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'Pickles' poll tax'?

Dan Drillsma-Milgrom
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Areas such as London where council tax benefit is particularly important look set to suffer badly

A week or two back, Radio 4 carried a pleasantly diverting programme reuniting some of those involved in the design, introduction and rejection of the poll tax.

Listeners heard from Lord Baker, the minister tasked with introducing the tax, whose broad point was that the community charge was a reasonable policy badly implemented. They also heard from Oxford City Council’s former assistant treasurer David Magor who told how his staff would receive registration forms in jiffy bags accompanied by some rather unpleasant human and non-human material. The diligent workers would carefully check whether the forms had been signed. Those that weren’t were replaced, resealed and returned to their senders. As an example of how an ill-conceived policy can land councils in the… well, in the soup, it was a point well made.

This week saw the new Department for Communities & Local Government ministerial team line up for its first outing on the front benches. And their Labour counterparts were keen to road test a new sound bite: the reforms to council tax benefit were labelled by shadow junior ministers Helen Jones and Chris Williamson as “Pickles’ poll tax”.

It fell to new local government minister Brandon Lewis to trot out the stock line that giving councils the pleasure of cutting support to council tax benefit recipients by 10%, while tying their hands on how they do it, was in fact creating an “incentive to get people back into work”.

(Not that trotting out a stock line is something to be sniffy about - when new planning minister Nick Boles did manage to find the answers that civil servants had prepared for him, getting his mouth around “new national planning policy framework” proved a step too far.)

Nevertheless, between Labour’s sound bite and Mr Lewis’ blunt responses, there was no room for any consideration of the small details that could prove crucial. One of these details relates to the flexibilities that councils have been granted to ameliorate the effects of the cut in funding.

While the big prize of being able to vary the 25% council tax discount for single people still eludes them, councils have been allowed to end the discounts that second homes and certain empty homes are entitled to, in order to deal with the funding cut.

A final judgment on whether these flexibilities will prove sufficient cannot yet be made, but figures sent to MPs by DCLG give the first indication. So far we can see that in non-shire areas, more councils are likely to be able to cover the cut than not. However, areas such as London where council tax benefit is particularly important look set to suffer badly.

These details matter. Those who lived through the poll tax’s brief existence will need no reminding of the huge difficulties councils would face should large numbers of people prove unable - or unwilling - to pay council tax.

Dan Drillsma-Milgrom, deputy editor (News)

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