Hundreds of thousands of the poorest households in England are having their benefits cut every week because they are unable to pay their council tax bill, the Observer can reveal.
Families are stacking up such arrears, spanning years in some cases, that they are having their benefits slashed, which is driving them further into poverty.
Until 2013, those on small or no incomes had some protection from paying the full tax under a national support scheme. Since then, councils in England have had to administer their own, locally devised schemes, with reduced funding from the government.
The result has been mass failure to pay council tax by those who would previously have been exempt, and a surge in cases where benefits are docked to make good on arrears. Data released under the Freedom of Information Act from 133 local authorities reveals that 190,198 households currently have money deducted from their benefits in this way.
Given the number of councils that did not provide figures, it is likely that around 360,000 households could be facing this form of sanction, which requires an order from a magistrate. Many of them would not have had to pay any council tax prior to the government’s reform of the system.
The worst-affected council area in England is Labour-run Liverpool, where 17,582 households claiming council tax support have so-called “attachments” to benefits. Up to £192 can be sliced off a claimant’s benefit each year in order to clear their council tax arrears.
Jane Corbett, the Liverpool city council cabinet member for fairness, social inclusion and equalities, said that despite the authority pumping millions into relief measures, council tax support cuts were combining with other benefit cuts to tip families into crisis.
“Millions are juggling between each debt that they now have, so you go round in a circle,” she said. “We are coming to the point where a lot of people haven’t got the money to pay it, and they’ve got other debts coming in, and there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.”
The total council tax owed to Liverpool city by those with attachments to benefit now stands at nearly £10m.
Corbett warned that, unless government policy changes, much of this will never be repaid. “A large chunk of that £10m is going to be sitting there, waiting to be paid, for forever and a day. I’m not going to say it’s going to be written off, because what then happens is the Tories come in and say, ‘look at them, they can’t even get their council tax in’.
“So, I say it’ll be sitting there, with a label on it saying ‘waiting to be paid, we are still owed this money’. And it’ll carry on in that box, and that box will get bigger, and that debt will increase because more and more will not be able to pay.”
The change in 2013 forced those on the lowest incomes to pay part of their council tax for the first time. Pensioners are protected by law, so the entire burden has fallen on working-age people.
Most English councils have introduced minimum payments for those who were previously exempt, usually 25% to 30% of the tax owed. Such families are required to pay £171 per year.
Only one year’s council tax debt at a time can be repaid by attachments to benefits. If someone has council tax debts spanning multiple years, they end up with a separate attachment for each year, queued up one after the other.
The figures released to the Observer show there are 113,590 so-called “pending attachments” across 117 councils.
Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of the Z2k Trust, which campaigns against council tax benefit cuts, said: “The number of pending attachments shows a significant number of households are still paying off debts accrued up to three years ago.”
She said the way that debts for multiple years stack up underlines the problem with asking people to pay a charge they cannot afford and poses “serious problems for the continued viability of minimum payment schemes”.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “More than 97% of council tax is collected with the vast majority of people paying their bills. However, the collection of council tax is a matter for local authorities and they also have the freedom to design local support schemes.”
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