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Child maintenance changes: is it right to give abusive fathers another weapon against their partners?

Single parents – 95 per cent of whom are women – who have failed to reach an “amicable” agreement with their estranged partners over child maintenance stand to lose financially under new government policy.

Financial abuse is now a well-recognised feature of domestic violence. Photo: Getty
Financial abuse is now a well-recognised feature of domestic violence. Photo: Getty

Another day, another hare-brained government scheme to cut spending at the expense of the most vulnerable. In the dock for unreasonably wallowing in the deficit today: women (again). Women have already born the brunt of the government’s spending cuts, but apparently, the government still feels that we just aren’t pulling our weight in our brave new “all in this together” world. So here we are for another round of pin the cut on the voiceless and/or powerless.

The particular women being targeted in this latest policy change are single parents who have failed to reach an “amicable” agreement with their estranged partners over child maintenance. Some 95 per cent of such single parents are women. These naughty bickering couples will no longer be humoured by our long-suffering state, which has grown weary of playing the part of referee in such childish disputes. Instead, any parent who has proved incapable of forcing her ex to contribute to the upbringing of his own child (95 per cent of non-resident parents are men) must contact the Child Maintenance Service (which last year replaced the Child Support Agency) and ask them to sort it out.

For the sum of £20, the Child Maintenance Service will calculate the amount owed and tell the unruly father to pay direct to the mother. If he misses a payment by over 72 hours, and the mother complains, they can move the couple onto what is called the “collection service”. This removes the responsibility of paying from the father and is taken directly from his wages or bank account by the state. The father will pay 20 per cent in addition to the amount he owes for this service – and the mother (or, ultimately, her children) will forfeit four per cent of what she is due.

Louise Whitfield, of law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, has her doubts about the legality of these gender-insensitive changes. This morning she told me she was “astonished that the government thinks it’s appropriate to penalise those owed money – the vast majority of whom are women – by making them pay to secure that money for their children. This is discriminatory to say the least”. She expressed a keen interest in knowing “how the government has met its statutory duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination against women and to advance equality of opportunity for them when it decided to go down this road”.

Of course, as usual, the government has tried to spin this change as being in the interests of both parents and children – or so claimed Steve Webb on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.  Look, he said, in his most reasonable voice, “the goal here is to get more child maintenance for more children and to make the default for parents, even though they are separated, to sort things out for themselves, rather than using a sort of state bureaucracy”. We all hate bureaucracy, so maybe Mr Webb is on to something here. Plus, he exclaims, he will be the “happiest minister in government”, if this change doesn’t raise “a penny in charges”. So that’s nice.

The problem is, this will raise money in charges – and Webb knows it. Less than two-fifths of single parents receive maintenance from their child’s other parent, and Caroline Davey, of single parent charity Gingerbread, told me this morning that the DWP’s own research shows that parents are already only approaching the government as a last resort (and no wonder, given what Webb himself acknowledges is a disastrous reputation). One third of new applicants only turned to the CSA because private arrangements had failed; two thirds were not in a position to come to an amicable agreement, with 30 per cent having no contact whatsoever with their ex-partner. And of course, 45 per cent had experienced violence or abuse from the non-resident partner. These are not parents who are being a bit lazy and intractable and need a bit of a push. These are vulnerable people who have run out of choices – and who will now be re-victimised by the government.

The government claims that victims of domestic violence will not be charged the £20 fee for their services – but women who call up the Child Maintenance Agency will not be asked whether or not they are victims of domestic violence, they will be expected to volunteer the information, unprompted, to a stranger in a call centre – and the claim of domestic violence will only be accepted if the victimised woman has already reported the abuse to one of a list of recognised agencies. There is no indication that the government intends to provide their call centre workers with comprehensive, or even basic, domestic violence training to enable them to deal with the 45 per cent of applicants who will be in this situation.

But the £20 fee isn’t even the worst bit. That accolade is reserved for what happens next. All parents, including victims of domestic violence, will initially be put into the direct payment system. The government has assured Gingerbread that there will be a provision for payments to be received into non-geographic bank accounts, so that the single parent cannot be tracked through her sort code by an abusive ex partner – but there are no firm details on how this will work, how easy it will be to set up, or when it will be functional. Even if we accept this, as yet, murky solution at face value, financial abuse is now a well-recognised feature of domestic violence, and this system is ripe for abuse.

An abusive partner can pay slightly under what he owes, or just a little bit late – “not enough to trigger a pull into the collection method, but enough to mess with your head”, Caroline Davey tells me. And although a payment that is 72 hours late can be cause for the couple to be moved onto the collection system, the process is not automatic: it is up to the receiving parent to complain. This leaves the mother open to pressure from both her ex, and the CMS, not to move to the collection method, and to simply put up with late and inadequate payments. If she manages to insist on going onto the collection system, she will be penalised for her partner’s non-payment. As if financial abuse were six of one and half a dozen of the other, rather than a common feature of abusive relationships.

This policy only makes sense in a feminist utopia where women do not make up 89 per cent of those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence, where two women a week are not being killed by their partner or ex-partner, and where 45 per cent of those approaching the government for help securing child maintenance are not victims of domestic violence. We do not live in that utopia. Instead, we live under a government that is not only happy to put a price on justice, but that has consistently proven how little it cares about the most vulnerable in society. How little it cares about women like a commenter on Mumsnet who today declared herself “sick with fear”, about what would happen if her “absent, abusive” ex-partner were asked to pay more. “We will be at risk again”, she concluded, before revealing that she would be writing to the CSA to ask if she could absorb the full cost of remaining on the collection system. It was, she said, preferable to lose this money than to put herself or her children in danger by antagonising her violent partner.

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