How council tax benefit cuts have hit the poorest

More than a million low-income households are now required to pay the tax after the coalition cut support by 10 per cent last year.

While the baleful effects of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap have been well documented, far fewer have noticed the other large welfare cuts that was introduced last April: the abolition of Council Tax Benefit (CTB). Until that month, those households deemed too poor to meet the monthly charge received CTB to cover all or part of their bill. With 5.9 million recipients, it was claimed by more families than any other means-tested benefit or tax credit.

But last year the coalition scrapped the payment and transferred responsibility for the new regime from central government to local councils. At the same time, it cut the fund for support by 10 per cent. Councils in England were left with the choice of either maintaining current levels of support and imposing greater cuts elsewhere, or asking those who received a full or partial rebate to make a minimum payment. They were required to protect pensioner households, leaving the working-age poor to bear the burden of any increase. 

New research published today by the IFS shows what the results have been. Seventy per cent of English local authorities have introduced minimum council tax payments (forcing many poor households to pay the charge for the first time), with more deprived areas more likely to introduce them owing to a larger reduction in funding. Of the two million working-age households that could have claimed full relief under the previous system, 70 per cent (1.4 million) are liable to pay some council tax in 2013–14, with half liable for at least £85, a quarter liable for at least £170, and 10 per cent liable for at least £225. The new system led to an average increase of 30-40 per cent in the number of people seeking help from the Citizens Advice Bureau in relation to council tax debt between July and September 2013. Last October, Labour found that up to 500,000 vulnerable people had been summonsed to court for failing to pay the monthly charge. 

Labour-run local authorities were more likely than others to introduce minimum council tax payments, although the IFS notes that "this seems to be a reflection of the characteristics of LAs where Labour has a majority rather than a result of political preference". Once these factors were accounted for (most notably, the size of the funding cut and the number of low-income pensioner households), Conservative-majority councils were found to be more likely to introduce minimum payments: 14 per cent more likely than Labour councils and 25 per cent more likely than Lib Dem ones. 

Stuart Adam, a senior research economist at IFS and the co-author of the report, said: "Localising council tax support has, of course, led to considerable variation in the level of support available. Low-income working-age families are now likely to receive more help with their council tax if they live in a better-off area without too many low-income pensioners among their neighbours. Conversely working-age people living in poorer areas and in areas containing more low-income pensioners receive less help."

In response, Brandon Lewis, the local government minister, said: "Spending on council tax benefit doubled under Labour and is costing taxpayers £4bn a year - equivalent to almost £180 a year per household. Our reforms to localise council tax support now give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people into work. We are ending Labour's something for nothing culture and making work pay." But the steep rise in council tax is one reason why, for too many, work still isn't paying. 

Follow The Staggers on Twitter

Council-run housing in Lambeth on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May is a smuggler's best friend when it comes to child refugees

Children prefer to disappear than trust the authorities.

On Monday, Theresa May abolished the post of minister for Syrian Refugees. On Tuesday, a House of Lords select committee report found there were 10,000 migrant and refugee children missing in the EU, of which Britain is still technically a part. And smugglers across the continent raised a glass.

Children do not stay still. In 2013, Missing Children Europe reported that half of unaccompanied children placed in reception centres vanished within the next 48 hours. One explanation is that they fall prey to the usual villains – pimps and gangs. 

But there is another explanation. Refugee and migrant children have so little trust in the authorities that they would rather disappear and put their faith in the underworld. 

One reason for this is that under EU law, asylum seekers are returned to their first point of entry, which is likely to be an overcrowded Greek port rather than a city with education facilities and job prospects. 

Children will go to extreme measures to disappear. The report noted:

“We were particularly troubled to hear of children in Italy and Greece burning or otherwise damaging their fingertips in order to avoid registration, in many cases because they were afraid of being detained or forcibly returned to transit countries having reached their final destination.”

Children are also desperate to find their families. The EU’s Family Reunification Directive should in theory reunite families who have successfully sought asylum, but the UK has opted out of it (and now the EU altogether). Other EU member states have moved to restrict it. The UK has opted into the Dublin Regulation, which allows for family reunification. 

This is partly due to a suspicion that family reunification acts as an incentive for families to send children first, alone. But the report found no evidence of that. Rather, it is usually a case of parents trying to protect their children by sending them out of a dangerous situation. 

The process can be achingly uncertain and slow. Smugglers understand how impatient children are. Two MEPs told the select committee about the port in Malmö, Sweden:

"Traffickers await the arrival of minors, telling them that: 'Well, we can get you to your family much quicker than if you go through the system here' and that 'Getting a guardian will take ages, and then they do the age assessment, which is intrusive. Don’t do that. Just go there, call this guy, take this mobile and they’ll take care of you.'”

In his brief time as Syrian Refugees minister, Richard Harrington brought the topic of unaccompanied minors to MPs again and again. He promised to improve the speed at which applications under the Dublin Regulation were processed. On 13 June he told MPs: “We are doing our absolute best to speed it up as much as we can.”

His role has now been absorbed into the Home Office. No. 10 described it as a temporary position, one no longer needed now the resettlement programme was underway. When the UK finally triggers Article 50 and begins Brexit, it can also leave its EU obligations behind as well. May, the former Home secretary, voted against allowing in 3,000 child refugees.

This does not bode well for asylum policy in Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, with no fast legal route to family unification, smugglers can look forward to the kind of bumper profits they enjoyed in 2015

The consequences can be fatal. Masud, a 15-year-old unaccompanied Afghan, travelled to Calais in the hope of reaching his sister in the UK under the family reunification rules. 

As the report put it: “Masud died in the back of a lorry while trying to reach the UK just before the New Year, having lost hope that his claim to join his sister would ever be heard.”