When the CSA decided my ruined life was worth £75 …
What is life really like when they knock on your door? Here one man reveals his own traumatic story and how having the CSA in his life for almost two decades destroyed his health, left him in debt and drove him to the brink of suicide. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the child.
Stoke Station, Sunday 3pm, jet-lagged in the rain. A bad day to have to go into the office, particularly when the car’s broken down…
I’d just got back from a business trip and my executive stress was about as sharp as my suit.
A slow train coming around the bend and it was already twenty minutes late, I can remember thinking, surely Richard Branson would have more fun with a Hornby Double “0” in his loft.
It seemed unbelievable that less than 24 hours had passed since I’d climbed into the Business Class section of a 707 in a heatwave that had Raleigh-Durham airport in meltdown. And now here I was …
The train crawled up to me with a kind of insolence and I embarked on a journey that was to change my life.
This creaking example of Mr Branson’s finest – rickety-crap, rickety-crap – suddenly decided to make good time and we rocked and rolled in the direction of Birmingham. So, I decided to use the journey to sift through the week’s-worth of mail that had gathered behind my door while I was away.
That first one was enough … I hadn’t expected anything like this…
After all, Tallulah and I had an arrangement – and I’d stuck to it rigidly since before our daughter was born. I know we no longer saw eye-to-eye, but I didn’t deserve this.
If it was true, then I realised, on that rickety train – and she realised in her little dormer bungalow in The Midlands – that life as I knew it was over. A typical male reaction, I know. Emotional. Beer and wine money gone. What’m I going to do? You can hear the wail of a man supposedly getting his just desserts, even though he’d been paying for his child way before she was born.
This letter arrived in a large buff envelope, like bills used to. But the clue was there, in the deadly black stamp on the flap, the ultra modern Department of Works and Pensions in Dudley, West Midlands – millions to operate and failing to meet its targets by millions too.
I slipped the rest of my mail back into my briefcase and read the impersonal computer-generated missive over and over again. And the same question kept going through my mind:
Why had she done this?
One thing was clear though, the CSA didn’t care why she’d done it … all they wanted was my money and by the bucket load. I’d filled in the forms months ago, but I thought it was merely a formality. I was paying for my child, once the good burgers of the CSA understood that, they would simply tell me to carry on as I had been doing. A bit naive I know.
But surely, they had made some horrendous mistake. Foolish is the man who believes in fair play, however. No, it was there in bold black Helvetica letters on white paper – they had almost trebled my maintenance payments overnight and in doing so had put me more than £3,000 in arrears.
But what hurt most at that moment on the swaying, hissing train was the reason for it happening. My ‘exotic’ life-style. That’s how Tallulah had described it – my ‘exotic’ life-style. Namely, my all-expenses-paid business trips abroad. I’d made four in the eighteen months we’d been apart. Somehow she’d known about them all.
But what she had never understood was that I was a very provincial morning newspaperman – not a media baron – and these trips were simply a perk of the job.
We split up two years after our child was born. In an attempt to treat our separation, at least, with a semblance of dignity we had worked out what I could afford to pay, taking into consideration the repayments on my £70,000 mortgage, bills and, not least, the £120 a week it cost me to travel to work.
The money we agreed worked out a little less than her ex-husband was paying for her first child, but he earned approximately £10,000 a year more than me. We also took into consideration her own income from her beauty products business and the fact that she was still able to – legally – claim substantial childcare and other benefits.
Midnight. Stoke Station in the rain. I finally found a taxi and made it home where I proceeded to do what men do. I got drunker than I’d been for months.
Welcome to my breakdown. I think it began the very next morning but took a few weeks to get a proper hold. That morning I woke up jet-lagged and with a hangover from hell. But what was worse was this feeling of floundering in a sea of anger and fear, this definitely wasn’t alcoholic remorse, it went deeper, right down inside of me like my emotions had been poisoned.
Oh, I carried on for a while, repaired my car out of my almost depleted savings and started paying the CSA’s demand. After that was paid along with my mortgage, my Council Tax, my water rates, a small loan, one credit card bill and my travel-to-work, I had less than £30 a week to live on. And there were obviously no benefits I could claim, it is decreed that single men must fend for themselves.
I also began a fruitless battle to get the CSA to see sense. But as far as they were concerned, they’d already seen it. As Helen at the CSA’s headquarters told me:
“All we do is take away your pleasure money sir.”
That particularly incensed me as I had heard through the same grapevine as Tallulah that she had just booked an all-inclusive break in Mexico. She had also bought a new car on the strength of her newfound wealth.
It’s worth noting here that if I had had a child living with me, (Note: This part of the story was written in 2002) the CSA would have allowed me £26 a week for that child’s upkeep before making their assessment. Why then did it cost so much a week for my share in the upkeep of our child?
I telephoned Dudley again and they told me to ‘stop moaning and get on with my responsibilities’.
Oh, I carried on for a while, four months or so but my circumstances were dire. And as my bills became more and more foreboding, so did my mind. I was literally losing it. My doctor said it was understandable, losing my daughter, my partner and not knowing from month to month if I could pay all my bills.
On the surface, in the office, everything seemed to be the same well-oiled engine but I knew the timing had slipped. Everything was working – but firing in all the wrong places. I knew my job was suffering and to make matters worse we’d just got a new editor. How things seem to conspire.
The broom the new editor was sweeping with was certainly bigger than my by-now battered ego. In morning newspaper terms, it was the nights of the long knives. Like with a car that is going wrong, all I knew to do was switch off. Shut down, cut off the power.
I know now that I’d fallen into a panic that was to last for two years. Day in. Day out.
A year into this state of mind I was diagnosed with reactive depression, which didn’t make me feel better at all. It started more warning bells sounding. I realised, at the moment of diagnosis, that I had been officially written off as suffering mental health problems and, as my doctor warned me, this would make it difficult for me to find work in the future. Nobody wants to employ the nutter, simple as that.
I began to see these problems as endless precipices yawning before me and it was so easy to step off any of them at any time. There is no doubt about it, there is an indefinable security in the bleakness at the bottom of any one of them. But long before this diagnosis, I’d given up on going to work and gone on the sick. You see, even though – before diagnosis – you don’t know what you are suffering from but you do know you can’t actually get up and go to work. There’s somebody else in the office in your driver’s seat. He looks like you, he might even still act a little like you. But you don’t trust him.
And the new editor is sweeping cleaner and cleaner in ever decreasing circles around you. You know that this other person, the one in the driver’s seat, won’t open letters and refuses to answer the telephone. You are floundering in this cold, dank, dirty fog that has become your mind and this fool who is pretending to be you is sitting there blotting out the only chink of light.
After the diagnosis things took a turn for the worse. The company, understandably, saw it as a chance to get rid of me. Who can blame them? I hadn’t been in for more than a year. So, I got a small pay-off and, because I’d just turned fifty, a paltry pension.
However, my income was deemed to be too great to qualify for housing benefit, council tax allowance or, indeed, free prescriptions for my anti-depressants. More rules you see.
I felt too poor by now to even self-medicate. To all intents and purposes, I was ruined. I was mentally ill and I couldn’t afford to live.
That’s when I started to take a look at my life and what it was actually worth. Not a great deal. I had become a bad debtor and, because of my illness, I could hardly think any more. But, with what little logic I did have left, I saw I could be far better off dead. I had insurances and an endowment that might pay off my mortgage. At least I could leave my children from my first marriage provided for – and I could set up a trust fund for my new daughter.
Welcome to my death wish…
It is documented that at least 100 men have taken their own lives as a direct result of the CSA getting their assessments wrong. NACSA, a small, but national, organisation fighting the CSA, publishes what it calls the Book of the Dead and says that the list will still grow despite the Government’s claim to have introduced new and fairer assessments.
The dead road I chose was a slow one, maybe because I was secretly hoping for some kind of redemption along the way. I found the money to drink a lot more by stopping eating and other measures like not paying my bills. Funny thing, isn’t it, that poor people can always find money for drink. Then, the irony of it, I discovered I couldn’t drink myself to death – the hangovers hurt too much.
So I tried to become positive and look for help by researching men’s groups. That’s when I encountered the Achilles Heel of man-dom. Men themselves. There is no help for men, there is no support system, no real benefits, no sympathy. And it is our own fault. A clear case of man’s inhumanity to man.
But we shouldn’t complain, men normally simply accept it as the law of nature. Men accept that they are the hunters who gather and then are eventually gathered from. It’s the way of the world.
Self-medication is very often all we have left and I had abortively been overdosing every day. In a haze of booze and insecurity I contacted the UK Men’s Movement, a volatile organisation that is proud of its macho anger.
Because of my professional credentials I was put straight through to its chairman, a real Rambo of men’s rights. His zealousness was admirable but he swamped my problems as he demanded that I put my talents to good use and co-ordinate a press campaign with him.
His parting growl of ‘shit or get off the pot’ summed him up.
Finally, I found NACSA and its little Book of the Dead. Forgive me if this brands me a male chauvinist pig but I was more than a little surprised to be contacted by a woman.
Now here is the First Lady of men’s rights, a charming middle-aged mother who began campaigning after her new husband was almost ruined by the CSA.
She discovered immediately that the CSA had got my case wrong – and that they actually owed me money. There had been an horrendous mistake, like I’d told them two years ago. But they had denied it, threatened me, in my incapable state, with endless paperwork and adjudicators. They had almost killed me.
Now they were going to pay.
But there was a brick wall between me and the faceless operatives of the CSA. My head was no longer strong enough to batter it down. I wrote letter after letter, I made phone call after phone call, I demanded, I threatened and I sulked.
And months later I got a letter of apology from the CSA saying they would compensate me ‘for inconvenience and error by the agency’. The cheque they enclosed for my reconstituted life was just £75. It didn’t even take the top off my credit card bill.
Well, perhaps that should have been the end of my story. But it isn’t.
I met a woman and just like in true romance, we had a lot in common, including the CSA.
She was about to loose her £250,000 home on the borders of Shropshire because her husband, a self-employed salesman who had run-off with his business partner, refused to contribute towards the upkeep of their two sons and their home.
Angelina was forlornly trying to meet the bills on her four-bed detached village property from the money she earned in a tiny stationery store. It was an uphill battle and eventually the bank decided to foreclose over debts from her husband’s business which were secured against the home.
In despair, Angelina finally went back to the CSA, believing that they would get money from him so that she could service the debts until the house was sold.
Within a month the CSA unapologetically came back to her explaining that they had dropped the case because her husband was self-employed. It was too difficult, they said, for them to discover how much he earned.
The house was sold at a knockdown price and Angelina received state benefits of £85 a week to support herself and her sons who were in full-time education. Her ex has never contributed a penny and has never been approached again by the CSA.
Meanwhile, I was subject to regular investigations by social services and the CSA who have accused me of working as a part-time fireman, of buying and selling cars and of working markets with a friend of mine who suffers from diabetes and circulation problems and has rarely left his house in the last two years.
Well, am I just a whinging bloke who has shirked his responsibilities? Or am I, my ex, my daughter, my new partner, her sons – and ultimately the taxpayer – all victims of a bureaucratic steamroller which has for decades been allowed to rampage through the wasteland of broken relationships and flatten what little is left?
There is no stopping it when it starts rolling at you – you can fling everything it demands in its path, you can fill in the forms, show them your wage slips, reveal your bank account, details of your past and your future, the state of your health, the state of your mind, details of your new partner’s earnings, her wage slips, bank accounts. But it won’t stop them. Every move I make, every change in my circumstances, every penny I earn, I have to report to them so they can re-assess me. This could happen month-by-month.
Somebody who works for an employer dare not earn overtime – or get a second job – it cooks the books too much and takes too long to sort out. A week’s overtime can have you paying at a new higher rate for months. And it is the devil’s own job to get a refund.
The men’s movement put it this way: “The practical effect of CSA harassment of fathers is that they eventually acquire an entirely new set of values that are utterly detrimental to the well-being of society. They go into the black economy, they fiddle the Social.
“Fathers who fight hardest for their kids often suffer the most psychologically, especially middle-class ‘believers’, the type who bought into the whole bourgeois ideal – they believe the system is there to help them. They soon finds out it isn’t. Businessmen hide earnings. They lose the incentive.
“The working-class guy goes on the Social and works in the black economy. Wife, CSA and kid get nothing. This is what happens and it’s to no one’s benefit, not the State, the ex, the man, and definitely not the kids.”
In fact it is now a far more dangerous organisation to become involved with. In the past one of the few ways to get the CSA off your back was to wait until your ex-partner came off benefits, then there was a chance that you and she would make a private agreement.
But because tax credits – the most predominantly claimed benefit – is not actually considered to be a benefit at all under the rules, most are now considered private clients and there is no escape.
NACSA said: “Nowadays, most parents with care want to involve the CSA because they know what damage they can do to their ex partner. It’s not just a case of getting the ex off benefit – its getting her to agree to come out of the system.
“Under the old rules the mother’s income would be included assuming she had sufficient to contribute. Under new rules, the mother’s income is disregarded.
“See that’s how it works – and fails. Women who are greedy and want to punish their ex have the weapon and ex-partners who are fighting tooth and nail to keep contact with their children, and would never dream of not paying towards them find it difficult. But just looking to be treated fairly. This is a Government-organised battle of the sexes.”