Brent: abolish the Poll Tax Mk. II, restore 100% benefit!

Brent Council are currently consulting on their proposed Council Tax Support Scheme for 2013/14. The council is proposing that their scheme effectively remains unchanged from this years, save for a minor addition to those exempt from the iniquitous Minimum Payment of 20%.

As we have explained previously Z2K is totally opposed to the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and the government’s 10% funding cut, but we also think that local authorities that have tried to make up this funding shortfall by introducing a minimum payment are simply heaping further misery on their poorest residents.

In Brent the minimum payment has led to over 3,500 residents who formerly paid no council tax at all being taken to court with threat of almost £100 in legal fees being added to their debt. In our experience these people aren’t refusing to pay but simply can’t. We believe this just the beginning and expect that many more will start to fall into arrears as rising energy and food prices make their budgets unmanageable.

We have explained why we think Brent should abolish their minimum payment and reintroduce 100% council tax benefit in our response to their consultation. If you agree with us please let Brent know by responding to the consultation too. You can see our model response here and find the consultation here.

Beyond the consultation we will continue to campaign in Brent and other London local authorities for the restoration of 100% council tax benefit. If you are interested in getting involved contact us here.

Z2K help family avoid night on the streets

Although Z2K is neither an immigration or refugee charity, we do often meet migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need of our help. Below is our Caseworker Yiannis’ account of how he gave Z2K’s trade mark intensive assistance to a family on the verge of homelessness. Unfortunately Brent’s behaviour is all too common among Local Authorities who will try anything to get out of providing assistance to those in need.

Mr and Mrs F was referred to us the day before his eviction, by his MP Glenda Jackson. The family were failed asylum seekers, with two young children. With nowhere to move to, we accompanied them to Brent social services. They said they could only help the children, and the parents would need to live somewhere separately. The parents were very upset when they heard this, and understandably said that that would not be an option.

Brent then told us the Fs would need to apply for assistance under the National Assistance Act 1948, through the Refugee Council. We went to Brixton, only to be told after a long wait that they need to make a fresh asylum claim before NAS assistance can be offered. With both tenants in tears, we then went back to Brent Council and asked them to house the children and parents together. However they had not changed their positions, they would only house the children, without Mr and Mrs F.

We asked them to reconsider, as they have a legal duty to do what is in the children’s best interest ( which involves keeping the family together whenever possible). The case was referred to ‘senior management’, only for us to wait until 5pm to be told once again that separating the parents from the children was an option being seriously considered by Brent. The mother of the children, who was already crying, had a minor panic attack, finding it very difficult to breathe or drink water. A few minutes later, the social worker from Brent returned and said that Brent had decided to house the whole family in a nearby BnB for one night only, to give them a chance to make a successful application for NAS assistance. No apology or explanation was offered as to why this offer had not been made until so late in the day, and after so much anguish on the part of the parents.

The next day, as it was clear that NAS assistance would take a week to be sorted out (at least), Brent decided to house them for a further 15 days. We referred them to another organisation which could help with their immigration and NAS applications.

SEEKING JUST OUTCOMES: THE MACKENZIE FRIENDS PROJECT

Joanna Kennedy talks about a new scheme for support in court in July’s issue of “Magistrate”

Lola is a nurse from Burundi where she was raped and tortured. Her husband was murdered and she was separated from her children. She fled to this country where she was granted asylum and eventually reunited with her children. She is extremely grateful for all the help that she has been given which she would like to repay by building a new and productive life for herself and her children, although she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She was housed by Hackney Council who are her landlords but the property is in fact in Islington. She applied for and was granted housing benefit but no-one told her about council tax or that she had to make a separate application for council tax benefit in Islington. Eventually, out of the blue she received a demand for £836 council tax. She obtained benefit backdated for six months but then faced a summons for £533 including costs.

Lola lives on a very low income and paying this sum would literally take food out of the children’s mouths. The benefits system recognises in principle that she cannot pay but in practice cannot help. Z2K is a charity which helps those on low incomes facing debt and summonses. She came to us on the brink of the hearing of the summons because she was terrified of going to court. We sent someone with her as a McKenzie Friend who arranged for the hearing to be adjourned. We then reminded the council of its power to remit tax under s13A  Local Government Finance Act 1992. Eventually it agreed to reduce the demand to £318 for which it still insisted on obtaining an order. A McKenzie Friend went with Lola to court again to discover that the council, having agreed the reduction, still sought £418, so the McKenzie Friend helped challenge this: without her an incorrect order would have been made.

McKenzie Friends Project

Lola’s story is extreme but it shows that there are people who face council tax summonses who are not at fault, who are terrified of going to court and who need help. Councils bring computerised lists of alleged council tax defaulters to court seeking liability orders. Sometimes those applications need challenging for all kinds of reasons but most unrepresented litigants, especially those with difficulties with English or literacy or with mental health issues, are incapable of doing that without help.

Lola was referred to us before the hearing but many more simply turn up at court frightened and bewildered. There may be good reasons why the claim should be investigated but anyone with articulacy problems or lack of confidence is unlikely to persuade the council tax officer not to steam ahead to obtain an order and even less likely to persuade the court that there are issues that need scrutiny.

The recent cuts in legal aid and to advice centres budgets mean that there is no publicly funded advice available for any kind of debt including council tax.

Z2K joined with LawWorks (the umbrella body for solicitors’ pro bono work) and the College of Law to devise a ‘duty’ volunteer McKenzie Friends scheme which will provide a McKenzie Friend for all those who turn up to court facing a council tax summons. The McKenzie Friend will help negotiate a manageable outcome with the council officer and there will only be a dispute in court if a sensible outcome cannot be agreed.

We will start with a six-month pilot scheme in Brent Magistrates’ Court from September 2011 dealing with Brent’s Council tax list. The ‘Friends’ will be law students whom Z2K will train. They will be supervised, we hope, by retired magistrates who might be interested in this work, which we intend to develop into dealing with other issues in due course. Any retired magistrates reading this who would be interested in helping, please contact me at the e-mail address below.

The Brent judges have been very encouraging and we believe this scheme should be welcomed with open arms by all magistrates. It should improve the functioning of the council tax list and produce more just outcomes. We also propose an information campaign which will mean that more of those summonsed will attend if they know there will be help available.

Without a McKenzie Friend, Lola would have suffered more stress which would have impeded her recovery and damaged her children. This scheme will provide similar help for all the other Lolas out there.

Joanna Kennedy is the chief executive of Z2K. Contact her via e-mail on:

admin@z2k.org