Absent-minded law forgets the hard facts

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THE latest bold cost-cutting measure from this nearly all-male government and all-but-two male Cabinet is the provision in the Child Support Act, coming into force in April, that tries to compel absentee fathers to pay maintenance to the mothers of their children. The Act is expected to save the Treasury pounds 600m within three years, and that, make no mistake, is the real motive behind it, rather than any kindly desire to make life easier for single mothers.

The Act, as far as children are concerned, will be counterproductive. Scarce government money will be wasted on tracing their non-paying fathers, when it would be much better given to the custodial parent (nine out of 10 of whom are mothers).

As the mother of three children whom I brought up and supported virtually single-handed, with extremely rare, negligible and reluctant contributions from their fathers, I shall attempt the difficult task of looking at this from the viewpoint of the absentee father. He will probably feel one of three things, none likely to draw money from his pockets. Either, how do I know it's mine? Or, why should I pay for a child I hardly ever see and from whom I feel increasingly remote? Finally, how do I know the money will go to the child? She'll just end up spending it on herself/her boyfriend.

If legislation tries to compel such a father to pay, it is likely to alienate him further from his child or children, perhaps for ever. It is a sad fact of life that once a man has left his family, almost anything will assume a higher priority than his continued support of them.

If he sets up a 'new' family, his second partner is likely to resent any payments made to the first and her offspring, above all is she herself is contributing towards them.

It takes an exceptionally generous woman to tolerate and welcome, let alone love, step-children; and an unusually mature and conscientious man to insist that, whatever the disprution, he must keep in contact with them. This means more than sending grudging cheques. It means having emotionally torn and often unhappy children to stay. The heavy boot of government compulsion crashing through this fragile web of divided loyalties can only make matters worse.

It is snobbish to assume that the middle classes are more responsible about maintenance. Middle-class fathers have all sorts of privileged ways of avoiding it. Sometimes the right school tie or a masonic handshake is enough. (There's nothing like a maintenance hearing before a male judge to make you realise quite what second-class citizens women are.)

If really determined, they might go and work abroad. Legal costs triple once the deserted mother has to pursue a man who has left the country. If all else fails, financially sophisticated middle-class men have ways to disguise the amount they earn or own, so as to minimise their liability.

One in three absent fathers pays maintenance, but the Child Support Act hopes to increase the proportion to one in two. If wishes were horses then beggars should ride. The Act tacitly acknowledges that men adrift on the leaky planks of casual work and temporary lodgings often evade all tracing systems, whether it is national insurance, council tax or an employer's payroll.

Recently, I struck up conversation with the young man who sweeps the streets around where I live. He looked about 18, peaky and undernourished, but as it turned out he was in his mid-twenties and had three children, whom he had left behind in Scotland when the rows about money (for he was then unemployed) became more than he could stand. He came down to London and found two jobs. He saved hard, travelling home once a month to see his family and bring them money.

On one such occasion he came back unexpectedly, to surprise them, and found his wife with a man. She pleaded innocence, and perhaps the relationship was innocent; but he didn't believe her. 'That's it,' he said bitterly. 'If she thinks I'm working to keep her and her fancy man . . .'

What about the children? I asked. 'I don't go home any more. I don't see the kids. They'll soon forget me. Why should I pay? Let him pay.'

Not for me to preach. Now, when I see him, I wave and ask if he's been home lately. He always says no.