[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
At the outset, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise an important subject that affects the lives of millions of people throughout our country, namely the consequence of the Government’s decision to localise council tax support in England. Council tax benefit—and before that, rate rebates—had been an integral part of our national system for helping low-income households to meet their living expenditure. Indeed, unlike housing benefit, it was available to people irrespective of their tenure—so home owners, tenants in social housing and tenants in privately rented homes were all eligible—and for that reason council tax benefit was the most widely claimed of all income-related benefits, reaching almost 6 million households.
The decision to localise council tax benefit, which was announced as part of the 2010 spending review early in the life of the current Government, was in some respects surprising, as it ran counter to the Government’s commitment to bring together a range of separate benefits into a universal credit. Arguably, if one is trying to simplify and streamline benefits, it makes no sense to separate out council tax support, which had previously been fully integrated with housing benefit, as the consequence will inevitably be to create variations in entitlement between people living in different areas, which may have perverse outcomes and will certainly add administrative complexity.
Now, I am not one of those who take a strong ideological view that this benefit must be either national or local. There is a case to debate, but unfortunately we had no opportunity to do so. With the Government proposing on the one hand to introduce universal credit and on the other to localise council tax benefit, one might have expected an opportunity for consultation and reflection, to allow people to look at the merits of localisation and diversity as against unification and simplification, which was the stated objective of universal credit.
No such opportunity was allowed, however. Instead, the Government ploughed ahead with their plan to localise council tax support, and it became increasingly clear that the overriding motive for that was to save upwards of £400 million in central Government expenditure by imposing a 10% cut as part of the process. Local authorities were given the unappetising choice either of protecting the benefit entitlement of their local residents but having to meet 10% of the cost themselves or of passing on the cut to benefit recipients.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does he agree that the Government’s decision to protect pensioners has had perverse—and I hope unintended—consequences, particularly for working-age disabled people? As a consequence of that decision, a heavier and more disproportionate burden has fallen on those disabled people, who have to make up the shortfall.
My hon. Friend is prescient—I was about to come on to that very point. I hope he will bear with me, so that I do not repeat myself by first answering his question then coming back to the text in my speech where I refer to the issue.
To add to the challenge, the Government added two further obligations. The first was to protect all recipients over pension age—the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) referred. The second was to avoid creating work disincentives. The first might well be justified, even though, as my hon. Friend indicated, it will create anomalies, with people in virtually identical circumstances but divided by perhaps a couple of years in age receiving different benefit entitlements because of those few years. People over retirement age generally live on fixed incomes and cannot easily adjust to unexpected reductions in benefit entitlement, so a degree of protection for pensioner households is understandable. However, protecting around 40% of recipients will inevitably mean heavier cuts for those who are not protected. It is the remainder of households—a majority, including those in work—that have borne the brunt of the change.
Imposing what was estimated to be an average cut of 16% in entitlement for working-age recipients is bad enough, but of course it runs completely counter to the stated objective of avoiding work disincentives. Furthermore, the centrally imposed requirement to safeguard those over pension age does not sit comfortably with the Government’s other stated objective. I will quote from the Government’s objectives for the scheme, which give a stated aim as being to
“reinforce local control over council tax. Enabling decisions to be taken locally about the provision of support with council tax is consistent with a drive for greater local financial accountability and decision-making”.
One of the more bizarre characteristics of the current Government is that they keep on talking the language of localism while dictating, often in minute detail, exactly how local authorities should behave.
Thirteen months on from the introduction of localised council tax support, how have local authorities responded and what has been the impact on the households that depend on financial support to meet all or part of their council tax liabilities? There have been several studies, including detailed analyses by the New Policy Institute and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Those studies show that a minority of councils have sought to maintain the same level of support as under the former council tax benefit scheme, but the large majority of councils—more than four out of five—have reduced benefit entitlement for working-age applicants. Almost three quarters have introduced a minimum payment, which varies considerably from area to area: currently, 69 out of 326 authorities expect recipients to pay 8.5% or less, but at the other extreme, 47 councils expect contributions of 20% or more. The majority of councils are somewhere between those extremes, expecting a minimum contribution of around 15%—my own local authority of Greenwich is in that category.
In addition to a minimum contribution requirement, several other changes to the former council tax benefit scheme have been made by individual councils. They include: removal of the second adult rebate; a band cap restricting entitlement in higher value properties; reductions in the limit on savings that can be held before entitlement is withdrawn—many have reduced that savings limit from £16,000 to just £6,000; increased non-dependant deductions; and changes to the income taper, which determines the rate of benefit withdrawal as income levels rise.
In the first year of the new arrangements the Government provided transitional support, conditional on local authorities limiting any minimum payment requirement to 8.5% of the total liability. With the ending of that transitional support, almost half the councils that had kept to the minimum payment requirement then increased the amount; there have been other changes to the details of schemes in specific areas as well.
For the record, I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interest in my right hon. Friend’s interests. Does he agree that the net outcome of all these changes, with their piecemeal effects, is that the south-west has been hit hardest? The average cut in support across the south-west is now £177 and last year, it was even worse, at £185. Cornwall, which was an objective 1 area, is historically very poor, yet people there are being badly hit by the changes.
My hon. Friend has identified one of the interesting characteristics of the consequences of this change to localisation—the significant and often surprising variations between individual areas. One of the curious characteristics of the change is that, based on figures I have seen, the largest adverse impact appears to be on council tax benefit recipients in the south-west, who are now facing a greater average obligation to pay than those in any other region in England.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for pointing out that anomaly. Is it not the case that when local authorities or regions have substantial and disproportionately high numbers of older people and pensioners, the effect will inevitably be felt more adversely in those areas? I guess that is as likely to be an explanation in the south-west as it is in my local authority of Trafford.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for identifying precisely the factor likely to be behind the slightly surprising figure from the south-west. In the north-west one might expect it because there is probably more substantial poverty than in the south-west so there might be a bigger problem with the greater proportion of council tax that individual households must meet, but the number of households with people over pension age who are protected has a significant impact and I suspect that that is the main reason why the south-west features in this way. That highlights the arbitrary and curious consequences of the rules that the Government have put in place.
In the first year of the new arrangements, there was protection with the 8.5% limit provided by the Government’s transitional support, but when that support ended, many authorities increased the amount they expect individuals to pay without support and as a result the overall level of council tax support in 2014-15 will be lower than in the previous year and substantially lower than under the former council tax benefit scheme. Research by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 2,340,000 low-income families will be paying an average of £149 a year more in council tax this year than under the old council tax benefit scheme. For a Government who continually boast about their efforts to keep council tax demands down, and threaten action against councils that seek to increase council tax, this figure should be a source of deep shame. More than 2.25 million households are being required to pay an average of almost £3 a week extra in council tax purely because of the Government’s actions, and £3 a week is a significant amount to those living on the edge of poverty.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report points out, there is ongoing uncertainty for households who may face further cuts in future years as the system that the Government have put in place not only gives local authorities the option to change the scheme, but provides an incentive to cut council tax support further in future years. If they cannot increase council tax because the Government have blocked that option, a further cut in council tax support is the only available option to increase their council tax revenue. Such perverse incentives to cut help to the poor is a shameful outcome, for which the Government are wholly responsible.
Not surprisingly, the impact of the cuts on entitlement to low-income families has led to increased debt, arrears and bailiff action to recover debt. The New Policy Institute research suggests that the growth in arrears has been most marked in areas where a minimum payment obligation has been introduced. As yet, the detailed evidence available from different parts of the country is patchy, but Citizens Advice believes that council tax debt now accounts for around 10% of all its debt inquiry work and the debt charity, StepChange, reports 45,000 people seeking its help with council tax arrears in 2013—a staggering 78% increase on the previous year.
As we know only too well, the cuts to council tax support are only one of a series of benefit cuts by the Government, and problems become even more acute when there is a cumulative impact of two or more benefit cuts hitting individual households.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Does he share my concern about the increase in the amount of bailiff action? I have seen figures indicating that almost 100,000 cases have been pursued by bailiffs as a consequence of the Government’s pressure on council tax increases. Does he agree that, in particular, people who are disabled and housebound are vulnerable and should be protected and that the Minister should take steps to protect those groups from intimidation by excessive action?
As my hon. Friend rightly highlights, there is concern about substantial increases in bailiff action to recover debt. We do not know the full extent because, frankly, the available figures are patchy, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting increased demands, and that in some cases and in some areas that is affecting many people, including precisely the ones my hon. Friend highlighted—the vulnerable and disabled—who are being threatened with bailiff action.
I referred to the fact that council tax can be cumulative with people suffering cuts in other benefits. Two new reports that are due to be published later this week, from Ipsos MORI and Cambridge university, were commissioned by the National Housing Federation and cast further light on this. One involved a series of interviews with housing association managers, and the other involved interviews with tenants affected by benefit cuts.
The housing associations reported that although they viewed the housing benefit cuts as having the largest impact on their tenants, the changes to council tax benefit were also significant. Housing associations are concerned about the cumulative impact on some of their tenants with changes to council tax benefit, housing benefit cuts and rising utility costs placing an ever-increasing burden on their tenants.
Two case studies in the Ipsos MORI report illustrate that. The first states:
“In addition to being affected by the size criteria, Bob has also been required to start paying a proportion of his Council Tax, whereas this was previously covered in its entirety by his Council Tax Benefit. Prior to the reforms, Bob and his wife had been putting aside about £5 per week, in case they needed to pay for something unexpectedly, but they have stopped doing this now, as well as reducing their food shopping expenditure, in order to make ends meet. Bob notes that energy costs have increased, so he and his wife are being extra careful with the heating, which he explains as follows: ‘Once, say, about half past six comes, we just come upstairs then, put the radio on or the computer on upstairs where it’s warmer, so we’re not using electricity downstairs...so we’re sort of... managing, but it’s difficult’.”
The second case states:
“A further impact of the welfare reforms on Gareth has been that his household is now required to pay £8 per month on council tax. Although Gareth said he was expecting this, when we interviewed him prior to the introduction of the reforms, he says that this places an additional strain on his finances. He explains this in the following way: ‘we pay £8 a month Council Tax...but when you’re on limited funds and you’re stretched anyway and then, you know, you’ve got to cut back to do other stuff, it’s hard to find’.”
Such cases are repeated time and again throughout the country, and I suspect that every hon. Member in the Chamber will have had many cases of constituents with experiences like the two quoted in the report for the National Housing Federation.
Against that background, it is hardly surprising that there have been several parliamentary inquiries into the operation of the new council tax support arrangements. The Public Accounts Committee conducted an inquiry into the localisation of council tax support and its report was published in March 2014. The Committee was highly critical of the degree to which authorities’ schemes had met the objectives of the Department for Communities and Local Government and of the Department’s knowledge of the impact of local schemes on vulnerable groups. The Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said:
“When the Government transferred responsibility for Council Tax support to 326 local authorities in April 2013 it intended that the reform supported the work incentives it seeks from its wider welfare reform. But we found in 19 local authority areas, up to 225,000 people could lose more of their earnings—as a result of Income Tax and National Insurance contributions combined with the withdrawal of Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit—than under the previous national scheme. This just goes to show, for some, work simply doesn’t pay under the new scheme. For them, work incentives have actually weakened rather than strengthened —the opposite of what the Government intended. Some of those 225,000 people stand to lose 97p for every extra £1 earned—a fundamentally perverse result.”
The PAC report also highlighted the extent to which the schemes introduced since April 2013 have failed to protect many vulnerable people. It flagged up the fact that in 133 local authority areas where all claimants under pension age are required to make minimum payments, no protection is provided to other vulnerable groups. The PAC concluded by calling for an independent review.
Of course, the independent review is already a statutory requirement; it was included in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 as the result of a House of Lords amendment. The Act requires the Government to conduct a review of all local council tax support schemes within three years of the Act taking effect. The Act was effective from October 2012, so the review must be completed by October next year—just 16 months away.
I put it to the Minister that the Government’s silence on the issue is a real cause of concern. Any serious review of the 326 separate local council tax support schemes and their impact on millions of households will take a significant period of time to conduct. If a report is to be presented by October next year, the arrangements need to be put in place without delay. When will the Government be setting out their proposals for conducting the review, and incidentally, when will they be responding to the trenchant criticisms in the PAC report?
The Select Committee on Work and Pensions has also conducted an inquiry, raising similar concerns to those highlighted by the PAC. It recommended that the Government commission research into the impact that local variations in council tax support arrangements are having on levels of poverty in different parts of the country. As yet, the Government have not responded.
Of course, the differential impact is only an issue in England, as in both Scotland and Wales, the devolved Governments have decided to provide financial support to their local authorities to enable them to maintain existing levels of support. In Wales, that has been accompanied by arrangements that allow a degree of discretion to Welsh local authorities on how they structure their council tax support schemes, but without any pressure to impose benefit cuts, as in England.
The Local Government Association, representing English councils, is advocating a similar approach. In its briefing paper for today’s debate, it states:
“Consideration should be given to returning to a 100% funded system for council tax support on the grounds of equity. This does not imply a return to the old council tax benefit arrangements; it simply means that councils should be funded to run the scheme without being forced to impose reductions”.
Both the LGA and London Councils also highlight the extent to which the arrangements put in place by Government for meeting parts of local authority costs incurred in providing council tax support are opaque. London Councils states that
“the Government’s decision to roll funding for local council tax support into wider funding for local government has made it almost impossible for individual local authorities to determine how much they are receiving for this policy. As such, a local authority will, each year, have to balance the spending pressure on its local council tax support scheme with the need to allocate resources to its wider services, particularly as local government funding continues on its current downwards trajectory”.
The LGA recommends:
“Central Government should adopt a more transparent way of funding the changes. Funding for the support should be identified through a non ring-fenced grant within the Settlement Funding Assessment”.
The LGA also adds its voice to all the others calling for further research, saying:
“The Government should publish its analysis of the cumulative impact of all funding reforms at an individual council level”.
To conclude, we have a scheme for supporting millions of low-income households, helping them meet their council tax obligations, which was introduced without proper analysis and evaluation. It has brought financial hardship, debt and worry to huge numbers of families, and it has created perverse disincentives to work and arbitrary variations in treatment between people in similar circumstances. It has manifestly failed to meet its objectives, and it has been condemned as harsh and unfair across the political spectrum.
At the very least, the Government should, as a matter of urgency, set in motion the review that they are, by law, required to commission, and in the short term, they should look carefully at ways in which the scheme’s harsh impact can be mitigated. I would like to believe that at the conclusion of this debate, the Minister will give us a commitment to do just that.
I am just counting how many Members are standing and thinking about the time limit. About six Members are standing, so in those circumstances, I shall not put a fixed time limit on speeches, but if everybody keeps to around five minutes—or not much above that—everybody will get in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby—I was under the impression that I would have quite a bit longer to speak. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing the debate. He has demonstrated his long experience in the world of local government and as a Government Minister, and he even offered solutions to the Government to deal with the problem that they have created for the people of our country.
As other Members have attested, the scheme of localisation for council tax support is hitting the most vulnerable in our society. Some 2.2 million people are seeing their council tax increase as a direct result of the changes. Diabolically, that includes almost 400,000 disabled people, while 117,000 people in receipt of severe or enhanced disability premiums will also pick up larger bills.
The Government could do something positive to help, and my right hon. Friend has pointed out some of those things. The legislation introducing the changes already includes the Labour amendment that requires an independent review within three years. However, such has been the severity of the changes’ impact that I would like to see that review brought forward now, so that the full consequences can be assessed and the policy re-examined and changed.
We have already heard how, following the debacle of the poll tax, a national council tax benefit scheme was introduced in 1992, with the aim of helping councils keep council taxes down for the poorest citizens. I will not go into that in any great detail, but suffice it to say that that allowed some 800,000 working people nationally to receive lower council tax bills because their income was low, while others on passported benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance and income support, paid no council tax.
As part of the coalition’s dogmatic devotion to overhauling the welfare system, hefty changes to the council tax benefit were made. Most notably—others have talked about this—the responsibility for administering the scheme was devolved to local authorities. Was that not just a great idea? Dump the responsibility on the local authorities and when people get angry and upset, it will be the councils who get it in the neck, and the Tory-led Government can join in blaming them for not having adequate enough systems to protect the vulnerable. That is exactly what is happening. I have cases in my surgery where people believe that the council is doing them in. I put them right.
That said, our local authorities have a detailed understanding of local circumstances and a knowledge of what is happening on the ground. They are therefore well positioned to assess the needs of local people, and they are often able to do so more accurately than central Government.
However, the Local Government Finance Act 2012 has done more than simply localise the programme of council tax support. Instead, the Act abolished council tax benefit as we knew it and required the local authorities to design and implement their own localised reduction schemes from scratch. Again, that is not necessarily problematic—not, that is, until we consider that at the same time as introducing these changes, the budget from central Government to help pay for such crucial support was cut by 10%.
Further adding to the complexity, the Government simultaneously insisted on certain conditions being met, removing the free hand that might have allowed local authorities to design workable solutions. The prime example, of course, is the stipulation that pensioners must be protected from the Government’s cuts; that point was made by my colleague in the north-east, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). That is hardly objectionable either. Older people reliant on pensions are on a fixed income and would stand to be hard hit by any statutory increases, but what it means in practice is that the funding available is intertwined with an area’s demographic make-up. In short, the more pensioners within any given boundary, the steeper the reductions will be elsewhere and for everyone else.
Ultimately, those reductions are shouldered by other vulnerable people. To put it into context, the average reduction across all local authorities has been about 19%, according to the Local Government Association, as a result of higher numbers of pensioners in a given area, but it can be as high as 27%. That has meant that, as of April last year, 6,600 working-age people on low incomes across the Stockton borough who previously did not pay council tax have had to start contributing for the first time. Because of the reductions in support, a further 6,100 are paying more than last year.
Clearly, that runs completely counter to the original aim of the council tax benefit scheme, which—in case anyone needed reminding—was to protect precisely those vulnerable people who are now feeling the sharp end of the coalition’s cutbacks. Instead, we have a situation whereby councils doing their very best to protect vulnerable groups, such as the disabled and carers, are having to perform intricate balancing acts to ensure that working families are not disproportionately burdened by severe cuts to the support that they receive. They all have to do that while ensuring that their own financial situation remains robust enough to continue to provide services and support. Let us not forget that this increased liability came at precisely the same time as 2,800 families across the Stockton borough were being subjected to the bedroom tax, placing further strain on household incomes and exacerbating the cost of living crisis in their households.
While the Government profess to support the most vulnerable, and the Deputy Prime Minister boasts of his party’s success in lifting thousands out of taxation, the coalition’s actions in pulling support from underneath the most vulnerable contradicts those claims in plain sight. With only nine months between the statement of intent and localisation, local authorities were left with considerable logistical headaches, having to meet the Government’s criteria while continuing to offer as much support as possible to vulnerable persons and safe- guarding financial arrangements. That is not to mention communicating the changes to residents.
In my local authority area, Stockton borough council stands to lose about £3 million a year as a result of the funding changes. That highlights not only the severity of the reductions for local people, but the inadequacy of the Government’s transitional funding pot, which was hastily cobbled together when political pressure began to mount. In this context, the £100 million pot is a very small drop in a very large ocean, amounting to less than 25% of projected savings. That is particularly true when funds are time-limited to 12 months and any award comes with restrictive conditions that might mean the scheme costs even more to implement, as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will know.
One year in, there has been a tangible impact on council tax collection in Stockton. By the end of 2012-13, Stockton borough council had collected 98.2% of the council tax it billed for the year, which is the same level of success it has enjoyed in many recent years—a very good performance. Collection for 2013-14 was down to 96.9%, and only 76% was collected from those paying for the first time. Although Stockton’s overall collection rate is marginally better than the LGA’s projected national average, approximately £1.2 million remained unpaid by first-time payers at the year end—a figure that has not been compensated for by central Government and which will inevitably result in service reductions elsewhere.
Such higher levels of non-payment have resulted in sharp increases in enforcement action across the country. Some 600,000 court summonses were issued last year for non-payment—a pattern reflected in Stockton-on-Tees, where the number of summonses issued last year more than doubled on the previous year. With 4,700 issued to claimants paying for the first time, the default rate is more than 70%.
Stockton borough council has thought outside the box in introducing new initiatives to increase payment rates—for example, text messaging and home visits—while supporting those struggling to pay, but difficult decisions will be needed in future about further action against residents who are themselves making delicate decisions about priorities and how to balance finances. It is worth stating explicitly that, although these measures have generated some success, all the extra recovery action has increased the overall cost of collecting council tax.
The non-payment situation is liable to worsen as we enter the second year, because new bills remain unpaid from last year, and claimants with sums unpaid from the very beginning continue to pay off their arrears. I hope Members will agree that the independent review should be brought forward, as my right hon. Friend suggested, so that we can pull together the evidence of the scheme’s impacts now and do something fair for some of the most vulnerable and financially poor in our country.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing this important debate. He gave a powerful speech, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, he brings a particular expertise to these debates.
Like me, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will have sat in their surgeries and heard from constituents who are suffering as a result of the changes we are discussing. Since 2010, families in Nottingham have been hit by Government policies in general and Department for Communities and Local Government decisions in particular. In Nottingham, we saw the cancellation of the £200 million regeneration project for The Meadows, which would have rejuvenated one of the most deprived wards in the country. The Housing Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), pledged to visit the area, but he never made good on that promise. From the Government’s perspective, he may have moved on to bigger and better things—we certainly know just how much value they place on housing, given that they relegated the post to a junior Minister. My constituents in The Meadows have been left to live with the consequences of the right hon. Gentleman’s damaging decisions.
The lives of many people have also been blighted by the bedroom tax, which affects 5,000 households in Nottingham and has left thousands of my constituents with a debt they have no realistic prospect of paying off. No doubt the Minister will say that the policy sends a strong political message, but the message it sends to people in areas of my constituency such as Clifton is clear: “This Tory-led Government is prepared to single out you and your family and to drive you out of your own home, just to make a political point.” People in Nottingham, and the country as a whole, deserve better.
Nottingham city council has also been left to make impossible decisions, partly as a result of how council tax support has been devolved. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the funding available has been salami-sliced, with a 10% cut, and that is only the headline figure. Those above pension credit age are exempt—a welcome protection for older residents—but that means that the impact on everyone else is even harsher. As Nottingham city council warned when the policy was announced, there will be a significant impact on working-age claimants who are not pensioners. Like the bedroom tax, this cruel policy hits disabled people and their carers, families with children, and people on low wages.
In 2012, more than 26,000 people in Nottingham were in receipt of council tax support—almost 10% of the city’s population. The point is that almost everyone in Nottingham will be affected directly, or will know someone who is affected directly, by these changes. The policy affects people in work and those who are out of it; those who own their own homes or those who are tenants; and those in council homes and those in the private sector.
Let me give the Minister a sense of the impact this policy will have. In 2012, 19,000 people in Nottingham received full council tax support. A substantial number of them were pensioners, of course, but many were working-age adults. Under the terms of the revised schemes, only a maximum of 80% support will be available, even for those on very low incomes. There is no doubt what the consequences will be. When the revised scheme went out to consultation, 75% of respondents stated that
“as a result of the changes they would have to reduce household spending on essential items such as food and heating.”
A third even said they will have to resort to borrowing money to make up the shortfall. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has warned, this new poll tax
“has caused misery for hundreds of thousands of people across the country, driving them into the courts and into debt”.
As the shadow local government team has established through freedom of information requests, up to 70,000 people have been issued with eviction notices across the country as a result of these changes.
The Minister might be tempted—if he is listening to the debate—to reply that it is for individual councils to design adequate schemes, but we must recognise that councillors and officers in Nottingham have been left to make impossible choices, as have their counterparts in neighbouring cities such as Leicester and Derby, who have implemented similar schemes. Given the constraints that have been imposed on it, Nottingham city council has delivered the best scheme it could. It has also decided to ensure that there is no sharp reduction in support for those entering work, who might lose their eligibility as a result, and I am sure hon. Members will welcome that move.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, the localisation of council tax support runs entirely counter to the arguments made in support of the Welfare Reform Act. The Government claimed they wanted to bring all social security benefits together in universal credit to reduce complexity and end any disincentives to work, but by localising council tax support they have ensured there is additional complexity, with every local authority across the country operating its own support scheme.
The financial consequences for my constituents are significant. Single people living in band A properties stand to lose more than £3 a week. Where there are two or more people in a household, they are set to lose more than £4 a week. Of course, they will lose more if the property is in band B. Many of these people are carers or single parents with young children. Nottingham city council’s equality impact assessment found that single parents—primarily women—were disproportionately affected. However, disabled people, war widows, veterans and young people facing persistently high levels of unemployment are also left with very limited options. Many will now be forced to go without essentials or go into debt. No wonder there is such a dramatic rise in the use of food banks in my city, and across the country, given that people simply do not have enough money to survive, let alone live a decent life.
I am proud that communities in Nottingham are trying through food banks to support their fellow citizens when they are hit by the Government’s deeply unfair policies, and that the Labour city council is working hard to protect the most vulnerable by investing extra funding in advice services to support its citizens. I visited one of those vital services, the Meadows advice group, last Friday to thank staff and volunteers for the work that they do to ensure that people at least get the help to which they are entitled. They reported a significant increase in requests for help in the past 12 months and said that the total debt that had been dealt with in the past year was up by more than £78,000. They repeatedly expressed concern about the combined impact of the Government’s welfare reform policies.
The individual effects are serious, but the consequences for Nottingham city council’s budget are considerable too—especially now that all the transitional funding has been withdrawn. Complying with the Government’s criteria and delivering a scheme that is as good as possible will mean a £1 million shortfall in this financial year. That is happening at a time when the council is straining to maintain its full range of services, because of the front-loaded cuts imposed on it. Under the present Government things will only get worse, as they seek to make further reductions to funding for the households and areas in the greatest need. There are even greater risks to council finances if those who are asked to pay simply cannot; it is estimated that for every 1% reduction in collection rates, an extra £22,000 is added to the cost of the scheme.
When the Prime Minister said that we were all in this together, it was a cruel joke at the expense of some of my most vulnerable constituents. Meanwhile, millionaires laugh all the way to the bank, where they find that they are much better off, thanks to the Government’s decision to cut the top rate of tax. The Deputy Prime Minister likes to boast that people have benefited from a rise in the personal allowance, but we all know that that does not help the very poorest, who continue to pay the price of the fact that the Government are indifferent to inequality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and take part in the debate. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I have only a few points to add to what my colleagues have said, all of which I support.
I am concerned that the effect of the policy, combined with many other policies on social welfare support, is perverse and extremely harmful to those who experience its effects. I endorse the calls that have been made for the Government to take the earliest opportunity to review it. My colleagues have mentioned the risk that households will encounter work disincentives. In the next few weeks, a universal credit area will begin for some Trafford residents. The work disincentives that the council tax policy may create could, for those claimants, wipe out all the promised advantages of universal credit.
It is ridiculous to bring in one policy with the intention of incentivising employment, and another that may do the exact opposite. Equally, it is perverse to bring in a policy partly on the grounds of efficiency and cost-effectiveness before any clarity has been reached about how local authorities will organise their staffing complements, particularly as in many local authorities, including mine, housing benefit and council tax benefit—the predecessor of council tax support—were administered by a single team.
We are now going through what could be quite a long transition, until every Trafford claimant is on universal credit. Ministers tell us that that could take until 2017, but frankly, I think it could take longer when I see how it is coming along. That creates huge uncertainty for the local authority in planning the staff complement to manage council tax support, which it will continue to administer, and to prepare for the fact that it may not be managing the housing benefit element of what will become universal credit in relation to a diminishing number of residents over time.
It is incredibly difficult for the authority to plan its staffing resource in such uncertainty, and many good staff are beginning to vote with their feet and leave. Not only have local authorities been presented with all the difficulties of managing the budget described by my right hon. and hon. Friends; they also have a difficult administrative and human resources challenge to manage, because of the policy being brought in against the backdrop of other changes.
I agree with my colleagues that the system is right to protect pensioners, because of their limited options for improving their incomes. However, the policy is one more example of the current out-of-proportion tipping of the whole welfare system away from working-age people. It is becoming a residual system for older people only. Our welfare state was meant to be a welfare state for life—from cradle to grave—to protect us all in bad times if and when we needed it, and paid into by citizens to prepare for those bad times.
It is disgraceful for the Government repeatedly to pervert the philosophy that underpinned the welfare state, which they claim to be proud of, as we are. That is not to say that we do not want to offer pensioners the best possible protection. However, it is quite wrong that families with children, disabled people and their carers, and working people on low wages no longer enjoy the protection of the welfare state. Those, too, are precisely the people it was intended to protect.
My colleagues have pointed out an unevenness around the country in the kind of support that people receive from their local authority, and I am concerned about that too. We have a postcode lottery. No one is against the sensible localising of decisions, but postcode lotteries that leave families in some parts of the country at greater risk of poverty cannot be the kind of welfare support that we want.
In some local authorities, some income-related benefits or cash benefits are treated as income when eligibility for council tax support is calculated. Child benefit, child maintenance payments and disability living allowance are being taken into account in calculating someone’s means. However, they are not intended as income replacement benefits; they have the specific purpose of helping families with the cost of raising children and helping disabled people meet the additional cost of living with an impairment. It cannot be right that local authorities must take those benefits into consideration when they assess someone’s ability to meet council tax obligations, or their eligibility for council tax support. That is yet another demonstration of the total lack of regard to—or, perhaps, understanding of—how the welfare state has been constructed, and what the different social security benefits are for.
I endorse the calls made this afternoon for a proper, wholesale, urgent review of the policy, in the context of the coalition Government’s welfare changes. That cannot be just a one-off review, because universal credit and other changes are being rolled out over such a protracted period. I hope that the Minister will tell us a little more about what will happen after the first review and how he expects to keep the policy under careful consideration.
I share all the anxieties expressed this afternoon. The policy is not working for some of the poorest families in our constituencies. Ministers owe such families a duty of care and protection and it is not acceptable for them to wash their hands and pass the problem down to local authorities that have little choice in how they can administer the system.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing this important debate.
I will speak briefly, but before I say anything about the issue in hand I want to mention the employment figures, in case the Minister refers to them. Yes, employment is up in the north-east but, against that, unemployment is still at 10.3% and the number of people who are unemployed has risen. There may be more jobs for some people, but others are losing theirs.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is precisely the point about how iniquitous the benefits situation now is for people.
Let me place in context the situation in my constituency. The Association of North East Councils has found that the north-east has suffered the biggest cuts and experienced much higher reductions in spending power than the national average. The spending power per household in North Tyneside is, at £2,048, the worst in Tyne and Wear. On top of that, North Tyneside council has had to make efficiency savings of £20 million for this year’s budget, which equates to 11% of the net revenue budget. At the same time, the council will see a £12 million reduction in the revenue support grant. That is a reduction of just under 20% for the year. We can see how hard-pressed councils are—a point that my right hon. and hon. Friends have already made.
The history of how the housing support amount has been calculated in North Tyneside is quite curious, because when it first came into effect under this Government, we had a Tory mayor in North Tyneside, and the Tory Administration wanted to impose a charge of 12.5% on people who had not formerly paid any council tax. My former colleagues on the council managed to get that down to 7%. It is still quite a sizeable amount of money for people who do not have the disposable income to pay it.
As I have shown, the council is in dire straits, but it has to do everything that it can to protect the vulnerable. That point has been made over and over again. When the Government impose these kinds of policies, they are not thinking about the most vulnerable in our communities. Some of them are from the working communities. In my constituency, 24% of people earn less than the living wage and 10% earn less than the minimum wage. Let us imagine the effect that any increase in the payments they have to make out of their salary has on them, and not just economically. There is also the mental strain of measures such as the bedroom tax.
Then there is the cost of living. If people are on a restricted budget, even 5p or 10p extra on an item when they go to do their shopping will affect them. We are talking not just about economics, but about people’s peace of mind. They are worrying about how to make ends meet. That takes an extra toll on their health. In the end, it is all a false economy on the part of the Government, because it just means that people will be going to the doctor for antidepressants and so on, perhaps taking days off work and falling into deeper and deeper poverty.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says:
“The replacement of CTB with CTS marks a historic move to 326 different local schemes in England. It will be a curious system when a jobseeker with a state-provided income of £71.70 per week pays some council tax in some parts of the country, but is considered too poor to pay in others.”
That just shows how ridiculous the situation is. It is not an equal tax on people. In our country, we strive for equality. We talk of ourselves as a country that has principles, a country people can enjoy living in and feel proud of. How can we be proud of taxation of this sort when it is so iniquitous?
I would like to make a plea to the Minister. Labour has asked for the review to be brought forward. The Lords did the sensible thing and agreed to an amendment on the matter, so will the Minister please bring forward the review as soon as possible, so that he can see the devastating effect that this change in council tax benefit has had on people across the country?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I join in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing this most important debate.
Localising council tax support and giving local authorities more control sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it might have been if the Government had given local authorities the same amount of money as they were paying, but instead they reduced funding by 10%. Then they said that pensioners must be protected. I would not be against that, but it means that councils have to impose an average cut of 16% for working-age people. As ever, the Government are devolving responsibility but hiding the fact that they are implementing the cuts themselves. And it is not the ne’er-do-wells of society who are affected; it is disabled people, those in low-paid work, single mums, carers, veterans and those who are desperately seeking work but are among the 2.5 million people who are unfortunate enough to be unemployed.
Council tax has become another part of the cost of living crisis facing my constituents in Bolton West. In Wigan, 13,000 people have been referred to the bailiffs, and that figure does not include the 1,000 businesses that have been served letters by the bailiffs for not paying their business rates. Those are people who cannot afford to pay their council tax, and of course they are usually hit by multiple debt. They may well have been hit by the bedroom tax and seen their housing benefit reduced because they have someone over the age of 18 in the house. They will have been hit by a rise in their food bills and fuel bills, and if they are in work their wages will have been running behind inflation for the last four years at least. They may well have got into debt with payday lenders when they borrowed money to try to keep themselves afloat. They frequently have a whole range of complex issues. Of course, a bailiff’s letter means that the debt has immediately gone up by £75. If the bailiff has to call, the debt rises by another £235. If, heaven forbid, the bailiffs come and seize goods, they will face an additional £110 fee.
It is no wonder that many residents of Wigan and Bolton West have got to the point at which they can see no way out of the situation. Of course, many of those residents were not paying council tax before. They will not be able to set up direct debts and will not have believed it when they got their council tax bill. The council therefore now has a much higher bill for collection. Collection rates have gone down across Wigan to 96%. It is still doing pretty well at collecting the money, but that means that there is less money for the essential public services on which my constituents depend.
This policy has been yet another for which the Government have attempted to devolve blame. Along with other policies, such as the bedroom tax, it causes misery to those who can least afford to pay, and at the same time the Government give tax cuts to millionaires. My constituents deserve better than that. The Minister should review the scheme and take one of the areas of pain away from people who are really struggling to survive in this day and age.
I apologise to you, Mr Crausby, and to Members in the Chamber, for missing the start of the debate. I did not intend to speak, but I have been driven to it by what I have had to listen to. I have heard some good speeches from Opposition Members, but some absolute drivel as well, about council tax and council spending. In particular, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), whom I look forward to meeting when she comes to my constituency next Saturday—we will be on the same train going through Brigg—seemed to forget completely the financial situation that the country found itself in, which has led to local government having to face some significant savings.
I served for 10 years as a councillor in Hull. At that time, although there was increased funding coming in, we repeatedly had to cut services. It is funny that at the time we did not have an array of Labour MPs or, indeed, Labour councillors in the area running up and down and saying how awful it was that all those extra burdens were being placed on people. Similarly, not a single Labour Member of Parliament was running around saying how awful it was for poor old hard-pressed council tax payers that their council tax had doubled in my area. We did not have a single Labour Member of Parliament worrying about hard-working families who were struggling when our police precept went up by 500% in just a few years. We did not have anyone from the Labour party saying how awful it was for hard-pressed council tax payers, many of whom were on the breadline, when the fire authority precept was added to our council tax bills and increased. We had none of that at all.
I try to work in as cross-party a manner as possible in this place, and I am not a fan of everything that has been done. I voted against the bedroom tax, so I am not a fan of all the changes, but this attempt to present the financial challenge that local government faces as a wicked Tory attempt to attack poor people is truly shameless.
We did not have a single Labour MP talking about food banks before 2010, despite the fact that there had been a tenfold increase. It is the cheapest, filthiest form of politics.
I am amused to hear Labour representatives talking about hard-pressed council tax payers, because in my local authority they are trying to put the council tax up. They want to increase the council tax of the hard-pressed families they claim to be so concerned about, and they want to reduce those people’s access to social care. We have prevented them from doing that. If a council is run properly, as my local authority is, it is possible to retain all children’s centres, provide ongoing council tax support and build new libraries in communities that have never had them. Those things are possible if the tough decision is taken to reduce senior management posts. When we took control of our council from Labour in 2011, there were, I think, six people who earned more than £100,000. There are now two. Our leader took a 15% pay cut, following increases when Labour ran the council. We have even been able to reduce the cuts to youth services.
The point I am making is that local government is undoubtedly in a difficult situation, but it sticks in my craw when Opposition Members do not take any responsibility for the financial mess that they created, or for the pressure that they put on family budgets through council tax when they were in government. If they wanted a grown-up and sensible debate, Opposition Members would say, “Regardless of who is in power after the next election, there will still be ongoing cuts to local government.” They cannot simply oppose every single decision and say, “It would be different if we were in power.”
We have listened to a lot of Opposition Members speaking, and that is all to the good, but nobody has spoken from the Government side. I would not have done so, as I turned up late, if it had not been for some of the nonsense that Opposition Members were coming out with.
I think the hon. Gentleman’s comment sums up the debate. Opposition Members are not interested in having a sensible debate on the matter. All they are interested in is a dirty, filthy little political campaign that is all about trying to label anybody who disagrees with them as somehow not caring. It is ridiculous, and the public are seeing through it. [Interruption.]
Opposition Members should be apologising for the financial mess, apologising for doubling people’s council tax and apologising for what they did to local government during the 10 years in which I worked in the sector, which was to burden us with a great deal. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) was the Minister when my then Labour-run local authority was put into special measures. As a result of the measures that his—
Absolutely. The point I am making, Mr Crausby, is that after my local authority went into special measures, we had to increase to six the number of people who were being paid more than £100,000, which placed a burden of hundreds of thousands of pounds on our finances. Councils have inherited an over-inflated senior management, which makes it very difficult for them to deal with challenges such as the localisation of council tax support. It is okay to talk about the financial burden and challenge that local authorities face, but the Opposition must take some responsibility for the great cost that they imposed, especially that of senior management.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing the debate and on opening with a comprehensive analysis and critique of the Government’s localisation of council tax benefit? I want to address many of the issues that he raised. Just over a year after the localisation of council tax support, it is timely to debate the impact that the policy has had on millions of households across the country.
We have heard important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). Other colleagues have made powerful interventions. It is good to see so many Opposition Members here to express their concerns, raise issues and ask genuine questions of the Minister about the impact of the policy. In contrast, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) opened his speech by talking about drivel, and continued on that theme without referring to the topic of the debate at all. Perhaps if he had attended at the start and listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, he would have talked about that important subject, which we know has a huge impact on some of the poorest in our communities.
The “poll tax mark 2”, as the policy has been called by Lord Jenkin, the creator of the original poll tax, is causing misery across the country and driving hundreds of thousands of people into courts and into debt. That is why I fully support the call made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for an immediate independent review of the impact of the socio-economic consequences of the localisation of council tax support, and I hope that the Minister will agree to that. The Public Accounts Committee has called for an independent review. The cross-party, Conservative-led Local Government Association has said that councils have been left
“facing an unpalatable choice of either charging council tax to the working age poor, who in many cases had not paid council tax before, or finding savings or extra income from elsewhere”.
That is in the context, as my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South and for Stretford and Urmston have said, of other policies such as the bedroom tax that are particularly affecting the disabled and some of the poorest in our communities. It is also in the context, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside has said, of local authorities having had their budgets slashed by 40% over this Parliament, with councils in areas of the highest need facing disproportionate cuts. Authorities with the highest levels of deprivation are being hit hardest, while the Prime Minister’s local authority, along with those of five Cabinet members, is receiving an increase in its spending power this year. That is directly relevant to councils’ ability to absorb the cuts to council tax benefit, because areas with the highest levels of deprivation that are facing the biggest cuts also contain a larger proportion of residents who require council tax support. Analysis from the special interest group of municipal authorities in the LGA shows that
“Council Tax Support was a much higher percentage of budgets for authorities such as Liverpool and Knowsley at 32% and Manchester and Hull at 29% than the more prosperous ones such as Windsor & Maidenhead and Rutland where the proportion was much lower, around 7.5%.”
Authorities that face additional cuts in their budgets have a difficult choice to make about whether to pass that on to claimants. As we know, four in five authorities have not been able to absorb the reduction in council tax benefit funding. The New Policy Institute found that of the 326 localised schemes, 82% reduced the level of support to working age recipients, with almost three quarters of councils introducing a minimum payment. Analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes it clear that Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils are more likely than Labour councils to introduce a minimum payment. That is a testament to Labour councils, given the cuts that they have faced and the higher proportion of council tax benefit recipients among their residents.
The LGA says that the scheme is “regressive”, because those on low incomes are dedicating higher percentages of their earnings to paying their council tax. Several hon. Members have talked about the fact that the amounts of money in question may seem small, but to some of our constituents, as we know, they make a huge difference to their ability each week to meet their household bills and their cost of living. Just like the bedroom tax, the policy is hitting those who are least able to pay.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich has said, when the Government introduced the scheme, they had four main objectives in mind: to transfer the system to local control, to make savings, to protect vulnerable people and to support work incentives for claimants created by the Government’s wider welfare reforms. I believe that on all four of those objectives, the Government are failing. When it comes to the first objective, the localism for which I campaigned for many years outside this place, and which councils up and down the country wanted, was not merely about the devolution of the axe as exemplified by the localisation of council tax benefit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West has said, why not transfer the whole budget to councils and give them the discretion to seek to make savings if to do so is right for their local area? Ministers are happy to meddle in everything from the level of reserves to when the bins are collected, while passing on cuts to councils that put those councils in a near impossible position. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North pointed out, the Government calculate that residents will identify the local authority as having made those choices when it has, in fact, been put in a really difficult position.
I will not give way because the hon. Gentleman was not present at the start of the debate and there is much to discuss relating to the informed contributions that have been made.
The Government’s second objective was to make savings. As the Local Government Information Unit, always a sound source of commentary, points out:
“Local authorities have incurred new costs through the changes to Council Tax Benefit”—
The hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole did not have the courtesy to give way to my hon. Friends, so I am afraid that the tone has been set.
I was quoting the Local Government Information Unit:
“Local authorities have incurred new costs through the changes to Council Tax Benefit, including the cost of designing and modelling schemes, communicating changes, consulting with local residents, paying IT suppliers, and setting up a system for appeals”.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, it is an administrative nightmare. Some local authorities have actually had to employ additional staff to cope with the increased burden of council tax collection, including the cost of issuing 600,000 summonses across England and sending in bailiffs.
As well as new outgoings, the Local Government Association has said there has been a year-on-year drop in overall collection rates. It is, of course, quite rightly expected that council tax collections will increase and costs will decline over time as local authorities find it easier to collect money and the new system beds in, but the scheme’s difficulties in these early years have made it much more of a problem for local authorities and meant that the costs have ultimately been passed on to the most vulnerable residents.
On the Government’s aim to protect vulnerable people, it is a relief to poorer pensioners in my constituency and throughout the country that they will not be hit by the policy. Nevertheless, that protection has placed the burden of any reduction in council tax more on the shoulders of low income working-age people and families, as several of my hon. Friends have illustrated. In its March 2014 report, the Public Accounts Committee said:
“Contrary to the Department’s intentions, many local authority schemes have not protected vulnerable groups other than pensioners and war widows”.
The Government have not yet responded to that report, but when they do, they will claim that they are protecting vulnerable groups by freezing council tax. Of course, that is a con. Many Tory councils, including the Prime Minister’s own local county council, are putting council tax up. In my area, the county council has increased council tax, while the Labour-controlled borough council has frozen it, building on the record of Labour councils such as Hackney that have been freezing council tax for many years.
In many areas, including those where the council tax has been frozen, people on low incomes have seen their bills rise by more than £100 a year because of Tory cuts to council tax support. In fact, if someone lives in an area controlled by a Tory council, not only is their council tax £334 a year higher on average, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that their council
“is 14 percentage points more likely than Labour councils…to introduce minimum payments for council tax for low income households”.
That is confirmed in the report published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that low-income families have been affected by changes to council tax support.
A number of my hon. Friends referred to that important report, and I would be grateful if the Minister told us whether he has read it. If so, what does he make of its findings that 2.34 million low-income families will pay on average £149 more in council tax per year than they would have done under council tax benefit, and that 580,000 families have seen their council tax increase by 55% on average? How can the Government credibly seek to claim that there is a council tax freeze when 580,000 families around the country have seen their council tax increase by more than 50%?
Can the Minister account for the huge rise in the number of people approaching Citizens Advice with concerns about council tax debt? The chief executive of Citizens Advice told us in a briefing on this debate:
“In the past year Citizens Advice dealt with more than 150,000 problems of council tax debt”.
We know that many people have had the bailiffs at the door; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West highlighted how bailiffs can now charge £75 to charge a letter and £235 to pay a first visit, costing a debtor £310. Of course, such costs only mount. Many such people are already in financial hardship and are prey to loan sharks as they struggle to cope financially. They are also often the victims of other measures, such as the bedroom tax. The Ministry of Justice estimates that bailiff profits will double on the back of the Government’s new hike in bailiff charges. The debt charity StepChange says that profits will be made by compounding
“the hardship of some of the UK’s most vulnerable people”.
As we have heard, the Government’s proposal is not achieving their fourth objective: to make work pay. The Public Accounts Committee found that in 19 local authority areas, individuals are losing more through the combined impact of income tax and national insurance contributions and the withdrawal of council tax and housing benefits than under the previous scheme; some are losing 97p for every extra £1 earned. The Committee called it “a perverse result”.
If the Minister will not listen to the PAC or to organisations such as the Resolution Foundation, which has said that the scheme is not making work pay, perhaps he will listen to the Conservative commentator Fraser Nelson, who said that there is
“Precious little sign of…anger”
that the very poorest in our country face 98% tax rates. The Opposition are angry about that, and I hope that the Minister understands that he should feel angry about it too, because there is huge injustice in our communities.
I sense that you are encouraging me to draw my remarks to a close, Mr Crausby, so I will. There must be an independent review, to which I hope the Minister will agree. We have tabled amendments to that effect in the Lords because that is the right thing to do—it is the right time to assess the impact of the changes on the poorest people in the country. I very much hope that the Minister has listened to the powerful case made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and other hon. Friends from across the country about how the policy is affecting the poorest in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in such an important debate, Mr Crausby. It is always good to debate a topic such as this with someone as knowledgeable about local government as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). I congratulate him on securing the debate.
Some comments have been made, not least by the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), about where we are with council tax levels more generally. That is a bit off topic—I know that the hon. Gentleman made a similar comment earlier—but it is worth recapping why the policy was introduced. We must remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, council tax doubled under the previous Government, hitting families right across the country.
To address the comments just made by the hon. Member for Corby, it is worth being clear that a Conservative-run authority is cheaper on average than a Labour or Liberal Democrat council, for a band D property. Conservative councils charge on average about £89 less than Labour councils and more than £100 less than Lib Dem councils on band D, so they are still the best value for people across the country, as I am sure he well knows in reality. We have also seen Conservative authorities in London and other parts of the country, such as Rugby, actually cutting council tax by managing their finances very well.
Council tax benefits spending doubled under the previous Government, costing taxpayers more than £4 billion a year, equivalent to almost £180 a year per household. Welfare reform was vital to bring such spending under control and tackle the horrendous budget deficit we inherited. Localising support for council tax is part of a wider policy of decentralisation, giving councils increased financial autonomy and a greater stake in the economic success of their local area. As council tax is a local tax, we believe that it makes sense for councils to have power and responsibility for making decisions about the levels of reduction to be granted to low-income, working-age claimants—their residents—and for providing the required support. Local schemes should reflect local needs, and local authorities are best placed to make the decisions, not someone sitting in Whitehall.
The Government have offered local authorities a great deal of help and support as the programme has rolled out. We must remember that £3.7 billion was provided for council tax support in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and we will be providing the same in 2015-16. There was new burden funding of £30 million in 2012-13 and a further £33.5 million in 2013-14. Tomorrow, 15 May, we will be paying out £34.8 million towards new burdens for 2014-15. That funding relates to costs incurred for the consultation and design of schemes, appeals, IT costs and communications. As some Members mentioned, the Government made an additional £100 million transition grant available for 2013-14, which helped councils develop well-designed council tax support schemes and maintain incentives to work. Claims totalling roughly £53.5 million were made by 196 billing authorities, and 69% of all authorities received funding. We also provided local authorities with guidance on work incentives and their responsibilities for vulnerable people.
The hon. Member for Corby misunderstands the difference between decentralisation and the abrogation of responsibility. The previous Government amazingly managed to centralise and abrogate responsibility at the same time. This Government decentralise; we move power to local authorities. Even Labour voices in Manchester have noted that this Government have done more in three years to decentralise than any previous Government, let alone the 13 years of Labour centralisation. That does not mean, however, that we take a vow of silence. It is right that we outline to councils best practice and what we and the country expect is right for residents.
Local authorities have a wide range of choices about both how they manage their funding and how they design their schemes. For example, apart from asking some claimants to meet some or all costs, they also have new flexibilities on empty homes, on making efficiency savings, on reducing fraud and error and on using reserves. Let us remember that local authorities have built up a record level of £19 billion in reserves, and figures from the National Fraud Authority show that they lose £2.1 billion annually from fraud and error, let alone what better collection rates can bring in.
So all councils have had options about whether they pass on all or any of the changes and about what groups they protect. It is for councils to ensure that the effect on particular groups is proportionate and fair, and to consult on local schemes. In year 1, for example, all 326 councils adopted schemes that continued to apply the same level of premiums as council tax benefit for vulnerable claimants; 52 councils protected the same vulnerable groups as council tax benefit; 89 offered some protection for particular vulnerable groups; and 84 introduced a hardship fund.
Most councils retained the work incentives that applied under council tax benefit: 307 maintained the taper at 20% or reduced it; 324 maintained the four-week period of extended payments, or increased it; and 324 councils maintained the level of earnings disregards, or increased it. Year 2 schemes, which came into force in April this year, continue to take a wide range of approaches that are locally appropriate and locally consulted on.
I recognise there are challenges in working with people who may be paying council tax for the first time, and I am encouraged to see that councils are taking a variety of approaches to help people adjust to the change. They are working out better payment arrangements that suit those people. They are looking at waiving costs as an incentive to encourage payment or a reward for clearing debt; proactively engaging with people who have not previously had to pay council tax; and looking at additional and earlier reminders to help people understand the situation and what they are dealing with.
Final year 1 data on collection rates will not be available for a few weeks yet. However, £20.3 billion of council tax was collected in England over the first nine months of 2013-14. That is £771 million—3.9%—more than in the same period in the previous year, despite the comments made earlier. The policy is now embedded, and councils have experience in designing and operating local schemes. However, the work we are doing on the policy has not ended, and should not end, yet.
In 2014-15, the Department will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the allocation of the local council tax support administration subsidy, and to understand the ongoing costs of administering, reviewing and revising council tax support schemes. The Department is working closely with the DWP and local authorities in advance of the roll-out of universal credit to develop data sharing arrangements and to ensure that the savings that can be made through data sharing will be realised.
An independent review of schemes will be carried out within three years, as required by the Local Government Finance Act 2012. As set out in the Act, the review will examine effectiveness, efficiency, fairness and transparency; the impact on the localism agenda; and whether local schemes should be brought within universal credit. The Department is currently working with the council tax partnership forum and local authorities to identify appropriate and proportionate data for the review. The timetable, coverage, process for data collection, and detailed terms of reference will be agreed and published in due course.
Councils have challenges—nobody denies that—but there is much they can do in using their reserves and in cracking down on fraud and error in collection rates. Some authorities have seen increases. The increases that the hon. Member for Corby referred to should be celebrated, because those councils are doing good work. Their increases are a result of their benefiting from the new homes bonus, an incentive that we put in place. Business rates are an opportunity, in a way they never had before, for local authorities to see their money increase as they develop business and get more people into work locally.
Our reforms to localise council tax support are delivering national and local benefits. The programme is delivering a 10% saving on the forecast council tax benefit expenditure from 2013-14. We must be clear about that, and we should remember that it is an important contribution to the Government’s vital programme of deficit reduction. In 2013-14 the saving equates to £414 million, which is not a sum to be sniffed at. Despite the previous Government’s profligacy with money, we believe those sums are important in reducing the deficit.
At a local level, councils now have a stronger incentive to support and develop local firms and to see more jobs in their local areas, as reflected in today’s employment figures. I am delighted that even in my own constituency of Great Yarmouth, which Labour left behind, we have had a 27% fall in unemployment. Councils can cut fraud and promote local enterprise to get people into work, as the Government’s programme is clearly doing.
I thank the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for securing this debate, and I hope hon. Members appreciate that we have got the power in our local authorities to really make a difference.