There is a rise of the mini-state resulting from the localisation of parts of the social security system. Photo: Getty
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The dark side of localisation: when boroughs want to keep "council tax tourists" out

For those on a lower income or not working, some boroughs are considerably more welcoming than others.

In the 1949 Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, residents of the London borough set themselves up as a separate state with predictably comic results. When Pimlico’s governing committee lifts post-war rationing, shoppers flood to the new dominion only to find themselves trapped when its borders are later closed. As the local policeman puts it to one hapless refugee, “You should never have travelled abroad without your passport, madam”.

You’d think this farce had more relevance in Cold War Europe than Britain in 2014 but a court decision against Sandwell Council last week suggests otherwise. In this case, the local authority had required its residents live in the borough for two years before being entitled to council tax reduction.

Sandwell’s reason for the rule was clear: to protect itself from “benefit tourists”. Interestingly, the council wasn’t referring to non-citizens here but instead, to anyone from out of the borough moving into the area as a result of changes to benefit entitlement. The message to these “visitors” was clear: don’t come to Sandwell without your passport.

The judge in the case was unequivocal in his condemnation of the policy, describing Sandwell as “plunging into unlawfulness”. But this is just one example of the rise of the mini-state resulting from the localisation of parts of the social security system which is creating unfairness all around.

A recent report on the localisation of council tax reduction schemes in London, for example, has shown that hardship depends very much on your postcode. Z2K, the authors of the report, met “Maria”, a woman caring for her disabled son full-time and struggling to stretch her benefits to pay £6 each week in council tax. She lives in Harrow, where charges are among the highest in London. In contrast, her sister who lives a few stops down the Bakerloo Line in Westminster doesn’t pay any council tax at all.

The report also showed that there are huge variations in how councils enforce council tax collection from their poorest residents. How likely you are to be charged for falling into arrears, how much you will be charged, and whether you are likely to have a bailiff knocking on your door all vary dramatically between boroughs. Perhaps most shockingly, the report shows that in 2013/14, over £10m was charged to London’s poorest residents in court charges when they fell behind on payments.

Council tax benefit isn’t the only part of the social security system that has been localised, however. In April 2013, local authorities were also handed control of parts of the social fund, and have since had the unenviable task of providing support to vulnerable people while at the same time the funds for such schemes have been cut.

It’s no surprise, then, that councils have had to put in place various rationing arrangements. The evidence shows that some have simply drawn the criteria for local welfare support so tightly their schemes have effectively withered and died. But others have taken the Sandwell approach, introducing a residency rule on which access to local welfare assistance is conditioned. As a result, in some parts of the country, a woman fleeing across boroughs to escape a violent partner is ineligible for support to set up a home for her and her children.

How much you notice the rise of the mini-state depends disturbingly on how much you earn. If you are in secure employment, getting a decent wage, you might not notice these changes – unless of course you lost your job or got sick. For those on a lower income or not working, however, some boroughs are considerably more welcoming than others. Passport to Pimlico may be hugely entertaining, but the destitution that many are experiencing as a result of the real-life shenanigans of localisation is anything but.

Megan Jarvie is London campaigns coordinator for the Child Poverty Action Group and Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times