Child poverty warning

Child poverty warning
Child poverty warning

CONTROVERSIAL changes to the council tax benefit system will plunge more Hartlepool children into poverty according to Mayor Stuart Drummond.

The town’s leader said proposals to give councils the powers to administer the benefit – but with a 10 per cent cut in funding – will set Hartlepool back 20 years in terms of child poverty.

Almost 30 per cent of town youngsters, about 7,500, live in poverty and Mayor Drummond believes the changes will worsen the problem.

In town, 15,000 households receive the council tax benefit, including 6,600 pensioner households and 8,400 working age households, with the annual amount of benefit awarded around £13.3m.

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

Pensioners are among the vulnerable groups that would be protected.

But protecting certain groups could see a reduction of 15 per cent in current levels of council tax support for others.

Mayor Drummond said: “People in Hartlepool are on benefits for a good reason. They are used to put food on the table, a roof over their family’s heads or shoes on their children’s feet. It is not spent on flash cars and televisions.

“Nearly every report we see is about eradicating child poverty but this will set us back 20 years.”

The reforms are still going through parliament but the deadline for having a new council tax benefit system in place is January 31.

Chris Little, the council’s chief finance officer, said: “It is an incredibly tight timescale.”

Independent councillor Cath Hill, portfolio holder for children’s and community services, said: “We are going to have to penalise the people that are already the most vulnerable in our society.

“The government is dealing us cards that are almost unplayable.”

A series of options, subject to consultation, have been put forward.

Finance chiefs have set aside £1.2m to provide a one-off protection scheme for council tax benefit claimants potentially facing cuts of between 15 and 20 per cent. One option is to use that money next year to avoid cuts to individuals for 12-months or phase it over two years.

Alternatively, the council could decide to introduce a council tax benefit scheme within the reduced funding allocation straight away or maintain the current support and fund the extra cost from one-off resources next year and then identify permanent budget cuts for the following year.

Independent councillor Paul Thompson, portfolio holder for finance and corporate services, said: “Whatever plan we put together we have to ensure it is fair and equitable for families.

“Also, that we are not seen as a soft touch for people from other parts of the country ascending en masse to Hartlepool.”

The report was referred to the scrutiny co-ordinating committee.