I was sent a consultation document from my council this week. I'm always happy to take part in a consultation, as it shows that the council is doing what it is supposed to, and consulting on changes. But, unsurprisingly, in these days of Coalition cuts-that-kill, this consultation seemed to have something of a hidden agenda, beyond just asking for people's opinions.
The subject of this survey: Council Tax Benefit cuts. I'm not currently on Council Tax Benefit, but I have been in the past, and I'm sure I could find myself in a situation where I need to claim that benefit in the future. Any of us, at any time, could find ourselves in dire straits in this economy - disabled or not. The survey opens with a brief explanation about how they will ask questions about what their current and future priorities for housing should be. (As you will see, this explanation turned out to be inadequate.) Fine, I think. And then I see the questions.
Question 1: Bringing empty homes back into use should be a priority.
I have no problem with this. I see houses sitting empty in my area all the time - often, I suspect, as a result of mortgage repossessions, but probably also as a result of people owning several properties and not being able to rent some of them out. I tick the box marked 'agree' - it could be one of the council's priorities.
Question 2: Proposed changes in legislation should be used to reduce council tax exemptions and discounts on empty homes and second homes.
Hang on a minute. We just moved from sensibly-worded questions to ones that would get me a 'fail' on my Quantitative Research Methods course. Now I have a problem. I am all in favour of the council reducing discounts for people who own more than one home. I have no idea why they get council tax discounts at all - if you can afford to own two homes, you can afford to pay council tax on them. So why have the council potentially shoved in two extremely different groups of people together in this question? Depending on how you read the question (which is very unclear), it looks like two groups could be lumped in together here: rich landlords, and other, often extremely poor people who need to claim general council tax exemptions. If the second group is suggested in this question, this includes a large number of disabled people, many of whom claim a discount because they have an extra room (for a carer to sleep in, or for mobility equipment, or because they need more than one bathroom as a result of their care needs). As a dyslexic and dyspraxic person, I have serious problems understanding which groups are meant to be included here. I sighed, ticked 'strongly disagree', and wrote an explanation: This question is unclear. I am happy to see reductions on second home exemptions, but do not touch council tax exemptions for those on benefits, disabled people, and other people who need them for reasons of disadvantage and poverty. They are the reason why council tax exemptions exist.
Question 3 was another fairly clearly-worded, not-too-controversial question about charging more council tax on empty properties, and then we get to question 4.
Question 4: Whilst pension age claimants are protected, working age claimants should have their amount of council tax support reduced.
Ah yes. A leading question that suggests we will 'protect' the people who it's currently fashionable to help (those 'hard-working' people who have now retired), but not the scroungers who don't work. Look at how they refer to us: 'working age claimants'. Why not a term that gets across the concept of 'those who can't work because they are disadvantaged by this economy and its high unemployment levels, and disabled people'? I can't believe it's really that difficult to call us something that suggests 'disadvantaged people' rather than 'people who should be working'. I think this is emotive and biased wording of a question - another example of bad quantitative research. I ticked 'strongly disagree' and tried to explain why (in the very small amount of white space next to the ticky boxes).
Question 5: Using existing administrative and computer systems to minimise costs should be a priority at this point in time.
I'm not at all sure what they meant by that, but I ticked 'agree'. I wonder now if I should have left it blank. Questions in quantitative research, and especially in consultations, should be clear. Nowhere on the consultation paper was this question explained in more detail.
Question 6: Changes to other welfare benefits should be known about before looking to implement a radically changed council tax support scheme.
Again, this is a bit unclear - what changes are we talking about here? The information sheet hasn't fully explained this. I ticked 'strongly agree', and wrote 'Any cuts to council tax benefits must be applied sparingly, and only once we know the effects of current cuts on disadvantaged groups'. If I'd had more space, I'd have written a lot more about how disabled people are being abandoned into worse and worse levels of poverty by government-level benefit cuts, and how councils should be helping to make this a little bit easier, rather than jumping on the bandwagon and cutting local-level benefits too. I did not have enough space.
There were no 'Please write any further opinions here' type questions/spaces at the end. This is a serious failing in a consultation, and especially on such an unclear survey. As you can see, I had a lot of words I wanted to write, to explain my answers in more detail.
But what worried me most was the list of ticky boxes at the end. The survey had two sections under 'ABOUT YOU' - the second section involved Equalities Monitoring (and was solely about ethnicity). The first section, which I have to conclude would be used in analysis for putting answers in context, asked the following. Am I male or female? Answered. What's my age band? Answered. And then:
Are you presently claiming council tax benefit?
Oh, excellent. A chance for the council to discount the opinions of the people who will be affected by these changes most. The opposite might be true - but how do I know? The way these answers are used are not explained, anywhere, and that's the biggest problem here.
Will the proposed changes to council tax discounts affect you?
See above. I ticked 'no' to both of these, which is the truth at the moment (although possibly not in the future), and in the hope that they would take my answers more seriously as a result. But why should I be given that privilege? No explanation of how these answers will be used means people are left confused.
And the final whammy:
Do you consider yourself to be disabled?
Given that this question was also NOT under the 'equalities monitoring' section, I can only assume that, once again, this information is being used by the council in their analysis of my answers. I was so close to ticking 'no', until I realised that the council just might be using this information to give my answers more weight, not less. Unfortunately, since they again haven't explained how it will be used, I'm left very worried about what my answer (I did tick 'yes') will mean for the way that my opinions are taken into account.
The 'equalities monitoring' section itself was about ethnic origin. This once again gives the impression that disability is not an equality issue in this consultation - it's a situation that will be taken into account when answers are analysed. I still don't know how.
Consultation is really important. Councils have to consult before they make changes to things like benefits. I may be wrong about how the questions about disability etc. are being used - maybe councils do want to listen more closely to the views of people who will be affected by the changes. Unfortunately, with no explanation of how any of these questions will be used and analysed, and with such a poorly-designed survey anyway, I'm left with paranoia and doubts - especially in this age of the government ignoring disabled people's opinions and needs, on a massive scale.
I will be writing to my local councillor and asking why the council is issuing, as a consultation document, a survey that wouldn't pass as a basic Quantitative Methods assignment at university. Personally, I think they know very well what they're doing, and that they're using the badly-worded questions and lack of explanations for their own purposes. I can't prove any of this, of course. But there are far more responsible ways to consult, so that 'vulnerable' people aren't left feeling like this.
Have you experienced a bad local consultation recently? Are you concerned that your council is finding ways to overlook your opinions? I'd like to know how widespread this situation is.