Last night a group of us were out petitioning in Barnsbury and St Mary’s on the council tax issue.
Next week Islington Council has to decide on its budget: the Lib Dem group is proposing a council tax freeze, the Labour group a 2.5% rise to pay for universal free school meals.
We had people literally queuing up to sign our petition – at one house (ironically a stone’s throw from the Labour MP’s office), one resident came hurrying down from the top floor flat to sign the petition, only to have to wait until a passer by had finished signing. It’s certainly a popular issue.
I’ve sent this email to Cllr John Gilbert, the council’s lead member on finance, setting out my views:
“I’m sure you’re getting lots of emails about this, but I wanted to put my views on the record as well.
I think you are absolutely right to propose a council tax freeze at this time, and I hope you get all the support you need to get this through at the council budget meeting.
“I’m not against raising taxes to deliver essential services in principle – indeed I fought a general election on the need to raise income tax modestly to fund more money for our schools. But the state has no automatic right to our money. The case for raising taxes has to be that the money is raised in the right way, to spend on the right things, at the right time.
“Is this the right way to raise money? No. Council tax is a desperately unfair tax. It does not relate to your ability to pay. Instead it is based on the notional value of your home. While the very poorest get help from benefits to pay it (which is in itself an admission that the tax is unfair) people on low incomes or modest savings pay the same as their next door neighbour on a top salary, even if they consume fewer council services. It’s particularly unfair on pensioners and others on fixed incomes. And on tenants who are being taxed on an asset they don’t own. I have always supported the Lib Dem national policy to abolish council tax and to do our bit to keep council tax below the national average locally. So if a freeze is possible, it’s the right thing to do.
“Is the rise proposed to go on the right things? Labour’s tax increase is not, in my view, going on the best things. Their two big ideas are universal free school meals and a small rebate for some pensioners. The latter is only necessary because they are putting council tax up! So this issue is really about whether free school meals for all children in Islington schools (which is not the same as for all Islington children!) is worth putting up everyone’s council tax. As a school governor I am 100% behind free school meals for those that need them. But I am sceptical about the benefit of free school meals for all. I’m not surprised that the unions and the school meals contractors are enthusiastic: they are doing their job and protecting their members and their business. But you need to consider the wider issues.
“Many schools rely on their ‘free school meals’ count to get extra resources to support poorer pupils and to give context to their exam results. Not all schools can physically cope with feeding all their pupils at once. EGA for example relies on the fact that a certain number of girls bring in sandwiches or go out at mealtimes as the school simply does not have room for them all to eat in the hall.
“Some families actually like to provide the food their kids eat. I remember when friends of mine were worried about the quality of school meals (not in an Islington school, but it could have been) and so started making their kids healthy lunches instead.
“If there are universal free school meals, are they compulsory? And if they are not compulsory, what about the waste? My firm introduced a free lunch for staff one day a week, to encourage team spirit. At first it was great, but after a while, people started opting out and getting their own lunch anyway, because they had errands to run or a meeting to go to or whatever. Because the lunch was free, they could take it or leave it – and often left it. Lots of food was being thrown away, a terrible waste, or taken home to feed other people: not what the firm had intended. After a while the firm stopped providing a free meal for everyone, but provided a smaller free buffet for those who wanted it or needed it. Of course a school is not the same as a workplace; but it did show how even the best-intentioned schemes can go wrong.
“But most of all, I think this scheme is the worst kind of redistribution: from the poor to the rich, Robin Hood in reverse. Why should the woman works as a cleaner find her council tax going up to provide a free lunch for her employer’s children? As a former Labour party member (albeit a very long time ago) I think this is a disgraceful proposal from a Labour council group.
“Is this the right time? No. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Raising taxes in a recession sends the message that the government, whether local or national, knows better what to do with our money than we do, just when we don’t have enough money to start with. It’s crazy. The poorest households, rightly, already get benefits including free school meals. The people who suffer most when taxes rise are those in the poverty trap, who get hit by the rise but get no benefits to help. And it’s not just pensioners, but families and single people too. Islington has higher than average numbers of single people and childless households, not all of them rich ones, and this tax rise will hit them hard.
“We all talk about wanting to help local small businesses. Putting up council tax means less money in Islington shoppers’ pockets: bad news for businesses. And bad news for the services who depend on their advertising (including our local newspapers!).
“So I very much support the proposal for a council tax freeze.
“And I’m not alone. The last couple of weeks I’ve been out knocking on doors and phoning round, as part of my regular campaigning. I’ve been asking people about the council tax rise: would they prefer a freeze, or an increase to be spent on providing free school meals for all children?
“Overwhelmingly people prefer the freeze. And it’s not just the better off. To give you a flavour of the range of people supporting our position:
A foster mum on the Bemerton estate
A new mum in Barnsbury
A student and his mum near the Angel
An environmentalist in Bunhill
A classroom assistant in Holloway
A pensioner in Clerkenwell
A carer in St Peter’s ward
A mature student in Canonbury
And so it goes on.
“If you look at the people who’ve joined the Facebook group, you will see that real Islington people are backing the council tax freeze, not just party political activists.
“So please do the right thing and freeze the council tax this year.
“Apologies for the long message!
It was a long message but I could have said even more. Like the two friends who’ve lost their jobs in the past few days: the last thing they need are tax rises now. Or like the families I know who will lose more in the tax rise than they will gain in school meals.
There will be friends reading this whose gut instinct is different to mine. I know that there are good people sincerely backing the Labour proposal. I also think that there is deliberate politicking from the Labour group, using this as a stick to beat the current council administration. Whatever the motive, putting up the council tax now will be hitting people when they are down – and I hope that councillors of all parties would not want to do that.
We’ll find out next week.