Friday, 29 June 2012

Council Tax Benefit

It appears that low-income working families are heading for financial pain and an administrative shambles

This week, I joined MPs from all parties in challenging Liberal Democrat Minister Andrew Stunnell about the Government’s proposals for a 10% cut in each council’s council tax benefit budget.

It appears that Eric Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State doesn’t care about the concerns, and that his Liberal Democrat Under-Secretary of State doesn’t understand them.

Under the Government’s proposals, the council tax benefit budget of each council is to be cut by 10% from 2013 and each council is meant to design a local scheme to achieve that reduction.

As the Government is exempting pensioners and the single-person discount from any reduction, the cuts will inevitably fall hardest on low-income working families. Thus, the biggest cuts in council-tax benefit will be felt by low-income working families in those areas which have the highest proportion of pensioners.

MPs from all parties challenged the Minister about the Government’s proposals:
  • The biggest cuts will hit working-families in the poorest economic areas harder than in wealthier areas
  • In areas with a high proportion of pensioners and single-person households, low-income working-families could face a 30%+ cut in council tax benefit
  • The IT software providers to local authorities have consistently said that it will not be possible to have new schemes in place to meet an April 2013 start, because the Government itself is unable to provide the detailed regulations
  • Because the Government is centralising housing benefit (under the Universal Credit) but localising different council-tax benefit schemes. This means that for any income changes, people will now have to notify – and provide the necessary evidence to - the council and the Job Centre (or online) separately.
  • Big cuts to council-tax benefit will create work dis-incentives at the very time when Government says it wants to make work pay.

As each day passes, it is becoming clearer to MPs from all parties that the Government simply hasn’t thought things through.

Eric Pickles is relying on local councils taking the blame for cuts and administrative shambles, which are entirely of his making.

Ministers can’t even answer these three simple but crucial questions:
  • Will universal credit be counted as income in the means test for council tax benefit?
  • Will local authorities have access to universal credit data when calculating people’s council tax benefit?
  • Do you accept that councils will not be in a position to implement any new system in time for April next year, because the Government is unable to specify the regulations in time?”

I am now very concerned about the way the Government is just moving on and failing to listen.

I just think back to 1999 when Sheffield City Council (then Liberal Democrat controlled) privatised the housing benefit service and transferred it to Capita in a rushed and botched way.

I remember my constituents, often elderly, coming to my surgeries in tears; not because they had done anything wrong, but because the administration of their benefits was in chaos and, as a result, the arrears on their council tax and rent had risen. They were distraught because they had never been in arrears in their lives.

I am really worried that we will end up in a similar situation next year.

You can read the full debate at:

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Park homes challenge

Many local families have a ‘park home’ – it’s the posh name for a fixed caravan or pre-fabricated home – on sites in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, often by the coast. And many Sheffield people have moved to live in a park home on retirement.

I have to say that these homes are infinitely better-equipped and warmer than the two-bedroom, single storey, Sheffield Council pre-fab in which I was brought up in the 1950s. This was one of the near 160,000 pre-fabricated homes built in the UK to address the post-war housing crisis, originally announced by Winston Churchill in 1944 as the Emergency Factory Made (EMF) housing programme. They cost about £1200 each to build and were designed to last 10 years, although the vast majority were still in use thirty years later. Most were stuffed with asbestos insulation.

But, back to today’s park homes.

About 160,000 people live in 84,000 park homes on nearly 2000 park home sites across England, concentrated in rural and seaside locations. Many residents are retired or elderly, with 68% aged 60 or over. The vast majority of park home sites are privately owned, with a small number owned by local authorities.

I’ve been chairing an all-party committee inquiry into park homes. We received a massive number of representations, took written and verbal evidence from residents, site owners, local councils and other interested parties. In many cases, what we learned was quite shocking. This week, we published our report.

Whilst that there are some good site operators, we found that malpractice is widespread across the sector: Complaints from residents about unfair fees, poor maintenance and site owners making it difficult for residents to sell their homes are common.

Research confirmed that a quarter of park home residents had experienced problems with maintenance, security or safety standards; that nearly a fifth of residents had experienced problems with the written contracts they had with site owners; and that residents had experienced intimidation by site owners or managers at a significant number of sites in the UK.

The most widespread problems include:
- “Sale blocking”, where a site owner prevents a resident from selling their home on the open market by withholding ‘approval’ of the prospective buyer.
- Harassment by site owners and site managers;
- A licensing regime that is out of date which allows site owners to breach licence conditions with only a maximum fine of £2,500, a wholly inadequate deterrent;
- Confusion over contractual obligations between site owners and home owners, and
- Out of date legislation which leaves residents with little or no ability to take action if the site is not properly maintained.

The Government issued a consultation paper A Better Deal for Mobile Home Owners in April for just 6 weeks. Surprisingly, given the high proportion of pensioners and the much lower than average access to the internet, the consultation paper was only available on-line.

My committee doesn’t think the Government’s proposals go far enough. We have recommended that the Government takes reserve powers so that local authorities could withdraw and withhold licences from site owners who are found not to be ‘fit and proper’.
We’ve called for a further review in three years time to see how far things have improved and determine whether these further powers should be implemented.

If you want to find out more about the government’s proposals and my committee’s findings and proposals:

A better deal for mobile home owners - Consultation

Communities and Local Government Committee Report on Park Homes