Bite the bullet on council tax

Conservatives would say that there are no such things as good taxes, and revolutionary socialists would oppose funding a bourgeois state. But those on the centre left should support taxation and take it seriously. It should be regarded not just as a means of collecting revenue, but as an instrument of social policy. As society changes, so should taxation, adapting to people's changing habits and the country's changing needs. Ministers' time would be better employed in constant reform of the tax system than on new schemes for schools and the NHS every few years. But politicians don't like to draw attention to taxes, and so prefer to leave them alone.

The left should look for taxes which hit the rich harder than the poor; which penalise goods and activities that ought to be discouraged; and which work fairly by being hard to evade. Most taxes will meet some of these criteria, but not others. Income tax in theory hits the rich harder, but in practice it is now insufficiently progressive, and wealthy people can easily evade it. It also penalises work and enterprise, which nobody should wish to discourage. VAT is largely regressive and, since it is collected through private business, easy to fiddle. Tobacco duty discourages the undesirable activity of smoking, but hits the poor hardest and is easily evaded by smuggling. Inheritance tax is unfair in its present form because it is levied on the deceased's estate and not on the windfall that each beneficiary receives.

A few taxes have hardly any downsides at all, provided (and it is a big proviso) that they can be implemented in the right way. Once the technology is set up, charging for road use - not just in city centres and on motorways but across the country - would certainly count as virtuous taxation: it will hit the rich, who travel more than the poor; it will penalise the causes of pollution and congestion; and, because you can't hide from a satellite, it will be hard to evade. Ministers are happy to ponder introducing it in 2014, by which time even Tony Blair may have shuffled off into retirement. They are less keen on what we have now: the almost equally virtuous petrol tax. Faced with rising prices for the product itself, and protests from the selfish and ignorant motoring lobby, they have announced that they will delay a 1.9p rise due in September.

In similar fashion, they hesitate over council tax. Property tax is the ideal local tax because there can be no question about where a house is located and you cannot spirit it offshore. It should also hit the rich harder than the poor, discourage multiple ownership, and hold back house-price inflation. But council tax, introduced in haste after the Tories' poll tax fiasco and left unchanged for more than a decade, has become so poorly fitted to its purpose that some, including the Liberal Democrats, advocate abolition. The government, having conducted one review, published a few days ago, now intends to have another, which, conveniently, will not report until after the next general election.

The only fault with the council tax is that what ought to be a progressive tax has become a regressive one. Residents in London and the south-east, whose property values have soared in recent years, pay too little, those in the north and Midlands too much. The banding system fails to discriminate sufficiently, the ceiling (band H) being too low and the floor (band A) being too high. Owners of more than one home get overgenerous exemption. Overall, the system still bears the marks of its origins as a poll tax mark II - the idea that it is a charge for the use of local services, like a subscription to a health club, rather than taxation that should reflect ability to pay. Yet there is nothing wrong with it that revaluation of properties and revision of the bands would not cure.

The government, however, trembles at the prospect of increasing middle-class council tax bills. The northern poor in particular would pay less, but they are expected to vote Labour anyway (or at least their constituencies are expected to remain in Labour hands). Ministers know that council tax increases have a political effect out of proportion to their impact on pockets. For every £1 in council tax, the average person pays £19 in other taxes. But while income tax usually disappears before you get it, and VAT is swallowed up in the prices of goods and services, a council tax bill comes through the door. Lacking a fair system of taxation, local councils either cut their budgets or raise the charging rates, even though they hit the poor hardest. Whitehall escapes responsibility while further enfeebling local government.

Many aspects of British taxation demand reform, but council tax is the most urgent. Ministers know what is wrong and how to put it right. They should act now.

Bring back Mary Whitehouse!

It has been drawn to our attention (as we high-minded people say) that the Sun, our highest-circulation daily paper and most devoted supporter of Blairism, has published a dossier of six "exhibits". These are said to prove "beyond any reasonable doubt" that sexual intercourse (or "a bonk") took place on Channel 4's Big Brother, under a dining-room table. Questions arise. First, can we trust anything from the new Labour camp that is said to be beyond doubt? Was the dossier, er, sexed up to keep readers' minds occupied just in case Mr Blair came a cropper in the Commons Iraq debate the same day? Second, what have the new puritans, of whom Cristina Odone writes on page 32 and who include Blair, to say about this? Third, is it in order for followers of the "1960s liberal consensus" - supporters of free expression, sexual honesty and the end of censorship - now to say: "Come back, Mary Whitehouse, all is forgiven"?

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