The four billion pound question*
Last week the single parent charity Gingerbread published a report in which it described how many parents avoided their liability for child maintenance, due to ‘loopholes’ in the system. Gingerbread acknowledged that not all of these parents were ‘maintenance dodgers’, reneging on the responsibility every parent has to contribute to their child’s upkeep, and that some were simply ‘taking advantage of the rules’. Even so, those parents are knowingly paying less than society expects them to pay.
For simplicity I will refer in this post to ‘fathers’ rather than ‘paying parents’, as obviously the vast majority of paying parents are fathers.
So the question, then, is: why do some fathers think they shouldn’t pay maintenance for their children, or that they shouldn’t pay the full amount? There are no doubt a myriad reasons, but these are the ones I’ve come up with:
1) Because they think the mother will use the money for themselves, rather than the children. If only I had a penny for every time I have heard this one. To give it some credit, I suppose there may be some mothers who may keep the maintenance separate from their other income and lavish it upon luxuries for themselves, whether cigarettes, alcohol, partying, or whatever. However, just how many mothers behave like this? I suspect very few. In the vast majority of cases the maintenance will mix with other income, which will be used to pay all of the mother’s outgoings, including food, clothing and other necessities for the children.
2) Because they disagree with the amount that they are required to pay. Of course, this can be a problem with a rigid formula. Sometimes the formula does get it wrong. However, the government did not just pick its figures out of thin air. The formula has been refined on a number of occasions, in an effort to make it fairer. I think it is generally accepted that in most cases the figure churned out by the formula is a reasonable one. I suspect that some fathers would just find any figure disagreeable.
3) Because they don’t have any contact with their children, and don’t see why they should pay anything. This linking of child maintenance and contact is another very common thing. Logically, of course, it makes no sense whatsoever, as the children still need to be maintained, whether they are seeing their father or not. Many is the time that a judge has had to explain to a father that maintenance and contact are two entirely separate issues.
4) Simply because they don’t like being told what to do. We all know someone like this: they refuse to accept authority, somehow feeling that they are above everyone else. No one will tell me what to do. Only I should decide what, if anything, I should pay for my child. The odd thing is that it is always less than the child maintenance formula would require them to pay. Of course, there is an option to being told what to do: agree the maintenance with the mother.
5) Because they think the system is biased against fathers. The old chestnut. The strange thing is that in all the years I have been reading the enormous (and ever-growing) volume of statutes, rules and cases on child support/maintenance, never have I found anything that says that fathers should be treated less fairly than mothers. The simple fact is that, as I stated above, the vast majority of paying parents are fathers. This is not because of any bias in the law, it is because that is the way society works. But even then, how can it be said that requiring fathers to pay a fair contribution to the maintenance of their children is biased? Shouldn’t both parents pay a fair contribution, calculated by reference to their means?
6) And finally, the big one: to spite, or ‘get back’ at the mother. Oblivious, of course, to the fact that their own children will also suffer.
Now, all of the above is not just an exercise in ‘father bashing’ (although no doubt there will be some who will take it that way). I think if we are ever to get to the bottom of the ‘problem’ of child maintenance, we need to understand exactly why some fathers (and, yes, some paying mothers too) believe that they should not have to pay what society (via the government) considers they should reasonably pay and, more to the point, why they think their liability to maintain their children ends when their relationship with the other parent ends. If we understand the reasons, then perhaps we can begin to address them, and educate parents accordingly. Maybe then we might have a child maintenance system that actually works.
*£4 billion being the amount that the Child Support Agency failed to collect.