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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide