The most politically hazardous of the coalition's welfare measures could yet prove that which has received the least attention: its reform of the council-tax system. As I wrote in a column in this week's NS, the coalition has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit (which is claimed by 5.9 million families) by 10 per cent, with the result that from April many of the poorest households will pay the tax for the first time. (I'll briefly summarise the piece below for those of you who missed it.)
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, the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor. Birmingham City Council, for instance, has announced that it will impose a 20 per cent charge on the unemployed, meaning a minimum payment of £200 a year for households affected.
If this sounds a lot like the poll tax, it's because it is. 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. 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."
But the government isn't done yet. At a meeting with council leaders yesterday, ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government announced that the budget for Council Tax Benefit will be reduced by a further 8.5 per cent in 2014-15, meaning a total cut of 18.5 per cent (see this report in Local Government Chronicle). Sharon Taylor, the Labour leader of Stevenage Borough Council and chair of the Local Government Association's finance panel said: "That is not what we were expecting." It was also confirmed that pensioners will continue to be protected, again meaning bigger tax rises for the working poor.
I would be surprised, however, if the government isn't forced to retreat after this April. When the first council tax bills land on the doormats of the poorest homes, they will, in all probability, be torn up. Those benefit claimants who already face the unpalatable choice of either heating their home or feeding their family, will not stoically accept that they too must pay Britain's most unpopular tax. Yet ministers still seem dimly unaware of the revolt that awaits them in less than three months.