Staff criticise new maintenance agency: Concern over interview skills

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Indy Politics
STAFF at the new Child Support Agency, which starts work next month, say that they have received inadequate training in the sensitive area of whether to penalise women who refuse to name absent fathers.

A key training programme on how to interview mothers who are afraid of violence from their former partners has only just been established and will not be completed before August, according to a letter to staff.

Union leaders have expressed concern that officials will either be required to carry out the interviews before they have gone on the course, or that decisions will be delayed until the training has been completed.

The agency comes into being on 5 April and will be responsible for assessing maintenance payments made by absent parents. Women on income support will be compelled to use the agency, while others can choose whether to do so.

Supporters of the new organisation say that by taking over responsibility for the collection of maintenance, it will spare women the anguish of court hearings. It will also save the Treasury up to pounds 4.3bn, which is currently paid to single parents on Income Support.

The number of lone parents receiving benefit rose from 322,000 in 1979 to 895,000 in 1991, while the proportion of them getting maintenance fell from 50 per cent to 30 per cent.

Payments made by absent fathers are expected to double to an average of pounds 48 a week.

However, critics of the agency are particularly concerned about a rule that enables officials to penalise women who fail to name the absent father unless they consider there is a good reason - such as a fear of violence.

Critics have questioned whether staff will be sufficiently qualified and well-trained to assess whether the reasons put forward by women in such circumstances are genuine.

A spokesperson for the agency said that by 5 April at least one member of staff in each of its 450 offices would have undergone specialist interview training. She also pointed out that all staff had gone through a basic technical course.

But in a letter to staff, a senior manager says that the courses will start 'towards the end of March' and run until August.

Union leaders said it was 'difficult to believe' that one member of every office will have gone through the courses by 5 April.