By Janet Hall
I was elected to Lancaster City Council in May 2011 to represent Skerton East ward, an area to the north of Lancaster with huge deprivation. Since then, the council has been forced to consider making unthinkable cuts to services we know are needed by residents. It’s not a great time to be a Labour councillor, but our choices can still make a difference.
Keeping council tax support is one of the most important, and ultimately satisfying, decisions I have been involved in making.
Council tax support is a benefit given to people out of work or on low incomes who need help paying council tax. In April 2013 the government passed the responsibility to councils to run their own schemes and at the same time, cut the money available by 10%. Because pensioners were automatically protected from any reduction in support this cut in funding equated to 20% less than we needed to fully fund council tax support for working age people.
The Labour group I am part of agreed to maintain the existing levels of support to our residents, in effect taking the cut from central government out of our own council budget, rather than pass it on to the poorest of our residents. It was not an easy or straight forward decision to make. We had options, to maintain existing levels of support, pass on some of the cuts, pass on all of the cuts. We were aware that our decision would impact on other authorities, most significantly the County Council. But ultimately the decision we made was to protect those residents currently in receipt of full council tax benefit.
Why did we come to that decision? A big influence in our thinking was the consideration of people’s ability to pay and the very realistic possibility that we would end up chasing people with no money for very small amounts of debt. We considered how we felt about that as councillors, and how the council would look spending money chasing such small sums. But most importantly, as a Labour group we were acutely aware of how little income some of our residents actually have and how much impact asking them for £3 or £4 per week would have.
That is where our opposite numbers on the Conservative benches had no sympathy. The reality of people living on £60 or £70 per week is unimaginable to them. The mantra that everyone should contribute something remained firm amongst a group who can’t conceive that people can work hard and still have so little income.
I was hugely relieved and very proud to be part of the Labour group that made the decision in December 2013 to continue to maintain full council tax support for 2014/15. Set against a backdrop of increasing cuts to our budget, I believe it was a brave and compassionate decision, but one that we took – again without the support of the Conservatives – positively and with a certainty that we were doing the right thing by those with the least in our district.
Janet Hall is a Labour councillor for Skerton East ward and a member of Unite’s Councillors Network. For more information about the Network contact