Political Commentary: Wayne and Darren and the long arm of agency rule

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BARBARA CASTLE records in her diaries (a much livelier production than Mad Margaret's memoirs) that one of her lunches with me was a wretched meal. After pumping me as much as possible . . . , he refused to concede that Harold (Wilson) had done anything but 'rush through' (the White Paper on trade union reform). 'I think you are a dangerous woman. You are a button pusher like Kennedy and I don't like button pushers.' 'One can push a button to start Vietnamese peace talks as well as nuclear wars,' I pointed out. 'Doesn't matter. I am just against activists. I'm an old-fashioned Whig.'

I am sorry that Lady Castle did not enjoy her lunch, but have no complaints about the accuracy of her account. I reproduce it today only to demonstrate that, in nearly 25 years, my views have not changed. The latest example of state activism which has come to light is the Child Support Agency.

It is by no means isolated. The Thatcher years, of which the Major years are but a continuation by feebler means, saw a proliferation of administrative agencies, often run by sympathetic businessmen. It is a fallacy encouraged by Lady Thatcher and her followers to conclude that, because assorted speculators and crooks were set free to enrich themselves, it followed that the number of busybodies and Nosey Parkers diminished as a result.

If anything, the number has increased. Hardly a week goes by when some body or other vaguely responsible to the fiendish Mrs Virginia Bottomley does not issue a report (swallowed whole by the medical correspondents) saying that spinach causes cancer, or that anyone drinking more than four glasses of wine a day is in danger of turning into a hopeless alcoholic.

There have been several forces shaping this new system of government by agency. One is the emasculation of local authorities, and the assumption of their functions by various appointed bodies. Another is the hiving-off of parts of the civil service into new agencies. Yet another is the alliance that can often be welded between extreme right and extreme left.

The mass release of dangerous lunatics on to our streets is an illustration of this last force. The left thought they ought not to be in asylums at all, whereas the right were delighted to save money by chucking them out. The most recent illustration is the Child Support Act 1991, which (with a few exceptions) takes the whole area of children's maintenance away from the courts and hands it to an agency of the state, staffed by civil servants from the Department of Social Security.

At the time the opposition unsuccessfully moved an amendment on the ground, among others, that the single parent would not benefit sufficiently. Nor has she - though no Labour spokesman anticipated the unfairness of the agency's operations. Tracey may be entitled to pounds 80 in child maintenance and pounds 40 in social security. The agency recovers the pounds 80 from the absent Darren. But Tracey still receives only pounds 40. The Treasury gets the rest.

The indispensable Mr Frank Field expressed some doubts. The measure still received approbation from all sides. The impression conveyed by the government was that, though Sharon and Tracey might not always benefit, Wayne and Darren would none the less be compelled to 'face up to their responsiblities'.

Poor Wayne, poor Darren] They are the outcasts of our society, as much reviled by Ms Clare Short as by Mr Auberon Waugh. They do nothing all day long. Their only recreations are drinking, smoking and, when they can summon up the energy, engaging in sexual intercourse. They do not differ in any significant respect except poverty from several members of the Garrick Club of my acquaintance. No matter. So long as retribution was to be confined to Wayne and Darren, while the Treasury was to benefit correspondingly, everyone was content.

See what has happened. It all seems to have gone wrong. Nick and Nigel are to be punished as well. Indeed, the better they are behaving towards Emily and Fiona, their respected estranged spouses, the more brutally are they likely to be treated by the statist agency. For they are traceable, have money and are implementing a court order or an agreement. Such a judgment or arrangement is no protection against the advances of the Child Support Officer. Mr Tony Newton, then Secretary for Social Services, grievously misled the House on this aspect of the Act. He said on 4 June 1991:

I . . . draw the House's . . . attention to clause 8, which deals with the remaining jurisdiction of the courts. It provides a 'principle of mutual exclusivity'; where maintenance may be sought under the formula, it cannot be sought from the courts, but the classes of case covered by the Bill are more limited than those currently covered by the courts, so existing court powers will continue to apply to cases not covered by the new scheme.

This is what Mr Chris Patten would call a porky. Mr Newton implies that the agency and the courts have separate jurisdictions. This is not so. After 1996-7 (the starting date depends on the initial letter of parties' surnames), the powers of the courts over maintenance are completely excluded, except over a limited class of cases including step-children, higher education and children with disabilities. Moreover, on divorce or separation the parties cannot agree to exclude the powers of the agency. It is omnipresent.

Mr Newton told another fib. He said that the formula for maintenance reflected the financial consequences of any property settlement which had been or might be made. Quite the reverse: for one of the chief criticisms of the new system is that it overturns all previous policy favouring the 'clean break'.

It is high time for the Conservatives to return to social engineering. This is one of those phrases which have come to mean the opposite of the original. It is used pejoratively to describe social innovations which, it is alleged, treat people unfeelingly - as subjects for usually socialist experimentation. In its original use, by Sir Karl Popper, it signified modestly introduced changes, contrasting with, in particular, the inflexibility of Marxism. In The Poverty of Historicism, Popper wrote:

Just as the main task of the physical engineer is to design machines and to remodel and service them, the task of the piecemeal social engineer is to design social institutions, and to reconstruct and run those already in existence . . . The piecemeal technologist or engineer recognises that only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed while the vast majority have just 'grown' as the undesigned results of human action (italics supplied) . . . Whatever (the social engineer's) ends, he tries to achieve them by small adjustments and readjustments which can be continually improved upon.

He certainly does not try to achieve them by creating such a monster of unregulated state power as the Child Support Agency.