A firm employed by the government to cut people’s tax credit payments has been receiving phone calls from suicidal people which some staff were not trained to handle, according to reports.
A whistleblower from Concentrix, a US company used by HMRC to check tax credits, told the BBC staff were called by people “claiming they were going to commit suicide” after losing benefits.
Speaking to the Victoria Derbyshire programme, the whistleblower said most staff “weren’t even trained” to deal with the calls.
Workers at its call centre in Belfast were yelled at “every day” by clients with “people crying down the phone to you that they’re down to their last bag of wipes, have no food in the fridge to feed their kids”, the whistleblower claimed.
Staff weren’t offered counselling from the HR team after receiving the distressing calls, but instead were told: “Have a smoke, you’ll be fine,” he claimed.
“We were dealing with people claiming they were going to commit suicide,” said the whistleblower. “You had to try and keep them on the phone, while a manager phoned the police to get out to their address to make sure that they were OK.”
Some of the call centre workers who received suicidal calls “weren’t given the back-up, weren’t given aftercare by our aftercare team. Most of the people weren’t even trained in how to deal with a suicide call,” he said.
“They were just told, ‘Go out. Have a smoke. Come back. You’ll be fine. Deal with another 40 or 50 calls.’”
A woman called Nicola spoke to The Victoria Derbyshire programme and said she was “down to her last £1”. She said she was receiving back payments for tax credits she should have received, but these weren’t enough to pay off debts she had amassed. “We’ve all got ourselves into debt and I don’t understand how we’re going to be able to pay off the debt through these tiny little lump sums... enough is enough,” she told the programme.
Concentrix was told it will not have its contract with the government renewed after it expires in May 2017, following the Victoria Derbyshire programme investigation which found that hundreds of people had wrongly had their tax credit payments stopped.
Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, called the affair a “double tragedy” that affected both claimants and staff.
Concentrix told the BBC that its staff were trained in accordance with guidelines from HMRC in the case of suicidal calls.
“Our staff are supported as much as possible where we have encountered this type of scenario,” it told Victoria Derbyshire.
In a statement, Concentrix said staff were trained in “exactly the same way” as HMRC staff.
It added: “It is important to realise that our staff are not counsellors and we would never position them as such.
“There are experts who should be involved in situations like these and our staff are trained to ensure those external experts, like the police, are engaged.”
The company said its senior management team was “highly engaged” with both clients and staff and managers were “highly supportive” of the staff who carried out “challenging” work on behalf of HMRC.