Excluded from Covid support: how a missed SEISS deadline made a man homeless
Barnett is a small drop in an ocean of three million people excluded from government Covid support programs, according to the National Audit Office The figures. Over the past 18 months, activists, charities and lawmakers have repeatedly urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to fill gaps in government liferaft programs, which they say have ruined lives, torn families apart. and, according to the nonprofit Excluded UK, have been linked to 25 suicides so far.
“The government has swept the livelihoods of over 3 million people under the rug,” Jamie Stone, chair of the all-party parliamentary group Gaps in Support (APPG), told The Big Issue.
“I have listened to countless stories of misfortune and loss. So many stories that should never have come to fruition but still did everything because the Treasury would not recognize that there were gaps in its economic support programs, ”added Stone, a Liberal Democrat MP. Scottish.
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Before the pandemic, Barnett lived in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, renting a chair for £ 150 a week at a barber shop. He had been doing this for less than a year and had not yet needed to file a tax return for 2018-2019.
Barnett enjoyed the camaraderie of work, meeting new people every day and generally making £ 450 a week. “I was the happiest person in the world, you could never shut me up,” Barnett told The Big Issue.
The SEISS grant, launched by the Treasury on March 26, 2020, offered self-employed workers a taxable lump sum worth 80% of average monthly income for a period of three months. (With a grant of up to £ 7,500.) SEISS was intended to save families whose livelihoods were shattered by the emergence of a deadly virus from ruin.
But when Barnett signed up for the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) online portal that week, he said he encountered problems activating his account, making it impossible to file a tax return.
The gaps in support are immoral, incomprehensible and unforgivable.
Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP and APPG Co-Chair on Support Gaps
Meanwhile, with the lockdown passed and income evaporating overnight, Barnett made the decision to move in with his girlfriend near Swansea, a four hour drive in South Wales.
Barnett missed the deadline to file his tax return on April 23, HMRC told The Big Issue after an internal audit, meaning he was excluded from the first SEISS grant.
This is where Barnett and HMRC disagree on the facts of the case. Barnett said an activation error prevented him from signing up for the self-assessment service, required to file a tax return. HMRC disputes this.
A spokesperson for HMRC said it had not received any communication from Barnett about potential errors before the April 23 deadline and that subsequent investigations – both internally by the head of investigations into the complaints from HMRC and independently by the Arbitrator’s Office and Parliamentary Ombudsman – found no evidence of an HMRC error preventing Barnett from filing his tax return on time.
Barnett knew he was eligible and therefore tried to appeal. He is believed to be one of some 200,000 new self-employed workers, figures show cited by the National Audit Office last year, who were excluded for not yet having filed a tax return, which is used to calculate SEISS grants.
He told The Big Issue that it was “tortuous” to walk around bureaucratic circles, explaining over the phone what had happened over and over to various HMRC staff. But he didn’t go far.
The HMRC spokesperson said: “There is no legal right of appeal against decisions made in relation to SEISS, and no provision for ‘reasonable excuse’ within the legal framework of SEISS.”
They added: “The HMRC has limited discretion in the operation of the SEISS and this discretion can only be used in exceptional circumstances”, such as “situations where the HMRC has made an error which affected the an individual’s eligibility or amount for a SEISS grant. “
The Treasury, which sets the eligibility rules for SEISS, said: “Throughout this crisis, our priority has been to protect lives and livelihoods, and the Self-Employed Income Support Program has supported nearly 3 million self-employed workers. “
A spokesperson added: “While we recognize that it has not been possible to support everyone the way they want, our programs have been designed to target support to those who need it most, everything by protecting public money against errors, fraud and abuse. “
Barnett said he lost two grants of around £ 4,500 each, or around £ 9,000 in total. But he still had expenses like car reimbursement, insurance, television financing, housing, and other living expenses. A rebound loan put him £ 5,000 in the red and debt piled up from there.
“I was stuck in Wales, living with my girlfriend back when I knew I was a cocksucker,” he said.
Today Barnett is being sued by four debt collectors, he said, over debts of between £ 10,000 and £ 15,000. And when the lockdown ended, he didn’t have the money to return to Whittlesey to claim his old job. He was trapped in a vicious cycle.
There are various reasons why people have found themselves excluded. Alongside the new independents, estimates cited by the National Audit Office last year suggest that around 1.4 million people were excluded from SEISS because they did not derive more than 50 percent of their income from self-employment. Another 200,000 people were excluded for making profits of over £ 50,000.
“These are all people who have been denied support and excluded from programs without being responsible,” said Sonali Joshi, Founder and Director of Policy and Communications of Exluded UK.
Joshi said it was “astonishing that no discretion has been shown” in “heartbreaking cases” involving complex mental health issues.
Barnett has connected with the office of Stephen Barclay, his local Conservative MP, and Excluded UK to file a complaint with HMRC. But after internal investigations, HMRC maintained that Barnett was at fault for not activating his account.
Excluded UK, a grassroots nonprofit with over 30,000 members, helps people overlooked by government support programs access counseling, mental health support and emergency loans.
“We are effectively doing what the government should be doing,” Jennifer Griffiths, director of member welfare of Exluded UK, told The Big Issue. She is lobbying the government to fill in the gaps and launch a public inquiry.
Over the summer, amid all the debt, worries and stress, Barnett’s relationship with his two-year-old girlfriend fell apart.
“She had to pay for everything,” he said. “And she’s just fed up with being depressed all the time and spending all my time on the phone with HMRC.”
They separated. For a while, Barnett lived in his car. As he said in an email to his MP, “I’ve lost pretty much everything.
Caroline Lucas, co-chair of Gaps in Support APPG, told The Big Issue that state support has been a lifeline for millions of people, but: “Although he is very aware of the reality of his decisions, the government refused to fill the support gaps. or allow sufficient flexibility to meet needs.
“It is immoral, incomprehensible and unforgivable.”
Barnett slipped through the gaps in the existing safety net. Now the government plans to withdraw support, with the end of the leave and the universal credit increase of £ 1,040 per year being phased out this fall.
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In August, Barnett returned to Whittlesey to surf on a couch. His mental health was deteriorating rapidly. Barnett is a survivor of two suicide attempts since the saga began last March and has received support from the Excluded UK community.
Griffiths knows all too painfully the impact of exclusion. A friend is one of 25 suicides directly linked to lack of support. Griffiths, a full-time unpaid volunteer who has been protecting since March 2020, said whenever she felt exhausted, thinking about her friend’s experience gave her “more fire in my stomach to keep fighting” , to make sure that no one feels alone.
“It’s just a middle ground,” she said. “We are like a family of strengths, we support each other.”
Barnett later managed to claim support from SEISS. But the vicious circle has not stopped. On his way to a job interview for a parcel courier, he was turning in a roundabout when he could no longer change gears. The clutch has cracked. A trip to the garage later and he still had £ 1,500 less.
Now Barnett works as a courier, saving for a rent deposit and paying off his debts.
He said finding the nonprofit organization’s Facebook group had helped him feel a sense of community – it was reassuring to know that there were 3 million people at a similar stalemate, fighting for that the Treasury is taking action.
“It makes me feel better, that it’s not just me,” he said.
Readers affected by the issues in this story can access the National Suicide Helpline on 0800 689 5652.