It can’t be right that abuse victims pay a child support tax – but what’s a fair solution?

CMS.jpgTHE doubts and fears associated with leaving an abusive relationship could fill this whole page. Where can I stay? Will I be safe? What belongings can I take with me? Who can I trust to tell? Where children are involved, the anguish and uncertainty – as well as the urgency – is compounded. It’s probably safe to assume few parents in that position are preoccupied with thoughts of the Child Maintenance Service’s “collect and pay” service, and the associated fees. Of all the challenges and obstacles facing them, this is unlikely to loom large.

Which is why it’s a good thing MPs like the SNP’s Angela Crawley are working with charities to scrutinise how such services operate, find them lacking, and agitate for change. Following in the footsteps of Alison Thewliss, who has made it a personal mission to highlight the awful implications of the child-tax-credits cap and accompanying “rape clause”, Crawley has this week brought attention to the stark fact that abused parents are charged for receiving child support. Between collection and delivery, four per cent is lopped off and funnelled back into the government’s coffers. Crawley says this is “cruel and callous” and it’s hard to disagree with her assessment. But will everyone agree on a solution?

The logic goes that use of a government service should not be the default option for parents who have had an acrimonious split

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) was created as a replacement for the disastrously overloaded and ineffective Child Support Agency, and began operation in 2012. Unlike George Osborne’s plan to slash benefits for third and subsequent children, the primary aim of this new body seemed reasonable rather than reactionary: to encourage parents to co-operate and work things out for themselves. The logic goes that use of a government service should not be the default option for parents who have had an acrimonious split, but instead reserved for exceptional circumstances such as when the whereabouts of an absent parent are unknown, parentage is disputed, or one parent has fled abuse by the other.

Unfortunately, as with just about every variety of government support in existence, implementation has thrown up some knotty issues. Since 2014 the CMS has “encouraged” parents to make their own arrangements using sticks rather than carrots, in the form of charges for using its services. And while the £20 application fee is waived for those fleeing domestic abuse, the deduction made from child support the CMS collects on parents’ behalf (that four per cent) is not. The UK Government’s website is keen to point out that “you won’t have to pay any fees if you choose a family-based arrangement”, as if to suggest any suckers incurring fees are simply making an imprudent choice, rather than in many cases protecting themselves and their children from further harm.

Engender’s position is that the collection charges indirectly discriminate against women, who make up the majority of recipient parents

Crawley has written to Theresa May, saying that “excluding victims-survivors of domestic abuse from collection charges is the least this government could do”, and some of the charities backing her appeal reckon it should do considerably more. Engender’s position is that the collection charges indirectly discriminate against women, who make up the majority of recipient parents (although the paying parents, predominantly men, pay a whopping 20 per cent surcharge to the CMS), while One Parent Families Scotland believes single parents should be exempt from application and collection fees altogether.

So are CMS fees ever fair? It’s certainly not the child’s fault that his or her parents cannot co-operate, so that four per cent deduction represents insult to injury even in the absence of abuse. The 20 per cent surcharge could be seen as a justified penalty/incentive for parents who seek to shirk their responsibilities, but where the receiving partner refuses to make a voluntary arrangement there is presumably no option but to use “collect and pay”, even where the paying partner is willing to co-operate. Women’s charities will baulk at the suggestion that false claims of abuse might be made, for example in order to financially punish a partner for leaving, but perhaps it is for this reason that the otherwise hard-to-fathom four per cent deduction was imposed. The scrapping of it for abuse victims might therefore come with strings attached, such as a requirement to make a formal complaint to the police – thus leading us right back into dubious “rape clause” territory. The problem with simple policy solutions is so often that real life is a great deal more complicated.

Women’s charities will baulk at the suggestion that false claims of abuse might be made, for example in order to financially punish a partner for leaving

Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pensions is keen to point out that the income from charges is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of running the CMS, muddying the waters with the assumption that the only thing any outside observer will care about is whether he or she is footing the bill for any of this thoroughly irresponsible procreation. That’s hardly the point. If it were, why not just go the whole hog and impose a 100 per cent surcharge or more on paying partners of means who have dodged their bills for years, and start referring to debt collection agencies, a power the CMS has had for 18 months but not yet used?

This isn’t a matter of balancing the books – it’s about ensuring children receive the support they are due while minimising the risks of harm and treating parents fairly. If the majority can be encouraged to co-operate then the benefits to their children will go beyond the financial. But pushing abuse victims to do the same risks replicating the very forces of control they have tried to escape.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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