'No one listened' over child support: The anger provoked by the system goes back to its roots

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CONSULTANTS hired to set up the computer systems at the Child Support Agency's headquarters were among the first to realise that the confused and often bitter experiences of millions of divorced and separated people could not be straightened out by a government-imposed equation.

'It was just impossible to create computer programmes that would realistically take account of individual circumstances,' said one. 'But the management kept saying that there must be a standard formula. We warned it was going to be too crude. We said fathers were going to be treated unfairly and there was going to be one hell of a fuss.'

Last week the programmers would have had a receptive audience. The Commons Social Services Committee held an inquiry into whether the agency was penalising poor men and MPs talked of receiving bags of mail from fathers already paying maintenance whose bills have been 'arbitrarily' increased fourfold.

But last year no one listened. The Child Support Agency began work on 1 April in a remarkable atmosphere of agreement between right-wing ministers and nominally left-of- centre feminists.

Both were certain that men were at fault. They ran away from their responsibilities and did not pay maintenance. A state-backed system must take the place of the courts, assess men's income, dock maintenance and in the process save taxpayers the pounds 3.2bn cost of supporting single parents.

The peculiar alliance left little room for awkward questions about the real nature of relationships between the sexes in modern Britain, family lawyers claimed last week.

On the right, Margaret Thatcher launched the drive against absent parents in January 1990 with characteristic certainty about what was needed. 'No father should be able to escape from his responsibility,' she said. A collapse in family life was the result of permissive 1960s morals.

On the centre-left, Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said in an interview shortly afterwards that she agreed absolutely with the call for feckless men to pay up.

Kenneth Baker, the then Prime Minister's loyal party chairman, echoed Mrs Thatcher: 'It is crucial that we begin to break the culture which views it as acceptable for a man to walk away from the consequences of his own actions.'

On 29 October 1990, Tony Newton, then Secretary of State for Social Security, announced proposals to set up the Child Support Agency with what appears now to be the optimistic promise that it would 'prevent maintenance becoming a source of conflict between parents'.

The consensus was symbolised by the appointment of Ros Hepplewhite, who moved from the liberal health charity Mind, to become chief executive of the Government's Child Support Agency.

She received a Thatcherite performance-related pay contract which ensured that the more money she recovered from fathers the more she earned.

The only issue to receive serious attention when the Child Support Act went through Parliament was whether women should be forced to identify the fathers of their children.

It was an irrelevance. According to Ms Hepplewhite last week, virtually no women found naming fathers was a difficulty.

Frank Field, Labour chairman of the social services committee, said that worries about the agency's power to reverse clean break divorce settlements and ignore the costs of caring for stepchildren in second marriages - now loudly heard - were raised in the Commons when the Bill went through. 'But the climate of opinion meant that ministers could just ignore them. The debates were sparsely attended.'

James Pirrie, an executive member of the Solicitors Family Law Association, said: 'Looking back, the most astounding thing about this fiasco is how middle-class left and right-wingers created the mythical bogyman of the absent father who wandered around council estates, siring children without a care in the world.'

The feeling that the problem with families is a problem with men is still very strong.

Last week, Nikki Jones, spokeswoman for the National Council for One Parent Families, rejected with contempt the idea that a man (90 per cent of absent parents are fathers) be guaranteed the right to see his children in return for increased maintenance payments.

Even a father's decisions on what to buy his children should be subject to state scrutiny, she said. It would not be 'legitimate' for the agency to take account of the money a father spent on children when it drew up his maintenance bill because 'many mothers find it nauseating the way fathers waltz in at Christmas with glitzy presents. They want to take the kids out on holidays while leaving the wife to scrimp and save.'

But a meeting of leading family barristers and solicitors last week showed how unpopular the once-modish idea that the Child Support Agency could use one formula to decide what is 'legitimate' for every absent father to give his children has become. The lawyers were blunt about the need for men to be given the right to appeal to the courts against the agency's decisions.

'No formula, no matter how sophisticated, can allow for all sets of circumstances. Each family is unique.' Second families would increasingly feel the pinch, they said.

Two-thirds of divorces are not the result of men running away, as Mr Baker implied, but are initiated by women. More importantly, the vast majority of separated partners invariably end up in second relationships.

The agency's formula, however, which all separated parents will have to use by 1996, takes almost no account of serial monogamy. If a man or woman marries again, the cost of looking after stepchildren is barely considered.

The formula also states that when a separated man or woman moves in with a new partner, he or she is allowed just 75 per cent of his or her housing costs.

Mr Pirrie described the case of a man who had moved in with a woman with three children. His allowance for housing costs fell from 100 to 75 per cent. The fact that he was supporting a mother and three children who previously lived on income support was ignored. He has no hope of reclaiming money from the stepchildren's natural father until 1996, when the agency has the retrospective power to extract money from all separated parents.

Put like this, the argument sounds like a war between the rights of first and second families. Both the National Council for One Parent Families and the Family Policy Studies Centre, an independent research body, said last week that the real choice raised by the agency was whether second families suffered because the man was hit for maintenance or whether first families, often consisting of single mothers, continued to be supported by the taxpayer.

But Mr Pirrie warned that there were 'dreadful' consequences ahead for the single mothers the agency was meant to help.

Most would not gain because, unlike in Australia, which successfully uses a formula to deduct income from absent fathers and which has been held up to justify the British experiment, nearly every extra pound the agency gets from the father would be deducted from the single mother's state benefit. Even if the agency pushed single mothers above the income support level, they would lose free prescriptions and school meals for their children.

Most worryingly, the agency could soon start placing single mothers' homes in danger. The much-criticised court system awarded low maintenance orders in the 1980s, but a man leaving his wife and children would normally give her the house or arrange to pay the mortgage.

The Child Support Agency formula is concerned with the day-to-day maintenance costs of children. The absent father must pay half of his income left after living costs - arbitrarily fixed at a maximum of pounds 190 a month - and his housing costs have been deducted. Debts, loans, the cost of travelling to see children, and the fate of the former family home do not enter into the equation.

'The result is, a solicitor would be guilty now of professional negligence if he did not tell a father with debts and a large maintenance bill to pay, to ask the courts for permission to sell the family house and raise some money,' Mr Pirrie said.

Nicholas Mostyn, member of the Family Law Bar Association, said the outcry would only grow louder. 'At the moment the agency just imposes orders when the mother is on benefit. In 1996, it will be able to tear up and renegotiate every divorce settlement retrospectively. There will then be a scream of pain from middle-class Tories which you will hear on the other side of the world.'

(Photograph omitted)