Tens of thousands of disabled people across England have been ordered to appear before magistrates because they are in council tax arrears following changes introduced by the government, figures obtained by the Labour party suggest.
The estimates are based on responses from local authorities to Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests.
In the 59 councils able to provide the information, more than 11,000 disabled people who were affected by last year’s changes to council tax benefit have had a summons issued to them.
If these numbers are repeated across England’s 326 council tax-billing local authorities, more than 65,000 people claiming disability benefits will have been summonsed to court.
Based on the councils’ responses, the total number of people already summonsed in England could be as high as 450,000.
The council tax changes were introduced through the Local Government Finance Act 2012 and implemented last year, and saw local authorities told to take over the council tax support scheme, but with cuts to funding of 10 per cent.
This means that some people are paying council tax for the first time and others are paying increased council tax.
In all, nearly 400,000 disabled people will have seen higher council tax bills as a result of the changes, according to Labour estimates based on the FoIA responses.
And of these, 117,000 people who receive severe or enhanced disability premiums will be paying higher council tax bills.
Andrew Clark, chair of Bucks Disability Service (BuDS), said he was personally aware of about a dozen disabled people in the county who had fallen into arrears following the changes to council tax benefit.
He said: “However, Bucks has been quite good so far in supporting disabled people through the transitional tax relief arrangements: we expect the situation to be far worse in 2014-15 when councils can no longer afford to be so generous.”
Bucks has a cross-sector welfare reform working group which was set up at BuDS’ request, is led by the county council, and is monitoring the impact of welfare reform in the county.
It is building a “data dashboard” of information and statistics from across the public and voluntary sector, including levels of homelessness and food bank use.
Clark said: “We have previously asked that council tax arrears and summonses form part of the data dashboard and we will follow-up to ensure that this happens.”
He added: “We are now considering making a specific request that [the district councils in Bucks] record and report the number of disabled people in particular summonsed for council tax arrears.”
BuDS believes that a failure to do this would be a breach of a local authority’s public sector equality duty.
Clark called for a national disability organisation to push district councils outside Buckinghamshire to collect figures on disabled people facing council tax arrears.
Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow communities and local government secretary, whose office compiled the FoIA figures, said in a statement:“David Cameron boasts about keeping down council tax, but last April he deliberately imposed a council tax increase on people on the lowest incomes, including hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers.
“As a result, those affected – including tens of thousands of disabled people, war veterans, war widows and carers – are receiving court summonses that could ultimately result in some of them being sent to prison.”
He said the government’s failure to identify the number of people affected or monitor the costs to the court system of the summonses was “negligent and irresponsible”.
A spokesman for Benn said: “We are talking about relatively small amounts of money, about £12 a month on average, but the second you get into arrears and they apply for a liability order you have to pay the entire amount immediately and you have to pay a court fee.”
This can lead to people being forced to borrow from payday lenders and loan sharks.
But he warned: “We are not necessarily capturing the full extent of the pain it is causing. We can only track the formal system, while there will probably be hundreds of thousands of people who have been placed into penury by the tax rather than appearing in the official statistics.”
6 February 2014