Last week, I loaned £50 to a distraught friend who had quite simply run out of money. It was a few days before pay day and she hadn’t received her child maintenance. This happens so frequently that by rights, she should probably have the Child Support Agency in her Friends and Family list of most frequently contacted numbers. A threatening letter or two and the father of her child pays up and pretends to co-operate for a few months before the games start again. It’s been going on for years and while she has learned never to consider the money as part of her regular income, some months her salary just doesn’t stretch far enough.
Then there are the fathers who live overseas and despite never being asked nor expected to pay a penny piece towards the raising of their children, don’t even bother to send Christmas or birthday cards and gifts, nor contact their children. Ever.
Though it’s a toss up as to whether such total absence is worse than the father who sends cursory cards containing an impersonal cheque twice a year, reminding his child that yes he does exist, he just doesn’t have time/inclination/enthusiasm to engage more frequently and effectively with her. Even though they live in the same town.
There is absolutely no doubt that children need fathers to play a positive and meaningful role in their lives. There is also no doubt that in many cases, when a relationship breaks down, both partners are capable of playing twisted games that often involve the children as weapons. Some partners with care – often, but not exclusively so, the woman – are the ones determined to destroy their children’s relationship with their father.
And very often, with partners poles apart, with their own version of events reshaped constantly to validate their behaviour, the truth lies somewhere inbetween. Both will have engaged in unedifying behaviour, both will have a right to feel poorly treated and both will at various points made at least superficial overtures to the other in a vague attempt to sort things. It is usually all about them and rarely ever about their children. A solution would not be nearly as hard to find nor a compromise reached, if only they would approach the long-running sores from the perspective of their children. If the starting point for more separating parents was their children’s needs and interests, then we might not have quite so many messes. And we might not need the Child Support Agency.
But until the absent parent – usually, but not exclusively so, the father – accepts that he has a lifelong financial responsibility towards his children, whether he lives with them or not, whether he even sees them, no matter how many life chances he thinks he is entitled to, then need it we do.
At least, that’s the conclusion of the great British public. Research published this week suggests that a majority of people think that the law should force absent parents to pay maintenance for their children and further, that the state should be involved in enforcing the payment of maintenance when voluntary arrangements cannot be reached.
Most also think that the law should set a minimum amount for such maintenance and indeed, that this amount should be considerably more than the pittance calculated through the Child Support Agency’s formula.
Remarkably, this hard line public attitude veers sharply from the approach taken by recent UK Governments. It was the Labour government which bowed to a ferocious lobby to reduce the formula used for calculating maintenance. Now, the most an absent parent can be expected to pay towards the upkeep of his or her children is a mere 20% of total disposable income. And in reaching disposable income, absent parents are allowed to discount their pension contributions and own housing costs. Even when they deliberately maximise their pension contributions and raise their housing costs to minimise what they might pay for their children, as many do.
And it is the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which has swept away the state’s role in all this. In possibly the least reported and documented part of the now notorious welfare reforms, the Child Support Agency as we know it is being abolished, with parents being expected to form voluntary maintenance arrangements. If such cannot be reached, then the parent with care will be expected to pay for an assessment and for collection, whether or not they actually receive any maintenance.
The outcome will be more (and when nine out of ten lone parents are women, more generally means more fathers) avoiding their moral obligation to pay towards the raising of their children. Over the lifetime of the CSA, some £3.8 billion of maintenance arrears are accrued – over £2 billion owed to parents. Expect that sum to rise and rise fast.
What it means for the children – over three million of them across the UK – is poverty. Ignore the stereotypes: there are as many lone parents over the age of 40 as there are under 25. And most lone parents in poverty are over 25, yet it is poverty which could be removed or at least, mitigated if fathers paid up. And for every feckless father like Frank Gallacher in Shameless, there are just as many with successful, well paid careers who could pay but don’t.
When it comes to parenting policy, this is the elephant in the room. Both UK and Scottish Governments acknowledge that fathers play a vital role in their children’s lives and that more should be done to enable them to do so. And for every bad apple, there is a barrelful of great dads: men who define themselves and their life achievements by their role in raising and nurturing their children.
Yes, we need more like them. And maybe one way of finding a solution would be to engage those fathers for whom the idea of not providing for their children financially and emotionally is anathema. What is it that drives them and how can we use that to instil a greater sense of responsibility in those who think it acceptable to walk away, whose right not to pay and not to engage causes huge harm to the physical and emotional well-being of their children?
The state might prefer for fathers to pay up willingly and voluntarily, but the public clearly recognises there is a problem with such wishful thinking. In the short term, at least, the public reckons enforced compliance is needed.
Worse, the state is not even prepared to acknowledge that this problem exists, far less speak about it. Until it does, we are nowhere near being able to resolve it, and in the meantime, it’s children who suffer.