Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Child Support Agency

Absent friends?

Parents and children demonstrate
Parents and children demonstrate

The sense of injustice and anger felt by many victims of the government's Child Support Agency has not diminished. Indeed, as more cases of severe financial hardship and even suicide brought on by the Agency's policies come to light, the campaign against it is gaining momentum.

The Agency has always been portrayed as forcing absent parents (overwhelmingly fathers) to pay maintenance for their children. The implication from ministers has always been that its emphasis would be on squeezing some money for maintenance from those who pay nothing.

In fact, as Agency head Ros Hepplewhite pointed out as long ago as 1992, 'it is going to be quite a shock to a large number of parents currently paying maintenance to find that this agency is actually dealing with them and that they are expected to pay significantly more.'

Last September the Agency admitted it was actually targeting those already paying in order to meet the amount set for collection. So many parents have found their maintenance levels doubled or trebled by the Agency, causing them--and often their second families--real hardship.

Those fathers who are themselves on benefit are in no position to pay any significant maintenance costs, as even the government recognises. So while they are denounced as 'feckless' the truth is they are unable to pay from levels of benefit which are only at subsistence standard.

The argument in favour of the Agency is that it helps deserted women and children. Indeed, the Tories are all too happy to use feminist arguments in support of their draconian laws. The reality is that mothers find themselves subject to all sorts of pressure and harassment from the DSS. They are forced to name absent fathers, often against their will, and run the risk of violent ex-partners blaming them for the high costs imposed by the Agency.

Of course it is true that many women want former husbands or boyfriends to pay at least some maintenance, and resent these men having money while they struggle on benefits. But there are equally many women who want nothing to do with the fathers of their children, for a whole number of perfectly sensible reasons.

Either way, the Child Support Agency will not help them. Higher maintenance payments go overwhelmingly not to the mothers and children but to the Treasury. Most women are no better and sometimes worse off. The Treasury gets all the maintenance if the mother is on income support and most of it if she's on family credit, a student grant or disability allowance. Women who refuse to disclose the father have been threatened with losing all benefits.

It is also sometimes argued that the main objectors to the Child Support Agency are comfortable middle class men who want to maintain rich lifestyles. This argument is fuelled by some of the reactionary men such as those in Families Need Fathers--a right wing pressure group arguing for 'men's rights'--who simply want to attack women, and by campaigns such as those run in the Daily Mail which target 'the worst kind of feckless fathers' and want more energy put into tracking them down.

Yet it is clear that most campaigners are not out and out reactionaries. Indeed the Campaign against the Child Support Act puts a lot of emphasis on the way the law attacks mothers. The Labour Party conference has voted to scrap the act.

This piece of retrogressive legislation will hit workers much harder than the middle classes. Figures given when the act came into force showed that a man on £12,000 a year was liable to pay £65.99 per child under 11 while one on £40,000 a year plus was liable for £137.70.

Already there are many men assessed under the act who are refusing to pay and likening the campaign to that over the poll tax. Will they succeed?

The Tories' aim is to force more people off benefits and to push childcare costs onto individual men and women. But it is one thing moralising about 'feckless fathers', it is quite another to enforce this level of payment.

Ros Hepplewhite has said that 'paying maintenance will become like paying income tax.' Taxation already stands at higher levels than when the last Labour government fell in 1979. Most workers pay approaching a third of their income in taxation. Many simply cannot afford to pay much more when housing and other living costs are taken into account.

Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago that the wage only covers the cost of reproduction of the worker. Most workers cannot begin to support two families, which is why so many cannot pay much more than a few pounds a week. If the level of maintenance is enforced it will drive thousands of men and their second families into terrible poverty.

There is of course a solution to the problem--funding single parents. Every mother caring for children should have the option of decent state benefits, not the average £70 a week that a woman with a child receives at present. And there should be adequate state childcare for those mothers who want to escape the poverty of living on benefits, but whose low wages put childcare completely out of reach at present.

The one parent family group in Scotland, One Plus, recently reported that 'over the past year, One Plus has seen a 50 percent increase in inquiries from lone mothers about training, education and employment.' Resources would be far better going into these areas than into hounding parents and blaming them for the problems of the family.


Russia

Too big a shock

The resignation of the prominent economic reformers Gaidar and Fyodorov from the Russian government is not simply a reflection of their bad showing in December's election. It is also a result of the complete failure of their 'shock therapy' reliance on the market to solve the economic crisis bequeathed to Yeltsin by Gorbachev and Brezhnev.

Gaidar and Fyodorov were typical of the most ardent market reformers across the former Eastern bloc. They made their careers inside the old Stalinist framework (Gaidar used to be a leader writer for Pravda). When it collapsed, they swallowed whole the orthodox Western line that free market capitalism is intrinsically superior to state capitalism and that there is no third option.

But, as we predicted in this Review more than five years ago, the market could not solve the crisis, but was bound to exacerbate it.

Russia's economy was dominated by huge enterprises, often monopoly producers of vital goods, with up to 40 percent of output from the military-industrial complex. The shock treatment amounted to giving a free hand to the enterprise bosses to determine their own levels of output and prices to maximise profits. The monopoly concerns responded quite logically by pushing up their prices, and by reducing the output of non-profitable lines, even though these were essential inputs for other sections of the economy. Over three years prices shot up more than a thousandfold, while output slumped by 40 percent.

The reformers had rested their hopes on massive Western aid. But it simply did not materialise--neither Western governments nor Western banks saw investing in Russia as profitable.

The only response Gaidar and Fyodorov had to accelerating inflation was to threaten a monetarist clampdown on credit. But it would have bankrupted many huge enterprises, throwing millions of people out of work, with the risk of enormous social unrest. And it would have produced further cumulative economic contraction as even the remaining profitable firms found themselves losing both market and supplies of essential inputs.

Some pro-market intellectuals were prepared to embrace this perspective without flinching. But the heads of the decisive sectors of the Russian economy were not. Nor, particularly after December's elections, were many of the careerist politicians grouped round the government.

Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, former head of the state gas monopoly, summed up their views at the end of January. 'The period of market romanticism is over,' he said. 'The mechanical transfer of Western market methods to Russian soil has caused more harm than good.'

However, abandoning Gaidar's disastrous policies will not solve the economic crisis. Two fifths of output will still be in the military-industrial complex and of no use in solving the desperate shortages of food and consumer goods. Nearly half the population will still be stuck below the poverty line. Education and health facilities will continue to fall apart, and unemployment will continue to spread.

Zhirinovsky's far right will attempt to get mass support by blaming inflation and unemployment on minorities--especially the Jews and people from the Caucasus. And they will argue within the ruling class for a foreign policy which sees the military-industrial complex as an asset rather than a liability--for a policy based on renewed military expansion, re-establishment of the empire and hard bargaining with the West.

There is still one force that could wreck all their schemes. Russia's working class may be suffering terribly from the crisis, but it still has not experienced any decisive defeats--as was shown when the government rushed to settle with striking miners at the end of last year.

Those who fought against oppression and for democracy in 1989 and 1990 are in complete disarray since the collapse of the marketisation programme. Most of them had come to see it as the only alternative to the old order. Now they are terrified by the advance of Zhirinovsky but do not know what to do to counter him. They do not yet see that the key lies in posing the alternative of planning from below, based on workers democratically deciding what needs to be produced and fighting for the rational reorganisation of the economy.

Yet among the mass of people throughout the old Eastern bloc there is a growing feeling that some alternative must exist--a recent opinion poll in eastern Germany showed almost half the population (46 percent) believed a 'third way' between communism and capitalism should have been found at the time of unification.

If the best of the democrats turn to the working class, there is every chance of the working class fighting for real democracy. Barbarism is still a long way from winning its race with genuine socialism.


NATO

More bangs per buck

Officially it's a 'Partnership for Peace'. That's newspeak for the strategy of gradually pulling the countries of Eastern Europe into the Western orbit, announced by US President Bill Clinton at the NATO summit last month.

Officially the series of treaties begun by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev are leading to a reduction of nuclear and conventional forces. In reality something very much more dangerous is happening--the new world order has led to an international arms bazaar of military hardware.

The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty was meant to reduce the risk of war by limiting the amount of non-nuclear weapons that each country could hold. But the vast majority of weapons have not been destroyed. NATO has followed a policy of 'cascading' weapons from the countries that are above the CFE limits to those of its allies that are below the CFE limits.

So, although the US army has lost some equipment, this is 'mainly through the "cascading" to European allies of tanks, APC (armoured personal carriers) and artillery in excess of the CFE Treaty limits', according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

This process has led, for instance, to the Greek army receiving 590 American M60 tanks and another 170 German Leopard tanks plus 70 203mm self propelled guns. The Greek navy has benefitted to the tune of three US destroyers, one German frigate, three frigates from the Netherlands and three German corvettes.

Under the same scheme the hardware of the Turkish army has 'risen drastically' according to the IISS. Some 700 M60 tanks, 20 Leopard tanks, 60 APCs and 70 artillery pieces have found their way to the country that borders on two of the hottest spots in the world--the Balkans and Iraq. Hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces and APCs have also 'cascaded' into the armouries of Spain and Portugal.

A similar process has been taking place in the former Eastern bloc countries. The Hungarian ruling class, worried by the war in the neighbouring Balkan states and mindful of nationalism directed against Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania, have been buying arms from Russia. Yeltsin has been happy to do the deals in return for the cancellation of rouble debts.

So $800 million worth of modern Mig29 fighters are now on their way to Hungary. A further deal to supply new surface to air missiles is now likely. Both bits of equipment are likely to be aimed at Serbian aircraft which overfly Hungarian airspace on route to Croatia.

Germany, not to be left out, has given Hungary spare parts and equipment from the vast stockpiles of the old East German army. Indeed much East German military equipment has turned up in the Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad, making it 'one of the great arms bazaars in a region awash with military equipment and demoralised soldiers' according to the Financial Times.

Slovakia, unnerved by the Hungarian deal, has now made a similar debt for Migs arrangement with Russia. Poland, meanwhile, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is rebuilding its arms industries, partly via close links with foreign, including Israeli, companies.

This great fissuring of the world system in the wake of the Cold War is what the rulers of the major powers fear most--Yugoslavia is the nightmare waiting to unfold across parts of Eastern Europe and through the successor states of the USSR.

That is why Clinton spent so much time promising money to Russia and gradual inclusion in the Western club to the former members of the Warsaw Pact.

But NATO itself is not free of strains. Clinton wants to shape the future of Europe, but he no longer has the money to pay for the privilege. That's why US troop numbers in Europe are down to 100,000, a third of their Cold War numbers. It's also why, for all the talk of NATO solidarity, the summit declaration insisted that the 'European pillar' of NATO must be strengthened.

The US military is already reshaping itself for this new system. Equipment and rapid force deployment spending has hardly fallen, neither has spending on nuclear weapons, but savings have been made in the unworkable Star Wars programme and in cutting nearly 100,000 personnel from the armed forces.

These cuts will reduce US defence spending to a postwar low of just 3 percent by 1998. In the last three years some 400,000 workers in the US defence industry have lost their jobs. Similar numbers have been made redundant in the former USSR. The same pattern is observable in every arms industry.

The result will be smaller, more 'professional' armies equipped with the most destructive weapons money can buy--'more bangs per buck' as the military like to put it. And their cast off weapons circulate in the biggest and most dangerous tank boot sale the world has ever seen.

Meanwhile, beneath it all the economic certainties guaranteed by the high arms spending of the Cold War are disappearing faster than ever.


Nuclear power

Wasted energy

A new, deadly chapter in nuclear madness has opened with parliament's permission for Thorp to start operations at Sellafield. This giant reprocessing plant--half a mile long, containing over 220,000 cubic metres of concrete, 60,000 tonnes of steel and over 1,200 miles of cables, with a chimney taller than St Paul's Cathedral--has cost a staggering £2.85 billion to build.

The justification its owners, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, give is that it is too dangerous to store the spent fuel from Britain's nuclear power stations. It must be reprocessed to make fresh fuel, mostly plutonium. This will be expensive, BNFL admits, but Thorp can also make money from taking in the world's nuclear waste--as much as £500 million in the first ten years of operations. Not to go ahead, they told the government, would cost anything up to £3 million a week.

Independent authorities contest BNFL's figures right down the line. The Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University argues that no profit may ever be made at Thorp because BNFL's assumptions are wrong. The costs of reprocessing fuel are much greater than what it will cost to store this waste.

Finances are not the only concern. Plutonium is at the heart of nuclear weaponry. It has no other use, though during the Cold War governments dreamed it could have a peaceful application. The military economy spawned successive generations of nuclear power stations, the most advanced of which were the fast breeder reactors. These would, it was thought, refuel themselves with plutonium to create eternal, cheap electricity.

In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis reprocessing seemed the magic solution. In 1975 Tony Benn, then energy minister in the Labour government, agreed to BNFL's plans for Thorp.

Twenty years on and the world is utterly different. Raw uranium is cheap and plentiful and there are only half the nuclear power stations that people thought there would be in the 1970s. After the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters most countries have stopped building nuclear reactors. Britain's one fast breeder reactor has proved a disaster. Last year it produced enough electricity to light up the city of Aberdeen.

The world is now awash with surplus plutonium from dismantled nuclear bomb stocks and civilian reactors. With all this spare plutonium around the danger is of unchecked proliferation as more and more states struggle to develop nuclear weapons programmes.

Countries might steal or buy on the black market the few kilograms needed to create a crude nuclear explosive (and Thorp is so big that as much as 250 kilograms of the stuff could go missing without anyone noticing--enough to make 30 nuclear weapons).

North Korea's nuclear development is due largely to its fear of what may come of Japan's plans to develop its plutonium fast breeder programme. This growing instability in the Pacific Rim (South Korea also wants to get in on the nuclear act) is directly related to reprocessing. Japan is Thorp's biggest customer and top investor.

Japan is committed at present to Thorp but is nervous about the hostile reception to ships carrying its nuclear waste. Last year country after country closed their ports to one test plutonium ship. The alternative is for Japan eventually to do its own reprocessing. But the prospect of stockpiling, with the suspicion that this could be used not just for 'peaceful' purposes, is not one that Japan relishes.

Thorp is a colossal waste of nearly £3 billion. We shall continue to pay for years to come--in government subsidies, increases in nuclear related illnesses like leukaemia and the growing risk of nuclear accident or terrorism. The dangerous idiocy of it all should have attracted enormous opposition. The issue is as threatening as any of the issues which made CND a mass movement over a decade ago. Within ten years there will be more plutonium at Sellafield than the whole of the US military has at present.

The reason for the lack of campaign has to do with the disgraceful role played by the unions and the Labour Party. The unions have supported Thorp on the grounds that it preserves jobs in an area which would be devastated without Sellafield. And Labour has refused to oppose the government, taking refuge in the call for a public inquiry. Dr Jack Cunningham, whose constituency includes Sellafield, is an ardent fan of Thorp.


Roads

Dead end street

Scenes of police smashing up a demonstration to save a 200 year old chestnut tree were flashed across our television screens in early December. They brutally illustrated the determination of the Tories to stop the 'No M11 Link' campaign in its tracks.

Roads have been high on the political agenda in London for many years. The plan for London published in 1969 envisaged a network of motorways leading to a Paris style 'peripherique', or 'motorway box'. One section was completed--the A40(M) Westway--but the campaign made sure most of the roads were never built. It became the key issue which led the Tories to lose control of the GLC in 1973.

More recently, protests have sprung up round London in response to the 'Red Routes' which prohibit cars from parking in shopping areas and encourage traffic to race through areas, leaving shops desolated and increasing the dangers to local people.

Passion about the plans exists for a number of reasons. Every new road involves the compulsory purchase and demolition of large numbers of houses. The M11 link will destroy 350-400 houses, with over a thousand people being made homeless.

Environmentally new roads are a nightmare, destroying wildlife habitats and increasing pollution. And for anyone who lives in or visits London the problems experienced travelling around underline the fact that we don't need more roads and congestion but a safe, cheap and environmentally friendly public transport system.

The campaign against the M11 is a broad based pressure group, attracting activists from the local area and from established anti-road and environment campaigns. It describes itself as a 'direct action' campaign aiming to hold up and stop progress at every inch of the route.

I spoke to Ray and Pookie, two campaign activists, who described some of the recent activities: the protest to save the tree, occupation of houses earmarked for demolition and building of tree houses in threatened trees along the proposed route. They gave graphic descriptions of police brutality and harassment. People were beaten and attacked. One protester's arm was broken, another protester was thrown into a fire and a 13 year old school student was punched in the face.

On the day I visited, a group of protesters were occupying the roof of a condemned house which was repeatedly hit by a bulldozer. As one commented, 'There's just a death waiting to happen here'.

The site where the tree used to be is now surrounded by barbed wire with surveillance towers and a private army of security guards on 24 hour patrol The cost of this exercise must be phenomenal, with over 100 security guards employed. The official figure for the police operation in December alone is £97,000.

The campaign is popular locally, with gifts of food and offers of help for the squatters. Even the normally hostile local press has written several sympathetic articles.

But there are weaknesses in its strategy. Very little has been done to link up with local workers. Local support is seen as enough. In some ways this leads to a fatalism--despite the bravery and commitment of the direct action group the emphasis is on holding up, rather than stopping, the road.

But it is possible to stop the road even at this stage. There have already been some important victories--recently the contractors lost the court case to evict squatters from a group of houses on the next part of the route. Every week that work has to stop costs an estimated £27,500 per site. Demonstrations have been called which can help to link up with the anger of local people over other issues.
Kate Lord


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