Father won't pay? Punish the mother

The CSA is caving in to a vast male conspiracy to break the law on child support
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The Independent Online
How odd that the icon of the mother and child, that universal symbol of harmony, should have become the battleground for all our moral values. All weekend calls have jammed the campaign switchboard for donations to Diane Blood's legal costs in her fight to use her dead husband's sperm. Personally, if I were her friend, I would strongly advise her against having her dead husband's child and I would suggest it is time to move on in her life. But it is none of my business if that is what she is determined to do. The Independent supports her right to choose. We hope she wins, and the law is changed.

Now what is odd is with what strange bedfellows we find ourselves in this cause -the Daily Mail, the Times and the Sun among others. Suddenly they are hell-bent on creating the thing they most fear - a fatherless child. Of all those they have blamed most in the past, it has often not been the feckless 16-year-old mother, but the mostly imaginary hordes of "go-it-alone" middle-class women, the harbingers of the permissive society whose bad influence led us to the current pass of 1 million single mothers on social security.

So what makes Mrs Blood their heroine? Why is she different to any other woman deciding to have a child alone - any other competent woman who, like she, has a strong extended family and the means of supporting herself and her child?

Everywhere we turn these days single mothers, either divorced or never married, are at the fulcrum of a furious debate. Social security, law and order, crime, the behaviour of children in schools, any discussion of anything called "values" or "standards" turns within moments to point the finger of blame at them.

The Child Support Agency was set up to calm some of the alarm by ensuring that fathers could not abandon their children and get away with it without penalty. But the Government, greedy for quick returns, killed the golden goose on day one by re-opening old court settlements and clean-break deals, instead of starting gently with just the new cases. The agency may never recover from the climate of resistance it created. Fathers still won't pay. It is the poll tax all over again.

Although the CSA is better run than before, men's mass refusal to pay continues. The media have largely got bored with it, but the figures remain a disgrace. Of all the fathers who have been assessed as due to pay, only half pay anything at all and only 20 per cent pay the full amount. Large numbers of the self-employed get away scot free because the CSA has no access to tax records, and has not the expertise to deal with complex finances. Of those fathers who do pay 45 per cent only fork out a piffling pounds 4.80 a week, hardly worth all the bother.

But astonishingly it is the single mothers and not the fathers who are feeling the tightening of the screw. The CSA formula has been relaxed for fathers in a vain attempt to persuade them to comply. Various expenses have been made deductible and a large number of those who refused to co- operate have been put into the backlog of 350,000 cases who will probably now never have to pay a penny in a mass pardon for maintenance-dodgers.

And yet the single mothers, who have so far gained so disappointingly little from the CSA, now feel the whip on their back instead of the errant men's. From the beginning of this month the penalties imposed on women refusing to co-operate have been increased to a steep 40 per cent of their benefit.

Mrs W is spitting blood about the CSA and how it caves in to pressure from fathers. True, her case is extreme, but it stands as a good metaphor for the way the agency is letting thousands of fathers off the hook. Her former husband, father of her two young daughters, pays her nothing. He is also father of three children by a former wife, to whom he has never paid anything, and now has a fifth child by his present partner. She went to the CSA three years ago. The case dragged on, he refused to fill out forms, and finally, when a CSA officer caught up with him, he said he would shoot Mrs W and it would harm the children if he did.

The CSA did what every citizen should do and went to the police to report a criminal threat. The police drew up a file and wanted to proceed with the case, but it required the CSA to sign a witness statement about the threats. At that point the CSA refused to sign, and the case was dropped. They decided to drop the whole claim because of a clause in the act that says they must have regard to the welfare of the children. Plainly if their mother was killed, the children would suffer. Mrs W, outraged, went to a tribunal which, astonishingly, upheld the CSA's decision, because, they wrote, "Mr S told us that Mrs W has reasons to be afraid of him".

She has just been granted legal aid to take the case to judicial review. Can any man who promises to kill his ex- wife make the CSA run away? Apparently so. If refusing to fill out forms, if making trouble, if making your financial affairs impenetrable to a low-grade clerical officer doesn't work, then just bellow a threat. That works.

The large and sophisticated fathers' network knows every twist and turn of every case as it is happening. The grapevine and its newsletters let everyone know the latest wheeze - Network Against the CSA, Families Need Fathers, DADs (Dads After Divorce), Families Against the CSA and a dozen others are the most effective organisations ever to spring up spontaneously in political revolt. This is a huge middle-class male conspiracy to break the law. Could we have a bit more moral outrage about them, perhaps, and a bit less hysteria about the turpitude of single mothers?