1 Apr 2014

Families hit hard by scrapping of council tax benefits

Here’s the good news: local authorities up and down the country are falling over themselves not to put up council tax this year.

Here’s the bad news – if you’re one of the 2.34 million low-income families who used to get council tax benefit, you will be paying on average £149 more in council tax this year than just over a year ago.

In some parts of the country, families once considered too poor to pay council tax face a bill of nearly £300 this year, according to a report by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

Last April the government scrapped council tax benefit which helped people on low incomes – either those working for low wages or because they were on benefit.

It was replaced by council tax support and devolved down to local authorities to administer – crucially, though, with a significantly reduced budget.

Initially some councils did try not to impact some of the poorest families. A year on, the figures show more councils than ever have started to insist all working-age adults – pensioners are exempt – must pay something, regardless of their income.

Jackie Camacho lives in Benfleet in Essex with her four children. Her eldest, 28-year-old Daniel, has Down’s syndrome and she acts as his full-time carer.

Up until last April, the family received full council tax benefit and therefore paid nothing.

Then her local authority, Castle Point borough council, said she had to pay around £30 a month towards her council tax bill. As of this month, that is now just over £40 a month.

The council, incidentally, is one of many across the country which is freezing council tax for residents this year.

‘It comes down to the food bill’

Jackie gets £60 a week carer’s allowance, and for the past four years has earned £100 a week – the maximum she’s allowed as a carer working as an adviser for other carers.

As we arrived to talk about council benefit yesterday, she’d just finished her last day. She’s been made redundant. She says paying the new council tax bill has become one of her priority bills and she just has to pay it.

“There’s less money to spend on other things, ” she said. “The food bill is what it really comes down to. If you choose heat and electric and that’s gone up, there’s less money on food.”

‘Impact on real families’

Jackie is at pains to say the family have been lucky. Support services for Daniel have been brilliant, she says.

But she questions whether government fully understands the impact of the cuts to benefits on families like hers.

While she faces the £41 council tax bill, her carer’s allowances has only gone up by £8 a month.

“There is an impact on real families. There is not money coming from eldewhere to balance this out.”

Jackie’s not alone, according to Emily Holzhausen, from Carers UK.

“We’re seeing carers who were already struggling, being left unable to afford their rent and household bills as a result of cuts to benefits and the loss of support to pay council tax bills.”

Of the 2.34 million people affected, the JRF reports says 1.5 million already live below the poverty line.

Unpalatable choices

A spokesman for the Local Government Association, Cllr Sharon Taylor, said councils were left with a gaping hole in the amount of money for funding council tax support, and that has meant many are forced to make “unpalatable” choices.

“The shortfall between the money councils receive to fund council tax support and the money we would need to protect those on low incomes is getting bigger and is likely to reach £1bn by 2016.

At the same time, councils are tackling the biggest cuts in living memory and cannot afford to make up the difference.

“Government should consider giving local authorities the full amount of funding needed to provide council tax support.”

But their pleas for more cash are unlikely to be answered. The local government minister, Brandon Lewis said the reforms would give councils a greater incentive to get people into work. And he pledged that it would help end the “something for nothing culture” and make work pay.

Follow @JackieLongc4 on Twitter

Tweets by @jackielongc4