Inside Parliament: Absent parents? Impale them: Right-winger insists that Child Support - Agency must not let fathers off the hook

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Indy Politics
Edward Leigh, whose unconcealed Thatcherite views cost him his ministerial job, yesterday set the Child Support Agency at the centre of Tory right's prescription for transferring responsibility for social problems from the state to individuals.

Taking part in a Labour-initiated debate on the CSA, Mr Leigh said a vision of restructuring social security policy into 'something much more personal and postive' was one that could be shared by all political parties.

The MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle's position in the political spectrum is such that his visions of public policy are pretty strong for his own party, let alone Labour or the Liberal Democrats. A Eurosceptic, he was sacked by John Major as Under-Secretary for Trade and Industry in last summer's reshuffle.

But Mr Leigh is certainly not a lone voice. He is a political soul mate of Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, and Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Indeed his remarks contained echoes of Mr Portillo's speech a week ago deploring the way dependency on state benefits eroded self-sufficiency.

Mr Leigh said the debate about the CSA had come at an interesting point in that about society as a whole. 'The 1980s may have been an era of dismantling inefficient distant state structures; the problem is that people drew the wrong moral from the story. They came to believe that individuals could divorce themselves from each other and from society. Society came to be seen as a disparate collection of largely professional and expert groups.

'But the real villain of the piece is social security in assuming that we are all strangers to one another and society.' A vast bureaucracy had been erected, spending pounds 80bn: the CSA was a particularly painful cog.

'We want to make the CSA and social security generally more personal, more humane and more designed to empower people out of dependency and into family support, not state support.'

Mr Leigh said absent parents should not be let off the hook. 'If anything they should be impaled upon it more securely.' This would, however, be on the basis of continued access, care and involvement in the upbringing of the children. The absent father should not be seen just as 'some distant sugar daddy' required to pay the bills.

'Parents may divorce in the sense that they refuse to live together, but they cannot divorce their lives if they have children, and society should state this clearly and boldly. There can be no clean break.'

With backbench MPs on both sides of the chamber airing the grievances of second families hit by the CSA's demands, Peter Lilley received unexpected support for his defence of the aims of the agency from Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

'If the CSA is to succeed, what has to happen is a sea change in attitudes,' Ms Abbott said. 'Too many quite well-meaning absent parents have believed that so long as they saw their children regularly and paid pocket money, they were content for income support to bear the burden of the real cost of bring up those children.'

IN A maiden speech, David Chidgey, Liberal Democrat winner of last month's Eastleigh by-election, said his election had been a powerful message to the Government to listen to the people and change its policies. Somewhat improbably, unless Eastleigh has an unusually high proportion of absent and lone parents, he said the need to reform the CSA was his constituents' greatest concern.

'The draconian operations of the CSA and the clear evidence that it is the Treasury and not the children who are far and away the major beneficiaries only serve to underline the need for urgent and fundamental review of the current system of maintenance.'

OPENING the debate, Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said the CSA needed friends. Without swift action to change the rules and its rigid framework it might not survive. 'Any government that pursues at this point a wait-and-see policy is fuelling the crisis and playing a very dangerous game.'

That, though, appeared the essence of Mr Lilley's game - at least until he sees the effect of changes already in hand at the agency and a report on it by the Select Committee on Social Security due in October. 'Anything to do with children, family breakdown and money is bound to raise strong emotions,' he said, neatly summing up his and the CSA's predicament.

On the verge of rebellion, Michael Stern, Conservative MP for Bristol NW, said the Government had created a monster. It was not sufficient to say 'we will get around to doing something about that monster in our own time'. Real hardship was being caused, he said. 'We are entitled to expect more radical action from this Government in dealing with that hardship than we have so far.'