Council tax benefit scheme approved

COUNCILLORS have moved to ease the burden on families after agreeing changes to the council tax benefit system.

From April, councils will be given the power to administer the benefit from Government, but with a 10 per cent cut in funding – which councillors say means financially-stretched families face further money troubles.

In real terms it is a 13.4 per cent cut for Hartlepool, with the changes meaning £1.5m will be taken away from Hartlepool Borough Council – resulting in the authority giving away less in benefits.

But to help ease the burden councillors have agreed a tapered approach over four years .

This localised council tax support scheme for 2013-14 was agreed at an extraordinary meeting of the full council.

Because pensioners are among the vulnerable groups protected, the council was initially considering introducing a 20 per cent cut in levels of council tax benefit for others.

But now there will be an 8.5 per cent reduction for 2013-14, 15 per cent for two years after that before it rises to 20 per cent in 2016-17.

It follows an announcement by the Government in October of an additional £100m “transition funding” to help councils for 2013-14 only.

Labour group leaders say the 10 per cent grant funding cut is a “direct attack” on the most vulnerable residents.

Councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher, leader of Hartlepool Labour Group, questioned the motives of the Government in transferring the responsibility but with a 10 per cent cut in funding.

The actual grant cut for Hartlepool works out at about £14.58 per head of population, the highest in the North-East.

Coun Akers-Belcher said: “It was the Labour Group who found the solution to reduce this burden and reduce the impact of the cut in benefits from 20 per cent to 8.5 per cent because we had the foresight last year to create a family poverty reserve.

“In essence we have now utilised some of that reserve to help our low income families.

“Yet many of them, unfortunately, will still have some council tax to pay albeit this Government knows they are the poorest residents in our borough.”

Conservative group leader Ray Wells said: “While we fully support the Government’s attempts to put this country back on its feet, the Hartlepool Conservative Group actively took part in the formulation of the proposals and openly welcomes them.”

Independent councillor Paul Thompson, portfolio holder for finance and corporate services, said a lot of work had gone on in recent months developing the scheme to mitigate the impact and he thanked the scrutiny co-ordinating committee and the council tax working group.

Coun Thompson said: “Over the next few weeks officers will be writing to people affected by the new local council tax support scheme.

“They will let them know the impact before they receive their actual council tax bills, which can’t be sent out until the overall council tax level is set.”

He added: “I believe the proposal is the best we can do in very difficult circumstances.”

In Hartlepool, 15,000 households receive the council tax benefit, including 6,600 pensioner households and 8,500 working age households, with the annual amount of benefit awarded around £13.3m.