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Council Tax Benefit

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

Spending on council tax benefit doubled under the last Administration, and welfare reform is vital to tackle the budget deficit we inherited from the last Labour Government. Replacing council tax benefit with local support schemes gives councils control over how to achieve a 10% saving, and a direct incentive to help local people into work.

At a time when the Government are giving massive tax cuts to the rich, will the Minister explain why council tax will increase for low-paid families, disabled people and single mums in St Helens?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make the case clearly to his own local authority, which is looking at a scheme at the moment that would not necessarily do the most to help local people into work. The whole point of what we are doing is that it will give local councils the power to be part of their local economy, to drive economic growth and to get people back into work.

One council told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that the reduction would create additional financial pressures through administration and debt collection, as well as having an effect on services such as debt advice, welfare support and housing advice, and a huge effect on homelessness. Given that that was Tory-controlled Croydon council, does the Minister accept that even his own friends recognise that this is an ill thought out cut that will hurt the poorest?

Similarly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk to Corby council about coming up with a scheme that will help people back into work. Our scheme will give local authorities the power to look at what their communities need and to deliver for their communities. It will then be up to the communities to hold their councils to account, as I hope they will in Corby.

Manchester city council could more than make up the loss of council tax benefits from empty and second homes, but is instead planning to force thousands of people to pay extra council tax. Does the Minister agree that this is yet another example of Labour-run councils making the wrong choices and attacking the vulnerable?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Like the two Labour authorities that I have just mentioned, that is another that is not putting its local people first. It really needs to look at its schemes again and put local people first.

In December, the Secretary of State tried to justify his plan to increase council tax bills for people on low incomes, including his own constituents. He assured the House that he had intervened to

“protect people and ensure that nobody has to pay more than 8.5%.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 559.]

Is it still the case that no one in Brentwood will have to pay more than 8.5%?

The right hon. Gentleman gives me another chance to highlight that what we are doing is taking control of a situation in which council tax doubled under the last Government and council tax benefits rose from around £2 billion to £4.5 billion. That benefit has to be got under control as part of deficit reduction, and I wonder whether it would be part of the £52 billion of cuts from his own Government’s proposals that he has not yet even outlined.

Once again, we have no answer to a straight, factual question. The Minister is in denial. The answer is 20% in Brentwood. Why is that? It is because councils up and down the country, Tory and Labour, have been put in an impossible position by Ministers. Is it not the truth that

“the very lowest paid are going to be in a very difficult place”?

Those are not my words but those of the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association. While the Secretary of State has been travelling up and down the country lecturing councils about not increasing their council tax, he has all along been masterminding a council tax increase for those who can least afford it. Does he not understand that the public will see that happening in the very same month that the top rate of tax is cut, and that they will say, “This is unfair”?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman oversimplifies things. Local authorities have, as we have said, the right to look at their local communities and design schemes that they think are right for them, in contrast to the central diktat that the last Government used to impose. The authority that he has mentioned in Brentwood is a good example, because what he did not mention was the way it had changed the taper to ensure that it will pay to work.