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 wins adjournments for 49 Southwark residents

Camberwell Court1On Friday 18th October Z2K was present at Camberwell Magistrates Court to provide advice and advocacy for 4,500 Southwark residents who had been summonsed for non-payment of council tax. All of those summonsed had paid no council tax prior to the abolition of Council Tax Benefit in April 2013 but are now being asked to pay 15% of their liability under Southwark’s Council Tax Reduction scheme.

This issue was covered on BBC News and in the Guardian as well as elsewhere. Hundreds of people attended the court to with queues stretching out the door. Many of them were in a state of serious anxiety and some were visibly distressed by the threat of legal action. Continue reading

Abolition of Council Tax Benefit: yet another strain on low incomes

cbtAs we have previously reported, from April 2013 Council Tax Benefit (CTB) will be abolished, with the local authorities responsible for implementing their own individual replacement schemes. The localisation of support has come with a 10% cut to the budget and instructions from government to protect pensioners.

According to IFS research this latter condition means that the cut is in reality as much as 19% for the average council.

Last Thursday was the deadline for local authorities to have put in place their replacement support schemes and a Resolution Foundation report has found that 74% of local authorities propose to charge existing CTB claimants between 8.5 and 20 per cent of the Council Tax. As a result, many of the 2.5 million unemployed claimants who currently pay no council tax face a tax increase of between £96 per year (£1.80 per week) and £255 per year (£4.90 per week), whilst an additional 670,000 low-paid working class families face an increase of up to £577 a year.

This extra burden on low income and unemployed households comes at a time when they are already struggling to make ends meet in the face of surging food, energy and housing costs and worrying at the prospect of the impending benefits cap, Universal Credit and the 1% uprating cap.

As it stands benefits already fall short of the Joseph Rowntree calculated Minimum Income Standards. Job Seeker’s Allowance for an unemployed single adult aged 25 to 60 is £71 a week, whereas the Minimum Income Standard is estimated as £91 a week to cover food, fuel, clothing and transport. So benefits are already £20 a week short of the minimum required for a decent standard of living but this will increase to between £21.80 and £24.90 for 2.5 million unemployed CTB claimants, depending where they live. While this may not seem like a huge amount of money for many people, when you are already living life on the edge £1.80 can be the difference between eating or going hungry. The situation is even worse for those who the Housing Benefit changes have meant that they must dip into other benefits to pay their rent.

As we have said before the net result will be that people will simply not be able to pay their council tax and as a result we will see a huge increase in council requested liability orders, spiralling of petty debts as bailiff fees mount up and a consequential strain on an already overloaded court system. These debts will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the mental health of thousands of debtors. Is all this really worth the £480 million saving the cut will provide?

Poll Tax Again

IN THE 1990s 20% OF THE POLL TAX WAS LEVIED ON UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS. 

2013 WILL SEE MANY COUNCILS “POLL TAXING” CURRENT BENEFITS AND THE UNIVERSAL CREDIT.  

 

Many local authorities will begin taxing the poorest English citizens for the first time from April 2013, due to the government’s localisation policy and the 10% cut in central government funding of Council Tax Benefit (CTB).

The benefits provided by the DWP which trigger the CTB paid by the local authorities are currently called the “applicable amount”. Under the Universal Credit they will be called the “maximum amount”. It is the aim of the DWP/DCLG that they should be broadly equivalent amounts.

For example CTB will apply to the current JSA, and future UC, of £111.45 a week for a couple without any children, whether the claimant is receiving UC or JSA; they will run concurrently from April 13 until 2017 or until the UC is fully rolled out across England.

However, in this new era of localisation, the principle seems to have emanated from the DCLG that everyone must pay something and 20% of the council tax for the poorest citizens is the favoured option among the 64 current proposals by local authorities reviewed by the New Policy Institute. That is an exact repeat of the poll tax.

So £111.45 a week JSA/UC will be taxed by up to £5 a week by some councils from April 2013. Many CTB claimants will not be able to pay because:

  • Benefits have been reduced since the move from RPI to CPI in April 2011;
  • Many claimants will have rent arrears due to the housing benefit caps;
  • The £500 cap on all benefits will hit large families with high rents;
  • Benefits are being reduced by government while the prices of necessities, such a food, fuel, clothes and transport, are increased by the market;
  • Safety nets like the social fund have been abolished;
  • Donald Hirsch, who manages the JRF minimum income standards at Loughborough, calculates that a single adult receiving £71 JSA/UC a week, after rent and council tax, needs the JRF minimum income standard of £91.58 a week just to pay for food, fuel, clothes and transport – so a couple without children are already around £18 a week short of the minimum they need;
  • and a further £10 billion is to be taken out of benefits by the Chancellor.

When people cannot pay the council tax then councils have to apply to the magistrates for liability orders adding up to £120 to the tax; the bailiffs will be sent in adding a further £75 to £210 depending on whether visits are made.

These unmanageable debts create mental health problems and severe stress for the family and damage the education of children. “There are 30,000 children in London who don’t have winter coats. Do you think you could help me find 3,000?”  Camilla Batmanghelidjh told the Sunday Times last year. She is reported verbatim in The Guardian blog on 7th December 2011 saying:

I think the riots of the summer, whatever narrative you put on it, whether you blame the police or anyone else, were profoundly about revenge – about young people’s revenge about society, because they felt so powerless and so not thought about.”

In their recent report on the new local council tax support schemes published the New Policy Institute concludes that of the options chosen by the council:

“…by far the most significant is the first under which all working-age adults, however low their income, will have to pay a minimum amount of council tax, typically 20% of what would be the normal amount for their home. This represents the return of one of the principles of the community charge or poll tax which was the basis for local taxation in England for just three years from 1990 to 1992

Local authority Council Tax consultations in danger of legal challenge

Consultations by local councils on the future of council tax support next year seem to be flawed.

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?