Saturday, April 20

Fathers are condemning their children to poverty. Why do ministers let them get away with it? | Polly Toynbee

Min allow men to behave badly to women. That pervasive misogynist bias is often obscured by the optics of more women in boardrooms, in politics, and as public experts. But follow the money: it always tells you where power lies.

From its misbegotten conception in 1993, I have followed the fate of the notorious Child Support Agency, now rebranded but worsened as the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

Pretending to leverage maintenance for children from absent fathers to give to mothers, it fails again and again. There is a deep political, cultural and legal bias that lets fathers get away with it. It’s the same women-are-to-blame instinct that tilts the benefit system against single mothers. Half of single parents and their children are consigned to life below the poverty line, a penury that 60% of them would escape if fathers paid the maintenance due. Figures from single parents’ charity Gingerbread show that 90% of single parents are women.

From the National Audit Office today comes yet another report on the CMS’s abysmal performance. The audit office gets more complaints on this “than any other single issue”. Hardly surprising, when only a third of mothers receive full maintenance and 44% have no maintenance arrangements in place.

Vast arrears from absent parents grow. The audit office notes, with some dryness, that the Department for Work and Pensions “has reduced the legacy of debt relating to old Child Support Agency arrangements by £2.6bn”. Good news? Hardy. It was done “largely by writing it off”, and “unless it writes off more debt” arrears are now “forecast to reach £1bn by 2031”. Departments don’t usually predict future failure with such sanguinity.

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Large numbers of fathers have always sat on their hands. Through lack of will or instinctive empathy, the state fails to pursue them, though if they refused to pay tax, fixed-penalty notices or court ends, the police or bailiffs would surely come to the door. Debts to their children evade that strong arm of the law: call it unconscious bias if you like. Whatever you call it, we know that men command the culture that permits this behaviour.

There is a continuum on which one finds financial control and coercion and then violence and even murder. A report out today from the End Violence Against Women coalition shows more women were killed by men last year, with 141 known cases.

Strong male emotions about money – who has it, who controls it and who spends it – spill over from bad marriages into a weapon in bad divorces, with results of varying ferocity. Aggressive demonstrations by Fathers4Justice targeting the private homes of female politicians highlight the visceral outrage some men feel about being obliged to pay. The last time I wrote about this, someone posted my private address as that of the CMS, and occasionally I still get letters meant for the service, which I pass on. Luckily, I’ve had no visitors.

But it should also be said that many fathers also have good reason to object to their treatment by the CMS, enduring the same incompetence and maladministration that drives mothers to despair. The NAO says many mothers, tired by incompetence and attrition, give up and walk away in frustration with no maintenance arrangement.

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To sign up for the collect and pay system, where the CMS promises to collect the money itself and pass it on, mothers have to pay fees amounting to 4% of any maintenance they get, and fathers pay 20% – money that could go to their children. But, despite this incentivized “reform”, the number of children with no maintenance arrangement has risen from a quarter in 2011 to 44% now.

The CMS has strong powers to deduct earnings at source from parents’ pay packets. It can confiscate driving licenses and passports – but so what? Last year it just removed three passports and one driving license.

Some fathers are adept at reducing their apparent income, and their liability, by becoming “self-employed”. Look at this unlikely figure: 46% of paying parents using the CMS declare their earnings below the £12,570 tax threshold. Do so many really earn so little? The DWP tells the NAO that it has not estimated how many parents “misstate their income or circumstances”. Compare that with the DWP’s draconian pursuit of anyone slightly misstating their income for benefits. There, we see prosecutions at the drop of a hat and money clawed back, even it’s the DWP at fault.

gingerbread is inundated with CMS complaints from mothers such Mia (not her name), who I interviewed this week. She has three children under five, and when her partner de ella left she tried to get the CMS to collect maintenance. That took 10 months, and then he only paid for three months. At one point the CMS sent the money to the wrong mother and then refused to pay it back, offering instead just £50 compensation. Her former partner of her knows all the tricks: he has changed his name, has several bank accounts and is now more than £7,000 in arrears. He declares just £12,000 in earnings, even though Mia knows he has a managerial job.

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“He’s a master manipulator,” she says. As for the CMS, she says it is part of the problem. She calls, hangs on for an hour and a half, starts to explain her case all over again, and very often the line goes dead. “It has me sobbing in sheer frustration. I just need someone to help,” she said.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, notes acerbically: “Government has succeeded in its goal of reducing both its involvement in child maintenance and the cost to the taxpayer”, but that means “many separated parents are still left without maintenance payments.”

The CMS costs the taxpayer 40% off than it did in 2011. Here’s how it did that. It made mothers need help give up.

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