When protest turns to poison: Lies, intimidation and thuggery are marring the campaign against the CSA, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown discovered

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CAMPAIGNERS against the Child Support Agency gave Fathers' Day a political dimension as they trooped through the streets of central London yesterday on a 'mass tourist trip' (they had been banned from marching). More than a hundred had already spent the night there, taking part in a 'sleep out'. And their representatives will be giving evidence on Wednesday as part of a week-long review of the CSA by the Social Security Select Committee.

This is the stuff of determined democratic protest. But there is another side to the anti-CSA campaigning, more sinister and much less democratic. It involves manipulation, coercion and intimidation, yet it has been largely ignored.

That there would be opposition to the work of the CSA should never have been in doubt. Ros Hepplewhite, the agency's head, says: 'What we are up against is resistance to a cultural shift. Maintenance had come to be seen as an option. Now we are saying it is an ongoing, everyday obligation.' But it would have been hard to anticipate the power and the fury of middle-class second families that has been aroused during the past year.

Circulating throughout the country are 'Wanted' posters describing Ros Hepplewhite, a civil servant, as a Myra Hindley figure: 'Guilty of the Torture of Innocents' and 'Crimes Against Humanity'. A leaflet by the Campaign Against Parental Exploitation (Cape), accuses CSA staff of being similar to 'SS employees'. Another group, Strike Back, says in its latest missive: 'All CSA and DSS workers are targets. You can hit their cars, homes, personal lives, belongings, and anyone involved with them. We need information on CSA officials' home addresses, we need telephone numbers and office numbers. Also where they drink, social clubs, etc. Ring every time you can and be totally insulting to everybody.'

One CSA worker told me he had been spat upon and punched in his local pub. Used condoms, excreta and even razor blades have been sent to the CSA's offices.

Ms Hepplewhite is stoical: 'I don't take it personally. Among the agency staff, in spite of the distress, morale and commitment seem very good. But I have been concerned at the way my elderly parents have been doorstepped by the press. They have found that very difficult and it has caused me concern.'

The mainstream anti-CSA organisations seem ambivalent about these extremist tactics. Mike Pimblott of the Network Against the Child Support Act (Nacsa), for example, says: 'I don't agree with that kind of thing at all . . . But you have to understand that there are a lot of people in despair.'

Nacsa and Families Need Fathers (FNF) are both regarded as credible, representative organisations. They make valid arguments for the rights of fathers who have been victimised by the law and their previous partners, and now by the CSA.

But FNF, which has been in existence since 1979, has some militant members who carry out some extremist practices. A World In Action television programme shown in March 1993, in which the FNF's vice-chairman, Bruce Lidington, appeared, secretly filmed two FNF members giving advice to a 'father' (actually a Granada researcher) on how to abduct children from their mothers.

According to FNF's new draft statement of aims, 'Most separations and divorces are now caused by the women. Changes in family law . . . have ensured that these women may . . . continue their lives without responsibility towards anyone.' It goes on to state that FNF intends to 'set up a register of women who have abandoned their husbands, sought to cut off fathers from their children or otherwise damaged a father and his children'. Mr Lidington could not explain what the register was for. He accepted that as worded this idea seemed 'madness' but thought that perhaps it had an 'educational' purpose.

This confusing mixture of good sense, exaggeration and diatribe seems characteristic of these groups. Mr Pimblott talks sincerely about 'responsibility and justice for everyone, including first partners and their children', and then claims that the National Council For One Parent Families 'is secretly funded by the Government for propaganda purposes'.

Julia Lyons, of Medway Against the CSA, alleges, quite wrongly, that Sue Slipman, head of One Parent Families, 'has been married three times and has had all those men. . . . her organisation only has 200 people'. In its latest press release, Nacsa begins by making some important suggestions for changes to the CSA and goes on to proclaim that 'continuance of the stance of rejecting outright the views of the public will cause potential civil unrest and disruption to way of life'.

Perhaps this inflated sense that the campaign reflects the views of the entire nation comes out of the rapid proliferation of groups around the country and the massive impact they appear to be having. Nacsa, the largest organisation, says it has 212 local groups and a membership of 200,000.

David Holder, its spokesman, says: 'There are groups springing up in every town and village; the largest one is in Newcastle, with 800 members. There is now a railway workers' group and a gas workers' group against the CSA too.'

FNF, which has 2,000 paid-up members, says that many more seek its help. Then there are the Second Wives and Partners' Support Group, Families Against the CSA, and so on, all funded through voluntary contributions or subscriptions.

Second partners of men have been noticeably vociferous and active campaigners. Many of them are abusive towards first partners, some of whom can indeed be vengeful and destructive. But they were frequently described to me as 'bitches' who 'don't want to get off their butts', or who 'poison their children against the fathers'.

'Just call me' Julie, who took part in ghoulish demonstration last November where second partners laid flowers and wreaths for still- living children, is unapologetic: 'These women want to destroy us because they are jealous of our happiness. And we won't let them.'

Perhaps empathy with the plight of first partners is simply emotionally impossible when people are locked into age-old triangles where the bitterness and anger between women sweeps aside any notions of sisterhood, female independence or respect.

Linda Sutherland, who has started a support group for lone mothers, says she understands this only too well: 'I was the second wife. The first woman was the wicked witch; now I have been left for number three and I am the bitch. It is more shocking than the men being terrible, this. However emancipated a woman is, it is so easy to start believing that the poor man was misunderstood and mistreated by the other woman.'

Another potent campaign tool has been the spreading of misinformation. Of the seven suicides attributed to the CSA, in five cases there is no proven direct link. Derek Atkins, the 37-year-old civilian worker with Humberside police, had received just one form from the CSA. Another suicide case was receiving benefits and would have been required to pay pounds 2.30 per week. The families of both abhor the hijacking of their tragedies by interest groups.

A World in Action programme broadcast last November was criticised for showing only the views of the fathers, and including exaggerated claims which were subsequently disputed by first partners.

In another case, one woman told me that the CSA was leaving her children with pounds 15.05 per child per week, while awarding pounds 125 to the child of a previous relationship. Others gave me similar figures. Yet the CSA insists this would not happen. Many of the excessively high figures are emergency assessments, which work in a similar way to emergency tax codes.

Although most of the fathers I spoke to said they accepted that changes in maintenance law were long overdue, not one was prepared to accept the real cost of sharing his income more equally between his two families. FNF carried advice in its newsletter last autumn on how men could pay their salaries into second partners' accounts and/or quit work in order to reduce their CSA assessments.

Important facts have been left out of the public debate. Some 18,000 men are paying child support for the first time. About 70 per cent of lone mothers did not get a penny from the fathers previously; 96 per cent of these women were on benefits, while 92 per cent of the men were in employment. Some 7,000 mothers have been able to escape the benefits trap and take up training and part-time work.

Many men and their new families are getting a raw deal, and not all first partners are wronged angels. But reform of the agency should not be made on the basis of such a massively one-sided debate and intimidatory tactics. If we allow that to happen, we will be penalising once more women who are already locked into powerlessness and poverty, and rewarding those who have been smart enough to turn their self-pity and self-interest into a crusade.

Within 24 hours of starting to research this article, my phone was virtually jammed with unsolicited calls, mainly from second partners telling me their 'side of the story'. After 15 such calls over one evening, I asked one woman what was going on. Embarrassed and flustered, she said: 'I am really sorry, but I was told to ring you.'

By whom? 'Well, we have this network and this is what we do when we hear that somebody is writing about the CSA, and we don't want you to say things like 'these whingeing men' and that.'

The next day, three male callers demanded to know why I was afraid to tell them what I was writing. One furious man claiming to be from a provincial newspaper asked for my NUJ number and harangued me: 'They don't know you at the Independent. I'm going to do a number on you. What is your story? Come on, let me have it.'

There followed two calls, the first from a man who, after asking me if I was a divorced mother, threatened: 'Within a day, we can find out all this and where you live. There are policemen in our campaign you know.'

The next was from a weeping woman who refused to give her name but said that if I defended the CSA I would be helping to starve her babies.

Any other callers, please contact the Independent. Hopefully they don't know who I am there.

(Photograph omitted)