CMS0009

The submitter of this evidence has requested that the committee consider treating this evidence as anonymous

 

Context and background

I feel compelled to write to you as a single mother who has been navigating the Child Support Agency and the new Child Maintenance service for 11 years. My statement is made both from a very personal perspective and from that of a professional who regularly works with Domestic Abuse victims who have had similar experiences. I am also an active member of the Abuse Victims website and forums where many similar stories are available.

I write primarily concerning the Agency's responses to self-employed individuals (mostly errant/reluctant Fathers) and from my experiences mentioned above. There seems to be numerous loopholes which appear to be applied for these individuals and they need to be addressed in order to bring equity to and for those salaried parents who are being assessed for collection of payments for child maintenance. There are huge inequalities to salaried parents when dealing with their collection processes, compared to those who are self-employed.

I have now been in this system 11 years, and I am currently owed approximately £20,000 in Child Maintenance payment arears. This would be a life-changing amount for my 11-year-old daughter, it would, potentially, represent almost all of her University Fees.  One important inequity/disparity to note in this scenario at this point is, if, as a mother/parent I did not feed or clothe my child, and I neglected her of love, actively hid money and assets in order to avoid these being part of my assessment for care provision, I would be charged with neglect and have my child removed.  So far, there are or have been no significant repercussions for the £20,000 I am currently owed by my child’s biological father and that he has neglectfully not paid towards his child’s ongoing support/care, which I would assume is every parents’ legal and moral duty!  He has, in fact been actively seeking to avoid payment throughout.  Therefore, based on my years of personal and professional experiences, I would like to make some recommendations for changes and consideration in the future for the CSA and other agencies involved in this scenario. 

At times it is difficult to remain optimistic for my child in a system that appears to be mostly broken/unfit for the purpose it was intended.  It is frustratingly like going round in circles, being pushed from one department/individual to another with no endpoint.  I hope that my child and all of those other children caught up within this system, will receive justice one day and that there will be more significant emphasis equity when assessing payments in the future. Things need to change very significantly in order to redress these imbalances going forward for these children.

Communications

  1. Careful consideration of the wording of letters and all written communications needs to be addressed and reviewed, particularly when dealing with cases of domestic violence/abuse.

Often, advisors have told me not to pursue the collection process as they have to send a letter to with wording that is known to trigger a perpetrator to act. This is not the answer for me or for those children left without the necessary financial support they need as this allows the perpetrator to have control and this perpetuates the abuse/control, and my child still does not receive what she is entitled to. For example, in my case, one letter sent out to my ex-partner, triggered nearly two or three years of "punishment" from him for daring to request a review of earnings. This punishment was in the form of a threat, by text on a mobile phone, stating that they would give up work and claim benefits in order to ensure that I could not claim any more child maintenance. This, just from a letter… Many women, currently living in a refuge are petrified of starting a child maintenance claim to contest earnings for this reason as well as for risking that the perpetrator may then be able to find out where they are.  They know that any request for a review of earnings will trigger a letter that begins, "Your ex-partner has requested that we review your earnings/circumstances."

When a letter such as this is sent it triggers further abuse and lets the perpetrator know that the resident/caring parent has requested this. While I am aware that it is the non-resident parents' right to be aware of the processes to which they are subject and that they should be allowed to respond. It is vitally important to be aware, and to use caution when there is known domestic violence/coercive control (financially) cases, generic wording could be used, such as "we have received information from HMRC to support/find/investigate additional/undeclared earnings."  The word change is small and still allows transparency to the non-resident parent who is subject to the process of assessment.  In fact, it may be a good general rule to simply word the letter “we are conducting a random review of our case load and we require further information regarding all of your earnings.  This is supported by HMRC information.”

  1. Consider having a specialist caseworker for domestic violence cases and self-employed non-resident parents claims, due to the complexities of these cases.

Where cases are complex, often generic advisers who may answer the phone do not understand or have the necessary training or experience with the intricate details of the system and these specific cases. Prior to Covid, each case had a named/specific caseworker that individuals could liaise with. When I called into CMS, I was able to speak to this specific, assigned case worker, who was fully aware of my circumstances. Since Covid it is only possible to call between 9-2 and you will not be put through to a specific caseworker. This leads to inconsistent information and confusion and means that sensitive information constantly has to be relayed over and over to new advisors.  It also runs the risk of this information falling into the wrong hands through miss understandings and miss communication etc.

  1. When a review of income is requested, or a review of the case by the independent tribunal, consideration should be given to a different way of sharing information in domestic violence cases and in fraud cases (where this “sharing” could prove contentious/difficult for the case).

Currently, all of the paperwork required for a review or tribunal has to be shared, in full, with non-resident parent. This poses significant risks, in domestic violence cases. In a fraud case, this means that the non-resident parent, who is suspected of “hiding assets” is able to see the evidence and methods of collection used by the Fraud team. These may have been collected from a fraud investigation and confidential details of the case are read by other parents. In cases of Domestic Violence/Abuse this means that a review or a tribunal is not always possible as the parent cannot take the risk of further abuse/violence. In fraud cases, this means that there is a significant risk that fraud techniques and data extraction are exposed and cannot be used in the future for your case, as the parent who is being investigated (perpetrator) will know to avoid them and they will not be available for future fraud cases. This is unacceptable and a better, more strategically thought out way of conducting the review/ tribunal process needs to be developed in order to safeguard the vulnerable in the investigation.

FRAUD INVESTIGATION UNIT

My experience of this unit has only been positive and has produced some fantastic findings. When a parent who is being dishonest regarding earnings and assets, this team work hard to uncover this and get the CMS a more accurate picture/figure of total assets and earnings.

The most significant service user type will be self-employed non-resident parents who consistently and regularly lie about their assets and earnings.  A salaried employee has no choice but to declare earnings and be truthful as there is significant evidence to prove this through the employer. In contrast, a self-employed parent cannot have earnings deducted from a salary and it is far harder to prove that their lifestyle does not match their declared earnings. I see and hear of hundreds of resident parents who are victims of this and struggle to get a true picture of earnings as part of the assessment. The only way is through this would is to bolster the powers of the fraud team and increase the staffing/resources in this department to enable them to uncover this significant fraud more often.

  1. More significant resources and staff for the unit to support its increased investigations/workload as they are overwhelmed and under-resourced,
  2. Specialist teams should work where self-employed earners are concerned, in order to become experts in all processes around this;
  3. Greater punishments and sanctions from the outcome of a fraud investigation need to be put into place to act more as a deterrent.

From my experience of my local Fraud team have done a great job in their investigations thus far but they need more support in prosecution and more severe punishments. When It is proven that a parent has deliberately hidden earnings/assets for the purpose Child Support assessment evasion, then this parent needs to be treated in the same as a parent would have been if they had been charged with abuse/neglect of their child. This is, effectively what they have done; they have deliberately hidden and not provided financial support for a vulnerable child. It is, effectively, a criminal act of fraud toward this child. This requires harsher punishment and sanctions, and the fraud team needs the resources and legislation to gain more significant sanctions and punishment for these acts. These actions represent a deliberate avoidance of responsibility/care to their child having the lifestyle and the support they are entitled to;

  1. Increase the remit for the number of tax years for the purpose of investigation.

Currently, Fraud teams can only investigate tax years that have already passed. If we know that the Fraud is likely to occur, from a history of the case and due to ongoing “evidential behaviour” by certain individuals (each Fraud officer knows these individuals from their case files), for the next tax year or the current tax year, why do we have to wait for the whole tax year to pass before an investigation starts? Why is it not possible to undertake a quarterly “review” (every 3 months) in known cases of previous fraud to ensure that things are on “the right track”.  For example, if we know a parent is in receipt of benefits and is also working and has been referred to the Fraud team to investigate, then the Fraud team need to have those powers in order to save the public purse!

  1. Repeat offenders, should be re-referred, or we should use the income found by Fraud for more extended periods if the job/earnings appear similar;

Once an investigation is complete and a new tax year starts, the proven fraudulent parent currently returns to a normal planned assessment of their earnings, i.e starting from “scratch” about their earnings, even if they have not changed their job or their behaviours and their circumstances are the same! For example, a fraud investigation may uncover that income is around 45k instead of the 10k being declared. The income found would mean that the current year's CMS is therefore changed to reflect the ACTUAL 45k of earnings found and not the declared, fraudulent earnings of 10K! Currently, when the tax year being investigated, is over, the non-resident parent can declare this, even though they have not changed their job, they can claim that they only earn 10k again and, they are believed again, under the current system, even though it has been proven to be fraudulent during the last tax year. In order to change the earnings for subsequent years, another referral is required to the Fraud Team and another investigation undertaken, before it is changed then, when the new tax year begins, the cycle begins again. This is not only very costly and but it is counter-productive as teams are tied up with repeat investigations on the same individuals.  If we know earnings are being dishonestly declared, then why can the case not stay with Fraud team in order that they may monitor and inform for future tax years for a given period of say 5 years following a known case of fraud against an individual? Is there an avenue for continuous monitoring for serial offenders?  This would be cost effective and would allow the “offender” to work towards a more honest declaration process of their earnings:

  1. More powers are required to uncover assets and hidden assets.

Currently, the fraud team only investigates income. However, many non-resident parents hide substantial assets and divert items into other people's names so that they can avoid being seized by Bailiff’s to be used for part of a calculation for CMS. For example, caravans, cars and motorbikes.

  1. More power to instigate multi-agency investigations and charges;

Where we know that an individual is in receipt of benefits as well as working, we can see that they are earning money, which is part of the CMS Fraud investigation. Joint multi-agency fraud investigations/teams and prosecutions should take place. Assurance and policies must support other agencies picking this up as a priority. Currently, Fraud teams do not have a say or cannot influence whether Universal Credit picks up on a Fraud situation. For example, where there is evidence uncovered of benefit fraud, even though they are aware of the multiple frauds, it is up to the each individual agency whether they choose to pursue a fraud charge. This needs to be serious reviewed and given an absolute priority. As part of the harsher punishment for these crimes, the CMS should also recommend and enact benefit fraud prosecution as a significant deterrent.

  1. More significant prosecution as a result of Fraud, if the parent is a repeat offender to fraud i.e. they have returned for a second/ third time, there should be the option of greater punishment, and prosecution should be sought.

Income calculations

The annual review process seems really inflexible, once a year, the earnings of self-employed people are reviewed and information is sought from self-employed parents and HMRC.

  1. However, if additional income is found, then there needs to be flexibility to review the earnings halfway through the year (biannually).
  2. Greater access to HMRC and compliance;

There should be far greater transparency from HMRC and CMS. They are the same public body yet request for information seems limited and extremely slow. Greater cross agency working/cooperation needs to allowed with more severe punishments for tax evasion with HMRC where fraud is found in CMS.   This is particularly relevant to repeat offenders as they build up a body of knowledge on “how to work the system and how it all works”.

There appears to be a reluctance, currently for CMS to go to HMRC and get tax records in order to thoroughly conduct an earnings breakdown. This is required and, needed for self-employed parents more than once a year and, needs to be in tune with the tax deadlines throughout the year so it is can be viewed and reviewed more regularly.

 

For example, Jan 2022 online submissions should be viewable instantly.  There should not be a long wait until the following annual review to view them.  A breakdown of taxes should be provided for self-employed, paying, non-resident parents who have been known to be dishonest, in greater detail. The scrutiny for these parents should be in far greater detail due to their known history.

Self Employed Grants

  1. Regulation and standardization of this income calculation need to be shared and repeated throughout CMS.

For the next two tax years thousands of parents who are supposed to receive payments from non resident parents will be affected by the above. There appears to be a reluctance for the above grants to be included in CMS income calculations and, in the policy for them to be used to pay and collect CMS. The government provided salary replacement schemes to replace salaries during covid for self-employed people to meet their bills and commitments. One of these bill commitments should/and is Child Maintenance Payments.  It was only after writing to the DWP Minister, and getting clarity on this issue was I able to use his letter to get this applied to my income calculation in regard to CMS. I have been told that these can be used in income calculations. I am still waiting for this to actually occur. This is my fourth attempt. It should not be this hard; they should be on the Tax Return; they are considered as income; the DWP uses the Grants as income for benefits, yet gaining the information and getting all of the applied is very difficult and time-consuming. To simplify this process, policy and legislation on income calculation need to incorporated within these grants. It’s essential as some individuals receive around 20k in grants, yet if they are not considered income and part of the income, the result is that receiving child is missing out on a substantial amount of child support!  Which cannot be right or fair!

  1. Checks for all grants when looking for income and government systems that log these and local systems to share with CMS.

Local government and National Government provided a series of grants to replace income during the Covid pandemic.   Receiving parents are constantly told we don't have access to this information we are reliant on parents telling us and if they don't we have no way of knowing. This is ridiculous CMS needs access to these systems as they need to check and cross reference that the current amount of local and national government grants received so they are included in income.  CMS is a government department I find it bizarre and prejudicial that these agencies cannot access shared systems.

Thousands of receiving parents have reported they do not know what grants the paying parent has received and that they’re having difficulty placing them within the income calculation. This is really easy to regulate and share information about to ensure government money paid to meet commitments is used in the way that it was intended and child maintenance is a key commitment to meet!

Inheritance

  1. where a substantial amount of child maintenance is owed and a paying parent is due to inherit from an Estate, Child Maintenance should be treated/consulted as a liability/priority before that beneficiary receives their inheritance.

This can be addressed with probate registry. It should be within the law that if an absent father were to inherit from an Estate, a significant sum or asset's then any debts/liabilities of beneficiary should be settled prior to the estate assets being paid to this individual.  The resident parent with caring responsibility should be able to declare an interest in the Estate where these “debts and liabilities” are in existence before the non-resident parent is allowed to inherit from that Estate.

The process needs to be established via probate registration and identifying indemnification of beneficiaries.  Perhaps a register is required for solicitors to check beneficiaries' liabilities/priorities prior to distributing an estate directly to them.

Greater Joint agency working and support

When there are multiple agencies involved in information sharing and sanctions.   There should be greater access to information sharing. Currently, the processes are slow and administratively top heavy. It is almost impossible to share information and, as a result get definitive action with cases.

  1. DVLA should work closer with child maintenance to share addresses, car assets and motorbikes etc held by individuals being investigated in the same way that Police can access this information;
  2. Universal Credit need to work closer with Child Maintenance and more smoothly, for example, there are multiple reports of income and return to work reported by CMS. They should not ignore CMS which should be a priority during investigations;
  3. Probate is mentioned above in order that it should work closer with Child Maintenance in terms of Beneficiaries Probate;
  4. Local Authorities who hold information such as Council Tax, licensing departments (Taxi and PSV etc) to more actively share information with each other, regarding the location of a paying parent who is under investigation for Fraud.   Very often Council Tax or the DVLA hold information as to the where abouts of an individual but they unable to share with Child Maintenance who need this information in order to locate individuals to activate payments.  This is ridiculous.  They are all Government Agencies and should share this information when there is a case being investigated for deliberate Child Maintenance Avoidance?

Points to note and summary

Many of the loopholes I have covered urgently need to be closed regarding a self-employed non-resident parent. Currently, there is a vast body of evidence exists to support huge changes in this area. I have offered personal and professional experience of all of this in order to put the case forward. Within domestic abuse forums the above loop holes are often discussed. Paying parents use this and become very adept at navigating all of the loopholes and are able to continue non-payment. In my case this has been going on now for 11 years without much recourse. Covid-19 has provided further cover for those hiding and taking further advantage of a busy, over worked system.

There needs to be a far greater drive to address these issues now. There needs to be far greater recourse to those abusers of the system. Serial offenders need to punished for the neglect of a child. If the resident parent was not to feed or clothe their child they would be prosecuted for neglect; why is ok for the non-resident parent to do this to a child with impunity? The treatment of neglect needs to be equitable for both parents but currently is not!

More significant investment and learning is required in the CMS service provision around the use of sensitive letters and practice in DV cases. Work around the around appeal victims for victims of domestic violence to participate needs to occur.

Evidence supplied for most of the processes means for that we arm a CMS avoider with the tools to understand how they are monitored and avoid it in future.

Processes and communications need to be put in place so the resident parent is being able to safely activate key processes to chase generate payment. This will be enhanced as suggested with skilled and specialist caseworkers in domestic  violence and self-employment.

March 2022

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