Can you believe it? The Tory view of society seems to be a version of Dante’s Inferno, with seven descending circles into Hell. At the top are the 0.003% of the population whose wealth on the latest estimates is now valued at £414bn, including gains in the last 3 years of £155bn. These are very precious people, so they need to be pampered with every tax concession that can be dreamed up, including vast use of tax havens over which the government conveniently casts a blind eye.
Then come the top 1%, about 300,000 persons with incomes over £3,000 a week. They too must be kept firmly on side with tax cuts. Then there’s the top 10% earning over £50,000 a year who should be protected from anything as offensive as a tax increase, whatever the state of the economy. Then there’s the broad mass of median incomes, Ed’s squeezed middle. They need to be shorn like geese when trouble arises, with maximum feather-plucking consistent with minimum hissing, as Carnot observed. Then at last, on the bottom-most ring leading to Hades, we come to the poor and the poorest.
The poor are poor because, as the Tories will tell you, they deserve to be poor. Whereas the rich need incentives to get out of bed, the poor need a good kicking. The Tories are really good at this, and their latest wheeze is one of their best. The Council tax, the successor to the poll tax, is a highly regressive tax which is why it so appealed to Thatcher and why it so enraged its victims that it ultimately brought her down. Now the Tories have found a way to tighten the screw on the poorest even more.
Council Tax benefit, currently helping 5.9m households to survive, is being cut by 10% next April. Now they’ve decided that the remaining 90% is to be dispensed by 300 local councils in whatever way they wish. This part of devolving power in the Tory localism vocabulary. The councils have to protect pensioners and the ‘vulnerable’ (undefined): are those on DLA or child benefit ‘vulnerable’ or not? An anti-poor Tory council could of course use the proceeds for quite different purposes (e.g. refurbishing municipal buildings). Whatever they decide, it will mean collecting this new poll tax benefit from millions of families who were previously protected by Council Tax benefit, with all the transactional and recovery costs involved for comparatively small sums of money. Last time round it led to a significant increase in indebtedness, with 5,000 sent to prison for non-payment, either can’t pay or won’t pay. This time round it’s going to turn the screw even harder on the poorest. Clever, isn’t it?