CORNWALL Council will investigate mounting a legal challenge against the Government's decision to shift responsibility for council tax benefit onto local councils.
Councillors instructed legal officers at County Hall to look into the possibility of launching a judicial review after agreeing to changes which will mean that every working age household in Cornwall will have to pay at least 25% council tax.
An extraordinary meeting of the full council on Tuesday saw the council chamber divided clearly on party political lines – while Conservative councillors were overwhelmingly in favour of introducing the scheme which will see the end of 100% council tax benefit Liberal Democrat councillors put forward an alternative.
Lib Dem deputy group leader Alex Folkes put forward an amendment which called for the council to fund the £4.2million needed to retain the current council tax benefit scheme by cutting expenditure on consultants and agency staff by a third.
Mr Folkes suggested that agency staff in essential departments such as social services should be protected from any cut but suggested that the council's current £1m expenditure on consultants and agency staff was too high.
But he said that it was needed to protect 26,000 families who would face hardship if they had to find money to pay council tax bills.
However the council was told that finance chief Cath Robinson had responded to the suggestion by stating that there was no specific budget available for consultants and agency staff so it would not be possible to simply identify such spending to be cut.
Conservative councillors accused Mr Folkes of coming up with his amendment "on the back of a fag packet" and suggested that introducing a minimum charges was the only way forward.
Mebyon Kernow leader Dick Cole said: "I have been contacted by a lot of people who would be affected by this and say they would be unable to meet this added cost.
"There are people who don't claim council tax benefit who have contacted me to say they would rather pay a bit more than see those who can't afford it be charged."
Mr Cole said that foodbanks in Cornwall were already struggling to meet demand and suggested that even more people would need their help if the minimum charges were introduced.
Former council leader Alec Robertson said he supported the decision to introduce a minimum 25% charge "reluctantly" and said that nobody in the council chamber wanted to accept the change.
He added: "This is not a choice that Cornwall Council has made or that the Cornish electorate has made."
Independent councillor Andrew Wallis successfully put forward an additional recommendation that council solicitor Richard Williams look into the possibility and cost of a judicial review being brought against the Government. A report is set to be brought back to the council on February 26.
Chris Goninan also put forward an additional recommendation that the council monitor the impact of the changes and that a report on the impact be brought before the council September. His motion was supported.
Mr Folkes' amendment was defeated 61 votes to 41 and the Cabinet recommendation to support a minimum 25% charges was carried 55 votes to 42.