Golden goose that never laid A simple idea, a sorry outcome. Polly Toynbee tells the story of the Child Supp ort Agency

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Child Support Agency has all but admitted defeat. In the announcement, sneaked out as MPs rose for Christmas, the Government indefinitely postponed pursuing 350,000 fathers. The unintentional message to fathers is that those who continue thei r campaign of obstruction and non co-operation will get away with it - a cheater's charter.

Calls have flooded into the CSA's offices from women who have been waiting to see even a penny of the money due to them, but confusion reigned as to which cases will be shelved. The statement says that it is all those where the mother was already receiving benefit before the agency started in 1993, and where the fathers or mothers have not returned the forms correctly for over six months.

Families Need Fathers have crowed at what they perceive as their victory. "A lot of families are going to have a great Christmas," they gloated. Many fathers' groups have been advising fathers on how to delay and avoid paying, in the belief, correct as it turns out, that the sheer weight of resistance would force an amnesty.

However, other fathers' groups were outraged. Mike Pimblott, of the Network against the CSA, one of the more moderate spokesmen, pointed out that those who had behaved honestly and paid would now suffer, as they would have to go on paying what they regard as unjust sums while the real errant fathers escape yet again. He is having £223 a month deducted at source from his wages. A court order, under which he gave his wife £70,000- worth of equity in a house and £100 a month maintenance, was ign o red.

By dropping all the difficult pre-1993 cases, the agency will have escaped some of its worst problems. Targeting the post-1993 cases means concentrating on cases where the courts made no order and no capital sums were handed over. Before the agency was set up, under previous court practice, many were encouraged to make what were virtually `clean break' settlements, with a lump sum and minimal payments thereafter. The injustice of ignoring these past payments is what fuelled the highly successful fathers' campaigns.

It all began with a simple and popular intention to make what was existing law work better. Most single mothers, divorced or never married, are on social security, since few can earn enough to become breadwinners and pay for child care. The state has been picking up a mushrooming bill, while many fathers who have always been legally obliged to contribute escaped altogether. The courts had become lax with fathers, allowing them to offset all kinds of debts and expenses against their obligations to their children. Apparently prosperous fathers would appear in court with sharp lawyers and accountants who could `prove' that their disposable income was minuscule. In most cases the courts refused to pursue fathers who didn't pay.

Out of all the sound and fury about family values and single mothers came this one practical and widely accepted idea - the new Child Support Agency would chase fathers and make them pay. Mothers and their children, and taxpayers everywhere would gain.

But one disaster after another has hit the agency. The final humiliation was the revelation that it has collected less from fathers to offset against the social security bill than the old DSS system did. And it has raised the expectations of hundreds of thousands of lone mothers, who could go back to work and off benefits if they only had a reasonable level of maintenance.

The Government is largely to blame for all that has befallen the agency. Many of those who supported the principle warned that fundamental errors were being made, for the usual reasons. The Treasury demands too fast a return on its investment in getting the system up and running - it wanted loads of money now. As a result, the golden goose has never laid an egg and is very nearly cooked.

The first mistake was to try to apply the formula rigidly, regardless of capital settlements. The second mistake was not to give mothers much incentive to co-operate. If mothers on benefit had been promised as little as £5 a week extra to keep for themselves out of the maintenance collected, instead of the Treasury taking it all, many more would have participated. But it was far easier and more lucrative for them to agree an illegal deal with the fathers to take some cash, or, legally, gifts i n kind, and refuse to help the agency. It is a widespread, but all too understandable fraud on the benefit system.

There was nothing new about the principle behind the agency. The old poor laws used to oblige unmarried mothers to appear in open court and give the name of their child's father so that the parish could pursue him. Midwives had to swear to demand the father's name from an unmarried woman while she was in labour. De Tocqueville in 1833 witnessed these scenes in an English court, where Lord Radnor deplored to him a law that was making "the bad conduct of lower class women worse" by rewarding unmarried mothers with a means of support.

That has always been the dilemma for this government. It has striven to find ways to punish unmarried motherhood without having starving children on the streets. Sir George Young blustered about giving them less access to public housing, but never found a way to do it. Many Tories were uncomfortable at the idea of the agency coming up with sizeable sums for mothers, some of whom might get pregnant on purpose to entrap a man into paying for life. Single mothers have always been seen as a serious social threat. Partly for that reason, they were given no reward, no incentive to help pursue fathers.

What now for the CSA? Perhaps, having shed the most impossible cases, the agency can pick itself up off the floor and do what it should always have done, concentrate on new cases and leave old settlements well alone. But what of the sense of injustice felt by women who have waited so long and now will get nothing? What of men like Mile Pimblott, who are paying while less honest men have escaped? If the Government, oppressed by the vigour of the campaigning fathers, wanted no more noise about the agency until the election, they will find that it is a story that is unlikely to go away.