Welfare cuts mean a dramatic rise in council tax for the poorest

The decision to reduce the budget for council tax support by 10 per cent means low-income households face a tax increase of up to £600.

Accustomed to the inflated claims of successive governments, readers might be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the phrase "radical welfare reform". Yet for once the bold rhetoric might match reality. Council Tax Benefit, the most widely claimed benefit in the UK, which provides 5.9 million low-income families with help paying their council tax will soon be abolished. From 1 April, responsibility for council tax support will transfer from Whitehall to each of England’s 326 local authorities (and the Scottish and Welsh governments). Few have yet grasped the full implications.

To the reform’s cheerleaders, the change is ‘localism in action,’ and technically they’re right. But it’s localism of the most meagre and restricting kind. Councils must now provide council tax support but from a budget cut by 10 per cent cut. And they must also contend with centrally-set rules that mean that the amount of help pensioners receive is protected. This leaves them with a stark choice: either substantially increase the council tax bills of low income working families or find savings elsewhere to cover the funding shortfall.

Faced with these constraints and unable to make the required extra savings at a time of unprecedented financial challenge, three-quarters of English councils are set to introduce less generous systems of council tax support in just over two months’ time. Over a third are set to introduce schemes that severely reduce support. Only around a quarter of councils – along with both the Scottish and Welsh governments – feel they are able to absorb the funding shortfall and maintain current levels of support.

What does this mean for low income households? The answer is set out in a report released this morning from the Resolution Foundation. It shows that while the government talks up its decision to "freeze" council tax, millions of households – both in and out of work –in fact face swingeing increases.

Both the scale of the hit and the number of people likely to be affected are dramatic. Many of the 2.5 million out-of-work claimants who currently pay no council tax at all will now, often for the first time, face council tax bills of between £96 and £255 a year. Meanwhile, around 670,000 low-paid working families will see their council tax rise by anywhere up to 333 per cent – an increase of £577 for single working parents who look set to be the worst affected. Little wonder that the handful of prescient commentators alive to the possible implications of Council Tax Benefit reform have drawn parallels with the Community Charge, more commonly known as the poll tax.

It remains to be seen whether we see the emergence of the twenty-first century equivalent of anti-poll tax unions but councils are certainly braced for widespread non-payment. Many are setting aside large sums of money to compensate for unpaid bills while also preparing for more extensive use of bailiff powers and the courts.

Reform did not need to look like this. There was no intrinsic rationale to cutting funding at the same time as localising council tax support and experts have long warned of the dangers that a complex patchwork of local schemes poses to the government’s Universal Credit system. For savings of £410m it all seems unduly hazardous.

But the hazards for government are nothing compared to the very real suffering the changes will mean for many low income families. Already struggling to cope with stagnant wages, rising living costs, a series of cuts to the tax credits and – now – three years of below-inflation rises in support, a swingeing increase in council tax may mean the difference between staying afloat and going under.

As yet, there is no sign that ministers recognise the pain the reform is set to cause. Eric Pickles appears more concerned with the prospect of councils "cheating" their residents by planning across-the-board council tax rises of 1.99 per cent than with those soon to face increases of up to 333 per cent. Perhaps they expect a public inured to cuts to meekly accept the change. Yet there is all the difference in the world between stealth reductions in support over time and a large bill landing on your doormat. Revolt or not, the poor are unlikely to take this lying down. 

The Resolution Foundation's new report, No Clear Benefit, is published today

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matthew Pennycook is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.