‘Parental responsibility’: the reassertion of private patriarchy?
Lorraine M. Fox Harding
Since 1979, the Conservative governments in Britain have developed an interest in the issue of family responsibility, notably as it impinges on the scope of state responsibility and in particular on the amount of expenditure involved. A rhetoric of family behaviour has been developed in which certain themes, such as individual responsibility and the undesirability of dependence on the state, have become central to the aim of restoring or revitalizing family responsibility. A major preoccupation has been the area of parental responsibility. The Conservative interest bears the mark of a lobby known variously as neo-traditionalist, moral, and ‘family values’. This lobby is internally heterogeneous, but shares a concern with the decline of the marriage-based family. A central preoccupation is the problem for government and society of the rise in lone-parent families, especially where mother-headed. For this group, the dependence of mothers on the state must be avoided. Dependence on the family, particularly for financial support, is regarded as vastly preferable.
This chapter focuses on the Child Support Act 1991 and its effects.1 This covers resistance from men, reactions from women, government responses to the dissatisfaction with the Act, and likely continued dissatisfaction in the future. Two concepts are explored: ‘parental responsibility’ and ‘private patriarchy’. ‘Parental responsibility’ can be understood in different ways, but it is clear that the government’s main concern has been to shift responsibility away from the state. ‘Private patriarchy’ refers to the form of patriarchy where women are controlled by, and dependent on, individual patriarchs in a household. Since the late nineteenth century this form of patriarchy has been in decline in Britain as women have entered the public arena. The argument is developed along three dimensions:
1 the rejection of private patriarchy by women;
2 the rejection of private patriarchy by men; and
3 the particular type of private patriarchy that the Child Support Act may recreate in the short and long term.
I argue that while the Act may appear to be attempting to reinstate a form of private patriarchy in the sense of making more women economically dependent on individual men, it appears more strongly to be part of a project of rolling back the state. In this light I consider the extent to which the Act is anti-women, anti-men, anti-child and anti-family.
The Child Support Act 1991 was the product of some rapid developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s that focused specifically on the cost to the public purse of the growing numbers of single-parent families in receipt of state cash benefits.2 The steeply rising costs occurred not only because the total group of single parents had increased but also because the composition of that group had changed.3 There were more lone parents without maintenance and more who were never-married mothers. The government produced its proposals in a White Paper, Children Come First (Lord Chancellor et al. 1990), towards the end of 1990, and after the briefest of consultation exercises the ensuing Child Support Act passed through all its stages and was on the statute book by July 1991. This was a truly astonishing speed.
The Child Support Act’s main provisions relate to how maintenance from an ‘absent parent’, usually but not invariably the father, whether ever married to the child’s mother or not, shall be calculated and enforced. The Act set up an administrative agency called the Child Support Agency to assess and enforce child – maintenance liability. This agency largely supersedes the role of the courts in this area. The Act deploys a complex and rigid formula to determine the amount of maintenance.4 Where parents who have care of a child are receiving one of three types of means-tested benefit—income support, family credit, disability working allowance—they are required, on pain of a financial penalty, to cooperate in the search for the absent parent.5 Other parents with care who wish to enforce a maintenance liability have to make use of the Agency; they cannot go through the courts.
A crucial aspect of the Act, and one that makes the government’s underlying intention of reducing its benefits bill only too clear, is that the parents with care who are on income support have their maintenance payments wholly offset against their income support entitlement—that is, income support is reduced pound for pound of maintenance. So payment of maintenance by the erstwhile partner, while saving government money, will leave the parent with care no better off. Parents with care who are on family credit and disability working allowance are allowed to benefit by a small amount.6 It is clear that the government’s intention here is to encourage single mothers into full-time work. The absent parents are thus paying their money to benefit the Treasury, not their children and the parent with care. This means that there is no positive incentive for absent parents to pay, or for parents with care on income support to seek to have them pay. The inducements are all negative. It can reasonably be argued that many informal arrangements between separated parents are likely to be upset by the workings of the Act.
It should be noted that the construction of parental responsibility within the Child Support Act is entirely financial, and is independent of marriage. It is also independent of any consideration of what the actual relationship between biological parents was. A rapist, a casual sexual partner, or a sperm donor in a private arrangement are all potentially financially liable parents for the purposes of the Act (Department of Social Security 1993b). The government’s overriding aim is clearly to reduce social security costs by recouping more maintenance. Another aim is to reduce benefit costs by encouraging more lone mothers into the labour market, by enlarging the scope of family credit and in some ways making it more favourable than income support. This contradicts the views of the neo-traditionalist or ‘family values’ lobby on the importance of mothers in domestic family settings for the rearing of children.