Can't pay, or won't pay?: Fathers are protesting too loudly at their Child Support Agency bills, says Mary Campbell

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TOMORROW the unhappy saga of the Child Support Agency returns to the Commons when MPs debate the revisions to CSA rules that were announced on 22 December. These changes leave more money in the pockets of absent parents. But the Government may still have a rough ride. Absent parents think the changes do not go far enough. There is some pressure for the outright abolition of the CSA. The Law Society wants most child maintenance business given back to the courts (and to lawyers).

The CSA has done some silly things and the rules it has been given are still slightly imperfect. But the danger now is that pressure may make the Government solve its teething problems by removing its teeth altogether. Before tomorrow's debate, MPs should look carefully at the absent fathers' campaign and the arguments behind it.

There are three underlying arguments against the CSA. First, that too much of the money it collects goes to the Treasury instead of to the parent with the children; second, that it is unfair on second families; third, that using a formula to decide the amount of maintenance is wrong since family circumstances vary so much. All three arguments are unsustainable.

Saving money for 'the Treasury' is an important part of the CSA's purpose, and rightly so. Absent parents (and many lone parents) seem to assume that the billions of pounds paid out by the Government each year for family breakdown come from an Aladdin's cave called 'the state'. They don't. They come from other taxpayers. Many people have to pay tax as soon as their incomes reach pounds 66.25 per week. There is no reason why relatively well-off absent parents should have two or more families at the expense of extra tax paid by pensioners, childless couples and single people, not to mention parents who work hard to keep their relationships going.

Second families seem to argue as if the amount absent parents are now required to pay for maintaining their first families leaves the second worse off than the first. This is simply not so. Under the CSA formula, the only time a first family is likely to be 'better off' than a second family is if a lone mother moves in with someone richer than the father of her children; even then she would only be 'better off' if this second partner had no natural children and chose to spend his money subsidising his stepchildren.

If the absent parent is badly off, new partners and stepchildren take complete precedence over natural children in an earlier family: a stepfather's expenditure on his current partner and stepchildren is 'protected'. If his income should fall to anywhere near income support levels after maintenance has been deducted, he will not be required to pay a penny. (One little-publicised fact is that absent parents are never required by the CSA to contribute to housing their first families - these housing costs are borne either by the parent responsible for care or by the taxpayer.)

Department of Social Security statistics show that single parent families - who comprise around 20 per cent of all families with dependent children - account for more than 60 per cent of families whose incomes are so low that they claim income support (the most basic social security benefit). Fewer than 10 per cent of two-parent families are as poor as this (DSS Statistics 1993).

How is it, then, that the newspapers have been full of stories that create the opposite impression? Take a case highlighted two days ago under the headline, 'Father left too poor to visit his sons'. The article said that an absent father is suing the CSA in the European Court because the pounds 242 he pays per month means 'he cannot afford travelling costs to visit his two children'. The article concludes: 'That leaves him pounds 24 a week to feed and clothe himself - little more than half the pounds 44 a week the Government allows for minimum income support.'

The article also says that his take-home pay is pounds 790 per month. The figure it does not mention is his pounds 548 monthly income after the CSA's deduction ( pounds 790 - pounds 242 = pounds 548): the article describes this pounds 548 as pounds 155 a month 'after meeting bills' (my italics). After the CSA deduction, this man's income is not far off the national average: if he wins his case, about half of British households would presumably be able to take the Government to the European Court for not giving them enough money.

This article is typical of those attacking the CSA in that it ignores the income of this man's former wife and children. If they are among the two-thirds of lone-parent families who are on income support, they are much poorer than him: the three of them would receive about pounds 400, plus free housing and council tax.

Under the new CSA rules, absent parents who are close to the benefit line will be allowed to keep an extra pounds 22 a week, on top of their current pounds 8 a week, before they have to make any contribution to maintaining their children. But they are still complaining that travel to work, debts and other expenses are not taken into account. What they forget is that the parent with continuing responsibility for the children gets no help at all with any of these things.

Perhaps the most insidious argument brought against the CSA is that the formula used to calculate maintenance is too inflexible or should be abolished altogether. Each case is said to be so different that no formula can be fair. This is true. But it is still fairer than the previous system and fairer than anything else that has yet been suggested.

To abandon the formula would undermine the whole point of the CSA. Rich fathers would again be able to get out of paying adequate sums by employing expensive lawyers. The costs to the taxpayer of dealing with the 'exceptions' would be high. And children, often living in poverty, would continue watching their parents fight over which parent should contribute less money to their care.

If it is accepted that the CSA formula is too rigid, perhaps the whole tax and social security system should be abolished on similar grounds.

For the first time, fathers are being made to pay what they can afford for their children, even if they do not want to. According to the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), hardly a bastion of left-wing feminism: 'One absent father complained that his payments had increased by 1,000 per cent, from pounds 8.50 a week set in 1974 . . . (for) three children . . . to pounds 87.27 a week . . . The unavoidable fact is that many men cannot afford a second family, and it is valuable for potential absconders to be reminded of this reality in no uncertain terms.'

None of this will stop the campaign by absent fathers. One of their particular demands is for 'recognition' of 'clean breaks', which often take the form of the lone mother keeping the house (partly mortgaged) in lieu of future payments. The House of Commons Social Security Committee - which has been commendably steady under fire so far - may examine this issue during the current session of Parliament. But it is surely right that so-called clean breaks should be separated from child maintenance payments, which is all that concerns the CSA.

Clean breaks should be about the division of capital, and about compensating spouses whose extra domestic responsibilities have cut their earnings, earning capacity, and pension; they should also cover lost rights to life assurance proceeds or rights under a will if the spouse with higher earnings dies prematurely. These issues arise for former partners whether or not there are children. The division of pensions after divorce is being reviewed by the Government and that study gives an opportunity for re-assessing clean breaks made in the past.

The CSA has been operating for less than a year. Yet men have cornered media sympathy to a degree that women can only gawp at. Lone mothers have been left holding the baby in poverty since time immemorial - it has taken until 1993 to make all fathers share the costs of bringing children into the world.

If the CSA has its teeth drawn we will return to a

father-rich/mother-poor situation, except where the mother gives up parenting or completely offloads child care and housekeeping in order to earn equal income for herself. Loss of parenting for the children in such cases can have dire long-term consequences.

Meanwhile, absent fathers should focus on genuine grievances: the engineering of separation by some (a few?) mothers despite every effort by the father; and access to children after separation. If absent fathers seem to care only about money, they forfeit sympathy for everything else.

(Photographs omitted)