How the DWP makes random deductions from #UniversalCredit accounts to “recover” tax credit debts people can’t afford to pay

Article by me on politics.co.uk today:

The dreadful DWP is now in charge of tax credit debt collection. It deducts random amounts for debts from people’s Universal Credit accounts without telling them. People say they don’t even owe these so-called debts

These deductions leave people in even more debt and with nothing to live on.

“Without warning the DWP started taking about £25 a month from Susan’s Universal Credit payments for this ‘debt’. She says the deductions stopped and started through the year.

She is now also repaying a Universal Credit advance loan at £67 a month. She took the loan out, in part, to cover the tax credit debt repayments that the DWP suddenly began deducting from her.”

Read the whole article here.

In a refuge, domestic violence, no Universal Credit money since October. This government is vicious

Yesterday, I spent another couple of hours at Oldham foodbank for more interviews with people who needed food parcels.

Here’s one of those interviews.

I spoke for a short time with a young woman.

She’d been abused by her partner, had left him and had been living in a refuge since July. Her kids were in care, I think (she was emotional and had struggled to speak at points). She said she was waiting to find out from the courts whether or not she’d “get my kids back.”

She had a Universal Credit claim, but hadn’t received any money since October. There was a problem, because she’d moved addresses to get away from the violent partner:

“I haven’t been paid for two months, because of a mixup in address – something to do with the address and all that… I suffered a domestic violence relationship, so I went into refuge.

[I am] trying to fight for my children in court. Don’t know if I’m going to bring the children back with me or not. All depends on whether I’m entitled to a three [unclear] or a one bedroom property.

That relationship. I lost everything.”

The foodbank volunteer asked her if she needed tampax. She said yes, so the volunteer made up a bag of sanitary items for her.

This woman’s mother was with her. She’d come along to do what she could. She was obviously concerned.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, because it becomes truer by the hour – we don’t have a safety net now. Social security hasn’t been reformed. It has been reduced to this rubble. People who need help most – help to stay alive, if you will – can’t access it. I meet more and more people whose circumstances should put them at the head of any queue. As things stand, they’re not in the queue at all. This is criminal.

I gave the woman and her mother my number. Maybe they’ll call.

Excerpts from the interview transcript:

“I’m ashamed of coming here, I don’t know why, but I’m ashamed… food, because I can’t afford to feed myself. Can’t afford to live let alone feed myself.

Haven’t had any money since October …Universal Credit. Can’t afford to go anywhere… if it involves money, I can’t do it

The foodbank volunteer came over with bags. “Not got any tampax in there… do you want…?”

“Yes, tampax please…”

“Haven’t been paid for two months, because of a mix up in address. Something to do with the address and all that, because the refuge I’m staying at. I suffered a domestic violence relationship, so I went into refuge…

Trying to fight for my children in court. Don’t know if I’m going to bring the children back with me or not… all depends on whether I’m entitled to a three [unclear] or a one bedroom property. That relationship… I lost everything.

Trying to fight for my kids… been in refuge since July… ex-partner isn’t the father. He’d hurt me by using the children and hurting me physically and emotionally. I was on Universal Credit with my ex and then I went onto a single claim, from where I lived… and now have made it into my own combination.

I don’t know my future until I get the result of what is happening with the children… haven’t got a clue, had no money for a month.”

“If you don’t pay your rent, we’re going to look at every penny you spend and see whether you’re intentionally homeless…” How contempt for homeless people really plays

This is the third article in a series with a housing officer who talks about the realities of providing housing services at councils in austerity across London and Greater London councils.* There’s a transcript from the interview at the end of this post.

In this article, the officer talks about two issues that should enrage everyone:

1) the grossly unfair intentional homelessness decisions that some councils make

2) the contempt for benefit claimants and homeless people that drives some intentional homelessness decisions and some frontline officers generally. I and others have certainly seen that in the past few years.

The officer in this article says that some housing officers have completely bought into the government line that benefit claimants are scroungers and deadbeats. This won’t be news to some people, but it needs pointing out for those who don’t realise. Some officers are very fair and helpful (I’ve certainly seen that), but some are not. In austerity, government disdain for benefit claimants can trickle down to officers who are supposed to be providing support services for benefit claimants. Trickle down may not work too well when it comes to sharing wealth with everyone, but it works very well indeed when it comes to sharing disdain.

Says the officer:

“Individual [council] managers will be pushing this [finding people intentionally homeless]. [They’ll be] saying, “let’s look at this… they’re [tenants] expected to pay this [rent] shortfall now. This is why we have benefit caps and LHA rates.”

“They have this idea that these people are sort of scrounging cunts – they should be paying their shortfall and if they don’t, we need to find them intentionally homeless…”

and:

“Since 2010, you’ve got all the benefit porn on TV – this whole idea of unemployment and benefit claimants being scroungers and getting the blame for having to bail the bankers out… and that is coming into housing as well.”

Some of the “bullshit” intentional homelessness decisions that this officer has overturned at the review stage include an intentional homelessness finding against a woman who left a flat and the local area to get away from a man who’d raped her, and an intentional homelessness decision made in the case of a woman who was evicted for rent arrears after her abusive husband left and stopped paying rent.

Intentional homelessness decisions can have nasty repercussions. When a council decides that people have made themselves homeless intentionally, the council doesn’t help those people sort their homelessness problems out long term. It holds those people responsible for their homelessness.

I realise that’s a simple take, but simple is fine in this context. That is how people on the rough end experience intentional homelessness. I realise that the Homelessness Reduction Act should improve support to an extent, but I’m not talking about acts, or the rules that staff should follow in this post. I’m talking about the ways people can behave at a point in history when whole societies are encouraged to write benefit claimants off. I’m talking about officer mindsets in austerity. I’m talking about the contempt behind some decisions – the institutional contempt which can permeate minds and organisations at a time when political derision of claimants is rife.

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How can the DWP STILL leave people to “live” on a pittance? Will any of this ever change?

Let’s start the week with a rant:

I’ve said this a million times, as has everyone, but let’s say it again:

Some people don’t have enough money to live on. Nothing is changing that I can see.

People are deliberately kept in debt to the state and in crushing poverty as a result. The DWP sanctions and reduces benefit money to the point where people can’t meet basic bills, and then deducts even more for loans and that people can’t pay. People are forced to cough up fines and costs for court appearances for unpaid council tax and rent – bills that they couldn’t afford to pay in the first place. That’s why they’re in court. Something needs to be done, but it isn’t being done. I wonder exactly how long the turning-point will sit on the horizon. How long will people be forced to wait for change?

We’ve had plenty of chat recently in the MSM re: politicians accepting that austerity is terrible and that people loathe it. I’m all for that chat, but a timeline for actual improvement would be good. I realise that we’ve had major political movement in recent times, from Brexit to the Christ-ly rise of Jez, and I try to get/stay enthused/interested, but the truth is that useful results on the ground still feel a very long way away.

I still speak to people who didn’t vote in the general election. They still shrug and say, “it doesn’t make any difference.” You see their point. They’re still at foodbanks. They’re still fighting the DWP for a few quid in hardship funds. They’re still written off as scroungers. Recent political events haven’t meant much in real terms for them.

After squandering months on an election and its aftermath, our “leadership” and parliament will soon take summer break. I wonder if a break should be allowed. Then again – who cares. What’s a couple of months in the greater scheme. Even if Jez launches the glorious revolution tomorrow, it’ll take years – decades – to rebuild public services to the point where people who really need those services get them in a way that feels helpful. A revolution would look great on facebook, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for the rest. I realise that I take a childishly simple view of political realities here, but I feel the need to get down to basics. A lot of people have been waiting an awful long time for the aforementioned turning-point to really arrive. Quite a few people have died along the way.

Some specifics from real life out and about:

There are three key problems I hear again and again from people as I go from foodbanks to lunch kitchens to meetings with people who have housing problems:

1) The DWP, councils and housing associations are deducting money from people’s benefits by way of sanctions, loan repayments, council tax and fines, and rent arrears. The upshot is that people are left with a pittance to live on. It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about a figure of £50 a week and less. Doesn’t matter whether or not you think people deserve these slapdowns because they’re single mums, unemployed, low earners, ex-cons, or whatever. They’re stuck forever. The state and its offshoots crush people with debts that they’ll never repay. The state does not help these people. It owns them. We, or someone, needs concrete plans to change that.

2) People are waiting for an Employment and Support Allowance decision, or a Personal Independence Payment decision. The waiting is going on and on and/or their application is turned down. The mandatory reconsideration and tribunal appeals processes drag on and are extremely difficult to navigate if you can’t grasp complex government bureaucracies. Which many people can’t, because these systems are too hard to deal with even if you do feel up to it. At the moment, in one way or another, I’m dealing with/writing about three people with learning difficulties and health problems who have been found fit for work this year and have not been able to appeal these decisions, or sort out interim income, without help from local support groups.

3) People are fighting eviction and paying big court/bailiffs costs on the way. They’re always insecurely housed, because they must rent in the private sector.

Here are three very recent examples of these:

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Here’s a woman explaining in detail problems she’s had getting council homelessness help. This system is garbage.

The aim of this post is to show you what it’s like when a person tries to get help from a council when that person is threatened with homelessness.

As you’ll know, there’s been a lot of discussion about the realities of these council systems after Grenfell.

I want to give you an idea of the shambolic and often startlingly unhelpful council bureaucracies that people must use when they need help to find a place to live. I want to show you the system as people who must use it see it. We live in an era of massively oversubscribed and under-resourced council homelessness offices (god knows I wouldn’t want to work as a frontline council homelessness officer these days). We also live in an era where big councils are very keen push poorer people out to live in cheaper areas, because housing benefit doesn’t cover private rents in expensive areas. These things show.

To the story, then. This is one person talking about the systems she’s experienced:

In the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with a 32-year-old Newham woman called Chantelle Dean. For much of this year, Chantelle has been threatened with eviction and homelessness. She tells a story that will be very familiar to anyone on this circuit.

Chantelle lives in a small, rickety, two-bedroom rented flat in Newham. Rodents and cockroaches are a problem, as they often are in houses in cramped, older rows. There are gaps in walls which rodents use as entry-points: “the [exterminator] guy said no matter how much foam they put in, the mice are going to be coming through. It’s so old and there are so many holes,” Chantelle said. I’ve posted photos of the anti-mouse plastic foam the exterminator sprayed into wall-holes below.

Chantelle has a three-year-old son. She was placed in her flat about three years ago by Newham council after working her way through family problems and contact with social services. Chantelle receives Income Support. She plans to find work when her son starts nursery in September. She said she’s applied for jobs. Her mother lives nearby and can provide free childcare. That’s the plan.

Unfortunately, the plan is threatened by Chantelle’s precarious housing situation.

Chantelle is about to be evicted from her flat. As of Friday last week when we met at her flat, she still had nowhere to go when eviction day comes. She’d been trying to sort the problem out for months. (Chantelle managed to get another meeting with the council this week, so I’ll update this post if there’s progress to report).

The trouble began at the start of this year when Chantelle’s landlord gave her a notice to tell her that she had to leave the property (a section 21 notice, I think. I don’t mind saying the paperwork that comes with these things confuses me as well). She had to leave the flat by March.

She was very upset about this, as well she might be.

Chantelle went to the Newham Council Housing Needs office in East Ham in January to tell the council about the notice and to ask for help find another flat in the area. This is where things began to get messy, as they do.

Chantelle said the council told her that the council couldn’t help until the day that she was actually evicted from the flat – when the bailiffs turned up at her door, as she understood it. She said she was advised to stay in the flat and to wait to receive a possession order – which, I gather, is the next stage in the so-called system (the possession order is mentioned in the officer email below). This was, needless to say, of concern. Chantelle wanted help as soon as possible. She wasn’t keen to wait until bailiffs hammered at the door. She was also worried that she’d end up with court fines and costs if things went as far as possession orders and bailiffs (this is exactly what happened, as you’ll see).

She said that getting anyone to listen was extremely difficult. Noting this frustration is important. People constantly report this sort of frustration with frontline services:

“All they [the council] repeat is that, “we’re not going to help you until you get the bailiff’s warrant.” Once you get that, you come back up here [to the East Ham housing office] and give it to her, my caseworker, and then she will give me an appointment at [Newham Council’s] Bridge House on the day when the letter says that the bailiffs will come. Anything from that – they don’t want to talk to you. They don’t want to see you. Anything.”

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If austerity really is over (ha), everyone must benefit. That includes people we’ve been told to hate.

Have been thinking about the much-discussed end to austerity and public sector cuts ever since the politically-resuscitated (regurgitated?) Michael Gove floated the concept: “we…. need to take account of legitimate public concerns about ensuring that we properly fund public services,” blah, blah, etc.

An end to austerity would be tremendous, of course. Can’t wait, etc. I only hope that EVERYONE gets to share in the largesse. The time has come to throw out poisonous notions of Deserving and Undeserving poor. God knows that’s achieved nothing apart from division. Everyone is deserving and must be seen as such. When I say “everyone,” I mean even people who successive governments have made very sure are unpopular with taxpayers. “Everyone” must include the people that the Daily Mail et al like to dismiss as dead weight – the single mums, the people with drug and alcohol problems and people who don’t, for whatever reason, work (or vote). I tend to feel that when the political class talks about righting austerity’s wrongs, the recurring themes are stagnant pay, and funding the NHS, the police, social care, education and housing. Fair enough. Those services are vital.

There are other people, though. There are people whose lives have been wrecked by public sector cuts – particularly because the DWP and council frontline services they must use have been outsourced, reorganised, and/or cut past function – but who are less electorally pertinent than, say, nurses and the police. These are the people who have been abandoned to our era’s most spectacularly callous and defective bureaucracies. These are people who are judged harshly for their circumstances and often left with nothing to live on as a result. I trust our new wave of Tory austerity-relaxers will throw them a lifeline as well. Bit more carrot and less stick, and all that.

It is with this in mind that I take you towards Oldham now, to the South Chadderton foodbank where I spent several hours last week. I talked there with people who’d come in for food parcels because they’d run out of money.

I spoke with two women at length. One woman had lost income through benefit sanctions. The other had no income, because she’d failed a sickness benefit assessment, was mired in appeals and had no idea what to do next. Both women were having a hell of a time trying to make sense of the endless letters, cut income and confusing instructions that people are given by the DWP in our punitive and unhelpful austerity age. These people could have been anyone, really, in the sense that I see this confusion and incomprehension all the time.

The first woman was a young mum called Emma.

Emma was 31. She had three kids aged 13, five and six months. She told me a story I’ve heard variations on before. Emma said that her Income Support payments had been reduced, because she’d missed two work-related interviews at her jobcentre. I found out later that these interviews may not even have been mandatory. This sort of thing happens, though. People are told by jobcentre staff that they have to attend work activities or courses when they don’t. I’ve seen that more than once over the years, as I say. It’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that DWP systems are a shambles.

Emma said she’d missed the workforce interviews because she didn’t realise they were taking place.

“They’re every three months now (the work-related interviews at the jobcentre). They used to be every 12 months. It’s if you miss the appointments, that was why…

“I thought they were going to sanction me. I thought they were going to stop all my money, but they haven’t. They’ve just reducted [sic] so much money off of my benefits.”

Emma said that she hadn’t appealed the decision to cut her benefits, because she didn’t know that she could appeal.

“They said when I went to the jobcentre, when you’ve attended your workforce interview, they [the payments] will go back to normal.”

Emma doubted these workforce interviews would lead to work. I’ve attended enough of these work-related meetings to doubt the point of them myself. At best, work-related interviews are box-ticking exercises: proof by jobcentres for the DWP that people who sign on have been encouraged to look for jobs. At worst, they’re a means of keeping benefit recipients on a short leash – of making people return repeatedly to their jobcentres where they know they’re being watched. Here’s a story I did about such pointless demands being put on people who signed on at the North Kensington jobcentre: a place that was harsh on benefit recipients in my experience and that is in the mainstream news re: signon demands at the moment after the Grenfell disaster.

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Can real problems like homelessness get more than fleeting attention these days?

Let’s start this one with a story from the large collection in my Nobody Gives A Stuff If Women And Children Are Homeless file:

Image: dead mouse in the bathroom

I’m talking at the moment with a young Newham woman called Chantelle. For some time now, Chantelle has been living in a private-rental craphole. She has a three-year-old son. Cockroaches and rodents roam around their rotten flat. Chantelle told me that exterminators have visited a couple of times, but that they may as well have saved themselves the trip. The roaches and rodents have always come charging back. Wonder if they’re galloping in through a hole in a wall somewhere. Chantelle took some pictures of the roaches, which I’ve posted above and below.

Image: dead cockroaches in the flat

A couple of months back, Chantelle’s landlord told her that she had to leave the flat. Chantelle says that she doesn’t have rent arrears and hasn’t damaged the flat. Her landlord just wants the place back. Sometimes, landlords want to charge somebody else even more to live (should I say “live”) in a flat. Who can really say.

Chantelle went to Newham Council to explain her troubles and to ask for help. You can guess how fulfilling that visit was. Chantelle would’ve been better off waiting for December and writing Santa for a tent. The council was supremely unhelpful as councils can be these days. It hardly matters where you go. Frontline officers have no resources, which means they have no answers. You hit a gatekeeper as soon as you arrive at reception, or send an email, or make a call, or whatever. The opening line is often Goodbye. Some put this more politely than others, but that’s the essence. I’ve seen emails from the council which demonstrate that was the essence here. Chantelle was advised to look for cheap places out of London. People don’t know how to fight for more.

At the very least, councils give people instructions that they find almost impossible to follow. Chantelle says Newham told her that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be helped as a homeless person until she was actually evicted, or the bailiffs were at her door to evict her, or her notice expired, or something to that effect. She still wasn’t entirely sure when we talked and anyway: technicalities. The technicalities mean little to people when it comes down to it. Everyone still ends up at the same place – ie, nowhere. The long and the short of it was that as far as Chantelle was concerned, she was told to wait, to try and find herself another flat out of London (she has no chance of that now in London’s private rental sector, which she can’t afford) and to only come back to the council when the bailiffs were racing up the road after her, or something along those lines. I’d ask Newham council to clarify the situation, except that Newham council has refused to talk to me for several years on account of my Focus E15 housing campaign stories and general attitude to press offices and life, etc. Those guys can really drag out a grudge.

Chantelle’s understanding was that if she left the flat before she was thrown out of it, the council would say that she’d made herself intentionally homeless. This is the kind of understanding that a lot of people are left with these days. I went recently to First Choice Homes in Oldham with a 67-year-old bloke called Paul who was told while we stood there that he was considered to be adequately housed because he had a tiny, rotting caravan to live in. He was also told that he would make himself intentionally homeless if he left the caravan voluntarily – ie, without being chucked out of it by whoever owned it and/or the campsite. True story.

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More recordings: intentionally homeless if you’re evicted for benefit cap rent arrears…?

More food for thought from conversations about the benefit cap at the actual coal face:

I’ve posted below a recording in which a Basildon council officer says that people who are evicted because of benefit cap rent arrears could be found to have made themselves intentionally homeless.

Which was not the best news. Council help for you is very much reduced if you’re judged responsible for your homelessness. You’re more or less on your own with your homelessness problems if that happens as I’ve seen it. You would have thought that people evicted on account of rent arrears caused by the benefit cap should and would be cut slack in this area – particularly if they were placed in housing that they could afford before the benefit cap was lowered – but maybe not.

Certainly, officers make interesting remarks on the ground. It’s all important to note:

The recording below was made at a February meeting with a woman who has serious rent arrears because of the recently-lowered benefit cap. The woman and her three young children were placed in a Basildon flat by Newham council. Basildon council handles the family’s housing benefit claim. This woman’s housing benefit was cut by about £100 a week when the cap was lowered at the end of last year. A small discretionary housing payment covers part of her rent shortfall until the end of March. We went to Basildon council to ask what else she could do.

The officer said the woman should go back to Newham council to ask if Newham thought her flat was still affordable now that her housing benefit had been cut.

The officer then said intentional homelessness was on the cards if this woman was evicted because of benefit cap arrears:

(This audio has been altered to disguise voices. Am not particularly in pursuit of individual officers here. It’s the message that’s the issue).

“If you become homeless, it could be that you’d be seen as intentionally homeless anyway, because you… if you’ve been evicted for rent arrears, then it is through non-payment of rent that you’ve lost your property.

That got my attention, all right. In the recording, you hear me ask:

“Would that mean no one would have a duty to house her? Is that the case, even when [the rent arrears have been caused by] something like that [benefit] cap that’s come in subsequently….?”

“This is why you need to see Newham council about the affordability, because if they say it is affordable, then you’re going to have to struggle by and get it paid…” the officer said. “If they don’t think it’s affordable, then because they have a duty, they have a duty to assist you to find something cheaper, or…”

Or what? I thought.

I contacted Newham council to ask whether or not the council was likely to decide that people had made themselves homeless intentionally if they were evicted because of rent arrears caused by the benefit cap. Unfortunately, the council did not respond. Think I must still be on their blacklist (we apparently fell out over my Focus E15 stories. Do they hold a grudge or what). If anyone else can get an answer out of them, by all means let me know. It would be good to have that peg in the ground for future reference.

Anyway. Official positions don’t always matter when you get down to it. This is the sort of thing you hear on the ground. Putting it all out there.

Many thanks to @nearlylegal for help with benefit cap questions over the past while.

The very personal information you must give in public if you need state help

A short post on the state and petty humiliations:

Posted below is a list of questions taken from a recorded conversation between a woman affected by the recently-lowered benefit cap and a Basildon council housing options officer last week.

This woman is already in significant rent arrears because of the lowered cap. She went to Basildon council to ask what would happen if she couldn’t pay the arrears (the answers, which you probably can guess already, are at the end of this post). I went with her.

Basildon has an open-plan public services hub: council services, the library and the jobcentre all in one enormous ground-floor room. Security guards roam the place. You take a ticket and wait for your number to come up on a computer screen.

“There’s no privacy,” the woman I was with said when we got there.

She was right. There wasn’t. There were a few private rooms off to the side here and there, but you weren’t invited to use one. There were open cubicles all over the place across the floor. You could hear absolutely everything that was going on in the ones around you. At one point, we sat next to a guy who was explaining to an officer why he was struggling to pay his council tax. We might as well have been attending his appointment with him. We could hear every single word that he said. Continue reading

Benefit cap arrears and eviction threats for women and children. Already.

Another short post on impossible situations:

Here’s a rent arrears demand recently received by a woman who lives in a Basildon flat with her three young children (the arrears have increased since she received this letter).

It appears these arrears have come about because of the recently-lowered benefit cap.

This woman’s benefits exceeded the Out of Greater London limit of £384.62 by about £100 a week. As a result, at the end of last year, her housing benefit was cut by about £100 a week from about £188 a week to to £87 a week (think the sums are correct, looking at the paperwork. Give me a shout if you think the totals need looking at. Maths problems with these things are not at all uncommon).

Basildon council recently gave this woman a discretionary housing payment of £20 a week to cover some of the rent shortfall. That helps a bit, but only a bit. She only gets the DHP for the short term, too. After that, she either finds the full whack each week, or moves house again (this time with a serious arrears history) and takes the kids out of school again (she was recently in temporary accommodation in another borough)… or she ultimately gets evicted, I guess:

“I don’t know what to do,” she says.

I don’t really know what to do either, if I’m honest. Which is not particularly helpful.

What I do know is that I spend an awful lot of time these days with people in different parts of the country who show me demands for rent money they can’t pay and/or which say court and eviction are on the cards. As I write this, an email about a looming eviction in Haringey has landed in my inbox. I go to foodbanks and foodbank-lunches and inevitably end up talking to at least one person who is clutching a folder of letters about rent arrears.

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