training should be accompanied by clear protocols for responding to disclosures of domestic abuse and should be developed in close consultation with the specialist domestic abuse sector and victims. The DWP should consult closely with domestic abuse specialists in the implementation of the legislation and all wider changes to policy resulting from the Callan report, and should ensure that it publishes regular updates on the progress of this work.

We are playing with people’s lives here. The processes and guidance must ensure that everyone involved has the tools and the knowledge to be able to tread carefully and sensitively in this emotional minefield.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for introducing this Bill and all noble Lords who have spoken. As we have heard, the main aim of the Bill is simply to make it possible for parents who have experienced domestic abuse to ask the Child Maintenance Service to collect maintenance payments on their behalf, thus avoiding the need to communicate with the abusive parent. At the moment, they would first have to try to arrange payment directly with the abusive parent via the direct pay system and wait for that to fail, which is obviously risky.

We know that the stakes are very high in relation to domestic abuse. The noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Burt, have mentioned the tragic case of Emma Day, who was murdered by her ex-partner in May 2017. That case could not be more directly relevant here: he had warned her not to chase him for child support, threatening her life if she did so. When she pursued her claim, he stabbed her to death. I am sure all noble Lords would like to join me in sending our sympathies to Emma Day’s family and friends, and all those who mourn her and will do so for years to come.

After Emma’s inquest, the coroner issued a regulation 28 report to prevent future deaths. It noted that Ms Day had told the CMS of the threat to her life but this was not passed to the known caseworker. The report says:

“Staff were not fully and consistently trained in domestic violence. There was no action to address the potential escalation of the risk on reinstating the claim”.

The coroner called for a review of the protocols and training of child maintenance caseworkers and then in due course, as we have heard, the report by Dr Samantha Callan looking at the CMS response to domestic abuse was published in April last year, with the Government’s response in January. I too thank Dr Callan for her work on this subject as well as Gingerbread and Surviving Economic Abuse for their campaigns for change.

We on these Benches support the Bill. It represents a welcome step forward in improving the way that the child support system serves the parents and children who suffer as a result of domestic abuse. That said, the actual impact of the Bill will depend very much on future decisions on matters that will be dealt with in regulations and operational guidance, so there are some important questions on which we need more information.

First, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, we do not yet know what evidence of domestic abuse will be accepted by the CMS. We know it will be detailed in secondary legislation, and at Second Reading in the Commons the Minister, Tom Pursglove, committed the Government to consulting widely and said the aim would be to produce requirements

“that are sensitive to the needs of domestic abuse victims”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/22; col. 568.]

That is good, but can the Minister offer us any more information? Since he is the Minister for child support, can he assure us that he is already in discussions with colleagues in other government departments to ensure consistency on matters of domestic abuse across government? Would he be willing to publish the regulations in draft so that Peers could consider them before they were finalised, or at least to engage with Peers as part of that wider consultation exercise? I would be grateful if he would reflect on that.

That leads to the second issue: how ready the CMS is to deal with these changes or with domestic abuse more broadly. Since the Emma Day tragedy, training on domestic abuse has been introduced for CMS staff. In Committee in the Commons, the Minister, Mims Davies, said that

“with particular input from Women’s Aid, a programme of domestic abuse training has been designed and delivered for all CMS caseworkers”.—[Official Report, Commons, Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Public Bill Committee, 14/12/22; col. 10.]

The Minister will know that my honourable friend Jess Phillips expressed some concerns about whether the training was adequate and queried whether Women’s Aid was indeed involved in designing and delivering it. I sought the view of Women’s Aid on this issue. I was told it recommends that all CMS staff should get specialist domestic abuse training from a specialist provider to ensure that they can understand the risks facing survivors and provide a safe response. However, Women’s Aid understands that the CMS training is not designed or run by specialists but has been developed and is delivered in-house within the CMS. It told me:

“The National Training Centre at Women’s Aid assessed the delivery of one of these in-house training sessions and was severely concerned by it. Women’s Aid provided feedback to them in this regard but we had no further input or role in the training.”

Can the Minister please clarify what training is given to CMS staff and who designs and delivers it?

I have also heard concerns from charities of cases where the response of CMS staff to their disclosure of domestic abuse was not what one would have hoped. Gingerbread surveyed single parents with experience of domestic abuse and found that most did not think CMS staff had given appropriate consideration to their situation as survivors. One parent said:

“I was told that I wasn’t a victim of domestic abuse because I hadn’t experienced physical violence”.

Another said:

“The whole system was very stressful and I tried to explain how dangerous he was and how scared we were but I was just told either it’s direct pay or they will charge me lots of money and my daughter will lose out.”

How confident is the Minister that CMS staff are trained and resourced to deal appropriately at all levels with parents facing domestic abuse?

There is then the question of charges, which has been touched on already. The Government’s 2012 reforms of child support used charging to push parents into handling maintenance between themselves, without involving the state. If they make a private arrangement, there is no fee; if they use direct pay, there is just a £20 application fee. But if they use collect and pay, a collection charge of 20% of the maintenance liability is levied on the paying parent, as we have heard, and 4% on the parent receiving the money. But the whole point of this Bill is to ensure that parents who cannot safely use direct pay without putting themselves or their children at risk will in future be able to use the collect and pay service—getting the CMS to collect the money for them—without having to have contact with the abusive parent.

If the CMS accepts that someone has produced evidence that they are experiencing domestic abuse, it waives the £20 application fee. But it does not waive the 4% of the total maintenance liability fee if they use the collect and pay service. At Third Reading in the Commons, my honourable friend Vicky Foxcroft put it like this. She said that

“they are then effectively penalised every month simply for using a service that stops them having to have contact with their abusive ex-partner. I hope we can all agree that that is grossly unfair”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/23; col. 1008.]

In Committee the Minister, Mims Davies, had said:

“Full consideration is being given to exempting victims of domestic abuse from collection charges”.—[Official Report, Commons, Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill Committee, 14/12/22; col. 9.]

Can the Minister tell the House where this consideration has got to and when it will conclude?

This takes me to timing more generally. I think we are all hopeful that the Bill will become an Act this Session, in the not-too-distant future. But given that nothing can happen until we get the secondary legislation and the guidance, as so much of the detail will be in that, can the Minister give us at least an outline target timetable for when that might come on stream?

I want to make a final point about enforcement, which seems to be a problem with child support. I do not know whether I need to declare a very historic interest: a long time ago, I was on the board of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, so I understand the background to this. I have been looking at the CMS statistics and for the last quarter, to December 2022, under half of parents due to pay through collect and pay paid even the 90% that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, mentioned, while 35% of those on collect and pay paid nothing. Thirty-five per cent of those for whom the CMS was collecting the money paid not one pound. That is over 140,000 children for whom none of the maintenance due was paid, and this matters.

A 2019 study by Hakovirta et al found that if child maintenance were paid in full to all children in separated families living in poverty who are not getting money from their other parent, it could lift 60% of them out of poverty. It makes that much difference, so I ask the Minister, first: is the problem with enforcement in CMS about a lack of staff, a lack of money or a lack of powers? What is the drag on this? Secondly, I was really worried to hear that there is now a real backlog in CMS, with thousands of claims not even yet assigned to the service. Can the Minister tell the House if this is so and how many claims are waiting?

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, raised some really interesting questions. I will happily leave the Minister to respond to them, but I will listen with great interest to what he has to say. They sounded really important and are a sign to us all, and indeed to the Government, of the need to think across all areas when considering something as all-encompassing as domestic abuse.

Despite these concerns, we welcome this Bill and congratulate again the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on introducing it here and the honourable Sally-Ann Hart MP on steering it though the Commons. I hope the Government will continue to build on this legislation and, more widely, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to deliver a strong, co-ordinated cross-government approach to domestic abuse.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer on his excellent introduction to the Bill. As my noble friend has stated, the Bill will create an additional layer of protection for domestic abuse victims and their children when using the Child Maintenance Service—the CMS. It has the full backing of His Majesty’s Government and it gives me great pleasure to speak in full support of it today.

I start off by saying a few words about Emma Day, because her death was a truly shocking and distressing event. The CMS took action immediately to review its processes and procedures, to ensure that it is doing everything it can to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse and to make maintenance arrangements safely, and to reduce the risk of CMS customers being subject to further domestic abuse. I wanted to say that at the outset because it has been raised as a very important and tragic theme this morning.

I was very pleased to be given ministerial responsibility for child maintenance in January and to continue the excellent work in this area of my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott. Child maintenance provides a vital service for separated families and their children, through both private and CMS arrangements. It is estimated that separated families received £2.6 billion annually in maintenance payments between 2020 and 2022. This roughly equates to lifting around 160,000 children out of poverty each year, on an after housing costs basis. I will be raising the issue of children as a central theme during my speech.

I would also like to give some context to the Bill by talking about the current CMS service. I am aware of a number of questions that have been raised about this, notably from the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Sherlock, and I will attempt to answer them. My noble friend Lord Farmer spoke eloquently about the service, so I will not go into too much more detail for fear of repetition, but the purpose of the CMS is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance between separated parents who are unable to reach their own agreement following separation. This is a very challenging job, undertaken in extremely difficult circumstances, and the CMS must operate in an unbiased manner. Separation is an extraordinarily difficult time for parents and, more importantly, the children, who are the CMS’s primary focus, as I said earlier. The CMS works incredibly hard to collect maintenance, so that children receive the financial support they are entitled to. In the past 12 months, the CMS has arranged over £1 billion in child maintenance payments.

Before moving on to the details of the Bill, I will say a few words about how the CMS operates for victims of domestic abuse. This Government take the issue of domestic abuse extremely seriously, and the department is committed to ensuring that victims of abuse get the help and support they need to use the CMS safely. Abuse may occur at either side, against paying or receiving parents, and at any point during the life of a case. My noble friend Lady Berridge gave some examples in her remarks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked about guaranteeing payments, particularly when paying parents do not pay their maintenance liability, which is an important point. Operating a scheme where the Government guarantees child maintenance payments if the paying parent does not pay is not the intent of CMS policy. The role of the CMS, as I alluded to earlier, is to encourage parents to take financial responsibility for their children. The scheme is designed to encourage parents to agree their own family-based arrangements, wherever possible, as this tends to be in the best interests of the children. The statutory scheme exists as a fall-back if they are unable to do so. The Government do not believe that the state covering the shortfall in unpaid maintenance is the right or appropriate way to target additional funding, given that there is no means test for receiving parents.

The application fee, which I will say more about later on, is waived for applicants who have experienced domestic abuse. CMS caseworkers will signpost where needed to suitable domestic abuse support organisations. For parents using the direct pay service, the CMS can act as an intermediary to facilitate the exchange of bank details to ensure there is no unwanted contact between parents and that no personal information is shared. CMS caseworkers also provide information on how to set up bank accounts with a centralised sort code, which reduces the risk of a parent’s location being traced.

We continuously review our processes to ensure that domestic abuse victims are appropriately supported when using the CMS. I should therefore mention the excellent recently completed review concerning the CMS. I was very pleased to be able to publish this independent review of the ways in which the CMS supports victims of domestic abuse when I took ministerial responsibility for child maintenance.

As my noble friend Lord Farmer said, the review was published on 17 January this year and was conducted by Dr Samantha Callan, a leading expert on domestic abuse. The review finds that the CMS is an agency that has worked hard to develop and improve its domestic abuse practices. However, as the review also points out, there are further steps we can take to improve the CMS for victims of domestic abuse. We have accepted eight of the 10 recommendations in the review, and I am strongly committed to implementing these as soon as possible. I applaud the review, the findings of which are informed by extensive engagement with victims and survivors of domestic abuse and, of course, the domestic abuse sector. Your Lordships will have seen that Dr Callan’s report includes a recommendation to enable cases to be moved to collect and pay where there is evidence of domestic abuse—precisely what this Bill aims to do.

I turn to the important subject of training, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and, in particular, by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. The review also recommends that the CMS review its domestic abuse training. The CMS provides domestic abuse training for all caseworkers. It recognises that domestic abuse can take various forms, as the noble Baronesses will know, which include physical, psychological, coercive, overbearing, emotional and financial abuse. I stress that this can be against either parent involved.

As the noble Baronesses will know, the CMS reviewed its domestic abuse training in 2021 to ensure that caseworkers are equipped to support parents in vulnerable situations. To give a bit more detail, the training includes how to recognise the various forms of domestic abuse, checking for previous reports of abuse and appropriate signposting to domestic abuse support groups.

Following Dr Callan’s independent review of the ways in which the CMS supports survivors of domestic abuse, we will undertake a comprehensive review of training—I repeat myself, as this is a very important point—to ensure that it remains up to date. We will engage with external organisations where appropriate to ensure that the training reflects the needs of domestic abuse survivors when they use the CMS. The CMS also has a complex needs toolkit for its caseworkers, which includes clear steps to follow in order to support customers experiencing abuse. This toolkit is regularly reviewed and strengthened, particularly on the basis of customer insight.

Coercive control has been raised in this debate, in other debates and in the other place. The CMS is recognising this. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which was debated through both Houses, has brought in important changes for those who have experienced abuse. It has made coercive control a criminal offence, including in relation to ex-partners. The Home Office published new statutory guidance on controlling and coercive behaviour earlier this month. Although CMS domestic abuse training recognises that domestic abuse can take many forms, we are reviewing the guidance to determine the impact on CMS procedures.

This leads me to attempting to answer quite a technical question from my noble friend Lady Berridge in relation to matters raised by the Domestic Abuse Act. She touched on the review of the Matrimonial Causes Act. As she will know, our Domestic Abuse Act became law in April 2021. This truly game-changing piece of legislation transforms our response to victims in every region of England and Wales and ensures that perpetrators are brought to justice. It helps millions affected by these awful crimes by strengthening the response across all agencies, from the police and courts to local authorities and service providers. For the first time in history, there is a general-purpose legal definition of domestic abuse, which incorporates a range of abuses beyond physical violence, including emotional, controlling or coercive and economic abuse.

I note the question raised by my noble friend concerning the Matrimonial Causes Act, although divorce is a separate issue to child maintenance and not one dealt with by my department. The Child Maintenance Service exists to ensure that children receive the financial support they are entitled to. The welfare of the child, to mention it again, is at the heart of everything we do. This Government take domestic abuse very seriously. I will raise my noble friend’s question with ministerial colleagues and can assure her that she will receive a letter on this subject. I can assure her that Ministers in the department and across government regularly meet the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to discuss issues including the Child Maintenance Service. That also gives an answer to the question about cross-government support.

The Bill will amend primary legislation and allow either parent, or a child in Scotland, to request the collect and pay service on the grounds of domestic abuse, where there is evidence of abuse against them or children in their household by the other parent in the case. We recognise that abuse can be suffered by either parent or by children. A child in Scotland can apply for these provisions if they are the CMS applicant and either parent was the victim of domestic abuse, or if they themselves were.

To ensure that the Bill targets parents appropriately, the types of domestic abuse evidence that will be required will be set out in secondary legislation. To develop the secondary legislation, we will consult widely and engage with stakeholder groups, as well as other government departments, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, and with the devolved Administrations where appropriate, to ensure that parents are suitably supported. This will ensure that appropriate processes are established for verifying evidence requirements for domestic abuse.

A number of points were raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Sherlock, about the sort of questions they wish to propose. These questions will need to be discussed, debated thoroughly and drawn out as the secondary legislation is rolled out. The secondary legislation will follow the affirmative procedure so that your Lordships will have the opportunity to vote on proposals put forward. We will also consult widely to ensure that we get the proposals right, as mentioned earlier. We will aim to produce robust evidence requirements that are fully sensitive to the needs of those who have experienced domestic abuse and where all relevant data and insights have been thoroughly considered.

My noble friend Lady Berridge asked why there was a delay in publishing the independent review response. I was not particularly aware of that, but the review completed in spring 2022 and the Government received the report during the summer. It was important to get all the aspects right, so the full findings and 10 recommendations were published on 17 January 2023.

Can I just correct that and make sure the record is clear? If I recollect my own contribution correctly, I was just commenting on the overall time it has taken from the 2017 murder to getting this rectified. If I said anything other than that, it was not what I intended to do.

I note my noble friend’s point. Although I cannot answer on the particular delay after the tragic circumstances in 2017, I will certainly come back to her and perhaps add to the letter I am writing to her on that.

I go back to the secondary legislation and the questions raised on evidence of domestic abuse and on working across government. I can say—I have my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy beside me—that we are working ever more closely across government on matters of domestic abuse and on supporting families, however they may be defined nowadays. As I said earlier, the focus across government is on children and their welfare.

On the timing of secondary legislation, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I am afraid I cannot give her any timescale. In relation to all aspects of the Callan review, we want to move at pace. I think it is good news that this Private Member’s Bill and the next one, which is coming on 19 May, are both moving at pace.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about domestic abuse training being developed with input from Women’s Aid. I assure her that the CMS domestic abuse training was shared with Women’s Aid for the review in May 2021. Women’s Aid’s concerns were mainly around the knowledge levels of DWP trainers with respect to domestic abuse and related to the content and design of the training itself. The CMS took Women’s Aid’s comments into account and updated the training, alongside using a new facilitator guide to better support the trainers. As she may know, this was published in November 2021—which seems quite a long time ago.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, also raised an important point about non-compliance. The percentage of parents who paid some maintenance on the collect and pay service has increased from 60% in the quarter ending in March 2018 to 65% in the quarter ending December 2022—these are the latest figures we have. In 2021, a new internal payment-compliance measure and approach was introduced to support customer expectations across its full case load, including CMS and CSA arrears-only cases. The measure requires 90% or more of the liability and any schedules arrears to be paid. This is measured monthly and on a rolling quarterly basis, including a measure to address cases not paying on time.

I am aware of the time and I should quickly conclude. I think I have answered most of the questions. I reiterate that I strongly believe that victims of domestic abuse and their children should feel as safe as possible when using the CMS. The Bill will provide an extra layer of legislative protection so that they can decide which service type is most appropriate for them, their circumstances and, most importantly, the welfare of their children, while also providing a fair service to both the receiving and the paying parent. I hope that the House recognises the importance of the Bill and supports my noble friend Lord Farmer in its passage today.

My Lords, I thank everyone who contributed to this important debate, which underlined the complexity of the closest human relationships we have, the complex abuse that can take place within them, and how difficult it is for government to legislate and work its best for the common good. Regarding what my noble friend Lady Berridge put forward on the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, I certainly feel that the Child Maintenance Service is responding to this area. Of course, as she alluded to, a huge number of areas will have to respond to that Act, as our whole knowledge of domestic abuse evolves and as we understand it.

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Sherlock, and my noble friend Lady Berridge for their constructive questions and a good debate. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for his answers, which showed his clear commitment to this area. I am reassured by the commitment that he has shown to me so far and that I think will continue, as the Bill moves through the House. I am also aware of the time and will not rattle on. I thank everyone for their contributions.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.