Today sees the continuing debate on the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords reach the issue of charging parents for the use of the Statutory Maintenance System, what used to be called the Child Support Agency. The issue of charging parents is one that has got Peers hot and bothered as they rush to defend the rights of single parents fuelled, no doubt, by the relentless campaigning of single parent charity Gingerbread.
Reading some of the rhetoric, I often wonder whether I live in the same world as these campaigners for whom most separated parents appear to be women, single handedly striving to put bread on the table and shoes on their children’s feet. This world is effectively described by the Chief Executive of Gingerbread, quoted in the Independent today on the issue of charging parents to use the Statutory Maintenance Scheme, when she said ”children will end up paying the price for the non-resident’s failure to meet his parental responsibilities.”
Now this price that she is talking about is, by our calculation at the Centre for Separated Families, as follows:
no more than 35p per week (which is less than the cost of three standard text messages) for 16% of those affected, whilst 40% would pay no more than 70p per week and if maintenance Maintenance Direct is used, there would be no charge payable at all!
which, on examination, would lead one to conclude that it is a reasonable investment for the potential thousands of pounds that could be received in Child Maintenance over a child’s lifetime.
And yet this topic has got the single parents charities in a lather, the Peers that they lobby up on their high-horses, and the media in a frenzy about how women and children are going to be punished by the introduction of charges. The big question is, why?
Running underneath this issue is a principle. It is a key principle and it is one that single parent campaign groups are very very familiar with. We see this principle being played out over and over again, in the liberal media and the in political terms. The principle is the rights of women (which of course are always linked with the rights of children) and how they will be affected by cuts and in this case charges for the use of the Statutory Maintenance Scheme. This extraordinarily popular cause is one that even the Prime Minister presiding over the government that is proposing the cuts and the charges must defer to, the rights of women being likely to affect the female vote and in turn play a deciding factor in whether he continues in his post.
Let us be clear, women (and their children) are top of the pile and hold a huge amount of political capital, whilst men, particularly as fathers, are way down the list and can therefore be seen in more prosaic terms. In the world that I work in, Fathers – as one observer said to me last year – ’have a moral obligation to pay’ – simply, it would seem, by virtue of being a man. The outrage at the heart of charging mothers for the use of the Statutory Maintenance Scheme, a scheme that was once, (in the guise of the Child Support Agency) seen as the big stick to beat father’s into submission, is not, the small amounts of money that it would actually cost, the issue is the principle that women are losing the absolute right to have the state intervene punitively against fathers on their behalf.
The reforms to the Child Maintenance System are long overdue and today, Maria Miller, the Minister in charge of the changes, has announced a twenty million pound investment in support services to enable parents to work together after separation. The Centre for Separated Families has long campaigned for such a change and welcomes the news with relief. At last, the UK can begin to develop some of the services that have been available in other countries for many years, the kind of services that help both parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives instead of pushing them apart and dividing them into carer or provider. This news is a huge step forward for those working with separated families in the UK and particularly those working with fathers.
At the heart of the changes that start with the investment announced today, is the understanding that fathers have struggled for many years to remain part of their children’s lives and have, for too long, been pushed out by the stereotyping of family separation that has been perpetuated by single parent campaign groups. Whilst this news has been announced, however, the media and political focus remains upon the issue of charging mothers for the use of the Statutory Maintenance Scheme. Let us be clear, the rights of women as mothers is not something that the campaign groups are going to give up lightly.
I have written about the UK social assistance model of support to separated families many times. Brought in to sever the dependence of women upon their husbands after separation, the model is intended to safeguard unmarried and divorced women’s right to choose how they, and their children, organise their lives after family separation. Its original aim, to reduce stigma and ensure that all families are treated with respect however they are constituted, has largely been met. However, this has, in my view, come at a cost. And the price paid has been fatherhood.
Contrast the social assistance model with the social policy governing separated families in, say, Norway or Denmark, where both parents are supported to care for their children and both parents are seen as responsible for providing. Women in the Scandinavian countries are not fighting for their rights not to pay for a service to collect Child Maintenance from the father of their children, they are out working and providing it themselves, in partnership with the father of their children who is also sharing the care as well as providing in his own right. This system seems to me to be eminently more suitable to twenty first century Britain; supporting women to be more than carers, tied to the kitchen sink and men to be more than workers, tied to long working hours devoid of any interaction with the family.
The changes being heralded by today’s announcement will not bring us in line with those Scandinavian Countries. There is much further to go until we reach that sensible place, but they are a step in the right direction. The announcement of a package of financial support to develop holistic support for families, signals that this government understands that change is needed to ensure that both parents are supported to remain involved with their children after separation. This government has seen through the bluster and the fogging of the single parent campaign groups, to the other side, a place where dad is not the bogey man, always running off and leaving the family or terrorising mothers with domestic violence. This investment, in services that can offer a new way forward, is a mark of respect for families and a commitment to supporting them through difficult times so that they can continue to manage their own lives, together as well as apart.
But it is not going to be easy. The campaigning by the single parent groups goes on and the stereotypes of the impoverished single mother and her destitute children will continue to be perpetuated in order to keep the moral high ground. And Peers from Lord Mackay onwards will continue to fall for it. The government may well be defeated on the issue of charging in the Lords today. If they are, then it will be heralded by the single parent campaigners as another victory for the rights of children not to have to pay the price for the fecklessness of their fathers. But don’t be fooled. This is not about children’s rights, this is about women and their rights to enforce fathers to pay up or else. It is one of the fundamental foundations upon which single parent rights movement is founded – the right to control family life after separation – and it has contributed to the demise of the family, respect for fatherhood and the rights of children to know and love both of their parents after separation.
I have said many times, that where a mother is coping with life alone because the father of her children has run off, acted badly or avoided his responsibilities, we must support that mother and her children and bring that father to book. The charges that are being proposed are designed to ensure that those who really need a Statutory Maintenance Scheme can have access to a strong and powerful service. We will always need single parent support because there will always be single parents as described above. What I object to, however, is the way in which the single parent lobby has had a stranglehold on social policy in design and delivery for too long, forcing all families to fit that model of the poor impoverished mother and the dead beat dad. Today, this is finally being challenged and change is on its way. Whilst the media and the Lords are bemoaning the fate of the stereotype, those of us working in the real world are getting on with real life and real families. This government has done a brave thing. Those of us who understand how brave, step forward now.