Z2K is back on the campaign trail – this time in leafy Ealing following that borough’s decision to consult on further cuts to its Council Tax Support scheme for disabled, unemployed and low-paid households. The worrying thing is that this year we had eight London boroughs proposing cuts to choose from – Bexley, Bromley, Enfield, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Redbridge and Wandsworth. It is never easy to judge, but on balance Ealing’s proposed changes would probably make it the worst of those schemes, and up there with the worst in London.
Back in 2013, Ealing’s CTS scheme, started out with a basic Minimum Payment of 20 per cent of the full bill. Some disabled people and lone parents with children under 5 years-old were exempted, which was good. Strangely, however, residents who had been out of work for more than 12 months were charged an extra five per cent – a move that Ealing alone of all London boroughs decided upon. With one of the highest basic charges in London, it is little surprise to Z2K that, last year, 5,114 CTS claimants fell into arrears and that the borough served court summons for late-payment on 3,485 of those households.
One thing we didn’t spot when details of Ealing’s scheme were first published was that the Cabinet has given itself the power to vary the scheme’s Minimum Payment by up to 5 per cent in any given year and that’s exactly what it did for 2015/16. Without any public consultation we can find, Ealing’s basic Minimum Payment was increased to 25 per cent. And the charge for long-term unemployed residents went up to an eye-watering 30 per cent. Essentially, at a time Ealing was crowing about its Council Tax “freeze”, it was actually putting it up for its poorest residents by the back door.
Ealing is now proposing to set that 25 per cent charge in stone. It will also end the main exemptions, making disabled people and lone parents with young children pay too – albeit at the lower rate of 8.5 per cent. There is also a big hike in the rates of Non Dependent Deduction. Worse still, however, our reading of these new proposals is that they retain the option to increase (or decrease) the Minimum Payment by up to five per cent again in April 2017. This kind of loophole really must be closed to avoid further exploitation in future.
To be fair, the consultation does also include a couple of more progressive changes. It proposes an increase in the Earnings Disregards, which will ease the burden a little on low-paid working households. And it suggests ending the extra charge for long-term unemployed residents, admitting that an “analysis” had showed what any fool might have told councillors back in 2013 that “households who had been in receipt of JSA for more than 12 months are more likely to have difficulty paying their Council Tax”. Overall, however, this is a regressive package.
Of course, Z2K understands that these local charges are driven by the Government’s abolition of the national system of Council Tax Benefit, and that boroughs are making decisions against a backdrop of deep cuts to their budgets. But if seven of the 32 London boroughs – Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Kingston, Merton, Tower Hamlets and Westminster – are still not charging, it really doesn’t stack up that several others are now trying to charge 25 or even 30 per cent of full Council Tax. With this consultation, Ealing has put itself well and truly into the latter category.
Out on the street, it is always surprising how many people we meet who are themselves affected by these new charges. Even some of those who are managing to pay their bills, tell us they are really struggling to find the money or that they are going without proper meals because it leaves them without enough to live on. The extra challenges faced by those who have fallen behind are even more worrying. One woman with learning difficulties explained that she had had the bailiffs knocking at her door after she fell into arrears last year, and it was only the help of a neighbour that stopped her having goods taken away.
We have already sent Ealing’s councillors Z2K’s response to their consultation and will do our very best to persuade them to look much more closely at the real financial hardship caused by their current scheme before they decide whether or not to make these further cuts. We know there aren’t any easy budgetary choices for councillors at the moment. But the harsh reality is Ealing’s proposals will take food from the mouths of the borough’s poorest children, force disabled people to reduce the number of hours they have the heating on over the winter, and pinch perhaps the last £2 or £3 other claimants have left at the end of the week.
If you are an Ealing resident and would like to back the campaign, please contact us here.