Opinion: Child Support Agency woe: it was ever thus, writes Peter White

Sometimes the sense of déjà vu in my job is overwhelming. Fourteen years ago I sat in a BBC South studio taking a succession of phone calls from distraught mothers and indignant fathers (sometimes the other way round), but most told the same story from their disparate points of view. The new as it was then Child Support Agency wouldn’t work! Nothing had worked until then, but the new CSA would not be the answer. The hurt and the damage caused when people separate, most of them thought, would doom any government-inspired initiative to disaster.

As we now know, my callers were right, their predictions aided by massive inefficiency, technical failure and a lack of will to make it work. Result: an estimated £3.5bn owed in arrears for child maintenance. Last week I sat in another radio studio, the one used by Radio 4’s Call You and Yours, and listened to a remarkably similar catalogue of woe, most of it implying that the CSA’s successor, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, was unlikely to fare any better. True, some parents left with the care of their children welcomed it for its tough-talking stance, but the sense I got was still that the system would founder on ill-will and obstruction from both sides, and the inability of a mere bureaucracy to cut through that.

And do you know what I found the most depressing aspect of both phone-ins, unchanged over the intervening 14 years? It was the rarity with which the issue of the children, and how they felt about it, came up. It was all “he did this to me” and “she will cheat and lie to get her own way” but, in most cases, the hurt described was about the relationship and little about the effect all this might be having on the children.

So, could I see any encouraging signs? My own conclusion is that this is one case where the British delight in compromise is most unlikely to work. You either have to go for one thing or the other. On the one hand, you could simply say “cut away all the bureaucratic nonsense, all the lawyers, all the form-filling, and throw people back on a dependence on goodwill and good sense to arrive at an agreement. Take away all the other people who can be blamed: inept civil servants, greedy lawyers, wishy-washy mediators and counsellors – and throw people back on their own resources”.

Interestingly, the proposals for the new commission suggest that people should be helped to reach settlements on their own, an idea probably based on the realisation of just how much getting involved has cost the government. But much as my libertarian soul yearns to back such an approach, experience just tells me it doesn’t work.

What we should know about such negotiations is that they will always benefit the stronger partner – stronger, that is, psychologically. I’m not making a gender-based point here it’s just that in almost every relationship I know there is a stronger, more determined, more ballsy partner, who will come out on top. For once, I think this is a situation where you have to get a nailed-down, enforceable agreement from the moment of break-up, which can only be varied by a court on the application of either partner if circumstances change. And in that agreement I would include everything: property, cash, child maintenance and even access.

The MP Terry Rooney, chair of the select committee considering these proposals and my guest on CallYou and Yours, was unhappy about that latter idea. He felt that the financial needs of the child should be paramount, and not perhaps tied to other considerations. But it seems to me that these issues are so tied together that it would be better, and more enforceable, to keep the link. Perhaps the courts would give such an agreement, brokered when a break-up happens, the authority that new government agencies do not have. Worth a try, I think. After all, you don’t want me chairing yet another phone-in on child maintenance in 14 years’ time.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability ­correspondent

This aticle appeared in the 15 March issue under the headline “A way to soften the blow of the family splits”

“This is a situation where you have to get a nailed-down, enforceable agreement from the moment of break-up”

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