The Times

September 10, 2002

You think we're unfair? Tough

Policeman Keith Dray always paid his son's maintenance, but this did not stop the Child Support Agency targeting him. In the final extract from her new book, Sue Cameron describes his hopeless battle against the arrogant and incompetent agency

Sue Cameron
The Times

It is the tinpot dictators who are the worst. What drives people to desperation is the kind of abuse that affects every aspect of their daily lives. Take the state-run Child Support Agency. It may have been conceived as a way of making parents take responsibility for their children but it has become a monument to oppression and Whitehall incompetence.

At the time it was set up there was widespread public support for the CSA. The idea was that it would force fathers who were divorced, separated or just plain feckless to pay for their children’s upkeep even if they had started another family.

Detective Constable Keith Dray thought the CSA was an excellent idea when he first heard of it. He thought that it would ensure a fairer deal for himself and his family. Instead he became one of its victims.

He set himself up to be a CSA target the day he went to investigate a burglary in some flats. One of the people living there was Gill. They fell into conversation. They talked about thieving and about babies. Gill knew about both. Her ex-husband had a criminal conviction and had walked out leaving her with four children under five. Keith liked children. He had a little boy, called Mark, of his own, though he and his wife were not as close as they had been.

Later Keith reckoned that his meeting with Gill was the catalyst for the break-up of his marriage. The relationship was civil enough but the spark had gone. The divorce was conducted in a civilised manner. Their financial agreement was straightforward. Sadie did not ask for money for herself; as a librarian, she earned as much as Keith.

Keith agreed to pay £80 a month towards Mark’s upkeep. The divorce settlement was approved by the court.

Keith liked all of Gill’s children. Kelly, the eldest, was five. She and her three brothers, Glen, Gareth and the youngest David, who was not yet two, quickly came to regard Keith as the father none of them could quite remember.

Keith knew that it was going to be a long haul financially. As soon as they married, Gill lost her entitlement to state benefits for herself, Kelly and the boys. Yet there was no hope of getting any money out of her ex-husband. In 1984 Gill and Keith had a daughter of their own, Emma. Three years later another girl, Lorna, was born.

Keith first heard about the CSA when Margaret Thatcher announced it on the television news. As he watched, he thought that it might force Gill’s ex-husband to start paying for Kelly and the boys.

The first inkling of trouble from the CSA came with an unexpected phone call from Sadie. Keith knew that she had given up her job as a librarian to do a psychology degree and she had just started the course. She wanted to become a teacher eventually. The last time Keith had talked to her she had been full of enthusiasm. But when Keith took the call from Sadie that morning she was in tears. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I’m so sorry. I promise you none of this is my fault. The CSA says that I must fill in the forms to make you pay for Mark’s upkeep.”

“But I do pay,” said Keith. “There’s never been any question of me not paying.”

“I know,” said Sadie. “I told them that. But it didn’t make any difference. They said that if I didn’t co-operate, they’d stop my benefits. All of them. I had no choice.”

Keith tried to comfort her. He told her that she was probably worrying unnecessarily. Once the CSA knew all the circumstances, it would see that everything was fine and that no changes were necessary.

Keith did not realise that the CSA was different from other government departments. As it was one of the new executive agencies, it enjoyed considerable autonomy. The idea was that this would give staff more freedom to employ modern methods, streamline services and give taxpayers better value. The downside to this, as those who felt unfairly treated by the CSA soon discovered, was that in practice its staff was accountable to nobody.

But the greatest weakness of the CSA was that the Government saw it as a cash cow. Faced with an ever-rising social security bill, forcing fathers to pay would be one way of reducing costs. Fair dealing was not top priority with the CSA; meeting Treasury targets was.

Small wonder that the CSA’s inexperienced, pressurised staff homed in on fathers who looked like easy meat — fathers such as Keith Dray.

In the end, Keith and Gill sat down at the table and filled in their CSA forms together. Gill applied for maintenance for Kelly, Glen, Gareth and David, naming her ex-husband as their father. Keith had to tell the CSA about his pay and circumstances so that they would be able to assess whether he was paying the right amount towards Mark’s upkeep. He posted the forms the next day, and they waited.

Four weeks later Keith heard from the CSA. Its initial assessment was that his payments for Mark should increase from £80 to £400 a month. At first Keith wondered if the CSA had made a mistake. He wrote to the agency querying the new sum and asking how it had been reached. The reply he received gave him little comfort. There was no mistake. The assessment of how much he should now pay for his son had been based on the information received from him and his ex-wife. The sum had then been worked out according to a formula. The CSA could give no further details because it had a duty of confidentiality to his ex-wife and could not reveal the figures she had provided.

Keith rang the CSA, but was given short shrift by a brusque man who refused to give his name or any further details about the formula for deciding how much fathers should pay. It was the first of many such phone calls. The trouble was that he never seemed to speak to the same person twice and the CSA staff were working off a computer that was never properly updated. Each time he called he was given a different sum. Sometimes he wrote to the agency, though he quickly discovered that unless he sent letters by recorded delivery, they were ignored. When it did reply, officials usually sent him pro-forma letters.

Eventually the CSA did send a definitive assessment. He was to pay just under £320 a month on top of the £80 he was already paying. This figure included the arrears that he had run up, according to the CSA, but the agency did not make it clear how much of the total was arrears and how much the new regular payment.

Whether it realised it or not, the CSA now had Keith over a barrel. It is a disciplinary offence for a policeman to fail to pay a lawful debt. The risk of debt-ridden policemen laying themselves open to bribery or blackmail are obvious. Keith had to comply. He did not give up without a fight. He rang the CSA and asked exactly how much his arrears were. It refused to say. It said it had the power to make a Deduction of Earnings order against him. That would include both the regular amount for Mark plus the arrears. The DEO would be for £317 a month.

Keith rang the agency again. A woman answered. He again demanded a breakdown of the payment so that he would know how much was arrears and how much the regular payment for Mark. He was angry, and it showed. But it did him no good.

“I think your arrears account for about £40 a month of the total you have to pay,” said the woman reluctantly.

“Fine,” said Keith. “At last we are making some progress. Now, for God’s sake tell me how you work that out.”

“Don’t you take that tone with me,” rasped the woman. “If you want to be difficult, I’ll put your arrears up from £40 a month to £100 a month. Now just stop arguing and start paying or you’ll know about it.”

It was not until 1995 — two full years after she first filled in her form — that Gill finally heard from the CSA. It had investigated her first husband’s means and assessed him as being liable to pay £188 a month for Gill’s. Regretfully, the CSA understood that although her ex-husband had been in work, he was now unemployed and living on state benefits. Although technically he should make some contribution towards his children’s upkeep out of his benefits, the administrative costs involved in adjusting his benefit did not make the exercise worthwhile. Therefore her ex-husband would not be required to make any contribution towards the upkeep of his children. In other words the entire burden would continue to fall on Keith.

Keith had made the mistake of giving CSA staff his home phone number. He and Gill found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of bullying calls. Gill became more and more stressed. Things had reached such a pitch that she was frightened to answer the phone in case it was someone from the agency. Her doctor gave her tablets; he said she was having a nervous breakdown.

Then a friend told Keith about the law on the harassment of debtors. It laid down that while reasonable steps could be taken to recover a debt, it was an offence to threaten someone. Anyone who was so threatened could make a complaint to the police. Keith wrote to the CSA drawing its attention to the legislation and threatening to use it against the agency unless the threats and the evening phone calls to his home stopped forthwith. The effect was dramatic and immediate. The calls ceased.

The spring of 1997 saw the advent of a new Labour Government. Labour had long been critical of the CSA and many of its victims — including Keith — were hopeful that at last real reforms might be put in place. The whole system was to be streamlined and simplified. Second families were to be taken into consideration. The reforms were due to come into force in October 2001.

Yet almost immediately there were signs that the planned changes were merely going to worsen the chaos and confusion endemic in the CSA. The sheer scale of the mess and muddle started to emerge in the summer of 2001, when it was revealed that the agency was owed more than £1 billion in child maintenance. Then came the news that the reforms were being postponed from autumn 2001 until April 2002. Towards the end of March 2002, as changeover day came within sight, the Government suddenly announced that the changes were to be postponed yet again, this time indefinitely. The reason? Flaws in the CSA’s new £300 million computer system.

To the Drays, watching from the sidelines, the gathering disaster at the CSA seemed to have a certain grim inevitability. They were only glad that they were no longer caught in the agency’s toils. The CSA covers children up to the age of 18. In 2000, Mark reached his 19th birthday and as he was intent on travelling round the world for a couple of years rather than going to university, Keith no longer had to contribute to his upkeep via the agency.

Not that the CSA gave up that easily. In 2001 it sent Keith a new maintenance demand for Mark. It took officials until this year to apologise — and now they have followed up the apology with yet another demand for payment. He is wondering whether to sue the agency for harassment.

© Sue Cameron 2002