Town on the breadline

Marjorie James
Marjorie James

CONTROVERSIAL changes to the council tax system could lead to foodbanks being set up in Hartlepool to support the most vulnerable people, say councillors.

Their fears come as details were revealed of a public meeting to discuss plans to create a foodbank in the 
town.

Earlier this year Hartlepool charity the People’s Relief of Pressure (PROP) launched the 10-week Winter Comfort Soup Kitchen to provide free hot meals to people and give the elderly advice on how to keep warm and access benefits.

The latest plans come as the Government is proposing to give councils the powers to administer the benefit with a 10 per cent cut in funding from April 2013, meaning financially stretched families having to find hundreds of pounds extra a year.

Pensioners are among the vulnerable groups that will be protected from the cuts. But protecting certain groups could mean a reduction of 20 per cent in levels of council tax benefit for others.

Labour councillor Marjorie James said it could lead to foodbanks being set up in town and Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond described the move as “catastrophic” for the most vulnerable households.

Coun James, chairman of the council’s scrutiny co-ordinating committee, said: “To say we are between a rock and a hard place is an understatement.

“The Government is going to screw Hartlepool to the wall.

“Our society will be fractured because there will be great resentment in the communities, with some protected and others not.”

Coun James added: “The families have not got this money and we will have an increase in children coming into care.

“We will end up with foodbanks and additional support for heating and clothing.

“I don’t know where that money is going to come from.”

Councillors approved plans to carry out a two-month public consultation based on either implementing a 20 per cent cut in council tax support next year, or a 15 per cent next year rising to 20 per cent the year after.

Under the proposals, £1.1m will be taken away from Hartlepool Borough Council, with the authority giving away less in benefits.

Mayor Drummond said there was a misconception the majority of people on benefits are “scroungers that sit around in their pyjamas watching Jeremy Kyle”.

But he added: “The vast majority are there because, through circumstance, they can’t afford to pay the full value.

“It seems self defeating to take that help away.”

Mayor Drummond added: “It will have a catastrophic affect on vulnerable families.

“It is very frustrating that there is little we can do about it.”

Independent councillor Cath Hill said it is becoming increasingly difficult to look after the most vulnerable.

The costs of the current national scheme are met by the Department for Work and Pensions, but under the new local scheme the council will be allocated a grant.

The council has set aside just short of £1.2m to manage the risks of the new scheme once the actual costs have been assessed.

The town-wide Churches Together foodbank open meeting will be held at Stranton Church, on Monday, September 17, at 7.30pm.

• 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.

• Of the 8,500 working age households, 5,390 households in Band A currently receive full council tax benefit.

Under the proposals for a 20 per cent cut those households would have to find on average an extra £181 a year.

Meanwhile those living in a Band C property face having to find an extra £249 on average a year.