Tax credits firm receives suicidal calls

Depressed young woman sitting in chair at home

Concentrix, a company used by HMRC to cut fraud and errors in tax credit payments, has received calls from people who had had their credits stopped, and were so distressed by their new situation that they were suicidal. The claim was made by a 'whistleblower', who told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme that staff hadn't been properly trained to deal with these calls.

Concentrix has hit the headlines in recent months, after it emerged that there had been a sharp rise in complaints from claimants who had had their tax credits cut. In many cases, these were single people, who were told they would not receive payments again until they could prove they were not in a relationship. In one instance, a teenager was wrongly said to have been married to a 74-year-old man - who it later turned out was actually dead.

The member of staff at its Belfast call centre told the BBC they were called every day by people in tears, and those who had no food to feed their children. They received calls from people who said they were going to kill themselves - and had to keep them talking while a manager called the police.

Concentrix told the programme that staff were trained to guidelines from HMRC and are supported as much as possible when faced with incidents like this. It said that its staff were not counsellors, and they would "never position them as such". Instead, they said outside agencies such as the police were called in immediately.

The member of staff added that he and his colleagues had no power to reinstate benefits - even temporarily. Concentrix defended this, saying: "There had to be a process and our staff are not there to apply a discretionary judgement, or implement their own exemptions as this would lead to future issues."

Terrible circumstances

The horrible situations people find themselves in should not come as a surprise to many people. Experts have been warning that this would be the final result of cutting people's assistance. In April a mental health charity warned that around half of those who contacted them considering suicide had financial problems or problems with housing. Almost a third were also worried about having their welfare payments cut.

Back in June, Baroness Meacher specifically warned that as tax credits were cut more generally, it would lead to people taking their own lives. She wanted to see the government take responsiblity for these vulnerable people, to ensure they had adequate support.

Whether a call centre employee is the right person to be the point of contact for providing this support is questionable - regardless of whether or not they have had a short period of training.

Lack of training?

Reviews on Glassdoor - which allows people to post anonymous reviews of their employers - would seem to indicate that the training isn't perfect across the board. Some employees report that they haven't had enough training to deal with challenging calls, while others say that when they raised queries with managers, they were not taken seriously.

Of course it's difficult to confirm that each of these reviews are real, but given that the firm has been rated 753 times, and has an overall rating of 2.6 out of 5, unless a few disgruntled staff have been very busy creating profiles and posting angry reviews for months, there are clearly come issues within the organisation.

Concentrix has not had its contract renewed by the government.

Most common causes of debt
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Most common causes of debt

There are some very common reasons for building up problem debts. Here we reveal seven of the most common, and what you can do if you face them.

Unemployment or illness that means one or more of the household’s earners are unable to work will bring a profound change in family finances, and according to the Money Advice Service is the most common reason for getting into problem debt.

If your circumstances change, therefore, you need to immediately address your family finances, and put everything on a minimum spend lockdown. You should also look into the benefits and tax credits that are available sooner rather than later, to try to close the gap.

If you are on the kind of contract that means varying hours, it can be incredibly difficult to work out what you can afford to spend - making it the second most common reason for getting into debt - according to the Debt Support Trust.

Rather than swinging through the extremes from week to week, the best approach is to establish a budget that will work in the leanest of months, so you don't find yourself getting used to the months when you work more hours.

According to Citizens Advice, trying to service too much debt is the third most common reason for getting into difficulties. The TUC found that those with problem debts spend 40% of their income on debt repayments.

If you are in this position, you officially need some help with your debt problems. If you continue to rob Peter to pay Paul, you will end up owing more and more, so you need to take stock and talk to a debt charity about all your options.

The double-whammy of the legal bills combined with the incredible cost of establishing two separate households is enough to make divorce or separation the fourth most common reason for going into debt - according to the Debt Support Trust.

There's no easy solution, but if you are going through this, it can be helpful to talk through your financial situation with someone you trust or a debt charity, who can help you balance a stretched budget.

Problem debts aren’t necessarily caused by a sudden shock to the system. According to the Money Advice Service, 20% of their clients are simply trying to live on an unsustainably low income.

If you are in this category, it’s important to seek help on the benefits and tax credits you may be able to receive. It’s not always easy to navigate the system, but charities like StepChange have experts on the benefits system who can talk you through what’s available.

The combination of rising costs and stagnating wages over the last few years has meant increasingly people saw their monthly wage cover less and less of their monthly outgoings. This position has started to ease more recently, but has left many people far worse off than before the financial crisis. The Money Advice Trust said a combination of this and unexpected costs was responsible for almost one in ten problem debts.

If you consistently spend more than you are expecting, it's well worth keeping a spending diary. That way you can establish the real cost of living, and start to identify where you can cut costs.

The Money Advice Service says it commonly deals with individuals who have struggled to get to grips with budgeting and debts, and have got into debt because they don’t have the skills and knowledge to manage their money effectively.

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