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.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?