CSA unions to demand protection for staff: Call for action follows death threats

THREATS of violence against employees of the Child Support Agency, which tracks down absent parents, are now so serious that they are to be raised with the Government by the main civil service unions, it emerged yesterday.

The National Union of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association, which represent the majority of staff at the agency, are to press urgently for more security for their members, at the 17 March meeting of the Whitley Council, the national negotiating forum that determines civil servants' pay and conditions. The meeting will be chaired by the CSA's chief executive, Ros Hepplewhite.

Staff at the agency, which employs about 3,000 people at centres in Plymouth, Hastings, Dudley, Falkirk, Birkenhead and Belfast, and about 1,500 people for home visits and assessments, have been the victims of death threats, bomb hoaxes and verbal abuse.

In one case a man said he would use a shotgun to kill himself and a member of staff, last month a fake bomb was sent to the agency in Falkirk, and in a third instance a man telephoned the CSA in Birkenhead and said he had planted an incendiary bomb in a staff member's car. Police found nothing. Several distressed fathers have committed suicide.

Pat Heron, negotiations officer for the National Union of Civil and Public Servants members, said yesterday: 'Members are very concerned about their safety and security, particularly at the centres and among field staff who have to visit members of the public. Our members have been having a very hard time from the public, an unjustifiably hard time.

'They don't deserve the abuse, threats and foul language they get from some of the public. There have been all sorts of threats and alarming incidents . . . generally by people who are appalled by the effect of the legislation and blame the civil servant in front of them rather than Parliament for passing the legislation. We will keep on raising security issues until we are absolutely satisfied that our members are not at risk.'

She added that civil service security guidelines were laid down long before the passing of the Child Support Act and the creation of the CSA. There were no mechanisms for alerting CSA staff to potentially violent aggrieved fathers, or for protecting staff from violent abuse over the telephone. The guidelines were not being fully or adequately implemented.

A spokeswoman for the Child Support Agency said yesterday that the civil service, of which the CSA is a part, had well-developed guidelines on staff security and that the agency was well prepared in relation to any such risks. 'The security of CSA staff is taken very seriously.'

Mike Pimblott, of the Network Against the Child Support Act, which claims to represent around 25,000 parents, said yesterday that he was not aware of any concerted campaign against agency staff. However 'with so many people in such devastation you expect all manner of things to happen. We have already had suicides and murders. Although it is not the sort of thing I would advise, out of the thousands and thousands of people affected I would not be surprised if people were driven to those lengths.'