Government Welfare Cap to be imposed this Autumn in Cornwall

The Government is has been rather quiet on its next phase of the Welfare Reforms which involves the introduction of a benefit cap. This cap will come into effect from autumn this year. It will affect residents who live in our communities in Cornwall.

As part of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, the current benefit cap levels are being reduced nationally in autumn 2016.  An exact date is still to be confirmed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), although it is expected to be implemented nationally from November this year.

The new benefit cap levels will be:

  • £384.62 per week (£20,000 a year) for a family or couple
  • £384.62 per week (£20,000 a year) for a single person with children living with them
  • £257.69 per week (£13,400 a year) for a single person

The Benefits included in the new cap limits are:

  • Housing Benefit (HB)
  • Child Benefit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Incapacity Benefit, severe disability allowance, maternity allowance, bereavement benefit and widows benefit
  • Jobseekers Allowance, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance (assessment phase and work related activity   group)

Anyone in receipt of the following benefits and allowances will be exempt from the cap:

  • Working tax credit (receipt of or meeting the qualifying conditions for)
  • Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payments, Attendance Allowance, Industrial Injuries Benefit
  • Employment Support Allowance Support Component
  • Armed Forces Compensation Scheme
  • War Pension Scheme
  • Carers Allowance*
  • Guardian’s Allowance*

*Carers Allowance and Guardians Allowance are currently counted as part of the benefit cap, however the DWP has stated there will be a change of legislation to make both of these benefits exempt.

The DWP has written to all customers nationally who are likely to be affected by the new benefit cap levels.  In Cornwall, based on current data, 625 customers are likely to be impacted, with 84 of those affect reside in Cornwall Housing properties. This figure includes those customers whose Housing Benefit is currently capped.

A leaflet has been made available: leaflet/bite size guide.  Information is available on Cornwall Council’s website: www.cornwall.gov.uk/benefitcap, and will also be available in libraries, one stop shops, and GP surgeries in the form of a leaflet with key information and contact details.

If you feel you be affected by these chances, Cornwall Council has advisors ready to discuss options with residents on 0300 1234 121 option 5.

Go paperless billing with Cornwall Council

The internet, love it or loath it, it is now a part of our lives. We do our shopping, check our bank accounts and access our utility bills via the internet. You may not know it, but you can also access many Cornwall Council services via the internet. These include planning, but did you know you can also use the internet to view your council tax, business rates, housing benefit or council tax support. Some of the things you can do include:

  • Sign up for e-billing so you are no longer sent paper bills
  • Sign up for e-letters so you are no longer sent paper benefit notifications
  • See full details of your account or claim
  • See how your charges or benefits are worked out
  • See when your payments are due
  • Set up a direct debit or make a payment for council tax or business rates
  • Check your council tax discounts and allowances
  • Notify the Council you are moving (Council tax only)

Council Tax can be accessed HERE

Business Rates HERE

Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support HERE

Cornwall Council’s use of a Lie Detector Test

The use of a lie detector test, or to give it its official title voice risk analysis (VRA), is being used by a Capita who have been hired by Cornwall Council to check if people were telling the truth when claiming the Council Tax Single Person Discount (SPA). This met with some uproar from both Councillors and the public. It resulted in one Cabinet Member quitting, and a Motion being submitted to full council to ban its use. It was disappointing that the Motion was not debated, but kicked to a committee for investigation.

Furthermore, Cllr Robinson asked a question to the Leader on the use of VRA which was not fully answered. So in line with the council’s constitution, the answer has been sent to all Councillors explaining the use of VRA.

Individuals are told at the start of the voice risk analysis (VRA) interview that the call will be monitored and recorded for the detection of fraud. When a VRA interview is conducted, the trained assessor calibrates the technology by asking a series of questions that the caller would know the answers to immediately, such as confirmation of name and date of birth.

The assessor will then ask the interviewee a series of open questions and will then, using behavioural analysis, risk score each answer using pre-defined criteria.

Once an interview is complete, the responses are reviewed alongside information gathered during previous review processes.

So how are people selected? the official line is as follows:

Capita apply a ‘Balance of Probability’ approach when identifying cases where a taxpayer has stated that they are entitled to SPD, but this strongly conflicts with the analysis/credit searches conducted.  Such cases will be carefully selected through the application of appropriate criteria and only high risk cases will be considered for telephone interview.  Residents are then invited to undertake a VRA telephone interview for further assessment of their entitlement.  The VRA technology has not been deployed within our own Contact Centre and it will therefore only be applied to those residents who are invited by the Capita SPD team, located in Bromley, to undertake the telephone interview.

I do though agree with the council zero tolerance on benefit fraud, but I still do not think VRA should be used. More so as the technology is far from accurate. The use should be stopped until the relevant committee has had time to investigate. I also await the further information on how many people have been subjected to this treatment, and if anyone refused to take part.

The Bedroom Tax created by those with extra houses

As each day goes by, we are creeping towards 1st April. As we all know on the 1st, it is April Fools (until 12 noon), ironic that this is also a significant date in the Government’s Welfare Reform Agenda. Unfortunately the changes are not a joke and Cornwall will be heavily impacted in a number of ways. One item that I wish was a spoof, as the reality is going to be devastating to so many people.

The item in question is what is officially known as the ‘Housing Benefit Under Occupancy’ rule, or as it is more commonly known, The Bedroom Tax. Under the new rules, tenants (Pensioners are exempt)  who are in receipt of Housing Benefit (HB) will be allowed one bedroom if they are single, or a couple. To qualify for an additional (one) bedroom the following criteria are applied:

  • A child
  • Two children under 10
  • Two children of the same sex and up to the age of 16
  • Each child over the age of 10 of the opposite sex
  • other single people, or couples aged 16 of over

If a tenant in social housing (council house), has an additional bedroom(s), your Housing Benefit will be reduced. It should also be noted, this ‘tax’ will be applied even if you want to move to a smaller place, but cannot due to the lack of availability of either private or social housing available in your area.

Some people may argue that people sitting in homes with extra rooms should downsize, and allow their house to be better utilised. But I would say, yes in parts I could agree to this, BUT only if an alternative house is found is suited to them with help given to move.

If you find yourself in the position of having an extra bedroom the following rule applies:
One extra bedroom your HB will be reduced by 14% of your overall rent. Which is around £10 per week using the average Cornwall Council own rental prices*.Two or more extra bedrooms the HB will be reduced by 25% of your overall rent. This adds up to around £18 per week.

It is estimated the impact of the ‘Bedroom Tax will affect at least 1000 of Cornwall Council’s own tenants and at least 3,000 of the other Registered Social Landlord (RSL) tenants.

This extra burden on already hard-pressed residents is on top of Cornwall Council’s shocking decision to make those in receipt of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) pay 25% of their Council Tax. Worse is yet to come, as from April 2014 (for Cornwall), the Governments dreaded Universal Credit scheme will be in operation.

There are a few exemptions. Bereavement, or could afford to pay the rent for the last 12 months without claiming HB. Also tenants who need an overnight carer maybe considered entitled to an extra bedroom. Allowance may also be considered for an extra bedroom for an extra child. I am really unhappy with the words maybe, or considered for an extra room. That could lead to unnecessary extra assessments, leading to added pressure on families. Apart from those I have listed, there are no other exemptions that I have seen or been told about.

I would really urge anyone who is in receipt of the HB to get in contact with their landlords ASAP. Again, I have been told at least 400 of Cornwall Council’s tenants have raised their concerns about the implementation of this scheme. It is certainly not a good time to be on a low-household income in this Country and will only get worse!!

*Rents of other housing provide are higher than Cornwall Council rents and the exact amount of the reduction in benefit will depend on the actual rent

Council Tax: the lowest paid will be hit

Today, those of working age and in receipt of the Council Tax Benefit (CTB) will from April be required to pay 25% of their Council Tax. This has come about because the full membership of the council voted by a majority for this scheme to be implemented. That vote was carried by 55 for, 42 against.

An amendment to the proposals was tabled, which suggested the money found from the use of consultants etc to support the system in its current guise. This was defeated by 61 against and 41 for. This left only the 25% option.

It may be little comfort to those now affected by this change, but there is a ‘hardship fund’ of £1 million. However, it has not been clarified or details given as to how this scheme will be administered and the criteria to make you eligible. Which is worrying considering the impact of the changes this new CTB will have. Furthermore, this pot of money is only for one year. Which leads onto a further question; what happens after that?

There maybe a small glimmer of hope. As I blogged about previously on taking the fight to the Government and to look into the feasibility of taking the Government to court by way of a Judicial Review. My addition is:

In view of the inequitable and inappropriate nature of this cut to Council Tax Benefit which has been passed onto the Council by central government and which will have a devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Cornwall, the Monitoring Officer be requested to explore fully the potential for bringing a claim for judicial review against the government in respect of this policy and that a report setting out the merits for such a claim be brought to the Council’s Budget meeting on 26 February.”

I am pleased to say my addition was carried by a large majority. In fact, so large only seven Councillors voted against this. It is always good to see this type of cross-party cooperation at work.

Council Tax Benefit – the alternatives and taking the fight to the Government

The proposals from Cornwall Council’s Cabinet on making all those of working age and in receipt of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) pay at least 20% of their Council Tax has not gone down well with those who will have to turn coal into a diamond to pay for this contribution. The council is in a tough position, thanks to the Government reducing the amount needed by £6m (12%).

But what are the alternatives? Well for the last two weeks I have looked line by line down various budgets and accounts looking for any money that could be better served on the CTB.  At first, I was heartened by the fact I found a pot of money that could be used and asked the Head of Finance if this money was a legitimate target. The reply was yes.

However, on looking more closely and with the help of the finance department, it soon became clear it was going to be difficult to make it pay in year one. Though from years 2/3 onwards, I could have got it down to a maximum contribution of 15%.

I could have made it work by reducing it to 20% contribution, but the pain in stripping so many projects of money would have been hard to justify. So, I have decided not to submit an alternative on those grounds alone. I have however, handed over all my data to others who are working on alternatives in the hope of this information might just help them in achieving a better solution that what is currently being proposed.

Fear not, I have not given up completely, as I have one further option. Granted it is fairly radical, and I am unaware of another Local Authority heading down this path. The option is to Judicial Review the Government on how it has handled and introduced this totally unfair scheme onto Local Authorities.

It might seem a barking idea to take the Government to court, but it is an option. So much so, late Friday I spoke to the CEO, and other Directors if they would support this course of action. They replied they would, and it was about time we stood up and took the fight to the Government. Maybe if Cornwall Council makes this stand, other LA’s will join us, and we end up with something the Americans call a Class Action.

More tomorrow…

Cornwall’s Cabinet Proposes Everyone Pays Council Tax

It is hardly surprising, but Cornwall Council’s Cabinet went for their ‘slightly’ altered option of making everyone of working age pay 25% (Option C) of their Council Tax if they are in receipt of the Council Tax Benefit (CTB). This means, on a Band D the occupants will be asked to pay around £274 pounds.

During the very short debate, we had each Cabinet Member in turn saying they do not agree with the proposals, but with a sigh, will vote for them. A North Korean show trial would have been proud if they witnessed today’s proceedings. Granted it is a difficult task, but there are other options.

It is disappointing that the list I blogged about yesterday is being used to ‘scare’ Councillors into voting for the 25% option. Furthermore, it is tragic when the  list of further cuts was made public, those who could have found themselves out of work, only got told of the proposals in an email an hour or two before the public release. Not very good for staff morale.

All in all, the Cabinet was done in an hour. It is now over to the full membership of the council to vote on this, or another proposal that may come forward.

Adopt a new Council Tax Benefit Scheme, or else

If it was not bad enough for the Cabinet to lose one of its key Portfolio Holders less than 24 hours before a hugely important meeting, the Cabinet and in turn the full membership of the council is at one of those crossroads. Either route is a dangerous one which will take the authority into hostile territory.

The choice is either take the option of adopting (Option A) the Governments Council Tax Benefit Scheme (CTB). Less the £6 million cut in funding when the Government handed down the powers to administer the scheme. Which means the council having find the shortfall to continue the scheme at the same level; adopt a new scheme (Option C) making all those of working age and in receipt of the CTB to pay 25% of the Council Tax bill; or pull one massive ace out of the deck (Option wing and a prayer) which finds the missing £6 million and does not result in people in receipt of CTB paying 25%.

My guess is the Cabinet will go with a slightly revised version of its previous decision, but with extra money to help those hardest hit. This is Option C. The extra funding consists of £150,000 to the Citizens Advice Bureau and £1 million into a fund called the Transitional Support Scheme.

However, if Option C is not supported, then Option A is the alternative. This will result in at least £5 million in extra savings having to be met. The list is brutal, and has been compiled reluctantly by Corporate Directors. The full list can be found HERE. The list covers the ‘saving’ and the impact of stopping or reducing certain services.

It includes the end of the localism team, or as many will know it, the Community Networks. The closure of up to four leisure centres if they cannot be self-sustaining. The end of Post-16 transport subsidy and the end of 24 hour cover at Newquay Fire Station. These are just a few of a very long list. If all the option in the list are included, the budget saving would be £5.86 million in the first year and £4.58 million in the second. Thus making up most of the shortfall which the Government has handed down to Cornwall Council.

It is not going to be an easy day for the Cabinet tomorrow. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow, it will either have to be ratified, or an alternative option is presented to the full council who will make the final decision.

Fiona Commits Seppuku

Out of the blue, another Cabinet Member resigns. This time is was not over a leadership ‘change’ but due to a method used when Cornish residents were being called to check if they are eligible for the single occupancy discount.

The Cabinet (now ex) Member in question is Fiona Ferguson, the former Finance Portfolio Holder. This could not come at a worse time as the council is going through its 2013/14 budget proposals, and tomorrow, the Cabinet meets decide on further recommendations post the defeat of its proposals on the new Council Tax Benefit Scheme.

The resignation letter is as follows:

Jim,

 As you know, it came to my attention that the contract let to Capita (before I took up my portfolio duties) to survey claimants of the single person’s council tax relief will include the use of “Voice Risk Analysis” (VRA) techniques when making phone calls to claimants.

These techniques are sometimes called “lie detector” tests.

It is clearly right that Cornwall Council takes a strong line against people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.

In passing, although this does not deal with my fundamental ethical objection, I note that the techniques used by Capita were trialled by the Department of Work and Pensions in 24 local authorities on the processing of Housing Benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

 Their report issued in September 2010 said: “From our findings it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.”

 I have discussed this matter with the Monitoring Officer.  He has advised me that, as this is an operational matter in relation to a contract that the Council has already entered into, he strongly advises me that I should not require  that this software is not used.  If, contrary to his advice, I maintain my stance that we must not use this software then officers will comply provided you also agree.

 You have made it clear to me that you will not agree.  Indeed, you have said that I will be ‘sacked’ if I inform members that this software will be used.

That will not be necessary.  Please accept my resignation with immediate effect. 

May I say that I have no reason whatsoever to believe that you were aware of this aspect of the contract before I drew it to your attention.  I also appreciate that you are in a difficult position in view of the Monitoring Officer’s advice.  But, I do not believe that his advice is correct and I cannot accept it on ethical grounds.  I also do not believe that it will help the Council to pursue fraud (which we must surely do) if the public think we are using this software.  Finally, I fear that it will be extremely damaging to our reputation.

Therefore, I am launching a petition to require any use of this type of technology to be approved by Full Council.

Fiona

It is certainly going to be an interesting Cabinet meeting tomorrow, as the Cabinet will be discussing parts of the budget, but without a Portfolio Holder for Finance. Unless of course someone gets a phone call from Jim tonight. It is certainly a dwindling pool within the Conservative Group to pick from.

Cornwall Council and the Council Tax Benefit

The first full council meeting of the year was always going to be a difficult one; as Councillors had the difficult task of dealing with proposals for a new Council Tax benefit scheme. Let’s make something perfectly clear, the Government has devolved these powers to the council, but has given the council a massive slap in the face of reducing the grant for this scheme. This is a reduction of £6m (12%). So the money has to be found from somewhere just to meet the current requirement.

The Cabinets preferred option is for every one of working age (except pensioners) would pay 25% of the council tax. This had the real potential of really hurting those most in need. After all the Council Tax Benefit is means-tested as you only get it if you need it. All the documentation on the subject is HERE.

Two alternative amendments were submitted as well. One tabled by Alex Folkes (LD) to use the money raised from the end of the second home Council Tax discount, and empty homes surcharge to fund the short-fall in the scheme. This was a very close vote, and it was narrowly defeated by 44 to 41 votes (I voted in favour for this amendment).

The second was proposed by Fiona Ferguson (Con and Finance Portfolio Holder) and this was in-line with the preferred Cabinet option. But instead of a £100,000 hardship fund, this would be increased to £1 million. This increase would have been nothing more than a raid on the University Bursary Scheme, which would have been disastrous for that scheme. I am happy to say this amendment was defeated (I voted against it). I would also like to say, that if you need £1 million in a hardship fund, then you have something fundamentally wrong with the scheme in the first place.

This left the preferred motion on the table. It is hardly surprising, but after speaker after speaker stood up to rubbish the proposals, it was defeated by 43 votes to 37 ( I voted against). I voted this way because I felt these proposals would, with the percentages recommended, harm those most in-need.

Now this put the council in an unusual position of having nothing on the table to vote for; as any proposal would need to have been financially cleared before being accepted. After a break for lunch, and to see if something could be worked out,  the council decided by a large majority (only two voted against) to defer to a meeting on the 29th. This  would give time (just) to work on other options that could be implemented without harming those in greater need.

You might think this is a ridiculous position to be in, and at face value it is. However, it is my view this is such an important decision, which will have far-reaching consequences, it needs to be done right. And if it takes another meeting to make the right decision, then so be it.

I feel it is far better to make a good last-minute decision, than an early bad one.

 

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