|Image: Policy Exchange (presumably signifying that mothers can only afford one sock)|
The conservative think tank Policy Exchange has today published a report setting out its recommendations as to how absent fathers on welfare benefits could pay 'meaningful' child support.
The 48-page report Father Figures: How absent fathers on welfare could pay meaningful child support is interesting for its content and language, so I shall summarise it in a little detail.
The report starts slightly oddly with two blank pages, one about the author/authors (I understand the author is a Peter Saunders, an independent consultant and former Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex, who has previously authored reports for Policy Exchange), and the other an acknowledgement page.
Moving swiftly on, the Introduction begins by telling us about Britain’s ‘most feckless father’ Jamie Cumming, a 34 year-old unemployed man from Dundee who, we are told, has fathered ﬁfteen children by twelve different partners in the space of just sixteen years, with two more babies due soon. How does Mr. Cumming afford to support all these women and maintain all these offspring? The report asks. The answer, of course, is that he does not - the taxpayer does.
Nor is Mr Cumming alone. We are told that "as many as half a million non-resident fathers are living on welfare beneﬁts", none of whom is expected to pay more than the price of a weekly pack of cigarettes towards the costs of maintaining their children, i.e. £5. This, says the report, "is unfair on their children, their former partners, other fathers who are doing the right thing, and taxpayers, who have to pick up the tab."
The next section of the report examines how absent fathers on welfare could pay meaningful child support. This looks at the history of making absent fathers pay, from canon law in medieval England (not sure of the relevance of that) to affiliation orders (which I remember), to the "rise and fall" of the Child Support Agency, including the present government's proposals to reform the system. After looking at the number of absent fathers on welfare and the reasons why they should be required to pay a more significant financial contribution (i.e. to reduce the burden on taxpayers), we are treated to a section neutrally entitled: "How to get blood out of a stone: learning from the US and Germany". This tells us how those aggressive Americans and those efficient Germans get six and seven times more out of absent fathers than we do.
Skipping over the rest of that section, the third section of the report sets out "Eight Policy Recommendations to Strengthen Parental Responsibility" (read: to recover more money for the state), as follows:
1. Restore the obligation on single parents claiming Income Support to use the CSA to assess and collect child support payments from their former partner/s, and exempt them from the charges which are being introduced for the use of these services. Well, I certainly agree with the latter.
2. Impose work experience obligations on absent fathers claiming welfare, with men who refuse being stripped of their benefits. This is the proposal that has (or will) make the headlines, scarily similar to the government's recent work experience scheme, where the government was forced into a U-turn to drop benefit sanctions against young people on the programme.
3. Balance CMEC efﬁciency targets with an explicit recognition of the costs involved in enforcing child support payments on fathers with relatively low incomes - because in the past such men have increasingly been left alone, as they are the most difﬁcult group of men to chase for money.
4. Make maternal and paternal grandparents responsible for supporting the cost of grandchildren in cases where parents fail to discharge their responsibilities. Yes, you read that correctly. This seems to me to be the most controversial recommendation, and I'm not sure why it hasn't made the headlines.
5. Require fathers to be registered on birth certificates. We've been here before...
6. Make full use of existing sanctions, including incarceration when all else fails. Well, you wouldn't expect anything less from a conservative think tank, would you?
7. Child support entitlements of existing children should not be reduced if their father goes on to have more children with new partners. Extreme cases where men run up very large support liabilities that they cannot pay should be identiﬁed with a view to bringing criminal charges of neglect. You also shouldn't be surprised that a conservative think tank believes that feckless fathers should be treated as criminals...
8. Lastly: Review the 100% disregard of child benefit receipts for single parents on welfare, i.e, mothers on benefits should not be better off because the father pays - in other words, payments by the fathers should benefit taxpayers, not the mothers.
Whether any of these recommendations will ever see legislative daylight, we will have to see. I suspect some of them at least may find their passage through parliament a little difficult...