Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Children paying the price of Welfare Reform

There are many reasons to dislike the House of Lords; its members are unelected, its undemocratic and the Parliament Act of 1911, coupled with Labour’s reforms, means that it doesn’t have the powers a second chamber should to effectively hold the government to account. But last night the Lords did a great thing when they voted in favour of an amendment which dilutes government plans to charge parents to use the Child Support Agency (CSA).

It’s often said the Coalition has a problem with women and in September of last year a memo was leaked revealing Cameron’s plans to woo women voters. In November it was reported that he was hiring a woman to assess and advise on the impact of his policies on the female vote, but it hardly takes a genius to work out that charging parents to use the CSA is going to be bad news for women, as well as grossly unfair.

The CSA can help single parents agree and collect maintenance payments from an ex (and often estranged) partner. Even for a government agency it has a pretty terrible reputation – there’s even a website called ‘CSA hell’ where parents post their stories of frustrated encounters with the agency. While the service may need radical reform, it’s a vital one that government should provide. The overwhelming majority (97%) of those seeking child maintenance are women; single mothers trying to get fathers to take financial responsibility for their offspring.

The coalition is trying to use the Welfare Reform Bill to introduce a charge of £100 for parents who use the CSA; ministers claim that it’s to stop parents using the CSA as the ‘default option’. I personally think it’s insulting to insinuate that women are running to the CSA without giving it a second thought: not many people want to get the government involved in their personal affairs and few are going to contact a body with a reputation as bad as the CSA’s unless they’re in a fairly desperate state.

Furthermore, the government has yet to provide a shred of evidence that women are initiating proceedings with the CSA without trying to reach a private agreement first. For many women, those that are unable to locate their child’s father or those that are fleeing domestic violence, a private agreement is simply not appropriate. While women that have experienced domestic violence will be exempt there is no explanation as to how this would be proven or checked, and there’s no consideration given to women that are victims of emotional abuse.

Finally, children in single parent families have twice the risk of living in poverty than those in two parent families. It’s shameful that the coalition is making the poor and vulnerable pay to access money that’s rightfully theirs. You might think £100 isn’t that much, but the median weekly income for a single parent working 16 hours a week or more is £337. Surviving on this at the same time as saving to pay the CSA will be beyond the reach of many single parent families. There’s a terrible irony that families who most need support accessing maintenance payments won’t be able to afford it.

The Department for Work and Pensions will seek to overturn the amendment when the Welfare Reform Bill returns to the Commons on Wednesday. In the mean time I’m backing the Gingerbread campaign to stop the CSA charges and praying that the Coalition wakes up to one of the reasons why it has a problem with women.

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