CROYDON COMMENTARY: Some of the borough’s poorest and most vulnerable are being expected to pay for the mismanagement and poor decision-taking which led to the council going bankrupt, as this young mother* explains
When I heard of the Council Tax Support proposals, as first reported by Inside Croydon last month, with the proposals described by the council as “making it fairer for everyone” and “prioritising the most vulnerable”, I knew the borough was in trouble.
Every fear we first had when learning of Croydon Council being bankrupt is gradually materialising, with the money lost seemingly being recouped from residents on low incomes.
Council Tax Support is a benefit provided by the council, a discount on people’s monthly Council Tax bill. At the start of this month, I received an email saying the council has opened a consultation into its proposed changes, a consultation which will run until December 9. A lawyer friend of mine suggested that we really ought to have at least three months for the public to have our say on the biggest welfare change our borough has seen in years.
The proposals have been tainted with contradictions and false claims.
One key falsehood that the council has promoted is that the proposed changes are aligned with Universal Credit criteria. But Universal Credit is a more generous system. If you must mislead residents to justify a proposal, that proposal is a problem.
Most residents I speak to aren’t clear, even when reading the council’s flow-chart infographic, what the implications will be for them. In practical terms, the eligibility threshold and the income banding system the council has proposed means that the proposed changes are far harsher than the criteria used by Universal Credit.
Make no mistake, Croydon’s Council Tax Support reduction proposals are unusual.
It’s important to remember that in April 2021, Croydon Council axed its welfare rights advice service, without any replacement for low-income residents to access the support they need to stay afloat.
This latest Council Tax proposal, for all the council’s use of marketing terms, comes as a further, deep blow to our community. Where will people go for help? Low-income families are now subsidising the council’s deficit, and this will have broad-ranging implications.
I am one of the 40 per cent of Universal Credit claimants who are in the workforce. Almost all of us are families with young children.
I work part-time. I would work full-time, but my son can’t attend an early years setting full-time for medical reasons. As his parent and carer, I need to be present on short notice for hospital appointments, meaning I’m limited to flexible and part-time work. I often lose sleep just to get my work done.
After rent, we barely afford bills and childcare costs. I’m one of the tens of thousands of people impacted by the council’s cuts. Under the council’s proposed new system, families like mine would receive no assistance with Council Tax.
Families have a higher threshold of exiting Universal Credit because of high costs like childcare and rent. Families will also need more space than sole adult residents, meaning their homes will likely be on higher band for Council Tax.
BAME groups are most likely to live in multi-generational households for both cultural and economic reasons, meaning pensioners will be less likely to access Council Tax Support if they are not white. They will miss out on the supposed “benefits” of this new system. Even the groups which the council deems are “protected”, such as pensioners, care-leavers under 25 and some disabled people, would be compromised under the new system simply for living with someone of working age – whether or not that person of working age is even working.
The council’s proposals state that the new system “continues to prioritise the lowest income households in our community”. This isn’t true.
As one example, people who are over 18 and out of work will still be faced with a 20 per cent cut to their Council Tax eligibility simply because they are of working age. There would be no consideration of whether they are on no pay because they’re full-time carers, or whether they’re on low pay because they need part-time jobs that fit with the school-run. More than one-third – 36 per cent – of children in Croydon are living in poverty, and their households haven’t been considered by the council’s new scheme.
Disabled people who are able to work won’t be considered part of the protected group, even though many disabled people require extra space in their homes for accessibility reasons or for carers to stay. Many of the disabled people in the workforce require flexible working or part-time hours, meaning their earning capacity is likely to be compromised. Disabled people, within or outside the workforce, are overrepresented among the poor and yet they’re hardly “protected” in the council’s proposals.
By law, the council is expected to consider the impact of policy changes on disadvantaged groups and populations protected under the law. Only it doesn’t look like Croydon has done so. The “most vulnerable” is a manipulative term when used to describe Council Tax Support eligibility, when we consider that many of the groups affected by the change are on benefits, like carers’ allowance.
Why is there no consideration of a working age adult being in low-paid work, or out of work, due to factors like having a baby or caring for a disabled relative?
Why is a care leaver aged 26 with identical financial circumstances less eligible for Council Tax Support than a care leaver aged 25?
Why does Croydon Council claim this is in line with the government’s Universal Credit criteria, when the thresholds our council has proposed are much lower?
The way this has been handled adds insult to injury.
“We want to update our scheme in April 2022 so that it is fairer and easier for everyone to use,” the council says.
“Easier for everyone to use“, yet the income banding and lower levels of eligibility will take considerable administration and staff time to process. “Fairer“, and yet the eligibility criteria is limited and filled with contradictions, while the council uses loaded language, echoing the Victorian discussions of who is the “deserving” and undeserving poor.
The council’s proposed criteria are contradictory and worse than any national means-tested benefit. That cannot be described as “fairness“.
Unless the council extends the consultation period, we have a few short weeks to have our say on a policy change that affects a high portion of our Croydon community. Please feed into the consultation as soon as you can, and consider those of us who have been hit from all angles: the £86 per month Universal Credit cut, increases to nursery fees, energy bill increases, loss of the benefits advice service and now a potential loss of Council Tax Support.
A community is measured by whether we stand with those in need.
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