Z2K Change of Address

In order to improve our services for clients, we are moving to new, larger premises very close to our existing office.

From 18th December 2017, our new address will be 10 Buckingham Palace Road, Westminster, SW1W 0QP.

Please direct all post to this address from now on.

In order to accommodate this move, we are not taking any new enquries until January 2018. Please bear with us in this time.

All our services are closed for the holidays from Thursday 22nd December until Tuesday 2nd January.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us over the last year, and we look forward to seeing you again in 2018.

We wish you all the best for Christmas and the New Year.

Z2K responds to draft London Housing Strategy

Z2K’s Policy Director Marc Francis sums up his response to the Mayor of London’s draft Housing Strategy

After a few weeks focussing on Z2K’s responses to the recent flurry of select committee inquiries and our campaign against Hackney Council’s plans to increase its Council Tax charges for disabled and unemployed residents, it’s been a breath of fresh air to read and respond to the draft London Housing Strategy.

With rents and house prices now pricing well paid middle-income earners out of the Capital, London’s housing crisis is now only denied by a very few.  But Z2K’s focus has always been on solutions needed by those suffering at the sharp end and so we were genuinely pleased to see how this draft strategy calls out the policy failures of recent years and provides a renewed focus on those low-income Londoners in greatest housing need.

One of the most positive steps is a return to a definition of “affordable housing” that is based on a maximum of one-third of average incomes.  For the past seven years, we have seen far too much of London’s limited Social Housing Grant being used to build “Affordable Rent” homes that are not really affordable to those on low incomes unless they get Housing Benefit.  Worse still, the shared ownership homes now being built in inner-London are being marketed at those with incomes up to £90,000 – a misuse of taxpayers money in our view.

While it does not yet go quite as far as we want, the Mayor’s new “London Affordable Rent”, which the strategy says will be set at similar levels to the social target rents used prior to 2010, will be welcomed by those languishing on Council Housing Waiting Lists across London.  We are less persuaded by the London Living Rents model, but do recognise that some kind of discounted market rent scheme is beneficial to young professionals who won’t ever be prioritised for social housing.  We would also like to see the Mayor phase out the current broken shared ownership model, and replace it with genuinely affordable home ownership options, like Community Land Trusts.

We welcome the strategy’s proposals for tackling homelessness, especially those designed to get rough sleepers off the street.  However, we think the Mayor should be thinking about what he can do in the Capital to strengthen the Government’s recently-announced £20 million “Help to Rent” initiative won so brilliantly by Crisis.  He must also challenge those boroughs unlawfully placing homeless families in Bed and Breakfast rooms for longer than six weeks.  Similarly, he could be bolder in improving the rights of private tenants.

One area we would like the strategy to go much further is in helping overcrowded families.  It is now seven years since the former Mayor published his action plan to tackle overcrowding in social housing.  Its central target was that there should be “No more than 5,500 severely overcrowded households in social housing in London by 31 December 2016.” There was never an official estimate of the numbers of children who were due to benefit from this policy, but a target of 5,500 households almost certainly represented fewer than 10 per cent of the 391,000 overcrowded children in London at that point in time.

We hope Sadiq Khan will agree to include an ambitious new target to reduce the total number of families living in overcrowded conditions by 2024, and also take up the other ideas in Z2K’s response.

A Tale of Two Assessments

Anne Killeen, Senior Caseworker at Z2K, shows how two assessments can lead to very different outcomes.

Normally in Z2K blogs we focus on cases when things have gone either extremely well for a client or extremely wrong for a client.  However, in this blog I will focus on how two medical assessments by the Department of Work and Pensions produced two opposite decisions. One led to the client having to go to appeal to obtain Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) while the other led to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) being awarded immediately.

I understand the requirements are different for the two benefits – ESA is about your ability to function in a work environment while PIP is about the impact the disability has on your daily life – but often the need for one suggests a need for the other.

Jack attended one of our outreach sessions in the south of the borough of Westminster in May 2017. He had approached the service, which also has a foodbank, after accessing his GP to request a foodbank voucher.

His GP was later to say that when Jack approached him he was in a state of starvation.

I have worked in the advice sector for many years and this is one of the worst cases I have encountered. It’s hard to believe that someone with this level vulnerability could get to the stage of starvation whilst living in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London. What could have been a tragic event was only averted by building a relationship of trust over a period of time to allow intervention.

Jack completed his ESA form himself; this must have caused him great distress and taken days to complete. He attended the medical assessment and was awarded 0 points. Jack said the Healthcare Professional would not listen to his answers and the report did not reflect what he said. This assessment had a profound effect on him. A mandatory reconsideration was requested and the decision was upheld. An appeal was lodged by someone Jack met at the launderette which he used to sit in – credit has to go to this person who intervened on his behalf to lodge the out-of-time appeal.

At the initial approach to our service in May 2017 to get a foodbank voucher we advised Jack to apply for Personal Independent Payment, and when the form was received he was assisted under the Z2k form filling service. We would like to offer this service more often – however, we frequently have to use our resources to challenge negative decisions. At this appointment it was discovered Jack was not receiving ESA pending appeal which he was entitled to at the point the appeal was lodged. To remedy this it involved going to his GP to obtain duplicate sick notes and going to the Job Centre to get the sick notes and confirmation of appeal scanned to the DWP quickly. Jack has said he would not approach the Job Centre again as when he tried before he felt the staff laughed at him. My own experience of attending the Job Centre to advocate on his behalf was not pleasant, in fact it was somewhat hostile. Eventually at the end of August Jack received his ESA pending appeal.

He had had no income from February 2017 apart from foodbank vouchers and a small amount of money from a relief from poverty fund.

Jack had decided he could not face going to another medical assessment for his PIP. I agreed to attend with Jack and on a few occasions had to intervene in the assessment in order that Jack was given the opportunity to respond to questions in his own time. Post assessment Jack had mentioned that this was a very different experience to his ESA assessments. The outcome of the PIP application was enhanced daily living and enhanced mobility. I could be cynical and say that the award was made because we assisted in completing the form or attending the assessment with him, however, I believe it was made because Jack’s health conditions warranted the award.

Submissions for his ESA appeal were submitted and directions were made by HMCTS (the courts and tribunals service) for Jack’s medical records to be provided. On receipt of the medical records the tribunal made reasonable adjustments and listed it for hearing without the need for Jack to attend. At the tribunal, Jack was placed in the support group with a recommendation that “in view of the degree of disability found by the tribunal and unless the regulations change, the tribunal would recommend that the appellant is not re-assessed.”

 Having been awarded 0 points at the initial assessment, Jack was awarded 42 at tribunal. This clearly shows he should have been awarded ESA at the first assessment stage, as he was with PIP.

 Whilst Jack’s benefit issues have been resolved I fear that in a few years’ time the same cycle will occur again. Hopefully Jack will access Z2K services again if the need arises. In the meantime I will be liaising with other services to make sure Jack has access to the immediate support he needs.

Z2K helps client win complaint against Hackney Council

A recent case demonstrates some of the hardships which homeless people can experience when in emergency accommodation.  Through an unfortunate set of circumstances they can find themselves accruing charges which they previously were unaware they had to pay.  The below case outlines how a client was suddenly expected to pay Council Tax, following a Valuation Office re-rating from Business Rates to Council Tax.  It also highlights the unreasonableness of some boroughs who don’t take clients’ financial circumstances properly into account when they are in arrears.

Mr “L”, his wife and their two children were made homeless in September 2014.  He made a homeless application and Westminster City Council placed the family in emergency accommodation in Hackney.  Their accommodation was in a hotel, but was self-contained with a bedroom, living room and separate bathroom and kitchen.  Westminster provided a charge sheet stating how much Housing Benefit the family would get, the amount of rent they would be charged and the amount of service charge they would have to pay.  Council Tax wasn’t mentioned as the property was rated for Business Rates.

In July 2015, the Valuation Office re-rated the flat in which Mr L’s family was staying in from Business Rates to Council Tax.  This was backdated until 2010.  The Valuation Office sent this report on to Hackney Council.  However, Mr L himself was not notified about the changes until March 2016 when he received a notice stating, “New introduction of client responsibility for council tax.”  Three weeks later, he received a Council Tax bill of £1791.15 for the years 2014/15 and 2015/16.

In July 2016, Mr L received an invoice for £162 a month for these “arrears” – an arrangement he had not agreed.  A month later, after receiving a first reminder letter, he contacted Hackney and was told that he had no option but to pay the £162 a month.  Payment arrangements could only be made if there was a liability order incurring additional costs added to the arrears.  Mr L said that the he could only afford to pay £5 a week towards the 2014/15 and 2015/16 arrears as he also had to pay full council tax for the current year (2016/17).  Hackney council did not ask him for a means statement or offer any flexibility.  Unable to afford this, he paid £20 a couple of weeks later.  Hackney issued a default notice the following day.  No Final Reminder was sent, but a court summons was issued at the start of 2017.

Z2K was concerned at Hackney’s attitude, and so I submitted a complaint on the grounds that it should have made more efforts to establish who was in the property in July 2015, which would have reduced Mr L’s arrears.  I also argued that liability orders should not have been sought for these arrears before any payment arrangements were made as claimants incur additional costs, and that the Summons had not been issued properly as no final reminder had been sent.  More broadly, as well as questioning its refusal to allowing flexibility in the payments, I submitted that Hackney needs to introduce statement of means form, so it can accurately assess people’s finances and set up affordable payment arrangements.

In response, Hackney accepted it had not issued the court summons properly and knocked £50 off Mr L’s arrears.  This did not go far enough, and so I referred the complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.  The LGO’s decision has just been published.  It concludes, “I can see no reason why Hackney Council could not enter into a repayment arrangement when Mr L first contacted it.  In fact, I consider it should have made such an offer when sending backdated bills in March 2016.”  The LGO also agreed that Hackney should have made more effort to establish who was in the property in July 2015 and ordered it to write off Mr L’s debt between then and April 2016.  In addition, Hackney was instructed to reduce his arrears further by £250.  Disappointingly, although it criticised Hackney’s refusal to enter a payment arrangement, the Ombudsman didn’t rule it should change its policy.

This judgement goes some way for Mr L and others facing Council Tax arrears.  However, I would argue that it should have gone further.  Local authorities really ought to properly establish what people’s means are when asking for arrears to be paid.  How else are they going to know if a resident can actually afford to pay the amounts requested?  By establishing a claimant’s circumstances, a local authority can save money by reducing the number of people who default.  In addition, use of statement of means and flexible payment arrangements could ease the stress on low-income residents and avoid administration, court and bailiffs fees, thus enabling residents to get out of the cycle of debt from having to borrow money elsewhere to pay their Council Tax arrears.  Even though the LGO hasn’t ruled using statement of means form is necessary, I hope Hackney will in future follow the good practice elsewhere by those authorities who do listen to those in arrears and agree to affordable payment arrangements.

Z2K Submission to Hackney Council’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme Consultation

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the Council’s preferred option of updating the current scheme and increasing the minimum contribution required from working age recipients from 15% to 20%?

Strongly disagree

Please provide additional comments to support your response

Z2K strongly objects to the proposal to further reduce the support available under Hackney’s Council Tax Reduction (CTR) scheme. Our research shows this will simply serve to push some of the borough’s poorest residents further into poverty.

We understand the difficulties councils are facing in financing services such as council tax support and we are campaigning to national government for the restoration of a fully-funded national system of council tax benefit. However, while we recognise the financial strain councils are under, we are wholly opposed to pushing the burden of government cuts onto the nation’s poorest residents.

Eight London councils, including the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, have maintained 100% support for claimants. A further 12 boroughs have kept their charges below 20%.

We therefore urge Hackney to stay in line with other councils and minimise the burden for the borough’s poorest residents.

Impacts on the Council

Freedom of information requests show that since 2013-14 there has been a continued decrease in the cost of Hackney’s CTR scheme, from £28,941,039 to £25,045,983. This means a reduction in costs of 13.5% over the last four years. Such a fall in expenditure is to be expected, as the number of working-age council tax support claimants has fallen by 12% (from 26,360 to 23,181) over the same period.

As the costs of the scheme are clearly declining despite the minimum payment remaining the same, there is little justification for the council to increase its charges. This is backed up by evidence from other councils such as Tower Hamlets, where the costs of the scheme have decreased by 9% whilst full support has been maintained.

We are therefore concerned that the information given in the consultation document may be misleading for residents, as it suggests the scheme has become increasingly expensive – when in fact the opposite is true.

In addition, the proposed changes will not necessarily lead to the expected rise in council revenues, as residents are already struggling to pay the existing amounts. Increasing the minimum payment is likely to lead to lower collection rates. This is the case in Hillingdon, where the collection rate fell from 91% in 2015-16 to 66.5% in 2016-17 after the council raised the minimum payment by a quarter (from 20% to 25%). The proposal to raise the minimum payment by a third (from 15% to 20%) in Hackney might well lead to a similar drop in collection rates.

Combined with the falling costs of the scheme overall, this means the proposed changes would not therefore generate the increased revenue the consultation document suggests.

In addition, using bailiffs to recover outstanding payments will not solve this issue, as any money collected goes first to paying off the bailiff fees rather than increasing council revenues. Further reasons for our opposition to the use of bailiffs are explained below.

Impacts on residents

Our research on the impact of the localisation of Council Tax Benefit has shown that where local authorities have chosen to increase minimum payments, the struggle to meet the higher rate serves to push the authorities’ most deprived residents even deeper into poverty.

Benefits are supposedly calculated on the basis of providing the minimum necessary to live on, yet they fall far short of Minimum Income Standards (the amount required for a minimum acceptable living standard, for more information see http://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/mis). For a couple with two children their benefits only provide 57% of what is required for an acceptable standard of living. For a single person over the age of 25 the £73.10 weekly Job Seekers Allowance is only 39% of their minimum income standard. Increasing the minimum council tax payment in Hackney to 20% will effectively place a tax on these benefits, bringing people further below the necessary level of income and pushing them into poverty.

For the vast majority of CTR claimants this minimum payment has to come out of benefits, which are already insufficient to provide for the basics of life, and in many cases have already been reduced by other welfare reforms. This will mean that thousands of Hackney residents will be placed in the impossible situation of having to cut down on their food, utility bills or other household essentials in order to pay for their council tax.

In our research and casework services we see the pressures residents are facing on a daily basis, with many people reporting they have had to cut back on essentials such as food and heating in order to pay the rising costs of these reforms.

Do you have any other comments on how you think the Council Tax Reduction Scheme should be set out and paid for?

One of our major concerns is Hackney’s use of bailiffs to recover payments from families in council tax arrears; in 2016-17 the council referred 870 council tax support claimants to bailiffs. This means that a total of around 5,000 households in receipt of CTR have been referred to bailiffs since 2013. We suspect many of these will be families with children, or vulnerable single people and couples. As our previous research has shown, this leads to a great deal of distress for residents. We are strongly opposed to the use of bailiffs due to the unwarranted trauma they cause. We urge Hackney to follow the example of boroughs such as Brent, Islington and Southwark in adopting a policy of not referring council tax support claimants to bailiffs.

We welcome Hackney’s provision of a discretionary hardship scheme for residents struggling to pay their council tax. We urge the council to make residents more aware of the scheme and to make it easier for people to apply for and receive support.  It is also important that funding for the scheme is ring-fenced, and that any money not spent one year is rolled over to fund support in the following year, rather than being subsumed into overall council budgets.