New benefits system hitting Huntingdonshire households hard

Huntingdonshire District Council

Huntingdonshire District Council - Credit: Archant

HUNDREDS of additional households in Huntingdonshire are being chased for not paying their Council Tax under the Government’s new benefits system.

Seven hundred extra cases of non-payment are being pursued by Huntingdonshire District Council this April and May, bringing the total to 2,290, up from 1,590 in the same period last year.

In May, HDC also sent an additional 2,000 reminder letters due to unpaid bills compared to 2012.

The legal action follows changes to the benefits system which came into force on April 1, affecting nearly 5,000 homes in Huntingdonshire. A national Council Tax benefit scheme was scrapped and HDC now receives a fixed grant which it has to decide how to spend.

Many people who had previously paid nothing towards their bills now have to contribute at least 20 per cent. Others have to make a bigger contribution than previously.

Elderly people were protected from the reform, while households with disabled people have to be assessed before their tax relief is calculated.

A report by HDC’s head of customer services, Julia Barber, which is being considered by Social Well-being Overview and Scrutiny Panel on Tuesday (July 2), says it is not clear whether the increase in non-payment has been caused by the benefits changes or simply the “general economy”.

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But the district council has warned the change could affect people’s ability to pay their rent, resulting in eviction and an increase in homelessness.

A spokesman for HDC said: “People do need to pay and if they are having problems they must contact us straightaway. The longer they leave it the more likely it is they will get a summons and that will increase their costs.

“We will try to help and support residents but people do need to budget for Council Tax and pay it.”

The Citizens Advice Bureau has warned that the cumulative affects of the cuts and changes to the benefits system could be disastrous.

Beverley Howard, chief executive officer of Rural Cambs CAB, which covers Huntingdonshire, said: “In this district, people are paying 20 per cent of the Council Tax bill, which is a higher rate in comparison to other areas.

“In Fenland and East Cambridgeshire, they charge everyone 8.5 per cent. If you’ve never paid Council Tax before, finding that money out of benefits is difficult.

“More people are significantly worse off than they were before and that’s only going to get worse because of all the other benefit changes.”

Other welfare reforms are beginning to bite and HDC’s benefits section received 3,375 phone calls in April from people seeking advice, up by 1,100 on April 2012.

They include the introduction of the so-called “bedroom tax”. Since April, payouts to housing benefit claimants have been reduced if they have empty bedrooms, by 14 per cent for one and 25 per cent for two or more.

In total, 863 households in the district have been affected. Housing association Luminus, whose tenants account for most of them, has been trying to encourage people to move into accommodation matching their needs.

HDC says the new policy saved £180,000 in housing benefit payments in April alone, compared to the same month last year.

Despite the savings, HDC is remaining cautious. Ms Barber concluded: “The situation is not as bad as potentially feared, although we remain uncertain about the future impact of these changes.”

INFORMATION: If you are struggling with Council Tax payments, call HDC on 01480 388030.