The Sunday Times Magazine
(This is an extract of a much larger article).
Three men sitting in a country pub.
Paul: I had 'em in court in January on five counts of negligence.
What they did was they assessed me at £2.50 a week. The mistake
was they assessed me on my service pension, not on my wages. Not
once but twice. I'm actually going to them saying I'm not paying
enough. Then they say it's so small it's not worth collecting at
all. Great. We booked a holiday. Eight days later I got two assessments.
One was £79 a week backdated and the arrears had to be paid
in 10 days. £6500.
Peter: I don't think the CSA is capable of getting an assessment
The three men are late 30s, early 40s. They have never met before.
Paul appears to have come straight from work; a company identity
card swings from his neck on a chain. He is wearing an anorak and
has a bulky shoulder bag, which contains his case papers. There
is tension in his face. He seems angry. He lights a small cigar
from a flat tin. Kevin is with his new partner, Jan. They have a
mobile phone and a handful of papers in a buff envelope: Kevin's
case. Kevin lacks Paul's intensity and there is a tiredness about
him - how did it come to this? He and Jan had sat in the pub a week
earlier, waiting for everyone else to arrive. Nobody did because
they had the wrong night. This is probably the story of Kevin's
life at the moment.
Peter a ruddy-faced Home Counties man, is their host. He is the
organiser of the Thames Valley branch of Families Need Fathers,
which meets every other Monday at this pub in Maidenhead, just off
the M4, the Pig in Hiding. He chose it for its convenience. The
decor is very much pig-led but nobody pays it much attention.
Peter: The idea behind it is right. Fathers are responsible for
their children. But that means time and money, not just money, and
also, this is where the whole thing's fallen down: the CSA isn't
getting the money to the children. What it's doing is reimbursing
the DSS. The principle's all wrong.
Some observations about Paul and Kevin and all the other Pauls
and Kevins: getting entangled with the CSA drives people to distraction
and beyond. They become obsessed. They build thick dossiers of papers,
they make photocopies, they write angry letters to the head of the
CSA and expect a reply. they get even angrier when the head of the
CSA does not reply. They go to their MPs, who write even more letters
on their behalf. MPs can hardly move in their own surgeries for
CSA cases. But at least they can get replies from the head of the
CSA. Ann Chant, the outgoing chief executive, had to set up her
own Parliamentary Business Unit to deal with them. The CSA is very
confusing, and nobody can really understand it. Every individual
case is subject to the same formula for calculating maintenance
payments, irrespective of the circumstances. There are some grounds
for departure and there have been some modifications, but essentially
the formula is rigid.
The CSA is divisive. Men regard it as a stick that their ex uses
to beat them. It seems to them that ex-wives confuse payment with
access to children. If they do not play ball with the former, then
they will be frozen out of the latter. It is hard enough trying
to maintain a father-child relationship after a separation without
all the bitterness the maintenance payments cause. This affects
the stability of new relationships men may form, the second families
they may start. Many men simply give up trying. There is statistical
evidence that just under half of all men who go through a separation
lose contact with their children at some stage. There is further
statistical evidence that they are happier than the ones who continue
contact. Isn't that sad? Not least for their children. Some men,
probably more than those who are able to admit it, say they start
resenting their children. Though it is hardly the children's fault.
Many men do not believe that the maintenance money the CSA demands
from them is going to their children. In lots of cases they are
absolutely right. Three-quarters of all single mothers are on benefit.
The money collected from their ex-partners by the CSA is not passed
on to them: it goes straight into the Treasury coffers. If the mothers
do not co-operate with the CSA, a proportion of their benefit is
cut as a punishment. Men do not understand why money collected from
them as "child support" does not even reach their child.
Even if the money the men are paying is getting through, many of
them believe it is going to finance the lifestyle of their ex-wife.
They think they are being asked to pay too much. They resent the
fixed formula, the relentless, unbending, impersonal style of the
CSA. They resent the identical paragraphs that appear in CSA letters.
"I realise this will be a disappointing reply but..."
is a notoriously common irritant. They resent the CSA's dehumanising
jargon that labels them AP (absent parent), as opposed to PWC (parent
We are not talking here about a group of awkward men who will not
face up to their responsibilities. Those men exist. They have always
existed. Nor is this about rich men, millionaires who won't pay
maintenance for their children - though, God knows, they also exist.
Too many men have made too many women suffer in the aftermath of
divorce and separation. It has always been that way. This is about
the massed ranks of middle England: policemen, firemen, telephone
engineers, steel workers, coach drivers, office workers; the ever-increasing
number of men whose lives are touched by increasing number of men
whose lives are touched by the CSA and who are being drawn to participate
in a campaign of civil disobedience.
Three days after my night at the Pig in Hiding I spent the evening
in a room upstairs at the Black Horse in Milton Keynes. The local
branch of NACSA (Network Against the Child Support Act) meets here
every other Thursday. The room was full. Single men, men with their
new partners, middle-class men, working-class men, very young men
who still lived at home with their mums, middle-aged men. Men who
seemed pretty objectionable - "If I have to throw a few grand
at my ex, well, you know what they're like: she's more interested
in money than anything else" - and men who seemed very angry,
including one who, if anything, was angrier than Paul. He made the
same jokes as Paul, too. "I'm sure we've got the same ex-wife,"
he cracked on with another man at one point. He had been sent a
demand for £9000, with seven days to pay. He had tried phoning
the CSA about it but had been told what he described as "the
usual crap". As far as the CSA was concerned, he said, he was
the lowest form of life. He said that more than once: we're the
lowest form of life.
Several men had come to the meeting with blank assessment forms.
They were at the beginning of their dealings with the CSA: they
had been sent a form and could not work out how to fill it in. The
advice to them was not to ignore the form. They might have got away
with that once, but not now. You could stick your head in the sand
before and hope the CSA would forget all about you. The CSA was
not that inefficient any more. Fill in most of it, send it back,
but ask lots of delaying, pertinent questions that could not be
construed as time-wasting. Try to massage the figures. If you're
living with a new partner, she could be charging you an exorbitant
rent. Housing costs could not be disregarded in the assessment formula.
One man told me that all this business with the CSA had made him
begin to resent his children. It was another echo of earlier encounters
with CSA clients.
A few days earlier, I am sitting in the small, cramped office of
a family law expert in Caerphilly, South Wales. I am a fly on the
wall while the lawyer, Anthea Guthrie, sees her CSA clients. A middle-aged
couple come in. He is clutching a CSA notice that he is about to
have a Deduction of Earnings Order imposed because he has maintenance
arrears. The dates when he is accused of not paying are listed.
The odd thing is, his child is now out at work and he has been told
his case is closed. Luckily, he had kept some records and after
an anxious weekend's search he has found receipts proving that he
paid the money on the dates the CSA says he didn't pay. Guthrie
phones the CSA there and then, speaks to a child support officer.
The officer concedes that a mistake appears to have been made. The
dates are wrong. It may be, in fact, that the man does not owe any
money at all. He agrees that the DEO needs to be reassessed. Guthrie
asks if, in the meantime, the DEO can be cancelled. No, absolutely
not, comes the reply. Not until the case has been reviewed. This
seems unbelievable to me, but Guthrie is unfazed. She says she has
gone past anger. The man folds up his CSA letter and leaves with
his new partner.
So I can tell you that there is a crisis of morale among CSA staff
and that they believe the position is irrecoverable. Nobody seems
to have expected the sudden announcement last month that chief executive
Ann Chant was leaving to take up another post. When she took the
job in September 1994, a close colleague of hers said that if Chant
could not sort out the CSA, nobody could. Staff feel that the stress
they have experienced working for the CSA has not been addressed
by management. They are fed up with the shortcomings of their computer.
They are unhappy that there is talk of privatising the CSA. Will
all the confidential information they hold be passed into private
hands? The abuse they receive is unrelenting. It seems as if it
is there in every phone call. There are stories of razor blades
and dog s*** being sent in the post. There are stories, in small
communities, of staff being harassed and threatened at home. The
CSA wants them to give full names to clients to make the service
more personal. Their union advises them to give first names only
for protection. There is no special training for dealing with angry,
distressed or suicidal clients. There is supposed to be a sensitive
case officer who deals with the sensitive cases, but it is not clear
that they have had specialist training either.