So the Child Support Agency is to be scrapped. Sounds like good news for all those people - men and women, 'caring' and 'absent' parents - who have been let down or persecuted by it. Problem is, it looks set to be replaced by something even worse.
Governments always announce their latest measures on child support by declaring that the prime interest is that of the child. Quite right. But could someone please explain to me how a child would benefit from having one of its parents electronically tagged or having bailiffs sent round to flog their possessions?!
The core problem with all of this government's, and previous governments', policies on child support is that they are based on a stereotype of a father who has walked out on his offspring and done nothing other than try to evade his responsibilities and live the life of Riley while his kid and his/her mother struggle by.
Government policy shores up the assignment to fathers of the role of breadwinner/provider. What about absent fathers (or mothers) who ‘pay up’ in terms of time and attention, rather than dosh? Or who don't pay because they can't, perhaps because the CSA does not take into account any new family responsibilities they have?
Many fathers actually want to spend more time with their kids, and are unreasonably prevented from doing so. There are plenty of villainous absent fathers out there, but there are some decent ones too, and the system can be unfair to them.
And what about absent fathers who never wanted to be absent fathers in the first place, but their partner left them and took the child/ren with her? It seems rather cruel for someone in this position to be stung with a hefty bill. Insult to injury and all that.
The fact that many absent fathers get a genuinely hard time provided impetus for the growth of horrible organisations like the late-but-not-lamented Fathers4Justice. Part of the problem with F4J was that it defended fathers who showed not the slightest interest in their offspring when they were at the pooing and puking age, then suddenly rediscovered their paternal instinct when the kids reached the going-to-football age. The even bigger problem were the crap sexist arguments they came out with.
There is an assumption around that feminists are supposed to be on the side of women and therefore fully behind attempts to make absent fathers cough up. But this feminist reckons that feminism is not about persecuting men but about taking the sexism out of the system and providing women and their families with the rights and resources they need.
The best way of helping lone parents would be to tax the rich to pay for measures such as a rise in Child Benefit, free school meals for all children, a massive expansion of free nursery and play facilities etc. This would also represent a welcome shift from arguments about which parent foots the bill for children towards society as a whole taking greater responsibility. Children are, after all, part of society, rather than the private indulgences of their parents.
I was at Labour Women’s Conference yonks ago (1990 ish) when there was a resolution calling on the Tory government to chase non-paying absent fathers more rigorously. Clare Short proposed it, and every speaker in the debate supported it. I had my hand up to speak against, but was not taken.
The Tories went on to introduce a law that did that did just that, and I was involved in campaigning against the Child Support Act (around 1992, I think). The points we made against it were:
- It assumed that caring parents were women, absent parents men - that may be ‘reality’, but the CSA perpetuated it.
- It defined fathers’ obligations to their children as solely financial.
- It forced mothers to maintain contact with fathers who they had genuine reasons to fear contact with.
- The government was abrogating its own responsibility to provide for children.
- It was based on a stereotype of absent fathers as men who had walked out on their kids and did not give a toss, which may be true of some fathers, but not of many.
All these arguments stand today against the ever-more-punitive measures aimed at making absent parents ‘pay up’.