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Most benefit claims are now dealt with by phone. Claim lines are often on 0800 numbers, which are free from landlines but can cost up to 40p per minute from a mobile. Many people on low incomes only have pay-as-you-go mobile phones.
Evidence of the problem was gathered from bureaux in the north of England, and researched possible solutions. We raised awareness of the problem in parliament and the media, supported by bureaux around the country. Citizens Advice helped arrange meetings with civil servants to discuss solutions.
The DWP has reached agreements with 9 major mobile phone networks not to charge for calls to around 50 of their 0800 numbers.
Mortgage lenders continued to add charges to the accounts of people who were trying their hardest to pay off arrears. Sometimes, these additional charges could be more than the amount people could afford to pay towards their arrears each month.
Citizens Advice 2007 report Set up to fail exposed this unfair and disproportionate practice. Last year, we fed our concerns into the FSA mortgage market review and consultation on arrears and approved persons. Bureaux evidence was vital to making our case and the FSA came to our office twice to use our evidence database.
The FSA banned mortgage companies from continuing to add charges to the accounts of people who stick to repayment arrangements. 178,000 people in mortgage arrears will not incur additional charges if they keep to repayment plans.
If people did not tell the government immediately when a partner moved in or out, they had to pay back all tax credit payments made since the change. The government did not balance the overpayment against tax credits entitled to the person – which could be the same or more than they were asked to repay. Many single parents on low incomes were struggling to pay back money that they had actually been entitled to.
Citizens Advice worked with the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG), Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Tax Aid to show the unfairness of this system. As well as giving examples of cases, bureaux helped individual clients to challenge the repayment bills.
The government announced that it would offset the amount it asked people to pay back against the amount the person was entitled to. This meant many people no longer had to pay back anything at all. The thousands of people a year claiming tax credits who are late reporting relationship changes will no longer be asked to pay back money they were entitled to.
Private tenants, whose landlord had not paid their mortgage, could be evicted with little notice if their property was repossessed. This was clearly unfair to tenants who may have always paid their rent, leaving them with little chance of finding somewhere else to live before becoming homeless.
Citizens Advice lobbied for over a year with Shelter, Crisis and the Chartered Institute of Housing (CiH) for legal protection for tenants in this situation. Former MP, Brian Iddon put forward this legislation in a private members bill, which was steered through parliament with support from Lord Best, despite a packed pre-election timetable. Bureaux urged their MPs to support the bill, this was crucial to its success.
The Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants) Act will come into force in October 2010. It gives private tenants the right to ask for a repossession to be delayed for up to two months so they can look for a new home.
324,000 tenants will be protected from immediate eviction if their landlord is repossessed.