Council tax benefit cuts

Reject the poison choices and unite against all cuts

Holding up her shoes with numerous holes in them, one woman at the Nottingham council tax benefit consultation started crying: “I can barely afford to eat or to feed my son. I can’t afford to put money in the electricity meter and these are my only pair of shoes; what else do you want from me?”

Another vicious attack on the most vulnerable has been launched by the Con-Dem government by slashing the amount of council tax benefit people receive.

In fact, they want to completely abolish the benefit at a national level in April 2013. Instead, local authorities will be given the responsibility of dishing out the money but with 10% less in the pot.

Bob Neill, Tory Local Government minister, speaking on Radio 4 defended it as “an incentive for councils to get people back to work”.

The only proviso that has been set by the government is that councils should pay the full amount to pensioners and ‘protect the vulnerable’. As for who is defined as ‘vulnerable’, that’s for the council to decide.

There are currently almost six million people who receive council tax benefit. Of these, 62% are under 65 and many have 100% of their council tax paid for them.

These changes will mean that people, already living in poverty in many cases, will be asked to cough up something towards it.

Choosing cuts … or cuts

Every council in England is being asked to consult on the cuts they are making (Scotland has decided to make the 10% cuts elsewhere and Wales is passing the 10% cuts on to benefit recipients).

But residents are only being given the choice of deciding who should be forced to pay more. If completing the questionnaire for Harrow Council, you can choose who should get more benefit: those who ‘can’t work’ or those ‘who can work but are unemployed’. There is no option for the council to fight this cut from the government.

Manchester City Council is looking at cutting the benefit by 15-20% for everybody while others are looking at reducing the savings you can have while still being entitled to the benefit – Waltham Forest is asking if people with savings over £6,000 should have to pay more council tax.

Nottingham City Council recently held consultation meetings, two of which took place in the most deprived areas in the city: St Ann’s and Bulwell.

Each of these meetings had over 30 people at them, mainly unemployed and disabled people who are already suffering from the cruel attacks on benefits and the rise in the cost of living.

We were separated into groups and asked who we think should pay for this cut. One woman remarked, “We shouldn’t pay anything, what about the bankers and the rich who have caused this mess?”

Other comments were unfortunately divisive and were encouraged by the council officers completing the consultation.

Blame was quickly diverted from the government of millionaires to single parents, immigrants and people who are long-term unemployed.

Building a fightback

Nottingham Socialist Party members attending these meetings put forward the idea that the Labour councillors could fight this attack and demand the extra money needed to pay the benefit to everyone who needs it, rather than passing this cut on.

Councillor Glyn Jenkins, under pressure from the meeting in Bulwell, said that they “may have to think about standing up to them if things get any worse”! For a lot of people present, things couldn’t get any worse.

We collected around 40 names of people from various meetings who want to be part of a campaign and held a successful first organising meeting which looked at how we could stop this vicious attack.

Already in the press, parallels are being drawn with Thatcher’s Poll Tax. There is certainly a huge amount of anger that could be channelled into an anti-Poll Tax style campaign: building in local areas and linking up nationally into a mass campaign, defending people who are being threatened with being taking to court or imprisoned.

If there is a discussion in every town and city about how to respond to this cut and the farce of consultations being held by the councils, it could quickly snowball into a campaign.

There could be pressure exerted onto the Labour and Green councils to resist this attack and force the government to save council tax benefit! If our councillors refuse to fight, local people should stand in next year’s council elections as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and fight the government ourselves.

Becci Heagney

The following was sent to the Guardian in reponse to a letter by Labour MP Hilary Benn. The Guardian failed to print it despite printing letters from a number of Labour councillors.

To: Guardian Letters,

Labour’s shadow Communities and Local Government secretary Hilary Benn (Letters, 27 July) is absolutely right to denounce the “bombshell” being prepared by the Con-Dem government’s council tax benefit cuts.

But he is shamefully wrong to say that local authorities have no option other than the “terrible choice” of deciding which section of low paid workers and the unemployed bear the brunt of these cuts.

Why don’t Labour-controlled councils, for example, declare now that they will maintain existing levels of council tax benefit support and, rather than cutting other council services to find the funds to do so, announce that they will present the bill for meeting the funding gap back to the government? That’s what Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) councillors would do. Why not Labour councillors?

And then why doesn’t Hilary Benn pledge that an incoming Labour government would reimburse such councils if, for example, they were to use their reserves, or their prudential borrowing powers, to avoid making the council tax benefit cuts?

Hilary Benn laments “how few coalition MPs seem to have woken up to what they have voted for”. Surely councils up and down the country defying their legalisation would shake them from their slumbers – as the mass poll tax non-payment campaign of the 1990s did for Thatcher.

Clive Heemskerk

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 6 August 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.