Committee stage
Wednesday 1st March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023 View all Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud on securing cross-party support for this important Bill. Members may want to know that this is not the first time that she has campaigned on this topic; she campaigned on related issues even when she was a local councillor in my patch. I did not vote for her, but I recognise that she was a very good councillor and she has a long history of campaigning on issues relating to support for children.

Last year’s report by the Public Accounts Committee concluded that in the 10 years since the Child Support Agency was replaced by the Child Maintenance Service, there had been no improvement in the system for parents, children and families. The Committee’s shocking report found that around half of children in separated families—1.8 million children—receive no support at all from their non-resident parent, and that enforcement is just too slow to be effective, as the hon. Member outlined. That is a serious failing in the child support system, and we all know that it is often mothers who pay the price.

A mother in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn wrote to me to explain that her child’s father had not paid child support for three years. She had contacted the Child Maintenance Service on numerous occasions, but for three years there was simply no progression in her case at all. Eventually, she came to see me. Members across the Committee will know that our constituents come to see us in our surgeries as the last resort, having gone through everything else. I applied significant pressure as her MP and, in the end, the Child Maintenance Service launched an investigation. But it should not have come to that; it should not have been so difficult for my constituent in the first place.

Sadly, as I am sure Members across the Committee will know, that experience is far from uncommon. It has probably happened to everyone’s constituents at some point. Mothers and children across the country are missing out on the payments that they so desperately need to get by.

The implications for child poverty are particularly concerning. The Nuffield Foundation—a social mobility charity—estimates that as many as one in five single parents on benefits are lifted out of poverty by receiving child maintenance payments. That is to say nothing about the severe impact that non-payment of child maintenance can have on the mental health of children and families. That is why the Bill is so important to me and people across this country. It is completely right that absent parents honour their full child maintenance payments. When they fail to do so, there must be adequate enforcement to force them to pay, so that people’s lives are made easier.

Before I conclude, I have one question for the Minister. Enforcement action was significantly affected by the national lockdowns. Child Maintenance Service staff were redeployed to manage the surge in universal credit claims, and the courts were closed. But the number of enforcement agency referrals now in process is still less than half the figure before the pandemic. Can the Minister give me some information about what the Government are doing to address the backlog?

I fully support the Bill. I hope that it is successful and that it forms part of a wider strategy to ensure that the child maintenance system is fit for the 21st century.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Stroud for bringing forward the Bill. As she has explained, the territorial extent and application applies to England, Wales and Scotland, as it is a reserved issue.

I would like to briefly express my wholehearted support for the Bill. Most of us will have seen, through our casework, just how frustrating CMS cases can be, particularly when the paying parent does not uphold their financial responsibilities. I am dealing with a number of such cases at the moment.

I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for setting up the child maintenance services all-party parliamentary group, of which I am a Member. We will continue to have meetings of that APPG, and hopefully push our casework forwards.

The changes that this Bill will make to enable the CMS to take stronger action in serious cases are very necessary. Many parents, survivors of domestic or economic abuse, have been telling us for far too long that the system is weaponised by their ex-partners to continue to perpetrate abuse. It is not acceptable that it is so easy for abusers to deliberately delay or frustrate payments.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that any changes benefit the children at the heart of what can often be very difficult and emotionally charged situations. I put on record again that I believe that this Bill has the potential to do that, so I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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That was very swift; I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank hon. Members for joining us this morning, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who has made a brilliant contribution and covered the importance of this Bill in great detail.

As highlighted by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, the Bill is vital for securing money for children more quickly from those parents who fail or simply refuse to give support to their own youngsters. Child maintenance payments, as we have heard, can play an effective role in helping to lift children out of poverty, and can help to enhance the life outcomes of children in separated families.

I take this opportunity to say a few words about what the CMS is doing more widely to improve its service—as we have heard from the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—and ensure that it is supporting our youngsters and protecting the most vulnerable citizens. I would like to reiterate the work that we are doing, and hopefully give some comfort in that regard, because I know and understand that this is a matter of concern for many of us who, as constituency MPs, receive complaints and concerns from constituents who perhaps feel that they have not received the level of support or service they believe they should from the CMS.

As Members will know, until recently the day-to-day policy of the Child Maintenance Service sat with my noble Friend in the other place, Baroness Stedman-Scott. The Baroness was truly strident in her desire for the CMS to be at its best and worked to that end, and I know that that view is shared greatly by my noble Friend Viscount Younger of Leckie, who has taken over overall ministerial responsibility for policy on CMS, and I am working strongly with him.