A third of lone parents have received no child maintenance payments at all from their ex-partners during the coronavirus lockdown, a survey has revealed.
The research by the charity Gingerbread, in association with Mumsnet, found that three quarters of single parents had to cut back on food spending during the pandemic because their payments had been reduced.
The study of 1,357 parents, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, also shows that only 16% received the full amount of maintenance they were due each month - and on average are owed more than £9,000 in back payments.
And some 86% said that the failures of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) - run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) - had effectively allowed their ex-partner to “financially control or abuse them”.
68% say the amounts of maintenance they receive via the CMS are unpredictable and irregular, with many lone parents relying on charities or foodbanks to survive.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds described the findings as “unacceptable”.
“We should not be in situation where single parents are forced to cut back on food, clothes and activities for their kids,” he said.
“At the start of this crisis the government didn’t know how many child support arrangements had been varied and these findings clearly show the situation has not improved. The government must urgently get a grip and ensure parents who owe child maintenance pay their fair share.”
The findings will fuel calls for the government to step in to provide emergency support for lone parents who are suffering shortfalls in income because absent partners have not kept up their payments.
Many lone parents feel they have been forgotten by the government during the crisis, despite billions being spent on furlough job support or other schemes. Cash has been radically cut or disappeared completely almost overnight after lockdown, some parents say.
The CMS, which replaced the Child Support Agency under the Cameron government after a string of failures, has itself has also been heavily criticised for its own performance.
Arrears run up by absent fathers – and women make up 90% of lone parents – have grown from £240m in September 2018 to £315m in September 2019. Including debt transferred from the Child Support Agency, arrears now total over £1bn.
When Labour asked parliamentary questions in April on how many child support payments had stopped, ministers said that the information was not readily available.
Gingerbread and Mumsnet are working with the Good Law Project on a #FixtheCMS campaign, and are supporting four women who are taking legal action against the DWP.
They have issued a Letter Before Claim to notify the department of their intention to seek Judicial Review, due to the failure by the CMS to collect child maintenance payments from their children’s non-resident parent, leaving them and their children in financial difficulty.
On some estimates, one in five children could be lifted out of poverty if the CMS ensured that payments were regularly received by ex-partners.
The new survey found that 96% of parents said non-payment of child maintenance should be taken more seriously by the government, and 94% believed it would be taken more seriously if the money was owed to the government itself rather than to children. Nine in 10 (89%) think it’s too easy for parents to evade paying child maintenance.
Some 93% of those surveyed believe that parents who regularly avoid paying child maintenance should face more serious penalties, such as confiscation of passports and driving licences, or lump sum deductions (a single payment directly from the non-resident parent’s bank account, ordered by the CMS).
84% say they will likely never receive what they are owed in arrears. Just 11% of these parents described their experience of using the CMS as ‘positive’; 73% described it as ‘negative’, and 72% say using the Child Maintenance Service has made their mental health and wellbeing worse.
Among those who have used the CMS and don’t regularly receive full child maintenance payments, the median amount they are owed is £4,000.
The mean average (including some who say they are owed five- or six-figure sums) is £9,355. Some 79% of this group say the CMS has refused to take any meaningful enforcement action.
For these parents, missing payments have had a significant impact on their children’s lives and wellbeing:
- 88% say their child has had fewer holidays
- 85% say they have had to spend less on Christmas and birthday presents for their child
- 83% say they have had to spend less on clothes for their child
- 80% say their child has missed out on sports or music lessons, or other hobbies and activities
- 74% say they have to spend less on food
The CMS has a range of enforcement powers, designed to get money flowing quickly to ensure children get the financial support they deserve. But lone parents say they are rarely used.
Among the powers are deploying bailiffs to seize goods, forcing the sale of property and directly deducting payments from bank accounts, as well as confiscation of passports and driving licences.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The Child Maintenance Service is a strong advocate for the rights that single parents have to fair childcare costs from an absent parent. This survey only reflects 0.25% of the 515,600 customer CMS arrangements currently in place.
“Official figures show that nearly eight out of ten CMS customers stated that they are happy with the service they receive. In cases where the CMS directly manage payments 70% of money due to be paid in the quarter ending March 2020 was collected, amounting to more than £45 million.
“We are clear that it is never acceptable for parents to evade their responsibilities to their children and the CMS will continue to clamp down on people who think they can abuse or dodge the system, including prosecution through the courts.”
‘These people aren’t parents – they are thieves’
Natalie Gosling, from Yorkshire, is among the four women who are taking the CMS to court. She has used the service for her two sons since 2015.
When Natalie first used the CMS her children received regular payments but these stopped in 2017. She was forced to move onto the Collect and Pay service.
She started off getting small amounts, which eventually went up to the full amount for a few months, with CMS collecting payment from his employer.
In November 2019 payments to her children stopped and they have received nothing since.
Natalie’s ex owes around £8,000 in arrears.
“Despite odd periods of payments, there have been literally years when my sons have received nothing off their father. Not a single penny. He drives around in a Jaguar while they only have clothes on their backs because of hand me downs from friends,” she says.
“The stress caused by non-payment of maintenance is beyond description. The constant worrying about paying bills and putting food on the table cannot be understood unless you’ve lived through it. It is constant.
“My children go without every single day because their father absolutely refuses to put his hand in his pocket and the Child Maintenance Service, despite having a huge raft of powers at its disposal, does nothing meaningful to force him to cough up. Child poverty is intrinsically and irrefutably linked to underachievement in school, reduced employment opportunities later in life and, most crucially, to poor physical and mental health.
Billions of pounds are owed to those children that could lift them out of poverty and give them a decent chance in life. It seems clear to me from my experience that the CMS has no intention of bothering to collect it.
“I strongly believe that society should start seeing these non-payers for what they are – child abusers. It is not a label I give lightly or to detract from our conventional understanding of victims of physical and sexual abuse, but it is a label they absolutely deserve for the physical and mental cruelty they are knowingly inflicting. Depriving children of basic essentials by refusing to pay maintenance ruins lives. It is abuse.
“These people aren’t parents – they are thieves, stealing their children’s present and their future. Child poverty caused by non-payment of child maintenance is a huge hidden scandal affecting hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society. Parents have a moral and a legal duty to their children to provide the basics – like food, clothing and a roof over their heads – but far too many are failing utterly in this responsibility and the organisation tasked with bringing them to account is allowing them to walk away from this fundamental obligation scot-free.
“Children in every village, town and city in this country are suffering day in, day out because of parents who will not pay maintenance and an organisation that should be preventing this is instead failing to act. Billions of pounds are owed to those children that could lift them out of poverty and give them a decent chance in life. It seems clear to me from my experience that the CMS has no intention of bothering to collect it.
“I want this nightmare to end. I want my children’s suffering to end. I don’t want any child in this country to go without ever again simply because a parent won’t pay and is allowed to get away with it.
“Birthday money sent to my boys by relatives is saved up and spent on necessities like school shoes instead of them being able to have a little treat of their choosing. I go without so my children don’t. I never go out; I never spend money on myself and that’s fine. I’d rather use the little we have so they can go on things like school trips. I don’t want my boys to be stigmatised.
“The normal things other families do like days out are beyond rare for us as I simply cannot afford them and have to prioritise things like keeping a roof over our heads and paying bills.
“I don’t want to spoil my children with lavish gifts or constant treats and trips but denying them the odd, normal niceties of life is extremely hard when you know that if the Child Maintenance Service got its act together, stopped letting waste of space parents get away with it, we could be living without this daily nightmare.
“To be told on the phone by a CMS staff member that ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t get a payment this month because we’ll add it to your arrears’ is one of the worst things I ever heard during the years I’ve dealt with the CMS. Not only did they not care what no payment would mean to our finances and the catastrophic consequences it could cause but the CMS has also failed to collect the thousands of pounds he owes his children.
“Dealing with the CMS is utterly depressing. Online messages go unanswered. Phone calls take at least 40 minutes to be picked up. A lottery then ensues as to what happens depending on whether you get through to someone who can be bothered to help. In the past I sometimes got letters. Now months pass without hearing anything. I have absolutely no idea if anyone at the CMS is even looking into my case. There is zero communication from them the majority of the time and anything I’ve learnt has primarily been off the back of me chasing them for updates.
“Promises to look into things rarely materialise and the only time I’ve ever seen anything like activity on my case was for a very brief period years ago after writing to my MP.
“Some CMS staff sound genuinely sympathetic but they also come across as being as despondent about the situation as I feel. Knowing, as I do, that nothing will happen. No money will be forthcoming. No arrears will be collected.
“The entire process revolves around the rights of the paying parent. Giving them the opportunity to act responsibly. Giving them a chance. It’s an endless waiting game with only one obvious outcome when you are dealing with people who have made it abundantly clear already that they are not going to do the decent thing. Once the CMS is involved the situation is almost certainly clear. They don’t actually want to pay and will do anything to avoid it.
“This isn’t about paying parents who find themselves unable to make a payment once because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s about the thousands and thousands of paying parents who will not contribute to their children’s upbringing and who are being allowed to continue to get away with it. Action against these individuals should be swift and moved quickly up the scale of the many penalties the CMS has at its disposal until the non-paying parents realise, they will not be allowed to continue breaking the law and letting their children down.
“The disgust I feel for my ex failing our children is equal only to the disgust I feel for the organisation which exists solely and only to protect them but is letting them down just as badly.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.