For about 1,900 residents in Surrey Heath, this will be the most important story of the year.
Currently, central government funds a system of Council Tax benefit for unemployed people or those on very low incomes. From April 2013 this system will be “localised” to borough, unitary and district councils like Surrey Heath. This means that they will decide who receives benefit to pay their Council Tax. At the same time, Eric Pickles is cutting the funding for the benefit by 10% and saying that pensioners’ benefits cannot be affected. This means that councils will be about 20% short when it comes to funding Council Tax benefits for working age claimants, including the disabled.
Each borough and unitary council has had to decide what to do about this. Would they keep benefits as they are and fund the shortfall by cutting elsewhere or raising Council Tax (the “status quo” option)? Would they place all the cuts on the backs of the poor, and a bit extra to cover the increase in non-payments (the “fully funded” option)? Or would they opt for something in between?
Surrey Heath Extremists
There are 235 such councils in England and about 20% went for the “status quo” option. Nearly all of the rest went for something in between, such as demanding everyone pays at least 8.5% of their Council Tax bill. Can you guess which option Surrey Heath Borough Council went for? Yes, they went for the most extreme, so-called “fully funded”, option, requiring at least 30% of Council Tax be paid by benefit recipients. Of all the councils in the country, they will be charging benefit recipients the highest, about £8 per week on average.
Job Seekers’ Allowance can be as low as £56.25 for under 25s, or £71pw for over 25s. This pays for food, gas, electricity, clothing, transport, etc and is only paid to people looking for a job. Job seekers can now be forced to work for free for unscrupulous employers like Poundland so they don’t even have time to look for paid work. A local Tory website here helps employers prey on desperate people looking for work too, calling them, “a bit of free resource.” JSA also has to pay for nappies, toiletries, school uniforms, packed lunches, children’s books and Internet access. Now Surrey Heath Tories will take an average of £8pw from these families.
Why Hit Poorest Families Hardest?
So why did Surrey Heath Borough councillors choose to be the most extreme council in the country? Here are a few possible reasons:
1. They are the most right-wing councillors in the country. Well, possibly. Some of the them are ideologically off the scale, but I think there is more to it than that.
2. They didn’t understand what they were voting for. This definitely applies to some of them. The briefing document prepared by the officers was, necessarily, long and detailed and I know some of the Tory councillors would not be literate enough to read it. I was at the council’s Executive when this was debated and it was clear to me that the detail and the principle was incomprehensible to most of the Conservative councillors present. The Leader of the Opposition tried to explain it to them but I think council officers should have done more to educate their dimmer pupils too.
3. They didn’t care. Surrey Heath is one of the most affluent boroughs in the country. The number of benefit claimants here is very small. Tory councillors don’t know anyone who claims Council Tax benefit and they don’t, and can’t, understand the pressures they are under. However, since the numbers are small, we can easily afford to continue providing benefits.
4. They wanted to toe the line. Many Tory councillors benefit personally, socially and financially, from being councillors. So even non-extremist councillors who did understand it and care about people in financial crisis might have voted with their party for their own reasons. SHBC pays patronage payments to reward loyal service, dressed up as vice-chair responsibility allowances. Ordinary councillors get paid an allowance regardless of how much work they do and they wouldn’t want to be deselected and lose this cash. Those loyal enough to be selected as county councillors get over £11k per year, some going for months without attending any meetings. Also, SHBC has a high proportion of Freemasons within its ranks and this might have influenced these people too.
What would I do?
Budgets are tight and it is not really SHBC’s fault that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in Westminster has chosen to cut their budget again. However, by choosing the most extreme policy SHBC has hit the poorest hardest. Many people will be unable to pay the required 30% minimum that they are demanding. Non-payments will increase. People will be criminalised. Bailiffs will be called. Courts will be clogged up and in the end, SHBC will lose money overall. Also, Surrey County Council and Surrey Police will suffer because of the increase in non-payments as the borough council collect Council Tax on their behalf. There will be greater demand on council services as families collapse financially.
Personally, I would have voted for the “status quo” option. I believe the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor.
I would fund this by:
- Removing vice-chair allowances.
- Charging for the council’s Business Breakfast where the wealthiest businessmen get £30 of free food every 6 months paid for by you and me.
- Scrapping the SHBC propaganda magazine Heathscene.
These measures alone would just about cover the cost. If necessary, I would raise Council Tax too.
I estimate there are about 400 families in the Bagshot, Windlesham and Chobham division who will be affected by SHBC’s extremist decision to cut their benefit. Many will never have paid Council Tax before. They are already in financial crisis. They have little or no savings, little income and now are castigated by David Cameron and George Osborne as “scroungers” and “skivers”. Other benefits are being held well below inflation and housing benefit is being cut too.
Whether you are affected by this or not, stand up against Conservatives adding insult to grave injury to the least fortunate people in Surrey Heath. The Surrey County Council election is on 2 May 2013.