THE Concentrix debate last Wednesday showed how out of touch this Tory Government is from the people it is meant to serve. By turning an essential government service into a profit-making contract for a private company it also highlights the Tories’ contempt for those who rely on tax credits to survive Austerity UK.

The UK Government, via HMRC, employed Concentrix to identify cases of benefit fraud but the contract was riddled with flaws from the start.

Over the course of this contract Concentrix was to deliver over £1 billion in savings – allegedly from tax credit over-payment and fraud; but who decided on this massive figure? In answer to parliamentary questions, it was revealed that total savings in annual managed expenditure were £2.3 million in 2014-15, £122.3 million in 2015-16, and £159.5 million in 2016-17, to mid-August 2016. There has to be some concern about the jump from £2.3 million one year to £122.3 million the following year; does anyone seriously believe that fraud increased so dramatically over this short period – why did this sudden jump not set off alarm bells? Whatever the case, it does seem that the total savings being chased by Concentrix had little bearing on reality.

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The contract with Concentrix was based on results – in other words, they get paid as they “discover” ases of fraud. This has led to accusations that Concentrix simply went on a “fishing” trip, firing out around one million letters to claimants trying to catch people claiming fraudulently.

One of the areas they focused on was those living with an “undisclosed partner” to see if they were claiming tax credits as a single person while living with others. In the debate the Minister claimed that Concentrix took its information from reliable sources such as HMRC. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier article, it seems that despite over 300 years of this Union, the UK authorities still fail to understand how flats are numbered in Scotland. Time after time Concentrix accused claimants of sharing a flat with their neighbour.

Their systems – and lack of oversight – also saw the newsagents RS McColl named as living with many claimants, yet no one in Concentrix bothered to correct their data every time this happened. They simply fired out another threatening letter and stopped people’s tax credits if they couldn’t explain why they were living with RS McColl. After being told about this – repeatedly – surely someone at Concentrix should have had the sense to stop all letters going out with RS McColl mentioned on them? But then again, Concentrix wasn’t there to protect those who rely on tax credits; their contract was payment by results so it was in their interest to stop as many claims as possible. There was an in-built bias in the contract to assume everyone claiming tax credits was acting fraudulently, so knowing there was a fault with every enquiry mentioning RS McColl was overlooked.

Another concern with the contract, which has still to be fully examined, was that when the Works and Pensions Committee looked into this matter, we discovered that Concentrix was using three sub-contractors on this contract. There has been little detail on how this worked but looking at the way Concentrix carried out its contract I would have some serious concern that they were allowed to sub-contract part of this out to other companies, of which we know little.

Those who had their benefits stopped could apply for a mandatory reconsideration – but this was to be carried out by Concentrix – the very company that accused them of fraud! Despite this, it turns out that between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of these mandatory reconsiderations resulted in the claimant getting their tax credits restored. In other words, Concentrix was getting it right for only five per cent to 10 per cent of the cases it handled! Would anyone employ any company, builder, electrician where you knew that they only got their job right five per cent of the time? And even then that figure might be lower if there were some people who simply didn’t know they could appeal the decision or were too stressed to do so.

What does it say about life under this Tory Government that this policy was designed to harm those in need, knowing full well that between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of benefits would be restored?

The whole contract is a shambles. Though I welcome the news the Concentrix contract will not be extended – and is likely to be cut short – it isn’t enough. The firm will still walk away with £27 million despite all its failings and the hardship and distress it has caused hundreds of thousands of people.

The buck shouldn’t stop at Concentrix; it was only doing what it could do because of the contract given them by HMRC and ultimately the Tory Government. Of course, the Tories should apologise for the hardship they have caused and some compensation should be applied to those who have suffered throughout this process. This compensation should also be given in a way that it doesn’t impact on claimants’ current benefits.

However, the real issue here is the contempt the Tories show for those who rely on benefits of any sort. They initiated a contract with a private company, to take over what should be an essential service of the state. In doing so they inflated the “savings” that could be achieved and encouraged the public to believe benefit fraud was a lot higher than it is. They want the public to turn on one another and have systematically scapegoated benefit claimants, pensioners, young people, those born in a different country etcetera. The Tories would rather we turn on each other than face the truth that we have a Government that treats the public with suspicion, believing anyone claiming tax credits, pensions or any other benefit is automatically a crook. Not for them the idea that people are simply claiming what they are entitled to, or getting back what they’ve put into the system; to the Tories we’re all crooks.

Contrast this approach with the Tory indifference to the real frauds in the economy, the business tax dodgers who cost the country over £120 billion per year. For them it’s knighthoods and champagne, but for those relying on tax credits it’s bullying and harassment.