Monday 15 December 2014

Guest Blog - Barnet Council Consultation on support for poorest residents - by of Megan Jarvie (CPAG) and Joanna Kennedy (Z2K)

By Megan Jarvie (CPAG) and Joanna Kennedy (Z2K),

In an unexpected move recently, Barnet council announced it was re-opening the consultation on its proposed reduction in Council Tax Support for the borough’s poorest residents.  This decision follows a grass-roots campaign across London and a recent landmark judgement by the Court of Appeal.

Council Tax Support is used to reduce the bills of the poorest residents.  It was introduced in April 2013 to replace national Council Tax Benefit.  Under the old scheme, if you weren’t working, you didn’t pay Council Tax.  However, schemes were localised with a cut to funding, and now Barnet’s unemployed, disabled and lowest paid are expected to pay.

Back in July, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) published A New Poll Tax? - detailed research into the impact of the abolition of Council Tax Benefit in London.  At that time, Barnet’s 8.5 per cent Minimum Payment meant those out of work were paying about average for London.  Even despite this relatively low charge, however, many of Barnet’s poorest residents have struggled to keep up with those payments, and over 4,100 had been served with a court summons and charged legal costs which effectively doubled their annual bills.

What we didn’t know then was that Barnet’s ruling group of councillors had plans to increase that charge to 15 or even 20 per cent.  To be fair, unlike Harrow or Waltham Forest which have also proposed increases, Barnet’s consultation did at least include the option of keeping the Minimum Payment at 8.5 per cent.  But it didn’t explain how that figure had been arrived at in the first place, what the impact of the current charge has been or give respondents the option of scrapping the charges completely.  Someone in the Town Hall has clearly realised a fresh consultation is the only way to avoid a legal challenge.

Z2K and CPAG recognise that this policy is driven by the Government’s “localisation” of Council Tax Benefit and the accompanying 10 per cent cut in funding.  We also appreciate that local authorities are now facing further cuts to their funding.  However, when other London boroughs, like Merton, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster, have been able to find the savings to make up this shortfall, it is deeply worrying that Barnet has not only passed the cut straight on to its poorest residents, but is now considering doubling their bills next year. 

No-one likes to pay tax.  But it is a widely-supported principle that people pay tax according to their means.  The breach of that principle is what was so contentious about the “Poll Tax” a generation ago.  In its localisation of Council Tax support, the Government has reintroduced the Poll Tax by the back door – dumping responsibility and blame on local councillors.  That’s why Z2K and CPAG is asking all those standing at next year’s General Election to make a commitment to call for the restoration of a fully-funded nation system of Council Tax Benefit.

In the meantime, we urge councillors here in Barnet to reject the proposed increase in charges for 2015/16, and if they are unable to lower it, at least keep it at the current 8.5 per cent.

Barnet Council have opened a consultation on council Tax Support, it can be found here.


The authors of this blog are Megan Jarvie (CPAG) and Joanna Kennedy (Z2K) campaign groups. Guest blogs are always welcome at the Barnet Eye. 

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