Can Labour finally get the CSA to work?

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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)

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