As we explained here the government plans to abolish council tax benefit and is telling local councils to work out the support they will give to those on low incomes for Council Tax due after 1 April 2013. As part of this process, each Council is required to undertake a consultation with the local community to obtain it’s views, before it decides who will be given support and who will not.
Unfortunately, a number of Councils are claiming to have already closed their consultations before the necessary changes to council tax law have been finally agreed by Parliament. The Local Government Finance Bill 2012, which covers many of the changes, has still to complete its final stages in Parliament in October.
As a result some Councils may have to start the consultation process all over again. Where a public body is required to consult the law expects the consultation to be a properly conducted.
Embarking upon consultation before the law is even finalised is like going to sea without a compass. Councils can hardly claim to have consulted satisfactorily with the community before the details of the law have been settled in Parliament. For instance, it could be that the definition of hardship in the Act will change which will affect the assumptions being used by Councils when deciding to who to provide with help. Unless councils are clairvoyant they can hardly claim to know what Parliament may finally decide.
Questions may also be asked about the fairness and accessibility of particular consultations and whether certain local authorities have taken adequate steps to consult properly with all sections of the community. Some Council have engaged in on-line only consultations which have precluded people lacking internet access from taking part (this is likely to have precluded, for example, many people in debt who have had telephone lines cut off).
In other cases, news of the consultation process may never have reached groups likely to be most affected. As a result complaints and challenges may be expected from groups that have not had a proper opportunity to take part in the limited time available. Others may claim that the assumptions used have been discriminatory.
The High Court expects a consultation to be a genuine process and not merely an exercise in going through the motions. Consultations which have excluded certain groups or which are flawed and reach perverse outcomes may be open to challenge on in the High Court. If quashed on judicial review a Council will have to go back to square one.
As of mid-September at least five London local authorities claim to have completed their consultation even though the Local Government Finance Bill is not due to return to Parliament until October. We very much doubt that those most affected by these changes were even aware of these consultations, let alone be able to respond to them. As such how can they be considered genuine attempts to hear the views of the local community?