Every government since 1993, when the Child Support Agency was founded, seems to think they can reform the CSA, and the coalition government is no exception.
Starting from 2013, the Conservatives/Liberal Democrats propose charging:
- £100 as an upfront fee (or £50 for parents on benefit) for those who want to use the future CSA. Only “Victims of domestic violence” will be exempt (although there is no detail on how this will be proved or checked).
- An on-going charge of between 7% and 12% on any maintenance paid to parents who rely on the future CSA to collect their child maintenance, as well as an extra 15-20% charge added to the non-resident parent’s payment.
How, exactly, is this going to help?
When the Child Support Agency was launched in 1993, it rapidly became the object of “more concentrated hatred than any other modern UK institution except the poll tax”. Partly that was because the formula established for the CSA by Act of Parliament for the first time set mandatory levels of child support payment equivalent to what a single mother got when she signed on the dole. Before the CSA, it had been the job of the judge in the divorce court to determine how much maintenance a divorced father should pay his children, and the judges – either out of ignorance for what children cost to bring up, or misplaced compassion for the poor man being divorced – generally set that rate far too low: maintenance of £10 or £20 a month per child. And low as it was, there was no mechanism for a mother to collect it except by taking her ex-husband to court.
I put it in gendered terms simply because that was my direct experience, both first-hand and through the media, of how it was: in general, custodial care of the children goes to the person who has been the one directly responsible for taking care of the children, and that was (and is) usually the children’s mother. I’ve worked in companies where most of the men were married with children and saw their children awake only at weekends. That may be an extreme example, but it wasn’t an uncommon one. Statistically, where a father wants to be the main custodial parent for his children and whether they live with him or with her is disputed, the father will win rather more than half the time: and he is usually in a financial position where he isn’t in need of the pre-1993 child support payments.
The CSA’s original inspiration was very Margaret Thatcher: get fathers to pay up. The first problem the CSA had was very Thatcherite (Guardian, 1999)
The first mistake was ambiguity about the agency’s fundamental purpose. Its original mission was social: to support children. Later, ignoring warnings, a Treasury hijack turned it into a revenue-raising operation (in the neediest cases, money collected goes to the Government, not to the parent). This alienated staff, removed any incentive for mothers to co-operate and rendered the original organisation and systems valueless.
THe formula used to calculate child support payments was massively over-complicated, the computer system was outdated and had been bought directly from the US, and the staff avoided talking directly to their clients as far as they could.
Nevertheless, a close relative who split up from her partner in 1995, told me her experience of the CSA had been positive. Her ex was being stubborn about paying child support for his son, though he had a flourishing career and could well afford to pay up. My relative was in the middle of her first year of a degree at her local university – dropping out to work full-time and manage childcare for her 3-year-old son just wouldn’t have made sense. So she told him flatly, pay up – or I will sign on the dole, the CSA will get involved, and they will not only investigate your finances down to the ground, they will make you pay.
He paid. I imagine that many other women in the same situation used the threat of CSA in the same kind of way, though this kind of personal use of CSA as threat would not have worked at all in a very large range of circumstances. In 1999, it was reported
Fathers who leave the family home are still ending up an average 15 per cent better off, while their former partners and children are 15 per cent worse off.
And that is the key problem, it always has been – children are expensive. The parent who leaves the family home may well contribute – sometimes even substantially – towards their children’s welfare, but the parent left behind is the one who has to pay the bulk of the costs, and is usually the one who was responsible for most of the childcare and who therefore earned less.
The CSA has therefore been hit with complaints from both sides through most of its two decades of life: from fathers who leave, who think that £38pw per child, or complex percentages of net income, (or £29pw per child, once the formula was changed again in yet another reform in 2006) is far too much to pay: and the mothers who stay, who are struggling financially and need help – and find the CSA unhelpful. Yes: gendered. Families Need Fathers may find this post and complain, but overwhelmingly (2007)
British women are working in lower paid and lower status jobs than their male counterparts because they still shoulder the responsibility for housework and childcare, a Cambridge University study reveals today.
A “lifestyle divide”, in which women take on the burden of domestic duties, creates a vicious circle as they are then less able to work the long hours needed to win top jobs. They then earn less and are reinforced as responsible for household tasks, says the Europe-wide research.
Everyone complains – from men who think £185 a month is too much to pay for a child’s support, to women who face losing their home because the CSA can’t or won’t help them get the money from their ex-partners. Nobody loves the CSA.
Yet the CSA in principle operates on a very simple idea: both parents owe their child support and maintenance, and if the parents separate, the parent no longer living with the child ought to be legally obliged to make sure the child is no worse off.
And last night the House of Lords stood up in their largest majority yet against the government, and voted against the charges. As Lord Mackay, Conservative peer, very sensibly said:
“And what does that do? If anything that might make her not go to the Child Support Agency at all and the child may lose their maintenance.”
It seems to have been a veritable cross-party love-fest (BBC):
Labour peer Lord Morris said he was “aghast” at the plan, asking: “What is the purpose of imposing on the most vulnerable people a charge of this kind?”
Tory peer Lord Newton of Braintree said he had “no problem with the case for reform”, but the proposals were “not just”.
Cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former family barrister and judge, said there were fathers “who would simply not pay”.
She told peers: “The idea that a mother in very poor circumstances, where the father has left her with young children, who finds herself having to seek social benefit from the state which she may not have sought before … she then has to pay a fee for the welfare of her children, where she may not have any money and he may have some, it is profoundly unfair.”
What now for the government? While Nick Clegg spends his time arguing for cuts in income tax, and Ed Miliband tells David Cameron he’s arrogant and the economy is shrinking (true), the House of Lords are voting down some of the savagest attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country.
What can the coalition government do? The House of Commons trumps the House of Lords. The Tories may still win – the most the Lords can impose is a delay and some public embarrassment. Will the LibDems, who have been propping up these Tory policies, ever be shamed into walking away?
I doubt it. The next general election in the UK is the end of Nick Clegg’s career in politics, and is likely to mean a wipe-out for the LibDems across England and Wales like the one they suffered in Scotland. Like backbench Tories in Major’s government, there may be small rebellions but they will not lose a vote of confidence: turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.