The quiet woman on the trail of Britain's runaway fathers

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The Independent Online
The daughter of a man who never paid any maintenance is to launch the Government's campaign to get absent fathers to support their children.

Ros Hepplewhite, head of the new Child Support Agency, will fire the opening shots tomorrow in the Government's long-awaited assault on runaway fathers, with an advertising campaign likely to scare a good many men who pay little or nothing towards their children's upbringing. She expects average maintenance payments to double, from pounds 25 a week per child to nearer pounds 50.

Ms Hepplewhite's agency will administer the Child Support Act, which comes into force in April. It has been attacked on all sides - by pressure groups representing custodial parents, by non-custodial parents, and by lawyers. But Ms Hepplewhite, by contrast, is widely felt to be A Good Thing. 'She is the acceptable face of an agency that will cause an awful lot of problems,' says Gingerbread, representing one-parent families.

'Ros is great: she's not insensitive to the problems, and her concern isn't the patronising concern you get from politicians,' says Bruce Lidington, of Families Need Fathers, which represents absent parents.

Ms Hepplewhite, 40, comes to her pounds 48,000-a-year job from the mental health charity Mind, where she was director. She insists that she harbours no personal animus against runaway fathers. 'Although my father didn't pay maintenance, we weren't hard up. This is a new agency for parents who live apart. And that means both parents. We will only be successful if we are seen as fair.'

Ms Hepplewhite's parents split up when she was a baby: 'It was very amicable; I saw quite a lot of my father.' She makes him sound rather feckless, even so. Asked what he did, she says: 'Well, I'm not sure I can say really. He had a lot of different jobs.'

Her mother, a teacher, had a strong character - 'a committee lady, a very active member of the community': just the sort of person who might raise a grammar- school girl who has carved out a career in public service. Ms Hepplewhite is quietly dressed, quiet- voiced, but in her own words, 'always very decisive'.

After school in Portsmouth, she went to London University to study classics. First she met her husband, a trainee solicitor, and they were married. 'It wasn't difficult being a student and married. I'd got my personal and emotional life sorted out, and that meant I could be more committed to academic life.'

She took a first and went to Oxford as a postgraduate, but realised that she did not want to be an academic. She worked at the Inns of Court, then had two babies in quick succession. They are now 16 and 15, and she is still married. 'I don't claim any particular wisdom about marriage, but it's been quite useful, having that stability. Once the children were toddlers, she began her career as an NHS administrator.

'Mental health seemed a neglected area. I was advised it would be a disaster, but I felt strongly about it, and then it didn't turn out to be such a disaster.'

MANY objections have been raised against the Child Support Act - chief among them that the Government sees it as a way of getting single mothers off benefit, so saving an estimated pounds 500m for the Exchequer. Mothers who have 'good cause' to withhold the name of the father of their child can do so, but campaigning groups are concerned that the 'good cause' must be upheld by civil servants, who will have the right to deduct pounds 8.80 a week benefit if they find otherwise.

The formula for working out how much a lone parent is entitled to is incredibly complex, taking into account housing costs and possible second families. But nowhere does it consider childcare costs; there is no provision for help from absent fathers with childminders or nurseries.

Meanwhile, absent fathers object that there will be no more 'clean break' settlements, where property and capital are signed over at the time of the divorce in exchange for lower maintenance; those that already exist may then be disregarded. And they believe that informal arrangements - the father who buys shoes rather than gives money - will go by the board.

Ms Hepplewhite does her best to answer the objections. More than one civil servant will be involved in 'good cause' decisions; appeals will be possible. There is no specific provision for childcare, but the amount a woman receives will take her circumstances into account; she can spend it as she wishes. The formula takes note of property costs. Access will still be determined by the courts; maintenance will now be dealt with as a separate issue.

Until the agency is fully functional, it will be impossible to judge the validity of the objections. Ms Hepplewhite certainly gives the impression she is prepared to be flexible. She is in no great rush to smooth over the anxieties; she promises: 'The policy will be evaluated quite rigorously.' Her 5,000 staff will all have training in dealing with clients. 'And we have made it very clear that if a woman says she is afraid of her former partner, her story will be believed.'

The idea of chasing up absent fathers suggests teams of detectives scouring the country for men in hiding. The reality is different. Most lone parents have an address for the absent parent: they are just not being paid, or not being paid enough.

During the interview, she talked repeatedly about fairness. 'One of my key tasks is to establish the credibility of the agency. That means it has to be efficient, consistent, and fair.

'I'm a practical-outcome sort of person, and I expect to be judged by whether the number of people regularly receiving maintenance rises sharply. But I see us treating both parents equally. We are not judgemental; I certainly don't see myself as a champion of single-parent women.'