Child Support (Enforcement) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions
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.

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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.