Nobody hears the single parent's voice: Irate fathers condemn the CSA, but Sue Slipman says it is important and must be made to work

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BEFORE the Child Support Agency came into being, only three out of 10 lone parents received regular maintenance payments for their children. These were often derisory, bearing no relationship to the costs of keeping a child. As a result, 1 million of Britain's 1.3 million lone parents were trapped within the benefit system, increasingly pushed towards the margins of society. In the past year these families have become the butt of criticism for all those - including several government ministers - who are in moral panic about what they perceive as society's near collapse.

What has been hidden is the fact that the poverty of lone parents and their children has been subsidising a relatively affluent lifestyle for the absent parent and any subsequent family. It took many years of campaigning to get anyone in power to recognise this fact as a national scandal. Its origins lie in a totally unfair distribution of wealth within families, which up to now has made most men richer after divorce and women poorer. The CSA was set up to right a great social injustice.

We supported the principles behind the legislation from the beginning. Children have the right to be maintained by both their parents, regardless of the marital relationship between them. Maintenance payments give mothers the chance to overcome their poverty, escape the benefit trap and go to work. Several surveys - including those by the DSS - have shown that this is what lone parents want. We have consistently stated that the CSA must be judged on the extent to which it delivers regular, adequate sums of maintenance for children.

The agency had two main tasks. The first was to assess the amount of maintenance the absent parent was liable to pay, based upon the requirements of children and the financial situation of that parent. The second was to enforce the payment, where necessary through attachment of earnings orders and other measures.

However, it was clear from the start that the detail of the scheme was distorting the system to benefit the Treasury. There is nothing wrong in principle with the idea that maximising the contribution from the private purse towards child maintenance will save money for the tax-payer. But if in practice the clawback for the Treasury is too stringent, children can end up worse off than they were before.

It was also always likely that, if government was going to make the system retrospective, there would be a major backlash from men. The inclusion of absent parents who had been through 'clean break' divorce settlements without taking property transfer into account was bound to fuel an already simmering reluctance to pay.

Absent fathers have had a vocal and effective campaign in which the weaker voice of the parent with care has been drowned out. Some fathers have justifiable grievances against the formula and the agency. But there is a deliberate campaign of non- co-operation on the part of many fathers. In short, they are on strike. Those who won't pay are obscured by those who claim they can't pay - and all of them are using the fact that most of the money goes to Treasury and not their children as a justification for non-payment.

The Government responded to the men's campaign by introducing changes to the formula in February. The problem now is that these changes have left some lone mothers worse off than they were before the agency was set up. The combination of male resistance and changes to the formula have meant that so far few mothers and children have benefited from the agency's operations.

Mothers on income support cannot benefit from the agency, as they lose a pound of benefit for every pound of maintenance they recieve. Indeed, some mothers have received just enough maintenance to float them off income support, losing the associated benefits, such as free school meals, and leaving them in worse poverty than they were before.

The Government could put this right by allowing mothers to keep a percentage of maintenance before they lose benefits. The message from Gingerbread and the National Council for One Parent Families is quite clear: there must be no further changes to benefit absent parents without changes to help lone parents and their children. This message has the backing of lone parents, many of whom are sick to death of hearing politicians, journalists and organisations continually responding to the concerns presented by the powerful lobby of absent fathers.

Individual lone parents have had neither the money nor the space to combat the absent parents' campaign, but Gingerbread and the National Council have been at the forefront of forcing the Government to listen to the lone parent voice. We have now stepped up our joint effort to win a maintenance disregard and warned the Government that lone parents and their children - rather than just the Treasury - should be beneficiaries of the CSA.

There are many who have a financial interest in seeing the agency collapse. We have no doubt that it could and should be made to work for mothers. If the powerful voices get their way and defeat the agency we could see a return to the vilification of lone parents that would mean an even bleaker future for them. Nevertheless, if the Government tilts the balance too far in favour of absent parents, the CSA, instead of being a potential support, will become yet another trial in the already difficult lives of lone parents.

The writer is director of the National Council for One Parent Families.

(Photograph omitted)

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