Poll Tax II: the coalition plans even bigger cuts to Council Tax Benefit

The fund for Council Tax Benefit will be cut by a further 8.5 per cent next year, meaning a total cut of 18.5 per cent.

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.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles plans to cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 18.5 per cent over two years. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.