On 18th October 2016 Peter Dowd took part in the Westminster Hall Debate on 18th October 2016. Here is his contribution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Nuttall. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for enabling Members to consider this matter, as well as hon. Members from across the House who have attended and spoken. I counted 24 interventions or speeches, and there was a theme in the words that were used time and again—words such as “shameful”, “shocking”, “distressing”, “desperation”, “anger” and “despair”.
Like other hon. Members, I have received many letters and phone calls from constituents who, to their shock and bewilderment, have found their child tax credits stopped, with little explanation and with few avenues of recourse. Under the Government’s contract with Concentrix, thousands of innocent mothers—the vast majority are working mothers—were in effect branded fraudsters and cheats. At the drop of a hat, they saw money that they desperately needed for their children taken away, notwithstanding their entitlement to it. Yet the company is not solely at fault—the Government are, too. Despite the protestations that the Minister will no doubt make today, the Government gave Concentrix a contract that was a licence to harass and was open to abuse. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that if a company is paid commission to find tax credit error and fraud, it will start with the easy targets so as to turn an even easier profit.
What is more shocking is that the victims, which is what they are, did not have the means of fighting back. They were disfranchised. Hon. Members have spoken of their need to intervene personally in many cases to get movement. The whole process was deeply flawed and, as has been suggested, operated on the presumption that people were guilty until proven innocent—a concept completely alien and contradictory to our values, and our sense of justice, fairness and decency.
Under the system, the occupant of a household was sent a letter by Concentrix accusing them of not meeting the standards for child tax credit. The letter demanded that they get in touch to present evidence of their living arrangements. Having received the letter, some constituents attempted to call Concentrix, only to find the number busy, a point that has also been made. When Concentrix did not hear back from the person, who may not have received the letter in the first place, another letter was summarily sent, stopping tax credit payments. As far as I am aware, at no point was a Government Minister consulted or asked to sign off the process—can the Minister tell us otherwise? Instead, a private foreign company, whose sole interest was profit, was allowed to withdraw tax credits on behalf of the British Government. That is what makes the contract so unique: the vast power Concentrix had to act on putative information.
Jon Thompson, the chief executive of HMRC, confirms that in this novel approach, it was the first time such checks had been carried out by an external provider. Even Atos did not have the power to withdraw benefits. Concentrix had carte blanche. The Government were in fact planning to renew the contract for a job well done. They did not care to ask why Concentrix had so many savings on its books, or to listen to the complaints of many of our constituents. It was the Labour party that originally called the National Audit Office to investigate and the Labour party that has pushed for oversight and demanded action for the thousands of families who have still not received repayments from Concentrix.
We see the austerity cuts hitting women hardest, and the Government changing women’s pension age. Now we see the Government contracting private companies to take away money from single working mothers. We cannot help but ask what this Government have against women. What do they have against hard-working single mothers? It comes down to a lack of care. In essence, the Government are happy to outsource important processes affecting people’s lives to private corporations to make a profit. So be it, but not without the proper checks and balances being in place.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that needs to be looked at.
When all is said and done, this is a question of the performance management of a Government contractor, and a clear lack of oversight by the Government. On behalf of the many people affected by the debacle, I would like to performance-manage the Minister by asking the following questions. First, who was overseeing Concentrix’s contract? Secondly, how was the oversight conducted? Thirdly, how often was it reviewed? Fourthly, what were the penalties for mismanagement of the contract? Fifthly, when did the penalties kick in? Sixthly, what penalties are left on the contract? Seventhly, will Concentrix be paying back any money to the Government? Eighthly, how many people have been affected? Ninthly, what actions have the Government taken proactively to compensate those people? Tenthly, have the Government sent out formal apologies to those affected? And finally, when will the last person who has had their child tax credit withdrawn receive repayment? Those key questions need to be answered and acted on. We do not want any shilly-shallying from the Government.
I fear that unless the Government get to grips with their commissioning processes, we will be back here in six or 12 months’ time, looking at another company that has abused a Government contract for profit and, in so doing, deprived some of the most vulnerable people of much-needed financial support. The situation needs to be sorted; otherwise, I fear the fiasco will be repeated and the Minister will be doing an encore in due course.