Kieran Mullan – 2022 Speech on Child Maintenance Arrears

The speech made by Kieran Mullan, the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to talk about this incredibly important issue. While the topic is very broad, my speech is very focused.

I am seeking to encourage the Government to move forward rapidly and robustly with proposals for home detention for people who do not pay child maintenance—something I have concentrated on campaigning for in my short time in the House. When discussing this issue, we are talking about the most important building block in our society: the need for parents take responsibility for their own children. The overwhelming majority of parents do exactly that. Whether together or separated, they take care of their financial responsibilities. My parents are divorced, and that had no bearing whatsoever on both of them continuing to look after me and my siblings. But sadly, not every parent does.

As a Conservative, I am of course wary of the state’s unnecessary involvement in family life. It is disheartening that the Government have to be involved in this issue at all, and whatever failings I might go on to talk about, the people who most deserve our frustration, unlike campaigners who put all their effort and energy into blaming the Government for everything, are the people not living up to their responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, that sort of campaign does not get brand endorsements and social media favour.

One thing we all agree on in this place is that part of the role of the state is to penalise the worst kinds of behaviour when that behaviour is beyond the pale. We do that most commonly in criminal law, but we also have civil law. In both, we right wrongs and punish people who behave in a way that the rest of society has decided we will not accept. Let me be clear: people who do not contribute to the upkeep of their own children when they could are the lowest of the low, but there is absolutely no system of punishment for that. Do we really think that, as unacceptable as it is, graffitiing a wall or vandalising a park bench is a graver offence than having children and refusing to contribute to their upkeep? I think the latter is one of the most deplorable things someone can do, but absolutely nothing is done to punish people for it—nothing. We fine people who do not send their children to school. We punish that, but not failing to support them.

In a completely perverse contrast, if someone has the much more onerous responsibility of having primary custody of their children and they neglect them, they are punished. What kind of contrast is that? What kind of message does that send?

For all the tough talk about sanctions, which I expect the Minister will cover, all they are aimed at is recovering moneys owed to children. How is that narrow approach working? Certainly there has been some improvement, as described by a recent National Audit Office report. The Department collected a record £54 million in the quarter ending September 2021. The percentage of paying parents contributing more than 90% of ongoing maintenance due in a quarter increased from under one third in March 2016 to around half in September 2021.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. Child maintenance arrears are a massive issue in my constituency, as they are in his. Does he not agree that with the cost of living crisis, single-parent families are under more pressure? There are 20,000 children in Northern Ireland alone whose cases are with the Child Maintenance Service’s advisers, and they deserve an up-to-date, functional service to ensure that payments are adequate, correct and timely.

Dr Mullan

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. My focus today is on the need to change regulations, but I accept the wider concern about the functioning and efficiency of the agency. I will go on to talk about his point about the cost of living crisis. Figures suggest that 16% of children who are not in receipt of maintenance payments would be lifted out of poverty if they were, and that shows the level of concern we are trying to address.

We have seen some improvements. The NAO found that the internal processes for moving towards enforcing compliance were better, but the bigger picture is not positive. Of separated families who have a Government-mediated arrangement in place, the NAO found that only one in three see it paid in full, so two in three are not getting the payments in full to which they are entitled. Sometimes, the sums people are expected to pay are incredibly small. At the end of September 2021, total cumulative arrears under the current child maintenance scheme were £436 million. That amount is increasing at roughly £1 million a week, and the total will hit £1 billion by 2031. That is a huge amount of money that is not being paid by non-residential parents, and we have a responsibility to hold to account and punish individuals who behave in this deplorable manner.

Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the children who suffer most? The way that the Child Maintenance Service is writing off arrears means that these children will be permanently disadvantaged, with no more holidays and no more of the things that most children would take for granted.

Dr Mullan

The hon. Member pre-empts the exact point I was going to go on to make, which is that between December 2018 and March 2021, the predecessor agency wrote off about £2.6 billion of owed maintenance. That is the Government stepping in and legally excusing a parent of their responsibilities to their child. Whether or not it is realistic to recover it, morally I am not sure the Government should be doing that in a child and parent relationship. That is not a success in my book.

As of September 2021, 38,000 paying parents with an ongoing arrangement had not paid any maintenance for more than three months, and 22,000 had not paid for more than six months. That is tens of thousands of individuals happy to let other people pick up their most fundamental responsibility of providing for their child. All too often, it is strangers picking up the pieces through the tax system. In theory, the Department has some tough powers, including imprisonment, but the figures I have quoted clearly show that they are not working. Imprisoning someone, although perhaps morally warranted, stops them being able to earn and is not a practical solution to use at the scale needed to tackle the tens of thousands of non-payers. Those delinquent individuals have learned that if they just start paying a bit again, the whole system resets.

The Department’s civil enforcements are restricted to the collection of arrears at the time when a liability order is granted and cannot be used to enforce ongoing maintenance, which is another reason why an element of punishment would serve a wider purpose. It is not surprising that the evidence shows that overall, maintenance arrears continue to build up, even when the Department begins enforcement action. The NAO found that on average, parents had arrears of £2,200 before the enforcement action began and £2,600 afterwards. As if it were not bad enough that taxpayers have to top up the income of less well-off families when one parent is not contributing, we have to put time, money and effort into chasing up payments with no consequences for those who are not paying.

Taking stronger steps is broadly supported. According to a survey by Mumsnet and Gingerbread, 93% of parents believe that those who regularly avoid paying child maintenance should face more serious penalties. Not only would punishment be morally warranted, but I expect that it would have a powerful effect on compliance and put people off not paying in the first place. As I said, tougher restrictions to ensure that people are paying their child maintenance could lift 60% of children not in receipt of payments out of poverty. With the cost of living crisis, there is no better time to tackle the issue.

A change needs to be made to the system to ensure that the continuous rise in non-payments is tackled, and that is where home curfew can play a role. When the Government originally introduced enforcement measures, they crafted the legal framework to introduce home curfew measures but the powers were never enacted. I am not clear why, but I have campaigned for some time for those powers to be put to use, so I was delighted that, earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced plans to do exactly that. I hope that today’s debate helps to encourage the Government to make progress towards that commitment.

I would welcome the opportunity for my constituents to contribute to a consultation; perhaps the Minister could meet me and some of them as plans are developed. It will be no surprise to him that I think it is important that we use this power not just as a mechanism to encourage payments but to punish. If we could meet ahead of the consultation so that we can ensure that that is part of the proposals, it would be appreciated.

Home curfew could remain in place for the designated period regardless of whether a parent started to pay—for example, for three months. I imagine that spending three months at home every night, pondering their responsibilities, would be a powerful reality check. People need to understand that we as a society do not find non-payment acceptable and that they will be punished for not paying for the upkeep of their children.

On a related note, not earning any money should be accepted as an excuse for not paying maintenance only when there has been a genuine attempt to find work, which should be determined in the same way that the Department assesses that as part of the wider work of the welfare state. If someone has responsibility for children, they should be out there doing everything they can to find a job. If they are not doing that, they should not be out socialising of an evening.

Importantly, unlike imprisonment, home curfew can be used in a way that does not prevent a person from looking for a job and earning, as it can be tailored to their circumstances. It would typically be an evening and overnight curfew to allow people to find and take work during the day, but it could be switched around for people who find night work.

I sound a note of caution. As constituency MPs, we have all had cases of people for whom the administration of maintenance by CMS has gone wrong. Of course, if we are seeking powers to restrict someone’s liberty, we need to ensure that the cases are watertight, but we know that tens of thousands of people are not paying and would be fair targets of this policy.

I understand that home detention equipment is available, so we can make the change work. I would welcome people who are not paying having to explain why they have an ankle tag and cannot go to the pub in the evening. I have no doubt that many would say that they are guilty of a minor crime before admitting that they do not pay for their own kids, which tells us all we need to know about how badly we have got it wrong.

I acknowledge that there are many loving parents who would and do contribute to the care of their children but who are prevented from seeing them by the parent who has primary custody. When I first raised the issue of home detention for non-payers, many such parents contacted me and were clearly distressed. I make it clear that I am in no way minimising that and I fully support every parent in exercising their clear legal right to secure access to their children. Of course, it is abhorrent for any parent not to act in good faith when it comes to access, but two wrongs do not make a right and, as with every MP, I have to choose what I campaign on.

I am clear that every child deserves parents who step up and look after them and that no taxpayer should be left filling the void when they do not. On behalf of a society that I believe wants to see tougher action, the Government need to proceed at speed to secure it.