Wales politics

Shelter Cymru wants assembly council tax benefit row settled

Housing charities in Wales have urged a quick resolution to a row over council tax benefit so people learn as soon as possible if they face a cut.

There is a question mark over changes to the benefit, received by 330,000 households in Wales, after the Welsh government lost a vote in the assembly.

AMs refused to rush through regulations and now face a recall during their Christmas break which begins on Monday.

Shelter Cymru said it is "vital" people know the implications quickly.

The UK government is handing responsibility for the benefit to local councils, but with a 10% cut in the funding available.

Councils in Wales cannot get ready for the changes in time for the next financial year in April 2013 until regulations are passed by the assembly.

But AMs were up against a deadline of Wednesday evening, when the last full meeting of the assembly took place before Christmas.

Opposition parties accused the Welsh government of treating the assembly with contempt after ministers provided them with more than 300 pages of documents around 30 minutes before they were due to vote on them.

The Welsh government says it could not table the regulations earlier because of a delay in getting information from the Treasury - a claim the Treasury disputes.

'Workable scheme'

Shelter Cymru director John Puzey said: "We appreciate the difficulties for the assembly in trying to debate the complex issue of the council tax reduction scheme when the full financial details had not been made available.

"However this is something that is going to directly affect thousands of people in Wales, so we hope that assembly members will return during recess to ensure that sufficient time is given to discuss the issue fully as there needs to be a workable scheme in place by April.

"Whatever happens, we know that many more people are going to face financial hardship as a result so it's vital that we know what the implications of this reduction are as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, the head of an organisation that represents housing associations says he hopes AMs find a compromise that will allow proper scrutiny of the regulations.

Community Housing Cymru chief executive Nick Bennett said: "They have got to resolve it and I'm sure there's scope for compromise, but I would not expect anybody to sign a blank cheque or pass something without scrutiny."

The Treasury and opposition parties in the assembly have asked why the rest of the UK has been able to prepare for the changes without the row that has erupted in Wales.

For example Cambridge City Council has decided, after a month of consultation, to increase council tax on second homes and empty properties to help fund the benefit.

Its former leader, Sian Reid, told BBC Wales' CF99 political programme: "Every council in England is in the same situation.

"We know it will be (cut by) at least 10%, hopefully it won't be much more than that.

"And we have just decided to work with the information that we have."

The Welsh regulations are designed to avoid a postcode lottery so the amount of benefit people get is not dependant on where they live.

Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant says the Welsh government simply does not have then £20m needed to make up for the funding cut.

He was prevented from tabling the regulations because he failed to win opposition support for a suspension of the assembly's standing orders.


The Conservatives said they had a deal with Mr Sargeant that would have allowed him to table the regulations, but it was pulled by Labour the following day.

Tory assembly leader Andrew RT Davies said: "This is not some train that has suddenly arrived on the tracks and come from nowhere. This really is just rank incompetence on behalf of the government."

A Welsh government source said the Tories had made "unacceptable, inappropriate and unrelated demands" in exchange for their support, and blamed them for creating "needless financial uncertainty on 330,000 Welsh households over Christmas".

First Minister Carwyn Jones has said he will consider seeking the permission of the presiding officer to call AMs back to the Senedd during the Christmas recess, which starts next week.

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