Many workers at the Child Support Agency (CSA) are so frightened and demoralised that they lie about their job, and deny they work for the agency. Managers have been forced set up a working party to consider measures to protect employees and their workplaces.
Workers at the agency are receiving verbal and written threats from fathers angry at the maintenance they have been ordered to pay. In one case, a man said he would use a shotgun to kill himself and a member of staff. General verbal abuse occurs daily.
A fake bomb was sent to the agency in Falkirk last month: police are still investigating the incident. On 27 January a man with an Irish accent telephoned the CSA in Birkenhead and said he had planted an incendiary bomb in a staff member's car. Police found nothing.
Also last month protesters daubed paint on the door of the London home of Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary. They sprayed the names of two men who committed suicide and a woman allegedly murdered, after maintenance demands from the agency.
Union officials report that the intimidation, combined with well- publicised complaints from absent fathers who feel they are victims of injustice and criticism of the agency by MPs, have hit morale and caused intense stress and sickness among staff. They are calling for tighter security at the CSA centres and for staff who work out of the office.
Since it became law in April last year, the Child Support Act, which created the agency, has become one of the most unpopular government measures since the poll tax. Thousands of separated fathers, ex-wives and new wives have vigorously campaigned against the new system for assessing and collecting child maintenance. Increased payments have been blamed for causing suicides, breaking up families and forcing fathers to flee the country.
The agency employs about 4,500 people, mainly at six CSA centres, in Plymouth, Hastings, Dudley, Falkirk, Birkenhead and Belfast. About 1,200 people do home visits and assessements from benefit offices.
Jim Hanson, headquarters officer of the Civil and Public Services Association, which represents the agency's clerical workers, said: 'There have been death threats - people have said they will shoot themselves and the staff. Some are made over the telephone, others are by post. Every couple of weeks this will happen. We've also had people come to the CSA centres to complain and give abuse.
'This all creates stress and pressure - I have never known it like this before. We are constantly talking to management about tightening security.'
A member of CSA staff, who did not want to be named, added: 'The pressure from outside is immense. We get abuse rammed down our throats all the time. The constant bad press doesn't help, especially if you get blamed for someone killing themselves. People are quite nervous about admitting they work for the agency . . . there's quite a stigma with the job. They prefer to say they work for the civil service.'
A spokesman for the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, which represents managers at the CSA, said the pressure was causing high levels of sickness and large numbers of people want to leave. The CSA says the levels are no higher than in government benefit departments. The unions, however, point out that the centres are all in areas of high unemployment where staff would have great difficulty finding other work.
The security working party is expected to meet this week. A CSA spokeswoman said: 'We have got a plan under way to look at security. We are dealing with confidential information which must be protected - that is the main issue for us. Staff security is obviously also an issue of importance.'
Mike Pimblott, of Network Against The Child Support Act, which claims to represent about 25,000 parents, said: 'Some people are bound to vent their anger against the people they believe are causing them pain and heartache.
'It's a small element of the campaign. We would not encourage it. We want people to react in a responsible way.'Reuse content