31 January 2013
Last updated at 03:00 ET
Council tax benefit changes are set to come into force next April
Millions of the poorest households face council tax rises because most councils in England will pass on a 10% benefit funding cut, research suggests.
A typical bill will rise from April by between £100 and £250 a year, but some could rise as much as £600, the Resolution Foundation think tank says.
Its report coincides with the deadline for local authorities to submit their plans for changing council tax benefit.
Councils say they have not been given enough freedom to manage the changes.
Responsibility for the benefit is being moved from the government to councils.
At the same time, the total spent on the benefit, which is to become known as council tax support, is being cut by 10%.
In Wales, the cut is being absorbed by the government, and not passed on to local authorities.
In Scotland, the cost is being shared between councils and the Scottish government, maintaining support for low-income residents.
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There is a wider, highly charged, political context to this issue.
Ministers present themselves as being on the side of those who want to “work hard and get on”. They say they are ending the “something-for-nothing culture”.
They emphasise that more money is currently spent on benefits than on defence, education and health combined.
While delivering their tough – and they believe popular – rhetoric, ministers do not accept any blame if the poorest are hit the hardest.
The view from government is that there is no need for councils to ask the lowest income households for money. Instead they should find more efficient ways of operating, protect the vulnerable and deliver better value for money for all council tax payers.
Many councils accuse ministers of devolving responsibility for a hugely controversial cut.
The political heat on this has been rising in recent days in council chambers across England.
What seems at first to be an obscure, rather technical, debate about how a benefit is distributed, could soon emerge as a critical issue in the battle over welfare.
But the 326 councils in England could be left with a shortfall if they intend to maintain the level of existing payments.
Some are finding savings from elsewhere in their budgets, in order to protect the incomes of the poorest households.
At least 40 local authorities have decided to maintain current levels of support. Durham County Council and Tower Hamlets are amongst those which will absorb the costs of CTS into their budgets.
The government has also put forward £100m of support for those councils that limit the council tax increase for those on benefits or low pay to 8.5%.
Ministers say the total paid out in council tax benefit doubled under the last government and welfare “reform” is vital to tackle the budget deficit.
They say the changes will give councils the incentive to help people off benefits and into work.
Council tax benefit is currently claimed by about five million households in England – about half get 100% support, meaning they currently pay no council tax at all.
But the Resolution Foundation, a not-for-profit research and policy organisation, says that three-quarters of authorities in England are planning to demand a new or higher payment from the lowest income households.
This comes at a time when other benefits may also rise more slowly than the cost of living, and the government introduces an overall cap on benefits.
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Council tax support changes
Council tax support (CTS) will replace council tax benefit (CTB) in April
Councils will decide who qualifies for CTS, rather than the government, as under CTB
Councils will have 10% less money to fund CTS, changes that will save £500m a year
Pensioners will be protected and households in Wales and Scotland are unaffected
Because pensioners are fully protected, those of working age are, in many areas, being asked to shoulder a much greater burden.
“Millions of England’s poorest households, both in and out of work, are already very close to the edge,” said Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation. “They are going to find it very hard to cope.”
Some campaigners have likened the change to the “poll tax”, in that people are asked for a contribution regardless of their ability to pay.
The Labour Party says the policy is deeply unfair, and will cause havoc with hundreds of thousands of people unable to pay the bills.
Many in local government fear that councils will be left with a financial black hole, as the cost of pursuing those who do not pay through the courts could be higher than the revenue the authorities will raise from them in tax.
Peter Fleming from the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, told BBC Radio 5 Live the government had not given councils enough control over the scope of cuts they could pass on.
“The problem is we’ve been handed the cut, but not given the flexibility to design schemes… that would have actually protected the people who are most vulnerable.
“Give us the freedoms and flexibilities to actually devise the schemes that work best for the communities that we serve,” he added.
He also predicted there would now “be people who are literally unable to pay” their taxes, and the “difficulty for us as local authorities is do we take people to court for very small amounts of money?”
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “Under the last administration, more taxpayers’ money was being spent on benefits than on defence, education and health combined.
“We are cutting council tax in real terms for hard-working families and pensioners, and we are on the side of people who work hard and want to get on.”
Are you in England? Do you receive council tax benefit? What do you think of a the funding cut? How will you cope with a council tax rise? Please send us your comments using the form below.