What if people can’t – or won’t – pay council tax?
“The government have handed us down the dirty end of the broom handle. And we’ve just got to deal with it. ”
This is how council leader Peter Halliday describes having to administer the new council tax support scheme – and he’s a Conservative.
The government used to decide nationally who should get council tax benefit and by how much – so across the country the rules were the same.
Now, though, the job’s been handed down to local councils – alongside a 10 per cent cut in the fund to pay for it.
So Mr Halliday, who runs Tendring district council in Clacton, is now having to use the dirty end of that broom handle to decide who will be the winners and losers in his area.
He can’t ask pensioners – who make up around a third of the population – to cough up. The government says they’re exempt.
So working-age people will have to take the brunt of the cuts. And many of them are people of working age, who aren’t working.
On average, people will pay a minimum of 10 per cent of their council bill.
Jade Arnold is 18 years old and unemployed. For her, it will mean finding up to £250 a year. Just £5 a week, but she says it could tip her over the edge.
Across the country around 3 million people may well be feeling the same.
Although the whole point of transferring this power to local authorities means they are free to do as they wish, it’s clear that changes to council tax support will hit some of England’s poorest hardest (it’s a change only affecting England).
And interestingly, although there are spikes for particular groups in different areas, figures suggest it’s those out of work who will, in the main, take the hardest hit. The New Policy Institute says on average those in work will have to pay £135 a year more. Those out of work, £146 a year.
Now , if you struggle to find extra money when you’re working , quite how are you supposed to find it when you’re not?
Well, it’s hard not to pick up on the not very buried subtext here – this is not just about making cuts, it’s also part of the ongoing narrative to push/encourage (choose your preferred option) people back to work.
Take Labour-run Ealing council. If you’re unemployed there and living on jobseekers’ allowance, you’ll have to find 20 per cent of your council tax now – estimated to be about £200. But if you’re out of work for more than a year you have to pay 30 per cent.
The deputy leader of Brentwood borough council, Cllr Roger Hirst, told me it was not about “waging a war” on the unemployed. It was about “removing the disincentives to work”.
Of course, all this comes on top of the cap on benefits and working tax credits.
The big question, though, which councils privately concede they can’t answer, is: what happens if some of these people decide they can’t – or won’t – pay?
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