Can Labour finally get the CSA to work?

Share
Related Topics
The Network Against the Child Support Agency has a website*. Point your browsers towards it and there you will find, flamboyantly exposed, just what the Government is up against in trying to break the fathers' conspiracy to defraud the CSA.

The website headline proudly says: "Colluding to Defraud the State". No holds barred, it tells fathers how to cheat. It suggests fathers write semi-literate letters: "people are more likely to succeed if they come over as not very bright". It explains how the threat of violence to their ex-partner is nearly always accepted as a reason for the CSA to withdraw. Showing CSA officials evidence of damage done to a house by an ex-partner (such as broken windows) will usually have "an instant effect".

They know the CSA's weak points. "The CSA does not have the ability to investigate the evidence you give them." They know officials work to targets based on cases cleared rather than success in delivering money to mothers. "Every case closed is another goal reached. Provided they feel the story they are hearing fits within their terms of reference (whether they believe it or not) they are likely to close the case and move on to the next."

Fathers are part of the new government's CSA legacy from the Tories. Currently, over a third of absent fathers fail to pay anything at all. Half of those assessed are in arrears and less than a third comply fully.

But will Labour do any better? On Friday, Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman announced her determination to break the fathers' resistance. First she set new CSA targets, with an extra 500,000 assessments to be completed by the end of the year.

"Completed assessments" may look good on paper but what matters is how much money is collected and transferred to lone mothers - not much so far. To remedy this she also announced a wide-ranging review.

The principle is crystal clear. Parents should be made to pay for their children. But that principle is undermined week after week by stories that beggar belief, leaving the CSA confronting human life at its most bizarre.

Take this terrible example only a couple of weeks ago. A 16-year-old schoolgirl ran off and set up home with her stepfather. Her poor mother was dunned by the CSA for maintenance of her daughter for pounds 177 a month. Outraged, she refuses to pay. But, according to CSA policy, she must. "The agency has no discretion in this area," said a CSA spokesman.

Fathers often complain that their wives left them, so why should they pay? But pay they must. Taking blame for breakdown in relationships into account would destroy the whole concept that parents are paying for life for children, come what may. Hard, but necessary. Winning public support for this principle has been difficult. Yet if individual discretion were allowed then we would return to the far worse court system where most fathers escaped paying anything like their due.

How about this recent story: "A father was convicted of manslaughter at the Old Bailey on the grounds of provocation, for killing his former wife's new husband. The jury heard John Reid stabbed the man, William Pigg, 10 times on his doorstep, screaming, `Die, you bastard, die.' " It happened on the day he opened his pay packet and found the CSA had taken pounds 206 from his pounds 560 pay. But it defies understanding how on earth that jury thought a CSA bill was sufficient "provocation" to stab a man 10 times.

Public opinion is rarely on the CSA's side. The tabloids hounded it from the start. The shock-horror stories of fathers committing suicide because of CSA demands usually turn out to be nothing so simple. Men with tales of astronomical CSA bills often turn out to be defaulters with vast arrears. But those stories stick. The "poor fathers" campaign has been one of the most brilliantly mendacious ever.

So what can Harriet Harman's review do to remedy the situation? First it will wring its hands at having to start from here. Tory Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley ignored all sound advice when he first set up the CSA. Eager to use it as a quick fix to plug his leaking social security budget, he very nearly killed off the golden goose at birth. Had he agreed not to reopen old cases and to start slowly with new divorces and separations, public opinion would have swung behind the CSA. But they overturned old court orders, disregarding capital settlements that fathers had given mothers. It was unfair and unworkable - and everyone warned him so at the time.

Trying to retrieve the situation, Lilley made things worse by appeasing fathers. He relaxed the tight formula for assessing incomes, creating new loopholes which fathers are eagerly exploiting - allowing them to deduct their housing costs (so they get themselves colossal mortgages) and allowing travel-to-work costs (in a Porsche). The review may well recommend removing these loopholes for new cases, returning to a simple formula based on income only. Currently a sum is included for "spousal maintenance" - ie for the ex-wife herself - on the grounds that the children need someone to look after them who herself needs looking after, but since this outrages fathers it could be converted to simple payments for each child.

Chasing the self-employed who hide their incomes in a hundred ways has become a nightmare. The Inland Revenue carries a much bigger stick when it comes to investigating false income declarations and should be made to help more - though rumours it will take over the CSA are wrong.

Most important, the agency should now take on all cases - women not on benefit as well as the poor - to show it exists to help all women and not just to save social security money. That would change its reputation overnight. Other changes: a one-stop-shop where the CSA assessment is processed on the same computer as benefits and women are given advice about jobs and childcare on the same day.

Women need to be shown that even getting a modest amount of maintenance can change their lives with costings to prove that it will be worth their while to work. Often mothers on benefit think maintenance is a waste of time as it is just deducted from their giro. There is much pressure for mothers to be offered a bribe to cooperate, allowing them to keep say pounds 10 of any maintenance collected.

Alan Marsh of the Policy Studies Institute shows that it is the least qualified single mothers who stand to gain most out of maintenance from fathers. If they can get even pounds 15, plus Family Credit, they are three times more likely to get a job and their average income goes up from pounds 95 to pounds 155. Marsh thinks letting mothers on benefits keep some maintenance would encourage cooperation, leading to floating battalions of them off income support and into jobs.

The name of the game for Labour is breaking the back of the fathers' disgraceful non-payment scam. But that may not happen until the CSA gains itself genuine popular support as the friend of all lone parents - and the resisting fathers come to be seen as frauds not laddish heroes. Harriet Harman faces an almost intractable problem.

* (http://www.btinternet.com/nacsa/ collude.htm)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Linux Systems Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of UK Magento hosting so...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Development Manager - North Kent - OTE £19K

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are working with this secondary s...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: We are working with a school that needs a t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Auschwitz death camp survivor Jadwiga Bogucka, 89, holds a picture of herself from 1944  

Holocaust Memorial Day: This isn't the time to mark just another historical event, but to remember humanity at its worst

Jennifer Lipman
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea