Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit  ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina Lomax says it is "immoral" that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
Gina Loxam says it is “immoral” that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
When is a debt not a debt? When it’s £732 that the government says is now owed by Gina Loxam in Working Tax Credit (WTC).

Gina, a single woman of 58 from the north-west of England, had been on WTC – a means tested payment for those in low-paid work – including self-employed people. It’s paid by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Unfortunately Gina, who lost her beloved pet shop business in the recession, became very ill with depression. Following an assessment by ATOS, she was placed on employment and support allowance (ESA) in the work-related activity group. Because she was receiving WTC, this amount was deducted from her ESA to ensure she only got £100 per week.

She did her WTC return only to discover she was no longer entitled to it after 28 weeks off sick. She has now been told that she owes HMRC £732. ESA will not back date their reduced underpayments to cover this, saying she should have informed WTC directly when she went onto ESA. Gina says of this demand from the HMRC: “I was in no fit state to even feed myself let alone notify loads of different departments of my current status. I am now left with a debt of £732 for money I never received off the ESA. This is morally wrong and theft. Apparently this is happening to a lot of people on WTC who went onto ESA. Why are these departments not liaising and ensuring the claimants are aware of the rules? This is another way of sanctioning the vunerable.”

Gina wants the ESA to backdate her full benefit to the date the WTC ceased so that she can pay the WTC back from the reimbursed ESA underpayments. She adds: “I also want to raise awareness of how immoral this whole situation is. I am not asking for anything I was not entitled too. If I have to pay this back, it means I would have been only receiving £47 for three months instead of £100. It boils down to theft of benefits.”

She says of people who are ill and in her situation: “It’s ridiculous to have a debt you don’t really owe because you were underpaid ESA. How many people have been affected by this? It’s another form of sanction. I have worked all my life and to be in this position is abhorrent. I’ve written a letter to the HMRC telling them I can’t pay.”

Gina wrote to her local MP, Conservative David Morris, for help. He replied: “There is no scope for discretion within the law relating to Social Security, and that is something which we must all accept as fact, regardless of whether or not we agree with it. It has long been intrinsic within Social Security Legislation that the onus of responsibility to provide accurate information, details and documentation both at the outset of a claim, and at all stages thereafter, rests with the claimant. This would include therefore, reporting change of circumstances. The regulations say that it is your duty to report any change in your circumstances which you might be reasonably expected to know could affect your right to, the amount of, or the payment of, your benefits.
This is Regulation 32(1A) and (1B) of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987. It is not the responsibility of any individual or Government Department to notify someone either that they are eligible to claim a particular benefit, or to take action on an assumption of a change of circumstances. If you fail to disclose a material fact which affects your entitlement, (whether unintentional or otherwise) then an overpayment will be deemed to have occurred. Such overpayments are then generally recoverable.”

She wrote back to Mr Morris telling him that she did not receive an overpayment. “The Government can’t have it both ways. I was underpaid my ESA. If I had been getting the full benefit for WTC and ESA I would have been overpaid. But this is not an overpayment as I did not get my full ESA entitlement! I don’t even want the money paid back to me but to go direct to HMRC clearing my ‘debt’. An inter department transfer.”. She continued: “The whole situation is theft and a sanction. I am sure you would not be happy if you were expected to lose seven weeks of your salary due to an honest mistake.”

Gina wants to know how many people have been affected by this issue. She added: “It’s just immoral. It’s a secret sanction. They’re not telling people what they need to do, yet they are very quick to penalize people for not doing it. I was bouncing back (from depression), but I’m not now. I’m worrying about money I’ve lost that I should have had. I’m not going to pay this. I refuse.”

She points out that when she applied for ESA she had to note on the claim form which benefits she was claiming and that she listed WTC. “So they would have had that information, they knew I was on it. Why wasn’t that automatically flagged on the system once I’d been on ESA for more than 28 weeks? The DWP should automatically send out a letter after 28 weeks to those on WTC informing them that they are now going to get full ESA and they will either inform WTC or you have to. Simple.”

Thanks to Gina for flagging up this issue. Please get in touch if you have had similar problems with WTC and ESA.

The state owes citizens money they are entitled to – then they fall into debt

Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been aware for some time that the clients who come here for help need more than the food they’re given to see them through an immediate crisis. They also require longer-term support to tackle the underlying problems, which often include inadequate incomes and unmanageable debts. The local authority – The Royal Borough of Greenwich – is also mindful of this. The two organisations have submitted a bid for funding that would enable the food bank to “triage” clients with money problems.

If the joint bid is successful, the funding would come from the Money Advice Trust – which has today launched a new report saying that households are becoming susceptible to serious debt problems because they can’t afford basic household bills.

Alan said: “The Money Advice Trust is offering funding for initiatives that are innovative, but help meet people’s basic needs…approaches that would help them get relief from debt and educate people so they don’t get into debt. Greenwich Council had been bouncing this problem around internally, so they called me up and said could we work together and get a bid in.” The initial “triage” would take place at the borough’s food banks, which are part of the UK-wide network of Trussell Trust food banks. Clients with the most severe problems would be immediately referred to specialist debt advisors in the borough – either Christians Against Poverty (CAP), Meridian Money Advice, or Citizens Advice.

A second group assessed as heading for serious debt problems would get advice from trained volunteers, and Alan says the food bank may also employ a debt and advice specialist. A third group of people with the least severe problems would get help and encouragement on a range of issues, including advice on cookery classes, “smart” shopping and smoking cessation. The gateway to the advice would be food banks, but Alan says it’s possible that the scheme could be extended to other venues including children’s centres. The proposed scheme mirrors a recent announcement by the Trussell Trust that it is to launch a pilot scheme to give financial advice. The move comes after the food bank charity received a six-figure donation from money saving expert Martin Lewis. Lewis is quoted in the Guardian saying: “Those who go to food banks are already open to asking for help….If we can intervene at that point…it will hopefully cut down on the number of return visits.”

While what Lewis says is undoubtedly true, it’s crucial to remember what the Trussell Trust itself underlined in its June report Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise in Food Poverty, published jointly with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty. The report says that “cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK” and that “these cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58 per cent of sanction decisions are successfully challenged, suggesting that many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own”.

The report says the abolition of the Social Fund has stopped thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, “estimates that 49 per cent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

The move by the Trussell Trust to launch the pilot money advice scheme and the bid to run something similar here in Greenwich are to be welcomed. But expert social security advice and help with challenging sanctions and speeding up back payments appear to be what clients need most. In essence, the state owes them money that they are entitled to. They’re not getting it, hence they are in debt and that leads to them not being able to pay their water bill or council tax. The most effective cure would of course be a humane social security regime, and an approach to sanctions that is fair and proportionate. A move away from zero hours contracts by employers would also be a significant move to transform lives. The problems faced by most of the people who visit the food bank are not fundamentally caused by lifestyle issues or bad choices. The vast majority of the food bank clients are innocent victims of an increasingly unfair and cruel welfare system.

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma

According to Vox Political  and the Disability News Service, the UK government seems to have become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). The committee has the power to do this if it receives what it calls “reliable information of grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol.

The committee conducts its investigations “confidentially”, so it has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. Disability News Service has reported that CRPD appeared to have put off its public examination of the UK’s approach to implementing the disability convention until after next year’s general election. According to Vox Political, it now appears that the committee “may have taken this decision because it had launched the much more serious – and so far unprecedented – inquiry into the UK’s violation of disabled people’s rights”.

Surely here in the UK we wouldn’t abuse disabled people? Could that really happen in London, for example – a sophisticated and rich world capital, recently revealed by an article in Forbes as the world’s “most influential global city”. London was ranked first in the world on the Z/Yen Group’s 2013 Global Financial Centres Index. The article admiringly states that “its location outside the United States and the eurozone keeps it away from unfriendly regulators”, and it’s a “preferred domicile for the global rich”. Given all that serendipity and wealth, the world’s most influential city must also be in a position to influence things to ensure its residents don’t starve?

The benefits of London’s position as a welcoming home for the world’s rich don’t appear to be improving matters for the clients at the food bank frontline in London – or nationally for that matter. Greenwich food bank (which is currently operating from seven locations across the borough) has seen visitors increasing from 776 to 5025 in the past year. In nearby Lewisham, the figure rose from 623 to 3895. Mananger of the Greenwich food banks Alan Robinson tracks the increase he’s seen to welfare changes dating from April 2013, including the bedroom tax and welfare cap.

A few days ago I caught up with long-standing Greenwich food bank client Mark Bothwell, who has depression and whose shoulder injury had developed into a chronic problem. I’ve interviewed Mark many times, and he’s a warm, intelligent and engaging young man of 29. His experiences must make him one of those said to be experiencing diabolical treatment – those “grave violations” – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over many, many months. Mark told me that by July he was so distraught that he felt  suicidal.

Despite having already waited  for a prolonged period on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) while believing that his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was being assessed, Mark was not only told that his ESA paperwork had been lost, but that he had been sanctioned – twice – for supposedly failing turn up for jobseeker advice appointments with Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). He was told that he’d received the first sanction stopping his JSA at the end of May and that they had written to him telling him about the appointment. He says he did not receive any such letter. He began an appeals process with the help of Greenwich borough’s Welfare Rights Service. While he was told that the appeal for this sanction was being allowed, he was informed “in the same sentence that I was not going to get any money, because there was a second sanction for the same period of time for another missed appointment that I didn’t know about”. He says they told him they had sent another letter – “but I didn’t receive them”.

When the initial sanction was imposed, Mark was plunged into a nightmare of making multiple phone calls to different people in an attempt to get some help. It took two weeks to get a DWP hardship payment (about 40 per cent of normal JSA) through, and this was not enough to cover his bills – ” I had to borrow money”. He had to make multiple calls to the JSA enquiry line on his landline. He was told that if he wanted to talk to a “decision maker” he would have to call the enquiry line and leave a message for the “decision maker”, who would then call him back. He says that “on almost every phone call he was told something different”.

He added: “From about the beginning of June until mid-July I made about 60 phone calls trying to sort out the appeals and the (lost) ESA (claim). I had to resubmit the application for ESA because they said they lost it. On almost every phone call I’d be told something different. That process left me feeling suicidal. They were telling me a different thing every single time. They would tell me it (my money) would be a week, then I phoned up and they said no they shouldn’t have told you that. Then with the last phone call the woman said, no it doesn’t happen like that, it takes another two weeks. She was so rude I just hung up and collapsed on the floor. Tears were running down my face. I actually said out loud the word suicide to my flatmate, to my family and to complete strangers. I hit rock bottom around July 10-12.”

About a week later, Mark was told that he would get ESA, and that it would be backdated from the end of May. He is now receiving £144.80 a fortnight. The regular money is “helping a lot” and he says he can now buy food items such as fresh meat. He’s certainly looking brighter and stronger now.  Mark shares a home with a disabled flatmate and friend. This person has been told he’ll be getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for help with some of the extra costs of being disabled. With the PIP finally in place, Mark has at last been able to fill in the application form for Carer’s Allowance in relation to the help he gives his friend. He’s also finally getting better help for his depression, and has been able to come off his Tramadol medication, which was beginning to badly affect his short-term memory.

Finally, after this atrocious wait and a host of adverse developments, Mark is starting to get the benefits he’s entitled to. But why did the state allow him to languish for such a long time waiting to move from JSA to ESA, and without Carer’s Allowance? Mark began experiencing problems with his shoulder last October, and in May, I reported that he’d already been waiting months for his ESA claim to be processed. In respect of his friend’s PIP application, we know that PIP claim backlogs during the first year of its introduction have caused tremendous problems for the disabled.

During his time without benefits because of the sanctions, Mark had to survive for two days without any food. As a long-standing client of Greenwich food bank, Mark has been provided with the usual three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food on about a dozen occasions. Greenwich food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Its policy and commitment is to provide short-term help through a crisis for people who’ve been referred by a frontline professional such as a social worker or health visitor. The decision was taken not to provide another food parcel. This happened after careful discussion and review. The Trussell Trust believes that providing food aid on multiple occasions for an individual can remove an essential incentive to fix the underlying problems that drive people to the food bank in the first place.

Mark has been very appreciative of the support he’s received from the food bank over the last number of months. Very thoughtfully, once his ESA money came through he brought in a cake and a thank-you card – to the delight of the volunteers.

Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank's help
Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank’s help

In July, a report – Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era – was published by the Just Fair consortium, which included Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London. it suggests the UK had moved from being an international disability rights leader to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”. Many of the individual accounts I’ve collected here, including Mark’s, add to the evidence that the vulnerable and disabled are the subject of the gravest injustices.