More than 4,000 of Hounslow's poorest citizens have been issued with court summons since council tax benefit was cut last year, a new report claims.
The Government slashed funding for council tax benefits last April, meaning all working-age people in Hounslow - even its most impoverished householders, who were previously exempt - must now pay at least 8.5 per cent of the total bill.
A joint report by the charities Child Poverty Action Group and Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) says the reduction in benefits, which it describes as 'a new poll tax', is driving already hard-up Londoners even deeper into poverty.
According to the report, published last Thursday, 4,096 people in Hounslow were last year issued with court summons over unpaid council tax, and were between them charged more than £360,000 in legal costs.
Across London, councils took court action against more than 118,000 people, charged costs of in excess of £10 million and referred nearly 16,000 people to bailiffs over unpaid council tax. Hounslow Council, it should be pointed out, did not refer anyone to bailiffs over uncollected council tax during this period.
Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of Z2K, said: "While Hounslow’s minimum payment is lower than some of its neighbours, it is still charging its poorest residents, and over 4,000 have ended up being served with a court summons for late-payment.
"Most of those have had to pay spurious 'legal costs' as well – doubling their bills and forcing them to cut back on eating and heating.
"We know Hounslow councillors are facing a challenge to balance the borough’s budget next year, but we urge them to look again at the impact of their new poll tax and especially their policy of adding legal costs when people fall behind with their bills."
Hounslow did absorb some of the cost of last year's funding cut, from which pensioners are exempt, to ensure nobody's bill rose by more than 8.5 per cent of the total council tax chargeable on their property.
However, according to last week's report, seven London councils, including neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham, dug even deeper to maintain 100 per cent support for their poorest residents.
The report acknowledges the financial constraints on local authorities but urges them to reduce the minimum payment if possible and to create a hardship fund for those struggling to pay, if they have not already done so. It also calls on councils to waive court costs for council tax support cases.
The Government is urged to take back responsibility for administering council tax support, and to restore the 100 per cent subsidy.
Short of that, the report says, the Government should let local authorities reduce the 25 per cent discount for single-person households, freeing up money to help their poorest residents.
A spokesman for Hounslow Council said it had taken steps to reduce the impact of the funding cuts, which he said would otherwise have seen bills increase by up to a fifth, rather than 8.5 per cent.
He also pointed out the number of court summons it issued had fallen for a fourth consecutive year in 2013/14, and urged anyone struggling to pay to contact the council as soon as possible to see what support was available.
Councillor Theo Dennison, Hounslow's cabinet member for finance, said: "Hounslow Council has always been concerned that localisation (of council tax benefits) would create unnecessary difficulties for some of our poorest residents. The fact that the Government reduced the funding available to less than the amount they had had to spend made this inevitable.
"However, we will be undertaking a fundamental review of the workings of the local scheme this year before agreeing how it will proceed. I am grateful for the facts and figures published by CPAG and Z2K, which will provide a useful indication of the social impact of the Government's policies."
For more information about council tax support in Hounslow, visit http://www.hounslow.gov.uk/index/advice_and_benefits/council_tax/counciltaxsupport.htm