`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

Article excerpt

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. …


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