Blame the government, not the US firm hired in to cut benefits…

NOT for the first time, satire has been wrestled to the ground by reality. Never mind sitting there sharpening that quill, satire, you need to get out in the real world.

Admittedly it would take the gloomier sort of satirist to keep up with the way life rolls nowadays.

Yesterday there were reports that a 19-year-old single mother had her child tax credits cut after she was wrongly accused of being married to a dead 74-year-old man.

If there is anything positive about this grim absurdity, and really there isn’t, it must be that at least she wasn’t rightly accused of being married to a dead septuagenarian; the smell alone would have been punishment enough.

Nicola McKenzie is said to be one of hundreds of people complaining they have been unfairly punished by the US firm Concentrix, which was, according to the BBC website, “used by the government to cut tax fraud and over-payment”.

Nicola, who lives in West Yorkshire, told the BBC: “Basically they were accusing me of being married to a 74-year-old bloke that used to live here way before I did, saying that it’s a normal thing for my kind of age.”

This was the beginning of a bad day for Concentrix – accused of incorrectly withdrawing tax credits from hundreds of claimants – as by close of play HRMC said the US firm would not have its contract renewed. The firm will keep the deal it has, which runs until May next year.

Understandably, Concentrix is being portrayed as the villain of this cruel pantomime, but in a sense this is unfair. The firm was hired by the government – by our government – to cut tax credit fraud and over-payment. And that’s what it did.

So do we blame a company that made some very bad mistakes while fulfilling its brief; or do we blame the government that hired them in; do we, as it were, blame the hitman with his finger on the trigger or the government minister who gave him (or her) the job?

I reckon we should blame the government. Further than that, we should blame the shitty way matters are arranged nowadays, with governments hiring in US companies to clobber people being paid tax credits. Maybe some recipients of this benefit did not fully deserve what they were getting. But the vast majority are poor and struggling, and they’ve been targeted by an American firm out to take away what little they have.

This all ties in with the free-market consensus that all you have to do to solve a problem is bring in an outside force – to privatise the problem.

Concentrix claims that it has “operated within the guidance set by HMRC” – a phrase which, like much else here, sounds more than a little sinister. The firm’s contract is reported to be based on payment by results, with the government setting one of the key requirements as “maximisation of revenue flows” – in other words, the more payments it cuts, the more it earns.

The company accused HMRC of attacking its “professional credibility” but really there are some sorts of credibility you don’t want to brag about.

Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said the firm’s “reign of terror” was coming to a close. But does that mean that another firm will be hired in to unleash its own form of bureaucratic terror; or will the government think of a kinder way? Not being much of a betting man, I wouldn’t risk a fiver on the kinder way.

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