LBWF: it’s parsimony for the poor, but kerching for councillors

Like many people who have followed Waltham Forest politics over a number of years, I often wonder what the Labour administration in the Town Hall imagines is its overall purpose, its mission in life.

Two recent developments have increased my sense of bafflement.

Let’s start with an issue that directly impacts on the borough’s poor.

Until 2013, every household in England struggling with low income or on benefits was part of the centrally administered Council Tax Benefit (CTB) scheme, and as a result was exempt from council tax.

Subsequently, the government has replaced this system with the Council Tax Support scheme (CTSS), which is administered by councils, and means tested.

What happens is that councils annually decide how much they will provide to help out the working-age less well-off, and exactly who will be included in the scheme, with one of the key determinants of the latter being accrued savings (in other words, there is a savings bar, and if you have more than that sum, you don’t qualify).

So much for the background: what happens in practice?

Unsurprisingly, the more socially-conscious councils are (a) providing sufficient monetary support from their budgets to wave all or a large percentage of the council tax levied, and (b) setting their savings bars fairly high, so that a large proportion receive support.

Elsewhere, however, councils are being far less generous, insisting that much higher percentages of council tax are paid, whatever the consequences.

And amazingly, Labour LBWF turns out to be in the latter camp, as the following table, with neighbouring inner-city Hackney and outer-London Redbridge added for comparison, demonstrates:

 

Year

Minimum council tax payment level (%)

Savings bar (£s)

2013-14

LBWF

8.5

16000

Hackney

15.0

16000

Redbridge 5.0

16000

2014-15

LBWF

15.0 16000

Hackney

15.0

16000

Redbridge 5.0

16000

2015-16

LBWF

16.0

6000

Hackney

15.0

16000

Redbridge

5.0

16000

2016-17

LBWF

24.0

6000

Hackney

15.0

16000

Redbridge

15.0

16000

 

(Source: http://counciltaxsupport.org)

What this means in practice is that the 15,243 people in LBWF who receive CTSS this year are paying on average £250 more than if CTB was still in existence, a sum that markedly contrasts with the equivalents for both inner-London boroughs as a whole, £142, and outer-London boroughs as a whole, £145.

 That is one development. The other is equally perplexing.

Up to 2014, our councillors were eligible to join the Local Government Pension Scheme, but from that date onwards, the rules were changed, leaving them on their own.

Now, however, they are contemplating introducing a wholly new scheme, with an 11.3 per cent contribution from the Town Hall budget.

The details are still being worked out, but the cost estimates for the first three years range from £140,000 to £900,00, and that appears to be net of the substantial legal fees necessary to set the scheme up.

Needless to say, the paper presented to the Audit and Governance Committee on 29 September 2016, where these ideas were first discussed, did its best to justify them by tugging at the heartstrings. The job of being a councillor, it was said, had become more and more complex and broad over the years. Some councillors devoted 20 hours per week to council business, though it was apparently ‘demonstrable’ that ‘the amount of work now undertaken for the Council by a great many Members is equivalent to that of officers [emphasis added]’. It was argued, too, that providing a pension would ‘promote diversity and better representation’, in particular by opening the way for ‘people from lower income backgrounds…to serve their community’.

Such arguments in theory have a degree of merit, yet as deployed here they are unconvincing. None of the component assertions are supported by Waltham Forest-specific data. Moreover, there is an obvious degree of exaggeration. As anyone who deals with councillors on a regular basis knows full well, while some work diligently for the public good, there are others who leave e-mails unanswered, fail to turn up at community meetings, shun any kind of training, and remain woefully ill-informed about local affairs. Finally, the paper overlooks the very obvious fact that councillors currently receive quite generous allowances, and can, if they so wish, set aside some of this money to help provide for their eventual retirement, in much the same way as many other people do.

In addition, there is also the by no means insignificant matter of context. Much of the electorate is having to re-adjust to the world of austerity.  Some are struggling. Is this really the right time for those in the Town Hall to award themselves what is, in effect, simply a perk?

I am aware that this post makes gloomy reading. But I must also acknowledge that there is one chink of light. Previously, I have sometimes been critical of the Labour rank and file for failing publicly to criticise the antics of its leaders. However, as regards the CTSS, I can have no complaints. Two motions passed by the Leyton and Wanstead Constituency Labour Party rehearse the recent sorry history of this benefit; reveal that some in the administration want the minimum council tax paid to rise to an eye-watering 40 per cent in 2017-18; and end by calling for an urgent re-think.

I understand that at the well attended meeting where these were discussed, the voting was overwhelmingly in favour.

Indeed, there were only two votes against.

And guess what? They came from Councillors Loakes and Pye.

Related Posts

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Flying the flag in the face of austerity

LBWF councillors through the prism of their register of interest forms

‘Forget the homeless, what about the coffee drinkers?’ LBWF v. The Christian Kitchen (Part 2): the council gets a walloping in court

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