THE CHILD SUPPORT ACT: EFFECTS AND REACTIONS
Initially, parents with care with new or changed claims for the three benefits mentioned (income support, family credit, and disability working allowance) were subject to the Act’s provisions, as well as parents with care not on these benefits but without an existing maintenance order or agreement. Existing claimants of the relevant benefits are to be brought into the net gradually, while non-benefit cases with existing maintenance agreements or orders are not allowed to use the agency until April 1996. Soon after the beginning of implementation in April 1993, considerable resistance to the provisions of the Act was in evidence.
Reaction from male absent parents became apparent in the media from the summer of 1993. Men spoke to the media, contacted their MPs, and formed campaigns. The issues they were concerned with included: the amounts of money demanded; the Agency pursuit of men who were already paying maintenance under court-approved settlements (some thought that only ‘feckless’ fathers who had paid nothing would be pursued); and the fact that the Agency was taking no account of existing ‘clean-break’ or no-maintenance deals in which men had often handed over their share of the matrimonial property. The formula also did not take account of the costs of contact between the absent parent and the children, nor of any exceptional costs the absent parent might have, such as those associated with disability. It was argued that the Agency’s operations were upsetting existing arrangements between separated parents. The facts that the Act operated retrospectively and that stepchildren were not allowable for were particularly resented. It was argued that the Agency was directing its energies at easily traceable, ‘soft’ targets. The protesters were, perhaps, disproportionately employed and middle class. Campaigns were launched and public demonstrations took place.
While men were vocal in their objections to the Child Support Act, at first relatively little was heard of women’s reactions. The Child Poverty Action Group was concerned that women did not want to bring their cases forward, and therefore certain issues were not being aired in the media (Garnham and Knights 1994). The Agency was reported as saying that many mothers were delighted. However, the Campaign Against the Child Support Act was concerned about women being intimidated by the Agency to give the names of absent parents, and intimate questions being asked about their sex lives where paternity was denied. It seemed that in some cases there was violence, and that some men who had previously acknowledged paternity were now denying it. There were also concerns about the loss or reduction of income support when maintenance was ordered but then fell into default: There were particular problems in assessing accurately the income of absent parents who were self-employed. The reduction of income support pound for pound as maintenance was paid was a particular issue for concern. Research by Clarke et al. (1994b) showed that in a group of over fifty mothers on income-related benefits, none was better off, and some (13 per cent) were worse off, as a result of the Act. Informal arrangements were adversely affected, and conflict between former partners intensified, sometimes with effects on the children.
Under pressure from MPs, the Commons Select Committee on Social Security, and others, the government modified the formula slightly in February 1994. But it still did not allow for the cost of stepchildren, nor did it take account of clean-break settlements. Some major grievances remained unaddressed, and dissaffection continued. In 1994 the situation was being kept under review. In July, management consultants were sent in to review the Child Support Agency, and in September its Chief Executive resigned after apologizing for ‘performance failure’. Extra money and staff were allocated. In November 1994 the House of Commons Select Committee again made recommendations for change, but disagreed on whether there should be a disregard of maintenance for those on income support.