Tag Archives: alarm

Tax credit debt collection is a double-edged attack on the poor

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There’s more than a little of the piscine about the fact that our Conservative-led has set debt collection agencies onto poor families who have been overpaid tax credit due to errors made by HM Revenue and Customs.

Firstly, the move undermines the principle behind the tax credit system – that it is there to ensure that poorly-paid families may still enjoy a reasonable living standard. Tax credits are paid on an estimate of a person’s – or family’s – income over a tax year and the last Labour government, knowing that small variances could cause problems for Britain’s poorest, set a wide buffer of £25,000 before households had to pay anything back.

By cutting this buffer back to £5,000, the Conservatives have turned this safety net into a trap. Suddenly the tiniest overpayment can push households into a debt spiral, because their low incomes mean it is impossible to pay back what the government has arbitrarily decided they now owe.

And the sharks are circling. Instead of collecting the debt on its own behalf, HMRC has sold it on to around a dozen debt collection agencies who are harassing the families involved with constant telephone calls, mobile phone messages and letters to their homes.

In total, HMRC made 215,144 referrals to debt collectors in 2013-14. Of the working families involved, 118,000 earned less than £5,000 per year.

This takes us to our second area of concern. Remember how the Department for Work and Pensions has been encouraging people – particularly the disabled – to declare themselves as self-employed in order to avoid the hassle and harassment that now go hand in hand with any benefit claim? You know – the refusal of benefits based on arbitrary ‘descriptors’ that were originally devised by a criminal insurance company as a means to minimise payouts, and the constant threat of sanctions that would cut off access to benefits for up to three years unless claimants manage to clear increasingly difficult obstacles.

And do you remember how the DWP reported earlier this year that more than 3,000 people who were subjected to the government’s benefit cap have now found work? This blog suggested at the time that many of them may have been encouraged to declare themselves self-employed in order to escape the hardship that the cap would cause them.

Both of these circumstances are likely to lead to a verdict of overpayment by HMRC, as the self-employment reported by these people is likely to be fictional, or to provide less than required by the rules – either in terms of hours worked or income earned.

Suddenly their debt is sold to a collection agency and they are suffering government-sponsored harassment, alarm and distress (which is in fact illegal) far beyond anything they received from the DWP; debt collection agencies are not part of the government and, as Dame Anne Begg pointed out in the Independent article on this subject, “The tactics they use to collect the debt are not tactics a government should use.”

Maybe not. So why employ such tactics?

Let’s move on to our third, and final, worry. By setting sharks on the hundreds of thousands of minnows caught in the government’s trawler-net (that was formerly a safety net – and I apologise for the mixed metaphor), the Tory-led administration is creating a handy distraction from the huge, bloated, offshore-banking whales who donate heavily into Conservative Party funds and who are therefore never likely to be pursued for the billions of pounds in unpaid taxes that they owe.

The government has promised to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance, but ministers would have to be out of their minds to attack the bankers and businesspeople who pay for their bread and butter.

George Osborne suffered huge – and entirely justified – derision last year when HMRC published a list of its top 10 tax dodgers, which revealed that public enemy number one was a hairdresser from Liverpool who had failed to pay a total of £17,000.

It seems likely that the Conservatives have decided that future announcements will involve the reclamation of far larger amounts, and from far more people…

Innocent people who were either cheated by Tory-instigated changes to the system or by Tory-instigated misleading benefit advice.

Meanwhile the guilty parties continue to go unhindered. Their only payouts will continue to be made to – who was it again?

Oh yes…

To the Conservative Party.

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Sleepwalking further into Police State Britain as law offers new powers of repression

policestate

Scriptonite Daily has published a piece that everyone should read. It begins:

“The UK Government is about to pass legislation which will make any behaviour perceived to potentially ‘cause nuisance or annoyance’ a criminal offence. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill also grants local authorities, police and even private security firms sweeping powers to bar citizens from assembling lawfully in public spaces. The Bill has successfully passed through the House of Commons without issue, and is now in the latter stages of review by the House of Lords, after which it will receive Royal Assent and become Law. Those who refuse orders under the new rules will face arrest, fines and even prison time.”

It seems to me that this legislation is being made partly to deal with concerns about section five of the Public Order Act. This, as stated in Vox Political‘s article last year, states, “(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he: (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby” – but only applies if a person has been the victim.

It could not be used if an organisation had been subjected to abuse – as was claimed, in this case of the Department for Work and Pensions. Now, it seems, a law is coming into force that can.

This is entirely unwarranted. Abuses of the Public Order Act have clearly demonstrated that the law needs to be relaxed, rather than tightened. Your freedom is being taken away from you, including your right to free speech.

It’s no surprise that this is going on even after this blog, and Scriptonite, and others (I’m sure) have pointed out the problem. We are tiny islands on the media map; most people only ever visit the continents that are the TV news and newspapers, which are happy to pander to their prejudices.

The Public Order Act, as Rowan Atkinson stated in his (should be) legendary Reform Section 5 speech, has led to several alarming exercises of power, “like the man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse ‘gay’.”

The new Bill introduces Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) to replace ASBOs, which were also widely abused. Scriptonite quotes some of these abuses, including:

“The ASBO has allowed the line between criminal behaviour and annoying behaviour to become hopelessly blurred – and the IPNAs will only serve to increase the problem,” says Scriptonite. “We have seen the abuses permitted under ASBO legislation, the test for which included wording to the effect that ASBOs could only be issued where an actual act of ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ had occurred. IPNAs have a much weaker test, applicable where on the ‘balance of probabilities’ a person has or might engage in behaviour ‘capable of causing annoyance’ to another person. How many times a day could this legislation apply to any of us? Eating with our mouths open, talking too loudly into our phones in a public space, walking too slowly or quickly or belching without saying ‘pardon me’. All of this may very well cause annoyance – but soon it might well also be illegal.”

More to the point: If you had a complaint against a government department – no matter whether it was justified – and you publicised it… wouldn’t that cause annoyance to them? Would it not cause them a nuisance?

And, considering the reaction to one woman’s complaint outlined in the VP article mentioned above, would this legislation not give ministers the power to lock you up for it?

This is not a law that should be passed. It is an attack on your freedom, and mine. It is a badge of repression, to be worn by our police as they continue their metamorphosis into symbols of the totalitarianism into which the UK is falling.

There is a petition against this. Please sign it before the law is passed and this document itself becomes a nuisance or annoyance.

I can find no better way to end this article than by paraphrasing what I said before: Police intimidation of those who speak out against injustice is not only an attack on free speech; it is an attack on the entire philosophy on which our society is based.

Next article: Bedroom Tax Tories: What they said and why they were wrong – covering the debate on the Bedroom Tax (or state under-occupation charge, but never spare room subsidy) in the House of Commons on November 12.

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Will the DWP do ANYTHING to avoid revealing the true extent of the Atos deaths?

Getting a little worried, George? According to a commenter on this blog, IDS is "not listening to anyone and will be carrying on until the bitter end". So much for democracy, then.

Getting a little worried, George? According to a commenter on this blog, IDS is “not listening to anyone and will be carrying on until the bitter end”. So much for democracy, then.

The Department for Work and Pensions has turned down my Freedom of Information request on the number of people who have died while going through the Atos benefit assessment process, or shortly afterwards – claiming that I am harassing officials with a co-ordinated, web-based campaign to disrupt the organisation.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “They’re having a laugh, aren’t they?”

Alas, no.

My request was for the department to provide the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012. Please break that figure down into the following categories:

  • Those who are in the assessment phase
  • Those who were found fit for work
  • Those who were placed in the work-related activity group
  • Those who were placed in the support group
  • Those who have an appeal pending

I stated that I was aware that the DWP came under criticism last year because it did not follow up on the conditions of people who had been found fit for work and signed off the benefit, and said I hoped this had been rectified and follow-up checks carried out, so details of

  • Former ESA/IB claimants who have died after being put onto Jobseekers’ Allowance, and
  • Former ISA/IB claimants who were taken off benefit but put onto no other means of support, and the number of these who have died

could be provided.

Here’s the response. Read it and weep:

“Upon considering your request I consider it to be vexatious in nature and therefore under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act the Department is under no duty to answer your request.

“To be a vexatious request the Information Commissioner’s guidance notes that we should consider, amongst other things:

  • whether compliance would create a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction
  • whether the request has the effect of harassing DWP or causing distress to staff.

“On your website where you share information about the request you have raised with other people, you have stated “I have therefore, today, sent a Freedom of Information request to the DWP … I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers”. With this as the stated aim of the exercise I believe your request is designed to harass DWP in the belief that encouraging others to repeat a request which they know has already been raised will affect the outcome of that request.

“Compliance with multiple repetitions of a known request also causes a burden, both in terms of costs and diverting staff away from other work, due to the significant time required to administer these requests.

“The ICO also advises that if a public authority has reason to believe that several different requesters are acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt the organisation by virtue of the sheer weight of FOIA requests being submitted, then it may take this into account when determining whether any of those requests are vexatious.

“As your request is part of a website based campaign I consider that it meets the above criteria and therefore is vexatious in nature.”

Readers may remember I sent my request after a previous attempt by Samuel Miller had failed. His request did not succeed because he was a single individual the officials thought they could push around – now mine has failed because they say I’m acting mob-handed and they think I’m trying to push them around!

In other words, they’re trying to have it both ways.

If I recall correctly, they refused Mr Miller’s request on the spurious argument that the previous FOI request – for which he was requesting an update – was a one-off. This was clearly nonsense.

We all know that it is in the public interest to know how many people are dying as a result of government policy. The DWP certainly knows it because of the reaction the information received when it last became public knowledge – press coverage and public outrage. Therefore there is no justification for any argument that it has not monitored these figures. Any claim that it has not had reason to monitor deaths after people were thrown off the benefit may also be rejected because of the strong public reaction against the Department for failing to provide this information last year.

Now they are rejecting my request on the specious argument that I am harassing them by the strength of my numbers… My number being exactly one. I have not organised anybody else into doing anything; I merely suggested that if the DWP refuses to answer a lone voice, it may pay more attention if others make the same request.

I find it extremely interesting to note that DWP officials are monitoring my blog. I made no mention of it in my email to them. Some might find that sinister.

I take issue with the claim that “harassment” of the DWP is “the stated aim of the exercise”. The stated aim was for the DWP to release its figures on the number of people who have died, either while going through the assessment process for IB or ESA, or afterwards – as stated in the FOI request. The suggestion that others might wish to do likewise was clearly an afterthought.

I dispute the claim that compliance with multiple repetitions of a known request causes a burden in terms of costs and staff time. In the Internet age, only one response to a request needs to be written; it can then be sent to multiple recipients at no cost in money or time, as readers of my blog are aware after receiving identical messages in response to correspondence they have sent on other matters. In any case, this is beside the point as the comment about compliance with multiple requests is irrelevant. I had no reason to expect that anyone would follow my lead when I put in my own request – it was a single request for information and any suggestion that it was part of an orchestrated campaign of harassment is paranoid hysteria.

Furthermore, it distracts from the fact that there was no reason to refuse the original request by Mr Miller. If the DWP had simply answered his questions, there would have been no reason for my request or any of the many others the department seems to be claiming it has received (for which I have no proof other than the vague implication that this is the case).

Bear in mind that this is the same government department that accused a disabled woman of harassment, alarm or distress under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, against everybody working for it – and sent the police around to her Cardiff flat, just before midnight on a Friday night last year, to put the frighteners on her. They are well-acquainted with the practice of turning the facts upside down. Just who was being harassed, again?

This leaves us with the impression that the Department for Work and Pensions will do anything to withhold the figures on the number of deaths caused by its policies.

It seems unlikely that a government department would go to such lengths unless those figures reveal a serious problem with the policy; therefore we may reasonably suspect that the number of deaths has increased, perhaps dramatically.

In turn, considering that we know ministers, the Secretary of State (Vox‘s Monster of the Year 2012 – Iain Duncan Smith), and the Prime Minister have all been warned that the assessment system they have brought in (admittedly inherited from Labour but altered under the Coalition) – and all have refused to instigate changes to make it more humane – it seems possible that a legal case for corporate manslaughter of the many thousands who have died could be made – IF the current figures were made available.

This means that its own actions have put the DWP, its officials and ministers, precisely where I want them.

We all knew they were unlikely to give up the information without a struggle, and the shape of our campaign would be dictated – to a certain extent – by their response to our reasonable requests. Now we have that response, we may proceed.

… But we’ll leave our departmental interlopers guessing about exactly what we’ll be doing, I think!

Police move on campaigners for “criminal acts against DWP”

Having Mr Bean in the Cabinet – or at least his alter-ego, Rowan Atkinson – might not be as ridiculous as this image suggests. He talked more sense in a 10-minute presentation about free speech than the Department for Work and Pensions has in the last two and a half years.

Some of you may be aware that police invaded the home of a campaigner for Disabled People Against Cuts, living in Cardiff, just before midnight yesterday (October 26).

Apparently she had been accused of “Criminal acts against the Department for Work and Pensions” – being that she has been highlighting the deaths of sick and disabled people following reassessment by Atos and the DWP for Employment and Support Allowance.

No charges were brought against the lady concerned and it is generally considered that this was an act of intimidation.

Since then, I have been informed of three other incidents in which police either visited campaigners at home or stopped them in the street to, in colloquial terms, “put the frighteners on them”. Two were vulnerable women with mental illness, one of whom lives alone.

The forces allegedly involved were South Wales, Dyfed Powys and North Yorkshire Police.

I don’t know what legislation these constables were quoting as the legal grounds for these intrusions. It seems likely it may have been the Public Order Act, section five, which states, “(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he: (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

But this applies only if a person has been the victim – not an organisation like the DWP.

If it is the Public Order Act, then this provides an opportunity to quote Rowan Atkinson’s speech at the ‘Reform Section 5’ Parliamentary reception earlier this month.

Mention of Mr Atkinson may have already invoked, in your mind, the ‘Constable Savage’ sketch from Not The 9 O’Clock News, in which a police officer is berated for arresting the same man on charges of “Walking on the cracks in the pavement”, “Walking around with an offensive wife”, and “Looking at me in a funny way”, amongst others.

If it didn’t, go and watch the speech because he makes free reference to that sketch in it.

“I suspect [I am] highly unlikely to be arrested for whatever laws exist to contain free expression because of the undoubtedly privileged position that is afforded to those of a high public profile,” said Mr Atkinson.

“My concerns are… more for those who are more vulnerable because of their lower profile – like the man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse ‘gay’.”

He said: “Even for actions that were withdrawn, people were arrested, questioned, taken to court… and then released. That isn’t a law working properly. That is censoriousness of the most intimidating kind, guaranteed to have… a ‘chilling effect’ on free expression and free protest.”

He said: “The reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature. It is what you might call ‘the new intolerance’ – a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent.

“Underlying prejudices, injustices or resentments are not addressed by arresting people; they are addressed by the issues being aired, argued and dealt with, preferably outside the legal process.”

Hear, hear.

Of course, this all makes the police look even worse than they’ve been made to seem in recent weeks. First the Hillsborough cover-up came out into the open, then the (many) Jimmy Savile cover-ups, and now – yet again – it seems the government is using police services across the country as a tool for political repression.

The ability to rely on an impartial system of law and order underpins the whole of British society. Use of the police in this way erodes confidence in law and order and, therefore, in society itself.

Police intimidation of those who speak out against the injustices of the DWP and its Atos employees is not only an attack on free speech; it is an attack on the entire philosophy on which our society is based.