OPFS reaction to Review of the CMS’s response to domestic abuse
Read our response to the DWP’s recent consultation into the commencement of curfew orders for non-payment of child maintenance.
Read our response to the work and pensions’ committee inquiry into the Child Maintenance Service and child poverty.
Dr Samantha Callan’s Independent Review of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) response to domestic abuse was published on 17th January 2022, and eight of its 10 recommendations were accepted by the UK Government.
This review was recommended by a Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) into the death of Emma Louise Day, who was murdered in May 2017 by a former partner following a dispute over a child maintenance claim. The murder took place nine days after Emma made a second application to the CMS. Six months earlier, Emma had withdrawn a claim, informing the CMS that her partner had threatened her life. It was found that the CMS had failed to escalate action considering its knowledge of this threat.
Well before this, calls to reform how the CMS handles cases involving domestic abuse were made by charities supporting single parents and women.
The problems with how the CMS deals with domestic abuse survivors are among the most frequently raised concerns by single mothers we support who have used the CMS.
This is highlighted by some of the comments made by parents who responded to our 2021 consultation on the CMS, and in this story in the words of Sarah, a single mum we supported through our helpline, who felt that she and her child were put at risk by CMS processes.
The £20 application fee for parents applying to receive child maintenance is waived for those who disclose that they have reported domestic abuse (no such waiver exists for the 4% charge to use the Collect-and-Pay service). Based on Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, which are now routinely gathered as part of this process, three in five new applicants disclose domestic abuse.
It is, therefore, welcome that the government is focusing its attention on taking important steps to improve how the CMS works with survivors of domestic abuse.
Detailed response to recommendations
There are some recommendations made by the review which we broadly welcome, others which we are concerned about:
- Prevent use of Direct Pay as a form of coercion and control by perpetrators by allowing domestic abuse survivors who request it to use Collect-and-Pay;
- Pilot the use of single named caseworkers within a dedicated team for complex domestic abuse cases;
- Remove the reporting requirement to qualify for the domestic abuse waiver for the £20 application fee;
- Cross-government coordination of early intervention to support the flow of child maintenance;
- Include a broader range of agencies in CMS training;
- Design of Implementation Plan with a specifically tasked civil service team.
Each of these, bar the call for a specifically tasked civil service team, was accepted by the government.
Recommendation to continue Collect-and-Pay charges
It is the DWP’s position that Collect-and-Pay fees should be charged to disincentive its use.
This is not a position we support and we would therefore be happy to see fees scrapped for paying parents as well as receiving parents. We have called for fees for receiving parents to be scrapped since they were introduced, and regard this as particularly unjust in cases where domestic abuse is involved.
The review defends the continuation of Collect-and-Pay charges for both parents by saying “it will also reflect the operational and logistical reality that introducing extra legislative protection for those who have been subject to abuse in Direct Pay will come with a cost to the taxpayer”.
We strongly disagree with the position that survivors of abuse should have to pay a fee due to the cost to taxpayers, and would argue that people pay taxes so that, in difficult circumstances such as these, they will be entitled to the support they and their family needs.
We welcome the review’s recommendation to remove the requirement to have reported domestic abuse to access the waiver of the £20 fee. The review states: “Fewer than one-fifth of those who have experienced domestic abuse do report it due to safety or other concerns (and there is no evidence that the requirement to report acts as a spur to people accessing services.)”
To mitigate this change, it suggests providing the legal warning regarding providing false information earlier, so that it comes before the question on domestic abuse.
We would see no issue with this and would suggest that these same arguments could be made regarding the 4% charge. The reason for the distinction made by the review between the two elements (the initial fee and the ongoing charge) is unclear.
Recommendation to require receiving parents to provide evidence of domestic abuse
The review recommends that this legislation “give the CMS the option to deny a Direct Pay arrangement, when requested to do so by the receiving parent, and where there is verifiable evidence of domestic abuse, not simply an allegation”.
We are concerned by the requirement for “verifiable evidence” in this context, for which the review recommends the same standards of evidence for access to legal aid where domestic abuse is involved.
The proposal being made is to allow a receiving parent to request a Collect-and-Pay arrangement on the basis of domestic abuse – which we would wholeheartedly support. This is not an allegation being made in a court and therefore it seems an unnecessary (and potentially off-putting) burden to place on the receiving parent to provide evidence of the abuse they’ve experienced.
This calls to mind the “rape clause” in the two-child limit which allows parents to claim for a third child if they can attain a third-party reference to confirm that the child was conceived as a result of rape.
The review says: “This would help avoid enabling the receiving parent to subject the paying parent to financial abuse by insisting on the chargeable Collect & Pay service when they are in fact willing to pay on time and in full.”
We find the implication that a receiving parent would allege domestic abuse purely for the purpose of subjecting their child’s other parent to a charge from the CMS, despite no personal gain to themselves and facing their own 4% charge, somewhat far-fetched. We would suggest that evidence be presented to support such a claim before it is acted upon by the government.
This position also appears contradictory when compared with the recommendation to scrap the stated requirement to have reported domestic abuse to access the waiver of the £20 fee – which the review acknowledges does not require applicants to evidence at present anyway.
Understanding of domestic abuse and gender
DWP statistics find that 93% of parents paying maintenance through the CMS are men, and Office of National Statistics data shows that 90% of single parents are women.
The review rightly notes that statistics reveal that women, and particularly young women, are at greatest risk of domestic abuse. Despite this, we are concerned that the reviews discussion of domestic abuse experienced in the context of the CMS does not reflect this gendered understanding.
The review states:
- “Evidence obtained during this Review showed further steps are needed to reduce the risk of paying as well as receiving parents being subject to abuse through its operations. This applies equally to both men and women.”
- “It is important to recognize that domestic abuse through coercion and control can be perpetrated by either or both customers in the case”.
- “Abuse can be mutual or bi-directional … I was therefore concerned that only specialist women’s organisations appear to have been involved in the design of domestic abuse training.
While we welcome the recommendation of training for CMS staff which considers all experiences of domestic abuse, including those across the protected characteristics, we are concerned that there is an over-emphasis in the review on the underrepresentation of men.
Considering the serious concerns raised by receiving parents (the vast majority of whom are women) affected by domestic abuse and organisations supporting them, there is clearly a long way to go for the CMS in understanding domestic abuse experienced by women, and indeed the gendered nature of abuse.
Our concern would be that this reality is obscured by the review’s repeated framing of the situation as one in which “men’s needs and experiences were often discounted”.
False allegations and child contact
We welcome that the review calls for more legislative safeguards to prevent Direct Pay being deliberately abused by perpetrators.
This is followed by a statement that: “This should be undertaken in a way that doesn’t facilitate false allegations of abuse or incentivize coercive abuse on the part of receiving parents by, for example, denying a paying parent’s legitimate access to their children.”
We are concerned that this overstates the likelihood of false allegations in domestic abuse cases. Making a false allegation of a criminal offence is already a crime and there is no evidence to suggest that there is a greater risk of women (who make up most receiving parents) making false allegations of domestic abuse than any other offence.
In fact, as the review states, domestic abuse is known to be an underreported offence. Hence, the repetition of the particular risk of false allegations is somewhat of a myth.
We are also of the view that access to children should be a separate issue to child maintenance and should be based on the best interests of the child.
The review states: “The Government should look closely at the extent to which domestic abuse legislation provides adequate legal protection for paying parents against a receiving parent unilaterally imposing non-contact/limiting contact with children as a lever to get maintenance increased.”
While this refers to the context of child maintenance arrangements, it speaks to a wider argument about child contact. We would dispute the implication that the existing legal framework needs to be reformed to make it more difficult to deny or limit child contact.
The UK Government’s response to the review was published on the same day as the review. The Government accepts eight of the ten recommendations.
We are pleased that this includes the recommendation to enable domestic abuse survivors to request the Collect-and-Pay service.
We note that the government states that it will have to undertake further work to determine whether the recommended approach of using the same standards of evidence of domestic abuse as would be accepted for legal aid in family disputes.
We hope that this work gives due consideration to the unnecessary barrier this might pose to a survivor who would not claim child maintenance for their child without Collect-and-Pay.
We are disappointed that the government’s response to the recommendation on strengthening training in domestic abuse for CMS staff is vague, but specifies that it will include those with expertise in “bi-directional abuse”.
The two recommendations which are not accepted by the government are:
- Update child maintenance calculations to include the income of receiving parents.
The government explains: “The Government believes that the income of a receiving parent – with whom the child(ren) primarily lives – should not remove the responsibility of a paying parent to support their child. In most cases the receiving parent will be supporting child(ren) through the provision of a home as well as all related expenses.”
- Design of Implementation Plan with a specifically tasked civil service team.
Instead, the government says: “The monitoring of progress and implementation of the recommendations will form part of ‘business as usual’ policy work undertaken by the Department for Work & Pensions.”
We support this response from the government.
Several key commitments have been made by the UK Government in response to the Independent Review into the CMS’s response to domestic abuse.
In particular, providing a single case worker for survivors of complex domestic abuse cases will make a significant difference to those who are eligible – this is something we have recommended in response to feedback from parents we support. We look forward to further detail on how such cases will be defined and identified.
Supporting survivors of domestic abuse to access Collect-and-Pay could also make a world of difference in protecting the safety and wellbeing of parents and children.
However, we have concerns that the implementation of the recommendations could be undermined by some of the detail within them, and by a lack of understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control.
In summary, our concerns are:
- The defence of Collect-and-Pay charges (including for survivors of domestic abuse);
- The requirement of evidence of domestic abuse for those disclosing to access Collect-and-Pay;
- An over-emphasis on the idea that men have been overlooked, that the problems for domestic abuse survivors accessing CMS apply equally to men and women, and on and on “bi-directional abuse”
- An over-emphasis on the risk of false allegations of domestic abuse by receiving parents and linking this and the CMS to the suggestion that child contact is being unfairly withheld and that the legal system needs to change to make that harder.