Revealed: the truth behind 'sweet little old tax rebel'

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As she tottered out of magistrates court last week, Elizabeth Winkfield, 4ft 10in tall and 83 years old, stepped into the limelight as a figurehead for a growing revolt against council tax charges up and down the country.

Her refusal to pay £98 of her £747 council tax bill was greeted with cheers by supporters and has made her a martyr to a people's revolt gathering momentum. But The Independent on Sunday can reveal that publicity surrounding the case of Ms Winkfield was no fluke. Her very public court appearance is owed at least in part to behind-the-scenes engineering by the UK Independence Party - a minority right-wing political party that wants to see Britain pull out of Europe.

Ms Winkfield is a member of the UKIP, as is another pensioner who also made headlines last month when he refused to pay up. Last week's action was co-organised by the Devon Pensioners Action Forum - run by Albert Venison, 78, who has addressed UKIP meetings - and the UKIP itself.

John Kelly, a regional spokesman for the UKIP, said: "We are giving £11bn a year to the European Union. The issue with council tax is that the Government wants to set up regional assemblies. In the South-west, £1m of the £5m cost will be levied on the district council. It's a tax by stealth. They are making council tax payers support a political experiment. We had a public meeting in Axminster this month and Albert Venison spoke on our platform. But we are absolutely not trying to take over."

Ms Winkfield, from Westward Ho! in Devon, had not expected the legions of national newspaper and television reporters. Nor had she anticipated the large crowd of placard-waving supporters - half of whom are thought to be from the UKIP.

Ms Winkfield told The Independent on Sunday: "If I'd known what was going to happen I would have been terrified out of my wits. I was only expecting one or two people from the local press."

Friends say it was a claim at a UKIP meeting that a proportion of Ms Winkfield's council tax ends up in European coffers that sparked her anger over the council tax. "I told the UKIP and the action forum that I was going, and they must have told other people," she said. "I didn't ask them for any help or advice. Money going to Europe is one of the things I'm concerned about.The expenses of the council leader is four times my income. But if I was a millionaire I'd say the same."

Another pensioner, Fred Estall, 80, from Southampton, who appeared in court last month for non-payment of his council tax, is also a UKIP member. "I'm involved in the council tax campaign because of the UKIP," he said. "We're trying to get involved in local government, to get ourselves known. The council tax campaign was a good chance to get involved with the community, and so it turned out to be. It did start from my UKIP work, but I'm a member of the Meon Valley Action Group and that work is non-political."

The national campaign against high council tax rises is called Is It Fair? and affiliates local groups. It began last year when retired army major John Melsom and his wife Christine, from Hampshire, gave an interview to their local paper when council tax went up by 15 per cent. That led to a website, which quickly resulted in a national campaign.

"I never expected it to become so big," she said. "But no party politics are allowed. There is no political affiliation, although we've had a few of the smaller parties trying to jump on the bandwagon. But we've said no to all of them."