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