Getting down with the deadbeats

Well, if this week’s anything to go by then the future of the Child Support Agency looks set to join the long list of other things (drugs, terrorism, etc.) where its close to impossible to engage in a sensible, meaningful debate.

Of course the doyen of foot-in-mouth op-ed comment, Polly Toynbee, has to put herself at the centre of proceedings as usual; and to the usual effect of demonstrating that she’s big on opinions and short on understanding what she’s talking about.

Ok, so she starts this particular flap-ed piece well enough by noting that:

The prime minister was stumped when pressed in the Commons. He admitted that the Child Support Agency is a disaster and no one knows what to do. He said the CSA has a “fundamental problem”. Indeed it does.

The trouble is that as you read on you find that she has no more idea of what to do about the CSA as Tony Blair. Oh, sure she has opinions – it’s all the fault of stereotypical deadbeat dads in batman pyjamas and they should all be automatically fined 15% of their income for daring not to live in the family home – all seemingly plausible but all in their own way as bad as anything to emanate from the CSA itself in the now 11 year course of its misbegotten existance.

In other words, the usual load of bollocks.

The CSA has been a failure from day one for the simple yet fundamental reason that it exists as a effort to reduce the complex series of siutations and interaction which occur when a relationship breaks down into a set of rules and formulae simple enough to administered by a bunch of scutters in an office.

That’s the Alpha and Omega of the CSA and its problems. It’s an ill-conceived attempt to apply the managerialist principles of a bureaucratic state to an all-to-complex set of human problems which defy categorisation into a simple set of rules that an office clerk can follow. So it’s no surprise whtsoever to find Blair et al stumped by the question of what to do about the CSA; of course he’s in a bind on this issue, its the very philosophy which lies at the heart of his approach to government which is both the cause of the problem and yet is also fundamentally incapable of offering up a solution.

There is a serious and sensible debate to be had here, not just on the issue of fathers paying for the upkeep of their children but on how we, as a society, deal with a wide range of complex issues which arise from relationship breakdowns where there are children involved; and that means putting away all the stereotypes; from the embattled (and embittered?) single mum to the loser-in-batman-suit deadbeat dads – part of the irony of this debate, to date, is that many of those making most use of negative male stereotypes are the same people who would be first in the queue to complain at the first sign of the use of female stereotypes in talking about lone parents.

The power of stereotypes lies in their invariably containing a grain or two of truth amongst the sweeping generalisations. So, yes, when you come to look at the issue of absent fathers you will encounter all the old favourites: the ineffectual sad loser, Mr Mid-Life Crisis with his teenage, pregnant girlfriend in tow, the It-Was-Only-When-I-Was-Pissed wife-beater and, of course, that staple of the mid-morning talkshow, the pig-ignorant juvenile pikey wide-boy – and if that sounds like a roll call of Fathers4Justice well then that just shows what a lousy advert for father’s rights that particular group was/is. But just because they’re a lousy advert for the rights of non-residential parents doesn’t mean the underlying principles on which they’ve campaigned aren’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously. F4J are just the idiot tip of a much larger iceberg of people, on both sides of this issue, who are getting shafted by the system.

But this is far from being the totality of absent fatherhood. Relationships fail for all manner of reasons, many of which don’t make for the kind of headlines that The Sun and Daily Mail specialise in and the fact is that there’s been no real substantive research into the experiences of non-resident parents (male or female) following a relationship breakdown – as the Guardian, itself, reported only twelve months ago. Beyond that there’s a government-funded organisation, Fathers Direct, and a self-identified ‘independent think-tank’, Child Support Analysis, and then not much else – note, I’ve not been through these sites in detail so make no endorsement of the views of either.

I can, therefore, speak only from experience of working with, in various capacities, people who have gone through relationship breakdowns and of some of the things I’ve seen – and yes there are certainly the losers, deadbeats, wifebeaters and wide-boys out there ducking their responsibilities, but there are also many decent fathers out there who would wish for nothing more than to have the chance to act as a father to their children.

I’ve seen lone parents, of both genders, struggling to make ends meet and living pretty much hand to mouth – and non-resident parents, mostly men, living the same kind of existance while trying to rebuild their own lives under system which affords them little or no help at all – its easy to forget than men can just as easily lose out financially when a relationship breaks down as, frequently, its their former partner who retains the family home and most of the material possession acquired during the course of the relationship.

To give just one example of how the system can be loaded against men, I’ve been to DSS offices with both men and women looking for help after a relationship breakdown – women, with or without children in tow, are treated by the system as vulnerable and given priority, especially if there are kids involved, which means you can expect the DSS to make an effort to find them accommodation, even if only a hostel place – and try and fast track a claim. Go to the same office with a newly-single man in the same situation and, if you’re lucky, you may come away with a contact for the nearest Sally Army soup kitchen – and I’m not kidding here, I’ve seen that happen first-hand.

Yes, there are women who end up leaving the family home to escape an abusive relationship – there are also women who will claim, falsely, to have just left an abusive relationship because that pushes them up the list of priorities for help. I know this for a fact because I’ve advised women to do exactly that in the past when faced with a DSS officer in a less than helpful mood.

I’ve situations – too many situations – where the kids have become a weapon in a relationship breakdown, a stick for one parent to beat the other with. I’ve seen women refuse, rightly, to comply with access orders granted to abusive fathers – I’ve also seen father’s excluded from their kids lives only to discover afterwards that they’ve been kept away in order to hide the fact that their kids are being abused by a parent, step-parent or other family member – those kinds of cases, however they arise, you never get used to.

I’ve even had lone parents ask for help in avoiding revealing the whereabouts of their former partner to the CSA – behind all the stories of non-payment through official channels there exists a thriving ‘black economy’ in child support payments and ad-hoc arrangements, absent fathers who pick up the tab whenever their kids need clothes, shoes, etc, all of which take place well away from the CSA and a system which strips out any benefits paid to lone parents from maintenance payments before it hands over the cash.

Morally wrong? Yeah, sure – but when you work with people living in genuine poverty then morals tend to be the first thing to go out of window and you do what you can to help even if it means ‘working the system’. When I was working full-time doing welfare benefits advice I know the system well enough to pretty much guarantee someone a social fund loan of £300-400 without any difficulties and regardless of what they wanted/needed the money for. This is a few years back, admittedly, but back then the checks that the DSS did on applications were so poor that you could work the system every time – in fact, I’ll let you on the secret which was simply that no matter what the client actually wanted you always put on the form that they wanted £450 for a new gas fire and cooker because their existing ones had been condemned by an inspector. The DSS never bothered to check this story out; didn’t even as for the inspector’s report, just processed the application and paid over the giro – I put in applications for clients living in fully furnished accomodation, even all-electric council flats, and got them the money every time. All you did was agree to whatever repayment they wanted when you filled in the forms, then appealed the amount once your client had got the money and got the repayments cut to minimum possible, which used to be £2.20-2.40 a week.

If you learn one thing doing that kind of work its that for all you see the same things and the same issues over and over again, no two situations are every entirely the same – a one size solution not only doesn’t fit all but it rarely fits anybody.

To talk in terms of using the Inland Revenue to collect child support payments or deducting a fixed percentage from the income of non-resident parents is to entirely miss the point of this debate – that you’re dealing with real people in real and all-too-complex situations, things which can’t be reduced to a simple rulebook and a formula or two. The system which existed before the CSA came into being, in which maintenace payments were dealt with through the family courts may have been far from perfect but it had one redeeming virtue – each case was heard on an individual basis and dealt with on its indivdual merits. Sure its an expensive way of doing things, but then dealing with people as individuals always is and cheaper is not always better – in fact where the CSA’s concern cheaper is not even cheaper given the huge sums of money that have been pissed down the drain due to its abject failure. It takes a very special kind of stupidity to come with a system from which no one benefits, yet that’s exactly what’s happened with the CSA.

Where does all this leave us?

Well for starters its far too soon to be talking about solutions here. Not only is there more to this issue that just the CSA; failure though it is; one needs to look at the whole range of issue that arise from family breakdowns including the role of the courts in dealing with custody and access issues, second families and how they fit into and impact on these issues and a whole host of other things besides.

The problem here is that we’ve not yet managed to define the problem. We need to understand the reality of what happens when relationships break down and how that affects everyone involved, the financial, personal and emotional costs of such a situation and how it affects both parents – resident and non-resident – and, of course, children. And that means both investing in detailed research to allow us to understand what the real issues are and how best to approach dealing with them and putting away the stereotypes and remembering that we’re dealing with real people in real situations. Yes, even the loser in the Batman suit and the libidinous pikey with tattoos and a tooth on Trisha are people too – just about…

Forget deadbeat dads, the real deadbeats here are the people who designed a child support system where no one wins – forget Father4Justice, Mothers4Justice or even Kids4Justice, what’s needed here is just plain old justice for everyone.

  • martin

    its about time someone told it like it is, so there is inteligent life on the internet after all, shame tony blair isnt, isnt it time we had a more active an variable law system so that it can move with the times? , then people like me dont get screwed by a system implimented by monkeys