Opinion: Penalising baby-fathers
Until now, the notorious Child Support Agency (CSA), which tracks down errant fathers, has ignored teenagers. The blind eye is to be turned no more. Teenage fathers are to be targeted by the CSA and forced to pay maintenance to the mothers of their children. A supposedly 'hard-hitting advertising campaign' is about to be launched by the government to hammer home the message that teenage boys must take responsibility for their actions.
In practice, 'taking responsibility' means that boys are supposed to hand over 15 percent of their earnings, whether from work or pocket money, to the mother of their child. Pocket money, presents from granny, coins from the tooth-fairy - nothing is exempt. Young fathers are also being sent into schools to describe the difficulty and expense of bringing up a child as a warning to their peers. CSA officers are to be sent into schools to find boys who are failing to cough up a slice of their paper-round money.
One Whitehall source explained to journalists that 'the message is that one moment of fun can lead to a 16-year bill for maintenance'. This seems a curious way for a caring government to describe the wonder of creating a new life. 'Babies cost money' could be seen as a rather churlish antenatal message. Maybe it is an attempt to be laddish: boys, we can assume, are too insensitive to understand the broader issues of social and sexual responsibility, so you have to hit 'em where it hurts - in their pockets.
This has to be one of the most practically stupid, ideologically driven initiatives to be suggested by the government since it took office. What possible benefit could 15 percent of some spotty youth's pocket money be to a teenage mother? What possible interest could a 15-year old girl have in encouraging state agencies to raid the maths class to nab her boyfriend?
The government says it wishes to make it clear to men that 'even if you are not earning very much money that does not mean you cannot make a contribution'. At least this clarifies that the issue is about making lads take responsibility, rather than providing practical support. It is about punishing boys, not supporting young mothers.
It is worrying how much support, and how little criticism, this initiative has attracted. Currently, the liberal vogue is turned against the traditional expectation that girls/women take responsibility for pregnancy while the lads get off scot-free. And one can almost imagine the discussion at the New Labour think-tank that dreamt up this initiative. 'It's always the teenage girls who get the blame but it takes two to make a baby and boys should be made to take their share of the responsibility. Okay, so there's no way Johnny can share in the pregnancy - but there are other ways to make him pay.'
This is such a misguided discussion. It takes a shockingly dim view of young men, in assuming that the only way to appeal to them is through the basest financial incentives. If ever there was a stereotyped view of young men this is it. 'I couldn't have cared a toss whether I got her pregnant - except for the fact it would have cost me a fiver a month.' Most young lads, even on superficial inspection, seem to be rather more human and caring about their sexual partners than this.
It also assumes that teenage passions are subject to financial rationale. 'I would have given her one but I was worried I'd get my paper-round docked' does not seem a likely thought to pass through the mind of a randy 15-year old.
This proposal is the most cynical of token gestures. It is little more than a politically correct attempt to counter some of the focus on the irresponsibility of teenage girls by putting the spotlight on teenage boys. There is no way that it can be in the interests of teenage mothers to make the fathers pay. Teenage mothers need adequate support from the state to allow them to build independent lives. The last thing they need is to be financially obliged to the boy down the road.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999