War veterans petition for changes to council tax benefit

May 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm Leave a comment

By Gemma Pritchard

The Government should commit to rebranding Council Tax Benefit as a rebate before the next general election, to improve uptake amongst pensioners and veterans, a Liberal Democrat MP said in Thursday’s adjournment debate.

Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat member for Sutton and Cheam, had presented the House with a petition on behalf of the British Legion, which called for the Government to rebrand Council Tax Benefit as a rebate.

Currently £1.5 billion of Council Tax Benefit is left unclaimed by pensioners each year.

Mr Burstow argued that Britain’s army veterans are in a particularly vulnerable position with regards to paying council tax, as British Legion research shows that 38 per cent of older veterans and their spouses, widows and widowers are living on an income below that necessary for healthy living.

The 25,000 signatory petition had earlier been delivered to Downing Street.

It noted that more than half of the ex-Service community think veterans would be more likely to claim Council Tax Benefit if it was known as a rebate.

Mr Burstow’s request has been backed by the British Legion’s director general Chris Simpkins, who at their annual conference two weeks ago called for the Government to announce a timetable for this change.

Opening his debate, Mr Burstow said:

“I want to urge the Minister to change a name, but not my name, her name or your name, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I urge the Minister to rename council tax benefit “council tax rebate” or “council tax relief”.

“Some might ask, “What’s in a name?”, but I think that, at a stroke, the Minister could help hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in our country by means of this simple measure.

“Furthermore, doing so should not cost a great deal of money, although forms and the like would have to be reprinted. A huge amount of money that goes unclaimed every year could be unlocked.”

Mr Burstow said that the current council tax benefit system actually deters many people living in poverty from claiming their entitlement. “Calling the financial assistance available to mitigate the full cost of council tax a “benefit” is a deterrent and depresses the level of take-up.”

As Mr Burstow noted, Council tax benefit had the lowest uptake of any of the available means-tested benefits, and this level of uptake has been falling for the past 10 years.

He reported that a recent poll by ComRes found that seven out of 10 believe that the stigma attached to the label of a “benefit” is a major obstacle to the claiming of council tax benefit. The same poll found that three quarters of people believed renaming it as a “rebate” would increase uptake.

Kitty Ussher MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, began by complimenting Mr Burstow for the strength of his campaign, and for bringing the matter to debate. Though this is customary Parliamentary procedure, she said that “I particularly mean it on this occasion”.

The Minister also praised the British Legion, and Joan Ryan MP, who raised the same matter in ten-minute Bill recently.

Ms Ussher’s response to the proposals was overwhelmingly positive.

She said: “I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we are listening. We are in the process of working through the issues, and I will explain what we believe to be the outstanding issues shortly. He asked for a timetable, and I hope that we will have a meeting at which we can agree a road map for a timetable.

“I have a further meeting, which was arranged only today, with the Royal British Legion on 3 June. By then, I hope that we will have a consensus about the best way in which to progress.

“My attitude is positive and I am keen to help when possible, but we need a shared analysis of the precise problems and what we should do about them before we can change policy.”


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