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Council Tax Benefit

Volume 539: debated on Monday 30 January 2012

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on lower-income households of his planned localisation of and changes to council tax benefit. (92061)

On 19 December my Department published an impact assessment setting out the Government’s assessment of the impacts of the reform of council tax support.

The Secretary of State has told councillors that they have a “moral duty” to freeze council tax this year, but at the same time he plans a cut of £500 million, or 10%, to council tax benefit for the poorest, so that the only people to face rising council tax bills next year in constituencies such as mine will be the most deprived and the working poor. Why is he balancing the books on the backs of the poorest?

The hon. Gentleman’s original question referred to localisation and changes in level. I hope that he accepts that the localisation part of the proposal is absolutely right and fully consistent with what this Government are doing. The changes in level are necessary to tackle the deficit; they are part of the Government’s deficit reduction programme. I would remind him that the bill for council tax benefit has gone from £2 billion a year, in 1997, to £4 billion a year. That is largely a product of the rampant rises in council tax during the 13 years of Labour Government, so it seems absolutely right that we should tackle the deficit in this way.

Those on low incomes in Cirencester are suffering a double whammy. Their town council is increasing its precept by 4.7% and the police are increasing their precept by 2.9%, at a time when the district and county councils are making the tough decision to freeze council tax. Will my hon. Friend see what can be done to ensure that all precepting authorities keep their increases to a minimum?

The Secretary of State has made the Government’s point of view clear. He believes—and I believe—that local authorities and precepting authorities should behave with responsibility in these difficult times. I am sure that his words will have been heard, and I am happy to underline them from the Dispatch Box.

Will the Minister confirm that localising council tax benefits in 2013 and cutting Government support by 10% will mean that if authorities that are strapped for cash cannot put extra money into the benefits scheme, if pensioners cannot have their benefits altered, and if councils have to take account of the tapers for people in work, those on council tax benefit who are out of work will see those benefits effectively cut by over 20%?

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our localising the council tax benefit? Secondly, I do not recognise or accept that figure. If he looks at the impact assessment, he will see that he has grossly overstated the facts. In fact, the average weekly reduction in support will be £2.64 per household. I believe that is the right figure to be quoting in the House, not the one that he chose to use.

Council tax more than doubled under Labour, whereas the coalition has funded a council tax freeze for two years in a row. I support this Government’s localism agenda. Does the Minister agree that it will be fairer for the general population as a whole under the current Government’s scheme?

Yes I do. I would make the point that with localism comes the capacity of local authorities to fine-tune the schemes in their areas to suit their local circumstances, and I would encourage local authorities to start to do that.

The Minister needs to accept that the scheme he is proposing is arbitrary and unfair, and hits the working poor most. How can he possibly justify cuts of between 13% and 25% in benefit for people of working age, and a switch from annually managed expenditure to grant, which means that any increase in claims will be paid for by cuts in benefit for the poorest people? Is it not time that the Government, who were prepared to accept a million-pound bonus for a banker, realise that they do not have the moral authority to inflict such cuts on the poorest people in our communities?

Order. The hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) must exercise the kind of restraint that I am sure has characterised his distinguished performances in the law courts over many years.

I should like to remind the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that the proposals in the Bill will give local authorities the capacity to vary the discounts on second homes and empty homes, and that there will be extra income for local authorities in that regard. There will be scope for efficiency and for the authorities to tailor their schemes to their local circumstances. I do not accept the point that she has made.