New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
8 April 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 8:16am

Labour and Tory councils are choosing the poll tax over the safety net

Many local authorities are forcing the poorest to pay council tax of more than 20 per cent. 

By Peter Kenway

Prior to April 2013, as part of the social safety net, anyone entitled to a cash benefit automatically received a 100 per cent discount on their council tax. In April last year, that changed. In both Wales and Scotland, the former system was maintained with the support of their governments. But English local authorities had to choose. They could continue as before (but with reduced central government funding) or they could introduce their own system. This April, many of those local schemes changed again. Our report, published last week, showed that three quarters (244) of the 326 English local authorities that collect council tax have now adopted schemes that required working-age households to make a minimum council tax payment regardless of income.

In that report, we estimated the average amount of council tax to be paid in 2014/15 was £149 over the year (£2.85 per week) for those households who previously would have had to pay nothing. For those out of work, as most of these households are, this money has to be found from the cash benefit. As a result, the value of the safety net has been reduced, but by a different amount depending on the local authority.

Individual councils have made decisions on the basis of their own finances and tax revenues. Yet these decisions have started to alter the bedrock of a national system, meaning a previously England-wide safety net is now worth different amounts in different places.

For people reliant on means-tested benefits, £2.85 is the sort of sum that matters. And £2.85 is only an average. Here, for example, are just ten of the (more than 60) local authorities where the average minimum payment for workless singles is estimated to exceed £3.60 a week: Blackpool, York, Stoke, Peterborough, Chelmsford, Haringey, Hillingdon, Bath, Torbay, Cornwall. For singles with no dependent children, that has to be found out £72.40 a week. Losing £3.60 is a 5 per cent cut in living standards. Since the value of these cash benefits hasn’t changed other than to keep up with inflation since the late 1970s, local discretion in the last 53 weeks has altered the value of the safety net by a bigger amount than all prime ministers from Thatcher to Brown succeeded in doing.

When the Thatcher government sought to replace domestic “rates” with a Community Charge at the end of the 1980s, it was pushing two principles. One was that the tax should be a flat rate per person (hence a poll tax). The other was that every adult should pay something, however low their income. That “something” was 20 per cent of a person’s normal community charge liability.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Council tax, based on property value, swept away the first principle. Council tax benefit, providing a 100 per cent discount to those getting cash benefits, swept away the second. Twenty years on, the localisation of council tax support has reversed this. With 244 councils opting for some minimum payment, the second poll tax principle clearly now enjoys consensus support. But how far do the decisions about the size of the minimum payment reflect the political party in control?

The graph below (based on a separate analysis) provides the answer. The 326 English councils are grouped according to whether they are Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or NOC/Independent controlled. Within each group, councils are classified according to the size of the minimum payment, from zero at one end to above 20 per cent at the other; 8.5 per cent is in this list because it was the maximum a council could set last year and still be eligible for central government’s transitional grant.

It is clear from the graph that the few Lib Dem councils all have minimum payments at the lower end while NOC/Independent are clustered at both the low and the high ends. But the spread of minimum payments for Labour and Tory councils are remarkably similar. It’s particularly striking how many have chosen a minimum payment at least equal to the poll tax of 20 per cent. Does this mean, then, that the safety net is no longer in safe hands whichever party is in power?

Peter Kenway is director of the New Policy Institute

Content from our partners
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges