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.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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.

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