Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Council Tax Benefit Replacement - It's Decision Time

Big news - the Council's Executive Board is to make the decision on the local replacement for Council Tax Benefit on 18 December. The 'Defend Council Tax Benefit Campaign' appear to have a demo booked and I presume that will still go ahead despite significant amendments to the proposals since we last saw them.

So the report with all the details, as well as quite a bit of info from the consultation exercises is here. It confirms that NCC has amended its scheme to ensure it qualifies for a share of DCLG's panic grant which was informally announced at a meeting at NCVS. Unfortunately, the report goes on to say that this will only be in place for one year, as that is how long the DCLG money lasts. That said, the government's Council Tax Freeze grants have been renewed so there's a chance a similar thing may happen here. It's also worth noting that NCC has done the bare minimum on this so those on passported benefits will still have to pay 8.5% of their Council Tax bill but it seems that the Band B cap has also been abandoned as part of this temporary relief.

Also confirmed is the abolition of empty homes discounts and the money saved, £2.67m apparently, used to off set the cuts. There would have been no excuse for NCC to do anything else but, even so, this is reassuring.

Also announced is that backdating will continue and that the proposal to impose a minimum payment has been modified to 50p/wk, instead of the £2 - £4 originally mooted. This means that, if your benefit entitlement works out at less than 50p/wk you don't get anything. This would've been pretty catastrophic if the threshold had remained at £4. It looks like the drop in capital allowance from £16k to £6k remains, as is abolition of second adult rebate.

NCC says that a £1.2m funding gap remains which suggests to me from one of my notoriously unreliable back of envelope calculations that they expect to collect 100% of that 8.5% that people on Income Support etc have to pay. That sounds a little ambitious to me. Also, in the absence of any further rabbits out of hats from DCLG next year it is stated that full-on Plan A will be back.

So things are still looking pretty bad as far as I can tell and it still needs to be challenged.

Interestingly, the report includes an exempt appendix which the Board are planning to discuss in private. This is on the basis that it is subject to legal professional privilege which can only mean that they are concerned that part, or all, of the scheme is vulnerable to legal challenge and the appendix contains the legal advice on that.

I have written to the committee administrator to challenge this decision to discuss the appendix in private on the basis that they have not properly considered whether it is in the public interest and that they have not complied with the required public notice requirements to do so. My email is set out below and I would be interested in any opinions on this as the arguments involved are all new to me and I've been suffering from brainfog for some weeks (you'll have noticed the lack of posting on here). Anyway, If I get a reply I'll let you know and hopefully see you at the demos.

"I am writing to you about the decision to discuss an exempt appendix to the Council Tax Support scheme report in private at the Executive Board meeting on 18 December.

According to the notice posted at the previous Exec Board (the 28 day notice)

http://open.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/comm/download3.asp?dltype=inline&filename=54262/forwardplanreport.pdf

it was stated that the item was not expected to be discussed in private. This might explain why no representations have been received challenging a decision to discuss the matter in public, as noted in your 5 day notice

http://open.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/comm/download3.asp?dltype=inline&filename=54736/121210FiveDayNoticePrivateeetingNoticeEBANDEBCSC181212.pdf

I would certainly wish to challenge the decision to hear any part of the decision concerning the proposed Council Tax Support scheme in private.

The discussion of the exempt appendix in private on the basis of legal privilege is justified as being in the public interest in the following terms;

"Furthermore, having regard to all the circumstances, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. This is because disclosing the information could waive legal professional privilege in any future legal proceedings."

In my view this not a valid public interest justification. Essentially the justification amounts to "the matter is subject to legal privilege and should be heard in private because we want to keep it that way". This is essentially a circular argument and doesn't in fact address the issue of public interest at all. It does not automatically follow that because legal privilege can be claimed it is automatically in the public interest to do so. Neither does it follow that, because discusing a matter in public may cause the council some embarrassment or discomfort it is automatically in the public interest to discuss it in private.

The establishment of the CT support scheme has generated considerable public discussion and interest, including the formation of a dedicated campaign group on the matter. I strongly believe that it is very much in the public interest that any and all discussions of this new scheme should be held in public. Furthermore, as stated above, I do not accept that the council has made out any sort of case for the matter to be discussed in private.

I therefore request that it be agreed that the matter is discussed in public. I suspect that not to do so would be unlawful due to the failure of the 28 day notice to mention any possibility of the matter being discussed in private, as well as the lack of any satisfactory public interest justification.

I have cc'd my local councillors and ask that they also take this matter forward on my behalf."

2 comments:

Sneinton Against The Cuts said...

First, thanks for access to the Council’s Council Tax Benefit consultation report – I tried to find it on the Council website by searching and by going to the section on the Council Tax Benefit consultation section but it is not there.

Yes the lobby and rally are still going ahead. This is because the “significant amendments” you mentioned still mean that the poorest will lose Council Tax Benefit - at least 8.5% this year and then the originally planned minimum 20% from next year. The Government grant which means the cut is capped in 2012/13 to 8.5% is a way of reducing dissent in the first instance so that the principle of a council tax benefit scheme which does not meet needs and is not fully funded by government, will more easily be accepted. Any cut to Council Tax benefits is the thin end of the wedge, however we can still fight it. The poll tax was thrown out after it had already been introduced and if we keep up the pressure the same can happen here. Notts Defend Council Tax Benefit Campaign are fighting for a fully funded scheme based on need.

city said...

thanks for sharing..