I tabled a Private Members' Bill in June this year, the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Private Members’ Bill, which was debated and secured cross party support and passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday 28th October. During the debate, the Minister confirmed that the Government intends to support the Bill.
This Private Members' Bill seeks to amend primary legislation to allow for a Child Maintenance Service (CMS) case to use Collect and Pay, if one parent (either receiving or paying) objects to using the ‘Direct Pay’ service on grounds of domestic abuse by the other parent.
Under current legislation, Direct Pay is the default option unless the paying parent agrees to Collect and Pay or is deemed ‘unlikely to pay’ by demonstrating an unwillingness to pay their liability. This applies to all cases and does not take into account any current or previous issues in the relationship between the two parents, including domestic abuse.
If passed, my Bill will improve the Government’s offer to victims of domestic abuse in how they receive child maintenance payments which often form a vital part of a recipient’s overall income and finances.
I also asked the DWP to review the current collection charges for the use of the collect and pay service for domestic abuse victims. These include 20% on top of the maintenance liability for the paying parent and 4% of the maintenance received for the receiving parent. In response, the DWP considers that whilst charges are the right approach for current users of this service, consideration will be given as to whether an exemption may be appropriate in domestic abuse cases.
Please find my speech below:
"I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
I am pleased that we have time today to debate this Bill. This is an important measure to help safeguard victims of domestic abuse who use the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).
MPs from across the House will have experienced casework where constituents (predominantly women) who are struggling financially find it very difficult to make their former partner pay for maintenance for their children and have to chase this through the CMS. We have all seen the impact on mainly women, and children, where abusers have made it difficult for their former partners, by using money as a means of controlling their former partner.
Whilst the majority of separated parents do all they can to make sure they financially support their children, we have all had casework around the non-payment of child maintenance and I praise, in particular, the work of the minister, Baroness Stedman Scott from the Other Place for her focus and hard work on this issue, as well as the CMS staff. Chasing non-payers even when victims sometimes just want to give up, lifts thousands of children out of poverty. Since 2019, over £1 billion of child maintenance support has been collected and arranged each year since through direct pay and collect and pay.
Until fairly recently, financial abuse has been under-recognised as a form of domestic abuse in which predominantly female victims are cut off from sources of money by their partner as a form of control, leaving victims feeling worthless and powerless.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I therefore cannot discuss this Bill – which is concerned with a niche aspect of domestic abuse – without mentioning the work of consecutive Conservative Governments on this serious issue. The most recent piece of legislation against domestic abuse is the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This is a landmark piece of legislation which significantly enhances protection for victims of domestic abuse.
The Domestic Abuse Act legislates for significant measures to address the challenge of domestic abuse, for example by Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPOs) to tackle controlling and coercive behaviour. The Act also bans abusers from cross-examining their victims in family courts, to stop victims being coerced or re-traumatised, and responds to worrying new trends such as ‘tech abuse’ – where abusers use smart gadgets to control their victim.
2.4 million people in England and Wales are estimated to have suffered some form of domestic abuse. In the UK, some reports estimate that one in eight adults – 5.9 million people – experience economic abuse in their lifetime from a partner or family member.
4.2 million of them are women and this financial abuse can leave women with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothing. Financial abuse also has an impact on children – who are real, all too often overlooked victims.
In my former role as a Magistrate, I have witnessed first hand how perpetrators of domestic abuse can sit in a court room, lie, make sounds or move in a certain way which, to the victim are terrifying. I have also witnessed those who try and use money or access to money as a means of control.
Before going into more detail about what the Bill aims to achieve, it may be helpful if I first explain about how the CMS operates for those members who might not be aware.
In an ideal world, the CMS would not be needed – it is certainly not a service many would want to use. It is a safety net to be used when parents who have separated cannot reach agreement on financial responsibilities, especially when one parent deliberately tries to evade paying their share. It goes without saying that even when a relationship between parents breaks down, their financial responsibilities to their children continues until their children at least reach adulthood.
It takes two to tango, Mr Speaker – responsibility must be shared.
The purpose of the CMS is to facilitate the payment of child maintenance between separated parents who are unable to reach their own agreement following separation – this is a challenging job done in very difficult circumstances.
Getting a maintenance arrangement in place for children improves their lives and improves their chances in life. Ensuring that parents take responsibility, including financial responsibility, for their children, means that they are giving their children the best start in life.
Many members will have experience with the CMS, some positive and some negative. But for those who remember the Child Support Agency (CSA), they will know that much work has been done over the past few years to improve the system, and I am sure that all members will acknowledge that the CMS performs well and much better than previous child maintenance systems.
Improvements include bolstering CMS powers to tackle parents who refuse to pay what they owe – better enforcement powers, and moving more of the service online. Passports can be removed if a paying parent will not pay up, for example and now, 8 out of 10 new claims are made online.
The CMS manages child maintenance cases through one of two service types: direct pay and collect and pay. For direct pay, CMS provides a calculation and a payment schedule, but payments are arranged privately between the two parents.
For collect and pay, CMS calculates how much maintenance should be paid, collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent.
Under current legislation, direct pay is the default option, unless the paying parent agrees to collect and pay, or demonstrates an unwillingness to pay their liability. This bill aims to extend this service to victims of domestic abuse regardless of the payment history.
I know the CMS already has safeguards in place for victims of domestic abuse. The CMS ensures, for example, that there is no unwanted contact between parents and provides information on how parents can set up a bank account with a centralised sort code so they cannot be traced.
I look forward to seeing the independent review of domestic abuse support in the CMS, which was completed earlier this year and I hope will be published as soon as possible.
I am sure we can all acknowledge that any situation where former partners have to co-operate is always going to be difficult for some people. This is particularly the case where there has been domestic abuse in the relationship.
These proposals are about giving victims of domestic abuse the choice to use collect and pay so they can decide what is best for their personal circumstances. It will mean they can avoid entirely any need to transact with the other parent where that is appropriate and to help them feel as safe as possible using the CMS, particularly if the relationship with their former partner was an abusive one. This will protect them from ongoing coercion and abuse around financial arrangements.
The Bill will amend primary legislation to allow victims of domestic abuse to use the collect and pay service without the consent of the other parent where there is evidence of domestic abuse against the requesting parent - this could be the paying or receiving parent – or even children in their household by the other parent involved in the case.
As my honourable friends may be aware, there are collection charges for the use of the collect and pay service: 20% on top of the maintenance liability for the paying parent and 4% of the maintenance received for the receiving parent.
I understand that whilst the Minister is clear that charges are the right approach for current users of this service, I am grateful to the minister for indicating that she is willing to consider whether an exemption may be appropriate in these cases.
I want to thank the Minister and the DWP officials for all their help with this Bill, as well as all the honourable Members in the Chamber for being here to debate it. I very much hope it will receive their support today."