Will this be the coalition’s poll tax moment?

The 10 per cent cut to Council Tax Benefit will force many to pay the tax for the first time. It could prove the most disastrous of the coalition's welfare reforms.

It is hard to predict which of the coalition’s welfare reforms will prove most politically toxic. The withdrawal of child benefit from those earning over £50,000 could outrage the Tories’ natural supporters, as those families that have not opted out of claiming the benefit discover, to their surprise, that they must now pay a “High Income Child Benefit charge”. Others in the government are more troubled by the introduction later this year of Universal Credit, a new single payment for welfare recipients, reliant on a fearsomely complex computer system that increasingly few in Whitehall believe will work.

But the most hazardous change could be the one that has received the least attention: the government’s reform of the council-tax system. Polls routinely show that the levy is Britain’s most unpopular tax but the coalition is about to ensure that millions of people pay it for the first time. At present, those households deemed too poor to meet the monthly charge receive Council Tax Benefit to cover all or part of their bill. With 5.9 million recipients, it is claimed by more families than any other means-tested benefit or tax credit. Now, in its quest to roll back the welfare state, the coalition has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 10 per cent. At the same time, it has localised the system, transferring responsibility for the new regime from central government to local councils.

From this April, councils must either maintain current levels of support and impose greater cuts elsewhere, remove other exemptions (such as those for second homes and empty properties), or ask those who receive a full or partial rebate at present to make a minimum payment. Early signs suggest that most will opt for the latter. An analysis by the Resolution Foundation and the New Policy Institute found that, of the 86 councils that have published their plans, 57 intend to introduce a minimum payment of between 6 and 30 per cent of a full council-tax bill.

As the government has stipulated that current levels of support must be maintained for pensioners (who, partly owing to their greater propensity to vote, have once again been shielded from austerity), the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor. On 8 January, Birmingham City Council announced it would impose a 20 per cent charge on the unemployed. That will mean a minimum payment of £200 a year for households affected.

Striking parallel

In the past year, everything from the government’s NHS reforms to its handling of the West Coast Main Line auction has been compared to the poll tax but in this instance the comparison is completely warranted. The parallels with the greatest policy misjudgement by any modern Conservative government are so striking that one is inclined to conclude that the coalition has a death wish. The Community Charge, as it was officially known, similarly required each household, irrespective of its income, to pay at least 20 per cent of the tax. Now, as then, this regressive levy is likely to be met with mass non-payment.

Patrick Jenkin, the architect of the poll tax, has even accused the government of repeating the Thatcher government’s mistake. The Conservative peer told the BBC last year: “The poll tax was introduced with the proposition that everyone should pay something . . .We got it wrong. The same factor will apply here, that there will be large numbers of fairly poor households who have hitherto been protected from Council Tax, who are going to be asked to pay small sums.”

When the poll tax was introduced in 1989, the poor were at least assured that their benefits would rise with prices. But under George Osborne’s plan to uprate working-age benefits by 1 per cent for each of the next three years, rather than in line with inflation, their incomes will be squeezed to an unprecedented degree. The government’s impact assessment showed that the poorest tenth will lose the most in real terms (2 per cent of net income a week), while the next poorest tenth will lose the most in cash terms (£5 a week).

Those faced with the unpalatable choice of either heating their home or feeding their family are unlikely to accept stoically the first council tax bill that lands on their doormat in April. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that the average working family will lose £165 per year, while the average non-working family will lose £215.

Confronted by these losses, which household will willingly pay hundreds of pounds in additional tax? Yet, for the sake of saving just £500m a year, the coalition intends to force councils to chase the poorest through the courts to recoup a charge they cannot afford to pay.

Ever since the coalition’s austerity programme began, commentators have asked when its “10p tax moment” will come. In this “son of poll tax”, we may have found the answer.

This piece appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

A protest in Trafalgar Square in 1990 against the poll tax.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.