Some of the poorest households in Peterborough could be affected by a controversial decision taken by city councillors at Full Council this week (March 6) which changes the way council tax support is paid.
Currently, anybody claiming benefits gets a discount taken off their council tax, but they must pay something themselves towards the bill.
In Peterborough, that amount is 30 per cent and it has to be paid at the end of the tax year.
The alteration proposed at Full Council would see the same amount – 30 per cent – but paid at the beginning of the tax year.
This effectively changes the amount to be paid from a Net to a Gross amount payment.
In addition, and controversially, the amount to be paid will be increased by one per cent per year for the next three years, beginning in 2019/20.
Cllr David Seaton, cabinet member for resources at the cash-strapped council, which has suffered huge funding cuts from the Government, said: “This could potentially save the council £326,000 and brings us in line with the new Universal Credit roll-out.
“As unemployment in Peterborough has fallen to just 1.4 per cent, and the numbers in full-time employment has risen, claimants have been reducing year on year from a peak of 11,435 in 2013, to just 9,082 cases in 2018.
“The council is required by government to put this matter out for public consultation before implementing it, and we did this between December 17, 2018 and January 31, 2019.”
Cllr Ed Murphy (Labour and Co-operative) said: “You’ve already maxed out the amount of council tax you can increase by raising it by 2.99 per cent in this budget, and now we are faced with this - yet another way of taxing the poorest families who can afford it least.
“Exactly how many households will this alteration affect and how much will it cost them per week? And isn’t it the case that the people who receive this assistance are some of the poorest families in Peterborough?”
Cllr Christian Hogg (Lib Dem) went further: “I’ve looked at your consultation response Cllr Seaton and I am very concerned.
“Your case study shows a 35-year-old single father, earning minimum wage and working part-time eight hours a week.
“He rents a housing association flat for £92.50 a week and with the current council tax support gets £13.97 per week.
“But once you’ve applied this new alteration, he would only receive council tax support of £0.16 pence a week – that is outrageous, and I cannot support this proposal.”
Cllr Shaz Nawaz (Labour group leader) had concerns about the number of people the alteration would affect: “The consultation you undertook Cllr Seaton was pretty complex stuff, but after more than a month of opening this up to the public the total number who responded was just two people!
“The cuts you propose will save £326,000 but will affect 10,732 households. Yet the public consultation you undertook was only responded to by two persons, and even those two complained that the process was so complicated they barely understood it.
“On that basis Cllr Seaton I will not be supporting this proposal.”
Cllr Bella Saltmarsh (Lib Dem) said: “I’m also concerned as Cllr Murphy was that this will affect the poorest people in Peterborough, but I am also very worried how this affects pensioners.”
Cllr Seaton in response replied: “I understand your concerns for pensioners, Cllr Saltmarsh, but in this case they are exempt from this scheme, and so it does not affect them at all.
“Turning to Cllr Murphy, who says that we have ‘maxed out’ council tax by raising it 2.99 per cent – I find that rich coming from a councillor who only a year ago headlined in the Peterborough Telegraph by suggesting council tax be raised by 15 per cent.”
Cllr Murphy got to his feet and called for a point of accuracy, saying: “I never said that Mr Mayor, what I said was if it would solve all of our housing crisis problems in Peterborough I might be minded to support an increase of that nature.
“You’re getting a bit of a reputation, Cllr Seaton, for ‘telling porky pies’, so that sometimes when you actually tell the truth people still think that you are lying.”
Cllr Seaton angrily responded: “Mr Mayor this is a member who has called another member a liar in this chamber – are you going to allow that?”
The mayor, Cllr Chris Ash, said: “I think that for one councillor to say that another is ‘telling porky pies’ is simply not acceptable, unless you have evidence Cllr Murphy.”
Cllr Murphy said: “Mr Mayor I was just pointing out that many members of the public just don’t believe a word that Cllr Seaton says anymore.”
Cllr Seaton replied: “Mr Mayor, unless Cllr Murphy apologises I think he should be removed from the chamber. Every council meeting he insults colleagues which is entirely unacceptable behaviour. He has just accused me of lying.”
The mayor moved that instead of removing Cllr Murphy, he should contribute nothing further to the discussion.
Cllr Seaton was able to conclude his summary, and the proposal to amend the council tax support scheme was approved by a majority of 30 to 19, with three abstaining.