‘Families are drowning’: urgent calls made for child maintenance payments to be enforced

The UK government must step in to prevent single parent families “drowning in poverty” because their child maintenance payments have stopped in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been claimed.

Single parents told The Ferret some had seen payments made by absent ex-partners through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) drastically cut or disappear overnight. Yet the CMS has written to inform claimants that due to “a reduced resource capacity” the UK government agency is “currently not taking any missed payment actions”.

Politicians and poverty charities such as Poverty Alliance said the “heart-breaking” stories from single families were evidence of “gaping flaws” in the CMS.

The government must urgently step in to fill the shortfall and stop families falling through the gaps, they added. One Parent Families Scotland said a “root and branch review” of the child maintenance payment system was needed.

One mother, whose weekly £80 weekly payment stopped almost two months ago, said she had been forced to rely on charities and food banks. The stress is having a crippling effect on her and her almost 14-year-old daughter, she claimed.

Though she has been told to keep records of non-payment so that arrears can be sought after the restrictions are lifted, she says that is cold comfort when she is unable to afford to feed her family.

‘There is no safety net’: Fife’s child poverty epidemic

She left her partner due to longstanding domestic abuse and says she has since been advised by relocate for her own safety, so The Ferret agreed not to name her.

“The impact of the drop in income is immense,” she said. “I am juggling bills, putting in so much extra into the electricity meter, and with schools being closed and the extra food I am buying I find the food budget doesn’t last the week.

“We received a £50 donation from One Parent Families Scotland to help top up the electricity meter but it’s humiliating having to struggle financially.” Food banks and a school-loaned laptop help fill some other gaps.

Meanwhile the family are struggling to survive in a privately rented flat without a garden, and need to top-up housing benefit to cover the rent.  “There are no social houses available in the area and we have previously been made homeless due to housing benefit cuts and increasing rent,” she added.

“I am terrified we will be in this position again. My daughter is struggling with mental health issues, she knows her father doesn’t think she is worth it. Her self-esteem is on the floor.

“We have had choices removed from us – where and what type of home to live in and how much income we are allowed to have – while ex who was abusive can have these choices.”

‘Fundamental flaws’

Campaigners have repeated raised what they claim are fundamental flaws in the CMS. Figures suggest that enforcing child maintenance payments correctly could lift one in five children out of poverty.

In December 2018 new rules were put in place, giving the CMS fresh powers to disqualify parents from holding or obtaining a UK passport if they do not keep up with payments. However last September  it was revealed that they had been used just seven times.

Including debt transferred from the Child Support Agency, arrears now total over £1 billion. About 90 per cent of single parents are women.

Kerrie Friel, an activist and vice-chair of child poverty charity Fife Gingerbread, said she was concerned that families would  “drown” in the midst of the additional challenges now facing them.

Her ex-partner withheld child maintenance payments from her for seven years, and claims the then Child Support Agency failed her and her children. She now receives £45 a week towards their upkeep.

She claims that fundamental changes are needed, with the compulsory £20 application fee phased out entirely – not only for women who can prove they have been subjected to domestic abuse. The burden on parents with caring responsibilities to prove their ex-partner can afford to pay should also be overhauled, she added.

Mentally, emotionally and financially, exhausted parents with care responsibilities are drowning. Kerrie Friel, child poverty campaigner

“The flawed CMS is helping to increase child poverty, not prevent it,” she added. “Mentally, emotionally and financially exhausted parents with care responsibilities are drowning in despair. They are drowning in poverty.

“The CMS should be a lifeboat – it’s the only one we have – but it’s full of holes. And before they even let you on that boat to have to pay a £20 sign-up fee. The only way they will wave that is if you’ve been a victim of domestic violence.

“Some of the women I’ve worked with have said that but have been told to prove it. Not only do they not have enough evidence, but having to try and prove it sends them spiralling back into trauma. It feels like they have you over a barrel.”

Marion Fellows, SNP MP for for Motherwell and Wishaw, last year lodged parliamentary questions which revealed arrears run up by absent parents who refuse to pay for their children increased from £240 million in September 2018 to £315 million in September 2019.

She told The Ferret: “The stories from parents with caring responsibilities have been heart breaking. Families are going months without support they have a legal right to and being forced to foodbanks and choose between heating and eating.

“Where a parent-with-care is not receiving payments or where calculations have been reduced, the UK Government must step in and provide minimum maintenance payments to provide stability and a dignified standard of living.

“CMS’s gaping flaws have been exposed for years. Now, the UK Government has allowed CMS to simply collapse, abandoning single parents and their children forcing them to fend for themselves.”

Increasing poverty

Peter Kelly, director of Poverty Alliance, added: “More than half of the single parents living in Scotland were already living in poverty before this crisis but now many are seeing the income they receive in child maintenance dramatically reduced or cut entirely.

“The CMS has granted many people big cuts in the amount they pay in child maintenance without doing anything to support the parent looking after the child. Some women have told us their payments have stopped entirely and the CMS has said they won’t chase any missing payments during the crisis.

“The UK Government should rectify this by chasing missing payments and providing interim support to stop families being pulled into poverty.”

We need a full root and branch review to ensure fairness for both parents because, ultimately, it is the children who are losing out. Satwat Rehman, One Parent Families Scotland

Satwat Rehman, chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland, claimed the CMS needed to be completely overhauled. She added: “The system for ensuring non-resident parents pay child maintenance is clearly not working. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this into sharp focus.

“We need a full root and branch review to ensure fairness for both parents because, ultimately, it is the children who are losing out.”

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions, said: “In these unprecedented times, we have seen a significant increase in the number of new claims to Universal Credit. We’ve streamlined our operations to ensure people get the support they need, and will restore services scaled back to prioritise these claims as soon as possible.

“We continue to support those on low incomes and have injected a further £6.5bn into the welfare system to help those in most need, as well as rolling out income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional security for renters.”

Despite claims that the CMS has failed to enforce payments, he added: “Those found to be abusing the system at this difficult time will find themselves subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers – including prosecution through the courts.”

Image thanks to iStock.

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