Profile: Single mum with attitude: Sue Slipman, one-parent campaigning dynamo

Friday 20 May 1994 23:02 BST

A YEAR ago Sue Slipman thought she had finally hit the big time. She learnt on the Whitehall grapevine that she was to be the next chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Then came the snub.

Downing Street, it seems, intervened at the last minute and vetoed her appointment. After all, Slipman is a former Communist who defected to help to found the SDP in 1981, and an unmarried mother who has run the small but increasingly respected National Council for One Parent Families for the past decade. Far too controversial - and, cynics might add, far too well-known and far too effective - for such a sensitive post.

The Prime Minister must surely now regret having exercised his veto. 'Sue was devastated when she was turned down,' said a friend. 'She was desperate to move on and this seemed the ideal move.' But her disappointment did not last long. She threw herself with renewed vigour into the job of campaigning on behalf of one-parent families - just at the point at which John Major's government moved family values up the political agenda, thus enabling her small organisation to shift centre-stage.

Slipman's high-profile task over the past 12 months has involved taking apart the Government's spasmodic and uncertain campaign against one- parent families. Most recently she has also played a key role in defending the Child Support Agency, at a time when ministers seemed prepared to wring their own difficult infant's neck in response to the CSA's insensitive behaviour and inadequate management - and to unedifying male outrage at its very existence.

This week Mr Major appeared to raise the white flag to Ms Slipman and her allies. He told the Commons that the workings of the agency were to be reviewed and that legislation to change it is likely in the autumn. It looks as if the 'can't pay, won't pay' male backlash which threatened to destroy the CSA may perhaps have been deflected. There will be changes and there is now a chance that they will be realistic, and work to the advantage of those in genuine need - very much in line with those proposed by the single mothers' champion.

This is the Slipman style, which she once described as 'knowing the art of the possible and trying to work with the grain'. An admiring friend adds: 'All done by quiet lobbying, cool, informed articles and meticulous research - but no banners, no marches and no shouting,' referring to the situation Slipman found when she joined the National Council for One Parent Families as director. It was then a cantankerous hotbed of radical- left do-goodery, more interested in campaigning than in getting results. Should the staff take 'The Banner' on a miners' support group march, she was asked soon after arriving. Her reaction was to ask why the council had a banner at all.

Out went the banner and out went the marchers and chanters. Today the 27-strong, pounds 1m-a-year operation is run with meticulous managerial efficiency from modest offices in north London. 'Slipman is that rarest of animals, a campaigner who actually enjoys the business of management and is bloody good at it,' says a colleague.

Among the reforms for which the cerebral Ms Slipman can claim a considerable measure of credit are the Family Law Reform Act, which removed the stigma of illegitimacy, childcare allowances for low-income families and the concept (though not the performance) of the CSA. But, typically, she is most proud of a three- year, pounds 1m government contract (that recently came to an end) under which lone parents were trained in job application and work skills, and provided with child care while on the course. She is obtaining funding from industry to replace government money.

'Her view is that it is not about how wonderful you feel working there (the NCOPF) but about delivering services and trying to influence whatever government is in power,' according to Polly Toynbee, the BBC's social affairs editor.

Ten years in one small organisation is a long time for a well-regarded, ambitious and effective figure. So why has Slipman, now 44, not been offered any number of opportunities to move onward and upward (setting aside the Equal Opportunities fiasco)? One reason is that she fell into a situation in which she needed the support and understanding provided by the very kind of organisation she leads.

During the 1987 general election, on leave from the NCOPF to fight Hayes and Harlington as a Social Democrat, Slipman found herself suffering sickness, stomach pains and all sorts of strange ailments. She thought she had a bug; in fact, she was pregnant. By accident rather than by design, Sue Slipman was herself about to become a single mother.

Her son, Gideon, is now six. He suffers from severe asthma and is often in hospital. When he is sick, as he was this week, Sue works from her modest south London home. Her commitment to Gideon is the one thing that she allows to break into her grinding schedule. Even when Gideon is well she makes a point of being with him every evening so that they can read to each other. It is a fairly austere, though, she insists, a fulfilling, existence that leaves little time for the regular visits to the cinema, the theatre and the opera that she once enjoyed.

'My parents read, but we didn't have books in the house, and I don't remember being read to,' Slipman said recently. 'I had to make my own way to the public library. I want Gideon to have those things on tap, those reference points that I struggled to find.'

She is the youngest of three sisters from a close and happy though often poor working-class Jewish family that moved to a council estate in Brixton, south London, from Whitechapel, where her Russian-born grandparents lived. Her father was variously a merchant seaman, ran a kosher pie-and- mash shop, was an ice-cream salesman and a cabbie. When Slipman was 18, her mother died, slowly, of cancer. Her father's death followed a few months later. From then until the birth of Gideon, she was on her own.

She gained a first in English at the University of Wales and joined the Communist Party, disillusioned with the Wilson government and scornful of the posturing of the trendy Trot left. Then, as a postgraduate at Leeds University in the early Seventies, she entered student politics in a big way.

She was full-time secretary of the NUS for two years, then its president. Because she was young, female, pretty and a Communist in a laddish environment, she gained endless media attention of the sexist 'Red Sue' variety. In reality she was more interested in controlling a large organisation that negotiated with the government and vice-chancellors and ran a number of businesses.

In the aftermath of the 'Winter of Discontent' which brought down the Callaghan government in 1979, Slipman moved to the then far-left National Union of Public Employees which had played a leading role in the mayhem. Navely, as she now admits, she thought the unions would learn from their mistakes.

The early Eighties were a nasty, vindictive period on the left. Her highly publicised shift to the SDP left the fragile-looking 31-year-old dangerously exposed. On the day the new party was launched, she was defending a Nupe member before the disciplinary committee of a Labour-controlled council. One of the councillors ran up to her. ' 'Traitor]' he screamed as he spat in my face,' Slipman recalled years later. Her position in the union was untenable and she left at the first opportunity.

When the SDP and the Liberals merged in 1990 to form the Liberal Democrats she was one of the few to stick by her friend David Owen and what he called the 'continuing' SDP. In 1992 she became a director of the Social Market Foundation, set up by the multimillionaire David Sainsbury to provide a private think-tank for the Owenites. Recently she resigned from that too, because she found its agenda 'too Conservative'.

So Slipman is uncompromising as far as her own often anguished political pilgrimage is concerned. As a result she feels, so she told friends recently, 'totally and utterly (politically) dispossessed'. She talked wistfully of how much she missed 'a wider political connection'.

In truth, it is almost impossible to conceive of circumstances that would allow her to re-enter politics. And, to her credit, she is too passionate and too prickly, too committed to her own agenda, to move effortlessly through the ranks of the female Great and Good from one fashionable quango or charity to the next.

So what will Sue do next? There is no obvious answer. But one observer suggested this week that an imaginative prime minister might ease out Ros Hepplewhite, the present chief executive of the CSA, swallow his pride and appoint Sue Slipman to sort out the mess. With an annual buget of almost pounds 100m, a staff of 5,200 and a king-size image problem, that would be a task worthy of Ms Slipman's managerial skills, her commitment and her talents as a lobbyist. Although the suggestion was made half in jest, Mr Major could make a worse choice.

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