A senior Conservative peer will lead a rebellion over welfare changes unless the government relents over plans to charge single parents to access the Child Support Agency.
In an interview with the Guardian, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, lord chancellor under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, said he would oppose “unfair” proposals to charge single parents using the future CSA a fee of up to 12% of any maintenance collected. He was also against plans to levy an upfront charge of “£100 or £50” for an applicant on out-of-work benefits. Almost all those who access the CSA are women chasing errant fathers to pay for their child’s care.
“This is about fairness. It’s unfair for a lady who has done all she can for the chap to come along and pay and then get told here’s a charge and you don’t get in without paying. After all, this is money for the child,” said Mackay.
He said almost half of parents got less than £20 a week. “You are applying charges to these sums. It’s just a question of fairness about people who have very little money. As lord chancellor I thought my role was about fairness. We had set up the CSA with [that in mind].”
Under an amendment tabled by Mackay which goes to the vote on Wednesday, parents with main care of children who have no alternative but to use the CSA to get maintenance for their children would be exempted from government charges.
The issue affects hundreds of thousands of people. At the end of September 2011, the CSA’s caseload stood at 1.14m – all of whom would have to re-apply to enter the “new CSA” and pay the charges. There is also a flow of about 109,000 new cases a year. Gingerbread, the lone parents’ charity, says that fees could raise £99m in cash for the CSA.
The peer’s comments carry weight in the House of Lords, because he was instrumental in setting up the CSA. Mackay pointed out that the charging mechanism was brought in under Labour but never used.
He said he disagreed with the coalition’s analysis that charging people would dissuade them from using the system and encourage them to opt for voluntary agreements. The government argues that by introducing charges it would use moral pressure to induce fathers to pay up.
“Of course we all agree that it is better for voluntary arrangements. But that is not the world we live in, unfortunately. You require the co-operation of another party and you cannot force them to give it.
“When a woman – as a typical example – has taken all reasonable steps and done all she can to reach an agreement but cannot manage it, I do not agree that she should be charged by the CSA for her application … That is utterly unfair. If anyone is to pay for that, surely it should be the person who has caused the difficulty by trying to escape from his moral obligations.”
Mackay helped to set up the CSA in 1990 after receiving letters from single mothers unable to enforce payments despite holding orders. It was Thatcher who told him that she recognised marriages might end but parental responsibilities do not. The CSA is also used by some parents simply to calculate how much is owed.
Mackay will be backed by a fellow Conservative, the former secretary of state for social security Lord Newton of Braintree, and the Lib Dem peer Lord Kirkwood. Newton has been a dogged opponent, telling peers last year: “The proposition … that, if it is not practicable [to make private voluntary arrangements], people should be charged for getting justice and reasonable support for their children is bordering on the indefensible.”
Mackay had approached Downing Street in advance to signal his opposition. He said ministers had called him in for discussions – aware perhaps that the coalition faces a potentially embarrassing sixth defeat on its flagship welfare bill.
On Monday night ministers lost a key vote over plans for a £26,000 household benefit cap. On Tuesday Downing Street said the government would seek to reverse the vote in the House of Lords, which would exempt child benefit from the cap, when the welfare reform bill returns to the House of Commons.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “There is a very clear government position on that. Our intention is to reverse those amendments, or that amendment, when it comes back to the Commons.”
Mackay said there were rumours that ministers were prepared to offer a concession on child maintenance, possibly cutting the level of charges.
“I have written to Downing Street and went to see the minister. I started in July and there have been conversations. I saw [welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith] this week and, although it’s hard to make out, they are trying to work something out. A concession, but it’s not clear what it is.”
On Tuesday morning, ministers tabled an amendment of their own, in an attempt to buy off critics. This would require applicants to have “a conversation” with the CSA to assure officials that they had attempted to solve the issues outside of statutory services. This waters down the original bill’s discretionary powers, which would have given the CSA the right to reject applicants’ requests if they could not demonstrate an attempt to reconcile parents. The government has also put extra cash into family support services. But neither move has satisfied Mackay.
Fiona Weir, chief executive of Gingerbread, said: “There appears to be a groundswell of support from peers across the house for Lord Mackay’s principled stand. They can see the injustice of making children pay the price, where ‘non-resident parents’ fail to live up to their financial obligations towards their children.”