A father has accused a local authority of “demanding money with menaces” after his daughter was unexpectedly hit with a council tax demand and given seven days to pay – or face court action.
Alan Thompson’s daughter Naomi was left in tears after receiving the letter from Stockton Borough Council.
At the time the single working mother, who receives housing benefit as she is on a low income, was in the process of having her claim re-assessed by the council due to a change of circumstances.
The 34-year-old was told to pay three separate sums totalling £474.72 with the council claiming she had been overpaid going back to December 2011. Panicking as she could not afford it, the money was paid by Mr Thompson on his debit card.
However after an investigation the council later determined Ms Thompson in fact only owed £23 and the rest of the money was refunded.
During her correspondence with the council Ms Thompson, of Elmwood Road, Eaglescliffe, received a letter containing 29 pages of calculations which her father, a former bank manager, said left them both flummoxed.
Mr Thompson, who lives in Middleton-in-Teesdale, was prompted to contact The Northern Echo to explain the situation his daughter had faced after reading a recent report about councils’ increasing use of bailiffs to chase council tax debts.
“At the time her account was under assessment so we assumed there was no case to answer until it had been verified what she did owe.
“One of the amounts demanded we did not even know about and when we asked for information on it they could not give us it.
“The staff I met also admitted they did not understand the system they were working with. There are some serious discrepancies here and I suspect lots of people may be getting a raw deal.”
Under the legislation governing council tax collection when a bill is issued in respect of a previous financial year, payment is due in full, rather than in instalments, and the recovery process can move straight to a final notice without the requirement to issue a reminder first.
Mrs Thompson said:
“I have no faith in Stockton Council, but these kind of errors seem to be happening all over.
“Fortunately I am in a situation where I have got people I can turn to, but a lot of people don’t, or they will just pay the money no questions asked.”
A Stockton Council spokesman said:
“Our collection policy is designed to be fair and consistent.
“People’s specific circumstances are also taken into account when details are provided to us.”
Source – Northern Echo, 13 Apr 2015
Thousands of Tyneside’s most vulnerable families will go hungry when a voucher support scheme is scrapped because of austerity cuts, leaders have warned.
A scheme which sees supermarket vouchers given to 2000 families in Newcastle to help feed their children over the school holidays has been axed as the Government slash £40m from the city council’s annual budget.
Under Newcastle City Council’s Crisis Support Scheme, families with children aged five and six, who have had their housing benefit reduced by the bedroom tax and are paying council tax for the first time, received Asda vouchers to help feed their youngsters during the Easter, Christmas and Summer school holidays.
But the council say they are forced to slash the service as the Government roll out their next round of cuts.
Leaders warned that cutting the benefit would lead to an increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks for emergency food parcels.
The announcement comes shortly after a teacher made claims some of his pupils returned to school after holidays “visibly thinner”.
Simon Kennedy, from teacher’s union NASUWT, said:
“It’s easy to point the finger at Newcastle City Council and say it’s their fault but this is the coalition government’s fault.
“This Government are hitting the most vulnerable and least well off families. I don’t think we can blame the council. The reality is when you get millions cut from your budget you have to cut it from somewhere.
“On May 7 people will be given the chance to vote and these are the sort of things people will take into consideration.
“We know people are going hungry and it’s not just over the holidays, it’s week in week out. We know that parents are missing meals to feed their kids.”
In April 2013 the Government abolished the Social Fund and asked local authorities to set up replacement schemes for Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants and the council set up the Crisis Support Scheme.
The funding falls under three areas and supports people in crisis, disaster or emergency, provides council tax assistance and did provide meals vouchers to schoolchildren in the holidays before it was cut.
In 2013/14 the council spent £214,000 to spend on the crisis support fund, and a further £173,000 in 2014/15. It will spend £116,000 in 2015/16, which includes a £50,000 overspend from the previous year.
In order to manage the reductions the council said they had no choice but to slash the voucher scheme.
This week letters went out to the affected families as they received their final set of vouchers over the Easter holidays.
Deputy leader of the council Joyce McCarty said:
“We are really disappointed this has been left to the local authority to fund.
“The Government have dumped the austerity cuts with local authorities who can’t afford to pick up the pieces and it’s the least well off in the community that are suffering.”
In Easter 2014 families with one child were awarded a £10 voucher, while families with more than one child were given £20.
A further £40 was handed to families with one child in the summer and an extra £60 to families with more than one child.
And at Christmas 2014 the vouchers were increased to £40 with families with one child and £60 for families with more than one child.
Ms McCarty added:
“It will add to the growing problem. It’s the same families who are struggling, it’s those families having to pay the bedroom tax and it’s things like this that tips people over the edge.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government said they would be unable to offer comment in the run up to the general election.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 12 Apr 2015
It was ultimately unsuccessful, but the campaign for devolution in Scotland has fanned the flames of regional rule in the North-East that were never quite extinguished by the 2004 ‘no’ vote.
The North East Party was launched less than a year ago as the independence campaign north of the border was in full swing. On May 7, it will field four candidates in Easington, Redcar, Stockton North and Newcastle North.
Vice-chair Susan McDonnell, who formed the party with former Labour MP Hilton Dawson, admitted they had hoped to have more candidates standing, but people who had initially shown an interest backed away when they realised the effort involved.
“They also had to find £500 for the deposit from their own pocket which may have put them off,” says Mrs McDonnell, who will contest the Easington seat.
The party wants to see a referendum for the the region’s 12 unitary authorities to be replaced by a single North-East government, however Mrs McDonnell stresses that it is not all about devolution.
“It’s about decision making taking place in the North-East by people from the North-East – we’re sick to death of being the poor relation in the North.”
The party has enjoyed some early success with two councillors voted on to Peterlee Town Council, and Mrs McDonnell says its membership is growing fast.
“We’re got quite a large presence on social media and are getting people from all over the region travelling to our meetings – Blyth, Newcastle, Redcar, Hartlepool and Stockton.”
The candidate accepts she may not be able to defeat the standing Easington MP, Grahame Morris, who has a majority of almost 15,000, but she adds: “I’m having a whale of a time.
“I am taking it very seriously but I also understand it’s a game. I’m not so naive to think that I will win on May 7 but I will give Grahame Morris as good a run as he’s ever had – I hope to give him a bloody nose.”
The party is one of several regional parties which have appeared around the country in recent years, with many forming an allegiance under the Vote Local banner.
Mrs Mc Donnell says the parties have been launched because of a combination of being disillusioned with the mainstream Westminster centred parties and the referendum in Scotland. The new parties include Yorkshire First, which wants to see a Yorkshire parliament.
Devolution and regionalism expert Arianna Giovannini, who lectures at Huddersfield University, said the idea of regionalist parties was not new.
However, she adds: “What is certainly new is the emergence of regionalist parties in the North of England, ie Yorkshire First, the North East Party, and the Campaign for the North.”
Dr Giovannini says the emerging regionalist parties have great potential, especially if they succeed in joining forces with other organisations and movements, and manage to achieve grassroots support.
But she adds:
“Whether regional devolution in the North of England will succeed or fall may well hinge on the ability to generate democratic momentum, creating a clear, bold, confident and concerted vision for the future.
“However, the story of the Scottish Constitutional Convention tells us that such a process will take time, and cannot be rushed or accomplished overnight. In this sense, the following months and the results and effects of the imminent general election will be crucial in shaping the path ahead.”
The North East Party may not yet be big enough to change the course of the devolution debate in this region, but it is certainly a sign of the growing desire to see greater powers handed over.
Source – Northern Echo, 09 Apr 2015
There has been a huge surge in the number of low-income families summoned to court over unpaid council tax, new research shows.
New research published by False Economy shows an increase of more than 500,000 court summons in England, as the poorest households are hit by a £490 million cut in council tax support.
And the problem is set to get even worse, as one in seven local authorities plan further cuts in the support available to families struggling to pay council tax bills.
The TUC believes this will result in the poorest families facing even higher council tax demands and lead to a rise in the number summoned to court.
Figures show that more than 3 million people in England were taken to court by local authorities in 2013/14 over unpaid council tax. This represents a 25% rise on the previous year.
Council Tax Benefit was scrapped by the government and replaced by the Council Tax Support Scheme (CTS) in 2013/14. The change meant that councils in England were allowed to develop their own support schemes, but were also forced to accept a 10% in funding from central government for those schemes.
Only a small number of councils chose to keep full council tax support for low-income families. Vulnerable pensioners were unaffected by the changes and are still entitled to have their council tax bills fully paid.
According to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), around 2.5 million low-income families were affected by a reduction in council tax support in the first year of the scheme.
Where councils introduced minimum council tax payments for the poorest households, court summons increased by 30%. Only 9% of local authorities continue to offer full council tax relief.
The research by False Economy also found that households who qualified for CTS, and who were subject to minimum council tax payment requirements, accounted for 58% of the rise in court summonses.
According to the research, people who are struggling to pay council tax bills are routinely being affected by deductions in benefits and targeted by bailiffs.
A False Economy spokesperson said:
“Council tax support cuts have caused chaos for families and households, and also for councils.
“They are leaving people out of pocket and in debt, which is also bad for local businesses that depend on them as customers.
“Councils are now pursuing people through the courts for money they do not have. It is a shambles made by a cabinet of millionaires in a government that has been completely out of touch with reality.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“Slashing council tax support has been one of the government’s cruellest cuts.
“It was foolish for ministers to think that families who can’t afford to heat their homes can pay new tax bills for hundreds of pounds.
“And it is heartless for them to stand by as the poorest families are hauled through the courts and harassed by bailiffs.
“If anyone is to be hit with higher taxes it should be the fat cats in the boardrooms and those corporations that are dodging paying their fair share, not the poorest working-age households in the UK.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 08 Apr 2015
Plans leaked to the BBC reveal that the Conservatives are considering cuts of up to £80 a week for sick and disabled claimants if they win the election.
The leaked documents show that the Conservative party commissioned research into how much could be saved by measures including:
Taxing disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP) and attendance allowance (AA), saving a predicted £1.5 billion a year.
Abolishing contribution based ESA and JSA entirely, so that only claimants who pass a means test can claim these benefits. According to the BBC, DWP analysis suggests 30% of claimants, over 300,000 families, would lose about £80 per week, saving a predicted £1.3 billion a year. In fact, some families would lose more than £80 per week if these benefits were abolished.
Cutting the number of people getting carer’s allowance by 40% by only awarding it to those eligible for universal credit (UC), saving a predicted £1 billion.
Limiting child benefit to the first two children, eventually saving £1 billion but very little in the short-term.
Other plans include replacing industrial injuries benefits with an insurance policy for employers, regional benefit caps and changes to council tax.
The Conservatives deny that these proposals are party policy.
A spokesperson for Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that:
“This is ill informed and inaccurate speculation.
“Officials spend a lot of time generating proposals – many not commissioned by politicians.
“It’s wrong and misleading to suggest that any of this is part of our plan.”
However, the Conservatives still refuse to say what benefits they will cut.
Earlier this week Benefits and Work suggested that working age claimants would lose an average of £19 a week under Conservative plans. We pointed out that some would lose less and some might lose much more – but we hadn’t realised quite how much more.
Would you be affected by these cuts and could you cope financially if they were imposed?
Source – Benefits & Work, 27 Mar 2015
Councils have defended their use of bailiffs after a charity said “heavy handed” debt collection practices were leaving families – and more specifically children – in fear.
The Children’s Society said North-East local authorities had engaged bailiffs an estimated 51,800 times last year to recover council tax debts.
Meanwhile, Durham County Council said it had referred 22,306 council tax warrants to bailiffs, although this was over the last three years rather than a 12 month period.
Bailiffs, typically employed by private companies, have the power to enforce non-payment of debts by seizing property from homeowners.
The Children’s Society said in just 14 days families could go from missing a council tax payment to facing court proceedings and action from bailiffs.
It described incidents in which children had answered the phone to a debt collector or been present when they had called in person, leaving them frightened and unable to sleep as a result.
One mother, who was among 4,500 parents surveyed for the charity’s research, said: “My children knew mummy was stressed and there were strange people at the door wanting things.
“Most of the furniture got taken at that point.”
It said three quarters of parents in this position had not been given help to find independent advice and local authorities were “rushing to penalise struggling families by demanding sudden, unrealistic” payments.
Matthew Reed, the charity’s chief executive, said:
“Far too many families are failed by their council when they fall behind with their council tax.”
Ian Fergusson, Durham County Council’s revenue and benefits manager, said:
“The use of bailiffs is always a last resort and the bailiffs that we use are highly trained to be respectful of council tax payers and their families at all times.
“We would encourage anyone who is experiencing financial difficulties to contact us to discuss the issues they are facing.”
“In every case the council will always try to come to an arrangement first.
“Our enforcement agents have a strict code of conduct that does not allow any of their staff to discuss a debt with a child.”
Source – Northern Echo, 26 Mar 2015
Austerity will cost the North East £220m this year as vital cuts to services are made for a fifth year in a row.
And within a year council’s could start to struggle to even deliver what they are required to by law.
This stark warning from leader of South Tyneside Council, Iain Malcolm, comes as authorities across the region enter their final week of budget setting, and for the first time in several years many authorities have chosen to grasp at a council tax rise to bring in vital funds.
The Labour leader, whose authority has had to shred 1,500 jobs to cope with reductions in Central Government funding since 2010, said 2016 could be the year some councils start to seriously struggle.
“If the Government is going to cut the way that they are now, councils will not be able to provide statutory services that they are legally required to,” said Coun Malcolm.
“I’m not going to put a timeline on it because I’m not having it as a D-day but some councils across the country will struggle in this financial year, but not necessarily in this region.
“But by 2016-17 if there is no change in Central Government’s attitude then more councils will struggle in 2016 to fulfil their statutory obligations.
“I would say South Tyneside is at the forefront of innovation. I won’t name the councils that will struggle but South Tyneside would struggle to find any more meaningful savings in the 2016-17 financial year.”
Cut backs since the Coalition Government came into power in 2010 are estimated to have cost the North East an enormous £557m in reductions to grants to run services like adult social care, leisure centres and libraries.
It’s also estimated that 14,000 local authority posts have been scrapped around the North East in the last five years.
However the Government maintains that funding settlements since 2010 have been fair.
For the first time in years council tax has been drawn on as a way of bringing in more funds to cash-strapped authorities and bar Redcar and Cleveland, which made a 1% cut to council tax, all councils have either gone for a rise or accepted the Government’s freeze grant.
For Newcastle and Gateshead councils the tax hike was the first in four years.
Coun Malcolm said:
“All councils have tried to do what’s right in their particular areas. We’ve got a strategic partnership with BT to do our back office functions and that’s worked extremely well for us but it’s not been a one size fits all solution.”
He added that despite intense cuts for a fifth year, in which his authority must save £22m in the year 2015-16, satisfaction with local authorities remains extremely high as shown by various survey.
2015/2016 spending power cut
North Tyneside: £14m
South Tyneside: £22m
Redcar and Cleveland: £3m
Darlington: £14m over next two years.
Job losses since 2010:
County Durham: 2000
North Tyneside: Information not available
South Tyneside: 1200
Middlesbrough: 728 with a further 600 by 2020.
Redcar and Cleveland: 750 post reductions.
Stockton: 740 people
Hartlepool: Information not available
Council tax rise
Newcastle: 1.95% (first rise in four years)
Gateshead: 1.95% (first rise in four years)
County Durham: 1.99% (second year of a rise after gap)
North Tyneside: No rise
South Tyneside: 1.95%
Sunderland: No rise.
Redcar and Cleveland: 1% reduction.
Hartlepool: No rise.
Source – Sunday Sun, 08 Mar 2015
A councillor is being investigated by his own party for failing to pay his council tax.
Andrew Sherris, Conservative councillor for Yarm and Kirklevington on Stockton Borough Council, was suspended by his party on Monday pending an investigation into “financial irregularities”.
It is understood Cllr Sherris was in arrears with his council tax on a second property he owns.
Last night he said the matter was “confidential” and it is in the hands of the council’s solicitor.
The bill is now believed to have been sorted out, but the Conservative Party is pressing ahead with its investigation.
Stockton Borough Council refused to confirm whether Cllr Sherris had any tax bill issues last night, saying it was confidential, citing the Data Protection Act.
It has previously said he is not under investigation by the council itself.
Ben Houchen, leader of the Conservative Group on Stockton Borough Council, launched the investigation on Monday and suspended Cllr Sherris, saying his behaviour had fallen below the standard expected of an elected Conservative councillor.
Councillors in arrears with council tax by more than two months are not allowed to vote on the precept. When councillors voted on the rise in council tax last week Cllr Sherris was absent – but said that he was on holiday at the time.
He said yesterday he believed the investigation was an ‘unjustified attack‘ and was a move to discredit him ahead of the elections. His support of fellow former Conservative councillor Mark Chatburn, who defected to Ukip, had “not been well received” by his party, he said.
He added: “I will be standing as an independent councillor in the coming elections in May, putting local people first, as always, ahead of party politics.”
Cllr Houchen, who is also chairman of Stockton Conservative Association, said if the allegations were true he “would not be acting in the best interests of residents not to take action”.
Council tax debt has overtaken credit cards as the most common form of debt requiring advice and support, says a leading charity.
The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) says it expects to help more than 191,000 people struggling to pay Council Tax in 2014/15 – up 20% on the previous year.
And according to a report from the CAB, rising rents could result in up to 122,800 people requiring help with rental debts by the end of March 2015.
The Government abolished Council Tax Benefit at the end of March 2013, meaning that some of the poorest people are having to pay for the very first time.
The move has resulted in a postcode lottery, with benefit claimants and low-income households paying more in some areas than others, depending upon each local authority’s Council Tax Reduction scheme.
A growing proportion of people are approaching the CAB for help and advice on paying rent, council tax, water and fuel debts. Meanwhile, financial issues related to credit cards, mortgages and unsecured personal loans have declined.
While more households are struggling with Council Tax and housing costs, debts resulting from credit cards are expected to fall by 12% in 2014/15 – exposing the ‘changing face of household debt’.
The mainstream credit problems of the post-2008 period have turned into problems with priority debts, says the CAB.
Despite a recent fall in fuel and petrol prices, the CAB also highlights how households have had to endure a 210% rise in energy costs over the last 10 years.
The CAB highlights how the Office for Budget Responsibility expects household debt to soar to a record high of £2.43 trillion by 2019.
There has also been a significant rise in the amount of debt held by self-employed people – up 41% to £20,000. They now represent the highest percentage of people helped by the CAB at 29%.
Citizens Advice is carrying out a separate study about the challenges that self-employed people face.
Behind the self-employed come unemployed people, who have an average debt of £17,500. Pensioners come in a close third, with an average total debt of £17,200.
13% of CAB clients had ten debts or more.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 16 Feb 2015
The North East Party, formed just six months ago, last night won its second seat on Peterlee Town Council in two months.
Newly-elected councillor Karen Hawley comfortably won the Passfield Ward by-election with 429 votes, ahead of Labour on 257.
Cllr Hawley said:
“I am delighted to have been elected tonight and to be joining North East Party colleagues in working to ensure that Peterlee Town Council serves the people of Passfield ward and the people of the town accountably and well”.
The by-election, brought about by the resignation of Peterlee’s mayoress Cllr Margaret Milsom who held the seat for Labour, follows the North East Party’s victory at the Eden Hill ward by-election in December.
It means the party now holds two seats alongside six Independents on the 22-member authority, which remains in Labour control.
Susan McDonnell, the North East Party’s Parliamentary candidate for Easington, said:
“This is another resounding victory for the North East Party in Peterlee, building on our first success only two months ago.
“Her win tonight shows that our messages about scandalous Council Tax levels and the need for much greater community accountability of all elected politicians is really getting through.”
Source – Northern Echo, 13 Feb 2015