South Ribble Council is set to consider whether low income households in the borough should continue to be obliged to make some contribution to council tax.
Since 2013, those entitled to help from a support scheme have had to pay at least £3.50 a week into the council’s coffers. A government policy means eligible pensioners have been exempt from the charge.
The authority is planning to consult on whether to keep the status quo, introduce new income bands to recalculate the payments or scrap the requirement to pay altogether.
But first they have to ask for the opinion of other public authorities who take a share of the council tax collected in South Ribble, including the police, fire brigade and Lancashire County Council - all of whom would share in the cost of cancelling the scheme.
A cabinet meeting in the borough heard that county hall could take a hit of around half a million pounds to its own budget if the minimum payment in Conservative-run South Ribble is changed. It would cost South Ribble itself £73,000.
But the Labour opposition claimed the consultation went back on a budget pledge to abolish the charge outright from next year.
Labour group leader, Paul Foster, said: “Council has voted that this [scheme] be withdrawn - it was voted out from 2019/20 onwards.
“If this is a change to policy, why isn’t it going back to council?” he asked.
But deputy leader of the authority, Caroline Moon, said the budget proposal dealt only with removing the money expected to be generated by the charge, not the policy itself.
“One of our consultation options, I would expect, would be to remove the scheme. We can’t do that if we have put [the payments] in our budget.
“I believe it is an inherently unfair scheme - it was unfair when it was introduced and it’s unfair now,” Cllr Moon added.
Cllr Foster accepted that members from all sides had spoken out against the policy since the then coalition government devolved responsibility for council tax support to local authorities in 2013 - and cut the budget for the scheme by ten percent.
However, he insisted that the council did not have to consult to remove the charge altogether - only to vary it.
Dave Whelan, the authority’s legal services manager, responded that a consultation at least with the other affected authorities was necessary “in terms of general public law”.
The meeting also heard that council tax collection rates in the borough in the five years since the scheme was introduced have remained static, at 97.5 percent.
However, the council is planning to publicise the hardship funds made available to it by government - to help with housing and council tax costs - which were undepsent by £40,000 last year.
“If that’s because we don’t have those levels of hardship - great,” Cllr Moon said. “But if we [just] aren’t reaching those people, we need to look at how we’re going to do that.”
Labour councillor Derek Forrest presented figures from the Money Advice Trust which showed a 31 percent increase in the use of bailiffs to recover all forms of debt from residents in South Ribble since 2014. “Some of that will include council tax,” he said.
But Cllr Moon cautioned against assuming that people do not want to pay their share.
“There are members of our borough who, just because they may find themselves in a difficult financial position, [still] want to contribute. There’s nothing more you can do to undermine a person than to tell them they can’t afford to do something or engage in something,” Cllr Moon said.