`Family First' Stirs Up Trouble in Britain
Fathers picket Downing Street and Parliament investigates a new government agency as new programs begin to focus on domestic issues
WHEN Prime Minister John Major decided to put family values at the heart of his government's political agenda, he did not imagine he would have irate fathers parading outside No. 10 Downing Street, protesting what they saw as government injustice.
But the Child Support Agency (CSA), set up last year as part of the ruling Conservative party's ``family first'' program, appears to be stirring up more problems than it is solving.
The CSA's intended role is to ensure that mothers whose husbands or partners have left them receive adequate child-support payments. But the new agency angered fathers who say they are facing demands to pay money they do not owe or possess, and many solo mothers say they are still having to rely on state-paid benefits because absent fathers are evading the CSA's demands.
The situation is so bad that the government has already had to order changes in the agency's rules only a year after they were framed. This followed a scathing report by the House of Commons social-security committee on the way the CSA was operated in its early months.
This summer the committee will carry out a further investigation of the CSA amid charges that its running costs are too high and that it is failing to meet its own targets for collecting cash from absent dads. The committee will also reconsider allegations that the CSA harasses some fathers.
Committee members will have before them the case of Stephen Jackson, a divorced man who committed suicide on May 4 when the CSA demanded that he increase by 50 percent his support payments to his former wife. Jackson left a note that read: ``Dear John Major. Thank you for nothing.'' It was later reported that his estranged wife had said she did not need the extra money.
The difficulties faced by the CSA are an embarrassment to a government that sets a great store on family values. At the Conservative party's annual conference last October, senior ministers received standing ovations when they attacked ``welfare scroun-gers,'' asserted that marriage was a necessary binding force in society, and promised that through the CSA and other agencies it would attempt to make parents face up to their responsibilities.
William Johnson, one of the fathers who in March joined a protest parade to mark the CSA's first anniversary, says the agency has put him in an impossible position. Five years ago, he and his former wife agreed to a divorce settlement under which she was awarded the family home and 50 pounds a week for herself and the couple's two children. Johnson has since remarried and has two children by his second wife.
``Late last year,'' Johnson says, ``I received a demand from the CSA for an extra 100 pounds a week.'' He says that on his schoolmaster's salary, the only way he could begin to pay it would be to deprive his new family of ``the necessities of life.'' Johnson is one of some 12,000 fathers who have lodged appeals against what they regard as unjust demands by the CSA.
There can be little doubt that the government was addressing a serious problem when it decided to do something about fathers who quit home and fail to pay alimony and child support. Two-thirds of absent fathers make no monetary contribution at all to their children's upkeep.
According to official figures, those who do pay contribute on average of 25 pounds a week. Of Britain's estimated 1.3 million single mothers, 1 million have to rely on state benefits.
The government initially hoped that the activities of the CSA would reduce the amount of cash paid out to mothers from the state social security fund. It also anticipated that the agency under Ros Hepplewhite, its chief executive, would be a more efficient collector of child-support money than the social security department, which used to carry out that function.
In fact, CSA's collection rate in its first year was roughly the same as the social security department's was 12 months earlier. Ms. Hepplewhite says this is partly because absent fathers, under revised rules, are being given longer to pay their child-support arrears.
Some fathers are flatly refusing to pay bills on the grounds that they entered into legally binding ``clean break'' divorce settlements with their ex-wives. They claim that legislation operated retrospectively is unjust.
A further complaint leveled at the CSA is that it is concentrating its efforts on middle-class fathers whom it can trace easily and who, it believes, can afford to increase their payments.
Charles Wilson, a lawyer, left home in 1987. His three children live with his estranged wife. He says the CSA is ``targeting middle-class, white-collar fathers and failing to pursue the less-well-off blue-collar men because they are harder to find and have less money to contribute.''
Mr. Wilson has reluctantly agreed to increased payments, but insists that the demand ``has no basis in morality or law.''
The CSA was set up with cross-party support. Few of the problems that have since arisen were anticipated when the legislation was debated in Parliament.
Alistair Burt, a social security minister whose home was a target in the March protests, says there are bound to be teething problems at CSA, and that it is ``too soon to be making definitive statements'' about how the agency will develop.
Frank Field, chairman of the Commons social security committee, has told Peter Lilley, social security secretary in Major's cabinet, that the government has been too slow to accept the need for further changes.
Lilley, however, last month sent a letter to Field, saying he was determined not to be rushed into further changes.
* One in an occasional series of articles on family issues worldwide.