Our children deserve better

Posted 4 October 2017

I am writing this whilst perched on the toilet seat with my six-year-old son in the bath. Multitasking is something all parents become accustomed to, and none more so than those doing it alone.

I gave birth to my son when I was 20 years old and have been a single parent since he was a baby. I have been there for every nappy change, 2am feed, bike rides and everything in between. Whilst I spent the first years of my son’s life in a zombie like state of sleep deprivation and missed many a party, I would not trade our life together for anything. I feel blessed for having taken this journey with him and have watched him blossom into a beautiful young boy. What has not been easy, however, is the financial implications of bringing up a child alone. I have had to pay exorbitant childcare fees by myself in order to work, fallen into debt on numerous occasions and gone without just so he hasn’t had to. And the most frustrating thing about this? It didn’t have to be this way.

I’ve had a child maintenance case for much of my son’s life. Unfortunately I have received very little money during this time. My son’s father has done everything within his power to avoid paying. He has ignored the Child Support Agency’s (CSA) letters and quit his jobs as soon as they found him. And whilst he is undoubtedly at fault for this, the state should have been there to hold him to account and take responsibility for his son. Sadly, like in so many cases, it has not.

When I first made my maintenance claim my application was managed by the CSA. Unfortunately it was dogged by months of delays and problems from the start, and it was only after I got an MP involved that I was finally put on a deductions from earnings order (DEO). Whilst, in theory, this should have secured me regular maintenance, my ex-partner’s avoidance meant that every time he quit his job it would take months for the DEO to be set up again with his new employer. He would then quit his job again (on one occasion the very day the CSA contacted him!) and so the cycle continued for years. The CSA were just beginning to look into taking legal action when I was told I would have to transfer to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

I was working for an MP when the new child maintenance system was going through Parliament. I was dubious about the new system (particularly the charges), however, after years of working with constituents’ child maintenance problems (as well as my own) I thought it would be an improvement on the CSA. Oh, how wrong I was.

Firstly, there is no information sharing between the two organisations. My years of history with the CSA have not been passed over and I have had to start afresh. This makes transferring an excruciatingly frustrating process.

Secondly, the CMS have tried to dissuade me from using the collect and pay service at every turn. They have even mentioned to me repeatedly that ”other families have managed to reach an agreement between them”, as if to say why couldn’t I?

Thirdly, even though I paid my £20 application fee and opted for collect and pay (in the full knowledge I will be charged a further four per cent of every payment) I was, like everyone else, first put on direct pay to give the other parent a ‘chance’. Given my son’s father’s history of non-payment I find him getting yet another chance to pay particularly galling. Only now after he has not replied to numerous letters, missed payments and I have made a fuss is my case being reviewed.

So this is where I am now – in the past 18 months I have received one maintenance payment, with no idea of when to expect another one. I feel like I am right back to where I was five years ago, but now I have to pay for the pleasure! The frustrating thing is I can see how the CMS could work well for me – its greater links with HMRC mean my ex-partner could be found a lot quicker in weeks, rather than months. However, the hoops I currently have to jump through means that actually using the system I have paid for seems a long way off.

I understand why some people think it is sad that a child maintenance system even needs to exist. But it is not a new phenomenon – the state has played a part in the collection of child maintenance since the Old Poor Laws of the 1500’s. We have to accept some parents will always try and avoid supporting their child. For those children, especially given the high child poverty rates amongst single parent families, the state has a duty to hold the non-paying parents to account.

I fear it is too late for my son’s father – he has got away with playing games with the child maintenance system for too long and their lack of action means he doesn’t take them seriously. I only hope that my son will eventually get something, and that in the future our children will have the maintenance service that they truly deserve.