The Government published on 18 October the grant allocations that local authorities will be able to claim if they comply with the terms of the transitional scheme. These are available on the departmental website. The deadline for claiming the grant is 15 February, and payments will be made by the end of March 2013.
I thank the Minister for his response, but is he aware that my council, St Helens, will have to make £48 million of cuts over the next three years? The only way it can access the transitional funding and keep council tax down is by cutting services to the most vulnerable members of our community.
I would be very disappointed if the hon. Gentleman’s council was affecting the most vulnerable in the community, as this Government have put in place protections for them, and the guidelines are clear about that. Those who are among the most vulnerable suffered from the doubling of council tax under the previous Government and saw the benefits bill more than double. It is important that councils protect the vulnerable, which is why this Government have put the new scheme in place, with the opportunity and the money from the transitional grant, to help them do just that.
I have listened to what the Minister has said, and I have to agree with my council leader, Bill Dixon, that the Government are behaving like a bunch of headless chickens. They have had to introduce a new fund to make up for a policy that was not quite thought through. Why did they not think it through?
Under the previous Government, the council tax benefit bill went from £2 billion to almost £4.5 billion. It is right that this Government are dealing with the deficit that the previous Government left us and sorting out the economic problem. We are letting local authorities deal with what they need to do locally, and we have put in place £100 million to protect the most vulnerable, whom councils such as the hon. Lady’s unfortunately seem to want to hit.
Wigan is consulting on a number of proposals, all of which, by necessity, will hit the working poor, people with disabilities, or families with young children. Does the Minister believe that forcing councils such as Wigan to chase people in those vulnerable groups for money that they simply do not have is either fair or a good use of council tax payers’ money?
Again, I hope that the hon. Lady’s authority will do what it is supposed to do and look after the most vulnerable. Instead of attacking the most vulnerable, it should be dealing with its back-office costs, cutting down on fraud and error worth £200 million last year alone, and taking advantage of this Government’s scheme to help the most vulnerable, while still bringing down the benefits bill, which the last Government sent from £2 billion to nearly £4.5 billion.
The previous Government made absolutely no provision to continue the area-based grant, which provided important sustenance for communities such as mine in Hastings, so we are grateful that we have got the transitional grant. May I urge the Minister to consider looking carefully at whether councils such as Hastings can make additional efficiencies in order to justify additional access to the transitional grant?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It was a pleasure to meet her, along with council leaders, just last week to discuss the transitional grant, which 12 authorities benefited from last year. We will certainly be looking at the issue she raises, and we will announce details of where we are with the transitional grant after the autumn statement.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Obviously we are doing what we can to ensure that the most vulnerable are well protected. It is just a shame that we have had to do that because so many Labour councils, such as Manchester and those of some hon. Members who have spoken today, have decided to take forward schemes that hit the most vulnerable. It is this Government who are doing their best to ensure they are well protected.
This is an emergency relief scheme for Tory council candidates, and it is a shambles, is it not? The Secretary of State spent 12 months telling us he wanted local schemes; he has now had to design a national one. Because councils are getting back only a fraction of the money that has been cut, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that it is not possible to design schemes that meet the criteria within the funding available. There is no clarity on whether councils will have to spend more money on consultation, and because the grant lasts for only a year, they will then have to design new schemes and consult on them again for 2014. Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the poorest people in the country are faced with bills that they cannot meet and the threat of being taken to court.
It is amazing that the party that left us with a council tax benefits bill that had more than doubled is now complaining that this Government are trying to sort out the economic mess we inherited. It is very simple: we are talking about a voluntary scheme, and if councils want to take it up, they can. They will have the money in March to help them through the first year and they can then take their schemes forward, but many councils will have structured schemes that protect the vulnerable in the first place. It is a shame that too many Labour councils are trying to affect the most vulnerable. This Government are doing what they can to protect them from badly run Labour councils.