Deadline looms for Ollerenshaw Review of local Council Tax Support

Today is the deadline for submissions to the Government’s Review of Local Council Tax Support.

Z2K has been campaigning hard on this issue for the past four years, briefing MPs and Peers against the original Local Government Finance Act 2012, publishing research into the impact of the cuts and also challenging individual London boroughs that are charging their poorest residents.  All this experience and evidence has been included in our own submission to the review.

The review is required by section 9 of the 2012 Act.  It is meant to take place within three years of the policy coming into effect and is specifically charged with looking into the effectiveness, efficiency, fairness and transparency of the local Council Tax Support schemes that have been created around the country and also to make a recommendation whether these should be brought within the scope of Universal Credit.

Interestingly, this section was only added to the legislation at the last moment, when an amendment by Baroness Hollis was agreed by the House of Lords.  The Minister at the time, Baroness Hanham, made clear the Government’s opposition to this amendment, describing it as “particularly unhelpful to local councils”.  (Some might argue the 10 per cent funding cut accompanying this new responsibility was even more “unhelpful to local councils”!)  But perhaps surprisingly, the Coalition decided against using its majority in the House of Commons to overturn it and so Baroness Hollis’ amendment is now on the Statute Book.

Reading her speech presenting this amendment three years on, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion Baroness Hollis had no faith at all in the Government’s assurances the abolition of Council Tax Benefit wouldn’t impact adversely on some of the Nation’s poorest and most vulnerable.  That is clearly why she specified that the review should be an independent one.  It would be very interesting to know whether Baroness Hollis feels the Government’s review meets that key criteria.

Its chair, Eric Ollerenshaw, certainly has relevant experience as a former Council Leader.  But as an MP, he was also one of those who voted for the legislation abolishing Council Tax Benefit in the first place.  This surely raises some questions about his “independence”.  Ministers are being rather cagey about the process by which he was appointed and, apart from a small secretariat of DCLG Officials, no-one else is involved in the review.  My bet is that this is not the kind of review Baroness Hollis had in mind back in 2012.

Either way, Z2K is determined to make the most of whatever opportunity exists.  We think the evidence speaks for itself.  Interestingly, CABs around the country are now reporting Council Tax arrears as their most frequent debt, and its evidence to the recent Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry into the local welfare safety net, Citizens Advice said there is “a correlation between the minimum payment threshold set by local authorities and the number of people presenting with Council Tax arrears”.

Z2K certainly shares that view and so we welcome the committee’s report published today, which specifically calls for the Government’s review to investigate “the underlying causes of recent increases in Council Tax arrears and whether particular local approaches to Council Tax support have contributed to the rise”. 

Of course, that kind of analysis has to be based on actual data, and despite concerns having been raised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee two years ago, Communities & Local Government ministers have been especially laggardly in asking local authorities to collect said data, telling Parliament this was a matter for the chair of the review!  As our experience with boroughs like Barking & Dagenham shows, many don’t seem to have bothered collecting data on the impact of their schemes and so it might be a bit late to start asking them to start now.

The final report is due by the end of March and so we expect an announcement on the review’s next steps shortly.  It will also be interesting to see if the review itself begins to come under scrutiny.

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