On the evening of October 16th 2012 the House of Lords rejected a Z2K backed amendment to protect the poorest from the effects of the abolition council tax benefit in 2013. Their Lordships then went off for dinner.
Next year there are going to be lot of poor people in England and Wales who will be missing their dinner, as a consequence of the vote, or ”division” as it is known in the Lords. This was a point that was not lost on many Peers. A number of the Lords who spoke for the amendment and similar ones, clearly realised that trying to get 20% of the council tax out of tiny amounts of income and benefit is a recipe for disaster, both for them, for local government and the future of the council tax, which was based upon John Major’s promise in 1992 that 100% benefits would be provided for the poorest, those on low incomes and benefits.
A number of their Lordships – those with knowledge of what those at the bottom of British society experience – understood exactly what will happen next year. Unfortunately, neither the simple economics, nor the practical difficulties of trying to squeeze tiny amounts of council tax from people who increasingly struggle to find enough money to feed their families were understood by Lady Hanham. The question of how council tax will be obtained from the poorest amid other benefit cuts and caps which all come into effect in April 2013 was not explained, amid the recitation of the mantra that steps must be taken to cut the deficit.
Even the spectre at the feast in the form of Lord Best, who was a Government Minister at the time of the poll tax 1990-93 warning peers not to repeat the mistakes of the last Thatcher Government went unheeded. More than anyone in the Chamber, he was a witness to the fact that forcing the poorest into a choice between food and paying tax is a disaster.
As a test of understanding Lady Meacher forced the amendment to a Division before dinner. This at least revealed an improvement the Peers’ understanding of the issues. The amendment to protect the poor was lost on a division which revealed 139 votes to 185 against. This was certainly a better performance than in 1992-93 when the Lords were last asked to give 100% benefit to the poor, during the last year of the poll tax – the Government had a majority of 143 rejecting the idea on that occasion.
Interesting, Lady Meacher cited not only facts but the moral position, an aspect all too often omitted in debates over welfare spending. On that point it may be worth looking at one of the most important readings on the topic of division and treatment of the poor in the New Testament. Whilst a cynic might sense that in ignoring Lord Best’s warnings – joined by Lord Jenkins on October 23rd – might be a case of “turkeys voting for Christmas”, the moral issue is doubtless going to surface again.
On the concept of division, the parable of a division of the sheep and the goats in the words of Jesus comes to mind, set down in Matthew 25, v 30-45. This is the parable of Last Judgment:
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….”.
The basis of the division is upon how those with power and resources treat the vulnerable:
“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me….I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.
The purpose of local taxation historically is to raise money to look after the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, from the Poor Rate Act 1601 to the General Rates until 1989. With the poll tax 1990-93 this principle was turned on its head with disastrous results. The council tax 1993-2012 recognised this, abolishing poll tax and providing 100% benefits for those on benefits and low incomes, an essential cornerstone of the system.
The Third Reading of the Bill is due before the House of Commons on October 31st. This will be the final opportunity for the Government to reverse its plan to remove 100% benefit from the poorest. It is the most significant vote of its kind in twenty years, with Lord Jenkin another former Minister responsible for the poll tax expressing his concerns on October 23rd 2012, warning the government not to repeat the same mistake made before.
If the Government does not reverse this measure, what happens in 2013 will certainly prove a judgment of our nation for years to come.