Child Maintenance charges mean single mothers lose out (again)
It’s not the first time – and sadly it is unlikely to be the last – that contributors to this website have commented on government budgets, cuts, plans and initiatives which seem to mete out particularly harsh treatment to single parents. Richard Exell recently explained why the cap on benefits will hit single parents particularly hard.
Nicola Smith has explained how single mothers are caught between a rock and a hard place with increased childcare costs.
We also know from modelling by Howard Reed for the Women’s Budget Group that the 2010 CSR would leave lone mothers 18.5% worse off, making them the biggest losers of the government’s cuts.
Now the government is introducing charges to lone parents seeking maintenance payments from non-resident parents through the Child Support Agency (CSA).
Before I go on, I should point out that the title of this blog refers to single mothers and I have referred to mothers as the “resident parent” a few times. It’s worth explaining that, although the CSA charges will apply to single fathers too, the fact remains that 90% of single parents are women and 97% of single parents who are eligible for child maintenance are women. So, overwhelmingly, we are talking about single mothers.
If new government proposals come into force, the CSA will be closed and replaced with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) in 2012. Unlike the CSA, the CMEC will charge for its services. So, a single mother simply seeking help calculating what maintenance payments she is entitled to will have to pay £25 for the CMEC to make this calculation for her.
If she then needs the CMEC to enforce a maintenance payment, she will have to pay an application fee of £100, paid in advance (£50 if she’s on benefits, with £20 due in advance) and then between 7% and 12% of any child maintenance paid.
What is more, if a resident parent does successfully use the CMEC to seek child maintenance payments, and the non-resident parent then makes one or two payments and then stops again, the resident parent will find herself back at square one, paying the full fee again in order to get any further maintenance payments from the non-resident parent.
It seems that there are two glaring problems with the government’s latest wheeze. The first is the problem of affordability. A single mother who is not receiving any financial support from the father of her children, who may well be out of work and dependent on benefits, is unlikely to be able to afford the upfront charges. Fifty pounds may seem like a meagre sum to a government minister but it is a sufficiently large sum to put it out of the reach of many single parents living below the poverty line in this country.
The second problem is one of morality. Or maybe it’s a problem of logic. If one parent leaves and the other is left quite literally holding the baby and the non-resident parent refuses to offer financial support to help with put a roof over their heads, food on the table, electricity in the meter, school uniforms on the children’s backs, and shoes on their feet, what logic is there in levying charges from the resident parent to seek financial assistance from the non-resident parent? The resident parent is seeking financial assistance because – how can I put this simply? – they need financial assistance. Not because they have cash to burn and they want to fritter away their money pursuing the non-resident parent out of malice.
The intention is supposedly to steer single parents away from the costly and historically problematic CSA system and encourage private agreements, yet all of the pressure to settle for a private agreement is placed on the resident parent, and none on the non-resident parent.
In a letter to Theresa May published in the Guardian yesterday, several charities including Gingerbread, the Fawcett Society, the Women’s Budget Group, and End Violence Against Women, also raised concerns about the proposal’s vague reference to an exemption from the new fee scheme for victims of domestic violence. As the letter explains:
“[the proposals] make no mention of automatically allowing them to use the collection service to avoid direct contact with the perpetrator. This could mean that the perpetrator could insist on making direct payments, thus explsing the parent with care to a risk of further abuse … A quarter of parents with care using the Child Support Agency (24%) say their break up was due to the other parent being violent towards them and in 4% of cases they said the separation was due to the ex-partner being violent to a child or children.”
The government’s consultation closes today. Gingerbread, the support and campaign group for single parents, has a campaign page which lists various actions such as writing to your MP, emailing Maria Millar, the MP responsible for these proposals, and signing a petition. Find out more at the Gingerbread website.