Councils can charge for services they provide, including through flat rate charges, and each council can decide what they charge. Many councils have been increasing what they ask people to pay towards their services recently, as part of their attempts to cut back on what they spend.
However, there are rules around charging that councils must stick to. Firstly they must consult all those affected if they are thinking of increasing a charge or introducing a new charge. They must also fully assess a person’s finances and look at their ability to pay before they make a decision about how much to charge. The council cannot make a profit from charging for a service.
When the council looks at how much a person can afford to pay they will look at their income, but they cannot take into account any earnings from employment or certain benefits (e.g. the mobility component of DLA and Working Tax Credit). They must consider any ‘disability-related expenditure’ the person might have, for example higher utility bills or transport costs. The council must also be sure that they do not leave the person with too little money to live on as a result of the charges. The law says that, as a minimum, a person’s income should not be reduced to below basic levels of Income Support plus a buffer of at least 25%.
If the council does not stick to any of these rules, or if a person simply cannot afford the charges the council asks them to pay, they can complain. For information on how to complain see the 'Making a complaint' section. Whilst a dispute around charges is being sorted out, the council must still provide the services. Councils have a legal duty to meet eligible needs – this does not go away during negotiations over charges.