Prior to the non-election of this government most people on out of work benefits were not required to pay council tax. This was because they didn’t have any money. This system functioned reasonably well and ensured that sick, disabled or unemployed people were not simply paying back half of their meagre benefits to local government.
Despite this the Tories decided to tear up the rulebook and hand over the powers for helping the poorest pay their council tax to local authorities giving them free reign to charge whatever they chose. And to ensure maximum carnage, the amount of money made available for the new Council Tax Suppot scheme was cut by 10%.
Sadly many councils approached this chance to attack their most marginalised residents with barely disguised glee. Some, like Tendring Borough Council, launched a ludicrous local people only scheme, with those new to the area facing full council tax bills even if they didn’t have a penny to their name. Others, like Leeds City Council, are flirting with the idea of some form of forced workfare or jobsearch sessions for people struggling to pay their council tax. This would presumably be in addition to the 35 hours a week mandated ‘work related activity’ that unemployed people must now carry out as a condition of their main benefits.
Elsewhere local councils dithered, often with such badly explained changes that many people only found out they were now eligible to pay some of their Council Tax when a court summons arrived. Ths has led to mass court hearings with hundreds of people in some areas facing costly legal action often over just a couple of pounds a week. Citizens Advice reported in May this year that council tax arrears are now the most common debt problem reported to them. Unsuprisingly the cost of taking all these people to court has soared with the latest statistics showing a record £233 million was spent chasing council tax debt in 2013/14 – a rise of over £20 million in just one year.
These have not been the only court casess that some local authorities have found themselves emroiled in. An important court judgement against Sandwell Council earlier in the year ruled that their policy that people should have lived in the area for two years before receiving a council tax reduction was illegal on six seperate grounds. This has forced the previously mentioned Tendring Council to also change their local people only rule – and already they are attempting to shift the cost onto their poorest residents by slashing Council Tax Support even further.
Last month Haringey Council were also hit with a court ruling that they had failed to consult properly on reforms to Council Tax Benefit. The council were found to have misled residents by claiming that they had no choice but to force people on beneifts to pay some council tax. They weren’t the only ones who attempted this devious approach either. Many more local authorities could now find that their Council Tax Support policies are unlawful due to bungled, or more correctly biased consultations.
Like so many of this Government’s policies, changes to council tax benefit have only hit the poorest and most voiceless people in the country. If this was being happening to the latte-slurping middle classes we would never fucking hear about anything else. Millionaire comedians would be crying in the newspapers about how hard done by they are. Yet whilst the well off are promised income tax cuts, people living on just a few pounds a week are being plunged into council tax debt. Arrears have risen by 20% since the reforms were introduced. The massive growth in benefit sanctions have meant that many unemployed people now have no income at all – but they are still eligible to pay council tax. Nobody even really knows how many thousands of people are currently being dragged through the courts for non-payment and who could even face prison as a punishment for their poverty.
It is not just those on out of work benefits who have been hit hard by the changes. Many of the lowest paid are now also eligible to pay some, or more council tax than they were previously. The poorer you are, the more of your money this Government wants. And they do not care how much chaos they inflict to get it.
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