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Minister dismisses welfare timetable fears

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Ministers have dismissed fears about the tight time-frame for changes to council tax benefit, advising there is no need to worry if they stick largely to the existing scheme.

Local government minister Andrew Stunell was responding to complaints that local authorities were facing an impossible task - and at risk of legal challenges - because of the government’s insistence that welfare changes be in place by April.

MPs told the minister that the lack of detail about the planned change, which will not become law until the Autumn, was hindering councils’ ability to design and consult on appropriate council tax benefit schemes.

Mr Stunell said any council “can continue with the same scheme as it has now, if it wishes to do so. If it continues with that scheme, it will not need the guidance and support that we have already issued to local authorities.”

There were some local authorities, he said, which “are already carrying out public consultations on alternative schemes and will have them in place by 1 April.”

A handful of councils, including Harrow LBC, Brent LBC and Chiltern DC are known to have launched their consultations.

Councils are set to take responsibility for council tax benefit from next year and they can continue with the existing arrangements, although this would mean a 10% cut in funding would have to be funded from council budgets rather than passed on to council tax payers through a review of benefit levels.

The government has set limits on the changes councils can make to benefit schemes, exempting pensioners and single people from any reduction, and also advised councils they should protect ‘vulnerable’ groups.

Councils are set to gain new powers to increase council tax charges on empty and second homes, and Mr Stunell said taking advantage of these new discounts and exemptions could help them continue with existing scheme and meet the 10% funding cut.

However, Mr Stunell has previously admitted this may not be the case for all councils depending on the number of empty and second homes in the area.

Mr Stunell was responding to MPs concerns that councils, who must design and consult on their new schemes by January, could face difficulties with software suppliers and legal challenges from affected groups.

Legal challenge

Easington MP Graham Morris (Lab) said his local authority, Durham Council, was “not alone in its concern that councils may face a legal challenge owing to local interpretations of which groups should be treated as more vulnerable than others”.

Although the government has published statements of intent as to the rules about vulnerable groups and other details, the actual regulations will not be ready until the Local Government Finance Bill completes its passage through Parliament later this year.

Clive Betts (Lab), chairman of the communities and local government select committee, said: “If this was simply a question of saying to local councils, ‘get on and devise your own schemes’, they could do it. The problem is that they do not know how to devise a scheme in respect of the advice and detailed regulation from government, because they have not got it yet.”

Nick Raynsford (Lab), a former local government minister, described the policy as “a shambles” and the ministers in charge as “a bunch of incompetents” and warned the seven months allowed for software design, detailed consultation and other arrangements was “impossible”.

“In the best possible circumstances, with the regulations published and everything clear, [the timetable] would be a tall order, but in the current situation, where we do not even know what the law will require, it is impossible,” he said.

George Hollingbery, the Conservative MP for Meon Valley, also backed calls for the changes to be delayed to allow more time for planning, in particular given the “appetite among ministers for shared systems and projects across large local areas”.

Joint schemes “will be a complex system to put in place, with legal agreements that will need to be considered and thought through,” he said. “A little more time for that might also be very welcome”.

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