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

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.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.