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 Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder