01 March 2021

Henry Tapper, chief executive officer of AgeWage, discusses the issues, and urges employers to consider their position

Issues of domestic abuse have been high on the government’s agenda through the lockdown. Eighty per cent of complaints about abuse come from women, and the prime minister has highlighted the need, during the pandemic, for extra support for those who are the victims, typically the carers and ultimately the children.

The matter was given scarce parliamentary debating time on 21 January in a debate that featured Guy Opperman, the minister for pensions and financial inclusion, speaking on behalf of baroness Steadman-Scott, who has Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). The minister admitted that during the pandemic, compliance with collect and pay was only 72% and acknowledged that in 2020 the CMS struggled to enforce court orders, not least as courts were closed.

Caroline Nokes MP, who had previously had responsibility for CMS, had previously told the House that there was a “special place in hell for parents who go out of their way to hide income to avoid making payments to put food on children’s tables”.

It appears that some parents have exploited the CMS’ incapacity to enforce orders as explained by Nadine Charlton as a comment on an article I wrote on this issue: “In some circumstances the paying (or non-paying) parent uses child access arrangements (which continue to be maintained in the child’s best interests) and separately family court proceedings to continue to control and abuse innocent parties. There is one victim in all of this – the child, who should be protected. Some people are familiar with how the system works and where it doesn’t join up, and therefore openly manipulate it.”

Caroline Nokes specifically referred to this practice where one of her constituents was told by her husband that unless she agreed to his estimate of his income, he would continue to seek variation orders and she would get nothing.

...reputational damage of being on the wrong side of such a prosecution... should cause employers to consider their position

Several other MPs who contributed to the debate brought instances of parents gaming the pandemic to avoid making payments and pointed to a fall in direct payments from employers where court orders were not being enforced.

In response, Guy Opperman for the DWP admitted that at the end of September 2020, 43,000 court orders for direct pay were in place but compliance with direct pay orders was barely exceeding 70% at a meagre £35,000,000. Opperman admitted that during the pandemic, sanctions against those deliberately not paying were limited.

But Opperman insisted that the CMS has now recovered and is reviewing all non-paying cases and is working to increase enforcement to pre-pandemic levels.

Parents have greater flexibility to contact the CMS using new digital facilities and the CMS will use the courts as they re-open.

Also commenting on the debate, industry luminary Kate Upcraft made her position on the employer responsibilities clear: “An employer who doesn’t operate a DEO (deduction from earnings order) for child maintenance risks prosecution – it’s a court order not a voluntary deduction like paying your gym membership! Employers can deduct £1 each pay period to cover costs (of course it doesn’t, but heigh ho) as long as that doesn’t breach NMW (national minimum wage). Any employer who colludes with a non-resident parent to deny funds to a parent with care deserves to be prosecuted in my view.”

The impact of the pandemic on domestic abuse has been well-publicised and recognised by government. What is less well-known, is that much of that abuse is financial. Women who care are often excluded from the workplace and are often dependent on their former partner’s employer to get their rightful pay. This is a time when employers may well be conflicted by loyalty to valued employers and a sense of responsibility for those most impacted by disputes – the children.

While the pandemic persists, it appears that gaming of the system continues. But the retrospective powers of the financial investigations unit of the CMS mean that employers that resist court orders run the risk of being seen to collude with non-paying parents in their employ. This runs the very real risk of prosecution.

This is a highly emotive issue and the reputational damage of being on the wrong side of such a prosecution should cause employers to consider their position very carefully.


Featured in the March 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.