Concentrix Debate [26/10/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Like other Members, my constituency casework is full of examples of the mismanagement of the tax credits contract. I thank my constituency team back up the road—Iain, Colin, Jenn and Louise—who have dealt with a large volume of cases, always with great sensitivity and professionalism.

Over a long period, Her Majesty’s Government have created a system that they charge Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to administer. HMRC outsources the process but not its responsibility, and this time its chosen enforcer was Concentrix. However, it is unfair to lay all the blame at the door of Concentrix staff, or, indeed, HMRC staff. The current welfare system, as designed, is flawed—seriously flawed—and while we continue to support it, the blame is ours. Far from enabling people and giving them the financial security to build their own lives, the welfare system has made life more complicated for those who need support.

Dealing with poverty is an ongoing struggle in constituencies such as mine, where deep-rooted inequality continues to stifle ambition and opportunity. Yet, as with so many other policies, my constituents are once again disproportionately affected by the UK Government’s inadequacies. We have heard excellent contributions from Members who outlined specific examples of how the tax credit contract has been so appallingly mismanaged. However, the saddest indictment of UK Government welfare and tax policy is that there are still so many people in desperate need of tax credits in the first place.

Concentrix is clearly not blameless in this situation; its faults and mistakes are well documented. However, while the UK Government may solve the problems inherent in this contract by bringing it back in-house, we are still left with the wider problem of Government services being delivered by private companies. Private companies should never be in the position of delivering vital public services. Citizens and Governments should have a direct relationship with each other. Taxpayers contribute directly to the Government, but when the money is going in the other direction, it should not be filtered through a private company before it gets to the individual.

Jim Cunningham MP (Intervention)

I agree that these human issues are far too sensitive for private companies to be profiting from. Interestingly, when I first raised this in January with the Leader of the House in asking for a debate or a statement, I was told, “Just send me information about the problem with a case.” Why did it take eight or nine months and the involvement of the BBC to finally get a Minister to the Dispatch Box to do something about this?

Ronnie Cowan MP

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very eloquently.

Companies bid for UK Government contracts not on the basis of how they can deliver a fairer and more equal society, but of how they can save money for the Government. Companies are incentivised to deliver these results, and ultimately their first loyalty is to owners and shareholders. By off-loading services to private companies, the UK Government and HMRC are trying to absolve themselves of responsibility when there is a problem. We have seen these problems appear time and time again. G4S, Atos and Concentrix are not names that inspire public confidence in the delivery of high-quality public services. How many more disasters is it going to take before the UK Government realise that corporations should not be delivering public services? My constituents have no interest in Government reviews, PR exercises or ministerial statements about the issue—all they want is to be paid what they are due, on time, without the risk of its being arbitrarily removed.

The existing welfare system needs to be ripped down and replaced with something suitable for the 21st century. A couple of weeks ago, we had a debate in Westminster Hall about a universal basic income. There is support across parties for a serious investigation into this. We should stop treating the symptom and start treating the entire patient. Maybe, just maybe, the time for a universal basic income has come.