Second Reading
Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It should not be controversial across the House that parents should be responsible for their children unless they really cannot do that and need help. That parental responsibility is in all of us and the state welfare benefits and state systems in many other ways will step in to support families when it is absolutely necessary to do so. However, parents are too often let down by ex-partners for a range of reasons and they do not receive the support that they are due financially or otherwise.

In the case of child maintenance issues, parents who are receiving that money and, in many cases, relying on it to live on should be able to trust the child maintenance system to move as swiftly as possible to help them to recover maintenance arrears when it becomes necessary to do so. I am interested in that area through my experience as a family law solicitor, for my constituents who regularly bring incredibly complex child maintenance matters to me, and because this is an area of Government business—in a fantastic Department that works incredibly hard to help people who come to it with their issues—that can actually lift children out of poverty. I want to give the Child Maintenance Service, my constituents and everyone involved as much support as possible to do their job, which is where the Bill comes in.

This is an important measure to improve the recovery of arrears from parents who fail to meet their financial obligations to pay child maintenance. Before going into more detail about what this Bill aims to achieve, it may be helpful if I explain the purpose of the Child Maintenance Service for anybody who is not aware. The CMS is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance between separated parents who are unable to reach their own agreement following separation. That is an incredibly challenging job done in very difficult circumstances. Many Members will have experience of the CMS through their constituents. Some of that will be positive and some will be negative, but those Members who remember the Child Support Agency will I am sure acknowledge that the CMS, which was launched in 2012 to replace the Child Support Agency, is performing relatively well and is much better than previous systems. My parents are separated. My dad has some war stories about the Child Support Agency. We must not forget that that thing was on the front of newspapers, and that is not something that we see with this system, even though I am here in the Chamber saying that we can make improvements.

To emphasise the importance of the service, I should say that, in the past 12 months, more than £1 billion of payments were arranged or collected through the Child Maintenance Service. Under the Child Maintenance Service Act 2012, payments are calculated so that they are fair and affordable for both parents. That is key for these things to be successful.

The CMS uses gross income for calculation, whereas the old system was based on net income. To keep the impact of the calculation broadly the same, the 2012 scheme introduced modifications to the percentages with the banding system. In family law, it should be known that we would do the calculations for child maintenance for the parent client before us in our office before we turned to the other parent for other maintenance payments, so these calculations and the formula are important and it does work in many cases.

The statutory scheme is designed to limit the number of changes throughout the year. That is why the threshold for in-year changes to income is set at 25%, so that the liability remains consistent and parents can factor this into their own financial planning. Children are expensive. We need to be able to plan.

The CMS manages cases through one of two services. The first is direct pay and the second is collect and pay. Direct pay does what it says on the tin. The CMS provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but, effectively, the parents arrange the payments between them. For collect and pay, the CMS calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent, so it is a much more interventionist activity. Cases in collect and pay tend to include parents where a collaborative arrangement has either failed or has not been possible to achieve. Paying parents on collect and pay are therefore considered to be less likely to meet their payment responsibilities.

The difference that child maintenance payments make to children’s lives is critical, and the CMS takes action to tackle payment breakdowns at the earliest opportunity, to re-establish compliance and to collect unpaid amounts that have accrued. I give credit to groups such as Gingerbread, which often raise with MPs and Select Committees the impact on single parents; often, we are trying to help single parents through the CMS support schemes.

Where compliance is not achieved and the parent is employed, the CMS will attempt to deduct their maintenance, including any arrears where appropriate, directly from their earnings. Employers are obliged by law to co-operate with that action. Enforcement powers also allow for deductions to be taken directly from bank accounts, including joint accounts and business accounts, either as a lump sum or regular amounts—so far, so good. That is the run of the mill enforcement stuff. Members needed to understand that to understand the more severe enforcement measures used to collect child maintenance, which is what the main part of the Bill deals with.

The CMS is committed to modernising and improving and, as part of that commitment, it is reviewing the enforcement powers to make them as effective as possible in recovering arrears from parents who are failing to meet their financial obligations to their children. Under current legislation, the CMS must apply to the magistrates or the sheriff courts to obtain a liability order before the use of enforcement powers such as instructing enforcement agents or sheriff offices, or the use of more stringent court-based enforcement actions. So there is an extra step to go to court to get that stage of enforcement. Enforcements can include disqualification from driving or from holding a UK passport, or committing a non-compliant parent to prison. So it is serious stuff.

Obtaining a liability order through the courts is time-consuming. At the moment, the Government website tells parents that it can take anything from a few weeks to a few months. We know that there are now also an awful lot of delays in the courts—there was a pause during the pandemic, when the courts were closed—so I imagine it has been even more difficult recently to obtain these things.

That delay in receiving child maintenance has a consequence for the receiving parent and the children. Delay is bad for children, and we know that that principle underpins much family law. Furthermore, this additional step in enforcing debt is no longer required by other Departments, such as His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Other Departments are doing what my Bill is trying to achieve, so give me those powers so that the CMS can do the same.

We are also trying to introduce a lot of speed. The Bill will repeal the sections of the Child Support Act 1991 requiring the CMS to apply to the courts to obtain the liability order. It will stop applications to the courts by making amendments to uncommenced powers in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. Those powers, once enacted, will allow enforcement measures to be used more quickly against parents who have failed to meet their obligation.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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My hon. Friend makes the good point that the procedural step in the current system of requiring the CMS to apply to the courts for a liability order creates delay. Can she give the House an indication, based on her experience, of the sort of delay we are talking about?

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie
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I have been looking through my casework, and the delay has been months in some cases. What is worse is that, even though the system we have is well-meaning, few parents have trust that anything will ever happen. Even where there have been successful liability orders—they are in the hundreds, and I have figures here—any delay becomes the chat in the communities and there is no trust. Any delay or confusion about what can and cannot be achieved is damaging to these families. I thank my hon. Friend for his important intervention.

To preserve the safeguards for paying parents, the Bill makes provisions for secondary legislation to allow the paying parent a right of appeal to a court against an administrative liability order—so there will be appeal rights. The first regulations relating to appeals against liability orders will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

The Bill will operate across England, Wales and Scotland, as they are all part of the same child maintenance regime. The court system governing the enforced collection of child maintenance is governed by broadly the same statutory provisions in England and Wales. In Scotland, however, the judicial system is devolved, so provisions in the Bill allow for a later commencement date, by which time changes to the appropriate court processes can be made. For that reason, the Child Maintenance Service will work with legal colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure that the policy is effectively delivered in Scotland. I would also say, to those colleagues who always are interested in devolution issues, that Northern Ireland has its own arrangements.

To conclude, this is quite a techie thing—it is nerdy, which is why I like it. However, it introduces a genuine change for families on the ground by avoiding delay, which is harmful for children.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech and bringing forward a great piece of legislation. I was in the House only a few weeks ago supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), who was making changes to the CMS for those suffering domestic abuse who are trying to get payments. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud had a conversation with her about how this Bill can dovetail with her Bill? Perhaps the Government can take both Bills forward to provide extra protections for those who are struggling to get payments for their children.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I actually read all of that debate in Hansard, including his many interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, so I think he just wanted to show you that he really knows his stuff, Mr Deputy Speaker. He is absolutely right that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is taking a Bill through the House that will protect people who have experienced domestic abuse, because so often, where there has been domestic abuse and a breakdown of a relationship, there is then no payment between the parents. It is probably very unusual for the Department to have to deal with two Bills, but we have very enthusiastic Members of Parliament who want to help families caught up in this system. I have real confidence in the Government teams and the Ministers to use the corporate knowledge for both these Bills and get this done.

This Bill will introduce a quicker and cheaper process to pursue enforcement, not just for the taxpayer but for the people who are waiting for their money, and it will ensure that more money is collected for more children. These are often children of single parents and children who desperately need £5, £10, £15, £20 or £100 a month—whatever the amount is, it will make a difference. I thank all Members in the Chamber for being here to debate the Bill and the Department for helping me with the drafting, and I very much hope it will receive support today.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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We have heard much about the Bill already, so I do not want to go into the detail of it, but I do want to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who is an outstanding MP and a fantastic champion for her constituency. What she has done in this place in the short time since 2019 for families and family law is amazing, so I congratulate and thank her.

This Bill is a no-brainer—it is an easy one to support, and I know that the Government are supporting it, so I will not talk for long, but I am delighted to support it. The bit that really interests me is that, where the Department for Work and Pensions agrees that a person has failed to pay an amount of child support maintenance and a deduction from earnings has not been possible or is not appropriate, the Bill will enable the DWP to make a liability order in respect of that amount against the person. There is an element of coercion that we have not seen before, and it is absolutely justified.

The bit of the Bill that really matters relates to direct pay. Where a parent does not pay their liability in full and on time, the so-called person with care should inform the Child Maintenance Service, which will take swift action to move the case to collect and pay to enforce payment. Without a court order, the Child Maintenance Service may collect arrears through a deduction from earnings order, a deduction from earnings request or a deduction order. The bit I really like is that, with a court-obtained liability order, the Child Maintenance Service may instruct bailiffs to take control of goods and apply to the court for an order of sale of an asset once it is registered with the court.

This is really important, because we have seen over the years so many cases of absent parents, errant parents and non-resident parents who have an obligation to provide for their children but do not. Constituents in Bracknell come to see me all the time for help in chasing these absent, errant or non-resident parents, and I feel their angst. I can now at least reassure them that the law is being tightened, that non-resident parents can now be held to account much more forcefully and that means now exist whereby they will be forced to make good. This is a step in the right direction. I commend my hon. Friend for all the work she is doing, and I fully support the Bill.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con)
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I will speak very briefly on the Bill. The non-payment of child maintenance is an issue that disproportionately affects women, who make up more than 90% of single parents, but more importantly, it is a principal driver of child poverty. Victoria Benson, chief executive of the single parent charity Gingerbread, said:

“Research shows that 60% of single-parent families living in poverty and not receiving child maintenance would be able to escape the poverty trap if they were paid the money they’re owed. Parents have a legal and moral duty to contribute to their child’s upbringing whether they live with them or not, and where this money isn’t paid willingly the CMS needs to step in.”

I know that the CMS does its very best, but if we look at the statistics for the collect and pay service for the quarter ending June 2022, we see that it remains the case that more than a third—36%—paid no maintenance at all, and only 44% of all the people using the collect and pay service paid 90% or more of the child maintenance owed. That creates a huge poverty hole through which some of the most vulnerable families in this country are falling again and again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) has set out beautifully all the mechanisms that exist, but there is a persistent problem with the amount of time it takes for them to be activated. This year’s National Audit Office report says that

“it can take years before payments are made to receiving parents if the paying parent refuses to comply”.

That was certainly echoed in what I heard when I visited the family centre at Hungerford Nursery School in my constituency, which deals with vulnerable families. In every single case, it was a woman that I met and, without exception, they were not receiving the child maintenance payments to which they were entitled. I heard really grim anecdotes about one woman who tried to enforce but had hit a wall because her former partner was still paying off a car loan, which apparently took priority over what was owed to his children. I do not know whether that was the case, but it was certainly the perception and there was also a sense that there was no point in pursuing it any further.

Even if that was only perception, it is to some extent mirrored by the conclusions of a recent Mumsnet survey, which illustrates the despondency with which some parents view the current system. Eighty-three per cent. of respondents told Mumsnet that they never expect to receive what they are owed in arrears, and nine out of 10 respondents said that they thought it was too easy for their former partners to evade paying child maintenance.

I welcome any Bill that will give the CMS more teeth—this Bill does so through liability orders—and, in particular, that reduces the wait that families face to get the money to which they are properly entitled.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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I, too, rise to support this Bill and the great efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) in support of families.

Relationships are a wonderful thing. From my personal experience, they are the aspect of life that gives me greatest fulfilment. What lies at the core of our relationships provides the value of life, much more so than careers, even careers in this place. We have to recognise, however, that they do sometimes go wrong and that the negative experiences can be as intense as the positive ones.

Although relationships can change, responsibilities for our actions remain. That is particularly the case when children are involved. A person’s livelihood and support for their children are factors when it comes to a broken-down relationship. It is very important to say that when relationships that involve children break down, in the vast majority of cases the absent parent continues to provide financial support on a voluntary basis. Negotiations take place, often without solicitors or lawyers, and an informal arrangement is reached that is satisfactory to both parties. What we are dealing with here, however, is the small minority of cases where negotiations have failed or where an agreement that has been reached is subsequently breached. That is why the CMS is such an important agency to provide support for those families who are most in need.

Existing child support legislation is intended to provide a mechanism for the collection of support funds when voluntary agreements have failed. My hon. Friend set out in her opening speech the various mechanisms that are currently available. It is true that under the current scheme, the CMS can apply to the court in certain circumstances in order to get a liability order to seize, through the bailiffs or the sheriff courts, assets to satisfy a debt. The reason I intervened earlier was to highlight the hugely significant role that delay plays in frustrating the needs of families and, in particular, the children. That is particularly the case in the covid aftermath, when delays in the civil justice system are very substantial. I am sorry to say that even before covid, there was significant strain in the civil court process, leading to lots of delay. That delay matters, because we are dealing with the financial support necessary to feed, clothe, heat and support children.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be intimately familiar with the problem, because of the casework that they receive. To my mind, the Bill is very timely, because just last month a constituent came to me who was owed by the absent—non-resident—parent the sum of £136,833 in arrears of child maintenance. We have to stop for a moment and consider the profound impact of that non-payment on the children. It is simply not good enough to say, “You can go back to the CMS, which in time can make an application to the courts for a liability order. Once that has been processed, we can apply to the bailiff court, and in due course we will get an order to seize goods,”

I welcome the Bill’s intention, which is to cut out the delay of having to apply to the court, and to give powers to the DWP to make a liability order in certain circumstances that allows assets to be targeted via the bailiff or sheriff courts, without the additional factor of delay. Essentially, the Bill aims to fill a lacuna in the armoury of the recovery of funds to support children, and maintain financial responsibility for children from a non-resident parent. It will help my constituents, and for that reason alone I support it.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), and to speak for the second time today, this time in support of the Second Reading of the important Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie). It is important to highlight that the Bill closely complements another private Member’s Bill, as has already been alluded to, currently progressing its legislative journey: the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). Both Bills will significantly improve the child support system. I was delighted to support the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, and I am equally delighted to be here to see today’s Bill pass its Second Reading, as I am sure it will.

It is absolutely right that all parents have a legal responsibility to support their children financially, quite apart from any moral responsibility that they have too. Child maintenance is key to reducing the number of children in low-incomes households through family- based arrangements and Child Maintenance Service arrangements. Parents in separated families receive approximately £2.4 billion a year in child maintenance payments, which are essential to those families’ wellbeing and financial security. There are an estimated 2.3 million separated families in Great Britain, with 3.6 million children in those families, and 60% of separated families have child maintenance arrangements.

The Child Maintenance Service manages cases either through direct pay or, as we have heard, collect and pay. In both cases, the Child Maintenance Service calculates how much maintenance should be paid. For a direct payer, the money passes directly from one parent to the other. For collect and pay, the CMS collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent, but there are collection charges for the use of collect and pay—20% on top of the liability for the paying parent, and 4% of the maintenance received by the receiving parent.

Under current legislation, direct pay is the default option unless both parents request collect and pay, or the receiving parent requests collect and pay and the paying parent is deemed unlikely to pay by demonstrating an unwillingness to pay their liability. That is so that paying parents have the option not to incur additional charges should they pay in full and on time. Some 846,300 children are covered by CMS arrangements, of whom 526,500 are covered through direct pay and 298,400 children are covered by collect and pay. Given the growing number of children covered by CMS arrangements, the Bill is welcome.

The Bill deals largely with the way in which child support payments are recovered in cases in which arrears have accumulated. Currently, if arrears have accumulated under the collect and pay system, the non-resident parent is usually sent an arrears notice. Caseworkers may negotiate and put in place a repayment plan. The Child Maintenance Service aims to recover arrears within two years and expects the non-resident parent to pay up to 40% of their net income to clear it.

In March 2022, the National Audit Office published a report on child maintenance that said that parents now rely less on the state to help them to make maintenance arrangements—an aim of the Government’s 2012 reforms. Although the number of people who make a family-based arrangement has increased as intended, there has also been an increase in the number of people with no maintenance arrangement. The report said that, as a result, there has been no clear change in the number of families with effective child maintenance arrangements since the Government reformed the system in 2012.

It is estimated that only one in three separated families in Great Britain has a child maintenance arrangement for which the agreed maintenance is paid in full. Indeed, at the end of June 2022, cumulative arrears stood at £493.5 million and the National Audit Office projection is that at current rates the amount will reach £1 billion by March 2031. That figure is far too high. It is absolutely right that we have in place a system that ensures that we can and do enforce payments effectively. The House will be aware of the National Audit Office report that highlights ongoing issues with Child Maintenance Service collection and enforcement activities. I doubt that any Member has no constituency cases on the issue; indeed, I have had more than two dozen in my case load.

If the paying parent refuses to comply, it can take years before payments are made to the receiving parent. Enforcement in respect of arrears does not always ensure future compliance. It can take years before payments are made to receiving parents if the paying parent refuses to comply. In addition, enforcement has not been properly built into the universal credit system. Currently, the Child Maintenance Service can deduct only a flat rate of £8.40 of maintenance from a person’s universal credit award and cannot deduct partial deductions. Before 2019, the maximum that the Child Maintenance Service could deduct from benefits towards arrears was a mere £1.20 a week.

There are currently four ways for the CMS to collect arrears without a court order: a deduction from earnings order; a deduction from earnings request for those in the armed forces; a deduction order from bank accounts; and the collection of assets from a deceased non-resident parent’s estate. A court order gives much stronger powers of collection, with the use of bailiffs in England and Wales and of sheriffs in Scotland.

Following the removal of a parent’s right to enforce themselves in 2005, the state now has sole responsibility for enforcing obligations and has discretion over whether to pursue enforcement. It is clear that the state must do more to ensure the enforcement of child maintenance collection. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud would do just that. Her Bill would alter the current regulations to ensure that if the DWP agrees that a person has failed to pay an amount of child support maintenance and a deduction from earnings has not been possible or is not appropriate, the DWP would be able to make a liability order in respect of that amount against the person. This will replace the existing system whereby the DWP must apply to the courts for a liability order, thereby streamlining the system and removing the unnecessary delay to the recovery of child maintenance arears that the process of applying for liability through the courts can create. The Bill would give the CMS the ability to ramp up the enforcement of collection much quicker than it has previously been able to.

I see how this Bill complements the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye. It would allow child maintenance cases to be placed on the collect and pay service if there is evidence of domestic abuse, providing another layer of protection to some of the most vulnerable in society by preventing survivors of abuse from having to engage directly with their abuser through the CMS. However, on the collect and pay system an abuser may seek to continue to torture their victim by not paying the child support they owe. The Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will ensure that swift action can be taken in such cases, so that an abuser cannot evade paying child maintenance.

I am delighted to be able to support this Bill, which will streamline the child maintenance system and enable us to ensure that more people can pay child maintenance on time and in full. I am sure it will command cross-party support, and I offer my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend for bringing it forward today. I wish her all the best as she continues to guide it through the legislative process, and I hope to see it pass all its stages very soon. I have got into the habit of offering Members my services on their Bill Committees, having offered once already this morning, so I offer the same to her.

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
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We are talking about the saddest thing possible, the breakdown of the relationship of a couple with children—and not just the pain of the breakdown, but an ongoing feud that often lasts for years, re-traumatising the children and embittering the parents. We must always remember that the effect of divorce or separation is usually impoverishment, both for the adults involved and for their children—and indeed for elderly parents; they should not be forgotten in this, nor the capital that is lost to them and their future care. The effect on whole families of divorce and separation and the loss of half a child’s adult world when his or her parents separate acrimoniously can often cause a lifetime of emotional damage.

I start by stating plainly that there is nothing more important we can do as a society or in this place than to help people to form stable, lasting and loving relationships, particularly in the context of bringing up children. I am conscious that we spend a lot of time in this place debating means of mitigating the effects of family breakdown, but not a lot of time debating how to prevent the breakdown in the first place. We discuss how to provide ambulances at the foot of the cliff to pick up people who are falling off, but spend very little time discussing how to put fences at the top of the cliff to prevent the damage in the first place.

Nevertheless, when the worst happens, it is right that we do what we can to ensure that the obligations of parents to support their children are upheld. That is why we have the Child Maintenance Service. I want to reflect on the work that the service does. Its work is increasing; as we have been hearing, the CMS manages over 600,000 arrangements for child maintenance, up 9% just in the six months to last December. We have also seen an increase in the collect and pay arrangements—a bad sign in itself—with 37% of the total number of CMS arrangements now managed through collect and pay, up from 30% just a few years before. Compliance is running at around two thirds, which is understandable, but sad and essentially unsatisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) mentioned the 2012 reforms, which were partly designed to encourage voluntary and family arrangements, and have been successful in that regard. I agree with her about the success of those reforms and that those arrangements have increased, but we must recognise that the number of separated couples without an arrangement has also increased. According to the National Audit Office, it appears that there is no clear change in the number of families with an effective arrangement in place.

The fact is that only one in three separated families have arrangements that are working and in which payments are made in full. For all the progress that has been made—and I recognise my hon. Friend’s point that the CMS is dealing with very many difficult cases—we still have too many non-payments or payments not made in full. At any one moment, we are all dealing with many cases of constituents reporting their frustrations with the CMS. It is very frustrating for our offices to deal with them, too. I want to quickly pay tribute to my senior caseworker, Camilla Jequier, who is dealing with so many of these cases any one moment—I am sure that we all have a Camilla in our offices battling with the CMS on behalf of our constituents. She does tremendous work, patiently and sympathetically supporting constituents.

I will give a couple of examples on both sides of the parental dispute. A caring parent reports that the non-resident parent has another job and has increased their earnings, with that apparent to HMRC, but the CMS will not increase the payments that the non-resident parent—the father—is making. Another non-resident parent has continued his old business using cash. He is claiming universal credit fraudulently—a CMS financial investigation has confirmed that—but, because the UC claim is in place, it cannot collect the child maintenance that is due. I spoke yesterday in support of keeping cash in our economy, and I very much support that, but I recognise opportunities that that gives for such fraudulent behaviour.

On the other side, there is the case of a paying parent who has been out of work for six months. The collect and pay arrangement has continued, and the father’s home is now under threat because the CMS has not recognised the loss of earnings. There is another case where the CMS is using gross earnings from before the pandemic, not recognising the substantial loss of earnings that that parent has endured in recent years. It is not able to use up-to-date HMRC data.

I reference those as examples of the frustrations that constituents have, while also acknowledging the very good work that the CMS is doing. We do not get reports of good work from Government agencies; we just report the bad ones. However, I am afraid that there are still too many of those.

I support the Bill and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who has been a tremendous campaigner on the issue. It is a good Bill, and I am pleased to see that the Government—and, I am sure, the Opposition—supporting it. It is an important step to ensure that we can improve compliance. I also thank the DWP for its support for this important Bill and for enabling the CMS to do its work better. I hope that we will see the same from HMRC in due course.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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Who would have thought when I went to conference four or five years ago and was joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who is sat next to me, that we would both be here in the Chamber having this debate, almost three years to the day since our election? Actually, it was patently obvious at that point that she was going to become an MP, because she is diligent and driven. Her introducing the Bill is testament to that.

On reading my hon. Friend’s comments from her Westminster Hall debate last month, it was so sad to note that about 280,000 children see their parents separate. That is a hugely concerning statistic, and a figure that we need to closely reflect on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) pointed out. I am lucky and eternally grateful to have benefited from a being in a loving and stable family for nearly 40 years, but I appreciate that that experience is not universal.

We all have CMS cases in this House, and we have often seen the anguish and the upset that the process generates. More broadly, before I came to the House, I saw in hospitals and GP surgeries the anguish that a given mental or physical issue would bring. A medical professional’s starting point is: how can I make things better? While I often could not solve the problem, I could help inform and equip people and ensure that the process ran smoothly. This Bill gives people a real chance to try and make these things better.

I fully support this important legislation, because I believe that it sits well with the Government’s wider reforms to ensure that the work of the Child Maintenance Service is effective in preventing parents from evading their financial obligations to their children. While couples may fight and frustrate, we must keep in mind the best outcome for the children’s sake. When I was researching for the debate, I was surprised to see that more than 30 years have passed since the Thatcher’s Government critical “Children Come First” White Paper. Society has made changes since then, and methods to collect payments have certainly changed over those years. Much scrutiny and change has taken place, substantial amounts of water have passed under the bridge, and we have seen major systems redesigned.

I note the important work of the Labour and coalition Governments to encourage and support family- based arrangements, and the fact that that work, and wider policy, have progressed with, seemingly, some decent success. Changes to the Child Maintenance Service have built on earlier reforms to ensure a fairer assessment of parents’ earnings, helping to prevent them from evading their financial obligations. These powers make a real difference in compliance by closing loopholes and strengthening enforcement.

We must be thankful for this progress. We must never give up on the ideals, but we must balance them with the reality. According to a report from the National Audit Office published in March 2022, while the number of people making a family-based arrangement has increased as was intended, there has also been an increase in the number of people with no maintenance arrangement, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). I sense that the CMS is facing a considerable workload. At the end of December 2021, it was managing more than 600,000 arrangements for 560,0900 paying parents, a 9% increase in the number of arrangements since the end of June 2021.

We must also consider those who fail to pay any amount of child support maintenance, especially when deductions from earnings are not possible. I think that enabling the DWP to make administrative liability orders is a step forward, and I also think it right that those who are subject to such orders are able to appeal. I believe I am correct in saying that they can appeal but cannot challenge the amount that has been decided by the CMS, and I think that is the right approach.

I hope the Bill is successful, and I also hope it can be seen in the wider context of the Government’s work to ensure that the child maintenance system has the legislation and the resources to enable it to manage modern Britain. No two cases in the UK are the same, and there are nuances that play out in all our constituency surgeries. We know that these have real, far-reaching consequences, but I sense that the Bill can be a key part of a wider commitment among my ministerial colleagues to ensure that, over time, everyone pays, everyone receives the right amount, and, most importantly, the child—

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger
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It is important for my hon. Friend to experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of an intervention.

My hon. Friend said earlier that many couples did not have an arrangement at all. What does he think we can do about not just the couples whose arrangements have broken down, but those who did not put one together in the first place?

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Evans
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That is a very good question—and I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for his sword-like intervention, cutting me off with one word to go before the end of my speech!

It is important to engage with couples and ensure that they know where the resources are to enable them to have the necessary discussions, and I think that that is starting to happen as a result of signposting to, for instance, health visitors, GPs and schools, so that parents have an opportunity to speak to someone establish what their options are. Enabling them to have that dialogue is part of the work that the DWP and the Government as a whole should be doing. People need to understand fully what is available to them, and going through the court system may not be the right way for that to happen.

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and I welcome the Government’s support for the Bill. I hope that it makes much haste.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)
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We wholeheartedly support the principle that non-resident parents should pay child maintenance, and that there should be enforcement when absent parents fail to pay. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for her work on the Bill and, indeed, for her wider work on this complicated and important matter.

Too many absent parents fail to pay child maintenance, often leaving children and families in desperate need and emotional distress, which, as we heard earlier, can have very serious consequences for them. I pay tribute to those families who are suffering as a result of terrible backlogs and delays, and the whole House is deeply concerned about them. Many Members have tried to help constituents facing these dreadful problems, and will have responded through their casework. I also want to put on record my support for the work of charities such as Gingerbread that support parents, and to thank the Child Maintenance Service for its efforts in this important area. It continues to chase non-payment despite a series of difficult challenges, to which I shall refer later in my speech.

Turning to the substance of the Bill, as I said at the outset, we completely support the principle that non-resident parents should meet their responsibilities for child maintenance, and where they fail to do so the state must step in to enforce payment. The CMS manages over 500,000 arrangements for child support, affecting 750,000 children. Maintenance payments are very important in reducing child poverty, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) mentioned, and it has been estimated that as many as one in five single-parent families on benefits are lifted out of poverty by receiving child maintenance payments; that is an important point for us to consider. Not only do we support the principle, therefore, but we recognise that the enforcement of child maintenance obligations needs to be improved.

Enforcement action was affected by the pandemic. CMS staff were redeployed to manage the surge in universal credit claims, and the courts were closed. The number of liability orders in process fell from 6,900 in March 2020 to 2,400 in September 2020. That was a considerable drop, but since 2020 there has been only a partial recovery, and the most recent figures, for June 2022, are not only far lower than before the pandemic at 4,200, but are lower than in June 2021 by over 1,000 cases. The CMS therefore clearly faces some serious issues. The number of enforcement agency referrals now in process is less than half the number before the pandemic. The system for ensuring that child maintenance is paid needs to be efficient and fair, and we must address these points and discuss them thoroughly in this House.

Although I understand the principles behind the Bill, I therefore have some questions. As I understand it, the purpose of the Bill is to make changes to powers introduced in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, but it seems that some of the powers—those that allow the Secretary of State or Department to make an order without having to go to the courts—have not been used by the Government. I realise this is a detailed point, but I ask the Minister to address it in her reply and to reassure me on it.

The Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to issue regulations governing appeals, and the powers granted are wide-ranging. For example, the Secretary of State will be able to make

“provision with respect to the period within which a right of appeal under the regulations may be exercised”


“provision with respect to the powers of the court to which the appeal under the regulations lies.”

This wording seems to give the Secretary of State a great deal of power to limit the grounds on which appeals can be made and the opportunity to appeal. Why are these powers being sought?

Time is limited today, so I will conclude. We whole-heartedly support the principle that non-resident parents should pay child maintenance and that there should be enforcement for absent parents who fail to pay. I again take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Stroud for her excellent work on this; she has a great deal of expertise and the House and country is benefiting from it. I also pay tribute to parents and families affected by this terrible problem, as well as charities and campaigners, and to CMS staff working on those parents’ behalf. I hope the Minister will address my questions; they are somewhat technical, however, and I would be happy for her to write to me with further detail on them.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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It is an honour to speak in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for introducing the Bill and raising this important issue. I am pleased to confirm that the Government intend to support the Bill.

I was going to start by providing a brief background on the purpose of the CMS, but many Members have done a brilliant job on that so I will instead turn to the context of the Bill, making a couple of points and answering some questions, of course. I also want to pay tribute to all the DWP teams that work tirelessly in this space delivering the CMS service so diligently. As a constituency MP and a friend to many single parents, I have seen cases where help from former partners is needed to support children; making sure positive arrangements are in place is crucial to youngsters in every constituency.

I must declare an interest as a single mum. I know personally how important it is for children to know, where possible, that they have the support of both parents, both financially and emotionally. I thank the Gingerbread charity for its advocacy work. I concur with many of the points made today. Our Minister in the other place, Baroness Stedman-Scott, who has day-to-day responsibility for the policy, is strident in her support for reducing parent conflict and making sure that children get the backing that they need and deserve from both parents. We are determined to ensure that the CMS process improves.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), who raised the CMS process and the other private Member’s Bill, the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, which will be in Committee very shortly. I am delighted to have his support. There were thoughtful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Laura Farris), for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland). My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) rightly paid great tribute to MPs’ caseworkers, who deal with the challenges and manage both sides of this issue day in, day out. We are grateful to them. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) about the delays in court and liability orders, it takes three to six months from the case being referred to court for a liability order to be granted. We expect that to reduce significantly.

On the wider point about the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), I am glad to endorse what many Members have said. The Bill will allow for cases to be moved from direct pay to the collect and pay service when one parent is a victim of domestic abuse. That is an important measure, and I am grateful to hear further support for it in the Chamber today. Its Committee stage is forthcoming.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury about why compliance figures have been decreasing, the Child Maintenance Service has been experiencing falling compliance figures since March 2021 after a period of improving compliance. A key driver of falling compliance is the difficulty of deducting child maintenance from universal credit payments. Universal credit prioritises other third-party deductions ahead of child maintenance deductions. Let me reassure the House that work is ongoing with universal credit policy colleagues to identify how deductions for child maintenance can be rightly reprioritised, and to recognise that collect and pay deals often with the most difficult cases. Parents can co-operate and make their own arrangements—that is one scenario—but we are talking about the difficult scenarios.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for raising concerns about backlogs. The CMS is committed to delivering service of the highest standards and has been recognised with customer service accreditation, an independent validation of achievement. It responds quickly to parents using the service. In the quarter ending June 2022, 84% of changes in circumstances had been actioned in 28 days. I say to parents that, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, if something has changed, they should let the CMS know. Call handling has been improved, with calls directed to the most appropriate person.

I would like to pick up on what my hon. Friend said about why maintenance calculations changes are factored in. Parents are able to report changes of income at any time. I reiterate that to him and any of our caseworkers. Where that change is greater than 25% of the income we hold on our system, we will alter their liability. Parents can ask for a calculation decision by the CMS to be reviewed through the mandatory reconsideration process within 30 days. If they are still not satisfied, they can appeal to the tribunal service.

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger
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I very much appreciate that point and that is indeed the case. I just wonder why 25% is the cut-off. It is quite a large amount. If a change comes in just underneath that, why should not that be considered as well?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I do not personally know the answer, but I am happy to look at that point and write to him.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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The Minister is talking eloquently about the need for courts to uphold and the need for parents to be chased for the money that they owe through the CMS. By the same token, although it is not within the scope of the Bill today, could she comment on the ongoing plight of those who do not have access to their children—those who are prevented from seeing them? We can all recall the plight of Fathers 4 Justice—Spiderman hanging from the gantries on the M25. It is important that we discuss, or at least raise today, the issue that it works both ways and that we also have to give deference in law to those seeking access to their children.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. He is right to say that. We have seen this in our constituency surgeries: there are always two sides to every story. It is right that we have processes that are able to respond to that and that parents are able to see and engage with their children. I reiterate that my hon. Friend in the other place, who has day-to-day policy responsibility for this matter, is very much focused on reducing parental conflict. Above all, this is about supporting children, getting them the best start and ongoing support to thrive in life.

Let me make some progress on the importance of today’s Bill. Child maintenance payments provide vital support to separated parents. Approximately 140,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty as a result of child maintenance payments. This includes payments through the family-based process and through the service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has already stated, in the past 12 months, more than £1 billion-worth of support was arranged and collected through the Child Maintenance Service. That exemplifies the intent of the service, which is to promote collaboration between separated parents and encourage parents to meet their responsibilities in providing for their children, meaning that youngsters get the financial support that they need for that good start in life.

Research shows that children tend to have better emotional wellbeing and higher academic attainment growing up with parents who, together or indeed separated, have that good-quality relationship and are able to manage conflict well. Child maintenance cases are managed by two processes, as we discussed earlier. The collect and pay caseloads are more challenging. That is where a collaborative arrangement has either failed or not been possible. Therefore, these parents are considered less likely to meet their payment responsibilities.

We know the difference that child maintenance can make in people’s day-to-day lives, so unpaid child maintenance should be paid immediately. We know that the vast majority of parents want to do the right thing to support their children financially. Where a parent fails to pay on time or in full, our strategy is to tackle payment breakdowns at the earliest opportunity and to take action to re-establish compliance and collect any unpaid amounts where they have been accrued.

The Child Maintenance Service is able to deduct £8.40 a week towards ongoing maintenance or arrears from certain prescribed benefits, as I have discussed. Where measures prove ineffective or inappropriate in collecting arrears, the CMS will apply to the court service or the sheriff court for the liability order.

The liability order enables the use of more stringent powers, as we have heard, and we are able to take more serious action. Since June 2022, the Child Maintenance Service has collected £2.7 million from paying parents with the court-based enforcement action in process. We regularly review processes and policies in line with best practice to deliver the best outcomes for parents and children, and I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I just wanted to turn to the hon. Gentleman’s point. I would like to write to him on that as I am not the Minister responsible for that day to day. I hope that he will understand.

The details of these powers will be set out in secondary legislation, with the right for a liable parent to appeal against an administrative liability order. Regulation powers and other provisions will be included. That means that proper scrutiny can be undertaken by the Government and the relevant Committee. We can then make sure that the regulations include the right to appeal. Those regulations will also be subject to the affirmative procedure.

The Bill is of great importance for the Child Maintenance Service. It will make sure that we make the necessary improvements we have heard about today to the enforcement process and, above all, that we get the money to children more quickly. I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for bringing it to the House.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie
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With the leave of the House, I would like to thank all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Newbury (Laura Farris), for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Bosworth (Dr Evans). I have notes of all their key points, and I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell who said that the Bill is a no-brainer.

The thing we have to be clear about is that family breakdown is absolutely devastating and often incredibly fraught. If the basics are wrong—if money is not flowing between the parents and payments are not being made—the fracture is compounded, and that is very damaging for children. The CMS plays a role not just as a calculator or a money box for people to get cash out of; it is actually fundamental. That is why I have been quite narrow in my scope today, although, unfortunately for the Minister and the Department, I am interested in many other areas of the Child Maintenance Service and universal credit and in the issues that the National Audit Office has raised.

The Bill will achieve administrative efficiencies for the Child Maintenance Service. That is better for the taxpayer, and it will get money into the pockets of the parents looking after the children, which is where it should be. I really hope the Bill makes progress in the House, and I thank everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).