Thursday, 29 March 2012

A letter to a VIP

I have felt absolutely helpless to do anything about my painful and unfair £500 benefit overpayment. So I have written the following letter. Now I just need to work out who might be the best person/people to send it to. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

 Dear ………………

I’d like to tell you my story.

I was always at the top of my class at school. I left secondary school with 9 GCSEs, (which was the maximum number I was able to do) 8 of which were A*s and As. I had wanted to do an extra GCSE during my lunch breaks and after school, but hadn’t been allowed because the teachers didn’t have enough time to help me. I did 5 A levels: maths, physics, English language, art and general studies, and received 3 As, a C and a D. I got a distinction in my foundation year in art and design, and a 2:1 in my Graphic Design degree at U.W.E. Bristol. I was then awarded the Graduate Placement Scheme as a high achiever, and received more training and a work placement.

As it turned out, Graphic Design was not for me. My passion and skill has always been for more hands-on activities and so, a couple of years after leaving university, I started my own business designing, making and selling clothing, hats, bags and other wearable items. It grew slowly, mostly selling to friends to begin with, then at a few festivals and craft stalls; eventually I was making enough sales to take the plunge and leave my job to concentrate on the business. A daunting choice but as you can probably understand by now I am by no means lazy or stupid, and when I want to do something very little will put me off.

I quickly discovered that a self employed life is very different to one in employment. Work, and therefore money, tends to come in bursts, which is difficult to contend with when you've relied so far on a steady income.

I looked for advice starting my business but found very little. Business Link were recommended to me, but after a meeting with one of their advisers, I was basically shown how to make a cash-flow chart but given no more help than this. I was told, flat out, that there was no financial assistance to be had, short of a business loan. My accountant warned me off trying to get a loan, saying it was near to impossible in the current financial climate.

I had always avoided benefits. I wanted to be proud of supporting myself and didn't want to be a leech on people who worked hard for their cash. But after searching for financial help that wasn’t there, benefits seemed to be the only way forwards.

I chose to apply for working tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit. I found the actual application process relatively easy, though long winded. What was less easy, however, was understanding exactly what I was being given and by what method they had decided upon the amount I was entitled to. A successful applicant is sent a number of baffling letters from different offices quoting figures that appear to have been pulled from nowhere. It seemed I was receiving a new letter with a new set of figures every couple of days initially, and deciphering exactly what benefit I was being given; when; and how, was not easy. In the end I worked this out for myself just by checking my bank account.

The problem with this kind of bureaucracy is that it’s written by people who understand all the facts and figures, for people who haven’t got the first clue what it all means. There is no translation between the two languages. The result is intimidating!

Which is why I believe I have ended up in the situation I find myself in now: apparently owing the government over £500 in ‘overpayment’ even though I have proof that I earned little more than £8000 in total over the last two years.

The situation unfurled as follows: I applied for benefits in early summer last year. My accountant filed my first tax return in January of this year. I was then contacted by the tax credits office saying I was entitled to more money than they had been giving me as I had earned less than the estimate on their books. This was entirely automatic and I had no idea it was going to happen. A sum of money was put into my bank account, back-dating the underpayment of my tax credits over the previous year.

A month or so later I was then contacted separately by the council tax and housing benefits office, telling me that because I was earning more tax credits now, I was no longer entitled to council tax or housing benefit. Not only that, but I now owed them almost £500 in overpayment. I phoned to say this must be wrong and asked what I could do to prove I hadn’t earned as much as they were estimating. I was asked to provide accounts for the last year, which I did. But when the new entitlement form came through, it still said I owed them £500. I phoned to check again, and was eventually put through to someone in the head office who actually knew what was going on. I was told that yes, this was right and there was absolutely nothing I could do. It was just the way the system worked.

Even though I can prove I earned next to nothing during the last two years, I have been told that because I didn't tell them I was earning less than the figure they had on their system, I cannot get out of paying them back this money. The fact that I didn't know exactly when my situation changed because I am in the first two years of running my own business and the numbers change from month to month makes no difference. The fact that I have physical proof of my actual earning makes no difference. The fact that I didn’t know I was going to receive the back payment from the tax credits office makes no difference. And the fact that they chose to use the figure for my increased tax credits, while ignoring the reason I was being given the extra benefits (because I had earned under £4000) makes absolutely no difference.

Now I ask: why exactly do we have the benefits system? Is it not to support low income people as they try to find their feet financially?

I believe that with the current economical situation, the government is so busy trying to make cutbacks they have bypassed the very reason for the system being there in the first place. This type of system cannot function like a business, but it seems to me this is what is taking place. The unemployment and benefits figures are an embarrassment and an inconvenience to our government, and they want us off the system so it doesn’t cost as much to run. Just a few days ago I saw on TV a headline claiming ‘Tax payers are forking out billions of pounds to fund the unemployed.’ Apparently it is important for the good tax paying citizens to be aware of the great burden they are being put under by people like me. We are (every one of us on benefits or living without a ‘proper’ job) being painted as criminals and scroungers, and treated with the same level of respect. We are given a little financial help, providing we go through a strict application process and stick rigidly to a complicated set of rules that are never actually explained in a way we can understand. If we put one foot outside of the line, we loose everything, whether we realised we were doing it or not.

I would very much like to see some change here. At the least I would like my overpayment to be re-evaluated. Further than that, I would like to see a change in the benefits system so that people are given a simple explanation of what they are getting into at the very start, and a fair chance to play by the rules. People should be given the opportunity to prove themselves and their situation, they should not be dismissed and pushed from systems which are supposed to be in place for their support. Am I expecting too much?

No comments:

Post a Comment