Localisation of the Discretionary Social Fund – from cash loans to food stamps and Asda cards

Chris Game

Two recent Japanese visitors to INLOGOV included among their ‘etiquette gifts’ a set of Furusato or prefecture stamps – postage stamps produced to promote local government in, in this case, Hyogo, one of the 47 prefectures that are the equivalent of our counties. The stamps are attractive and easy to admire, and we inevitably wondered out loud how much Birmingham – or even the West Midlands region, whose 5.6 million population is similar to Hyogo’s – might pay for a similar PO issue .

Not out loud, I also wondered about mentioning that by coincidence some of our local authorities too would shortly be launching their own sets of stamps. But, with these being not pretty promotional ones, but wartime-echoing food stamps, I decided against it. But I will do here.

So many welfare and tax changes are being introduced at the start of this financial year that, apart obviously from planning how to spend the 5% tax cut on our £150,000+ incomes, it’s genuinely hard to keep track of them all. Almost all the changes, moreover, are controversial, which probably partly explains why the abolition or localisation of much of the Discretionary Social Fund (DSF) – a vital but admittedly small part of the total welfare system – has received less, and less critical, attention than it should have done.

The Social Fund was set up in the 1980s, to provide interest-free loans and grants through both a regulated scheme and a cash-limited discretionary scheme. There are four regulated fund payments: cold weather, winter fuel and funeral payments, and Sure Start maternity grants. These will continue, and the Social Fund itself, therefore, is not being abolished.

The discretionary scheme is intended to be the final welfare safety net – the safety net’s safety net, as it were – and it comprises three distinct elements. Budgeting Loans, the largest element, are interest-free loans for people on benefits who have difficulty managing intermittent expenses such as the replacement of white goods and household items, and who might otherwise turn to loan sharks.

Community Care Grants are non-repayable grants, conditional on receipt of income-related benefit, and intended to help vulnerable people – young people leaving a children’s home or foster care, women fleeing from domestic violence – to return to or remain in the community, or to ease exceptional pressure following a family breakdown or other emergency.

Crisis Loans are modest, interest-free loans available to anyone, whether on benefit or not. Applicants must show that, following an unforeseen emergency or disaster, they or their family cannot meet immediate short-term needs and would otherwise face serious risk to their health or safety. Loans, already being ‘managed back’ to pre-2006 levels, before telephone claims were introduced, are restricted to what are defined as essential items.

All three elements will now change, but in different ways. Budgeting Loans will become Budgeting Advances, provided as now by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and, for those eligible, will gradually be incorporated into Universal Credit. It’s the other two – Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans – that particularly concern us here, for it is these that are actually being abolished, with funding being made available to English local authorities (and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales) to enable them to provide new locally-administered assistance to vulnerable groups, under existing powers.

Mark those last three words. They may sound harmless, but they’re crucial. They mean that councils have no new statutory duty to provide any specific form of support, for some of the poorest and most marginalised members of our society, out of funding that is not ‘ring-fenced’, and at a time when their diminishing resources are already under the acutest pressure.

Ministerial guidance to councils is expressed in questionable English, but impeccably localist rhetoric. “The Government has decided it would not be appropriate to place a new duty on local authorities in respect of the new provision you are planning. You need to be able to flex the provision in a way that is suitable and appropriate to meet the needs of your local communities.”

Even Ministers, though, acknowledge that it’s much more about savings than about ‘flexing provision’: “It will mean that individuals will have to take more responsibility in managing their own finances and plan for their future, rather than building up benefit debts they can ill afford.” You local councils, in other words, must be even tougher that we in central government have been. And, by the way, we no longer accept any responsibility for this ultimate safety net of our supposedly national welfare system.

It’s similar to what’s happening with Council Tax Benefit: systems run till now by the DWP being transferred to local authorities, but with significant reductions in funding and minimal preparation time. In both cases, localisation is a good principle which in time should provide more efficient, more responsive and more integrated services for local residents. But here in Birmingham, for example, the Council has been expected to devise and launch a scheme of ‘back-stop’ local welfare provision, with all its attendant criteria and considerations – eligibility rules, forms of assistance, degrees of discretion, advice to unsuccessful applicants, appeals procedures, and, of course, action if or when the money runs out – with ‘start-up’ funding of just over ₤60,000.

Naturally, councils have been ‘flexing’ their own schemes and coming up with differing solutions.  Some will issue charity food parcels; others plan to give cash grants to food banks to enable them to employ full-time staff and extend opening hours. A minority will continue the practice of cash payments for specified emergency items, or maybe low-interest (rather than interest-free) loans with local credit unions. It’s clear, though, that most have opted, more or less reluctantly, for what generically seem likely to become known as ‘food stamps’: not cash loans, but one-off vouchers redeemable for a list of approved goods, such as food and nappies.

Birmingham’s Labour council has negotiated its own, to date unique, form of voucher scheme, outlined in its publication – Local Welfare Provision (LWP): What is happening in Birmingham from April 2013?  The ‘provision’ is described initially in terms of ‘awards’ and ‘grants’, but by page 3 it becomes clear, in the boldest type, that one big thing that’s happening is that “There will be no cash alternative as part of the LWP scheme”. What there will be, for successful applicants “in crisis”, are pre-paid Asda cards, enabling the purchase of emergency food and essentials – as opposed to, although they’re not actually mentioned, tobacco, alcohol, phone-related items, and other undesirables.

Quite apart from the inflexibility and inconvenience of prepaid cards, and the almost predictable technical teething problems, there are obviously some pretty hefty principles involved in this cash-to-cards switch – enough indeed to justify a blog in their own right. As refugee support agencies and human rights organisations have argued over the years, they’re potentially humiliating, stigmatising, socially marginalising, and ultimately infantilising.

And yet (you can probably guess what’s coming next) it’s the so far exclusive deal with Asda – scarcely involving a genuine point of principle at all – that has attracted all the media attention and a public ‘clarification’ by the Council, who say they’re also in negotiation with a wide range of other retailers. We shall see, but my personal bet is that, unless they sign up a good few others pdq, they’ll acquire, and find it very difficult to lose, the adhesive tag of ‘the Asda council’ – the one consolation being that they won’t need to spend too much on publicising the scheme.

Note: Earlier (and longer) version of this article posted by our fine colleagues at The Chamberlain Files.



Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Street names – Mid Devon fails Birmingham’s comma sense test

Chris Game

Mid Devon District Council has just had to reprint and re-issue tens of thousands of council tax demands, after sending the majority of its taxpayers bills for up to £5 more than they were due to pay.  A hapless council officer had miscalculated the parish precept part of the bills, thereby costing the council an estimated £12,000 in re-billing charges.

A pretty big deal, you might think – one that would surely top the agenda at this week’s cabinet meeting.  But you’d be wrong. Sure, folks are annoyed and the Council’s taken some flak, but the annoyance and flak over this expensive and embarrassing boo-boo are NOTHING compared with the literally global outcry prompted by the Council’s announcement that it was planning to formalise its street naming guidelines by, among other things, avoiding in new street names and signs “all punctuation, including apostrophes”.

Yes, I’m fully aware we’re approaching April 1st, but I promise you, this is serious stuff. The professionals, or obsessionals, set the pace. The Apostrophe Protection Society thought it “appalling, disgusting, pointless”. The Plain English Society was less hesitant, and in very plain English wondered, after the “murder” of the apostrophe, “where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”

Then the locals leapt in – the obligatory quote from the Exeter University Eng lit lecturer; a tweet from Exeter MP and former Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, who, if encouraged, would tweet about his breakfast; and the local politician, with a beautifully crafted own goal. The Mayor of Tiverton Town Council, possibly still peeved by the fact that, when first invented in 1974, the meaningless ‘Mid Devon’ was in fact Tiverton District, thought “it’s ridiculous just to remove them” (they weren’t; the proposal was for new street names only). “If for example Blundell’s Road belongs to Blundell then it should have an apostrophe.”

Precisely. And, if it no longer does, then presumably it shouldn’t. Blundell’s Road and Avenue in Tiverton are two of only about four currently apostrophised street names in the whole Mid Devon district. They are named after the extremely rich 16th Century merchant, Peter Blundell, but probably never actually belonged to him, and certainly don’t today. Game and set, one would think, to the Mid Devon reformers, but sadly, as we shall see, not the match.

By now, any Birmingham readers will have recalled that we went through all this sound and fury back in 2009, when the City Council similarly decided to formalise what had become conventional practice and remove all apostrophes from those place and street names that still, sometimes and arbitrarily, retained them. The author of the policy was a Lib Dem councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ward and Chair of the Transportation Scrutiny Committee, Martin Mullaney.

Mullaney’s initial concern was to get a ruling on Kings Heath and Kings Norton, which wasn’t easy. The Gazetteer of British Place Names, for example, refuses even to recognise any such place name without a possessive apostrophe, if there’s any chance at all that it might once have warranted one. So Acock’s Green (another Birmingham ward) remains apparently the possession of one member of the Acock family, Druid’s Heath (in the same South Birmingham area) the playground of a single druid, and King’s Heath and King’s Norton are treated as if they were still part of the property portfolio of a monarch who flogged them off more than two centuries ago.

To any right-thinking person this is barmy, and thankfully the City Council had long recognised it as such.  Some decades previously, it had followed the lead of the Americans (of course) and several other English-speaking countries and dropped the possessive apostrophe completely from Birmingham place names – though more in the interests of convenience and economy than of improving historical or grammatical logic.

And to me, convenience or what one might call comma sense, are the key points in this particular debate. On the whole, I’m pretty keen on using punctuation properly and observing its rules. I don’t want, as the Plain English Campaign puts it, to “murder” the apostrophe, or any other punctuation mark. I’ve no wish to be rid of it altogether, even though it’s often more trouble than it’s worth (despite the potential confusion between it’s and its, you’d still understand this sentence, even if I’d left out all six apostrophes), and in the real world is on its way out anyway. It’s the possessive pronoun in names and signs, not its ‘omission’ purpose of signalling missing letters, that I’d do away with.

We know from linguistic historians that the apostrophe’s use to signify possession, as opposed to indicating letters omitted, is a punctuation oddball – a latecomer, essentially in the 19th Century, owing more to printers than grammarians, with rules that are never clear cut and frequently unknowable. Why, to pick just one example, no apostrophe with possessive pronouns – hers, his, yours, ours, its – but with the possessive of some indefinite pronouns – one’s, anyone’s, somebody’s?

When it comes to names, if, in order to use the apostrophe correctly, you need to research the life history of the person or place (as with Tiverton’s Peter Blundell), or know the chosen corporate preference of the company, then you’re better off without it. I think it was Queens College that decided me. As an academic, I happen to know that it’s The Queen’s College, Oxford and Queens’ College, Cambridge. And the reason – come on, pay attention there! – is that the former was founded in honour of one Queen (Philippa of Hainault – the then French one, not the East London one), while the latter commemorates the two Queens of Henry VI and Edward IV. Yes, I’m not certain even Michael Caine knows that.

Companies, sports stadia and the like are even trickier. If you’re pro-apostrophe, you’ve got Sainsbury’s with you and Morrisons against you; Blackwell’s with you, Foyles and, since last year, Waterstones against; McDonald’s for, Harrods, Selfridges and Starbucks against; Lord’s (cricket ground) for, Ladbrokes against; St Andrew’s (Birmingham City) and St James’ Park (Newcastle) for, St James Park (Exeter) against.

Which brings us back to Birmingham.  In 2009 the Council attracted just the same OTT outrage and ridicule as Mid Devon has. Councillor Mullaney got himself on New Zealand television, and similarly Mid Devon has been reported and mocked by the Belfast Telegraph, the Canberra Times and Newstrack India. The big difference has been that, whereas Councillor Mullaney and Birmingham City Council stood their ground, went ahead and abolished, their Mid Devon counterparts have rather pathetically caved in.

The Council’s Conservative Leader, hyphenated Peter Hare-Scott, having reviewed the situation, decided against taking on the out-of-town punctuation fascists, and, when Agenda Item 4(c): Street Naming and Numbering comes up, will recommend that the Cabinet “amend the policy so that street names may in future have apostrophes”. Eric Pickles for one will be pleased. A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Whilst this is ultimately a matter for the local council, ministers’ view is that England’s apostrophes should be cherished.”  Their view of Conservative-led councils who cost their hard-working taxpayers money by miscalculating their council tax demands isn’t recorded

Note: A version of this blog post appeared previously on TheChamberlainFiles.com


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

You couldn’t make it up – except DCLG just did

Chris Game

Did you see manager Arsène Wenger’s explanation of Arsenal’s feeble performance against Manchester City last Sunday?  While most players are galvanised by home supporters and see playing at home as an advantage, Arsenal’s apparently are scared by theirs. “They have a great desire to do well, so maybe they’re a bit too anxious that they don’t respond completely to the expectation level of the crowd.”

A strong bid, certainly, for this week’s You-couldn’t-make-it-up prize, were it not for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), who, not satisfied with inventing their own measure for disguising the severity of their grant funding cuts to councils, have now disguised it still further by double-counting. If the whole grant-slashing exercise weren’t so serious, the ineptitude really would be laughable. Ridicule aside, it can only serve to validate and reinforce the allegations of unfairness that core city leaders in particular have been making.

Nick Forbes, Newcastle City Council leader, kicked off in November, writing personally to David Cameron to complain about the ‘unfair’ impact of funding cuts on councils like Liverpool with cheap housing and therefore a low council tax base. Then on December 19th, local government finance settlement day, the leaders of all seven English core cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield – wrote jointly to Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, demanding an urgent meeting to address the “looming financial crisis” their authorities were facing.

The scale of the potential crisis was illustrated by reference to the Jaws of Doom’ graph – Birmingham’s version of Barnet Council’s now famous and similarly apocalyptic ‘Graph of Doom’, produced by the London borough to shock residents, but particularly Ministers, into realising that by 2020 councils would be facing a £16.5 billion shortfall, with no money left for anything apart from children’s services and adult care.

The ‘Jaws of Doom’ graph appears in Birmingham City Council’s budget consultation document (p.8) and does indeed resemble the gaping jaws of a crocodile, attacking from stage left, but unable to swallow the monstrous £600 million budget deficit for which the council estimated, last October, it was heading – and now, following the finance settlement, closer to £625 million.

jaws of doom

This is on top of the £275 million of mainly ‘efficiency and transformational’ savings, including a 25% staffing cut, already made over the past two years, and that have brought the council to the point where the Labour administration, elected last May, claims further efficiency savings are no longer enough. The severity of the reductions in government grant will necessitate significant cuts in front-line services. Hence the budget consultation: outlining the Council’s proposed four-year savings programme, and seeking residents’ views on detailed service cuts for 2013/14, and on alternative council tax scenarios – a further freeze, a limited increase of under 2%, or a larger increase requiring referendum approval.

One question, however, that the consultation document neither asks nor, judiciously, attempts explicitly to answer is: IS IT FAIR?  So I thought I’d have a go.

Are Birmingham and urban councils generally, or Labour councils, or the most deprived areas, being particularly harshly treated by these grant funding cuts? Or was Pickles right, when he insisted in his finance settlement statement that “overall the average spending power reduction for councils in 2013/14 is expected to be limited to just 1.7% per household”, and that “concerns that the poorest councils would suffer disproportionately are well wide of the mark”?

Well, let’s start right there, with that phrase ‘spending power’ (SP) reduction – used by Pickles and his civil servants in preference to the ‘grant reductions’ quoted by council leaders and measured by the ‘Jaws of Doom’. Are they different? You bet. SP was introduced in 2010/11, when the new Government announced its intention to cut central government grant funding of council revenue spending by an unprecedented 28% in cash terms (nearer 40% in real terms, allowing for inflation) over four years, with 21% ‘front-loaded’ in the first two years.

To disguise the savagery of that front-loading, and to make before-after comparisons more difficult, the DCLG first restructured the whole grant allocation system, and then created ‘revenue spending power’ – a measure Ministers claimed that, by including council tax receipts, certain specific grants, and NHS social care funding, gave a fuller picture of a council’s overall financial position. Fuller, yes, but not full. If it really was a full, rather than politically beneficial, picture that Ministers wanted, they could have included income from fees, charges and investments. These, however, are income sources that tend to decline in a recession and whose addition to SP would emphasise, rather than de-emphasise, councils’ grant dependency – so nothing like as helpful as the DCLG’s contrived measure, which could instantly reduce a 28% grant cut to a 14% cut in spending power.

You’d think this was sufficient, but this year, it seems, they’ve really over-egged the pudding by double-counting council tax support in two separate elements of SP. Sadly, at the time of writing, the Department was refusing to help Local Government Chronicle journalists with their enquiries into how the double-counting occurred, and whether it was intentional or accidental. Either way, Pickles’ claim of an average 1.7% spending power cut in 2013/14 was clearly wrong and should have been about a percentage point higher.

Having changed the system and invented new terminology, Ministers’ next rule is always to describe funding reductions in overall percentages, not cash. This fools no one who gives a moment’s thought to how grant funding works, but then there are plenty who don’t.

Formula Grant – the general grant allocated in the annual finance settlement – is calculated in four blocks, the two key ones being Relative Needs, to compensate for areas’ differing service needs, thereby broadly reflecting economic and social deprivation; and Relative Resources, reflecting the strength of an area’s council tax base and ability to raise its own revenue. In combination, these two elements mean some councils are much more reliant on central government grant than others. The more deprived the area, the greater is its need for council services, the lower its council tax base and tax receipts, and therefore the higher the proportion of its revenue spending that needs to be funded by central grant.

Overall in 2012/13, 27% of councils’ revenue spending is funded through council tax. But that proportion ranges from averages of 16% and 22% among Inner London and metropolitan boroughs to over 50% among shire districts. Even neighbouring councils’ grant/tax ratios can differ considerably – like Birmingham’s 84% grant/16% council tax and Solihull’s 67%/33%. What can be presented, therefore, as a uniform 10% grant cut across the country means for Birmingham a budget cut of 8.4%, for Solihull one of 6.7%, but for some shire districts barely 2%. Not so uniform after all.

The reforms to specific or targeted grants have hit councils in deprived areas relatively harder still. Some grants specifically conceived for deprived communities, like the Working Neighbourhoods Fund and area-based grant, have been run down or scrapped altogether. In contrast, the Council Tax Freeze grant to councils agreeing to follow the Government’s tax-freeze policy comprises a 3.5% addition to a council’s existing tax revenues, so benefiting most those with higher tax bases. Likewise, the New Homes Bonus Scheme, funded by top-slicing the central grant to all authorities by equal proportions, benefits disproportionately those in the south, where the bulk of the building is.

Obviously, there have been and will continue to be numerous other technical changes in the grant funding system, with criss-crossing impacts on different kinds of councils. Even a year ago, though, the Audit Commission’s Tough Times report was clear that “there is a strong link between local deprivation and the scale of funding reductions”, with “deprived areas in the north, the midlands, and inner London [experiencing] the greatest cuts”.

There have been several comparisons of the scale of funding cuts across individual local authorities, among the most accessible being the Guardian newspaper’s analysis and interactive map. English local authorities were found to be facing, on average, a cut of £61 a year per person in the total central government funding they would receive between 2011 and 2014, but the range extended from over £250 per person in Hackney, Liverpool and Knowsley to North Dorset’s £2.70.

The severity of cuts correlated closely with the Government’s own Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), examples including Liverpool – IMD 2nd, funding cut 2nd (₤252); Manchester – IMD 4th, funding cut 5th (₤210); and Birmingham – IMD 13th, funding cut 16th (₤166). Of the 30 councils facing the severest cuts, 28 are currently Labour controlled. All of which suggests – returning to Pickles’ other bluster from his finance settlement statement – that “concerns that the poorest councils would suffer disproportionately” are not so wide of the mark after all, and certainly not as wide of it as his own 1.7%.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Making Ends Meet: What Aren’t We Talking About?

Catherine Staite

Last month West Somerset District Council sent up a distress flare.  They can’t make ends meet and it is only going to get worse.  At the other end of the scale, the Leader of Birmingham City Council has announced £600m of cuts and declared that the changes which are coming will be ‘the end of local government as we know it’. LB Barnet’s ‘graph of doom’ demonstrates how rising social care costs will eat up their resources until there is no capacity to do anything else but social care and emptying the dustbins.

At INLOGOV we’ve been rather optimistic about the potential for some good to come out of the financial crisis.  We’ve been talking about how we need to build capacity, change relationships and challenge expectations – something we’re calling a ‘new model’ for public services. We are working with some very innovative councils who are embedding radical new thinking in the way that they prioritise resources and commission services. I really believe that it will be possible for them not only to survive but to thrive in this difficult climate.

Others will not be so fortunate. They may ‘salami slice’ and inadvertently lose all their innovative, creative people and therefore their capacity to change.  In some cases political and managerial leadership can’t imagine a different sort of world and so can’t act quickly enough to start building better relationships with communities, managing demand and harnessing capacity to help bridge the gap between what people need and what can be provided.  This requires a new style of local government and  very different, outward facing, political skills.

We are talking about many ways of mitigating the impact of reduced resources on the most vulnerable, but the one thing we don’t seem to talking about is streamlining the machinery of local government. Local government re-organisation – that is, merging smaller councils and moving to a world where shared services are the norm – could help to make the best use of limited capacity and save significant amounts of money but it is rarely discussed.  Many districts and some unitaries have successful shared arrangements, with chief executives and senior management teams managing up to three councils, with evident success.  Why don’t we talk about taking that further? Surely it isn’t because Mr P doesn’t like the idea.  That would recommend it to many. Perhaps it seems too difficult and painful a topic to discuss.  But if we don’t, then opportunities will be lost to make the changes in a positive way and not in a crisis, when distress flares have already gone up.

In Denmark, local government has re-organised itself successfully in recent years. Councils joined together voluntarily with their neighbours until they achieved the best possible combination of size and geography to deliver economies of scale and locally accessible services.  Perhaps we should think about doing the same thing?  If local government doesn’t take the initiative and provide its own leadership on this, no-one else will.  How can we justify the inefficiencies and unnecessary overheads of two tier areas and tiny unitaries in the current financial climate – when cuts are having a real impact on the most vulnerable?

English local government is demonstrably resilient and resourceful.  Can it also be clever, brave and altruistic?

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Equal Pay: Birmingham’s Seriously Disagreeable Christmas Sprout

Chris Game

You probably caught Monday’s headlines: “Country’s largest authority hit by £757 million equal pay bill”; “Birmingham taxpayers face massive service cuts to pay for growing compensation bill”; “Council bankrupt if Government withholds borrowing permission”.

If so, they may have prompted a feeling of déjà vu – both recent and distant. Recent, because these November 12th headlines reported only Birmingham City Council’s delayed official reaction to the genuinely headline-meriting event a fortnight earlier: the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling against the Council and in favour of 174 former employees seeking compensation under the Equal Pay Act 1970 (now the Equality Act 2010). Distant, because – to the shame of all those materially responsible – this lamentable case has been dragging on, chapter by chapter, for a good proportion of the 42 years since Barbara Castle’s historic legislation was passed in the final days of the 1960s’ Wilson Governments.

It’s inevitably a complex story, and the basis of the Supreme Court’s 3-2 majority judgement exceptionally so. But it also has potentially huge implications for other public and private sector employers. A bit of background, therefore, may be useful.

The Equal Pay Act outlawed unequal treatment of men and women, by permitting equal-pay claims to be made by women in the public and private sectors, who were engaged in the same or broadly similar work as men. Though passed in 1970, the Act’s implementation was put back until 1976, thus allowing employers what many felt was a generous period in which to make the necessary ‘adjustments’. Don’t laugh!

It took local government decades seriously to consider its adjustments, but in 1997 the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC) – representing local government employers and the main trade unions: UNISON, UNITE and GMB – negotiated a Single Status Agreement, intended finally, or at least by 2007, to implement the Act without wholesale recourse to employment tribunals. The aim was to develop, through systematic job evaluation schemes, a common pay and grading scale for all manual, administrative and clerical jobs, based on the principle of equal pay for women employed in jobs of equal value to those typically done by men.

Whatever may have been fondly imagined, Single Status could never be cost-neutral. With (in Birmingham) men earning up to four times more than women doing identically pay-graded jobs, there would be losers as well as winners, with local authorities having to find very large sums of money on top of their required efficiency savings, and without jeopardising their primary task of improving local services. They had to devise and negotiate a more expensive unified structure, and compensate those discriminated against under the existing regime, while also ensuring that the now ‘downgraded’ bin men and road sweepers would not be penalised excessively – either through pay cuts or the withdrawal of the supposedly output-based bonus payments that tended to be the preserve of male-dominated jobs.

Righting a major long-term injustice is inevitably difficult, but 10 years was a fair time-frame.  Nevertheless, in 2010, three years after the deadline, one in five councils had still not implemented a Single Status Agreement. Few emerge from the saga with much credit. Ministers set no staged timetable, enabling them to refuse to provide extra funding for back-pay settlements. They also capped, initially at a hopelessly inadequate £200 million, the total ‘capitalisation’ sum councils could borrow against their own assets: a figure that, even in 2006, would barely have covered the then estimated costs of Birmingham City Council alone.

The generally male-run unions resisted any national campaign, giving the impression of putting men’s wages – and Labour councils’ interests – above those of their women members. ‘No win, no fee’ lawyers rushed in to fill the vacuum, taking action against recalcitrant councils, against unions who had settled for less than maximum compensation, and trousering up to 25% of any payout. In a particular irony, employment tribunals, which Single Status was designed to bypass, eventually took centre-stage. One decreed that up to six years’ compensation should be paid for past injustice, instead of the two years that had become the norm – thereby adding further huge sums to councils’ pay bills.

Then, in April 2010, 4,000 women won potentially the biggest pay-out of all in a tribunal judgement against Birmingham City Council. The tribunal found that thousands of women workers – cooks, cleaners, carers, clerks – were entitled to the same pay as men working as gardeners, refuse collectors and grave diggers, who had earned several times as much through large and discriminatory cash bonuses ‘awarded’ for tasks such as picking up refuse sacks and completing rounds on time. Adding insult to the financial injury of conceivably up to £3 billion, the tribunal criticised the Council for wasting public resources in misguidedly incurred legal fees, and its senior management for having continually pushed the problem to one side ‘like a disagreeable sprout on a Christmas dinner plate’.

Obviously, given where we are today, the advice was not heeded. Christmases came and went, the sprout increased in size and disagreeability, but the Council persisted in pushing it around. It took the above case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where it was dismissed. Meanwhile, it was facing other cases in the courts – brought by former-employee claimants, unable to go to employment tribunals because of the rules limiting their jurisdiction to cases brought within six months of the termination of the claimant’s employment.

This was how the present case started, and what it is essentially about. The Abdulla Group, as it became known after the first alphabetically listed claimant, comprised 170 women and 4 men who had missed out on the Council’s equal pay compensation payments paid to women still working for the Council in 2007/08 or who had recently left and taken their cases to an employment tribunal. The 174 had all left more than six months earlier, which the Council cynically decided meant that, since they would be time-barred from going to a tribunal, they could be safely excluded from the compensation scheme.

The Council’s case was that ordinary courts should refuse to consider such claims. In the words of the 1970 Act, the court should “direct that the claim be struck out”, on the grounds that it “could more conveniently be disposed of separately by an employment tribunal” – as indeed all previous equal pay claims had been, generally to the considerable benefit to the claimants, in costs, time and accessible expertise.

In the High Court, however, the deputy judge was less concerned with precedence than with Parliament’s intended meaning of ‘more conveniently’. Grossly oversimplifying the literally hours of judicial time since expended on this innocent little phrase, the judge’s interpretation was that a tribunal could hardly dispose of a case more conveniently, if it was time-barred from considering it at all, and that this surely cannot have been Parliament’s intention.

Nearly a year later, in November 2011, the Court of Appeal took the same view, and so two weeks ago did three out of five Supreme Court judges. Former employees have the right to bring claims in the civil courts, where the relevant time limit is not six months, but six years – which, with this case having started in 2010, includes anyone who was still working for the Council from 2004.

The District Auditor estimates that the Council will need to find £757 million to cover actual and potential equal pay settlements, which will mean going cap in hand to Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles for permission to borrow £325 million on top of the £430 million already secured to help fund the pay claims.

At the same time, struggling finally to digest their wretched Christmas sprout, the Council’s leaders have the nerve to moan at the long succession of referees who’ve ruled against them: “Employment tribunals and the courts have changed their opinion around the law over this period of time always in one direction, which has added significantly to the amount of claims we have had and the cost of them.” To which the thousands of exploited women employees will surely chorus: well, you could always have settled sooner, or even not discriminated in the first place.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Council Tax Benefits: A Case of Seriously Muscular Localism

Chris Game

I noticed recently that, among the links on the right-hand side of this page, we still listed the We Love Local Government blog – which, despite its having been wound up, in characteristic style, several months ago, rather pleased me. It deserves to live on, and, should its belatedly unveiled authors, Glen Ocsko and Gareth Young, happen to see this blog, they may take it as a small personal tribute to them and their … I was going to type ‘baby’, but that would make them filicidists … creation.

WLLG was written by local government officers – often critical of aspects of the world in which they worked, but who managed at the same time to love it – or at least sizable chunks of it, for quite a bit of the time. This, of course, is what made it and them different – from so many of their fellow citizens who achieve only the harshly critical bit. This blog is addressed to these gripers, in the hope that, if ever there were a sequence of events that might arouse in them a tad of sympathy for local councils, it could well be the latest episodes of the Government’s council tax benefit changes, summarised below and using as an illustration Birmingham City Council.

These benefit changes are a pivotal and controversial Coalition policy, revealing what critics claim is the true nature of its welfare philosophy, its commitment to genuine localisation, and its sheer managerial ineptitude. Details are on Birmingham City Council’s website under ‘Council Tax Support’ – so what follows is a brief summary for the late arrivals at the Taxpayers’ Ball.

From next April, the Government is abolishing Council Tax Benefit (CTB), a means-tested benefit currently paid by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but administered by local government – in Birmingham’s case, £100 million to approximately 137,000 council tax payers. Replacing it will be Council Tax Support – financial support schemes determined and operated by local authorities themselves.

This ‘localisation’ of welfare sounds a commendable transfer of responsibilities from Whitehall to town hall – until you examine the attached strings. First, the policy forms a key part of the Coalition’s deficit reduction programme, aimed at reducing the current CTB bill by 10% by strengthening councils’ incentives to get people into work, and cutting the fraud and error that the DWP was unable to control. And councils will need to achieve all this immediately, apparently, as the Government would pay them 10% less for their new schemes than for CTB, creating for Birmingham a funding gap of £10.9 million.

Second, the Government decreed that pensioners receiving CTB must be protected against any reduction in support. In Birmingham this means 54,000 pensioners are protected, while 83,000 working-age recipients (those born after October 1951) shoulder potentially the whole savings burden.

So far, so centralist, for it is only here that the localist part begins, with councils able to devise their own schemes to achieve these savings, provided they do so by January 2013.

In practice, this discretion amounts to three unenviable choices: spreading the funding cut equally across virtually all CTB recipients apart from pensioners; giving the rebate to certain groups only; or continuing with the full rebate, and filling the gap either through raising council tax or finding savings elsewhere, on top of those already being demanded by the Government – for Birmingham, a possible £600 million over the next five years.

The Council’s selected option – essentially a version of the spread-the-pain-equally model – was revealed in early September in two documents: one setting out the proposed tax support scheme, the other asking for residents’ views by 2 December. Almost all working-age people could expect to pay at least 24% of their council tax – which this year would be £178 or £3.43 a week on a Band A property. Main exceptions would be those with a dependent child under six, and those receiving a disability or disabled child premium or war-related pension. A modest contribution to the scheme’s cost should come through removing council tax discounts on second homes, as permitted when the Local Government Finance Bill eventually completes its unhurried progress through Parliament.

Now here, I thought, is where the sympathy might come in – for the contemptuous treatment councils regularly receive, even from Community and Local Government ministers who are supposed to be vaguely on their side.

First, there’s the constitutional arrogance of requiring councils to prepare and consult on detailed schemes before the authorising legislation is even passed. Yes, it’s equally contemptuous of the Queen’s Royal Assent, but it seems almost standard procedure nowadays.

Then there’s the Government’s brand of centralist localism – ‘muscular localism’, as Secretary of State Eric Pickles calls it – which involves both setting all the main rules, then changing them in what ministers must know is the middle of councils’ consultations, but that to them presumably is merely a game.

In late October, weeks after most councils had formulated their support schemes and gone out to consultation, DCLG ministers announced that they’d had a quick whip-round and found an extra £100 million ‘transition grant’ for councils whose schemes were ‘well-designed’ and maintained positive incentives to work.

As they say in professional cycling, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Ministers’ idea of ‘well-designed’ turns out mainly to mean that those currently receiving full council tax support should pay no more than 8.5% of their council tax liability, or barely a third of Birmingham’s proposed 24%.

So, back to the drawing board – or perhaps not, who knows.  An unpredictable share of the £100 million would represent a fraction of councils’ 10% funding cut and complicate budget-making. Besides which, collecting costs will cancel out much of the arbitrary 8.5% tax payments: £1.21 per week on a Birmingham Band A property. The smart money is on most councils sticking with their intended schemes.

Clearly, though, ministers have been spooked by the savage impact on the poorest households of their own inflexible funding restrictions – of which they were repeatedly warned, and which might have been largely avoided, had they allowed councils not just to remove tax discounts from empty properties, but, as proposed by the LGA, to reduce even slightly the 25% single person’s discount.

But no, that was another ministerial rule: “the Government has no intention of introducing a ‘stealth tax’ on eight million people” – a benefit cut on even more, even poorer people being apparently something other than a stealth tax, or anyway one for which councils would take the blame. Now, no doubt, they’ll get additionally blamed, whether they change their proposed schemes or not – and if that lot doesn’t earn them a scintilla of sympathy, I’m at a loss to think what might.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.