Surrey Heath vote to gamble with your money…

Tonight was the Full Council to decide on a new system for our Council Tax benefit and what a shambles it was…

Due to poor weather and other commitments, around 15 out of the 40 members did not get to the meeting including a number of senior Conservatives.

This scheme impacts on 1872 claimant households in Surrey Heath and as expected, the Conservatives proposed the option in which current claimants have to pay a minimum of 30% apart from those who are disabled. This would mean that people who are so poor that their income and assets are below a recognised national minimum standard will now to pay an average of £461 (Band D at current rate).

Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that many in the Conservative Group did not even understand the proposal of their colleagues. They wanted to exempt disabled people in Surrey Heath and this was a good intention. However, it appeared that rather than the 178 claimants already known, they had completely forgotten about a second group of 1060 “passported” claimants – an unknown number of which will be receipt of disabled benefits and therefore also eligible for this local exemption. Bizarrely, even the Conservative proposing this scheme asked the officers at one point why this recommendation was being put forward!

In effect, Surrey Heath are now gambling that none of the 1060 are in receipt of these disability benefits which is clearly nonsense and when the Government (DCLG) estimate that up to 48% will have some form of disability in their households. This of course completely messes up their own figures and means that the whole scheme will now cost far more than they envisaged and that Surrey Heath don’t have a clue how much.

In addition, the second gamble for their option is as follows:-

– Households who currently pay absolutely nothing on their Council tax due to poverty will suddenly be able to find an average of £461.50 and give this money to Surrey Heath.

Does that make sense to you? Do you seriously think that this is going to happen?

Now that some of them (probably 20 to 30%) will pay up as expected without any need for further Council intervention. However, the rest consisting of people with various households such as mental health issues, single parents or those in extreme poverty will not do so. Council officers then have to try and chase this money by letter, visits and then by court action.

At this point, some will then pay and others will agree a payment plan of say £4 a week with a court assuming that they get to see a charity for assistance (currently dealing with very large numbers so many will miss out). Others through illness, ignorance or being illiterate will take no action and then get an unexpected visit from the bailiff. After further costs have been spent on this, the bailiffs will try and collect these funds and turn up at the property whereupon they will find little or nothing of value because of the government already knows, the household is already living below the poverty line.

Some other households will pay their Council tax but using their housing benefit which means of course that they won’t be paying their rent. As a result, their landlord or housing association will take them to court for rent arrears and they become homeless – thus presenting themselves back at Surrey Heath to be dealt with as a Homelessness application and then incurring further public expense.

Other households will simply abscond so we will end up with a much larger amount of bad debt.

Despite officers going to considerable lengths to explain that they are using estimates, numerous councillors tried to drill down into exact figures which was understandable but fruitless.

In essence, Surrey Heath have now decided to take a complete gamble that 90% of affected households will pay all the Council Tax that they owe.

In my view, this is hopelessly optimistic and Surrey Heath will do well to get a maximum of 60% and even then will have a number of knock-on costs such as officer time chasing, legal costs, bad debts and homelessness applications – most of which has not even been factored in.

Now current collection rates are very good in Surrey at 99.5% but the critical point for Surrey Heath is whether they get 83% of the monies owed by THIS GROUP of 1872 clients AND that there are no other people who are identified as disabled. Both of these are highly unlikely. If in fact, the collection rate is 60% without any further costs, Surrey Heath will in effect have lost their gamble and collect less money for Councils by around £260 000 – a devastasting amount. Anything below around 83% means a loss and that figure will have to go up significantly if more disabled people claim.

The interesting aspect here is that many other groups are also worried about the impact of this type of proposal including such left-wing bodies as er…Surrey County Council and the Conservative-led Government. Both of whom felt that the policy being pursued was too damaging to affected households (the Govt suggestion is nothing above 8.5%) – this is over 3 times worse.

In fact, it turned out at the meeting that no officer or councillor could name a single other Council that were introducing a 30% minimum as Surrey Heath. Most other councils were either putting forward a joint scheme agreed within Surrey or the national suggestion of 8.5%.

I must credit 2 Conservative councillors here namely Cllrs Alistair Graham of Bagshot and Ian Cullen of Heatherside who recognised these points (or at least some of them) and unusually voted against the rest of their group. It is interesting that Cllr Graham represents Bagshot which has the 2nd highest number of claimants and was clearly uncomfortable about the impact.

Surrey Heath has tonight voted to become the most extreme Council in the entire country. By doing so, they have taken a wild gamble on a scheme that they clearly don’t even understand. As a result, all Council taxpayers are now at risk and not just the most vulnerable in society.

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