Venue: Virtual Meeting. View directions
Contact: Callum Wernham Democratic & Electoral Services Specialist
To receive any apologies for absence.
There were no apologies for absence.
Declaration of Interest
To receive any declarations of interest.
A declaration of interest was submitted from Emma Hobbs relating to agenda item 62, on the grounds that she was a trustee on the Citizens Advice Bureau. Emma stated that she would still take part in discussions and any voting related to this item.
A declaration of interest was submitted from Graham Howe relating to agenda item 62, on the grounds that he was the Deputy Executive Member for Children’s Services. Graham stated that he would take no part in any discussions or voting relating to this particular issue.
Public Question Time
To answer any public questions relating to items on the agenda
A period of 30 minutes will be allowed for members of the public to ask questions submitted under notice.
The Council welcomes questions from members of the public about the work of this committee.
Subject to meeting certain timescales, questions can relate to general issues concerned with the work of the Committee or an item which is on the Agenda for this meeting. For full details of the procedure for submitting questions please contact the Democratic Services Section on the numbers given below or go to www.wokingham.gov.uk/publicquestions
There were no public questions.
Member Question Time
To answer any member questions relating to items on the agenda
In accordance with the agreed procedure the Chairman invited Members to submit questions to the appropriate Members.
Andy Croy asked the Chairman of the Community and Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee the following question:
Claimants in receipt of child benefit have had the uncertainty surrounding the ‘Child Benefit Tax’ removed for a year while for this year at least, and two years after the issue was raised, the carers finally have the ‘Carers Tax’ removed.
Five out of the seven options considered were cuts to this benefit. There is nothing in the survey responses to suggest that, despite the wording of the survey, respondents wanted a cut to the benefit.
Why weren’t options for a generalised improvement to the scheme even considered?
Firstly, we are unsure what the “tax” is referred to in the question. CTR is a benefit scheme that provides relief from council tax for those most financially vulnerable residents of the borough by giving a reduction in the amount of Council tax they pay.
I can only assume that you are referring to the fact that Child Benefit is not included in the income calculation when we assess CTR. This has always been the case since the Council have been running the CTR scheme and this continues with the new proposals.
When devising a scheme we have to consider both the impact on the residents eligible to receive CTR and all residents who pay council tax, along with the financial impact it will have on the Council and its delivery of services.
Therefore when considering a new or revised scheme alternatives were modelled in the context of affordability, the overall impact on the recipients benefiting from the scheme and the Council’s budget.
Wokingham’s scheme is comparable and on a par with most other Local Authorities CTR schemes and we are now proposing to make this scheme more generous by disregarding Carers Allowance in total for the first time.
Council Tax is a vital source of income for the council in responding to the current pandemic and council tax rates are holding up relatively well including payments by those in the CTR scheme. We will however keep this under close review and will ensure that we provide whatever support we can to those in genuine hardship in accordance with our commitments under the emerging Anti-Poverty Strategy.
Rachel Burgess asked the Chairman of the Community and Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee the following question:
When the Council Tax Reduction scheme first replaced the Council Tax Benefit in 2013, expenditure on the scheme was £4.6m. This fell significantly in the ensuing years. These new proposals for 2021-22 are to spend £4.17m, which is just £6k more than the ‘do nothing’ position. Adjusted for inflation this represents a drop of at least 16% in the funding for this scheme since its introduction in 2013, with many fewer residents helped by the scheme.
As the report notes, we are still seeing the impact of Covid on low income residents – so why has the funding for this scheme fallen so significantly, when we know residents are struggling?
Initially in 2013 the Council Tax Reduction Scheme was funded by government and schemes were written to reflect this. The funding for this was withdrawn from 2015 and was then incorporated within the Revenue Support Grant, which was reduced to zero in 2018 for WBC.
There is therefore no set budget provision for the CTR Scheme; it effectively reduces the level of Council Tax we are able to collect and therefore the money available to provide vital services for the community. Our CTR scheme and its costs need to be designed in this context.
For 2021 we are however seeking to enhance the scheme by not taking Carers Allowance into account in the calculation of the CTR award and are proposing not to make any scheme reductions.
It should be noted that in addition to the CTR scheme the council is doing what it can to assist those in hardship which includes:
· £150 Hardship Payment for each CTR recipient paid against their council tax
· Test & Trace Support Payments for those on low income who have to self-isolate
· Winter Grant
· Council lead voluntary support for the vulnerable
· Local Welfare Provision
· Discretionary Housing Payments
· Section 13a Discretionary Scheme.
I appreciate that you are enhancing the scheme, or proposing to do so, but that increase is only £6,000, which is tiny compared to the size of it. We know Council Tax is a regressive tax, and I think that it is as important as ever that a Council Tax reduction scheme does whatever it can to make sure that residents who are in financial hardship can receive the financial help that they need. So, in light of the reductions to the scheme made over several years, and the current extremely difficult circumstances in which people find themselves, as part of your role in this Committee in scrutinising this scheme, would the Committee consider tonight proposing an increase to the funding for this scheme. If you look at the detail as to how this is calculated, there are a number of different levers that you could pull to increase the funding for the scheme, is that something that you could consider this evening?
It is a difficult one in that regard, as all we can do is make a recommendation. Now, what we can do is effectively ask ... view the full minutes text for item 59.2
To consider an update to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme
The Committee considered a report, set out in agenda pages 5 to 18, which set out proposed changes to the Council Tax reduction scheme.
The report outlined the results of the public consultation which ran from 30th September to 11th November. In addition, the report gave details of the proposed change to the 2021/22 scheme, which would seek to disregard the total value of any carer’s allowance as opposed to the previously disregarded value of £46.35 per week. Overall, this would equate to an approximate positive change for claimants of £6,059 per annum total between all eligible claimants.
John Kaiser (Executive Member for Finance and Housing), Graham Ebers (Deputy Chief Executive – Director of Resources & Assets), Simon Price (Assistant Director Neighbourhoods and Communities) and Nicky Thomas (Senior Specialist – Assessments) attended the meeting to answer Member questions.
During the ensuing discussions, Members raised the following points and queries:
· How had Covid-19 (C-19) changed the responses received to the consultation compared to previous years? Officer response – Officers had noted an enhanced level of responses this year, partly due to the consultation being sent out to the wider charitable sector.
· Would more people be eligible under the scheme this coming year due to C-19 and potential lost jobs? Officer response – Officers were always nervous when major Government schemes, such as the furlough scheme, were due to come to an end. There had been a notable increase in Universal Credit applications, which could lead to increased demand on the Council Tax reduction scheme.
· A number of Members were reassured by comments made by John Kaiser, whereby he stated that this was a statutory scheme and if additional funding was required then it would be provided to meet the costs of the scheme. Graham Ebers added that there were a variety of variables and risks associated with Council tax, and this statutory scheme was just one part of a significant and complex strategy. Graham added that the best way to guard against unforeseen demand and costs was to ensure safe general fund balances.
· How many people were currently using the Council Tax reduction scheme? Officer response – Approximately 3896 people were using the scheme at present.
· Considering nearly 4000 people were using the scheme, some Members found it disappointing that only 109 of those persons responded to the consultation. What additional outreach was being considered to engage with more of these persons in future? Officer response – The consultation had been advertised and sent to all voluntary sector partners this time around. Officers would take away these comments and look to try and extend the reach of the consultation in future, perhaps by working with the Department for Work and Pensions to increase engagement with persons using the scheme.
· It was noted that many people may not have understood the first question within the consultation. Officers stated that they would take this comment on board.
· As some people may get embarrassed responding to such a survey, would officers seek to ... view the full minutes text for item 60.
To consider an update regarding the count process for the May 2021 Elections
The Committee considered a report, set out in agenda pages 16 to 22, which gave details of the preparations for the count related to the elections scheduled to be held in May 2021.
The report outlined a variety of proposed changes to the standard format of the elections count timetable, including conducting the Borough and Town and Parish Council counts during the day on Friday 7th May, and conducting the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) count during the day on Monday 10th May. The counts were expected to take place at the usual venue of Loddon Valley Leisure Centre, however there were contingency plans in place should this venue not be available for any reason. The report detailed a number of potential issues and possible solutions relating to Covid-19 (C-19) and social distancing guidelines.
Andrew Moulton, Assistant Director – Governance, attended the meeting to answer Member queries.
During the ensuing discussions, Members raised the following points and queries:
· Given current circumstances, Members appreciated the work that had already gone into planning for the counts, and found suggestions to be sensible. Given the need for social distancing, was it possible to use a separate hall to split the count and enable more effective social distancing? Officer response – This was being looked at as an option, however at the moment this didn’t appear to be feasible, however this was at an early stage of planning. There would be a lot of communications regarding this, and other elements of the counts, in 2021.
· What time would the Friday count be expected to start? Officer response – A start time had not yet been decided, however the count would need to begin as early as realistically possible. Once a start time had been agreed, this would be communicated.
· In the case of a dispute during the count, how would any disagreements be managed? Officer response – The count would be held in a C-19 secure and safe way, whilst still offering all of the transparency and objectivity that Members and the public expect from Wokingham counts. The only difference may be that the process takes a bit longer this time around.
· If, for example, the Friday count started at 8am, what time would counting finish with a view to re-start on the Saturday? Officer response – Whilst there was no definitive answer with regards to this currently, it was likely that counting would stop during the early evening on Friday 7th May.
· What would the likely cost implications be of running the elections and counts in a C-19 safe manner? Officer response – A definitive cost could not be given at the moment, however it was likely that there would be increased costs associated with the May 2021 elections and count, and this was built in to the planning assumptions. In the past, extra costs incurred by Local Authorities through no fault of their own were reimbursed by the Government.
· Would extra staff be employed at polling stations to ensure ... view the full minutes text for item 61.
To consider the Special Items and Capital Bids for the 2021-24 Medium Term Financial Plan
The Committee considered a report, set out in agenda pages 23 to 116 and supplementary agenda pages 3 to 66, which detailed the special item and Capital bids to be included within the proposed 2021-24 Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP)
Parry Batth (Executive Member for Environment and Leisure), John Kaiser (Executive Member for Finance and Housing), Charles Margetts (Executive Member for Health, Wellbeing, and Adult Services), UllaKarin Clark (Executive Member for Children’s Services), Pauline Jorgensen (Executive Member for Highways and Transport), Graham Ebers (Deputy Chief Executive – Director of Corporate Services), Chris Traill (Director of Place and Growth), Nigel Bailey (Interim Assistant Director – Housing & Place Commissioning), Mark Cupit (Assistant Director Delivery & Infrastructure: Place and Growth), and Andy Glencross (Assistant Director – Highways & Transport) attended the meeting to answer Member queries.
Charles Margetts stated that if noting changed, Adult Services would see a year on year growth in costs of approximately 4%. As such, a demand management special item was crucial to provide a better service for service users and to reduce costs by being more proactive rather than reactive, for example getting involved in a case earlier to avoid immediate crisis care. Charles added that a further special item included funding to provide a mental health nurse to meet the statutory start term needs related to Covid-19 (C-19). Regarding capital bids, Charles stated that these included a bid for a new elderly person’s dementia care home to be situated within the Borough.
During the ensuing discussions relating to Adult’s Services, Members raised the following points and queries:
· Relating to bid ASC 8, relating to demand management, what year on year saving could be expected? Executive Member response – Approximate savings of £1m per year could be expected going forward. The special item was to fund staff on short term contracts in order to set up the new system. This would require a cultural shift and change on the front end of the service, as more planned care would be delivered going forward with a more manageable workload for staff.
· Relating to bid ASC 9, relating to the hiring of a mental health professional, what ages would the service users be approximately? Executive Member response – This post would work with people from a variety of different age groups, and the role would add additional capacity within the existing team to deal with severe mental health breakdowns, which had seen a spike due to C-19.
· Relating to bid ASC 10, relating to transitions from Children’s Services to Adult’s Services, was the £270k proposed funding enough? Executive Member response – This had not been as well resourced in the past as it could have been, and this was additional funding to improve this service. The level of funding could be adjusted if needed. In addition, this was part of a much larger programme to get all areas of Wokingham Borough Council’s (WBC’s) Adult Services into the top 10% of the country.
· The transition programme from Children’s Services to Adult’s Services happened ... view the full minutes text for item 62.