A disabled mother fought back tears in Westminster as she recalled her dealings with the welfare contractor Concentrix and the unexpected termination of her tax credits.
Speaking at a cross-party work and pensions select committee, Sarah Broome, a 40-year-old single mother from West Molesey in Surrey, claimed she was forced to go six weeks out of pocket due to a decision by the outsourcing company to end her payments.
The committee, led by Labour MP Frank Field, also heard that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) decided to end its contract with Concentrix, part of a multi-billion pound US business services company, last month due to a “collapse in basic customer service” procedures. One member of the panel of claimants, who had appealed a decision against the firm, said she experienced the engaged tone 70 times in a single day while others waited up to an hour before their calls were answered.
The contractor is supposed to root out fraud and error in the tax credit system, but reports suggest innocent people on low incomes have had their payments stopped. The company was accused in February of going on a “fishing expedition” as part of a controversial contract with HMRC to outsource its fraud and error detection.
But today it emerged that hundreds of civil servants have been deployed to aid Concentrix until their contract officially expires in May next year.
Ms Broome, who has a one-year-old girl and four-year-old boy, was left disabled after a horse riding injury several years ago. “I used to work in social services and be a very professional person,” she said. She requires support with childcare 24 hours a day because of the chronic pain she suffers, with her shoulder dislocating on a daily basis. Ms Broome added that her pain levels have “gone through the roof” as a result of her dealings with Concentrix.
“I’ve also been discriminated against by Concentrix. I was told that if I send a typed letter it wouldn’t be accepted. When I spoke that person and explained my situation and said I can’t write because my hand shakes... they told me ‘well you’re just going to have to get someone else to write it for you’ – and this was his exact words.
“I cried all day after that phone call and it’s been very emotional. My kids, my one-year-old and my four-year-old have seen me cry.”
She was comforted in the hearing by Marie Crowley, another claimant from Nottingham, who had also described in detail her unfortunate experiences with the outsourcing firm. “I’ve worked all my life – it’s only really the last four years that I’ve not been able to work fully because of my health. And to be reduced to having to ask for money from family and friends and food banks – I just can’t get over the humiliation of that.
Speaking in the same committee room, shortly after the claimants, Philip Cassidy, the senior vice president at Concentrix, said he would “certainly like to apologise” to the claimants who gave evidence to the select committee and “all the others” that were impacted. “It was certainly not our intention,” he added.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee was told that of the 45,000 payments stopped, nearly 15,000 had appealed so far and that “90 per cent to 95 per cent" had been successful in overturning the decision. Jon Thompson, chief executive of HMRC, said “a collapse in basic customer service” had occurred caused by too few staff being on hand, and that he’d personally taken the decision not to renew Concentrix’s contract.
Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee in Westminster, said he would be inviting the Government to “act on this information so that tax credit claimants in future will not be left penniless through no fault of their own”.
After the session, Mr Field, also the the Labour MP for Birkenhead, added: "The Committee was astonished by the extraordinary evidence we heard. From Concentrix we saw a company desperately out of their depth and unable to deliver on the contract awarded to them by HMRC. From senior HMRC officials we saw a palpable disregard for the human implications of this gross failure of public service. From the tax credit claimants we saw dignity in the face of appalling and traumatic experiences.
We have no doubt that many people similarly affected have been unable to come forward. I welcome HMRC’s swift action on the Concentrix contract, but that does not excuse them for ever having allowed this to happen."
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