Leading Article: An agency with little support

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The Independent Online
PARLIAMENTARIANS were asleep on the job when, with all- party support, they created the Child Support Agency. Yesterday, more than two years and much misery later, MPs identified glaring inadequacies that should have been fiercely contested back in 1991.

As a minimum, ministers must now accept the changes recommended by the Commons social security committee: that revised maintenance settlements should be phased in and not imposed suddenly; that awards should be cut to recognise the costs of supporting stepchildren in a second family; and that absent parents ought not to be reduced to penury.

But these recommendations only touch on the problems with this agency. Parliament's apathy when it debated the legislation means that the CSA is entitled to override divorce settlements and impose its own terms. Such retrospective legislation is an intolerable executive assault on the legal process.

In yesterday's report, MPs once more failed to correct this governmental abuse. The social security committee endorsed the CSA's power to ignore transfers of family homes when assessing an absent parent's liability. Failure to acknowledge such support will continue to embitter already divided couples and will clog the courts as angry fathers try to reclaim domestic property.

The CSA is, in principle, a sound innovation. Its creation promised a clear, administrative method of ensuring that parents take responsibility for their children and do not foist the entire burden on the state. At last the Government recognised the plight of lone mothers impoverished by inadequate maintenance payments that frequently never arrived. But it has acted high-handedly and has elevated saving money above bolstering family life. Its style is at odds with the compassionate approach enshrined in Lord Mackay's Green Paper on divorce.

The CSA's narrow, penny- pinching brief is exemplified by the performance-related pay deal enjoyed by Ros Hepplewhite, its chief executive. The more money she recovers from fathers, the fatter her salary. Improving family life is unlikely to be so clearly rewarded.

The agency's role has been distorted in a manner that should act as a warning. Ministers successfully steered the legislation through Parliament because they had secured the acquiescence of left-of-centre, middle-class feminists. So the Opposition was lulled into a false sense of security. A few politicians, such as Joan Lestor, highlighted the now obvious pitfalls, but won little support from colleagues. Yet it is now clear that many fathers and their second families will lose dramatically from this legislation. MPs failed to protect the legitimate interests of a group that neither identified nor voiced its own concerns.

As a result of this failure, one of Britain's most important pieces of social legislation will need many changes before it becomes an acceptable part of life in this country.