|Painting by Lucy Pierce|
This is the outstanding arrears of child maintenance owed in England and Wales. According to a report by the charity Gingerbread called Missing Maintenance, the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) estimates that only £467 million will ever be recovered.1 This leaves nearly one half of single parent families, the vast majority headed by women, living in poverty.
The current Conservative government is in the process of closing the Child Support Agency (CSA) to replace it with the Child Maintenance Service, which charges women £20 for the privilege of opening a file and then a sum each month if some semblance of the maintenance is actually paid.2 The new vaunted system has seen only 53% of the families registered receiving maintenance with 90 000 people having not paid during one three month period. There is already nearly £53 million in unpaid maintenance. Many of the families will receive only negligible amounts of money, as the DWP does not require the full maintenance to be paid in order for the account to be registered as compliant. Realistically, a father of 4 earning £70 000 a year can pay only £5 a month and still be included within the 53% statistic.3
Equally problematic is the fact that the Child Maintenances Service is actively writing to the primary caregivers to request they ‘forgive’ the debt owed by non-paying fathers4 - as though the primary caregivers of children, who are overwhelmingly women, can neglect to pay rent, council tax and the credit card debts they rack up buying groceries knowing these debts will be 'forgiven'. As Polly Toynbee makes clear,
Some 90% of CSA cases have now been transferred over to the CMS, but only 13% of mothers affected have decided to pay the new fees and apply to the CMS: the DWP must be pleased, as it had publicly estimated that 63% would pursue their claims. All the pressure in official letters is to deter mothers. The £20 fee may be a mild block, along with charging fathers 4%, but the evidence suggests mothers just give up when prodded by these letters.5
Charging mothers to use the Child Maintenance Service is simply a way for the government to abdicate responsibility. They are very clear that the sole purpose is to force more parents into dealing with child maintenance themselves. In doing so, they have refused to recognise the reason why men, and it is overwhelmingly men, refuse to pay maintenance: it is both a punishment and a form of control over their former partners. This is male entitlement writ large by men who do not care about the welfare of their children.
We need to start calling the refusal to pay maintenance what it really is: financial child abuse. Forcing your children to live in poverty because you cannot be bothered to support them or refusing to punish the mother are not the signs of 'good fathers'. It is the hallmark of an abusive father.
It is not difficult to implement child maintenance policies that are effective and ensure that men cannot hide their assets. Placing the Child Maintenance Service under the heading of HM Revenue & Customs so that child maintenance is garnished directly from the salary of the non-resident parent. This coupled with actual punitive policies for those who refuse to pay, such as a fee for every missed payment, interest accrued on outstanding payments, and the use of enforcement agents (bailiffs) to confiscate personal property, and, potentially, criminal proceedings would see an immediate increase in the number of men who start to pay their maintenance.6
There is a quote bandied about in discussions of child contact and child maintenance that says 'children aren't pay per view', as though children were nothing more than a possession to be passed about. As with Women's Aid campaign, Safe Contact Saves Lives, we need to stop talking about children as possessions and start talking about children's rights.7 Children have the right to live free from violence. Children also have the right to live outwith poverty.
The erasure of men's financial responsibility for their children, supported by government policy, is an absolute disgrace. It is, simply, state sanctioned child abuse.
This is an excerpt from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy.
Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and activist who works for the campaign organisation Everyday Victim Blaming, which challenges media misrepresentations of domestic and sexual violence and abuse.
1 Report: Missing Maintenance. Gingerbread: Single Parents, Equal Families. (June 2016). PDF: http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/uploads/media/17/9809.pdf
3 ‘How we work out child maintenance: a step by step guide”. Child Maintenance Service. (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/325219/how-we-work-out-child-maintenance.pdf) Accessed 29.8.16.
4 Polly Toynbee. ‘Why the silence on the scandal of unpaid child maintenance?’. Guardian. (16.5.2016). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/16/silence-scandal-unpaid-child-maintenance?CMP=share_btn_tw. Accessed 19.5.2016.
5 Polly Toynbee. ‘Why the silence on the scandal of unpaid child maintenance?’. Guardian. (16.5.2016). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/16/silence-scandal-unpaid-child-maintenance?CMP=share_btn_tw. Accessed 19.5.2016.
6 Canada also includes the suspension of drivers licenses and passports as part of their maintenance enforcement programs. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/fl-df/enforce-execution/pwo-pqp.html. Accessed 29.8.2016.