Controversial plans to force millions of low income families to pay more in council tax from April are to be tested in the courts, it emerged today.
Several local authorities are facing judicial reviews after deciding to reduce the means-tested council tax benefit following the Government’s decision to cut the subsidy by 10 per cent. Town halls can make up the difference by switching money from other areas but three out of four authorities will force benefit claimants and the low paid to pay more, as The Independent reported today.
Next Tuesday, Haringey Council will be asked in the High Court to defend its decision to require every adult in the north London borough other than pensioners and the disabled to pay almost 20 per cent of their council tax, even if they have no income or savings.
Alex Rook, a specialist lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who is representing local residents, said: “Our client is a single mother and she is simply not going to be able to make these payments. The council’s own papers recognise that there will be very high levels of non-payments.”
Haringey Council said it had consulted widely with residents, including the 36,000 households directly affected. “Those households that include claimants in receipt of certain benefits recognising significant disability have been shielded from the change,” it said.
Similar legal actions are being considered in Birmingham, Sheffield, Rochdale and the London boroughs of Camden and Hackney.
Hilary Benn, the shadow Communities Secretary said: “All over the country, people on very low incomes will be asked to pay sums of money they simply cannot afford, just like the hated poll tax.”
But Brandon Lewis, the Local Government Minister, denied the cut could be as politically toxic for the Conservatives as the poll tax. He said: “We’ve put £100m in to give those councils freedom for the first year to protect the most vulnerable while they crack down on fraud and error and the failed collection of council taxes and help get economic growth.”
Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are working hard to protect the most vulnerable and needy members of society but this means that other benefit recipients will have to carry a larger share of the cut
Case study: For some families, life is already a struggle
Full time mother-of-five Sarah Sullivan, 37, from Bromley, south east London, is worried about what the changes will mean for her family.
As a working-age recipient of council tax benefit she currently pays nothing, but fears that will change when her local authority announces its new policy.
“We’re struggling as it is,” said Sarah. “I get £165.27 a week in child tax credits and my partner gets £140-odd a week in Employment Support Allowance.”
Sarah’s partner, who worked as a taxi driver for 10 years, is out of work following a nervous breakdown. The couple would like to feed their children – three of whom still live at home – fresh fruit and vegetables, but the cost is too high.
“Many a time I’ve had to go to the food bank and get help from them,” said Sarah.
The family also struggle to find enough money to pay for gas and electricity.
“I can’t afford to do quarterly bills so I’m on a key card. I don’t put the heating on unless it absolutely has to go on.”
The family, who sought help from the Citizens Advice Bureau, have largely been kept in the dark over the change. “Everyone’s the same. We’re struggling now and we’re thinking oh god what’s going to happen,” Sarah said.