Suspicious minds

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the human impact of the Conservative’s approach to social security claimaints

Today sees the latest session of Committee in the Lords on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill - Conservative legislation that seeks amongst other things to limit child tax credit to the first two children and remove the duty on government, established under Labour, to end child poverty.

The debate can at times seem technical and remote, but as a local councillor I am constantly reminded of the people who rely on these benefits.

Late in November I was contacted by a constituent, a single parent with two very young children, whose child tax credit payments had been stopped for eight weeks. The family was left with £33 a week child benefit and £117 a fortnight income support. My constituent told me she couldn’t afford to top up the gas meter nor the formula milk one of her children needed for their asthma, because her milk tokens had also been stopped.

My constituent had been referred to the US conglomerate Concentrix, who have been contracted by HMRC to investigate eligibility cases. Initially, they said her case would take six weeks to resolve, but by week eight she was desperate. I forwarded the details and my reply to the local MP, advising the constituent I had done so - along with my offer to take up the matter with a Minister. Of course it is right that claims should be validated, but even six weeks seems like a long time. Let alone the nine weeks which had elapsed in this case. Or the even longer period which would have ensued, but for the constituent telling Concentrix in the course of a telephone call that the issue had now been raised with an MP.

This is not an isolated case, and Concentrix has form. At the beginning of this year, The Independent reported claims from its staff that they were under pressure to start 40 or 50 enquiries a day into possibly fraudulent claims without any triggering cause. In effect fishing for fraud. By August, over 90 applicants had shared their stories about Concentrix on the Netmums website. People talked of feeling intimidated by the company’s approach. The company would make unsubstantiated and false accusations of cheating – lone parents who were told they were living with someone. And they would then make seemingly excessive demands for paperwork and original documentation such as bank statements, the rent payments catalogue and other bills.

The Ministry of Justice has since scrapped plans to outsource collection of court fines to Concentrix after pressure, but the company continues to operate in many local authority areas.

Concentrix is in fact just one, very big beneficiary of the passion for outsourcing contracts to provide these services. But the case is symptomatic of a deeply troubling approach to a part of our welfare system that millions of people rely on. Particularly when the process makes claimants feel like criminals.

The Bill we’re debating at the moment in the Lords is the product of a government that is deeply suspicious of those dependent on social security and whose aim is to drive down the numbers of claimants, whatever the human cost.

Last Friday, I watched a recording of JB Priestley’s powerful and moving play An Inspector Calls, set more than a century ago, dealing with the tragic history of a young woman driven to suicide by poverty and the withholding of poor relief. I am not suggesting that we are in a similar position today, or that the government’s latest proposals will take us back there. I do however, believe it is time for an inspector to call not only on Concentrix but HMRC, the DWP and David Cameron’s government as a whole to review both how the system is administered and the implications for those in need of the policies embodied in the current Bill.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @jeremybeecham

Published 8th December 2015

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