This morning I've seen that they've been up to their old tricks again. A friend of mine, who's a single parent, received a letter yesterday morning telling her that because she had failed to renew her tax credit claim by the deadline of 31st July, not only would the payments upon which she relies heavily immediately stop, but she would have to repay every penny she'd received since the start of the new tax year in April.
The thing is, she had renewed her claim, in time, but because of a backlog at the Tax Credit Office in processing it, the computer thought she hadn't and automatically stopped her payments and sent her a letter which scared the living daylights out of her. That letter was dated 6th August when in fact they'd processed her renewal on 5th. I know from experience that sometimes their computer takes 24 hours to catch up with itself.
Yes, I know mistakes happen, and these sorts of things can be easily resolved by a simple phone call.
Of course they can - if you can get through, given that many other people are likely to have received the same sort of spine chilling letter. It took my friend close on 100 calls to speak to someone who told her that the letter had been sent in error. Each call lasted a minimum of 30 seconds and all of them cost her money.
Many people these days don't have landlines. Most mobiles charge a small fortune for dialling 0845 numbers - and I reckon that my friend would have had to shell out at least a tenner for the privilege of being told that all lines were busy and could she call back later.
It is surely not beyond the wit of the Tax Credit Office to organise themselves a bit better. They know that the deadline is 31st July and they presumably know how big their backlog is. Surely to goodness it can't take much more than flicking a button to ensure that this sort of error doesn't happen. If you know the backlog is 5 days, why not set the system so that it doesn't start sending the letters out for 10 days, or even 15? These errors happen every single year and it's about time something was done to stop them.
In my view, the Tax Credit Office should reimburse every single person who has spent money trying to get through as a result of receiving these letters in error. Many of them don't have the flexibility in their budgets to cope with that sort of unexpected, unnecessary charge.
George Osborne and Danny Alexander, two of the Coalition's leading lights, have government responsibility for the Tax Credit Office. I know that they will be a wee bit busy with the Spending Review at the moment, but they really need to get someone on to sorting out the TCO so that this sort of shambles stops happening.
And I don't want to hear one single Labour person attacking the Government for this new error - there's only so much of the brown smelly stuff left behind by predecessors that it can clean up in 14 weeks. The TCO, as designed and implemented by Labour, just doesn't work. I hope that we eventually go back to the old system of fixed payments for six months, which is much easier for those who depend on them.