Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A Senseless Waste of Life


Sixty-three year old inventor Peter Williams (pictured) took his own life In February by standing in front of a train because he had been served an eviction notice and couldn't face losing his home.

Mr Williams was a brilliant engineer who died at Biggleswade months before his Vortex device was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's most energy efficient hand dryer.

Sixteen years ago Mr Williams fell behind in his council tax payments after he fell ill and was unable to work.  In 2005 he offered to pay in instalments but this was refused.  He was made bankrupt in 2006 with Grant Thornton as Trustee in Bankruptcy, but by 2010 the legal fees and interest had reached £70,000 on an initial debt of £1500.

The day before he died, the firm producing Mr William's hand dryers, SAVortex, offered to pay £1,000 a month but the offer was refused.

For years he suffered from depression and his GP wrote to the council telling them that his depression had put him in the 'severe category' but Grant Thornton instructed solicitors to evict him.

Mr Williams implored his friends to make his case against the council and the system 'most public' and I note that mental health barrister Laura Davidson has agreed to represent the family without charge.

It won't be the last time a council has pushed someone over the edge with their bullying demands for payments, yet in this case Central Bedfordshire District Council reject any suggestion that it was responsible for this 'tragic event'.

The inquest yesterday was adjourned because Ms Davidson said the Coroner should summon council witnesses (none attended) to investigate the death properly. I do hope it is thoroughly investigated because, if the reports are accurate, turning down offers of instalments, while having professional evidence that Mr Williams was ill, amounts to persecution and intimidation.

There are far too many cases of this kind happening throughout the country and little help for those desperately requiring advice. Most people who fall into arrears can't afford expensive solicitors and have to rely on the Citizens Advice Bureau to help.  Recently I tried to contact my CAB only to find I was put through to a call centre then given the local number. Fourteen times I tried the number - within office hours - and a recorded message said they were too busy to answer but to leave your name and number and someone would get back to me.  That was over two months ago and I'm still waiting. My problem wasn't urgent but it could have been.

I suggest that government legislates for each council to have an independent arbitration facility for council tax arrear clients.  It could be composed of professionals and laypersons who would be willing to offer their time and expertise free of charge.

Somehow bullying councils have to be brought to heel with regard to CT debts and early intervention by an independent group could be the first time these councils have ever met their matches.

source

30 comments:

Barbarian of the North said...

This case you have highlighted will not be uncommon. It is about time that Councils were legally bound to deal with such cases in a fit and proper manner.

I've had issues in the past with South Lanarkshire Council, who on two occasions tried to take out TEN TIMES the due amount, despite being in possession of evidence that the amount I had to pay was nowhere near what they said. It took the threat of the police to sort things out, as they said I had not provided the evidence, despite having a receipt to prove this.

Councils don't give a shit to be honest. I think Council Tax (or whatever replaces it) should be uniform across Scotland and controlled and collected centrally. Perhaps then we could get a central policy for arrears that applies to every council, with set measures for collection and more importantly, a detailed looked at the circumstances that have caused the arrears in the first place. That way those in help get it and those who can but won't pay are appropriately punished.

Sorry, rant over!

subrosa said...

No it's not uncommon Barbarian.

However, no local authority should have such complete control over others. I find it immoral.

There should be some form of independent 'court' clients can use for a very limited fee or free. The CABs can't cope with council tax problems they say.

I like your suggestion. Good idea.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

There is more to this than the article contains.

Ms Davidson should not only be calling in witnesses from the council, but Grant Thornton as Trustees have a lot to answer by allowing a bankrupt to be responsible for such a high volume of debt.

That said institutions by design suffer no conscience, and as a result the people employed by them are trained in the tick box mentality of compassion-less jobs-worths and as a result are incapable of sorting out the wheat from chaff of human predicaments.

Brian said...

Rosie,

Here's how councils are meant to deal with Council Tax arrears produced by CAB, this information by Shelter (part-funded by government grants)and this debt advice site.
I am surprised that the offer to pay arrears by instalment was refused by Grant Thornton; if so a complaint ought to have been made to the Local Government Ombudsman. The refusal of the 2005 repayment scheme offer puts the blame squarely in the council's lap. I'm also surprised that there's no mention Mr Williams eligibility for Council Tax Benefit; perhaps he was and the £1500 debt related to a period before he claimed. I'm thirdly surprised that Mr Williams didn't contact his local councillor for help - they're usually very good advocates.

As for Crinkly's comment:

"That said institutions by design suffer no conscience, and as a result the people employed by them are trained in the tick box mentality of compassion-less jobs-worths and as a result are incapable of sorting out the wheat from chaff of human predicaments".

he obviously isn't aware that Civil Servants and Local Government staff have to follow regulations or face disciplinary actions. There is precious little discretion available. From experience, I can say that my colleagues in a variety of jobs knew the wheat from the chaff and did as much as possible to help where they could. "Mistakes" were sometimes made for the benefit of the public. Perhaps he could explain why this "compassionless jobsworth" suffered a nervous breakdown after having to serve compullsory purchase notices on an 85 year old man who had been a tenant in his home for 50 odd years.

tris said...

I thought that councils were obliged to accept payment by instalment.

I have to say, however, that doing away with oneself by standing in front of a train, is a way not only to kill yourself but potentially many other people.

Given that he was clearly depressed to a very serious extent, I suppose that he may not have been thinking straight about this consequence.

I worry that we have become a society which immediately assumes that someone who is ill, unemployed or falls behind with rent/tax whatever, is a scrounger, on the fiddle, or an out and out thief.

This has been achieved by government propaganda. We should be careful. This path is not a healthy one. Today, the unemployed, the sick, tomorrow the old, then who?

How far will they go?

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

Brian - On the contrary, I'm well aware of the regulations local government and civil servants are obliged to follow.

That's their choice to make, as is their reliance on the Nuremberg Defence.

The DWP Guidance Manuals make interesting (instructive) reading on the black art of spin.

Brian said...

Crinkly,

Out of courtesy to Subrosa I have redacted my original reply to you. How would you do things differently?

Pavlov's Cat said...

None of them have clean hands in this. Council or Trustees, I hope they are called to account. £1500 to £70,000 that's loan shark rates

Yet I would imagine there are many on their books paying their arrears off at £1 per week out their benefits. Difference is they haven't got a house for the council steal.

I hope there are people at the council and the trustees feeling sick and ashamed. I hope, but I doubt it.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

Brian - not knowing the content of your original reply I cannot comment on the redaction. Nor given the paucity of information on the case you cite will I comment on your personal reaction to it.

How would I do things differently? Well by the public servants being proactive towards the public's rights rather than reactive towards the minimising of their rights.

That would do for a start at the bottom of the administrative pyramid.

While at the top, the figures and statistics presented in parliament regarding the aims and effects of legislation should suffer far greater and rigorous analysis before they are passed into statute.

If you want a specific example, look at the statistical analysis of the effects the 2006 Social Security Reform Act were supposed to have and compare these to the actual effect on welfare recipients.

Brian said...

Crinkly,
If you mean providing leaflets and explaining what is available and how to apply for it, well that has been done for yonks.
Anyone who compares anything to Nazi war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace except other similar crimes is a fool and a scoundrel.
Anyone who doesn't sympathise with an 85 year old man being evicted from his home of 50 odd years and the effect it has on another person is quite obviously unsuited to working with the public.

Observer said...

It sounds to me like Mr Williams was suffering from severe depression & maybe buried his head in the sand. That happens in a lot of cases, people don't open letters, they don't answer phone calls, they just blank it all out. It's very very common.

There are now measures in place in Scotland to prevent people being evicted for rent arrears or mortgage arrears which social landlords & mortgage companies have got to prove they have complied with before any court will grant a decree. Social Work have got to be informed & any reasonable arrangement for repayment has got to be accepted. Benefit entitlement checks need to be done. The system is there to try & prevent homelessness at all costs & it is being built on all the time. I don't know if the system in England mirrors that completely but I know it exists. Courts will look for proof that everything that can be done to assist the defender has been done.

If one Council Officer is busy in one department keeping someone in their house, then why is another Officer in another department just pushing someone through a system with no regard to their circumstances?

The policies on Council Tax arrears need to change so they are the same as for rent or mortgage arrears.

It wouldn't be hard to legislate for.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

Brian -No I don't mean handing out leaflets or explaining and advising as to what in general terms is available as being proactive -that's merely ticking the boxes.

Proactive to me means getting to know the people and their circumstances and ensuring they're awarded the maximum benefit and help they are properly entitled too.

A culture change which if adopted and properly administered, would probably cut the number of benefit fraudsters to insignificant numbers.

Where did I intimate I didn't sympathise with the 85year old being evicted? All the information we had was - evicted through a compulsory purchase order and it troubled your conscience. Was it for instance a house or flat - was it liable to collapse or in a state of near dereliction? Was he treated with care,compassion and encouraged to see the advantages of any rehousing offered - was he even offered a new home? Or was he faced with the heavy hand of bureaucratic and legal papers and bodies?

As for your accusation of my being a fool and a scoundrel all I can say is I try not to be either but generally I believe action is more effective than sympathy.

And yes I regard any human who acts against another human's well-being is committing a crime against humanity.

subrosa said...

I'm not clued up with English law concerning the collection of council tax Crinkly, but I accept your superior knowledge.

subrosa said...

Brian, I was also surprised instalments were not accepted. They are offered by my own council but only in certain circumstances I think.

The man may well have been too ill to think about the situation he was in.

subrosa said...

My council offers instalments but only 'at their discretion' Tris.

Unfortunately, even though the man had a brilliant brain, it didn't make him informed of his LG's attitude. Such a shame none of his friends took control - but perhaps they didn't realise just how ill he was.

Depressives can be very convincing.

subrosa said...

Ah Pavlov's Cat, I didn't want to express my opinion about the matter but it was exactly that. Mr Williams had a house which he owned.

Brian said...

Crinkly,

It's what I did in interviews at the JobCentre. We learned to listen actively and to ask open questions to gain as much information as possible. Decisions on benefit entitlement can only be made on the information that people are willing to provide.

Having investigated benefit fraudsters I can tell you that your ideas are impractical and the best way to reduce fraud is intelligence, disruption of activities and asking the sort of questions that most people would say are nosey. One gets a pretty quick idea whether somebody is a fraudster after the first couple of thousand interviews.

I took exception to your assertion that I was a "compassionless jobsworth" and disproved your prejudicial claim with my story about my sympathy for the gentleman. He was offered a bungalow in sheltered housing by the local council. Two ladies from the housing department visited him to show him the alternative housing available. Can you not comprehend that even if he was offered a palace it would still not be the right thing to do to uproot him? He didn't want to move. That was the reason why it was com-pul-sory which to me means he had no choice.

And your definition of a crime against humanity is so wide as to be meaningless.

Ian said...

SR. If you have the time you may care to visit "bexley-is-bonkers.co.uk" where you can see what at least one English council is capable of when it comes to harassing their residents.

pa_broon74 said...

Councils only behave this way because they can, so having some sort of arbitration service with teeth would be good. The local Government Act also needs looked at, some of it makes for very disturbing reading. On the whole councils have far to much unchallengable power, even more so than the police at this time.

As for the people who work for councils in collections or the private companies charged with the responsibility for collection of outstanding council tax etc, I used to think, 'they're just doing their job' but since when does that 'justification' trump morality?

I think that is the question and as far as I can see, they've made their choice so are fair game.

On the two occasions I've had cause to contact CAB, i've got further with my own research than they were able to help, other than that, that they are too busy to help the many people who try to get in touch says less about their service and more about councils, government, the law and the million billion petty rules we're increasingly being asked to adhere to as time goes by.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

Brian - you are confusing fact with regulation and routine.

Here's an extract from the DWP Guidance Manual -


About this chapter
9.001 The customer can not appeal against or ask for a
reconsideration of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate or
the Broad Rental Market Area (BRMA) on which they are based.
Appeals cannot be made to the appeal tribunal in relation to any
part of a decision that adopts the decision of the rent officer.
9.002 This is because any decision would have to be applied to all
customers who have had their maximum rent based on the LHA
rate and BRMA, and any appeal could potentially change the
LHA rate for customers who have not appealed and who are
content with their allowance.

Note the disingenuous use of the word 'content'!

Brian said...

Crinkly,

Perhaps other readers would like to refer to the Guidance Manual in full. Chapters 1 and 9 are pertinent.

You will appreciate that the DWP is responsible to Parliament for the proper disbursement of moneys from the public purse, ie taxpayers' money. LHAs for each category of rented housing are provided monthly by the rent officer (see chapter 1). Someone objecting to the LHA is like objecting to the inflation rate used to calculate benefit increases. In addition, what is the point of the extra admin required and where would the extra LHA end up? Would tenants choose move to another house with an extra square yard of space or more likely, the private landlord would get it. If someone is content about their LHA why upset the applecart?
Finally, why didn't you cut and paste the very cynical wording of paragraph 9.011? You know the bit that says:

"The rules on the date from which the change takes effect are designed to be favourable to the customer."

Or the wording in para 9.021....

For reasons of brevity, I won't fisk the Guidance Manual to provide further illustrations of the positive spin towards the interests of claimants.

subrosa said...

He very possibly did Observer and that's a common symptom of depression - shutting the world out.

Thanks so much for your information. I know my council offers instalments but couldn't find evidence that it was nation wide.

subrosa said...

Thanks for the link Ian. I've followed Ollie's blog for some time. He's not had it easy recently.

subrosa said...

That's what troubles me pa_broon - their power and lack of any avenue for their 'clients' to do any questioning.

I've lost faith with the CAB. They're not available to all unless you're prepared to wait weeks for a ten minute appointment. Not good enough.

Now Trading Standards have handed over some of their power to the CAB, it must up its game.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

Brian - "The rules on the date from which the change takes effect are designed to be favourable to the customer."

Another example of spin - the rule referred to only favours the 'customer' until the anniversary of their benefit award or for a maximum of 9 months.

Further since 2010/11 the BRMA used in the calculation of LHA has been changed from 50 percentile of the market rate to 30 percentile.

And your spurious assertion of the -"extra money would only go to the private landlord." -is disingenuous since in most instances the benefit claimants have to make up the shortfall in their rents through the effects of the LHA allowances.

Of course they can always move into properties in the slum or multi occupancy scale of the 30%, and in doing so, create the scenario of 65 - 85 year old's being compulsory evicted by 'market' forces and the DWP euphemism of being over-accommodated.

There is then the volte face on the responsibilities and function of the rent officers. Before to introduction of the 2006 Act one of their duties was to act on behalf of tenants on rental values - now for the tenant on benefits the emphasis has changed to them putting 'pressure' on the landlord to lower the rent charged to either the equivalent of LHA or whatever they can ill-afford from already meanly tested and restricted incomes.

Then of course there is the joint tenancy trap and the legal art of what constitutes exclusive use and what constitutes a household.

You see Brian, where you read 'content' I read despair, desperation and confusion in a system created and designed specifically to have these effects and where welfare is neither charitable or earned but is grudged and ground down till it's oppressive.

Richard H Harris said...

We did try. For three years. If we hadn't he'd have killed himself long ago.
We only managed to get him legal representation in Nov 2011. Noble Solicitors. They failed to follow instructions and left him high and dry with only days before the eviction in 2012. We found new solicitors and had a hearing the day before the eviction. The judge refused time to allow them to build a case (they had a day which was just not enough). The judge allowed them 30 minutes to arrange payment of the £70k. This was when the offer of £1k per month was refused. The £70k has not to this day been broken down (despite numerous requests). When we first heard of Peter’s problems the bill was already over £30k. I wrote to the Council for a breakdown. They REFUSED to give it on the ground to calculate it would further inflate the debt. I have that and much more in writing!

richardhharris said...

More here: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/07/20/the-shocking-story-of-how-a-council-pursued-peter-williams/

subrosa said...

Thank you so much for your comments Richard. If you don't mind I will do an update post using them just in case my readers miss them.

richardhharris said...

Thank you so much for the blog post. I am just so please someone else cares! I've felt for the past 3 years that virtually no one a damn.

subrosa said...

Richard, here's the update I published yesterday:

http://subrosa-blonde.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/update-senseless-waste-of-life.html

It has more comments which may be of interest to you.

Related Posts with Thumbnails