New statistics on council tax collection in England have been very revealing. Photo: Getty
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Is council tax going the same way as the poll tax did?

While councils are collecting more council tax than a year ago, arrears are mounting; are we seeing the beginnings of a trend that mirrors that of the poll tax?

In recent days, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has released new statistics on council tax collection in England. Covering the period April 2013 to March 2014, it is the first official data which allows us to assess the impacts of the localisation of Council Tax Support (CTS). A headline finding was that while more than £1bn extra was collected, in-year arrears increased by £145m – up more than 20 per cent on the previous year. Using data collected by NPI for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have linked these outcomes to the CTS scheme introduced by each council. The findings do not bode well for the future of localised CTS.

From April 2013, local councils across England were given the power to devise their own systems of CTS for working-age adults. It replaced the national system of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) which ensured that the poorest households did not have to pay council tax. The change marked a historic move from a nationally devised system to one of 326 different local schemes in England. Alongside this restructuring, the money provided by central government to fund CTS was cut by 10%. Each council became responsible for devising its own scheme within the reduced budget. The majority of councils chose to pass the cut on to CTS recipients, with the introduction of a ‘minimum payment’, which requires everyone to pay at least some council tax regardless of income, being the most common approach to making up the funding shortfall.

The graph below classifies councils according to the size of the minimum payment each chose to impose, from zero at one end to above 20 per cent at the other. 8.5 per cent is included because it was the maximum a council could set last year and still be eligible for central government’s transitional grant. Each of these groups is then split according to the size of the increase in arrears (between 10 per cent and 25 per cent, 25 per cent to 50 per cent, 50 per cent to 100 per cent).

To see what the graph is showing take, for example, the 97 councils who had no minimum payment. 38 per cent of them saw arrears rise by between a tenth and a quarter, 10 per cent saw a rise of between a quarter and a half while 5 per cent saw a bigger rise still. The other 48 per cent saw either a small rise or a fall. By contrast, among the 43 councils with the largest minimum payments, more than four fifths saw arrears rise by at least a quarter.

(Click on graph to enlarge).

The pattern here is very clear. Councils who chose not to introduce a minimum payment saw a smaller increase in arrears than those who opted for a minimum payment. The larger the minimum payment, the worse the picture becomes. This worsening is seen in both the proportion suffering a rise in arrears (the overall height of each bar) and the average size of the rise (how dark each bar is).

In April 2014, many of the local schemes changed again: 56 councils increased the minimum payment from the year before and a further 15 included one in their scheme design for the first time. In terms of the graph, councils in England are moving to the right. These changes have seen the number of families having to pay council tax for the first time increase by 110,000 to 2.34m. The additional council tax paid compared to the former national system is also higher in the second year at £149, £10 more than in 2013/14.

While councils are collecting more council tax than a year ago, arrears are mounting. The further cuts to CTS made in April 2014, which are not reflected in this year’s data, are likely to see these figures worsen next year. Are we seeing the beginnings of a trend that mirrors that of the poll tax which resulted in growing arrears - and ultimately led to its abolition?
 

Sabrina Bushe is research and communications officer at the New Policy Institute

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.