Minister blames media for campaign of threats

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CHILD SUPPORT Agency staff throughout Britain have been subjected to an unprecedented campaign of threats and intimidation since it was set up a year ago, a government minister said yesterday.

Partly blaming emotive and inaccurate reporting in the media, Alistair Burt, Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, said: 'The campaign of intimidating behaviour, including razor blades being sent through the post . . . is unacceptable and unforgivable in a society which considers itself civilised.'

Speaking at a conference, 'Child Support One Year On', Mr Burt said the media had implied that agency staff were to blame for the discomfort that absent parents were suffering. Appealing for fair and balanced reporting, he added: 'There is a climate surrounding the CSA at the moment, which means threats of violence and intimidation have been directed at civil servants in a way we don't remember happening before.'

The minister acknowledged that the new system for assessing and collecting child maintenance had stimulated criticism and controversy. The Government had already made changes to the system to ease the burden on absent parents, especially those with second families, and John Major had said that the formula is still under review. But Mr Burt refused to rule in or out any particular changes which have been demanded from groups representing absent parents and those with care of the children.

The agency has failed to meet several targets in its first year - 850,000 instead of 1m forms sent out; and 340,000 assessments made, of which 130,000 absent parents were assessed as not eligible to pay, mainly because they were on low income or benefits.

Questioned by reporters, Mr Burt was unable to say how many single parents were better off as a result of the agency because some absent parents paid the maintenance directly to the parent with care. The agency had traced 28,000 absent parents but he did not know how many of them had not previously supported their children.

Afterwards, Mr Burt faced tough questioning from his audience, which had spent the morning in workshops discussing flaws in the system. His admission that the Treasury was the driving force behind the Child Support Act, prompting one delegate to suggest it should have been called the 'Putting the Treasury First Act'. However, Mr Burt added: 'I am backing a system that will be of immense benefit for lone parents in the future. Over the medium and longer term, the securing of maintenance will produce the benefits for children and families.'

Ros Hepplewhite, chief executive of the CSA, confirmed that staff had faced difficulty with the public, but said that morale remained high. She admitted there were fewer straightforward cases than had been envisaged and so cases had proceeded slowly; offices had been inundated with telephone inquiries; and information booklets and forms needed to be rewritten.

Leading article, page 15

In defence of the CSA, page 17

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