Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Citizens Advice Bureau intervenes

This morning I wrote to the Citizens Advice Bureau in Stroud:
Many thanks for your letters of 12th and 19th November. On 12th November you sent me a letter from The Pension Service addressed to you, in which Glyn Caron wrote: ‘It must be remembered that Dr Tomin has been repaying this overpayment since approximately 2009 without complaint.’

This is not true, I was not repaying a penny. I never accepted that I was in any way indebted to Pension Service. The Pension Service has been taking money off my Pension Credit – now from my State Pension – since 2009. On March 30/ 2014 I wrote to the Manager of The Pension Service 1:

“In a letter dated 25th March you wrote to me: ‘At January 2014, the amount you still owe will be £ 637.38.’ I never accepted any debt on my part, as you may see from the relevant part of my letter of 7/10/2009 a copy of which I enclose. I have never been given the evidence on the basis of which my debt was decided, and my appeal against the decision had therefore no effect. Now I shall do everything in my power to find a lawyer who would investigate the decision professionally.”

On 01 May 2014 I got a letter from The Pension Service 1 that stated: ‘Thank you for your letter regarding your Pension Credit. [This clearly indicates that this is a reply to my letter of 30th March.] There has been an overpayment of Pension Credit from 20 January 2014 which we have deemed non recoverable from you.’

I received this letter with relief, for I thought that was the end of the matter. But then, in a letter dated 16/05/2014 I was told: ‘Amount owed £10,535.38 … We will take £52.00 from your benefit every four weeks, starting from the payment you are due to receive on 02/06/2014 … Deductions will continue to be taken every four weeks until the amount owed is paid back … 02/06/2014 – 20/04/2026.’

My weekly State pension of £39.01, which is my only income, was thus reduced to £28.38 a week. This is why I decided to ask you to help me obtain clarity into the basis on which the Pension Service decided to find me in debt of £11,763.64, of which they informed me in a letter of 11th August 2009.

This date of the Pension Service letter, 11th August 2009, is worth noting, for as you have informed me on 12th November 2014 Glyn Caron from The Pension Service 1 sent you a copy of a letter addressed to me, dated 18/02/2009. I had not received the letter dated 18th February 2009. It was in the letter dated 11th August 2009 in which I was informed about the alleged debt; this letter I received under the circumstances, which I described to Ursula Grum, Debt Management, in a letter of 07/10/2009: “In a letter of 08/09/2009 you informed me that my Pension Credit was overpaid £158.34 for the period 06/07/2009 – 26/07/2009. I received the letter on Monday September 14. In the letter you stated: ‘The overpayment occurred because on 09/07/2009 your circumstances changed and the office that paid your benefit was not told at the correct time about a change to the level of earnings in your household.’ This allegation is false. On 23rd July 2009 I sent The Pension Service a letter in which I informed you of my wife’s earnings for three days of supply teaching for the period 2 to 14 July, and I enclosed the three pay slips. I did so as soon as my wife received the pay. I did not contact you on the day 8/9 on which I received your letter, for I expected a visit from the Pension Service Liaison Officer, announced for the following day, with whom I wanted to discuss the issue.

On September 15 I was visited by the Pension Service Customer Liaison Officer to whom I showed the relevant documents concerning the supposed overpayment. At that point she gave me your letter of 11th August 2009 in which you inform me that in the period from 01/08/2008 to 12/10/2008 I was overpaid £11,688.36, and from 13/10/2005 to 19/10/2008 I was overpaid £75.28, which is in total £11, 763.64. I phoned your department in the officer’s presence, appealing against your decision.

In a letter dated 22/09/2009 you wrote to me: ‘We have looked again at the facts and evidence we used to make our decision and looked at the points raised. As a result we have not changed our original decision.’ In a letter dated 30 September 2009 The Pension Service informed me that at your request £9.75 was deduced from my Pension Credit: ‘the amount you still owe will be £1846.66.’ A mistake? In a letter, also dated 30 September, you wrote to me ‘about the £11,846.70 still owed’. Would you tell me, please, how you arrived at the sum £11,846.70, which I allegedly still owe you?”

In October I received the following letter from The Pension Service in Cardiff, dated 6 October 2009: ‘I am writing to tell you we will not be taking money for Overpayment from your Pension Credit. This is because these deductions have been cancelled.’ Signed by Paul Lewis, Manager.

A few days later I received a letter of 13/10/2009 from Debt Management, Mitcheldean, Oxfordshire, from which I quote: ‘Thank you for your letter to us dated 07/10/2009 … The overpayment of £158.34 for the period 06/07/09 – 26/07/09 is due to an increase in your wife’s part time earnings from 09/07/09, and we were aware of this on the 26/07/09, as you informed us by letter. The second overpayment was for a total of £11,763.04 for the period 01/08/2005-12/10/2008, but of this total, £75.28 was deemed to be Official Error and was written off, leaving the recoverable amount as £11,688.36. This overpayment was due to your wife’s self employment earnings … If you can provide us with evidence that these overpayments were not your fault, you can appeal against this decision.’

I had been sending regularly to the Pension Service in Cardiff the information about self-employment earnings of my wife. What more evidence could I have given them?

In your letter 19 November 2014 you write: ‘they [i.e. The Pension Service 1] have sent a copy of the letter where you clearly requested the decision about the overpayment be looked at again, I wondered if you had intended this to be the appeal? … Can you recall why you did not choose to pursue this at this stage?’

My conflict or controversy was never primarily with the Pension Service or Debt Management of the Department for Work and Pensions; my conflict had been and still is primarily with Oxford University. I came to Oxford in 1980 at the invitation of the Master of Balliol. Since then I have been working to my best abilities in my domain, which is Ancient Philosophy. On November 18 1989 Nick Cohen published ‘The Pub Philosopher’ in which he wrote: ‘The judgments passed by Oxford dons on Julius Tomin seem outrageously brutal … Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservatives’ reduction in funding for British philosophy since 1980 might explain why there was never an academic post for Tomin at Oxford. “That’s not the point at all,” he said. “He would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job.”’ – This amounts to a blacklisting, with all the consequences that blacklisting entails. If my weekly income is nowadays £28.38 a week, it is one of its consequences.

Let me now refer to a curious juncture at which the attitude of Oxbridge dons to my work and the actions of the Pension Service overlaped. From 2000 to 2008 I worked on my book on Plato; the first volume of this book I published on my website under the title The Lost Plato. The ‘Preface’ consists of ‘Eleven e-mails on The Lost Plato addressed to Classicists and Classical Philosophers’. In the 1st email I wrote that the 1st volume deals with dialogues written prior to Socrates’ death: ‘What remains to be done from the perspective opened by The Lost Plato is a systematic study of the dialogues written after Socrates’ death. In your view, should this work be undertaken? If so, what can be done that it is undertaken in conditions worthy of the work it requires?’

A distinguished Classical Philosopher from Cambridge University Nicholas Denyer, supported by David Lee from Oxford University, wrote a decisive No to these two questions. In my 6th e-mail I wrote: “As of yesterday my questions acquired an unexpectedly grave existential dimension. From the Stroud District Council I received the following letter: ‘We have been advised that your Pension Credits have stopped, which may affect your entitlement to Housing or Council Tax Benefits. We have therefore suspended payments of these benefits in accordance with Regulation 11 of the Decision and Appeals Regulations 2001. There is no right of appeal against this decision.’ I phoned the Council, informed the lady I spoke to that my wife, who was self-employed on a part time basis until September is now studying at Cheltenham, taking a year-long post-graduate course to become a teacher. The lady told me that on the information they received from the Pension Service my Pension Credits were disconnected as of July 2008. This surprised me, for when I asked my wife a few days ago whether I was receiving the Pension Credit as normal, she looked at my account and said ‘yes’. I was advised to contact the Pension Service, which I did. The lady I spoke to told me that my last Pension Credit payment would be sent to me on October 19: ‘Your Pension Credit is stopped because we have been informed that you and your wife are receiving Working Tax Credit.’ I told the lady that they were badly misinformed, for my wife ceased to work, as I duly informed their office at the beginning of September. I pointed to a letter I received from her office on 10 September, which said: ‘Thank you for informing us of the cessation of your partner’s self-employment.’

The Pension Credit I had been receiving until October 19 was £62.79 a week. Since we neither smoke nor drink, and live frugally, we have been able to survive. This morning I received a letter from the Pension Services, dated 13 October 2008, which says that ‘from 21 July 2008 you will get £5.10 a week. From July 2008 you are not entitled to Pension Credit … the minimum amount of money the Government says you must have each week taking account of specific circumstances is £189.35. State pension for Julius Tomin £31.38. Working Tax Credit for Doina Cornell £70.18. Earnings of Doina Cornell [my wife has kept her maiden name] £82.69. Total income £184.25. Your appropriate amount of £189.35, less your total income of £184.25. So your total guarantee credit is £5.10.’

I see a certain similarity between Denyer’s NO and the Pension Service calculations. Denyer does not need to look at a single page of The Lost Plato in order to proclaim confidently that there is no reason to suppose that my views are correct and that therefore my question whether my future work deserves to be undertaken in conditions worthy of such work deserves a NO. I may phone and write to Pension Service as often as I wish, informing the office workers that my wife is now a student, that she has no earnings, that we consequently do not receive any Working Tax Credit – the Pension Credit officers KNOW better.”

After I sent this email to my Oxford and Cambridge colleagues, without any explanation my Pension Credit was renewed and paid retrospectively for all the weeks and months it had been disconnected. We could repay my wife’s parents the money we had borrowed to survive. – But let me return to the statement from the Pension Service lady ‘Your Pension Credit is stopped because we have been informed that you and your wife are receiving Working Tax Credit.’ Who had misinformed the Pension Service? It must have been someone whom they trusted. Was it not the same source on the basis of which the Pension Service decided in 2009 that I owed them £11,846.70?

The overpayment of £158.34 of which I was informed in a letter of 08/09/2009 was calculated as follows: 06/07/2009 -12/07/2009 weeks 1, days 0, Incorrect Paid 165.5, Correct Payable 111.78, Excess 53.72, Amount overpaid 53.72; 20/07/2009-26/07/2009 weeks 1, days 0, Incorrect Paid 165.5, Correct Payable 60.88, Excess 104.62, Amount overpaid 104.62. The misgiving concerning this overpayment I articulated in my letter to Ursula Grum. At the time for which the Overpayment was calculated my wife had not received the pay slips: Ursula Grum wrote ‘office that paid your benefit was not told at the correct time about a change to the level of earnings in your household.’ I replied: ‘This allegation is false. On 23rd July 2009 I sent The Pension Service a letter in which I informed you of my wife’s earnings for three days of supply teaching for the period 2 to 14 July, and I enclosed the three pay slips. I did so as soon as my wife received the pay.’

The Overpayment Calculation for the period of 01/08/2005-19/10/2008 is very different: 01/08/2005-09/04/2006 Weeks 36 Days 0 Incorrect Pay 71.9 Correct Payable 0 Excess 71.9 Amount overpaid 2,588.40. 10/04/2006-30/7/2006 Weeks 16 Days 0 Incorrect paid 78.14 Correct Payable 0 Excess 78.14 Amount overpaid 1,250.24. 31/07/2006-08/04/2007 Weeks 36/ Incorrect paid 62.21 Correct Payable 0 Excess 62.21 Amount Overpaid 2,239.56. 09/04/2007-06/04/2008 Weeks 52 Days 0 Incorrect Paid 68.8 Correct Payable 0 Excess 68.8 Amount Overpaid 3,577.60. 6007/04/2008-19/10/2008 Weeks 28 Days 0 Incorrect Paid 75.28 Correct Payable 0 Excess 75.28 Amount Overpaid 2,107.84.

In those days I worked very intensively on my book The Lost Plato. As I have written in the 6th email of my ‘Preface’, written in October 2008, I asked my Oxbridge colleagues whether this work deserved to be undertaken in conditions worthy of such work; they replied NO. Doesn’t the Overpayment Calculation for the years 2005-2008 clearly indicate that in the eyes of those on the basis of whose intervention Pension Service calculated my ‘debt’ I should not have been paid a penny even when I had been writing The Lost Plato?

Your last question was ‘Can you recall why you did not choose to pursue this at this stage?’ Prompted by your question, I have recalled that I did my best to do so, as my exchange of letters with David Drew, who was my MP in those days, indicates. David Drew wrote to me on 22nd September 2009: ‘Thank you for your e-mail of 17 September. I am sorry to hear about your problems with Pension Credit. If you would kindly send me your National Insurance number and a few more details of the problem, I am happy to look into this on your behalf.’

The letter from the Pension Service of 6 October 2009 that stated ‘we will not be taking money for Overpayment from your Pension Credit’ may have been sent to me in response to David Drew’s intervention.

These good intentions on the part of the Pension Service failed to come into effect; I wrote to David Drew on the 10th of January 2010: “I am sorry to bother you again concerning the alleged debt which I am supposed to pay Debt Management of the Department for Work and Pensions. I know that you are very busy and work very hard on behalf of your constituents, and I, being a Czech citizen, cannot even give you my vote. Still, I should greatly appreciate it if you asked Debt Management of the Department for Work and Pensions (Contact Centre Nuneaton, Debt Management, PO Box 171, Micheldean, Gloucestershire, GL17 0XG, tel. 0845 602 3881) and Paul Lewis at The Pension Service in Cardiff, on what basis was the decision originally made concerning my alleged debt, on what basis it was then cancelled, and on what basis it was made again. To inform you about some steps that I am making in this matter, I am sending you in the Attachment the e-mail I have sent to the Master of Balliol. I wish you all the best in the year 2010.”

It is good to see that the Citizens Advice Bureau in Stroud is prepared to intercede in a case, which even a well-meaning MP ultimately set aside as hopeless.

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