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Parliament Debate on Child Maintenance during Covid-19

 
Bill337
(@bill337)
Famed Member

On Thursday 21st January MPs held a general debate the operation of the Child Maintenance Service during the covid-19 outbreak Chamber.

Full Transcript:

Marion Fellows
(Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP) [V]
I beg to move,

That this House has considered the operation of the Child Maintenance Service during the covid-19 outbreak.

I will do my very best to keep my speech within that time, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and all hon. and right hon. Members who signed my application and who are taking part today. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for attending today’s debate in place of Baroness Stedman-Scott, who sits in the other place.

The Child Maintenance Service has been, and still is, a fundamentally broken system that requires urgent action through a root-and-branch review. In spite of calls from across the Chamber, from One Parent Families Scotland and from Gingerbread, it is still to make the necessary changes. Nearly 750,000 children throughout the UK rely on the CMS. If the children of single parents who are in poverty and not receiving maintenance actually received the payment, it would lift 60% of all cases out of poverty.

The way in which the CMS has operated during this pandemic has simply exacerbated the existing problems. The whole of the Department for Work and Pensions has been under pressure during the pandemic, and staff have been working under incredible pressure to ensure that benefits are paid as quickly as possible. DWP staff have been rightly congratulated for what they have done, but the situation has affected the service from the CMS, which was failing many families even before covid-19 struck and staff were redeployed to help with universal credit and jobseeker’s allowance. The CMS is letting down parents with care and non-resident parents, but it is ultimately the children and young people the CMS is supposed to serve who are being deprived of the maintenance payments necessary for their upkeep.

Single parents are bearing the hidden costs of children being at home all day, with expenses for things such as extra heating, food and supplies for home-schooling. Some parents have needed to reduce paid work hours or stop employment completely during this period to care for their children. The financial impact means that many single parents are even more reliant on child maintenance payments. We need to see clear action from the UK Government to secure the financial support to which children in Scotland and across the rest of the UK are entitled.

The halting of the collection of CMS payments during the coronavirus lockdown has had a devastating impact on many single parents and their children, which is why the SNP has been calling on the UK Government to introduce a minimum maintenance payment to provide parents with care and their children a guaranteed income to prevent hardship and ensure a dignified standard of living. Our call has been backed by Gingerbread. In stark contrast, the Scottish Government are using their devolved powers to ensure that children and families are supported during this difficult time and to prevent them from being pushed into further hardship.
The SNP Government have led the way on tackling poverty this past year by introducing game-changing priorities such as the Scottish child payment, which is in addition to the Best Start grant, the baby box, free prescriptions and the mitigation of damaging Tory policies such as the bedroom tax. Westminster should be following Scotland’s lead by scrapping the poverty-inducing two-child limit and benefit cap and by keeping the £20 uplift to universal credit and working tax credit and extending it to legacy benefits. The Scottish Government provide free school meals during school holidays and look after children from poor backgrounds in school during lockdowns.

The amount collected through CMS enforcement has decreased markedly during the covid-19 outbreak, with many of the measures that the CMS normally uses to collect payment going unused as a result of the reduced service. Although compliance has apparently increased to 72% during the pandemic, this has been driven mainly by the significant influx of parents enrolling on to universal credit and having CMS payments deducted automatically. Following the halt on enforcement last year, the UK Government must now commit to the resumption of collections and the clearing of arrears accrued. I hope the Minister will explain how the CMS plans to maintain and increase compliance as and when parents are to re-enter the workforce.

The DWP’s own figures show that around 68% of parents on collect-and-pay contributed a form of payment in each quarter from December 2018 to March 2020. That was an increase on previous periods, but the figures must be treated with caution as they reflect only those who have paid some child maintenance in the past three months. Furthermore, every case under direct-pay arrangements is assumed to have paid the full amount; this prevents the DWP from providing an accurate reflection of just how high arrears have risen and by how much children are being deprived. The DWP’s own survey in 2016 found that only 49% of direct-pay cases had an effective arrangement after three months, so the arrears figure is likely to be much higher than the DWP’s figures show. Will the Minister agree to reconsider the CMS’s definition of compliance, to represent the reality of child maintenance payments?

As of September 2020, recorded arrears had accumulated to £379.2 million—9% of all maintenance that should have been paid. Arrears increased by more than £100 million between March 2019 and September 2020 alone. The UK Government need to get a stronger grip of this by focusing on not just current liabilities but clearing the increasing arrears.

I understand that many people’s incomes have been impacted by the lockdown. Many of those people are my constituents. A balance must be struck to protect children, which is why last year I called on the Work and Pensions Secretary to introduce a minimum maintenance payment where a parent with care is not receiving payments or where calculations have been reduced because a non-resident parent’s income has been cut. The UK Government must step in and provide minimum maintenance payments directly to ensure that each child is receiving a minimum amount. That was required last year, and because of covid-19, it is still required now. Will the Minister give his assessment of a minimum maintenance payment and commit to seriously investigate it?
Parents are so dissatisfied with the CMS that four parents, backed by Gingerbread, Mumsnet and the Good Law Project, are seeking a judicial review as part of the #FixTheCMS campaign. It is a poor reflection of this Government’s efforts and priorities that parents have had to resort to this course of action. For years, this Government have ignored warnings that the Child Maintenance Service is totally unfit for purpose.

The key way that the CMS can ensure proper payments and clear the arrears mountain is by using its enforcement powers. Since 2019, only three passports have been confiscated, and no driving licences have been suspended, despite persistent non-payment from tens of thousands of non-resident parents. Previous responses to my written questions have shown that the UK Government are not even recording how often maintenance debts are being referred to credit agencies. Will the Minister provide those figures and his evaluation of the use of the powers introduced in 2019? I hope the Minister will commit to renewed efforts on enforcement and explain how he plans to achieve that.

During the pandemic, children are experiencing greater hardship. The UK Government should be supporting them in whatever way they can, not pushing them further into poverty by taking 4% of maintenance received through the CMS system. Even victims of domestic violence who cannot come to a voluntary agreement are subject to this tax. From 2016 to 2019, the CMS taxed parents a total of £70 million, and in 2018-19 it taxed more than £33 million. There is no justification for that, and I hope the Minister will respond to the points I have made and commit to reviewing the 4% maintenance tax.

The current fee of £20 to open a child maintenance case is a punitive charge. Parents should make a voluntary arrangement where possible. However, if a parent with care is turning to the CMS, it means that the voluntary arrangements have failed. This is needlessly taking money from children. The CMS collected £1.5 million in application fees in 2017-18 alone. I hope the Minister will provide clarity on why the UK Government insist on continuing to collect this fee and commit to reviewing it. At the very least, I hope he will consider abolishing the fee for people in receipt of certain benefits, as the Government did for victims of domestic violence. The UK Government have options, and they must use them.

The CMS does not provide an accurate or fair reflection of non-resident parents’ income. Calculations are based on their apparent gross income. However, in many cases, some income is not even regarded as gross income and is not calculated. Parents must ask for a variation to include this, and it can only be asked for if a parent knows about it and if the income is at least £2,500. In 2017, the Government consultation proposed including unearned income in calculations, yet nothing has happened. In a written question in 2018, the Minister said that it required a change in primary legislation. Will the Minister confirm today that this amendment will be brought forward to ensure that calculations account for the total income of a non-resident parent? In addition, parents with care can no longer claim for a variation on the grounds of a lifestyle inconsistent with income—come on! These calls were backed by the Work and Pensions Committee in 2017 and by Gingerbread, so will the Minister agree to look into reintroducing those grounds for variation?
In a previous Parliament, my private Member’s Bill asked for the threshold for recalculation of maintenance to be lowered from 25%, so that calculations can be more accurate without adding to the CMS’s workload. Will the Minister agree today to conduct a review of the threshold, with a view to lowering it? The covid pandemic has exacerbated the problems, causing incalculable damage to children and young people because of the ineffectiveness of the CMS. It is more than time that the Government sorted this out, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Madam Deputy Speaker
(Dame Eleanor Laing)
We will begin with a time limit for Back Benchers of four minutes, which might have to be reduced.

4.05pm
Caroline Nokes
(Romsey and Southampton North) (Con) [V]
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important debate, and I thank the Minister for taking time earlier today to speak to me about some of the cases that are of concern to me in my constituency.

Once upon a time, I was the Minister with responsibility for the CMS, and my worry is that our debate will degenerate into an attack on the hard-working staff. I know from my own experience how diligent they are—sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, trying to track down parents who refuse to pay and investigating those very difficult cases where people deliberately hide their income. I think there is a special place in hell for those who go out of their way to disguise income to prevent their former partner from being able to feed their children, or to buy school shoes or a new winter coat.

From the work that has been done by Gingerbread and others, I am conscious that single parents have been hit very hard during this pandemic, and we know that 80% of them are women. As Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am extremely interested in how well the CMS has coped with the many cases in which income has varied over the course of the pandemic. Of course, that means that variations will have to be efficient and quick. As parents come off furlough, it is possible for their income to go up as well as down.

We know that the strain on families during the pandemic has increased. I thank the Minister for the work that he is doing with victims of domestic abuse, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the priority that he has given to that. It is important to reflect on the fact that not all domestic abuse is physical. Some of it is financial, and I have heard numerous times from constituents over the last nine months about the financial abuse they have suffered at the hands of ex-partners, and how the CMS has been drawn into that as variation after variation is requested and income is disguised. I have been privy to the emails from parents threatening, “Unless you agree to this figure, I will just keep asking for a variation so you get nothing.”

I also heard this morning from a constituent who has been forced to contact her former partner’s employer herself, because the CMS has not been in a position to chase up the direct deduction from earnings order that she was entitled to. She feels very strongly, and she is right, that she should not be the one who has to chase it up. If the CMS has a deduction from earnings order in place, it should be contacting the employer when the money has not gone through.

Finally, I would like to raise the case of my constituent Stuart McAuliffe, whose issues with the CMS long predate the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it. Some of that is about the fact that CMS staff did not have access to records at the beginning of the pandemic, but for years he has been asking for a breakdown of the amount that he owes in arrears—the charges that he believes were wrongly levied as part of a collect and pay arrangement, when he had been on direct pay and had been paying regularly. He feels very strongly that he should never have been moved to collect and pay, and that those charges have been accrued wrongly.

My constituent has asked for a schedule of payments, but he has been told that that information is not available. Surely, it must be available. Anybody who is involved with the CMS should be entitled to look at a breakdown of what they have paid, what arrears there may be and what charges may be on their account. The only information that he gets from the CMS is that it cannot provide him with that detail. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister if he will look at the case personally so that my constituent can finally get some resolution.

I think it is crucial that we recognise that the CMS is working in incredibly difficult times, and that it has many challenges in front of it. However, it is critical that paying parents and parents with care are given the support that they need at this difficult time. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, no child should be going without and no child should be suffering because of the CMS.

4.09pm
Kim Johnson
(Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab) [V]
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this very important debate.

Given the immense pressure our welfare system has been under as a result of coronavirus, it is understandable that thousands of Child Maintenance Service staff were redeployed to help the team at the DWP to process universal credit applications and payments to meet the unprecedented demand during the pandemic. I thank them for all their hard work during this very difficult period. However, the Government neglected to consider the difficulties it would cause to single parent households. In reducing the CMS to skeleton staff, children and single parents, 90% of whom are women, were left without protection. Hundreds of thousands of receiving parents are being left to struggle with missed payments that are not being chased up. Missed payments are spiralling into hundreds of millions and many families are now struggling to cope. Can the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to make up the backlog of receiving parents who have arrears owed to them, especially with the added financial difficulties due to the pandemic?

Last year, a survey of single parents conducted by leading charity Gingerbread uncovered that three quarters of single parents have had—[Inaudible.] to food banks or charities to survive. Only 16% had received the full amount of maintenance they were due each month. On average, single parents are owed more than £9,000 in back payments. The Government need to get a grip on this situation urgently and ensure that parents who owe child maintenance pay their fair share.

We must remember that these families are already among some of the worst off. They are now forced to deal with cuts to this vital lifeline, often alongside further loss of income due to the coronavirus. In my own constituency of Liverpool Riverside, a massive 40% of CMS cases in the collect and pay service are not currently in payment. This is broadly in proportion to the rest of the country, demonstrating a staggering shortfall in payments to single parents.

The situation has been worsened by coronavirus, but these issues run far deeper. In June last year, we saw four single mothers launch court action against the DWP to challenge the persistent failure of the Child Maintenance Service. At that time, £354 million was owed to single parents and only 10% had been recouped by the CMS through enforcement actions. It is a child’s legal right to be supported by both parents, but we have seen the service, designed to uphold that right, failing children and leaving many in poverty. Given that almost half of children living in single parent households already live in poverty, this triple whammy—of lost income due to covid, extra costs associated with looking after children not attending school and now losing out on vital child maintenance income—is leading to unimaginable hardship.

With the economic situation worsening every day, the Government need to take bold action now to avoid families being impoverished further by UK Government failure. Can the Minister tell us how the Department is working to reconcile staff shortages with a reduced assessment period of 12 weeks to two weeks for parents with a change in their earnings, particularly given the rise in unemployment? Will the Government consider offering direct payments to single parents not receiving maintenance without it having an impact on any of their other benefits?

These payments make the difference between a family keeping their heads above water and plunging into poverty. We need to see the Government commit serious funding to our welfare system, including CMS, to ensure that single parents and their children are protected at this time of crisis and into the future.

4.13pm
Mr Mark Francois
(Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
It is a pleasure to see the Minister back at the Dispatch Box.

I begin with some good news. As an MP of nearly 20 years’ service, I well remember the old unlamented Child Support Agency, which was cumbersome, bureau-cratic and highly formulaic. I remember receiving an absolute plethora of complaints from both mothers and fathers—I had people in my constituency in tears from both sides of the fence, if I can put it like that—because of the way the CSA worked, or rather, in many cases, the way it didn’t. If I speak as I find, I now receive far fewer complaints since the changeover from the Child Support Agency to the Child Maintenance Service. By and large, the CMS works far better than the CSA, not least because there is a different philosophy at work. Whereas the Child Support Agency compelled people to pay via a very strict and rigid formula, the philosophy with the Child Maintenance Service is, wherever possible, to encourage the people concerned to make arrangements between themselves for the benefit of their children. Most parents, even if their relationship has broken down, want to do their best for their children. The CMS encourages them to do exactly that, and in most cases it works well.

However, now for the less good news: where it goes wrong with the CMS, it goes horribly wrong. The CMS is particularly poor at pursuing parents—often, unfortunately, fathers—who wilfully refuse to pay. In many cases, they are not on a regular income under pay-as-you-earn, but adopt tactics such as becoming self-employed or registering as company directors in order deliberately to make their income as opaque as possible, not just to the taxman but to the Child Maintenance Service, so as to reduce their liability. I completely agree with the excellent Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who said, in effect, that that is utterly unacceptable.

I have a constituent, Miss Laura Panza, who has permitted me to raise her case in Parliament this afternoon, and with whom, I have to tell the Minister, I have been corresponding—having checked this morning—for almost six years. She is still owed arrears that total five figures. She has been fighting very hard for that money on behalf of her daughter to provide as best she can for her future, including her future education. I cannot possibly summarise such a complex case—the file is literally several inches thick—in four minutes; I probably could not do it in four hours. However, I can ask the Minister, on her behalf, if I could have a meeting with Baroness Stedman-Scott, the Minister in the other place, in order to raise Miss Panza’s case directly.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
(Guy Opperman)
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am not the Minister directly responsible for this matter—that is the noble Baroness Stedman-Scott—but I speak on behalf of the DWP today, and I want to respond to his point and to colleagues who are going to make further such points. I can assure him and other colleagues that the Minister concerned will, within 28 days, meet all colleagues who are raising specific cases brought to her by individual MPs.

Mr Francois
The Minister has a deserved reputation in this place for being a thoroughly good chap. I am very grateful for that unequivocal answer. I shall certainly, on behalf of my constituent, take him up on his very kind offer, and then hopefully we can get justice for Miss Panza and her daughter.

Now that I have unmasked the problems of the CMS, I want to commend Gingerbread for all the very good work that it has done in campaigning to raise the profile of this issue for parents around the country who, for many years, have done nothing wrong—all they have done is to campaign to try to get the best for their children. In most cases, parents can sort these things out between themselves perfectly rationally, but where they cannot, and people wilfully refuse to pay, they need a more proactive and muscular CMS to hold those people to account. I hope that Gingerbread, by campaigning, can eventually bring that about. I am sure that the Minister will do whatever he can to facilitate it too.
4.18pm
Dr Kieran Mullan
(Crewe and Nantwich) (Con) [V]
I, too, begin by recognising the enormous challenges that have faced all parts of the DWP and, indeed, Government over the past 12 months. If ultimately more people in need got more help through redeployment, I can understand the difficulties that had to be faced. Like other MPs, I have been contacted by constituents who have experienced difficulties with reductions in payments. I welcome the commitment that calculations will be backdated. We must get back to normal service as soon as possible. I would like to make sure that the challenges and difficulties created by the pandemic do not mean that we forget the longer-term challenges, so, if I may, I will make some broader points.

We know that there are £350 million of arrears with the CMS, that £2.5 billion of Child Support Agency legacy debt is owed to children and that as much as £1.9 billion is due to be written off. Those figures alone tell us that we can and must do more. I do not know every single non-paying parent’s circumstances, but I am not willing to hold back on my criticism of parents who could pay but do not, for fear of upsetting those who cannot. Let me be clear that in my view not financially supporting your children when you could is completely and utterly reprehensible. If you do this, you are the lowest of the low, in my book.

I understand that various measures including imprisonment are available. We confiscate passports and deduct money from people’s wages, but the outstanding money shows that we need to go further. I want to pay tribute to the charity Gingerbread, which has worked and campaigned so hard on this issue. It says that in 2019 over 100,000 children went without payments while the Child Maintenance Service confiscated fewer than five passports and zero driving licences. I have heard from parents in my constituency who are not receiving the money their child is entitled to, and they have my full support. They want to see tougher action taken sooner, and so do I.

When it comes to arrears, I am afraid that we are much too quick to write off the debt. I seriously question the approach of writing debt off at all. That money is owed to a child, so what right does the state or even a parent have to say that they will forgive that debt? What kind of message does it send when we say, “You can be let off your obligations to a child”? In my view, we should never do that.

I want to finish by raising another area of consideration that I appreciate is full of potential unintended consequences and complexity. Why is it only up to one parent whether the other parent is pursued for the obligation in the first place? The state intruding uninvited into family arrangements should never be done lightly, but the financial circumstances of families with a parent wilfully failing to pay affects the finances of all families. It is not just a private matter. In effect, welfare and child benefit and the concept of parental responsibility and child maintenance operate entirely separately, but when it comes to poverty, hard-working families pay their taxes, making up the shortfall of the money not being provided by non-paying parents.

In the discussion on poverty and welfare, we hear again and again the scenario of the single parent struggling. Why are we told this about someone who is struggling? The implication is that they are struggling financially because they are a single parent raising their children on a single income. Quite rightly, taxpayers provide a safety net of support for children if that single income is not enough, but we should not forget that the first responsibility rests with the parent who is not contributing. As others have mentioned, research has found that in the UK, for the children of single parents who are in poverty and not receiving maintenance, maintenance payments being received would lift nearly 60% of them out of poverty. I wish the same amount of attention and publicity was given to the obligations of non-paying parents as is given to the obligations of taxpayers and the Government to step into their place.

I would like the Minister to give us his thoughts on how, when taxpayers are sharing the responsibility, our welfare system could reflect the implications of one parent choosing not to seek financial support from the other. I appreciate that we need to be mindful of domestic violence and other complexities in those scenarios, but we should not absolve an abusive parent of their obligations because they are an abusive parent. That would create a terrible perversion of the system. As far as I am concerned, not paying child support when you can is child neglect. If a parent who is looking after and caring for their child simply stops doing what we expect of them, we do not accept that. The state steps in, uninvited if necessary. That double standard is not right. I know that the Minister and the Department will rightly focus on the immediate challenges—

Madam Deputy Speaker
(Dame Eleanor Laing)
Order. The hon. Gentleman has exceeded his time and he really must conclude.

4.23pm
Taiwo Owatemi
(Coventry North West) (Lab) [V]
It is a pleasure to speak today, and I would like to thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for securing this necessary debate. The pandemic has had a detrimental impact on child maintenance payments to families in need. Despite the efforts of frontline Department for Work and Pensions staff to handle the increased demand for support, the disruption to the Child Maintenance Service due to the pandemic has been vast. It is increasingly concerning that the understaffing of the CMS has left families struggling. Lack of action on missed payments has left families pushed to the brink of poverty, unable to provide for their children. At a time when families have seen a decrease in their incomes across my constituency, it has been difficult for separated parents to support their children, especially with the ceasing of action to provide missed payments.

On top of this, it has emerged that some parents, when submitting evidence, are having trouble proving that they have lost their job and therefore their vital income. Many of them are unable to make their payments. This is a complete shame. The Government have yet another item to add to their growing list of failures and incompetence in handling services during this time, despite the efforts of the staff on the ground. I have heard testimonies of parents being told that their P45 does not provide evidence of their unemployment or their inability to make adequate child maintenance payments. I have heard from already struggling families in Coventry who have told me about the lack of enforcement, because of a pause in the programme at the start of the pandemic. That has meant that they have had little financial support to assist with the upbringing and wellbeing of these young families. I have been told about glitches in the system whereby the CMS has not been able to locate parents on the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs system, despite parents having used the system in the past. There have been failures after failures, and families are suffering and paying the price for ministerial incompetence.

Many of my constituents adversely affected by the management of the CMS want to do the right thing and they should not be punished further. They also want to know what plans are in place to rectify the faults in the system that allow delays in single parents updating their financial information and in reassessment so that they can begin receiving payments, which provides a lifeline for them. They also want to know what support is planned for families who are expecting reduced payments because of a loss of job and livelihood. My single parent constituents deserve better at a time like this, but it seems that with this Government the families simply come last. The process of child maintenance can already be distressing, so let us make things easier, not harder, for these families, who are already feeling the pinch from this relentless pandemic.

4.26pm
Wendy Chamberlain
(North East Fife) (LD)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing today’s debate, and I was happy to support her application. It is clear from Members’ contributions so far that we all deal with a number of constituents’ cases regarding child maintenance payments. In just a year as an MP, I have dealt with several, so I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the functioning of the CMS in Parliament today.

It is particularly appropriate to recognise the pressures that have resulted from coronavirus. There are pressures on the hard-working CMS staff, to whom I pay tribute. Like so many of us around the country, they will have had to get used to new ways of working. There are also pressures on parents in receipt of child maintenance, mostly one-parent families, as the economic impact of the pandemic threatens the livelihoods of many. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s excellent “UK Poverty 2020/21” report, published last week, makes that clear. Even before covid, there were huge pressures on one-parent families. They had the highest in-work poverty rate and they are also one of the groups who are most likely to have been especially impacted by covid-19. Single parents are predominantly women and are more likely to work in the sectors hardest hit by covid. They are more reliant on local jobs and are more likely to have struggled with childcare during lockdown. Four in five people in one-parent families are in receipt of income-related benefits.

I mentioned constituency cases and I wanted to highlight one in particular. This constituent contacted me right at the start of my time as an MP, almost exactly a year ago, and her case is shocking. Her former husband had evaded making any financial contribution to help her raise her two sons over an 18-year period and she was owed almost £30,000 of unpaid child maintenance. I am not intending to go into a blow-by-blow account of her dealings with the CMS in the past year. Thankfully, the debt has now been paid, and I am very grateful to Baroness Stedman-Scott for meeting me twice in the autumn to try to resolve the case. However, a few things stood out to me, and to my constituent, throughout this process that I wanted to draw attention to.

The first was the sense of drift. I went to the CMS on several occasions asking what its next steps were and responses were forthcoming to me only after some chasing—my constituent had a similar experience. Months seemed to pass where very little progress was made, and just when we thought that the whole thing had been resolved it turned out that the old liability orders issued against her ex-husband had been lost in the transfer from the Child Support Agency to the CMS. In fairness, I should say that the CMS is replacing a discredited system; that, as I mentioned, coronavirus will have played a part, especially in the spring; and that by the autumn engagement has been good. But for my constituent, these delays have been incredibly frustrating. She told me:

“Any correspondence that I have had with Child Maintenance has been met with the same poor failures in service. Despite all of my efforts there appears to be a distinct lack of accountability to take positive action on my case.”

The second thing that struck me was the bureaucratic hoops that my constituent had to jump through in order for the money to be recovered. Her case had recently been transferred from the old CSA and, as a result, the CMS had in effect to start from scratch on trying to recover the money, even though it had been through the court order process previously. That meant more hoops to jump through, including two occasions when her ex-partner had the ability to launch a review of a decision that had been made by the CMS, which of course he did. All these served to do was to delay and frustrate the recovery of money that was already 18 years overdue. I understand why those safeguards are in place, but it is incredibly frustrating. My constituent felt that the CMS was being more responsive to her ex-partner than to her.

Thirdly, there is the fact that my constituent had to come to me for this to be unblocked. She was getting nowhere on her own. When I escalated the case, I was able to speak to the Minister and to the case manager, and that was a great help, but as is so often the case, as I have learned over the last year, it should not have to be that way. MPs are who people go to when they have exhausted every other option. It should not have to take significant and sustained engagement from me and my casework team to resolve issues. We have to start designing processes that work for people. The tragedy is that my constituent’s children are now adults. They have grown up, and they have missed out on the support they needed at the time they needed it.

4.30pm
Jim Shannon
(Strangford) (DUP) [V]
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on setting the scene so well. It is a pleasure to see the Minister back in his place. I look forward very much to his response. He never lets us down—so there is no pressure on him to give us the answers that we need! I thank him so much.

The Child Maintenance Service is an extremely important service to the lives of so many children. It is always desirable for splits to be amicable and for parents to be able to make decisions on the division of time and finances. That is always the goal, but unfortunately it is not always reached. Too many times in my office, I see parents at the end of themselves due to a relationship breakdown, struggling financially while they await the involvement of the CMS to help resolve their dispute.

As other Members have done, I thank my local CMS team, who have worked with my office. They do their utmost to be open and transparent, and to get back to us urgently. Often, their hands are tied, because they are waiting for employers or accountants to come back to them. The process is long and difficult. Time prevents me from discussing today the many examples my office has seen of people who we would suggest are deliberately avoiding making payments. I think the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said that there was somewhere special for them; I cannot say, “That would be right,” but we do need them to respond quickly.

Add in the delays that the pandemic has introduced, with civil servants waiting for months to get the appropriate equipment, and cases being put on hold. Although this is understandable, as all our offices have had difficulties, it does not make the situation acceptable. For the parent left at home alone, holding the baby and waiting for financial help—with no way of increasing tax credits, which are reviewed annually—the stress of lockdown has been exacerbated by the lack of financial and emotional support. It is clear that the CMS system needs drastically to alter so that it can help in the short term, not just the long term.

Some parents have used the impact of furlough on wages as a reason to reassess their outgoings and cut payments for the maintenance of their children, and delays in the system have been made worse by the lack of equipment and staff. Press articles have told people to pay child maintenance as usual, and that amounts could be recalculated. Although this is understandable if a hairdresser or leisure centre worker has been precluded from working, the child still needs the same money to live. The Government could and should have made up the difference in the interim, and then worked out the longer-term repayments. That might be one thing that we learn from the process.

The number of food bank vouchers issued through my office has more than doubled, and many single parents have been devastated by the loss of payments, which were not made up for by tax credits or universal credit. We have to learn constructive lessons, so that we can address the essential issue of how we support children in poverty—those who need extra attention. They may be in worse-for-wear clothes or show other small signals of struggles, and yet have a parent who does their very best.

We have heard concerns expressed that these children do not have laptops at home. I am thankful to the Education Minister at home, who ensured that schools were able to take in children who do not have access to reliable internet or equipment. But we need to do more, and perhaps it would go a long way if all the Government Departments worked in tandem.

My heart is for children. The more I speak to those who work with them, the more I understand that there are so many homes with so many more difficulties in these worst of times. We in this place have not made the decisions that would have eased things for many. Getting it right through the CMS relieves financial and emotional pressures in the home. We must find a way of altering the CMS process to help people who are struggling, so that they can provide a steady life for their beloved child. We are in unprecedented times, and we now see the problems in the system and should learn from them. Let us take steps to rectify those problems, knowing that when we do, we will have a positive impact on the home lives and experiences of children, who need this more than ever.

4.34pm
Anne McLaughlin
(Glasgow North East) (SNP) [V]
I must first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), not just for securing this debate, but for the tenacity she has shown in sticking with this issue for many years. I hope, however, that the strength of the arguments we have heard from colleagues across the House today will inspire the Government to take action. As the Minister has heard today, the SNP is calling for a minimum maintenance payment and a root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service. I will not repeat the detail of the arguments, but I support them wholeheartedly and I hope he will listen.

One of my biggest concerns is that abusive ex-partners have effectively been given an even greater helping hand during the pandemic—inadvertently, of course, but when organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid, Gingerbread and Mumsnet, to name just a few, tell the Government this is happening, and they do nothing when they could do something, at some stage it stops being inadvertent.

A survey by Gingerbread and Mumsnet in August found that 86% of lone parents say the Child Maintenance Service has allowed their ex-partner to financially control or abuse them, post separation. Abusive partners are using the CMS as a weapon. Survivors and charities say that that has intensified during lockdown. This is deliberate domestic abuse. Given that the Government have been warned for months about that intensification, they and the CMS are responsible for its failure on enforcement. It is deliberate domestic abuse, and what is the Child Maintenance Service doing? Nothing—nothing but assisting the abuse.

Someone recently told me that her ex-partner takes his kids to all the burger, chicken and pizza places that most kids love. He also buys them all the sweets and fizzy drinks they want, and they come home saying, “Daddy said you should take us to nice places. Why don’t you, mum?” This is a mother who barely eats at times because he withholds the money—a mother who then has to cope with the impact of the sugar rush on her kids while trying to home-educate them during lockdown, with the guilt she feels for apparently not making her children happy, and with the misery of knowing that, despite finally managing to get away from him, he still has a hold on her. It has become so much worse during the pandemic because, as we have heard, the CMS is operating on a skeleton crew. It is despicable behaviour. I have no doubt that we all agree on that, but the Minister and the Government can do something about it.

The Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee recently held an inquiry on the pandemic. Scottish Women’s Aid reported that abusers are using the pandemic to increase their control of women’s movements; they are keeping them isolated, threatening to expose them to the virus, or discouraging them from seeking help by telling them that CMS services are not operating. We are supposed to be helping people in those circumstances. People need to know that the services are operating—that they and their children are a priority.

The Government must make that point loud and clear, but they cannot do that until they are sure that what they are saying is correct. The Department for Work and Pensions website talks of the need to focus on essential services and says that will impact services such as the CMS. I do not disagree with focusing, but is the CMS really classed as a non-essential service? We only have to ask the parents who use the CMS whether the Government have got it right to know the answer.

Gingerbread and Mumsnet did that in their survey of August last year. Just 11% of parents described their experience of using the CMS as positive, and a shocking 72% said that using the service had made their mental health and wellbeing worse. That is because the CMS, when it is working properly, is an essential service. Levels of dissatisfaction are so high that four parents, backed by Gingerbread, Mumsnet and the Good Law Project, have been forced to seek a judicial review of the service’s persistent failure to collect payments from absent parents. There is so much wrong with the CMS—not the staff, but the system—with or without a pandemic. We need that full review.

We know that the impact of covid-19 has been greatest on particular groups of people, single parents among them. Single parents are more likely to be women, working in a low-wage sector, working part time and facing huge restrictions because of transport and childcare. It was a choice to run the Child Maintenance Service on a skeleton staff last year, and there are still full-time employees of the service redeployed by the DWP. Why choose to make things more difficult for a group of people already facing more difficulties than most?

Another choice is to put the CMS right. Let us not forget that it was not right before the pandemic, which is why we are calling for a full review. During the pandemic, any measures that the Government take around covid restrictions or changes of service are supposed not to discriminate against any particular group, but in this case, as domestic abuse is gender-based and financial abuse is part of that, they are discriminatory. The Government have put money and extra staffing into other services, but why take money and staff away from this one?

I am hoping from some humility from the Government today. I welcome what the Minister said about the relevant Minister meeting us to look at individual cases, but the problems are systemic. If a politician holds their hands up and says, “We got it wrong, but we are ready to put it right,” nobody can argue with that. I can say on behalf of the SNP that if the Government are willing to put it right and have a root-and-branch review, we will support them.

4.40pm
Ms Karen Buck
(Westminster North) (Lab) [V]
This has been a welcome, albeit brief, opportunity to consider an essential service, and I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for securing it. We have heard some important contributions, all of which stressed two critical things: first, our thanks to the staff who have continued to work hard during these challenging months to keep the show on the road; and, secondly, the critical, real-world experience of parents who are looking after their children in very difficult circumstances and on very low incomes.

We know only too well that the pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of a whole range of public services. Child maintenance is easily forgotten, but it is very important that we understand the scale of the impact and learn lessons from the experience of the past year, particularly—hon. Members reinforced this point—in the light of the predicted rise in unemployment, and the wider economic fallout from the pandemic, which will inevitably disrupt maintenance arrangements for some time to come.

The Child Maintenance Service manages more than half a million arrangements for child support, affecting three quarters of a million children. To underline the importance of that, I am happy to quote the words of the Minister in the other place, Baroness Stedman-Scott:

“It’s a truth not well known that the work of the Child Maintenance Service lifts hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty by making sure payments are made and received.”

Indeed, it is estimated that one in five single-parent families on benefits is lifted out of poverty by maintenance payments. That means that the redeployment of CMS staff to the processing of universal credit claims should not be seen as simply moving people from back-office functions to frontline services. I am sure the Minister will agree that ensuring that those obligations are met, and that parents who care receive the support to which they are entitled, is not a service that can be paused without immediate consequences for family incomes, especially at a time when, in thousands of cases, maintenance obligations are being impacted by sudden changes of circumstances.

The point has been well made by Gingerbread. The decision to run a skeleton service during the initial outbreak of covid-19 led to CMS allowing non-resident parents to reduce or withdraw their financial obligations to their children without any evidence. I therefore ask the Minister what assessment the Department has made of the impact of the pandemic on maintenance entitlements, and of the risk of paying parents evading their responsibilities due to the changes in evidence requirements.

This is a matter of priorities and also of resilience. Yes, the pandemic has required us to reprioritise in all sorts of ways, but the impact on services also depends on how resilient they were in the first place. If we cut services to the bone, we will be faced with even harder choices when the unexpected strikes. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the CMS was already struggling to carry out its functions before the pandemic.

According to the National Audit Office, in 2011-12 the Department for Work and Pensions employed 100,250 people on a full-time equivalent basis. By the time the pandemic struck, the Government had cut DWP staff numbers by 28% to 72,186. The Government now find themselves scrambling to reverse the cuts to staff numbers that they made over the past 10 years, with 7,000 new recruits between April and August and a further 17,000 planned by March.
Child maintenance was not spared when the Government were cutting staff numbers. According to the Department’s workforce management statistics, in 2010-11 there were 8,246 full-time equivalent staff employed in child maintenance and enforcement. In February 2020, there were just 4,745. Nearly a third of those staff were then redeployed to manage the surge in universal credit claims. So by the time the pandemic struck the CMS was already trying to fulfil its mission with little more than half the staff complement in place 10 years earlier.

How well was the CMS performing? For collect and pay arrangements, despite the range of collection and enforcement powers available, compliance was only 68%, and the bar for compliance in the official statistics seems to be set pretty low, defined as paying some child maintenance over the previous three months. I recognise that the performance data show improvements in compliance since 2015, but these are improvements on a very poor baseline. Meanwhile, for direct pay arrangements, more than two thirds of caseload compliance is not even monitored by the Department. Research commissioned in 2016 showed that just under half of caring parents had an effective arrangement after three months, and this rose to only 53% after 13 months.

Ironically, the pandemic has led to an increase in compliance with collect and pay arrangements, but only because so many paying parents are now on benefits, making it easier for the CMS to deduct payment. It is striking and sobering to note that the percentage of collect and pay arrangements where the paying partner is on benefits rose from 21% to 40% from the start of the pandemic to September 2020.

I fully recognise that some of the impact of the pandemic has been unavoidable. It was inevitable that much enforcement activity would have to be paused given that courts were closed, but the pandemic does not explain why DWP staffing levels had been cut so much over the previous 10 years or why the performance of the CMS has for so long left much to be desired. Decisions taken years earlier made managing the impact of the pandemic harder than it needed to be both for the Department and for parents bringing up and looking after their children.

4.46pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
(Guy Opperman)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important Backbench Business Committee debate and thank all colleagues who have participated. I repeat the point I made earlier that the Minister concerned, Baroness Stedman-Scott, will meet colleagues and raise individual cases, and I assure the hon. Lady that there will be a written response to all matters that I am unable to deal with in the limited time available for my responses today.

We know that the vast majority of separated parents, whether receiving parents or paying parents, take their responsibilities extremely seriously. Our aim is to help parents, and we are sensitive to the needs of both parties: the CMS is designed for the needs of both parties and designed to promote collaboration between parents, and it offers a statutory scheme where that is not possible. We do this fundamentally because the innocent parties in all of this are the children.
I do not have children myself, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I suffered the loss of my children last year, and I know that any issue involving our children is an emotional and distressing and personal process, and I promise this House that the Government and all DWP staff are absolutely trying to handle this very, very difficult process in the most sensitive way possible.

We believe the CMS made a dramatic improvement in the immediate pre-covid period and the statistics support that. Last year, in 2019-20, over £1 billion was collected through the direct pay and the collect and pay services. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) highlighted, in the last seven years the percentage of CMS cases where no maintenance is being paid has halved. CMS investigators have the power to deduct directly from earnings and to seize funds owed in child maintenance payments where requests for payments are consistently refused, and between 2018 and 2020 the compliance rate of parents on the CMS collect and pay service has increased by 8%.

But of course covid has had a significant impact. In March last year, the Department, along with much of Government, had to respond to an unprecedented situation; that meant working quickly to prioritise services and support for those who would be impacted by the particulars of the pandemic. As a result, we mobilised our frontline welfare system like never before with an injection of more than £7 billion into our welfare safety net and over 3 million more people claiming support through universal credit. To assist that, 1,500 CMS staff were redeployed to support the increase in the universal credit workload. I wish to put on record my thanks and the thanks of the Secretary of State to all the staff in the CMS and across the DWP who have worked so hard and so flexibly during the pandemic itself.

Despite our focus on protecting those most in need and on tackling the huge challenges over the past year, the principle that parents should be responsible for their children remains. Nobody should have exploited this crisis as a way not to fulfil their obligations to their children. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, that there is a special place for those who game the system and put their children’s welfare at risk.

On the issue of avoidance, I want to address the particular point that, as with all calculation decisions, clients can request a mandatory reconsideration, or appeal the decision. In the CMS, we have opened up our definition of income to deal with almost all additional sources of gross income captured by self-assessment. They include income from property, savings, investments and, indeed, dividends and other miscellaneous income. Where a person’s income appears suspicious in any way, the case can be referred to the financial investigations unit. I should add that, in respect of enforcement, like other Government services, the CMS introduced temporary changes at the start of the pandemic—for example, directing customers to use its online services in the first instance, which was available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Understandably, application processing times were impacted, and because the courts were closed, that meant that liability orders and sanctions work had to pause. Nevertheless, in the quarter to June 2020, compliance on the collect and pay service was at 74%, with £41.7 million paid. Throughout this pandemic, as colleagues have maintained very fairly, the Minister responsible for the CMS, Baroness Stedman-Scott, and her officials have regularly met not only parliamentary colleagues, but key stakeholders such as Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, to understand both the ongoing problems and also the needs of the separated families.

The issue of domestic abuse was raised. In the circumstances that prevailed during the periods of lockdown it was, and it remains, vital to ensure that the CMS supports victims of domestic abuse in whatever way that manifests itself.

I want to turn now to the recovery of the CMS post July 2020. As the Government’s response to the pandemic adapted, so has the CMS been able to reinstate its core services.

For example, by the end of September, nearly 1,150 CMS staff had returned from the redeployment across the Department. The CMS has also stepped up efforts to pursue dedications and on the recovery and enforcement of outstanding arrears by reviewing all non-paying cases to make sure that each one is up to date, with outstanding changes, actions and arrears and balances being corrected.

On enforcement, the CMS has continued to enforce payments where possible throughout the pandemic in order to support children and is working to increase enforcement activity back to pre-crisis levels where possible. At the end of September last year, 43,000 paying parents on the collect and pay service had a deduction from earnings order in force, with £25.7 million being collected from those paying parents during the period 1 July to 30 September 2020. In the quarter to September 2020, the compliance rate on collect and pay was 72%, and £41.1 million was paid. In addition, £201.8 million was due to be paid through direct pay.

It is right to say that liability orders require the most court participation and remain the most difficult measure to restart while social distancing requirements remain in place. However, we are working with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Ministry of Justice with regard to court hearings, and that work continues apace. As of 2021, the CMS has pretty much restored its full service and remains committed to making sure that everyone pays or receives the right amount of child maintenance. We continue to focus efforts on tackling non-payment of child maintenance and backdated income changes. New digital services have been introduced, and these are available 24/7 and allow greater flexibility for parents to contact the CMS. Ensuring that those payments are made to those who are owed them is the binding principle that drives forward the Child Maintenance Service. The difference it can make to a child’s life chances demonstrates the critical importance of paying child maintenance, and the Child Maintenance Service will not hesitate to use robust enforcement measures where someone consistently refuses to meet their obligations.

I thank all colleagues for their participation in this important debate. As usual, the praise of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is something that is rarely obtained, but always enjoyed. I assure the House that DWP Ministers and the Secretary of State, who is in the Chamber today, look forward to us continuing to work together to address the needs of separated parents and to produce better outcomes for children, because, after all, the children are what this is all about.

4.56pm
Marion Fellows [V]
I thank the Minister, especially for what he said at the end. I do not think any of us, whether or not we have taken part in this debate, does not believe that children are what matter in all of this. I can assure him that my office has already emailed Baroness Stedman-Scott, and we hope to continue a dialogue to improve the service in relation to those parents who do not keep up their obligations and those who refuse to take on board that when they have a child, that child is their responsibility—in my view, almost for life.

I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate for the wide range of topics that they brought to bear in the Chamber today. It is important for me and for everyone else that this debate continues to the betterment of children and their resident parents—to make their lives better, whether we are in a pandemic or not.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the operation of the Child Maintenance Service during the covid-19 outbreak.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-01-21/debates/0E3957B0-D917-4B4B-9D08-0C7F6486B4AB/Covid-19ChildMaintenanceService

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