Council Tax Abolition and Service Tax Introduction (Scotland) Bill. Written Submission to the Transport and Local Government Committee

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1 Council Tax Abolition and Service Tax Introduction (Scotland) Bill Written Submission to the Transport and Local Government Committee 1. Introduction 1.1 The Poverty Alliance acts as the national anti-poverty network in Scotland. Our aim is to help tackle poverty and we do this by working with communities and policy makers to find better solutions to the problems of social exclusion and poverty. In addition, we work to support the development of social policies that tackle poverty and social exclusion. It is in this context that the Poverty Alliance has supported change in the system of local taxation. 1.2 In 2003 the Poverty Alliance carried out a written consultation with our members to develop an Agenda for Action on Poverty. A clear message emerging from this consultation was the need for some kind of change in the system of local taxation. A range of views were submitted, including support for a number of different approaches to local income tax (including the Scottish Service Tax) as well as reform, through re-banding, of the current system. 1.3 In 2004 the issue of abolition of the council tax was raised at the Poverty Alliance s Annual General Meeting. At this meeting it was agreed that a positive response should be submitted to the consultation on the proposal by Tommy Sheridan MSP to abolish the council tax and replace it with a tax based on personal income. The Poverty Alliance adopted this position as it believes that the current system of local taxation is regressive and that a more progressive system would help in the alleviation of poverty in Scotland. It is our belief that a greater measure of redistribution of income is required in order to reduce poverty. This short paper outlines the context of poverty in Scotland, the impact of the current system on poverty, and the impact that the proposed Bill on poverty. 2. The Context: Poverty in Scotland 2.1 There has been a welcome shift in policy towards those experiencing poverty in recent years. This shift has been well documented and can been seen in a range of policy initiatives in Scotland and at the UK level. At the UK level we have seen the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, the New Deal, the Pension Credit, Tax Credits, and numerous other measures designed to cut long term unemployment and boost the incomes of those most in need. In Scotland, the Social Justice Strategy and now the Closing the Opportunity Gap approach have contributed a wide range of initiatives that have attempted to reduce poverty and social exclusion. 2.2 This shift in policy has brought real change in Scotland. Employment levels in Scotland are amongst the highest in Europe and rates of poverty have declined for many key groups. Analysis of the latest Household Below 1

2 Average Income data for Scotland 1 shows that the proportion of individuals living in low income households has fallen from 25% to 19% between 1996/97 and 2003/04. The proportion of children living in low income households has fallen by 30% over the same period, from 33% to 25%. These changes have been well documented and widely praised, showing the impact that antipoverty policy can have. 2.3 Despite these very positive changes, it is important to recognise the scale of the challenge that remains. With one four children living in low income households, Scotland still has one of the highest levels of child poverty in Europe. Levels of pensioner poverty have declined in recent years, but some studies have suggested that the current emphasis on means testing support for older people on low incomes will make continued improvements more difficult to achieve In addition to the significant challenge of maintaining progress for key groups, there are those for whom no real change has been made since 1996/97. Adults without children, whether single or couples, are as likely to be in poverty now as eight years ago. Around 25% of single people and 10% of couples live in low income households. In addition, the proportion of low income households where someone is in employment has increased over the last decade. Two-fifths of low income working age households now have someone in employment These statistics show that much has been achieved in reducing poverty over the last few years. However they also highlight that there is much that is still needed to be done. If the goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020 is to be achieved, and if some groups are not to be left behind then, more radical steps must be taken to redistribute income to those in poverty. Policies that redistribute income to those in poverty will be required and it is in that context that we should consider the case for reform of the council tax. 3. Problems with the Current System 3.1 In order to assess the potential for the proposed Service Tax to have an impact on poverty, it is important to be aware of the deficiencies of the current system. It is possible to identify a number of distinct problem issues associated with the Council Tax in relation to poverty: the regressive nature of the tax; the impact on pensioners; the risk of over-indebtedness; and problems for working age adults. It can be argued that these issues increase poverty or the risk of poverty for many people in Scotland. In considering each of these issues we should be aware that they are, of course, interrelated. 1 Poverty Alliance (2005) Progress in Tackling Poverty? Low Income Households in Scotland 2003/04, Briefing Number 4, August 2 See, for example, P. Kemp et al (2004) Routes Out of Poverty: A Research Review, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and M. Dixon and W Paxton (2005) Social Justice: Building a Fairer Britain, IPPR 3 G. Palmer et al (2004) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Scotland 2004, Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2

3 3.2 A Regressive Tax: A system of taxation may be said to be regressive if those in lower incomes groups pay a relatively higher proportion of their income in tax than those in higher income groups. The approach to taxation in the UK has been to support a progressive approach to taxation taking more from those who have more. A redistribution of incomes can be said to take place from wealthier groups to those on lower incomes, those lower rates of taxation and also through increased spending on services used by those in lower income groups. 3.3 The evidence on the Council Tax would suggest that it is a highly regressive system of taxation. Those on lower incomes pay a higher proportion of their incomes than those on higher incomes. This is largely because Council Tax is a property tax, and is therefore not directly linked to an individual s personal income or ability to pay. As the New Policy Institute put it within any local authority, whilst the amount of Council Tax rises as the value of the property rises, the rate this represents as a share of the property s value generally falls as the value rises. 4 Thus those in more expensive properties, who most often have larger incomes, will pay a smaller proportion of their income in Council Tax. 3.4 Any change to the system of Council Tax in Scotland must ensure that, as far as is possible, the regressive aspects of the tax are removed. Only in this way will it be possible to ensure that the system does exacerbate poverty and that a greater degree of fairness is introduced to the system. 3.5 Pensioners: Whilst the system is generally regressive, the worst effects are felt by certain groups. The impact of the Council Tax on pensioners has received a great deal of attention in the media and some of the problems are well known. A combination of living on fixed incomes and increases in council tax well above increases in pensions means that many pensioners have had their incomes eroded by the Council Tax. It could also be said that take of CTB is a significant issue for pensioners. Pensioners are least likely to be claiming CTB between 56-62% of pensioners in 2003/04 failed to claim (by caseload). The average amount unclaimed was 8.90 per week Over-indebtedness: The problem of debt in low income households has increased dramatically over the last years. In an in depth report by Citizens Advice Scotland, found that council tax was a significant source of debt for their clients, with a quarter of those in the study having Council Tax debt. 3.6 This study also found that 28% council tax debts have a summary warrant obtained, meaning that the problem of Council Tax debt is likely to be exacerbated by some of the actions that are taken to recover it. 3.7 Working age adults: As mentioned above, the risk of living in a low income household and being in low paid employment has increased in recent 4 P Kenway & G Palmer (1999) Council Tax: the Case for Reform, NPI 5 DWP (2005) Income Related Benefits Estimates of Take Up in 2002/03, DWP 3

4 years. Whilst those in low paid jobs may be eligible for CTB, research has suggested that this is an ineffective way of boosting their incomes and provides a relatively ineffective defence against poverty. 3.8 The New Policy Institute has found that in Great Britain in 2002/03 the majority of working age households below the poverty line got either no CTB or partial CTB. Furthermore, 45% of children in poverty lived in households that received no CTB. NPI state that a quarter of a million [children] are in households whose income falls below the poverty line by an amount less than they pay in council tax in other words, the council tax they pay may be said to be the immediate cause of their being in poverty! Whilst one of the problems associated with pensioners and CTB is low take up, this is not the central issue for working age households. Amongst some of the key issues are that most households become liable to pay some Council Tax before they become liable to pay income tax or national insurance. In addition, most working age households become liable to pay the full Council Tax when the household is below the poverty line (i.e. 60% of household median income.) 4. Proposals within the Bill and the Impact on Poverty 4.1 The extent to which the proposed Service Tax will address the problem of poverty is dependent upon its effectiveness in dealing with the issues outlined above. The proposals outlined in the Bill would have a positive impact on poverty in Scotland, particularly for those in low paid employment and pensioners living on low incomes. It should be noted however, that those in receipt of welfare benefits do not pay Council Tax and that any changes would not affect their current levels of income. 4.2 The proposed Service Tax system would be more progressive in that it would take less from those at the lower end of the income distribution. In addition, the proposed Service Tax would be more generous to those on low incomes due to the income bands contained in this proposal. Liability to begin paying the tax begins at a higher income than for the combination of Income Tax and National Insurance, and the tax rate on the bands increases gradually. 4.3 As well as directly and positively impacting on the incomes of some of the poorest households, the Service Tax could have beneficial effects by improving the incentives for some people to move into the labour market. For some people a return to the labour market would result in a potential loss of income due to the loss of full CTB. Knowledge that liability to pay the Service Tax would not start until a salary of 10,000 had been reached, and that the rate of taxation was modest up until 30,000, would encourage some to return to the labour market as more of the potential earnings would be retained. The introduction of a Service Tax could therefore potentially contribute to 6 NPI (2005) Council Tax Benefit for Working Age Households: A Review of the Problems and Some Options for Reform, Local Government Information Unit 4

5 supporting the UK Government s 80% employment rate target. However, for such an employment incentive effect to take place there would need to be appropriate publicity surrounding the introduction of the Service Tax. 4.4 The arrangement for the distribution of the tax raised through regard to relative poverty and deprivation is to be welcomed. Some Local Authority areas with high levels of Council Tax also have high levels of deprivation. If a system of local income tax, such as the Service Tax, were introduced which allowed Local Authorities to raise revenues only from those who were resident in the area then those Authorities with higher levels of deprivation would loose out. Ensuring that resources were distributed with regard to poverty levels would help ensure that resources were distributed on the basis of need. 4.5 In addition to consideration of poverty and deprivation, we would suggest that the distribution of revenue to Local Authorities also takes into account issues of population and rurality. Connections between rural issues and deprivation are often not well represented in national datasets used to map poverty. Changes in the population in parts of Scotland should also be taken into consideration as these may have a significant impact on the services local Authorities are required to provide. 5. Conclusions 5.1 It is somewhat obvious to state that there is no perfect system of taxation, and that in moving from an established system to a new one, there will be those who lose out by paying more. In making any change it is to be hoped that the intention should be that those who are able to, pay a greater share of their income and that those on lower incomes pay a far lower proportion of their income. The experience of changes in the system of local taxation in the past has suggested that this is sometimes more difficult to achieve. 5.2 This note has emphasised the context that the replacement of the Council Tax with a Service Tax would take place in. This context is one where, despite reductions in the levels of poverty over the last eight years, further progress will be more difficult to achieve without a greater measure of redistribution. In terms of the scope for action in Scotland, the replacement of the Council Tax with a local income tax holds out the potential for allowing this redistribution to take place and making a substantial contribution to the reduction of poverty in Scotland. There is little doubt that it would be possible to make the current system operate more effectively, particularly with regard to CTB, or to make it fairer through re-banding. However such reforms are unlikely to be as effective in reducing income poverty. The Poverty Alliance would therefore welcome the move to a system of local taxation based on the principle of ability to pay. Peter Kelly The Poverty Alliance September

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