Concentrix: Sally’s Story
In east London, at her children’s school, Sally (not her real name) is calculating with the family practitioner how much debt she and the children are in. “How much is it now? £500?” “Yes, £500 overdraft.”
It’s been a year and a half since her troubled husband left the family, leaving Sally to look after their five children alone. The youngest of the girls is only three, and 11-year-old son Connor (“obsessed with computers”) is autistic.
With the right support, the breakup of the marriage could have been the start of something better and more financially stable for them. But instead Sally has found herself getting into debt to feed her children. And all because she’s been accused of still living with her husband.
This is the human face of the Concentrix scandal. The US company with a UK government contract hit the news last month for falsely withholding child tax credits. Over the course of the past two years, the firm had sent nearly 1 million spam letters to tax credit claimants accusing them of providing incorrect information about their relationship status, working hours or childcare arrangements – ultimately leaving scores of families, like Sally and her children, to get by without the benefit.
For Sally, it was back in September 2015 that it first started. Her husband had been gone five months – taking any wage, as well as the working tax credits he brought in, with him – and she was struggling to stretch what they had left.
Kim, the family worker from the charity School-Home Support, explained that she was entitled to more child tax credits (she was still on the lower rate, for couples), and sat with her to sort out all the forms. “She came into school so upset,” Kim says. “She’d been trying to use her son’s disability benefit to keep up with the overdraft.”
By November, the family were getting back on their feet with the help of child tax credits at the lone-parent rate: in total, £338 a week.
But in July this year, Sally got a letter from Concentrix: after “completing checks”, it believed she was still living with her husband, despite the fact she didn’t even know where he was. The result? The children’s tax credits would be stopped. And Sally would have to repay the money she had received since last October.
Concentrix – hired by the government, without irony, to prevent incorrect or fraudulent claims – has since lost its pay-by-results contract. But, more than two months on, Sally still hasn’t had her benefit reinstated.
For a family such as Sally’s, losing this money adds to what is already a struggle. On the 10th floor of a tower block, all six are crammed into a one-bed flat. Four of the children sleep in the one bedroom; two have a single bed and two sha
Without the child tax credits, she’s had to go back to using Connor’s disability living allowance (DLA) to pay for small meals. “It’s very hard to get enough money for food,” she says. “We don’t eat much. Rice. Fish. Maybe chips.”
The DLA used to go on things like console games for Connor (what for other children is a treat is, to him, a rigid routine that calms him). He cries when his mum reminds him they can’t afford it now. An autistic child doesn’t understand benefits being stopped, says Kim. “It’s just, ‘Mummy won’t let me play with it’.”
There’s no room for Connor or his sister to play in the flat, and no green space outside, just concrete and cars. The lift in the block is broken again, Sally says, and the children – acting up with the worry – fight on the 10 flights of stairs on the way to school.
Kim calls Concentrix daily on behalf of the family. She thinks the problem could be that Sally’s husband’s name is still on the flat’s tenancy agreement, but says no one will respond.
When the Guardian contacted Concentrix, a spokesperson said: “Concentrix was contractually obligated to contact individual tax credit claimants based on information provided by HMRC. Concentrix would be penalised heavily if it failed to adhere to HMRC policies and procedures. We recognise that the re-evaluation of individual tax credits claims can be difficult for all concerned. We adopt a rigorous process at every stage to ensure we manage this process responsibly.”
Sally sent in a request for mandatory reconsideration last month – where a claimant gets “another chance to present evidence” – but says she’s heard nothing back. In the meantime, she’s been told she is now in £100 debt to the NHS.
Sally needs tablets for an iron deficiency and stockings to help with the pain of severe varicose veins, and without her child tax credits she has lost her free prescriptions. She doesn’t know how she’ll pay for her medication – but for now, she is only thinking about the children.
“They’re so upset,” she says, quietly. “I’m worried. I’m very worried.