Prisoners fail to escape the clutches of diligent agency officials

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The Independent Online
THE ENTHUSIASM of the agency created to track down absent parents and make them pay maintenance has reached new heights, writes Jason Bennetto.

Not content with writing to childless couples and widowed parents, officials are now asking prison inmates about their earning capacity. Those prisoners who fail to co-operate with the Child Support Agency face the threat of spending more time inside at Her Majesty's pleasure.

The agency's interest in prisoners' salaries came to light after a 40-year-old woman sentenced to a year in jail for possessing cannabis was sent a form by the agency last month asking about her wages - which in some weeks exceed pounds 4.

The woman, who does not want to be named, was classified as an 'absent parent' by the agency after she was jailed in January and sent to a woman's prison in the Midlands. Her husband, from whom she was divorced, took care of her two children, aged seven and 14. After being made redundant he applied for income support, at which point the agency took an interest. After failing to reply to the first wage assessment form the mother was sent a reminder which warned that unless the form was completed the agency would automatically calculate a usually artificially high maintenance payment. Failure to co-operate with the second request and subsequent maintenance demand can lead to the absent parent being jailed. At this point the distraught mother contacted the prison's probation service and asked for help.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'This is an absurd situation. The CSA appeared to have no idea that inmates earn from pounds 3 to pounds 5 a week - hardly enough to help support a family. The CSA's exercise has caused great distress to the woman and her family and has wasted prison time and resources.'

A CSA spokeswoman said: 'The agency has to have the full picture of someone's circumstance to make a proper assessment. We can't assume, even if someone is in prison, that there's no income or they only have one source of income.' This latest development follows widespread criticism of the agency, which has been blamed for breaking up families, causing unnecessary harassment and upset and, in some cases, has led some fathers who felt unable to pay new maintenance charges to commit suicide.

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