Robert Hanks' Television Review

YOU CAN tell from miles away when a politician has started talking about family values: just keep an eye out for the vultures circling overhead. They must have been licking their lips back in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher dreamed up the Child Support Agency. As the Conservative government saw it, making errant fathers pay for the upkeep of their offspring was a marvellous way of reinforcing family values, and if the Treasury could make a few bob at the same time - well, why not?

Can't Pay, Won't Pay (Sun C4) came up with some very convincing reasons why not, and in the process offered a lovely illustration of how easy it is for politicians to get things horribly, horribly wrong. Initially, the CSA seemed an obviously attractive idea - the principles behind it pure "motherhood and apple-pie", in the words of one ex- minister. But because everybody was so busy supporting the principle, nobody, including the supposed opposition, bothered to scrutinise the details. Frank Field pointed out that voters always want politicians to agree on things: in fact, agreement is a recipe for disaster.

Some shrewd politicians spotted that the CSA might be a political hot potato. One school of thought had it that the agency should be run by the Inland Revenue. Peter Lilley, chief secretary to the Treasury at the time, popped up to describe how he had argued against this view, objecting that if the tax system got embroiled in family disputes, people would be more reluctant to pay tax. The CSA was hived off to the Department of Social Security; unfortunately for Lilley, shortly afterwards so was he, thoroughly hoisted with his own petard.

Even though it wasn't running the scheme, the Treasury still did its bit to cock things up. In Wisconsin, a similar agency had been run successfully on the assumption that budget savings could not be a primary objective. Over here, though, the Treasury's eagerness to save money won out: it was decided that mothers would not be allowed to keep any of their benefit payment once they were getting money from their husbands. As the commentary mordantly put it: "At a stroke, millions of mothers were no better off" - which meant they had no incentive to co-operate with the CSA.

The blunders piled up: it was decided that the CSA should not just take on new cases, but should rake up a lot of old ones. The formula devised for deciding how much money should be paid by fathers was of sufficient complexity to boggle an astrophysicist; the CSA's new staff, poorly trained and using an unreliable computer system, didn't have the foggiest how to work it. The result was thorough-going chaos.

Bureaucracy is rarely a subject to make the pulse race, but here, the snowballing idiocy was presented with a clarity and understated wit that made it a grim sort of pleasure.

If you subscribe to the Larkin theory of history, which holds that sexual intercourse began in 1963, you will realise that it can all be put down to popular music. A refinement of this is the Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll theory, which holds that everything permissive started in 1965 in Eccles: two weeks into Debbie Horsfield's series on BBC1, and the theory is still looking darned cute but not very plausible.

If you do follow that line of thought, you may agree with the witness who suggested, in Mr Rock and Roll (Sun C4), that Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's Svengali-like manager, should be compared with Hitler and Mussolini. Even if you don't, Colonel Parker didn't emerge as a terribly nice man: he greeted Elvis's death as a terrific marketing opportunity. It is also likely that he was a murderer, on the run from the law in his native Holland. (His real name was Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk, and he was never in the army; but as a friend said, "He's as much a colonel as anybody else, I guess... Probably as much a colonel as Colonel Sanders.") By his own account, in his early days he ran a dancing chickens show - the chickens were persuaded to dance by being placed on a red-hot boiler.

These were exciting revelations but, rather unwisely, they all came in the last five minutes of what was otherwise an oddly dull programme. Given a choice between Elvis and the civil service, I'd pick Elvis every time; but this time, I would have been badly wrong.

Comments