I've had a recent experience with Liverpool City Council that has raised my awareness of the increasing role of the credit agency in the decisions made by local government officials. It has also highlighted the detachment and lack of accountability that a public-private-partnership run call centre affords these officials. The credit reference agency in question is Experian and the product that they sell is called Residency Checker. The PPP call centre is called Liverpool Direct and is 80% owned by BT. The third party who brings an added bonus to the formula is The Royal Mail.
First, a chronology (personal details included for clarity!):
- I live with my New Zealand girlfriend in a flat in Liverpool City Centre.
- We split up in August 2009 and she moves out from the flat by the end of that month.
- In September 2009 I post this form to the Revenue Services applying for the Single Occupancy Discount of 25%. I do not know the forwarding address of my girlfriend at this point - such is the nature of ended relationships!
- In October 2009 I get the same form resent to me asking for the forwarding address. My ex-girlfriend now gives me this information. I post the form again.
- I hear nothing for the next two months, so ring up Liverpool Direct in January 2010. They inform me that they sent a letter refusing the discount on the grounds that they cannot confirm my ex-girlfriends new address and fiscal records indicate that she still lives at this address. This letter, dated the 24th November 2009, never reached me.
- I request that Experian explain how their data indicates that my ex-girlfriend still lives at my flat. They explain the concept of a financial association. On the 5th January 2009 I request that this information is removed as it is incorrect. On the 7th January 2009 I receive acknowledgment that this has taken place.
- I appeal the decision in person at Dale Street's One Stop Shop on the 12th January 2010 and inquire as to the nature of this fiscal information.
- No reply. I phone Liverpool Direct and they inform me of another unreceived letter, dated 20th January 2010. Again, another refusal, saying that my ex is still in occupation, according to an unnamed "Credit Reference Agency". I request copies of these letters. Mysteriously, they all turn up at the start of Februray 2010.
- On the 4th February 2010, I phone Experian again and discover the information has not been removed, as they had previously said had been the case. I request that the information is removed again. It turns out the specific information relates to a joint personal loan application in April 2009 (that was turned down) to help my ex-girlfriend consolidate her considerable debt. Interestingly, the association is based around the fact that we lived together in London before we lived together in Liverpool. Experian removed the Liverpool association, but not the London association. A key fact in this horribly bungled and failed process.
And so we go on ....
Kafka would have been proud of the communication cycle that occurs with Liverpool Direct's council tax department. You phone the call centre and supply your reference number. You give the operator information about your case. They make a "service request" that goes to the revenues service in a separate building. A randomly-selected revenues officer writes a vague reply without details of which Credit Reference Agency is used and what alternative evidence can be accepted. This reply is sent in the post. The Royal Mail have a deal with someone, whereby they don't deliver the letter. You phone Liverpool Direct, they make a "service request" for letters to be resent. The letter does not help explain what next steps need to be taken.
Revenues Officers refuse to take phone calls explaining and justifying their decisions.
The fact that needs to be up for debate is why the council can use a failed personal loan application in April 2009 as proof that two people share a flat between September 2009 and February 2010. Also, why do the council even have access to this information? The answer to that question seems to be a market opportunity spotted by Experian to reuse credit data as something that can be assumed to be the truth of where people reside at certain points in time. My case study is an example of where Experian's data can be proved to be incorrect. There seems to be no indication on the Liverpool City Council website or in any of their communications on how to correct the wrong data. For the record, the request form is here.
Another fact up for debate is why council officials can have a one-way dialogue with borough residents. The answer to this is the help desk outsourcing of Liverpool Direct. In exceptional circumstances, process must be overridden and direct conversation permitted.
How could this whole problem have been avoided? Very simply and cheaply. A letter could have been sent to the forwarding address I provided, asking for confirmation of residence. This was not done. Shocking.
Two questions for MP's and councillors. How much is being spent on the Residency Checker licensing? How many single occupancy discount requests have been wrongly declined against based on bad data from Experian?