OPFS responds to UK Parliament debate on Child Maintenance Service
A debate on reforming the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) took place in Westminster Hall on Thursday (19 May), led by SNP MP Marion Fellows.
Academic research: maintenance payments and child poverty.
Data from the DWP on the CMS and applicants in September 2021
Problems with the CMS have consistently been raised with One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) through its five local services and national helpline, and through a recent consultation conducted on the issue.
The debate heard from cross-party MPs, who highlighted systemic flaws in the service: Independent MP Margaret Ferrier, SNP MP Chris Stephens, DUP MP Jim Shannon, and Labour MP Alison McGovern.
Introducing the debate, Motherwell and Wishaw MP Marion Fellows said:
“I’ve been campaigning on this issue for 7 years; indeed, in a debate on 2019 in July I asked for sweeping reforms of this service and this is a cry I repeat today.
“There are millions of relationships that have fallen part but at no point, I believe, should a relationship breakdown mean that parents do not have a responsibility for their children. However, it is a fact of life that some parents just walk away and try to shrug off their responsibilities.
“At this point the responsibility, I believe, should fall on all of us to support these children and to make their lives better. Yet in these rich nations children fall into poverty and the DWP fails them with a system that doesn’t help them, one which writes off huge debts to them and one which doesn’t adequality enforce payments.”
Fellows said that her party was 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”.
Several MPs raised the issue of financial abuse during the debate, noting that withholding or limiting child maintenance can be used as a means of continuing coercive control after a relationship ends.
Both Fellows and Alison McGovern MP stated a need for a more “trauma-informed” service to be provided by the CMS and the DWP more generally. Margaret Ferrier MP noted that, while there is an exemption to the 4% deduction to use Collect-and-Pay for domestic abuse survivors, “this exemption requires disclosure, which can be incredibly difficult for victims”.
OPFS published a report on single parents’ experiences of the CMS in April, which found that 8 in 10 were dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied with the speed and quality of the service.
Responding to the debate, One Parent Families Scotland Director of Policy, Communications and Strategy Marion Davis said:
“We are grateful to Marion Fellows MP for raising once again in parliament the fundamental problems with the Child Maintenance Service.
“It’s heartening to see the cross-party recognition that the system needs to be improved to ensure that children’s right financial support from both parents is met.
“We know that the UK Government is aware of these issues, because they were reflected in a National Audit Office report in March, and because they’ve been raised many times by organisations representing single parents.
“In light of the unprecedented cost-of-living rise, which is pushing already struggling single parent families to the brink, it’s more urgent than ever that the government listens and acts on the evidence to prevent children being plunged deeper into poverty.
“We’ve called for an improved and more sensitive service for parents, particularly domestic abuse survivors, stronger enforcement, and an abolition of the £20 starting fee and 4% deduction for receiving parents on Collect-and-Pay.
“The minister commented today that these charges are intended to act as an ‘incentive’ for parents to use direct pay instead. Given that Collect-and-Pay exists to support children in situations where the relationship breakdown is such that payments cannot be made directly between parents, the notion of ‘incentivising’ parents out of using the service only underscores the government’s failure to understand the issues involved.”
On Tuesday evening, an adjournment debate on child maintenance arrears took place in the House of Commons led by Conservative MP Dr Kieran Mullan. Mullan proposed the introduction of home curfew orders, which would require parents who failed to pay child maintenance to stay at home after a certain time of day.
Minister for work and pensions Guy Opperman said that the government believed home curfew orders were the “right way forward” and would consult on the proposal this summer.
Commenting on this suggestion, Marion Davis of OPFS said:
“While we and many single parents believe greater enforcement is needed, consideration must also be given to the impact on women and children in second families.
“We hope the government will meaningfully consult with and listen to the views of organisations working with women and children before moving forward with any new powers, to ensure the practical implications and any unintended consequences are taken into consideration.
“Ultimately, this issue is about supporting the wellbeing of children, and that should be at the heart of any actions taken to reform the system.”