Kettering Tories vote through massive cut in council tax support for those in need

Last night Kettering Borough Council voted to reduce the level of council tax support offered to residents. This support is offered to the poorest in our community, and depending on their circumstances they used to be able to get help to pay their council tax bill so that people in the direst of circumstances might only have to pay a minimum of 25% of their bill.

This was already one of the highest rates charged by any council anywhere in the country but from next year it will now raise by a huge amount to 45% which I suspect will now put Kettering as the highest charging Council anywhere. This support is only given to those in most desperate need including the most vulnerable and the disabled and the new rate will mean a massive increase of almost £10 a week to individuals and families who because of their circumstances are obviously the least able to pay.

During the debate I proposed that because we were already one of the highest charging councils in the country, we keep the rate the same as it currently is but this was defeated by the block vote of the Conservative administration although I received support from two Conservative Councillors, Michael Brown and Steve Bellamy along with the independent councillor Ruth Groome and the entire Labour Group (there was also one other Conservative abstention).

Obviously I am very disappointed with the result because I genuinely think the rise is unfair and unwarranted, and is another an example of the poorest in our community being asked to shoulder the burden of the government’s austerity agenda in a much higher proportion than others, but am pleased that there was at least some support from others because to me the moral case was self evident. Please see below for a copy of my speech.

I’d like to propose an amendment to the recommendation. That the rate of Council Tax Support remains the same as it currently is, so the minimum people may have to pays stays at 25% of their council tax bill, and I’ll explain why.

Over the last few years the rate has increased from 8.5% to 15%, 25% and now it is proposed that we have a huge increase to 45%. This at a time when the council boasts about council tax not having risen at all!

Clearly this is true for most people, but not the poorest among us who have already had huge above-inflation increases. And these people are of course, the people least able to pay.

This increase is being sold to us as something we have no choice about. Something that is simply being passed on to us from central government, but that clearly is not true! If it were then other councils would be doing exactly the same as us, and they are not!

The current 25% rate is already the highest charged by any council in the county, with some local council’s still only charging the 8.5% we set three years ago. And nationally the picture is even more disturbing, with 88% of all councils charging less than us.

If we go ahead tonight and raise the rate in the way it’s being proposed, we will go from being one of the highest charging authorities in the whole country, to perhaps being the most expensive!

It’s true that when this new scheme was set up we had specific advise from the government about how much they intended to support us, and initially it was clear what they expected of us, which is why in the first year we like many other councils set the rate at 8.5%, but since then it hasn’t been clear what the financial implications are, and the assumptions in this report are only that. Assumptions. And it is therefore arguably unfair to hide behind the council’s ‘golden principles’ and say we have no choice.

In fact these principles are in some way being used as an excuse not to make a fair decision. And again I refer you to the 88% of councils up and down the country that disagree with our stance.

The truth is that once again central government are trying to pass on the pressure of austerity to local councils, but at the same time saying publically “that we’re all in it together”, and if we go ahead tonight and reduce council tax support, this statement will clearly be nonsense.

Instead of passing on the cost of austerity fairly, we will actually be asking the poorest among us to pay a much higher share than the most well off. If we were to put up council tax by nearly £10 a week to everyone there would be public outrage, but that’s exactly what we’re doing for a lot of people, and while arguing, as we do, “that the scheme should incentivise work”, we sort of miss the point… because this proposal not only affects people who perhaps do need incentivising, it also affects our residents who through no fault of their own find themselves in difficult circumstances.

It also affects those like the disabled, some of whom simply cannot work, and it also affects those who do work, who are trying to ‘do the right thing’ but are trapped in a low wage and zero-hour contract economy, who simply are not able to better themselves.

And this is why enough is enough!

Even if we agree that everybody should contribute something, so they have a direct connection with the public services we provide.

Even if we agree that austerity cuts are making things difficult for us….and let’s be honest, they are; we shouldn’t simply pass on these difficulties to the most vulnerable among us because it’s an easy thing to do.

It is up to us, who have all been elected to help local people, to say enough is enough and recognise that not only does the current rate mean that people have over the last few years already had huge increases in council tax, but also realise that the proposed increase is unfair and unwarranted.

Now the obvious question is how my amendment will affect next year’s budget and how will it be paid for?

The County Councillors around the table will tell you that I am not in the habit of suggesting uncosted proposals, but on this occasion I have no choice.

The council has not yet proposed its draft budget. We don’t yet know what the government’s settlement to us for next year will be, and we don’t even know the amount of council tax we’ll be charging next year.

So in that respect, whether you agree to my figure of 25%, or change it to 35%, 45% or any other amount, none of us actually know the financial implications of that. The decision tonight will simply advise that the draft budget, which will then go through a lengthy scrutiny process and public consultation before the final decision is arrived at, and it would be wrong therefore for me or anybody else to try to second guess that process.

The Labour group have discussed this issue and have not put a whip on our decision, and I note that neither have the Conservative group. That means that councillors are perfectly able to vote on this proposal any way they want without repercussions from their own party. I mention this only because I know there are back bench councillors who are uneasy with the proposal as it stands, that they too, like many members of the public who replied to the consultation, feel that KBC already charge enough, and I would simply say to them that if they feel they can support my amendment, they should do so, and then obviously we’ll be able to have further discussion on this matter during the budget scrutiny process, and indeed if we still need to, at the budget setting meeting itself in February.

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