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An irresponsible act

The Child Support Act, which comes into force in April, has been widely welcomed as a step forward for single mothers. Debra Warner sees it as another attempt by the government to shift the costs of childcare on to the backs of impoverished families

Under the new Child Support Act, any single mother claiming Income Support will be forced to shop the father of her children to the Department of Social Security and receive maintenance payments from him, whether she likes it or not.

If she refuses to name the father, she risks having her benefit cut by 20 per cent for six months and by 10 per cent for a further year. If she does name him, however, the absent father will be forced to pay maintenance - and this will be deducted from her Income Support anyway.

The government has presented the legislation as an act of compassion towards children (the act was first proposed in the 1990 white paper entitled 'Children Come First'). But its central purpose is to save the both single mothers and 'errant fathers'.

There are currently 895 000 single parents claiming Income Support, 90 per cent of them women. Maintenance payments procured under the new act will save the government an estimated £400m a year. The Child Support Agency (CSA) is the government body set up to enforce the legislation. It will not only deal with single mothers on income support. But these are the only people who will be forced to claim maintenance.

By replacing Income Support with maintenance, the act establishes a web of financial intrigue that not only penalises the single mother, but also hits any subsequent families the father has. More and more second families on lower incomes will also be forced to exist at poverty levels.

The CSA has breathtaking powers to pursue maintenance. As the Child Poverty Action Group has warned, 'The CSA's ability to intrude into the privacy of day-to-day life will be extensive' (Welfare Rights Bulletin, January 1993).

Employers, local authorities and the Inland Revenue are all required to disclose information about both parents. Inspectors can enter premises, including those of private businesses and charities (but not private homes), question anybody there and inspect documents as they see fit. Obstructing a CSA inspector is an offence. Maintenance payments can be directly deducted from wages by the CSA, obliging employers to police their workforce. Payment can also be procured from 'errant fathers' by selling off their property, or seizing their bank accounts. Absent parents who don't pay up can be jailed.

Ros Hepplewhite, the director of the CSA, complains that the agency has been unfairly depicted as 'a moral crusade to punish feckless fathers for irresponsible behaviour', and insists that the CSA is only trying to do right by single parents (Guardian, 30 December 1992). However, if you are living outside the traditional nuclear family as part of what Ms Hepplewhite calls 'the social trend of serial relationships', the clear moral message is, don't expect the welfare state to support your children.

Despite Ros Hepplewhite's complaints, what is really striking is how little criticism, unfair or otherwise, the act has attracted. Commentators may quibble over the sums involved, or the way it is implemented, but the principle that parents should be brought to account in this way has been widely accepted. Many feminists welcome the act as long overdue. They argue that men have got away with leaving women holding the baby for too long.

A closer examination of the act, however, shows that its purpose is not to relieve the burden on women struggling to bring up children alone, but to relieve the government of one more social security bill. Much of the act is taken up with enforcement of the regulations for women on Income Support, and as the excerpts from documents reprinted here show, the authorities are not going to give sympathetic treatment to women who are reluctant to name the father.

The Child Support Act will introduce an even greater degree of harassment and interference in people's lives. Anything which hands more powers to the state can only reinforce the misery officialdom has already caused the single mother. What with dole snoopers checking the bedroom to see if she's had a man staying so they can cut her benefits, constant police harassment of her kids if they happen to live on a council estate, and a legion of petty officials from the social services to the education department telling her how and how not to bring up her children, the last thing the average single mum needs is more state interference.

Faced with the economic slump, the government desperately needs to cut back on welfare spending. By pointing the finger of blame at 'irresponsible' fathers, the authorities aim to justify spending cuts as being in the best interests of women and children, and so get themselves off the hook. But a state which refuses even to provide decent public childcare facilities has no interest in solving the problems facing single mothers.

Those who support the Child Support Act as a step forward for single mothers are being, to coin a phrase, nothing short of irresponsible. Rather than arguing for higher benefits for single parents, too many have been reduced to supporting an act which treats like criminals women who struggle to bring up children on their own, and which attempts to make families, rather than the state, pay the price for the slump.

Documents produced by the Department of Social Security advise staff to lecture single mothers along the following lines:

'[Emphasise] the benefits to the Parent With Care (PWC) of providing the information, for the PWC and Absent Father (AF) may be friends now, but things may change in the future...the PWC may be involved in a new relationship and their new partner may not be happy about maintaining another person's child....

'If the PWC will not name the father, try and find out why. Does the PWC consider it 'none of our business'? Is he married? Is he violent? Does the PWC have worries over access or custody? Is/was a sexual offence involved? Does the PWC want no further contact with him?'

And finally, if the interview 'is getting heated, leave her to cool down'.

Information required by the CSA in tracking down the errant male includes nicknames, photographs, present and previous employers, parents/relatives address, car registration number, clubs or hobbies, name of accountant, bank details, details of probation officer or other 'officials'.

Maria has a three-year old son:

'I don't want the father of my child to have more access to him. At the moment he has some access but it's on my terms. He'll ring up maybe once a month and take my boy out. It gives me a break.

'If he's forced to pay maintenance he might think he's got more rights. We split up because I started having an affair with a woman. Now he's never been violent to me as such but I'd say he's on the brink. So what if the fact that he has to pay maintenance makes him want to fight for custody? I'm an out lesbian now, and he's in a heterosexual relationship. I just don't stand a chance.'

Patricia has a one-year old girl and is expecting another baby in September:

'There must be thousands of women like me. My boyfriend wants to give us as much as he can but he doesn't want it knocked straight off the money I claim. You can't survive on Income Support. If I comply with the act it's going to impoverish my child and her father, and he's on disability benefit. Now they're going after cuts in that too. They say even if the father is on benefit he has to pay £2.20 a week.

The thing is, they caught me out. I went up to the DSS about something else and they asked me into an interview room and started asking me questions about her dad. The interview was over before I realised what was happening. They'll be after me again now I'm having another baby. They've got a copy of my daughter's birth certificate so they know who her father is anyway.

'It makes me so angry but I can't do anything, and they can cut the only regular money I get any time they like. What they want is to force people off benefit. I see women earning money on the streets near where I live and I wonder if I'm going to have to get out there myself tomorrow. And then they call it the "Child Support" Act. It's outright child abuse, that's what it is.'
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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