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Child Maintenance Services

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered potential improvements to child maintenance services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am very grateful for being granted the time to shed light on the Child Maintenance Service, which I will refer to as the CMS, not least because I, along with the help of colleagues, set up a new all-party parliamentary group on this issue in October last year, and because the Government have published an important review this morning, which I will come to shortly. I want to put on the record my thanks to organisations such as Gingerbread, One Parent Families Scotland, Refuge, Women’s Aid and Surviving Economic Abuse, which have taken the time to educate the APPG on this issue. I also thank the brave constituents from all over the UK who have shared their experiences with us.

To put it plainly, I am afraid that the CMS is not working. It is failing receiving parents, paying parents and survivors of domestic abuse, but, most of all, it is failing children. Roughly 120,000 children in the UK receive no maintenance, and a high number receive a meagre portion of what they are entitled to. Since launching the APPG, we have received floods of correspondence from people who do not know which way to turn. I put it to you, Mr Twigg, that the CMS is broken, and we MPs cannot make it work on an individual case-by-case basis. I believe it is time for a complete overhaul of the service.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He started by rightly pointing out the many cases that cross constituency MPs’ desks, and our caseworkers have to deal with very sensitive and difficult cases, the vast majority of which involve mothers. I have had a terrible case of a mother tirelessly pursuing her ex-husband to pay up for nine years, and he has found every which way to game the system. I have also heard from a father who has erroneously paid £18,000 of arrears, despite having evidence from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that he was not earning money during the period for which he has been charged. Does that not show the complete incompetence of the CMS? It needs to be able to work with HMRC and communicate clearly with parents, but it also needs to have the teeth to take enforcement action where parents are not paying up.

My hon. Friend makes some very valid points indeed. Perhaps I should also pay tribute to the staff in my own office, and in the offices of all other MPs, who do fantastic, challenging and difficult work. It is very stressful for the staff members involved, so I pay tribute to them.

I want to focus on the ways in which the CMS can better support survivors of domestic abuse and safeguard receiving parents and their children from falling into poverty. It is quite clear that the CMS is not specialised or tailored to support survivors of domestic and economic abuse, so we in the APPG are glad to hear that the Government plan to use Dr Samantha Callan’s recommendations to introduce new domestic abuse training for CMS caseworkers, which will be delivered by a third-party external agency rather than in-house, as set out in the review published this morning, for which I thank His Majesty’s Government. However, our concern is that this does not go far enough. The training should be delivered by a specialist organisation, such as any of the organisations I have already thanked.

I am also glad to hear that the Government plan to protect survivors from having direct contact with abusive ex-partners when trying to obtain child maintenance payments, by giving them the choice to be moved on to collect and pay, the system by which the CMS collects a payment from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent without either party having to make direct contact, allowing claims to be made safely. That is an important point.

I understand that the system is more costly for the Government, but we strongly urge that these charges to the paying and receiving parents—20% and 4% respectively —are dropped for survivors of domestic abuse. The charges exacerbate already abusive relationships; they make them worse. Abolishing them would also be a simple way to safeguard against further refusal to make payments.

When it comes to safeguarding receiving parents from falling below the poverty line, I support the call for the CMS to make mandatory minimum payments to survivor receiving parents and to chase the paying parents themselves. This would take the burden of feeling forced to make direct contact away from the survivor and protect them from potential financial ruin. Given the historic failure of the CMS to enforce payments from perpetrators of economic abuse and the current cost of living crisis, we believe that the Government should seriously consider this recommendation.

Many of the problems come down to a fundamental breakdown of communication between the Department for Work and Pensions, and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Perpetrators of economic abuse are able to get away with declaring no income if they are self-employed or a business-owner, therefore escaping the obligation to pay maintenance; this will be a situation familiar to Members of this House from all parties. The perpetrators are also able to avoid payments as the CMS has no legal enforcement capability, despite child maintenance being a legal obligation.

The Public Accounts Committee found that unpaid maintenance owed to parents on collect and pay to distribute payments is set to rise to £1 billion by March 2031. Can you believe that? The review by the National Audit Office in March 2022 stated that the work of the CMS has

“not, so far, increased the number of effective child maintenance arrangements across society.”

This work on child maintenance is incredibly important. The Work and Pensions Committee has also been looking at these issues and I have found the Ministers and the teams at DWP to be very receptive. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we are considering how to get money to parents through an enforcement process, the speed of the implementation of enforcement is just as important as the actual tool, and that involving courts can sometimes seriously delay the enforcement? Also, would he be willing to look at my private Member’s Bill about child maintenance enforcement options, which has Government backing?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I think I can safely speak for all members of the APPG in saying that we would endorse what has just been said and we would gladly look at her Bill. One of the most encouraging aspects of the work—early as it is—of this new APPG is the cross-party support that there is for it. Regardless of political colour, there is a recognition that there is something very wrong and I am sure that we can improve that.

I will re-emphasise my opening point that currently the CMS is not working for anybody. In my own office, the bulk of cases come from constituents who are paying parents and who are being unfairly treated by the CMS. We have found that it is often the case for parents who have shared care that one parent has the child for more days than the other and is entitled to various child benefits but then asks for maintenance on top of that, despite the other parent caring for the child for two to three days a week without receiving any support from the Government. So there are different ways of looking at this issue.

In my office, we have also seen cases where parents have been making their payments properly and on time, but they have had those payments treated as being “voluntary”, and so they are not counted towards assessed payments.

It is clear that we need a fundamental overhaul of the way that the CMS works, so that it better protects receiving parents from economic abuse and the threat of poverty, and so that paying parents are not being unnecessarily chased by the CMS for payments they do not owe. This would require a proper and thorough understanding of domestic and economic abuse, a fundamental link between the DWP and HMRC, and an urgent review of the internal administrative efficiency of the CMS.

In closing, I will simply say that I make these remarks in this place in all sincerity and I hope that we can move forward on a cross-party basis, with help from His Majesty’s Government, to tackle this issue, which cuts deeply into many people’s lives and for the worse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, just as it is a pleasure to serve alongside you as a neighbouring MP. I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for leading the debate. His speech was eloquent and powerful, and contained some useful pointers for the Minister. As my good friend and colleague stated in his opening remarks, this is a cross-party issue. We have constituency offices and teams that are inundated by the consequences of a system that is not fit for purpose. I welcome this opportunity to speak about the ways in which we can improve the Child Maintenance Service. Other MPs will highlight specific cases to inform the debate, and undoubtedly the Minister will have a number of takeaways.

The parents of hundreds of thousands of children are in receipt of child maintenance at any one time. When issues occur, they can blight family relationships. Many have already broken down, and some are quite toxic, in terms of domestic violence and so forth. Ultimately, the real harm and hardship are focused on the children. They are who the system is about: the system is there to protect children and help with their life chances. It is vital that it functions well.

We all agree that the CMS has many problems—not least the fact that so much maintenance goes unpaid. Only one third of families with maintenance arrangements have working agreements that see the money paid in full. That is not good enough. Almost half of children in single parent families live in poverty, and in-work poverty has hit record levels. It is no surprise that, as the evidence clearly shows, receiving child maintenance on time and in full lifts children and their families out of poverty.

I want to raise a particular case that my staff and I have been dealing with. We have been dealing with many cases, but this one highlights a number of the problems that constituents face. My constituent is called Danielle. She was forced to contact the Child Maintenance Service after a former partner refused to pay the amount calculated by the CMS to support their two children. A deduction of earnings order was implemented. When, in November, Danielle did not receive the payment, she was told that, although the employer had taken the money from the father that month, it had not forwarded that payment to the CMS.

My constituent works full time, but without that money, she was forced to go into her overdraft to pay for the basics in life. The cost of living challenges at the moment are well documented. Although Danielle has now received that money, the next payment did not arrive either. She was advised by the CMS that the employer stated that it would not transfer anything further until February. She was also told that she was not the only parent waiting for maintenance payments to be sent from that employer. It is clear that that employer is causing a multitude of problems not only for Danielle but for a number of constituents in my patch and in other constituencies in the area. The CMS may be forced to take the company to court to obtain the money, but the decision will be balanced against the cost to taxpayers of taking such action. That may result in my constituent waiting even longer for the money that she and, very importantly, the two children desperately need.

In the meantime, Danielle has been forced to incur additional costs by using an extended overdraft and borrowing hundreds of pounds from her pensioner parents, who do not have much money themselves. That could go on for a considerable time. She is talking about actually finishing work, coming out of the labour market and looking at other options, such as benefits. Surely the system is shooting not only Danielle in the foot, but her children and the taxpayer itself. The enforcement system is simply not working to protect children. There has been mention of the report that has finally been published today. I need time to digest that, as I am sure other hon. Members do. I hope that it addresses some of these issues and some of the issues already highlighted in the Chamber today.

Finally, and more specifically in relation to the case that I have raised here, will the Minister comment on how we can improve the deduction from earnings system, so that employers do not force families into debt or overdrafts or even on to benefits, and we ensure that children have the best start in life with a system that works effectively?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I express my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for securing today’s debate and for setting up the child maintenance services APPG. Two of my constituents, Laura and Nicola, attended a meeting of the APPG this morning to share their experiences of the Child Maintenance Service, and that has done a great deal to make them feel that finally their voices are being heard.

Back in May, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) led a debate here in Westminster Hall on this very topic, and in that debate I spoke about some of the long-running difficulties that my constituents had been having in getting the payments that they were owed by the paying parent in their cases. “Disappointing” is not a strong enough word for how it feels to be here seven months on, knowing that those constituents have yet to see any meaningful changes in their cases.

It is hard for me and my team when we see a new CMS case cross our desk. We know that constituents expect us to be able to do something to sort the problem out for them. We have the same expectations of ourselves. But we also know that there will be months of back and forth and most likely very little to show for it at the end. That is not because we—both Members and our staff—are not trying hard enough, and I am sure that it is not because the staff at the CMS do not have sympathy or want to help. It is because the system is not fit for purpose. Reforming it for the benefit of the service users must be an urgent priority for Ministers.

I know that some headway is being made. I welcome Dr Samantha Callan’s report today on the CMS response to domestic abuse, for example. I also welcome the response to that report from the new Minister on this matter, which reflects support for changes that many CMS users and their elected representatives have been calling for.

I am very glad that the hon. Member has made a point of drawing a line between the best efforts of the CMS staff, and the system. I want to place it on the record that my own office has no problem with the people on the other end of the email or the telephone. I do not want that to be misunderstood.

I thank the hon. Member for making that point; it is exactly what I was meaning. It is not incumbent on the CMS staff to sort out every single problem, but they need to be given the tools to be able to help us as parliamentarians and to help, ultimately, our constituents.

The report today by Dr Samantha Callan is a long report, and I admit that I have not yet had an opportunity to review it in full, but I am pleased that long-running issues are finally being reviewed and addressed. Dr Callan’s report rightly highlights the fact that the space in which the CMS operates is unusual and tricky and that, as she puts it,

“The CMS is a state agency that is tasked with intervening in an area of social life—parental separation—that is often highly emotionally charged, where people are not always able to act rationally, and where contact with both parties is required in order to get money flowing for the benefit of children.”

She also highlights the fact that the CMS’s remit is to administer the scheme, but it does not have a statutory safeguarding responsibility or duty of care.

One of the key recommendations that Dr Callan’s report has made, and Ministers have accepted, alongside others, is to allow receiving parents who are survivors of domestic abuse to access the collect and pay service without the consent of the paying parent. The reasons behind that are clear and it is welcome that they are being recognised through changes to the system.

I have heard deeply upsetting stories of paying parents using the direct pay system—where they pay maintenance into the receiving parent’s bank account—to continue to control and abuse their ex-partner. There are stories of payments being split into small chunks, with abusive messages left in the payment reference box as a means to continue the abuse. It is correct that that has changed, but I think that the change could and should be applied more broadly. Where paying parents refuse to keep up with payments via direct pay, receiving parents should be able to request use of the collect and pay method and to feel reassurance that their request will be granted.

In fact, that was the request my constituent Nicola made to the CMS, which refused. She is no longer in contact with the paying parent, but she has been told on various occasions that she would need to go away and gather information on his earnings or her daughter’s entitlement. She is not the only one of my constituents to be told that. She says she is made to feel like a neurotic, money-grabbing woman every time she complains about the system.

Another constituent, Laura, has explained that her mental wellbeing and self-esteem have taken a real knock from the ongoing back and forth with the service. Imagine someone being made to feel in the wrong for fighting for the money they are entitled to in order to meet the basic costs of raising a child. As it stands, it is far too easy for paying parents to avoid payments, under-declare their income and hide income streams. That is a key aspect of almost every case involving CMS that comes to my team.

Constituents report that they are even advised by the CMS to subsidise their income—essentially to claim benefits—if the paying parent does not keep up with their financial obligations. That entirely defeats the original intention behind the reform of the Child Support Agency into the Child Maintenance Service that we have today, which was to remove the state’s financial burden and its involvement in child support arrangements as far as possible.

If Government Departments and agencies addressed the issues head on and communicated with each other, a lot of the pressure caused by this avoidance by paying parents could be quickly eased. We know—this point is crucial—that communication between the child welfare scheme, DWP and HMRC is frankly not good enough. We also know that there are reasons for that, such as the regulations around information sharing and how intelligence is acted on. But what I do not understand is why the Government have not brought forward measures to fix things much sooner.

Women and children are victimised again and again by this outdated, underperforming system. I understand that both men and women can be, and are, victims of domestic violence and economic abuse., and we heard about that this morning at the APPG. That said, the gender aspect of this problem cannot be ignored, and it stems from historic and deeply held misogyny in society’s subconscious.

We have children literally ageing out of the system, without seeing a fraction of the money they are entitled to to enable them to have a normal, comfortable childhood. It is clear that the current system does not work, if it ever has. My constituents and their children need more. They need a commitment from Ministers that the Government will really get into the detail of the failings of the CMS. They need a commitment from Ministers that they will be offered the right support and that the communication between Departments will be addressed and improved. They need a commitment that this will be done urgently. I hope the Minister is in a position to provide those commitments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for securing this important debate. In the past year, I have observed a marked increase in the number of constituents contacting me to share the difficulties they are having with the Child Maintenance Service. I would like to say at the outset that I echo the comments made about the individuals at the end of the hotline desperately wanting to help and to be supportive. It is the system itself that I have an issue with.

The first point I want to raise is about the need for improvements in customer service and case management. The CMS is, in the words of one constituent,

“absolutely too difficult to deal with.”

People are left waiting on the phone for hours to speak to caseworkers, only to be told that they are unable to help with the query. Electronic communications often leave much to be desired. One constituent told me they receive updates at 10 pm on a Friday, resulting in a weekend of stress, as they are unable to seek further information or take action until the following Monday. Many individuals relying on the CMS are already under immense emotional strain, and the service should not add to that burden.

When things go wrong, they are not always addressed quickly enough. One particularly concerning example came from a constituent who, despite taking over custody of his two children in March last year, is yet to receive any child maintenance payments for one of them. We are told that the failure is down to an IT error—the child’s middle name is used in one location and not in another. It is “computer says no” gone mad. We are told the CMS is working to resolve the issue, but my constituent first raised it in July, and it still is not resolved. Given the serious financial implications that the error could have, it should be resolved urgently, particularly given the rising cost of living. It is just not good enough that a parent has not received the child maintenance they have been owed for so long because of an IT error.

Several of my constituents do not feel that the service has sufficient power to ensure that paying parents contribute what is owed to the welfare of their child. In one case, a constituent’s ex-partner has not been required to make payments because, as far as the CMS is concerned, they are not working. However, they are simply not working in the United Kingdom, while receiving a sizeable income from assets in Australia.

In a similar case, another constituent’s ex-partner qualified for the nil rate of child maintenance due to a failure to take into account the rental income they earned from properties. There appears to be a real difficulty with CMS accounting for income that takes any form other than a regular salary or wage. That allows paying parents who are asset-rich to get away with not paying towards the care of their children. What steps are being taken to improve communication between HMRC and CMS?

Finally, I want to raise the issue of the collect and pay service. I have encountered several cases in which payments made using direct pay have been used to inflict continuing economic abuses and coercion on victims of domestic violence, so I welcome this morning’s news that the Government have accepted Dr Samantha Callan’s recommendation to amend legislation to ensure that direct pay cases can be moved to collect and pay when there is evidence of abuse. I wait with interest to hear more from the Government on how they will facilitate that and how they plan to define evidence of abuse.

I am, however, disappointed that the Government have no intention of removing the 4% deduction applied to the sum received by the receiving parent under the collect and pay service. I raised the issue on behalf of one constituent in a letter to the Secretary of State in November. The reply I received from the Minister for Pensions was concerning. It stated:

“there are no plans to abolish the 4 per cent collection charge for receiving parents. This charge only applies to the Collect and Pay service and is intended to provide a parent with an incentive to use the Direct Pay service which has no ongoing fees.”

I find the insinuation that receiving parents require an incentive to stay on direct pay troubling, when the move to collect and pay generally occurs due to the failure of the paying parent to meet their financial obligations. It appears that CMS is deliberately using the 4% penalty as a deterrent, which seems misplaced. This is particularly pertinent in cases of domestic abuse, as it leaves victims facing the choice of either dealing with their abuser directly or risking a decrease in the money they receive to care for their child. I am disappointed that the Government are not looking to change that policy, and I ask the Minister to reconsider.

Ultimately, we must remember that the purpose of the Child Maintenance Service is to ensure that the children of separated parents receive the financial support they deserve. The system should work with them, not against them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing the debate, and I thank him for chairing the APPG on child maintenance services this morning. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) alluded to, I have done this before. In fact, I have lost track of the number of times I have taken part in or led debates on the Child Maintenance Service. It is quite difficult to stand here and recall that nothing appears to have changed in the seven and a half years I have been pursuing this important topic. I will try to remain calm and measured and not get upset, as I sometimes do when thinking of the cases that have gone through my constituency office.

I want to make it clear that I am not here raging against paying parents alone. I am not here raging against receiving parents alone. I am here, as I have always been in these debates, to help the children involved. It is important that we all remember that, at the end of these esoteric debates, with everything we talk about, there are children who—through no fault of their own—are being pushed into poverty and who are part of the emotional abuse that sometimes takes place when parents separate.

I will do the formal bit—the bit with figures. DWP figures show that since 2012, when the CMS began, £512.6 million in unpaid maintenance has accumulated. That does not take into account the maintenance arrears that the CSA accrued over time. The CMS was supposed to be an improvement on the CSA system, but I cannot see—nor have I ever been able to see—that that is the case. The SNP—in the whole—and I have repeatedly called for effective enforcement action to be taken in the collection of maintenance arrears. Gingerbread ran a huge campaign on the issue as well. Some children go right through the system without getting what they should and then pass out of the system. They have been brought up in poverty as a result of parents not paying what they should.

There need to be much stronger systems and more resource dedicated to tackling parents who attempt to avoid or minimise child support payments and who do not pay what has been agreed. The withholding or restricting of child maintenance payments can be used as a tool for economic abuse. According to DWP data, in the quarter ending September 2022, 53% of new applicants on CMS were recognised as survivors of domestic abuse. It is not just physical abuse we are talking about here, but economic abuse. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked about the nasty remarks made on bank statements as part of the reference for money paid by paying parents. I want to thank the person who came to speak to the APPG this morning about the economic abuse side of this issue. You will forgive me, Mr Twigg—I have covered this table in papers and I cannot find the name I am looking for—but we heard from a member of Surviving Economic Abuse, which has been working on this issue for a number of years.

Some paying parents continue the economic abuse of their previous partners to the detriment of their children. It is utterly shameful. Little is done when a paying parent pays a token amount; it seems to halt processes at CMS, meaning that those children do not get what they are entitled to and—especially nowadays, in a cost of living crisis—what they absolutely need to keep themselves out of poverty. Children in poverty do not thrive and, at the end of the day, are not able to contribute to society in the way that they might otherwise have done.

The hon. Lady is speaking with extraordinary power on this issue. Does she agree that even if a child is fortunate enough to get through this, it can still leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives?

I have papers in front of me from a case in my constituency. The parents have separated, and the father was going through court to try to get residency for his daughter. His daughter has now left school, and his ex-partner is still claiming child benefit, which is an abuse of the social security system. His daughter has now left home, is impoverished and has no contact with her father. He sees this as a failure of the state to help bring up his daughter properly. He has been paying, but he has now tried to walk away from the court case because he cannot afford to continue. It also would have meant that his ex-partner ended up in prison. It is a terrible case. I did say I would not get involved and get too emotional, but it is difficult to listen to what happens to children because of failures in the CMS.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from 2020 found that nearly half of children in lone-parent families are in poverty. This has to stop. Satwat Rehman, the chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland, said:

“parents are facing huge delays in hearing back, poor customer service, and ultimately a failure to collect payments”


“a time when the cost of living is rising to impossible levels”.

Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, said:

“Child maintenance is not a ‘nice to have’ luxury, in many cases it makes the difference between a family keeping their heads above water or plunging into poverty.”

Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts said:

“Providing for your children is a fundamental responsibility, and it’s genuinely surprising that the Child Maintenance Service allows so many adults to evade it. Children from these families deserve better than to be treated as collateral damage when relationships break down.”

The Scottish Government do all they can to mitigate child poverty. The child payment fund in Scotland, which has been quadrupled recently, is a good start, but it is still not enough. The real issue is that the CMS isnae working. That is it in a nutshell. Parents spend hours on the phone—either the paying parent or the parent with care—and they do not get the same person on every call. They get conflicting advice, they end up in tears and they end up wasting their entire weekend with worry, as Members have said. It is not good enough.

Looking back to the contribution from one of my constituents at the APPG this morning, the problem is not just the communication between the CMS and the constituent, but the fact that constituents are told they will get a call back. On several occasions that has not happened. Does the hon. Member agree that that adds to the poor mental wellbeing of those parents?

I could not agree more. I have numerous cases like that, and I have had them over the piece.

I want to commend Cyrene Siriwardhana, who was the person from Surviving Economic Abuse who spoke this morning. She raised the issue of how, when the paying parent is charged an additional 20% in collect and pay because they do not have a voluntary arrangement, that leads to even more economic abuse of parents. They game the system; they pay a little, and everything stops. Then, eventually, they pay a little more. That just is not right.

One difficulty in all this is the lack of communication between the DWP and HMRC. Many parents have provided the CMS with evidence about what their ex-partner is earning and doing, only to be told, “We cannot help.” HMRC is also involved and does nothing either. It is imperative that we get the system to work properly for the children involved and that we stop parents gaming the system.

I was encouraged by the issuing of today’s report and the Government’s response to Dr Callan’s independent review of the Child Maintenance Service response to domestic abuse. I was glad to see that the Government have accepted almost all the recommendations. However, I am concerned that the last one—recommendation 10—has been declined. They should all be accepted.

The last one recommended that the DWP produce an implementation plan with a specifically tasked team within the civil service to take forward the recommendations, with a remit to report directly to the independent reviewer. I try not to be a cynic. I try very hard to see the best in everyone and to believe that the Government really want to help the children who are suffering because they are not getting their maintenance payments. Recommendation 10 would be a good way to keep all the review recommendations that have been accepted firmly on track.

I find it difficult to trust a Government whom I have been calling on for seven and a half years to make changes to help parents who have to go to the collect and pay system and in many cases have no choice. The Government have made various concessions over the years—they said they would take away people’s passports, for instance, but they have not really done that or taken other measures to try to enforce payment. The issue is really important. Can the Minister tell me why the Government declined that last recommendation?

I have spoken briefly to the Minister before. One of the other issues that we have as parliamentarians, and especially as Back Benchers, is that the Minister responsible for the CMS—I am not entirely certain how long this has been the case, but I think it matches my tenure in this place—has always been based in the House of Lords. That means that every time we have a debate in the Chamber or Westminster Hall, we do not get to look into the eyes of the Minister responsible for the Child Maintenance Service. I have had many meetings with Baroness Stedman-Scott over the years and I look forward to having many meetings with Viscount Younger of Leckie. However, I would be much happier if I could have a debate with the Minister directly responsible for the Child Maintenance Service so I could take forward some of the worst cases that I have and have had in my caseload over the past seven and a half years.

In conclusion, we have to stop having these debates about the Child Maintenance Service, how it is failing and what needs to be done to improve it. We just need the Government to get on with it. We need them to do the right thing and make sure that children do not live in poverty because two or three Government Departments cannot get their act together and chase down people who are abusing either the DWP benefits system or the HMRC system for paying tax because they are working in the black economy and their earnings cannot be shown and used in calculations for what is due to the children.

I will sit down now because I do not want to get started on how the CMS calculates payments. I could be here for another hour. Will the Minister please look at the issue and give us a good reason why the Government have not accepted recommendation 10? We need to know that the Government will do what they say they will do, and that will go back to Dr Callan, as the independent reviewer.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing the debate, on his work on the APPG and on a powerful opening speech.

The contributions that we have heard this afternoon draw on the casework that Members of Parliament have brought to them, many of which are deeply harrowing and very powerful, and reinforce a point made several times: we do not want to be here debating the failure of the system. We want to be able to concentrate on other topics, knowing that the management of this policy area has been brought under control once and for all.

The debate is timely: the highly critical report by the National Audit Office on child maintenance was published last March and we will be closely studying the Government response to the review of the Child Maintenance Service response to domestic abuse, which has been published today. There are also two private Members’ Bills on aspects of the service going through Parliament at the moment.

Child maintenance may no longer attract the almost entirely negative headlines that it attracted a couple of decades ago, but, as we have heard, it concerns 2.4 million separated families with 3.5 million children, only half of whom have in place an effective management maintenance arrangement, where any maintenance at all is being paid. That figure is effectively unchanged since 2011-12.

We know that maintenance payments are important in reducing child poverty. It has been estimated that one in five single parents on benefits is lifted out of poverty by maintenance payments—a figure that can and should be a great deal higher. For hundreds of thousands of families, the system is failing to ensure that maintenance is paid or paid in full. Remarkably, the National Audit Office says

“it receives more correspondence on child maintenance than any other single issue.”

In addition, the DWP receives more complaints on child maintenance than on any other subject.

Ideally, we would all prefer not to need an agency such as the Child Maintenance Service, or to need it a great deal less than we do. We would prefer that the overwhelming majority of separated families had voluntary arrangements in place, where the separated parent fully met their responsibilities to their family, so that it was unnecessary for the state to intervene. However, we do not live in such a world and we cannot bring it about just by wishing it.

There are major problems in the enforcement of maintenance obligations, as we have heard and as I will return to, but it is important to recognise that the issue is not simply one of enforcement of statutory maintenance arrangements, which involve only 18% of separated families; it is no less importantly about the absence of any arrangements whatever. As the NAO has shown, 44% of separated families simply have no maintenance arrangement in place, whether statutory or voluntary, effective or ineffective.

Nobody wants to return to the days of the old Child Support Agency, but the present situation is hugely out of line with the expectations of the DWP when the system was reformed a decade ago. As the NAO has reminded us, back then the Department’s assumption was for voluntary arrangements to rise to 35% of separated families by 2019. That expectation was slightly exceeded, at 38%, which is welcome.

However, the Department also assumed that take-up of the statutory scheme would fall only from 46% to 33%. In the event, that expectation was hugely overshot, with only 18% of families now using the statutory scheme. It was thus a matter of simple arithmetic that the percentage of families with no maintenance arrangements in place at all rose from 25% in 2011 to 44% in 2019-20. Remember, the Government’s stated objective in 2012 was to increase the proportion of separated families with effective maintenance. That objective has simply not been met. There has been no change at all, as the NAO has shown. The explanation lies as much in the low take-up of the statutory scheme as in non-compliance with it. Why did the Government think that the 2012 reforms would increase the number of families with effective maintenance arrangements? The NAO said:

“The Department’s 2011 green paper...set out the need to better integrate support provided to families to help them make family-based arrangements with other services such as those provided to parents going through separation, the family justice system and the then Sure Start system.”

The Government then proceeded to devastate the Sure Start system, cutting provision by more than a third. What steps are DWP Ministers taking to improve take-up of the direct pay and collect and pay options offered by the CMS? The question is not about what might be achieved through unspecified integrated support with other services, but what the Department itself intends to do. How will Ministers ensure that the intention is driven through the Department and how will they ensure accountability in line with the expectations?

None of that is to suggest that enforcement is not an issue; it just should not be used to distract attention away from other failures. There are huge problems in the enforcement of statutory maintenance arrangements. It was understandable that enforcement action was negatively affected by the pandemic. CMS staff were redeployed to manage the surge in universal credit claims. The courts were closed. The number of liability orders in process fell from 6,900 in March 2020 to 2,400 in September 2020. All that was understandable, but since 2020 there has been only the most partial recovery. The figures for June 2022 are not only far lower than they were before the pandemic, at 4,200, but lower than they were in June 2021—by over 1,000 cases. The number of enforcement agency referrals in process is less than half what it was before the pandemic.

We need a child maintenance system that works: with voluntary arrangements where possible, but with statutory arrangements that reach the families who need them and are enforced far more effectively than they are now. Will the Minister set out exactly how the DWP intends to rise to those twin challenges, so that we do not need to come back to this Chamber and once again debate the failures of the Child Maintenance Service?

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on bringing this important debate before us. I welcome his efforts on the new Child Maintenance Service all-party parliamentary group, and I welcome the contributions from all Members from across the House today. The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) spoke about the difference it makes to youngsters’ lives when parents work together to support them. Hon. Members know that, and I appreciate their passion and interest in the Child Maintenance Service.

The CMS plays an important role in ensuring that children are best supported financially when their parents do not live together and are unable to come to private financial arrangements to support them. Our aim with the CMS is to help parents provide vital support for their children, and we are sensitive to the needs of both parties. It is designed to promote collaboration between parents where possible, but it offers a statutory scheme if that is not possible. We must all reiterate that child maintenance is so effective at lifting youngsters out of poverty and enhancing the life chances of children from separated families. I will come on to that later.

As mentioned, until recently the day-to-day policy responsibility for child maintenance sat with Baroness Stedman-Scott. She was incredibly passionate and strident in her desire for the CMS to be at its best. I witnessed that first hand, and I am sure that view is shared by Viscount Younger of Leckie, who has now taken over ministerial responsibility for the CMS. However, I reassure Members that my day-to-day work in DWP is supporting the most disadvantaged people, who have the most challenges: single parents, people leaving care and refugees—you name it. My job is to support people who need help, and supporting single parents, separated families, women and people leaving domestic abuse is an absolute priority. I hope that reassures Members that I will be working strongly with the new Minister, and I will outline some of that in my comments today.

I have a lot of points to address on how the CMS will improve its service to separated parents, and I will do my best to cover as many as I can. Many Members will have heard this topic being raised by constituents or in this House; it attracts great interest, as we have heard. I, too, am a constituency MP, and we have much better engagement and far fewer challenges in my area than in the past, but they are incredibly concerning. I appreciate all the MP caseworkers, charities and organisations who assist our constituents.

Family breakdown and partnership breakdown are extremely hard. As a single parent myself, I know how deeply emotional and different all those situations are. We would all want a magic wand in our constituency surgeries to help people going through such difficulties. I reassure the House that we are offering child maintenance support sessions with MPs’ offices in March to help with those constituency casework opportunities, so I am keen to hear from Members about particular areas they would like to cover. I hope that is of note.

I agree with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) about the challenge of how to best support separated families, and with regard to the poverty challenges if we do not get this right. She is completely right. Through family-based arrangements and the CMS, it is estimated that receiving parents got £2.4 billion annually in child maintenance payments between 2019 and 2021. As a result, 140,000 children were lifted out of poverty. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned that people are being held back from progressing and that the CMS is not working, and I would be very keen to see the constituency cases that he has raised.

I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the review. It was announced today, so this debate is incredibly timely and I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for securing it. I am grateful for the excellent independent review of the CMS conducted by Dr Samantha Callan, who I met yesterday, and for the Government response to the review, which will be in Members’ inboxes this afternoon. The review was announced this morning, with an update. For those who are not aware, the Government response was released today and circulated to all Members of Parliament this afternoon. The report is really important and recognises that the CMS has worked very hard to improve the service and experience for those who are survivors of abuse, and remains motivated to take the practical step change to support parents to set up safe arrangements.

In meeting Dr Callan yesterday, I also met and engaged with Lorna McNamara, who has campaigned for changes after the loss of her sister, Emma Day. She has taken part in the review and has been engaged during the process. Yesterday, ahead of the announcement, I engaged with Refuge, Gingerbread, Families Need Fathers, ManKind, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the chief executive officer of the Surviving Economic Abuse charity—who, as we heard in the debate, was giving further evidence today—my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) in order to go through each and every recommendation and explain the Government’s thinking on this issue.

On recommendation 6, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, it is that vital cross-Government work that will make the difference. Whether by working with separated parents groups or family hubs, we will absolutely ensure that, where we can pre-empt conflict and take the sting out of things, we do that across Government. That is a firm commitment.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) mentioned recommendation 10 and said she was trying hard not to be a cynic. I will help her out with that. On the working group and the implementation plan, we had conversations yesterday with stakeholders, which I need to discuss with my noble Friend in the other place. He has had other duties in his House, so we need to come together following the engagement yesterday to discuss timelines and the working group. It is important that we discuss how people feel engaged. We are still looking at that and listening to feedback.

I may have missed something here. Can I assume that the Minister and the Minister in the other place either have or will meet the organisations I mentioned?

Yes. To be clear, yesterday afternoon we went through the review step by step and took on board some of the feedback. On recommendation 10, there is some feedback with regard to timelines and implementation that I need to take to my noble Friend to try to unpick some of the questions that were raised yesterday and have been raised during this debate. On the review and the taskforce, we are aware of what has been reported today. I am keen to look at that because, again, it has been picked up today. I hope that clarifies things for the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] Yes and no, then.

As I say, in the Government’s response we were keen to ensure progress, to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny and engagement with stakeholders occurred, and absolutely to look to what the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned. I hope that we will find, in essence, a middle way. I cannot speak too roundly for my noble Friend, but I am very keen to engage on this matter.

On the wider recommendations, I am engaging in this place on the question of amending the legislation to prevent direct pay from being used as a form of coercion and control. The removal of the requirement to report domestic abuse to qualify for the application fee waiver has been accepted. On piloting the use of dedicated caseworkers for complex domestic abuse cases, that is absolutely something that we will bring forward. In addition, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross asked about reviewing the calculation formula to ensure affordability for low-income paying parents and including a broader range of agencies in CMS training, as did many of the charities and organisations I spoke with, and Dr Callan recommended that too.

Crucial work is being done both in the review and through the two private Members’ Bills mentioned by the hon. Member for Westminster North. The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, which is supported by the Government, will help to ensure that anyone using the service who has suffered any form of domestic abuse can feel safe and be reassured that their case will be handled sensitively and efficiently.

I would like to outline some improvements we have made in the CMS area, but I want first to cover a few other points that have been made. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned training. The CMS reviewed its domestic abuse training in 2021, with input from Women’s Aid, but it has been challenged about whether that is enough to ensure that our caseworkers are fully equipped to support parents in these multiple and challenging vulnerable situations. Some aspects of the training teach caseworkers how to recognise the various forms of domestic abuse, as well about checking on previous reports of abuse and providing appropriate signposting to domestic abuse support groups.

Following the independent review of the ways in which the CMS supports survivors of domestic abuse, the CMS will review the training to ensure that it is up to date and fully in line with best practice. The CMS also uses a complex needs toolkit for its caseworkers, which includes clear steps to follow to support customers who are experiencing abuse. The CMS will continue to review and evaluate the effectiveness of the guidance and training with regard to domestic abuse.

Issues around enforcement have been raised in the debate—certainly by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, who mentioned deductions from earnings. Deductions from earnings orders have proved efficient and effective as a tool for collecting child maintenance. In the quarter ending September 2022, almost half of child maintenance —£29 million—was collected from paying parents who had a deduction from earnings order in place at the end of the quarter. We are working closely with employers to ensure that they understand their legal obligations and to help them to collect and pass on payments to the CMS much more quickly.

On minimum payments, operating a scheme in which the Government guarantee child maintenance payments is not the intent of CMS policy. The role of the CMS is to encourage parents to take financial responsibility for their children. However, as I say, we are often in a very challenged place when managing this issue. In the UK, CMS payments do not have any impact on the money received from other benefits, which has a positive impact on child poverty.

I apologise to you, Mr Twigg, and to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone); I was in the main Chamber for questions and could not be here earlier, although I wanted to be here and I had a speech prepared.

May I ask about how we chase those who are reluctant to make child maintenance payments? In most cases they are men, and in many cases they are self-employed. I know of cases in which they return end-of-year statements that show minimal income yet live in half a million pound houses—paid for—and have top of the range cars that are worth perhaps £60,000. Their assets and quality of living would indicate that their income is far above what they declare. Is there any way that those cases can be looked at? I apologise to the Minister for not being here at the beginning of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman was clearly double parked this afternoon—in two places at once. I will come on to his point; I will try to cover that for him.

The Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, would amend the grounds for transferring people from direct pay to the collect and pay service in order to allow victims of domestic abuse to be transferred to collect and pay, and consideration is being given to exempting parents transferred for that reason from collection charges. The Bill will have its Report stage on 3 March, and I encourage Members to participate in that debate if they are able to.

Let me turn to unearned income, which has been mentioned this afternoon. The Government’s response to the consultation “Child Maintenance: modernising and improving our service” was published in March 2022. Currently, for certain taxable income a parents earns, such as income from property or investments, either parent must ask for that to be taken into account in the calculation. Our intention is to change the approach so that unearned income is identified at the initial case set-up stage and included in the calculation at that point. That will provide a more accurate reflection of the paying parent’s overall income; as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) alluded to, there are certainly concerns that that is not always the case. The change will require amendments to the legislation that governs the Child Maintenance Service, and we are exploring how that could be implemented. I shall come on to enforcement.

Hon. Members raised the issue of the 4% collection fee for the receiving parent, which is a contribution to the cost of using the collect and pay service. The fee is taken only from any maintenance received. The CMS often has to take action to secure child maintenance payments in the collect and pay service. There is a balance here, with the taxpayer subsidising a difficult service, but the fee acts as a nudge to encourage people to consider whether a voluntary arrangement can be made, whereby there are no fees to pay. However, I have heard hon. Members’ concerns about the fee.

With regard to the NAO findings on effective arrangements, the CMS is designed, as I have said, to encourage people to agree their own family-based arrangement. Some 40% of parents are now doing that, compared with just 29% before the CMS was established. This is a better system for children and families, and for the taxpayer. It is vital that we continue to push for such engagement.

I again apologise for not being here to get the full gist of what the Minister and others have said. Over the years, I have had some ladies come and tell me that their husband has transferred their house, their rental properties and everything else into his mum’s and dad’s names; the husband has actually moved out of the property that they were living in to live with their mum and dad. Quite clearly, that is an abdication of responsibility by those men. Is there a mechanism within the changes and the new legislation that the Minister has outlined to ensure that those people who blatantly and systematically try to avoid making payments for their children can be caught?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I completely agree with him. The lengths that some parents will go to are astounding, which is why we support the work by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on this issue.

At the end of the day, we all should be responsible parents who do the right thing. We know that the vast majority of parents want to do the right thing and do it. However, it is absolutely clear that some people are prepared to do something very different. We need to ensure that child maintenance is paid. That is appropriate, because we know—I have reiterated this point today—the difference that it makes.

Where a parent fails to pay on time or in full, the CMS takes a proportionate approach. Importantly, it first tries to re-establish compliance. That gives the parent the opportunity to get back on track and to prevent the build-up of arrears. There are two different sorts of cases—those where people actively avoid payment, and those where people find that their circumstances change—and we need to be cognisant of that.

Where somebody consistently refuses to meet their obligations towards their children, the CMS will be robust in using enforcement measures. As I have said, it has powers to make deductions from earnings, bank accounts and certain benefits. It can also use enforcement agencies—previously known, in old language, as bailiffs—to take control of goods, and it has the power to force the sale of property. Baroness Steadman-Scott encouraged the CMS to be bold in using its enforcement powers and to leave no stone unturned to ensure that youngsters are adequately protected, supported and provided for. The hon. Member for Strangford outlined very important action that the CMS has to take, although it must be balanced in its approach. I know that some paying parents whose circumstances change wish for that to be understood more fully.

We are absolutely committed to the highest standard of engagement in terms of the customer experience, which has been raised today, with a focus on getting back to people and communicating better, and making digital improvements so that people can update us and engage with us more quickly. The phone line has been mentioned today, but customers can also apply online; indeed, over 90% of applications are now made digitally, which makes it easier for parents to access support. There is now an online service—My Child Maintenance Case—that allows customers to access and maintain data themselves. Parents can now report 20 different changes of circumstances online, and automation means that it will be much quicker for them to manage their arrangement.

Key changes have also been made to help people arrange child maintenance. A more accessible, 24/7 digital service helps customers try to work out the most suitable arrangement for them. It is a more modern, flexible service for the majority of customers and ensures that our caseworkers are able to focus on the most complex cases and the ones with which parents need more support and engagement.

In this conflicted parental environment and in supporting troubled families, customer satisfaction is key. We are reviewing the customer service framework through the digitalisation and transformation programmes. There is a focus on gathering customer insight and perception. Anecdotes from Members of Parliament are key, but it is important that we use that voice and change things in real time more quickly. The CMS recently piloted real-time customer feedback to better understand the customer experience and is now supporting a wider roll-out. We are focused very much on efficiency and improvements, and of course the review that I have responded to today and the two private Members’ Bills will help.

The Minister is being most generous—I want to put that on the record. Another concern that my constituents tell me about is the time it takes for an investigation to start and conclude. In the changes that the Minister has referred to, which I welcome, by the way, will a timescale be put on an investigation so that a lady who applies for a benefit can say, “In three months’ time”—or whatever the time is—“I will have this concluded”?

That is a really important point, and I will take it away with me. This is often something that we hear from constituents in the process: “How does it work? How long will it take? What can I expect?” Certainly when it comes to supporting families, I can understand the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.

I want to conclude by saying that I appreciate all the insights and engagement from across the Chamber this afternoon. The response to the CMS independent review has been roundly welcomed by the sector and many of those who have heard some of our response today. I look forward to engaging further. I can assure hon. Members that although responsibility for the policy sits predominantly in the other place, there is interest across both Houses. That will not change as we try to support and help youngsters and families in these difficult times.

I thank Members for the opportunity to respond to this debate. I have tried to cover most of their points and I thank them for their constructive and helpful feedback. The DWP and the CMS will follow reports by the all-party group and other with great interest, and will always do what is best to support families and youngsters to get the best opportunities by working together.

It is clear to all of us that the Minister has gone into this in some detail and has been thorough in her approach. I am sure we are all grateful for that. I happen to know her noble Friend in the other place because we were at university together many years ago, and I know him to be a man of good faith. I thank the hon. Members who have contributed so very well and made the points that needed to be made with some passion, which shows how important the subject is. None of us underestimates the task that we have to carry out or the problem that we have to solve, but I believe the good will is there. If we can work together, we can do something that will be good for young people caught in this terrible trap.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered potential improvements to child maintenance services.

Sitting suspended.