Ever since the child support system was first established nearly thirty years ago its record in recovering money from absent parents has been the subject of considerable (and often heated) discussion. And that discussion continued in a Westminster Hall debate at the beginning of the month (Westminster Hall debates give MPs an opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister).
Before I look at the debate, I should explain something, for the benefit of readers who are not au fait with the workings of the Child Maintenance Service. The Child Maintenance Service essentially offers two levels of service to its ‘customers’. The first is the ‘Direct Pay’ service, where the Child Maintenance Service calculates the amount of maintenance to be paid, and the parents arrange the payments between themselves. The second is the ‘Collect & Pay’ service, for parents who can’t arrange payments, or don’t pay what was agreed. As the name suggests, under Collect & Pay the Child Maintenance Service collects and manages the payments between the parents.
OK, on to the debate, which was led by SNP MP Peter Grant. There is an awful lot here, so I can only ‘cherry-pick’ a few points.
As I mentioned here the other day, Mr Grant opened the debate with the following damning criticism of the Child Maintenance Service’s enforcement record:
“I see too many cases in which it is obvious that a parent is determined to avoid their responsibilities and that they can get away with it—sometimes for years at a time—which is just not good enough. It is far too easy, for example, to hide income from the Child Maintenance Service, which too often leaves it to the resident parent to produce the evidence that their ex-partner is effectively committing fraud. That is bad enough at the best of times, but if the resident parent has been the victim of domestic abuse or financially coercive and controlling behaviour, it is wholly unacceptable to make them responsible for ensuring that the other parent of their children complies with their legal responsibilities.”
SNP MP Martyn Day responded with this:
“Several constituents who are the resident parent have not received any money for years, and a common theme or trend seems to be that the paying parent claims to have given up paid work or become self-employed in order to hide their income. That totally thwarts the whole purpose of the Child Maintenance Service.”
Quite. And DUP MP Jim Shannon said this:
“I have seen parents in my constituency who give their child £10.50 a week, yet they drive a brand-new BMW, have the newest of gear and have that kind of lifestyle.”
Yep, we’ve all seen this sort of thing.
Mr Grant suggests the following answer to the problem:
“Deliberately concealing income from people who you know want only to provide for your children should be a criminal offence. It is not a matter for the civil courts or for civil adjudication. If someone falsifies their tax returns, they go to jail, so if they falsify returns provided to assess their financial liability for their own kids, they should also go to jail.”
Hmm, not sure that criminalising parents is the way to go.
Clearly, many MPs have received complaints by parents caring for children about enforcement problems. This, from Labour MP Stephen Timms, is typical:
“I was looking through my records this afternoon, and I saw that I wrote to the Child Support Agency on behalf of one of my constituents on 30 September 1999. She finally received a first, partial payment on 1 August 2018. It took 19 years.”
To which Mr Grant replied by expressing the wish that he could wait 19 years before paying bills(!).
The Government’s response
OK, I could go on at length with the criticisms. But what did the Government have to say? Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Justin Tomlinson defended the Child Maintenance Service’s record with this:
“On direct payment, there are cases where we have advised what the financial contribution should be, and the parents set out to try and do that without using us. A number of people have highlighted how that can break down. The problem is then that the debts mount up, and the bigger the debts, the bigger the problem it is to get that fixed. So, we have rightly tried to be more proactive. Not only is there the annual review, but we now text the receiving parents proactively to ask whether there are any issues and if there are issues, we ask that they should contact us immediately so we can either escalate ultimately to enforcement or move them on to the click-and-pay service. In the last quarter of last year, 9,000 people moved from direct payments to collect and pay. We are nudging that proactive level of support as quickly as possible.
“The shadow Minister … talked of 33% not being collected on collect and pay. The 67% was the last published figure, in June 2019, which is up from 62% in the previous year, and the improvement has been long-standing. The amount unpaid in June 2019 was £18.5 million, down from £22 million. That is £18.5 million too much, but we are heading in the right direction, through a combination of better training of our frontline staff, so that they can explain the options and potential punishments to both the receiving parent and the paying parent; better enforcement … and the regulations that we passed to strengthen our ability to investigate and enforce.”
Mr Grant, however, had the last word, and it was not pretty:
“A couple of points: first, people do not need a clever accountant to hide their money; they only need an accountant who knows how to set up a private limited company, and it then takes years to find it. Secondly, we do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to find these scams; we only need a Facebook account, and then we can see the luxury yachts, the holidays, the umpteen fancy houses and so on. If somebody on benefits was boasting about their wealth to that extent, the DWP would have them very quickly. That is the speed at which we should be chasing down money from other people as well.”
I think most of us would agree, although whether anything will come of all of this, we will just have to wait and see.
You can read a transcript of the debate here.