More fathers jailed over child support

Prison terms increasingly given for maintenance debts, but critics say policy is counterproductive

Growing numbers of fathers are being sent to prison for missed child maintenance payments, prompting complaints that the sentences are disproportionate and undermine any chance of dads supporting their children.

At least 50 parents are expected to serve sentences for non-payment of monies owed to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (parent body to the Child Support Agency) in the last financial year, double the number three years ago.

The majority of cases involve fathers missing payments to support a child from a previous relationship. The number of parents getting suspended sentences – and therefore criminal records – each year has also risen.

Between April 2007 and March 2008, 25 people were sent to prison for missed payments and 480 were given suspended sentences. Figures for the first half of 2010/11 show that 35 parents were imprisoned and 635 had suspended sentences: the final tally is expected to be at least 50 and 900 respectively.

Legal experts say typical sentences for debts are 48 days and the full term is served. In effect, this makes them equivalent to terms given for serious crimes, including assault and theft.

Craig Pickering, of Families Need Fathers, said: "How can a father or mother care and provide for their children if they are stuck in prison? It is imperative that child maintenance is seen in the context of looking after the child's best interests in every way. A parent is more than a walking wallet."

The Child Support Agency (CSA) became notorious for its disorganisation. Since its launch in April 1993 it has fallen some £3.8bn short of its target for monies due from absent parents. Critics say that instead of prioritising the worst offenders they are simply picking off soft targets.

In one case, the CSA has applied to imprison a father whose missing payment is just over £700, despite the fact that there are many owing tens of thousands of pounds who have received no sanction at all.

Stephen Lawson, a solicitor specialising in child maintenance at Forshaws Davies Ridgway, said: "There are huge concerns about whether it's ever right to imprison anyone for a debt; debtors' prisons went out in the 1800s. But it's also hard to understand what the CSA's policy is on debt; they seem to pick on people in an arbitrary manner."

Michael, a father of three from Cheshire who did not want to give his surname, was sent to prison for six weeks last summer after missing back payments of child support for his oldest son, Ben, who is now 22.

"I got a knock on my door last year and was bundled into a police van and taken to court. They had been writing to me at the wrong address and I never knew. I was never given the chance to arrange a way of paying.

"I was put in a category B prison with violent offenders. I still have nightmares about it. The irony is, when I got locked up I couldn't afford to pay for my two younger children, who I've always sent money for with an arrangement outside the CSA. My kids were upset they weren't able to see me all summer. I lost my job and have only just got work again, for a third of the salary. How will I pay now?"

A CSA spokeswoman said: "It is highly unusual for anyone to be sent to prison for the non-payment of child maintenance. Magistrates must be satisfied that a parent has wilfully refused or culpably neglected to meet their financial responsibilities."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power