Single mothers 'intimidated by benefits staff'

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Indy Politics
STAFF in social security offices have illegally threatened, harassed and intimidated single mothers on Income Support to try to force them to identify absent fathers, a report published yesterday claims.

Allegations of illegal behaviour by members of child support units in Department of Social Security (DSS) offices around the country are made in a dossier compiled by Campaign against the Child Support Act, a group opposed to new rules which will penalise women who refuse to name the fathers of their children.

The dossier gives more than 30 instances in which it claims single mothers were dealt with illegally by being threatened with, or actually having, benefits stopped. In each case, complaints were made by a group called Legal Action for Women and in every case the DSS backed down, withdrew threatening letters or apologised in writing for having acted illegally.

Until the Child Support Act comes into effect in April, women can refuse to reveal the name or whereabouts of the father and benefit cannot be stopped if they do withhold the information.

After April, single parents will be compelled to co-operate with the DSS's drive to extract maintenance payments from fathers, or risk losing 20 per cent of their benefit. Exemptions include cases where the woman fears violence or if the child was conceived as a result of rape or incest.

Ministers have stressed that staff will be sensitive to the mother's situation and that women have a right to be believed. Alistair Burt, Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, has denied that the Act will put women in danger from violent former partners.

But the organisers of the campaign claim the Act is an 'incitement to domestic rape and other violence'.

Their report includes a case in the London borough of Tower Hamlets last month in which the DSS ignored appeals from a mother of two, who spoke little English, not to pursue the violent husband she was divorcing. This was despite the fact that she won an injunction against him and that he had been fined pounds 400 for violence against her.

The DSS decided to interview him and the husband, blaming his wife for instigating the demand for maintenance, threatened her, banged and kicked at her door during the night, and demanded to move back in. A child support officer told the mother, in front of a witness, that she should get together with her husband for a talk and defended his violence on the grounds he was not allowed to see his children.