18 October 2012

Flawed Council Tax Consultation

Changes are afoot in Council Tax support which have been driven down to local level by the government along with a 10% funding cut. Speaking purely as a debt collector it is a stupid policy to try and get people on low incomes to give some of it to the council when they are struggling to feed themselves.

Barnet Council are consulting, in so far as they consult about anything, and they have done it in a biased way. They have produced options where cuts could be made and of course most people will blindly follow the suggestions. You need to throw the consultation questions in the bin and start with a clean sheet. Mr Mustard has written and a few days still remain for you to do the same. Feel free to borrow any of Mr Mustard's points that you agree with.

The Guardian seem to agree with Mr Mustard. It is not a good idea to try and get poor people to pay small amounts of money. It just isn't practical.

Send your thinking here.

Dear Sirs

I have read your consultation document of 24 October 2012 which I believe to be flawed.

It is predicated on the assumption that the desired budget savings all have to come from reducing the amount paid out to claimants. This is not the case. There are two other options.

1. You could maintain CTS at its current levels and increase Council Tax. That is after all the point of Council Tax. We all pay in so that a safety net is provided to those, who for whatever reason, need the help of society to have the necessities of life.

2. You could cut other items of spending such as on Consultants.

2a. You could become more efficient. I now hold an email in which a council officer says they are prepared to "pay any price" for a certain service to be provided. That bespeaks of wanton waste in council offices.

In so far as your features are concerned I comment as follows, using your numbering.

Feature 1. Removing exemptions and discounts for empty properties and second homes, and charging a premium on properties left empty for 2 years+.

An empty property makes very little call upon the services of the council and so for it to have a discount is entirely reasonable so I am not in favour of this being taken away. Occupiers of second homes call upon the services of two authorities at different times and a discount of 10% is quite low compared to the average 50% decrease in demand from such occupiers so I am not in favour of any change here. I recall that you sent me a survey form in respect of empty properties. I did have a property empty for 3 years as it took me two years to get the council to agree the slope on the rear roof (you have no policy about elegant mansard roofs and are content to led hideous looking dormers spring up all over the borough) and then another year to completely rebuild the house. During that time I was occupying and paying Council Tax at the adjacent property and I am sure that similar situations occur and that there is a good reason for long-term empty properties to remain empty. If you published the results of that survey I would be pleased to be sent a link to them. I am not in favour of any chance here either. I would prefer the focus to be encouraging people with a carrot to bring properties back into use not to hit them with a financial disincentive (the stick).

Feature 2: Working age claimants will be required to pay a minimum contribution to their Council Tax.

This is the most ridiculous idea. The examples in Appendix C show that a person on Jobseeker's allowance might have to pay some council tax because they happen to be of working age. Council Tax Support is about your financial needs not about how old you are. I am absolutely against this feature not just because it isn't very logical but also because the administrative cost of collecting small amounts will be so high compared to the sums involved. The system should be based upon financial need.

Feature 3: Removal of the second adult rebate for working age claimants.

Some worked examples of this would have been helpful. It sounds unfair to change this.

Feature 4: Reducing capital limits.

I note that people going into care homes are allowed to retain up to £23,250 and therefore a reduction in respect capital savings of a different type of societal support from £16,000 to £8,000 is a move in the wrong direction.

Feature 5: Limiting the level of support for higher banded properties to D or E.

Somebody who used to be quite well off and has fallen on hard times will try and hang on to a home that might have been theirs for decades. They happen to need support which might only be for a few months to a year. They will also have other bills which are greater for light and heat as the property is large and so all you will do with this proposal is run up unpaid Council tax debt. If the person has a low income then they won't be able to afford to pay Council tax whatever size house they are in. I am against this proposal.

Feature 6: A simpler system of non-dependant deductions.

I am all in favour of simplification. I have looked at Appendix D. I am not in favour of making adults in receipt of Jobseeker's Allowance (not "Job Seekers Allowance" as it appears in the consultation document) pay more, or those who are working less than 16 hours per week, or those on maternity, paternity or sick leave.


In summary therefore I am against all of your options as I think you have started from completely wrong financial and moral standpoints and are running a flawed consultation.

Note: page 3 of the consultation document contains an email address to write to of CouncilTaxSupport@barnet.gov.uk from which my response was rejected.

This is the correct email address.

Also of concern is that people whose benefit will be cut will only know this in March, when their Council Tax bills come out for April.

That does not give people much time to find an extra £5 a week (or whatever) from the limited income that they must only have in order to qualify for council tax benefit.

Update: Here is what our own Lord, Lord Monroe Palmer had to say on the subject in the House of Lords (Monroe makes, as usual, perfect sense)

My Lords, I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, say in debate on the previous amendment that we must stand up for poor people. That is what I, in supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Best, ask noble Lords to do today. I hope that noble Lords from all sides of the House will do that.

Like other noble Lords, I welcome the £100 million. It is good, but it is transitional. It is good for this year, but it is not the solution for the future.

Points were made about the collection of small sums from people who could least afford it. Comparisons were made with the suggestion that a single-person discount should be varied if the local authority concerned wished to do so. Perhaps noble Lords should look at the simple arithmetic. Let us say that someone who is paying council tax lives in an authority where the council tax is £1,000 per annum. I will keep the figures simple. With a 25% discount, the single person will have a bill for only £750. If the local authority changed the 25% to 20%, instead of having a bill for £750, the council tax payer would have a bill for £800.

If their house was more valuable and highly rated, for example at £2,000, the council tax payer who got a 25% discount would pay £1,500. Under the 20% solution of the noble Lord, Lord Best, they would pay £1,600. One does not have to break one's brain to see that they would accept this. They would probably not even look at the calculation. They would see that on a bill of £1,000 they were paying £750 and now have a bill for £800. Perhaps they would realise that they had a bill for an extra £50. However, they are used to paying council tax, which does not normally stay the same every year. On £2,000 the bill would be £1,600 rather than £1,500.

This is money that local authorities such as my own, Barnet, would find pretty easy to collect. They collect it from those who are used to paying council tax. They may not like council tax-who likes it?-but they know that they have to pay it. Let us compare that with people who have not paid council tax. My noble friend Lord Jenkin said the situation was rather like that of the old community charge and poll tax. These people will suddenly get a bill because they will not get the whole of their discount. The bill could be £1 or £5 per week. How difficult will it be for any local authority to collect the small sums-and how will that be, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, standing up for poor people if those poor people have to pay that sum of money in what is already a hard society at the moment?

We have yet to hear from noble Lords on the Labour Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Best, suggested that they were against this change. My noble friend Lord Tope said that it would be inexplicable if they were. I try to see why they might have that attitude-if indeed they do. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has changed his mind. If they do have that attitude, I ask why. The only solution I came up with-perhaps it is cynical-is that they want it to fail, and poor people to suffer. I cannot believe there should be a political motive to make people suffer to make a political point when the aim of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, is to protect poor people. I support the amendment.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard


  1. "It is not a good idea to try and get poor people to pay small amounts of money." Have you not heard of the National Lottery?

  2. Good point Andrew but that is elective spending which has a zero debt collection cost as the stake is paid in advance.

    Imagine we all had to buy 5 £1 lottery tickets a week in Barnet. How many people wouldn't do it because they didn't agree, forgot or had spent the money on food. Can you imagine the chaos and cost of chasing up all of those people?


I now moderate comments in the light of the Delfi case. Due to the current high incidence of spam I have had to turn word verification on.