Child Support: A Comparison of the Old and New Approaches
by Susan Grace Jenkinson LL.M.
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Introduction

Families are changing. One of the most obvious social trends since the war has been the accelerating decline of the traditional nuclear family, and the resulting increase in one-parent families, presenting problems surrounding how to finance this change, a "persistent and ubiquitous problem" [1]. The Finer Report [2] prophetically suggested, in 1974, removing the maintenance of ex-spouse and child by means of an administrative agency (the Supplementary Benefits Commission) and removing recourse to the courts [3].

As serial monogamy becomes the norm, families struggle to come to terms with the financial (and emotional) consequences of these new situations. As more and more new families emerge from the ashes of the old ones, now blended, extended and reconstructed, the social and financial consequences increasingly become concerns of the state. The Child Support Act 1991 (CSA, 1991) was the most controversial piece of recent social policy legalisation, and can be seen as an attempt to enforce traditional values, which contrast with the liberalisation of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 [4]. The Child Support Agency (CSA) requires a great deal of scrutiny and invasion of the private sphere in a marked contrast to the trend in family law [5]. It has long been recognised that the consequences of such a radical shift in focus from a duty culture to a self-interested one has an immense impact. The state is a stakeholder in financial terms, to the cost of such family breakdowns, and fears that single mothers create a new underclass and other negative stereotyping means the state can establish a legitimate interest.

It is interesting to note here how politicians have backed away from comments on how people live [6] and ideas around family values, it is unlikely that any Government in the future could afford to make such comments for fear of being charged with hypocrisy [7]. Yet, issues around child support continue to be of political importance, and the rhetoric of the deadbeat dad, and the pregnant teenager seeking a council house, (failing to recognise the reality of family life in Britain today), remain important. These easy targets, (like benefit fraud) play well to the electorate. Certainly the present government's attempts to reform the CSA have been "spun" to suggest there will be virtually no losers [8], a somewhat moot point, and the perception of the CSA as a branch of the Inland Revenue will be a very hard image to overcome. There can be no doubt that politicians of every hue, to a greater or lesser extent, regard family breakdown as a social ill and issues around child support are perhaps the only sphere were they can attempt a form of social engineering. Via its child support system, it is arguable that a state attempts to control the most threatening and destabilising aspects of social change.

The UK continues to move closer to the US model,

"There is a state commitment to improving children's living standards, but policies are directed towards employing and enforcing parental responsibility rather than driven by the focus of children's rights that has been so in other European countries " [9]

In spite of the present Governments commitment to end child poverty within twenty years [10], the CSA remains a tool of the treasury, returning the cost of the new families to the private sphere. While The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 (CSPASSA 2000) is radically different from CSA 1991, both in application and the rhetoric surrounding it, fundamentally little has changed and the move from dependency on the state to the "private sector" will continue to cause problems for all parents and children, unless the new system is perceived as fairer with compliance and enforcement improved.

Notes

[1] Barton C . Third Time Lucky for Child Support. 1998 Green Paper [1998] Fam Law 668

[2] The Report of the Committee on One Parent Families (1974) HMSO Cmnd 5629

[3] ibid p4 page 493

[4] Removing the necessity for a matrimonial offence, divorce to be on the basis of an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage s1 (1)

[5] A proposal to make divorce a truly simple administrative process (but lengthy) in the Family Law Act 1996 has been withdrawn with the announcement that part 2 is to be repealed before implementation. LCD press release 16th January 2001

[6] Supporting Families (1998) HMSO p30 p4.3 "the government believes that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships. This does not mean trying to make people marry, or criticising or penalising people who chose not to, we do not believe that Government should interfere in peoples lives in that way"

[7] The last Conservative Government sought to unite public opinion against the perceived social ills resulting from increasing numbers of single parents. These efforts were undermined by press revelations about Ministers unconventional private lives, eg. Tim Yeo, Cecil Parkinson.

[8] Children's Rights and Parents' Responsibilities (1999) White Paper HMSO Cm 4349 Annex 1

[9] Corden, A. Child Support Polices Regimes in the US, UK, and other Countries, Similar Issues Different Approaches. (2000) Focus University of Wisconsin Institute of Research into Poverty Vol 21 No 1 p 82

[10] Repeated in Children's Right and Parents Responsibilities op cit in PM Blair foreword p viii

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Page last updated: 13 October, 2002 © Copyright Susan Grace Jenkinson 2001