An open letter to the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Work and Pensions
on the government's white paper on child support
I still believe that the fundamental flaw in the current system, which the proposed reforms do little or nothing to address, is the complete absence of any idea of shared parenting.
The usual pattern for a newly divorced father is that he loses his property and his daily contact with his children. He is then told that he will be allowed to see them once a fortnight, unless his ex-wife blocks contact in which case he faces a long, expensive and usually futile chase through the courts. Then comes the coup de grace. Nothing that he spends on his children in future will count as child support. All that will count is the money which he pays directly to his ex-wife or via the CSA (or its successor). There will of course be no check on how the ex-wife spends the money. If when he gets to see his children they turn up inadequately clothed or underfed, any money he spends to clothe or feed them will not count, unless they spend at least 100 nights a year with him (unlikely given standard contact arrangements). If he pays himself for a school trip or books or anything, it will not count. Please excuse the gender-specific language but it describes the vast majority of cases.
The frequently quoted figures of fathers owing child support do not only refer to the feckless and irresponsible but also to all those fathers whose support for their children does not count. In my own case, my limited income forces me to choose between actual support for my children and the payment of notional and disputed arrears of assessed child support. The CSA acknowledges my choice but pursues me for money which I believe I should not have to pay. At present I can challenge their assessments, their mysterious and opaque calculations and their undisclosed errors. The measures proposed in the White Paper would allow the new agency to determine the level of assessment and to enforce it without any recourse to the courts. The new agency may be able to remove passports and driving licences or impose curfews (enforceable by tagging ?) . Will these powers also not require a court hearing ? These sanctions exceed those applied to minor criminals, who at least have the luxury of a trial. All these sanctions can be easily applied to fathers who remain in contact with their children. It will be much harder to apply them to fathers who have abandoned all such contact, of whom we can expect there will therefore be many more.
I appreciate that you and most MPs will be primarily concerned with enforcement. I maintain than effective compliance depends upon fair and reasonable assessment. The party, under the guidance of Annette Brookes, has already rejected the principle of shared parenting in residence and contact arrangements (both in parliament and at conference). If we only focus on enforcement of child support paid to the mother, we will confirm that Liberal Democrats see the role of fathers only as providing money, without any guarantee that it is spent on the children. Please give consideration to a model which gives fathers a full share in the care of their children, including spending money directly on them.