Broad coalition of charities have hit out
Plans to make the UK government’s Child Maintenance Service (CMS) more supportive of domestic abuse victims will be undermined unless “indefensible” service charges are removed, according to campaigners.
This week, MPs will debate and vote on a bill which aims to make it easier for domestic abuse victims to access the collect and pay service which allows the CMS to automatically collect what children are owed without any contact between the two parents.
The CMS has been the subject of criticism over its handling of cases involving domestic abuse, with concerns raised by charities that the system allows too many abusive ex-partners to withhold, stop, and start payments as a form of exerting coercive control.
The Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Bill, introduced by backbench Conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart, plans to bring an end to this by making sure nobody with evidence of domestic abuse by their ex-partner is forced to use a ‘Direct Pay’ arrangement where non- resident parents are expected to make the payments voluntarily.
However, 12 Scottish charities, led by One Parent Families Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, have raised concerns that the bill’s aims won’t be achieved unless several other vital steps are taken to reform the system.
The organisations have urged MPs to press for action from the government to remove the charges associated with the service, as parents receiving maintenance through Collect and Pay are charged 4% on each payment, while paying parents face a 20% surcharge.
A second Bill is set to be introduced to set out what kind of evidence of abuse would be accepted. The charities say evidence would not be needed if charges were removed, and that it’s fundamental that any evidence requirements avoid subjecting survivors to unnecessary stress.
Chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland Satwat Rehman commented: “Many single mothers we support have been subjected to domestic abuse, and unfortunately all too many of those have told us that their experiences with the Child Maintenance Service have only added to their distress.
“This bill has creditable aims and could make a real difference in reducing the risk of economic abuse through the CMS. However, there is an urgent need for a fundamental shift in how the CMS approaches domestic abuse.
“One of the greatest barriers to the collect and pay service is the ongoing charges. It is quite simply indefensible for someone to be charged a fee by the government for help with accessing essential financial support for their child from their abusive ex-partner.
“At the same time, single mothers tell us they’ve avoided asking to be moved onto collect and pay because their ex would face a 20% charge and this would escalate hostility and put themselves and their child at greater risk.
“The DWP has always been open that the fees are intended to incentivise parents to come to an agreement themselves, which is entirely inappropriate when domestic abuse is involved – which is true of the majority of all cases the CMS handles.
“If the government is serious about making the CMS work better for those affected by domestic abuse, it has to remove these charges once and for all.”
MPs have also been told that the government should publish guidance and plans for extensive training in domestic abuse for CMS staff.
DWP statistics find that 3 in 5 parents applying to the CMS say they have experienced domestic abuse, and 93% of parents paying maintenance are men – which the charities say means a gendered understanding of the issues by the CMS is essential. In Scotland over four-in-five incidents (81%) of domestic abuse in 2021-22 had a female victim and a male suspected perpetrator.
An Independent Review on the CMS’s response to domestic abuse was published in January this year, which included a recommendation that the government support the changes proposed in the Bill which is expected to pass this week.
However, the Review recommended that the charges be kept in place and argued that the evidence requirement would be necessary to avoid one parent unfairly forcing the other to be subject to a charge.
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, said: “Women and children’s experiences of domestic abuse are inextricably linked to their experiences of poverty and to the caring work they do—unpaid.
“The Child Maintenance payment is not a benefit but a moral and legal obligation that domestic abusers—and many others—treat as optional payment to make if they feel like it, if mothers are cooperating with their control, if children are compliant with visit and contact arrangements.
“Abusers currently exploit the Child Maintenance system with impunity. This bill has the potential to address some of these issues – so important against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis which is disproportionately affecting women and children. However, as it stands the bill does not reflect the dynamics of coercive control. This failure will put women and children at risk of further harm from abusers.
“Collect and pay must automatically be offered to all survivors of domestic abuse, and fees should be removed. Requirements around providing evidence of abuse create a big barrier for survivors accessing financial support that they are entitled to, and so strong consideration must be given to what a proportionate, and gender-competent, evidence requirement looks like. And CMS staff must undergo specialist, gender-competent training on the dynamics of domestic abuse so that they are equipped to serve the people accessing their service.
“Without amendment, this bill, while noble in its aims, will enable perpetrators of domestic abuse to continue to exploit systems around Child Maintenance to the detriment of survivors. Women and children who have experienced abuse should not continue to pay the price for a social security system that is blind to the realities of their experiences. We urge MPs to consider this when the bill comes before Parliament in the coming days.”
Other organisations who signed up to a briefing paper sent to MPs include Aberlour, CELCIS Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Children 1st, Close the Gap, Engender, Fife Gingerbread, Poverty Alliance, Scottish Women’s Budget Group and Zero Tolerance.
MPs on the work and pensions committee are soon expected to publish their own report on child maintenance and how it impacts on child poverty, following an inquiry. The charities say that supporting women affected by domestic abuse and tackling child poverty should go hand in hand as linked aims of the CMS.
Ruth Boyle, Poverty Alliance’s policy and campaigns manager said: “We urgently need to create a child maintenance system that is based on compassion and justice. The current system is enabling, rather than challenging, economic abuse.
“The collect and pay system takes money away from children and hands it over to the state. That is completely unjust and weakens child maintenance as a protection against poverty. Single mothers and their children are already more likely to be experiencing poverty, and this system further threatens their financial security.
“We would rightly be outraged if the government started talking about charging someone for health treatment at the point of use - the child maintenance service should be no different. The government must take urgent action to remove these charges.”