The Community Charge (popularly known as the poll tax) was a system of taxation introduced in replacement of the rates to partly fund local government in Scotland from 1989, and England and Wales from 1990. It provided for a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority. The Community Charge poll tax was replaced by Council Tax in 1993, two years after its abolition was announced.
The abolition of the rating system of taxes (based on the notional rental value of a house) to fund local government had been unveiled by Margaret Thatcher when she was Shadow Environment Secretary in 1974, and was included in the manifesto of the Conservative Party in the October 1974 general election. In the 1979 elections, the Conservative manifesto stated that lowering income tax took priority, but the Government had not found time to publish a Green Paper, which they finally did complete in 1981 under the title Alternatives to Domestic Rates. This Green Paper considered a flat-rate per-capita tax as a supplement to another tax, noting that a large flat-rate 'poll tax' would be seen as unfair.
The 1980s saw a period of general confrontation between central government and Labour-controlled local authorities, that eventually led to the abolition of the Greater London Council and the six metropolitan county councils. The commitment to abolish the rates was replaced in the 1983 general election manifesto with a commitment to introduce the ability for central government to cap rates which it saw as excessive. This was introduced by the Rates Act 1984.
Although the ratings system was supposed to have regular revaluations in order to minimise discrepancies, the revaluations in England and Wales had been cancelled in 1978 and 1983. The Scottish revaluation of 1985/1986 led to a great deal of criticism and gave added urgency to rates reform or replacement.
The Green Paper of 1986, Paying for Local Government, produced by the Department of the Environment from consultations between Lord Rothschild, William Waldegrave and Kenneth Baker, proposed the Community Charge. This was a fixed tax per adult resident, hence the term 'poll tax', although there was a reduction for poor people. This charged each person for the services provided in their community. Owing to the variations in the amount of local taxes paid and the amount of grant provided by central government to individual local authorities, there were differences in the amount charged between councils.
This proposal was contained in the Conservative manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The legislation introducing the Community Charge was passed in 1988 and the new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year. Additionally the Uniform Business Rate, levied by local government at a rate set by central government and then apportioned between local authorities in proportion to their population, was introduced.
The tax was not implemented in Northern Ireland, which continued, as it still does as of 2013[update], to levy the rating system, despite some unionists calling for the province to have the same taxation system as Great Britain.
The Community Charge when implemented encountered a number of administrative and enforcement difficulties. Some renters did not pay, knowing they would be long gone when the bills arrived. Councils of towns with highly mobile populations, such as university towns, were faced with big store rooms of un-processed "gone-aways". The initial register, which was based on the rates register for "owned" houses, contained many irregularities from supplementary data sources such as housing benefit recipients.
The big collection issue was the 20%/100% split. People in employment had to pay 100%, students and the registered unemployed paid 20%. The nature of the shared house market meant that not even the landlord knew exactly who was living there; tenants were replaced, and may have shared a "single" room with their partner. So the local council had no idea who was living where and when.
Councils were burdened with the task of pursuing the large numbers of defaulters, many of whom were acting as part of organised resistance to the charge. There is also some evidence that the community charge had a lasting effect of people not registering themselves on the electoral register to evade collection attempts. This may have had an effect on the results of the 1992 general election, which ended in a fourth successive Conservative victory, despite most opinion polls pointing to a hung parliament or narrow Labour majority.
The change from payment based on the estimated price of a house to the number of people living in it, to a flat tax, was widely criticised as being regressive. Mass protests were co-ordinated by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, to which the vast majority of local Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) were affiliated. In Scotland, where the tax was implemented first, the APTUs called for mass non-payment. As the tax neared its implementation in England, protests against the tax began to increase as unrest mounted. This culminated in a number of Poll Tax Riots. The most serious of these happened in London on 31 March 1990 – a week before the implementation of the tax – during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, which more than 200,000 protesters attended. There were further conflicts, but none so large as this.
As the amount of the Community Charge began to rise and the inefficiency of local councils in collection of the tax became apparent, large numbers of people refused to pay. Local councils tried to respond with enforcement measures, but these were largely ineffective against such huge numbers of non-payers - up to 30% of former ratepayers in some areas refused to pay, according to the BBC.
The anti-poll tax organisations encouraged non-payers not to register, to clog up the courts by contesting Local Council attempts to gain liability orders, and ultimately to fail to attend court hearings for non-compliance. In November 1990, South Yorkshire police said they were planning to refuse to arrest Community Charge defaulters even when instructed to by the courts because it would be "physically impossible for the police because of the large number of defaulters."
The opposition Labour Party, at its 1988 annual conference, decided against support for a non-payment campaign. In July 1991, Terry Fields, Labour MP for Liverpool Broadgreen, and a Militant supporter, was imprisoned for sixty days for refusing to pay. At the time of Fields' jailing, Labour leader Neil Kinnock commented: "Law makers must not be law breakers."
After the Community Charge was announced, opinion polls showed the Labour opposition opening a strong lead over the Conservative government. After the Poll Tax Riots, Conservative ministers contemplated abolition of the tax but knew that, as a flagship Thatcherite policy, its abolition would not be possible while Thatcher was still Prime Minister. Kinnock had vowed to abolish the Community Charge if he won the next general election.
For this, among other reasons, Thatcher was challenged by Michael Heseltine for the Conservative leadership. Although she prevailed by a margin of fifty votes, she narrowly missed the threshold to avoid a second vote, and on 22 November 1990 she resigned. All three of the contenders to succeed her pledged to abandon the tax.
The successful candidate, John Major, appointed Heseltine to the post of Environment Secretary, responsible for replacing the Community Charge. In early 1991 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, announced a rise in Value Added Tax from 15% to 17.5% to pay for a £140 reduction in the tax. The abolition of the Community Charge was announced on 21 March 1991.
By the time of the 1992 general election, legislation had been passed replacing Community Charge with the Council Tax from the start of the 1993/94 financial year. The VAT rate of 17.5% remained despite an earlier policy of charging a higher Community Charge.
Council Tax strongly resembled and resembles the rates system that the Community Charge had replaced. The main differences were at the tax's inception that properties were placed in bands thereby capping the maximum amount, and it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property. Households with only one occupant were also entitled to a 25% discount. The only substantial change since the introduction of the Council Tax form of direct taxation is the gradual introduction of certain exemptions and discounts.
- Poll Tax Riots
- Peasants' Revolt - 14th-century rebellion against serfdom and the imposition of a poll tax.
- Tommy Sheridan, Scottish socialist who originally came to prominence protesting the Community Charge.
- Local Government Finance Act 1988 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/41/contents
- Poll tax in Encyclopedia of Britain by Bamber Gascoigne, HistoryWorld.net
- BBC News, 'On This Day', 1990 - poll tax non-payment
- quoted in Organise!, issue 21, Dec-Feb 1991
- Andy McSmith Faces of Labour: The Inside Story, London: Verso, 1996, p.114
- "1991: Anti-poll tax MP jailed", BBC On this Day, 11 July
- Failure in British government: the politics of the poll tax, David Butler, Andrew Adonis & Tony Travers. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994. ISBN 0-19-827876-4
- Poll Tax Rebellion, Danny Burns. AK Press, Stirling, Scotland, 1992.
- Paul Bagguley, "Protest, poverty and power : a case study of the anti-poll tax movement", Sociological review, 1995, vol. 43, n° 4, pp. 693–719
- Anti-Poll Tax Community based campaign