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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
The dangers of working alone
Mary Merry met her death on this Cambridge housing estate
Debt collector Mary Merry died at the hands of one of her customers, who was this week jailed for life for her murder, but working alone in a difficult role need not be dangerous, as BBC News Online's Melissa Jackson discovers.

Mary Merry lost her life one winter's night in 1999 when she was attacked by one of her customers as she collected debts on a notorious housing estate in Cambridge.

She had worked part-time as an "insurance collection agent" for Provident Personal Credit Ltd in Cambridge for three years.

But during the course of her debt collection work, the 44-year-old mother had to deal with people in difficult situations and she had felt vulnerable, with justification.

On the evening of 3 December 1999, Mrs Merry was mugged in Nicholson Way on the notorious Arbury estate just a few hundred yards from where, two months later, she met her death.

She resigned from her job on 8 February 2000, but was persuaded by the company to stay on, despite her husband Clive's reservations about the safety of her work.

Three days later she was killed.

Client concerns

Mrs Merry made weekly calls on clients in their homes to collect repayments and 37-year-old Robert Norton was one debtor over whom she had expressed grave concerns.

Mary Merry
Mary Merry: felt vulnerable
He paid her 12 a week to cover a 400 loan, but she often felt uncomfortable in his company and on at least half a dozen occasions had felt vulnerable enough to take her brother along for support.

When Norton saw her brother, Michael James, accompanying her, he would not let the pair into the house.

Mrs Merry had told her husband Norton would sometimes lock her in his house or stand between her and the doorway.

On the fateful night Norton, who had been sexually fantasising about Mrs Merry, attacked her with two knives and a pair of scissors.

When she did not return from her rounds, her husband rang her mobile phone. Three times Norton answered it but did not say anything.

When it rang a fourth time he destroyed it by stamping on it.

Norton admitted killing her but claimed manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, saying he had heard voices telling him to attack her.

But a jury of seven men and five women convicted him of murder after three hours of deliberations.

After convicting him the jury were told that Norton had stabbed a woman who was staying with his family 18 years ago.

On that occasion he was given probation and spent three years being treated at a psychiatric unit.

Isolated incident

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust was set up in December 1986 in the wake of the disappearance of the eponymous estate agent.

Its founder, Suzy's mother Diana Lamplugh, set up the trust to promote personal safety and "create a safer society".

The Trust, which has worked with Provident to improve its staff training programme, says the case is an isolated incident and people in care professions are generally at much higher risk of attack than debt collectors.

But after Mrs Merry's death, Provident Financial - the parent company of the Cambridge firm - contacted the trust to overhaul its staff safety training procedures in order to gain the trust's accreditation.

There are inherent risks, of which the Provident are quite aware

Jackie Whitehead, Suzy Lamplugh Trust

No serious flaws were discovered but a few procedures were amended and tightened up.

Trust spokeswoman Jackie Whitehead, who carried out the safety audit, said: "I know a lot of people who have worked for the company who get a great deal of pleasure from their work and their customers become almost family friends.

"Some see that they are providing a service when these people couldn't get money from anyone else and they have an extremely good relationship with their customers.

"But there are inherent risks, of which the Provident are quite aware."

Safety training

As part of the training programme, new agents spend some time shadowing experienced staff, before going out on their own.

The company's safety guidelines state that an agent is not obliged to go to a client's house if they are worried about their personal safety.

There are specific safety procedures laid down by Provident, which all agents have to follow.

The company has even taken steps to remove clients from their books because they were violent.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust believes it is often the most experienced staff who are at the highest risk of assault: because they are so confident, they miss the danger warning signs.

Macho culture

Mrs Whitehead said: "There is also quite a lot of macho culture, trying to prove that you can do the job.

"It's really a strength to say 'I can't do this', but it's often misread as a weakness.

"My advice to people in these types of job is to trust your instincts," said Mrs Whitehead.

"If possible, go into the house behind the client and be aware of escape routes."

Reporting any incidents or concerns to management is essential, but the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, has found a reluctance on the part of staff.

Mrs Whitehead said: "You can never eliminate the possibility of violence and aggression at work, but you can minimise it. But people have to see reporting something as a strength, not a weakness."

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