From the TUC

Child Maintenance charges mean single mothers lose out (again)

07 Apr 2011, by in Society & Welfare

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.

8 Responses to Child Maintenance charges mean single mothers lose out (again)

  1. Nick Woodall
    Apr 7th 2011, 6:05 pm

    Dear Scarlett

    I should begin by correcting your note about the percentage of ‘parents with care’ who are mums. This 97% figure has been used recently to suggest that the proposed changes are, in fact, an attack on women. The 2001 census showed that 10% of what the government classes as being lone parent households were headed by fathers. We might also ask why it is that it is mostly mums who are given the title ‘parent with care’, what that title infers and how it is supported by public policy.

    I’m also surprised when you say ‘if one parent leaves and the other is left quite literally holding the baby…’. It would suggest that you believe that all family separation means a father abandoning his children and their mum and that someone becomes a ‘non resident parent’ because it was they who ended the relationship. Mums and dads are equally capable of ending relationships (although research suggests more women than men do) and mums most often become the ‘parent with care’ because a) the assume that role b) society assumes they should assume that role – whether they want it or not – and c) they have the Child Benefit book which is what entitles a parent to claim statutory child maintenance.

    It was actually the last Labour government that brought this proposal into law following a recommendation by Sir David Henshaw who recognised that private arrangements worked better, lasted longer and were more flexible around children’s needs.

    He argued that there needed to be a mechanism to reduce the numbers of parents who dropped into the statutory system by default and considered that charging was one way of bringing that about.

    Child maintenance is not, as it is so often portrayed, a poverty issue; it is essentially a parenting issue. It is about how both parents will continue to discharge their financial responsibilities to their children following divorce or separation. Some parents who separate may, in fact, be poor but the logic of arguing that child maintenance is a child poverty issue would be to suggest that children living in separated families where there is a nil assessment (i.e. where parents are on benefit) are not poor.

    A £25 assessment charge sounds very reasonable. There is a good argument that the £100 application fee should be on a sliding scale for poorer parents who are not on benefits. In terms of the collection fee, 16% of parents currently in the scheme would pay no more than 35p per week (less than the cost of three O2 SMS text messages) and 40% would pay no more than 70p per week.

    Child maintenance has been in a mess for years. The 2008 Act introduced by the Labour government was a huge step in the right direction. The current proposals, which include offering support and advice to parents around a whole range of issues to help them make family based arrangements, seems to me to be another step forward.

    The next step is legislation to introduce a statutory scheme that assesses the capacity of both parents to contribute to the maintenance of their children, not just one.

    Kind regards
    Nick Woodall.

  2. Scarlet Harris

    Scarlet Harris
    Apr 8th 2011, 11:01 am

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your comment.

    There is a distinction – which I think I made clear in my blog – between the 90% of lone parents who are women and the 97% of lone parents eligible for child maintenance who are women. So, quite simply, you’re right that a minority of lone parent households are headed by fathers (10%) and only 3% of all lone parents eligible for child maintenance are men.

    I hoped to make it clear in that paragraph that while recognising that there are also fathers eligible for child maintenance who will be affected by these proposals, the overwhelming majority (97%) of those likely to be out of pocket as a result of these changes are mothers.

    I’m unsure why you infer from ‘if one parent leaves and the other is left quite literally holding the baby…’ that I am saying “all family separation means a father abandoning his children and their mum and that someone becomes a ‘non resident parent’ because it was they who ended the relationship”. That’s quite a big leap! I make no judgment about why one parent might leave. “Leaving” does not mean “abandoning”. “Leaving” covers leaving amicably, leaving acrimoniously, leaving because one party has had an affair, leaving because of violence in the relationship, leaving because the “resident parent” has asked the “non-resident” parent to go… We all know that there are myriad reasons why people split up and ways in which they part company and I’m not sure how helpful it is for me to list them here. One way or another, we know that one parent remains with the children and the other does not. And the fact remains that the person who has to bear the costs of providing for the children will, under these proposals, now have to pay the government to help them to get financial assistance from the parent who is not providing for the children.

    With regard to the Henshaw review, I’m well aware of the provenance of these changes and the historical problems with the CSA. I don’t think I suggest in the blog that the CSA is fine as it is and needs no reform. I also explain, as you have pointed out too, that the impetus for these changes is to steer people away from the child support system and to encourage private agreements.

    I think we can probably both agree that for many people a private agreement would be far preferable to relying on the CSA or CMEC to enforce maintenance payments. After all, who would choose to use the CSA if they didn’t have to? Clearly in many cases a private agreement is simply not possible or even advisable. To give just one of many examples, for the 24% of parents with care using the CSA who split up from the other parent due to violence, a private agreement may well put the resident parent and/or children in danger.

    I’m afraid I have to take issue with your assertion that child maintenance is not a poverty issue. Over half of children in single parent families are poor, in comparison to 24 per cent of children from families headed by two parents. A move which essentially takes money away from the children of a single parent is not a positive step in addressing child poverty. Twenty five pounds may well be reasonable to you but for a single parent struggling to make ends meet it may well pose an insurmountable barrier to pursuing a maintenance claim.

    All the best

  3. Wayne Porter
    Apr 14th 2011, 10:36 am

    I have been hounded by the CSA for years. I made one mistake of going to university and not updating them and even though I was extempt from paying for that year they charged £5000 and more for being unemployed and not telling them. They ruined my life. The mother of my child uses them as default. She leaves Nottingham and provides no communication. I have done nothing wrong except tell her off for neglecting my child. Now I pay pay pay, don’t see don’t see, No respect no respect. Why should the world care for woman who do not believe in marriage. I think the system should only work on the behalf of married woman and low life woman who choose to have a child outside marriage with no financial planning need to sort it out themselves. Tough, too much slackness. Why should responsible people create laws for people who do not plan, do not use contraception and don’t care about the integrity or role of the father. Its the lack of respect for the child from the mother before conceiving. REEESSSSPEEEECCCCCCT YOURSELF AND YOUR POTENTIAL CHILD. STOP MAKING PLANS FOR VIRTUAL FATHERS. SELFISH.

  4. Caralyn
    Apr 15th 2011, 4:34 pm

    This is a great article, i found another article that is great also that explains why single mothers are all alone out there. There is definitly a difference in being a single mother co parenting with another parent and the single mother who has absoultly no help what so ever read on

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  6. Nick Woodall
    Apr 19th 2011, 1:30 pm

    Many thanks for taking the time to respond. Unfortunately, I need to be brief…

    First of all, the 97% figure is widely accepted as being unreliable as it was based on a very small sample size. Even the Equality Impact Assessment for the Clauses Relating to Child Maintenance in the Welfare Reform Bill states ‘there may be issues with small samples sizes for numbers of male parent with care respondents’. The Head of CMEC has widely claimed that 5% of so called PWCs in the statutory child support system are fathers. It seems to me that there is a legitimate question as to where the remaining 5% are and why the CSA frames it’s work around the model of mother as receiving parent, father as paying parent. Even accepted that substantially more mums than dads are providing the majority of day-to-day care for their children, I think it is unlikely that we would, in other areas of public policy, so easily write-off a minority group.

    I think that it is either extremely disingenuous or extremely naive to suggest that using the phrase ‘left holding the baby’ wasn’t (particularly in the context of an article which has at its heart the sentiment that women are the carers for children) intended to play on the caricature of abandoned mum and reckless, feckless father. All of the popular discourse around family separation follows the same model (witness a recent Daily Mirror article: ‘In a perfect world, couples could be persuaded to stay together and if ­fathers did leave their children they would pay for them’). Do some fathers leave their children? Of course they do. But the vast majority of separated fathers have not. They are either working a shared parenting pattern or have been ousted from their children’s lives. I would challenge you to ask any separated couples that you know, who chose to be the ‘parent with care’? It’s largely mums who decide what the arrangements will look like after separation.

    I would agree that some parents are unable to make private arrangements and that there needs to be a statutory system for such cases. You refer to the ‘24% of parents with care using the CSA who split up from the other parent due to violence’. Parents who are subject to relationship violence will not have to pay any charges. You go on to say that ‘a private agreement may well put the resident parent and/or children in danger’. Having worked in this field for many years, I must point out that so called ‘non resident’ parents are also frequently the victims of relationship violence. It’s probably worth pointing out that the latest government statistics (British Crime Survey) show that 11.2 % of men and 22.6% of women have been victims of partner abuse in their lifetime and that a recent report by the charity Parity suggested that ‘men made up about 40% of domestic violence victims each year between 2004-05 and 2008-09’.

    You do not show a causal link between the percentage of children living in ‘single parent families’ who are poor and family separation. The receipt of income into one family through child maintenance may increase the amount of financial resource in that household but that does not mean that non payment of child maintenance is a cause of poverty. Your comments are also premised on the idea that children from separated families only spend time in one household. This is true in a minority of cases but not in the vast majority. All of the financial support (maintenance, child benefit, child tax credits etc) is offered to one parent to the exclusion of the other. This often leads to poverty (and poverty of experience for children) when they are in the care of the paying parent. Parents can walk out of a court with a joint residence order, but that means nothing in terms of the way the state supports parents financially. In terms of a £25 charge, as the average statutory case yields maintenance of £16,000 (DWP), £25 does not seem excessive.

    Very best wishes

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  8. mark dewison
    May 17th 2011, 2:10 pm

    I’d like to say how wholeheartedly I agree with Nick Woodall. The model of resident parent/paying parent, in no way reflects the reality of how many children of separated parents are cared for.
    I have a Shared Residence Order under which I care for the children on a 35% basis, yet all State assistence goes to the mother, as does my statutary maintenence payment. The mother’s salary is twice that of mine. I’m single, she has a partner. (By the way, why does Scarlett Harris assume all separted mothers are single?).
    The net result of this is that the household which has a salary income far in excess of mine is receiving money from me on a statutary basis, while I receive no finanacial assistence at all. This can indeed lead to what Nick Woodall refers to as “poverty of experience for the children” when they reside with me, as I can nowhere near match the financial resources put into their enjoyment.
    Until we have a maintenance system whereby the finances of both parents are taken into account, and how much time the children spend with each parent, and until such time as state support reflects the reality of how the children are cared for, the statutary maintenance system will be funamentally unfiar and the source of conflict between separated parents. This is not in the childrens’ bests interests, and I endorse CMEC’s attempts to encourage parents to come to private arrangements.