A South Tyneside man is claiming to be the ‘poor people’s champion’ after being hauled into court over his refusal to settle a four-year-old £88 council tax bill.
Unemployed Peter Watt, 43, of Priory Road, Jarrow, insists he is standing up for the jobless and single mums who may be too scared to fight the payments system.
He’s claiming a partial victory in his battle after South Tyneside Council agreed to waive a £65 costs claim against him for non-payment.
But magistrates in South Tyneside still found him liable for the outstanding council tax sum, which dates from April 2015 to March 2016 and which he must pay.
After the hearing, Mr Watt accused the council of charging struggling residents too much – and said he was prepared to go to jail over the issue.
At court, he was joined by supporters from South Tyneside Green Party, which claims the council is forcing people on benefits to cough up 30 per cent of the full annual council tax rate.
They say other local authorities cap the amount at 10 per cent or have scrapped payments entirely – and want South Tyneside to follow suit.
Mr Watt, who is single and works occasionally in security, said: “This whole process of bringing me to court is a shambles.
“This is not about me. I’m fighting for people who can’t stand up and fight for themselves.
“I’ve paid the full council tax before when I’ve been in full-time employment, and did not mind doing so.
“My point is that this Labour council should not be charging people who cannot afford to pay, 30 per cent of the full council tax bill.
“It has the power to set its own charges and reduce the amount it wants or scrap it altogether. Instead it chooses not to.
“It is grabbing money from the poorest people in society, and that is wrong. I’d be quite happy to go to jail over this.”
The South Tyneside Green Party said it was “extremely concerned” at the level of financial support available to people on low incomes to pay their council tax.
It claimed the government’s decision in 2010 to allow local authorities to set their own reduction levels, was the crux of the problem.
From Freedom of Information requests, it said almost 7,000 people in South Tyneside were in receipt of Council Tax Support, the benefit by which councils reduce payments, in 2016.
Of these, the party said 3,662 residents were behind on payments and that 288, including Mr Watt, had seen legal action against them by the council.
In a statement, it added: “The Tory government decided to devolve decisions on what percentage of this claimants should contribute to councils, who were given a choice to charge people between 0-30 per cent.
“South Tyneside chose to charge the maximum amount, one of only nine local authorities in the UK. The vast majority charge 10 per cent or nothing at all.”
Magistrates initially intended to adjourn Mr Watt’s hearing after he produced documentary evidence that showed payments towards his council tax were being automatically taken from his benefits.
Hilary Potts, representing the council, admitted she did not have to hand a full inventory of his payments.
Neil Jackson, chairman of the bench, said the case could proceed if Mr Watt agreed he was liable for the £88.38 unpaid bill and Ms Potts would waive the £65 costs.
Councillor Ed Malcolm, Lead Member for Resources and Innovation, said South Tyneside Council had introduced a local Council Tax Support scheme in 2013 to replace the national Council Tax Benefit that was abolished as part of the government’s welfare reforms.
He added: “The changes resulted in the council losing more than £1.7m in government support.
“This shortfall has increased significantly due to subsequent government funding reductions which the council has had to meet while still protecting the borough’s most vulnerable residents.
“We have continued to support those affected by the welfare changes and are fully committed to ensuring residents are aware of the help available so that they can get the support to which they are entitled.
“Details of how to apply for council tax support is publicised in Council Tax leaflets sent out with every Council Tax bill and on the council’s website.
“We would encourage people to contact our benefits advisors who can provide comprehensive advice on the qualifying criteria and supporting evidence required.”