Yet again Richmond Council has decided to impose extra burdens on the most vulnerable in our society. (See Council raises costs for homeless families) They are insisting on charging residents previously entitled to a full rebate a minimum 15% of Council Tax.
Citizens’ Advice Richmond point out that the Council has thus abandoned its principled earlier decision, taken in line with its neighbouring boroughs (Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston upon Thames and Merton) to keep the original National Council Tax Benefit. None of the neighbouring boroughs have found it necessery to start charging these vulnerable residents.
One justification by the council for this attempt to raise small amountsof money from those who can least afford it is that the government was further reducing Council Tax Support - but ministers have made it clear that there has been no further reduction since 2013/14.
Research has shown (‘Too Poor to Pay’, Child Poverty Action Group/Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, 2015)that it is likely that the small increase in revenue obtained in this way will be considerably reduced by council recovery costs as people struggle to pay. Freedom of Information requests show that the council has not done the in-depth analysis of the recovery and other costs of implementing the new charges and therefore do not have evidence of its financial value.
The council’s exemption scheme for vulnerable residents is rigidly tied to specific disability benefits. Those awaiting such benefits and those on a wide range of non-disability related benefits (e.g. ESA) do not qualify, despite their vulnerability.
The scheme’s most serious omission is the failure to consider residents’ ability to pay. Levels for a wide range of existing welfare benefits were set without regard to Council Tax, as there was then a separate Council Tax benefit. In addition the government’s decision to freeze welfare levels until 2020 has meant that the income provided by welfare benefits is not nearly enough to cover basic living costs.
See A Minimum Income Standard for 2017 published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Since failure to pay Council Tax becomes a priority debt leading to serious legal consequences and the Council readily resorts to liability orders, court orders and unsympathetic debt collectors, for people in this situation even an extra three or four pounds a week can lead to desperation and damaging juggling between paying for food or heating.
Under section 13(1)(A) (c) of the Local Government Act 1992 Councils must make provision for discretionary reductions in the case of hardship. However, clients of Citizens’ Advice have been waiting five months to have their applications decided and FOI requests reveal that Richmond has a zero budget for these cases.
The imposition of the CT charge risks adding a further priority debt to rent arrears, hampering council staff’s efforts to rescue tenancies and so adding to the council’s eventual costs in dealing with homelessness.
Citizens’ Advice primary recommendation is that Richmond Council examine how neighbouring boroughs, despite cuts to their government grants, have managed to maintain 100% reduction in Council Tax for those previously entitled to it - and that Richmond should restore the 100% reduction by doing the same.
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