Letter to Student Finance England about their incompetence, lack of conscientiousness and ineptitude.

Complaints Dept.
Student Finance England
PO Box 210
Darlington
DL1 9HJ

05/11/13

Dear Sir,

I am writing to point out that some of the current practices and protocols at Student Finance England have proved highly inadequate and undesirable. The issues we have encountered largely relate to the assessors and the way they currently operate with regard to the processing and verification of information, in this instance, the Identity Conformation Form. Listed are some of the problems and inefficiencies that we currently find them to be guilty of including...

  1. Failure to properly check or research facts
  2. Failure to take simple steps in verifying information
  3. Failure to communicate in the most efficient and expedient fashion, i.e. by phone
  4. Failure to be explicit in justifying decisions
  5. Failure to be approachable or accountable even when having made an error of judgement
  6. Failure to take simple steps to help solve problems
  7. Failure to appreciate the difficulties faced by those depending on the department

The Identity Conformation Form gives many examples of people that can sign it to verify the student's identity. In this particular case, the elected witness is a local businessman who has two shops in Slade Green, Kent, where the student lives. One of the shops is the local post office, newsagents and confectioners, which his family have had for many years, and the other is a dry cleaning business, a more recent acquisition. He is a director and manager of both businesses (a requirement on the form). Both business are VAT registered (a requirement on the form) and at least one is a limited company (a requirement on the form). He also officially works on behalf of the Post Office directing and managing an official post office (a requirement on the form). He therefore appears to qualify on four of the actual listed criteria and would appear to be an ideal candidate. Despite this, the first three forms were rejected and we have now had to submit a fourth.

The form does not state that the elected witness has to exactly fit one of the listed criteria, as it is written on the form. However, I have since been advised by customer service team leaders that it is perhaps best to copy exactly one of the listed examples, so that there can be absolutely no doubt in the assessors' minds. However, should there be any doubt? The form specifically states the listed examples as exactly that, examples of the sort of people that qualify. Therefore, as I pointed out, if this is an absolute requirement, the form should state it thus! I would hope that anyone doing an assessor's job would have a little bit of commonsense, however, this whole episode has left me wondering what sort of qualifications they do have exactly.

The first form was rejected due to an oversight on behalf of the student as apparently it wasn't signed. The second was rejected because the witness put down his occupation as shop owner, which apparently does not qualify. However, despite the form asking for his phone number and despite the listed working address being that of the local post office, nobody had the wit or the decency to explore further with a courtesy call, or even an internet search, as to what shop it was and whether he actually qualified. In the meantime, weeks pass by, the student has no rent and no income, nothing is sorted out and nobody communicates until eventually a letter arrives. I myself (the student's landlord) then tried to telephone the relevant people, on behalf of the student, to point out the facts and try and get something sorted out, but to no avail. Apparently, nobody can, or is allowed to, communicate with the assessors, even the Student Finance customer service team leaders.

Despite frustration at the assessors apparent unwillingness to be helpful, we were advised that the only course of action was to go through the whole process of submitting yet another form, incurring all additional inconvenience and delay therein. The third form I personally checked myself and I also ran through the details over the phone with Student Finance staff, to make sure the form was deemed to be ok by them. I was assured that it all seemed to be in order and there should be no problem, and yet it was still rejected. This time the assessors decided that the working address listed was not a working address but a home address. However, this was not the case. As requested on the form, the working address listed was the working address of the witness, that of the local post office where the witness works. Yes, the business he manages and is a director of.

I again tried to find a way to communicate with the assessors via management to point this out and was again told that there is no way to communicate because no one is allowed to talk to them. I was advised that the only way to proceed, despite it being their mistake, was to fill out and send in yet another form. As I explained, there was now a question mark regarding exactly what we should put on the form as we could not get a straight answer from the people that mattered and nothing appeared to be quite good enough for them. This student has now been eight weeks without any income for rent and food. In the light of this, the department's ineptitude, flippancy, lack of conscientiousness and goodwill in failing to check facts and properly ascertain the situation with a simple phone call before dismissing each of these applications I find appalling.

The assessors are responsible for passing or rejecting a finance application, a crucial job significantly affecting people's lives and well-being. As it turns out they are also prone to error, and yet they are faceless, unaccountable and incommunicado. In the light of an obvious error, they should at least be contactable by customer service team leaders. The ability to communicate is absolutely paramount in solving problems and when dealing with people's lives and livelihoods such flippancy and disregard in these areas is completely unacceptable, in fact criminal. Bearing in mind what is at stake, every effort should be made to ensure the smoothest and most expedient outcome of an application with an absolute minimum of stress and inconvenience to the student and associates. This particular problem could have been sorted in a matter of minutes and it has now taken many weeks to try and resolve. In this particular case the student could have been evicted and could be starving on the street while inadequacy and ineptitude appears to rule in the assessors' department. People are depending on Student Finance to do a quick, efficient and thorough job with attention to detail. Unfortunately, this is currently far from the case.

The Identity Conformation Form also asks for the witness's phone number and yet nobody could be bothered to use it. In this one instance a five minute phone call by the people assessing the matter could have solved the problem there and then. An internet search on the wrongly assessed address would have confirmed its legitimacy as an official post office. It is not difficult. And don't tell me they haven't got time, because they've wasted enough of everybody else's. A total of many hours in fact. My time, the students, customer service staff and their team leaders - phone calls averaging 30-40 minutes a time, as well as the writing of this analysis. I would also point out that as the assessors department had to reply in writing more times than they would have otherwise done, so a little more effort from them could have saved their time as well as everyone else's. Through its action and inaction the department has created problems out of problems that didn't exist. It is currently hard to imagine that the assessors appreciate the gravity of the job they are doing as they could have saved weeks of financial difficulty and related stress.

Being a little disturbed by all the problems we have incurred and, at what I consider to be a far less than should be service, I said I would like to complain. Well, someone should in the hope that some of points may actually be taken on board. I was assured my complaint request had been initiated and informed that someone would contact me about it within the next five days. It would then take another five days to investigate the complaint. That was on Friday the 18th October. I was simultaneously advised that, as far as the student's application was concerned, the quickest option would be to send in yet another Identity Conformation Form. Even though it was the assessors' mistake and there was actually nothing wrong with the previous form, to this we agreed. The situation had become somewhat desperate. However, thinking there are definitely lessons to be learnt and improvements to be made on behalf of future applicants, I still felt it highly appropriate to go ahead with the complaints process. Despite being given those assurances, the five days came and went and I received no contact as promised. What's more, weeks later, I have still had no contact from SFE. Is that a surprise? Well, it just about sums up the whole setup as it currently exists. Completely farcical. The amount of difficulty and stress that Student Finance England currently put people through because the organisation cannot currently do a decent job is considerable and wholly unacceptable. I have since found out that the latest Identity Confirmation Form has now been passed. Hallelujah! Nevertheless, it's taken many, many weeks and even then I was informed it could still take up to 30 days to process the rest of the application.

This student has not been able to pay his rent since the 26th August, when his housing benefit was suspended due to his student undertakings. Consequently he now owes rent for all of September and October. That has caused me, his landlord, financial difficulties, because I for one do not have money spare to subsidize SFE's incompetence and inefficiency. If SFE has been charged with the responsibility of doing this particular job, which seriously affects people's lives, SFE should be taking it seriously and doing it with the utmost conscientiousness, integrity and efficiency. This currently cannot be said to be the case. The latest information I have from SFE, as of 4th November, is that it could still take up until 25th November to process this student's application. This means three months will have passed, leaving the student without finance for food or rent. This is not the only case we are aware of and it appears such inefficiencies, incompetence and malpractice are currently common everyday occurrences at SFE. If this was any other sort of business, customers would be leaving SFE in their droves to go elsewhere because, at present, the service is seriously letting people down. As there is only one Student Finance England, that unfortunately isn't an option. It would therefore be nice if SFE could bring itself to do its job properly and efficiently for the sake of all those that are depending on it.

I have just been informed by customer services that although SFE have granted this student a basic maintenance grant, no allowance has been made to cover his rent. This is despite the fact that he has been living at this address independently for over two years now. His rent has previously been covered by housing benefit but because he is still under the age of 25 years SFE are requiring proof of his mother's income before they can assess whether he is entitled to help with his rent. Why is this when he has been living independently from his mother for so long? And what difference does his age make when again, he has been independent for so long? I was also informed that even though he has been living independently and housing benefit have been paying his rent for in excess of two years, this still falls short of a three year requirement.

As of the week starting the 2nd December, I believe the student has actually been paid. As his landlord, I asked SFE to facilitate paying what was owed for his rent directly to me, the same arrangement I had with housing benefit. However, SFE say there is no facility to do this and rent has to be paid directly to the student. Unfortunately, this student has seen the accumulated amount now owing to be too much temptation and has absconded with no word, leaving his room in a mess and leaving me severely out of pocket. This of course may have been his intention all the way along. However, landlords up and down the country would like to stress to all official bodies that a facility should exist so that money allocated for rent can be paid directly to landlords to ensure that it gets exactly where it is supposed to get. SFE, I conclude is a liability with the way it currently operates. I have tried to help this student in a difficult situation. SFE has compounded the problems with its action and inaction. Although the student eventually got, ultimately as his landlord it has cost me a considerable amount of money.

The police are now involved in trying to trace the whereabouts of this student, to arrest him for criminal damage and conspiracy to defraud. On being contacted by the police he said he would turn himself in, but when it came to it he failed to attend at the appointed time. He is consequently still wanted by the police and is effectively on the run. However, even now, SFE's incompetence, inefficiency, lack of conscientiousness and cooperation is causing an unnecessary problem. The police forwarded a data protection form to SFE for the purpose of acquiring the student's new address (assuming he has registered it SFE). In a subsequent phone enquiry, the police were informed by SFE that the Data Protection Form had not been received. It later transpired that it had been received but was actually misplaced. However, in the meantime, the police, believing the form to be lost, filled out and sent another one. This was again followed up with a phone enquiry in which the police were informed that it would take two weeks to attend to this matter and get the form returned. Why is that exactly? This is a five minute job that other organisations can, and do, get done within the hour and yet SFE have told the police it will take two weeks to attend to it. All of this raises the questions as to why SFE is so useless and what can be done about improving it?

Yours faithfully,
David J Tarrant