In the current edition of “Brent North matters” Councillor Mohammed Butt, Labour Leader of Brent issued the following statement: “I know how difficult it is at the moment which is why we have taken action to help residents’ financial pressures. We have frozen council tax for this year, as well as for the past three years…”
There are two glaringly obvious questions that arise from this brief statement; the first being how does Cllr Butt know this year’s council tax is frozen? The borough’s Council Tax policy will not be ratified until the full council meeting this coming Monday, 20th January. Is he suffering from premature opinionation? Or, as is more likely, expecting the outcome to be a foregone conclusion based on the recommendations of their recent consultation report ?
The second question is more complex and far more damning. By presenting the freeze as part of a continuum with the previous three years, Cllr Butt puts the lie to his seemingly sympathetic opening sentence. When the requirement for defining Council Tax Support discounts – formerly covered by Council Tax Benefit – passed directly into the hands of local authorities under the welfare reform changes on 1st April 2013 Brent Council got sole responsibility for deciding the level of the Council Tax and any eligible reductions under their Council Tax Reduction Scheme. (The one exception being pensioners who are currently legally protected from changes to any assistance they receive.) Admittedly the change of responsibility from central government to local authorities was accompanied by a loss of approximately 10% of the available funding for the new Council Tax Support, but Brent Council now had the power of choice… who to help and who to set aside. And so, the second question is “Have they taken action to help residents’ financial pressures?”
Not according to the 3,300 Brent residents issued with summonses for non-payment who had previously been receiving full Council Tax Benefit and now had to pay approximately £5 per week from their benefits (“full” jobseekers’ allowance and “basic” employment and support allowance is currently set at £71-70 per week and must cover all household and personal expenses including heating costs and food). To make it worse still these summonses – as shown in the picture below – incur additional penalty costs for those that can already be recognised as having meeting all their bills. To save you doing the math, by issuing these 3,300 summonses Brent is clawing back a further £297,000 in costs from the most vulnerable in the borough. If you add in the extra £30 for the Liability Order it could go up to as much as £396,000. These are figures for non-payment of Council Tax – they do not include debts incurred due to the Bedroom Tax or the overall Benefit Cap (introduced on 1st April and 13th September 2013 respectively).
The Reverend Paul Nicholson, an anti-poverty campaigner in Harringey, one of the so-called “Pathfinder” boroughs for the overall Benefit Cap, worked out as long ago as March 2013 that these were not the only costs the financially vulnerable would be subject too as he detailed possible bailiff costs. (If you ever wondered why there are eleven seperate payday or pawnbroker loan shops on Kilburn High Road alone… well, look no further than this paragraph).
In the same document Rev Nicholson also points out that the local authority has both the legal requirement and the discretionary power to “reduce the person’s liability in accordance with the authority’s council tax reduction scheme”. In other words, they must recognise the defaulting Council Tax payer’s ability to pay and reduce any costs accordingly – or they could just choose to write off the debt. Totally. Yep, Brent Council have the choice not to charge you. In fact in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Merton, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster the local authorities have retained the 100% Council Tax supplement for benefit recipients.
There has been strong support for this position in Brent as well from groups that engage with claimants such as Brent Housing Action, Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group and Unite Community. The local Labour Party branches have passed the following motion:
“To call on Labour Group to change Brent’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme so that those on JSA, ESA and Income Support are exempted in 2014/5.”
After a farcical consultation where the Wembley Matters blog twice raised the issue of the “hidden” consultation, Brent Housing Action issued a formal written complaint to the Council and the Brent Fightback twitter account “flamed” a local Councillor – at which point the consultation was extended for seven days and the Brent Citizens’ Panel finally received a notification email – it seemed that, despite the small number of respondents, the majority were in favour of extending the 100% exemption to include ALL Council Tax Support claimants:
7.5 18 (60%) of the 30 respondents did not agree with the proposal not to change the scheme in 2014/15. Suggestions on how the scheme should be changed were:-
- 7 respondents suggested that all recipients of Council Tax Support should be protected;
- 4 respondents suggested that all recipients of other Welfare Benefits (primarily JSA) should be protected;
- 2 respondents suggested that students should be protected;
- The was one response for protection for each of the following customers: those with children under 5, those affected by other Welfare Reforms, those on state pensions, disabled customers and those on ESA.
The consultation report goes on to detail how all of the above would make the current scheme “unviable” as it does not meet the “financial imperative”.
Bearing in mind all of the above it becomes apparent that the “financial imperative” is a euphemism for “screwing all we can from the poorest residents in the borough, and increasing their burden of debt” – which doesn’t sound like taking “action to help residents’ financial pressures” to me at all.
Activists across the borough are trying to make a last ditch attempt to remind their Councillors of the vicious cycle of debt and poverty that their apparent decision to freeze Council Tax Support will create. We are trying to get a podium at the council meeting to further voice our concerns. We will certainly be present to remind the Councillors of the forthcoming local elections and how we will ensure their vote on this issue will not be as ignored as our concerns have been.
Heed the call! Come and express your disapproval to your local Councillor in person on Monday.
Meet us outside the Conference Hall at 6:30pm Monday 20th January 2014 at Brent Civic Centre, Engineers Way, Wembley HA9 0FJ.
See you there 😉
p.s. Even if you don’t live in Brent, please come and show solidarity. We know this is a national issue as yesterday’s Guardian showed. We’ve already attended similar events in London and will come to help you too!