Unpaid poll tax 'will disrupt new local levy'

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NEARLY HALF of all local authorities expect the introduction of next year's council tax to be adversely affected by continuing problems with poll tax, according to a leaked Whitehall report.

A confidential consultants' survey of councils' poll tax backlogs, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, has warned that with as much as pounds 1bn poll tax still uncollected, one in twelve councils could still be chasing debts up to the end of the century.

Jack Straw, the Labour spokesman who received a leaked copy of the report, said yesterday that it showed 'the widespread alarm at the prospect of bringing in the council tax whilst so many problems remain outstanding with the poll tax'.

The report, Backlog Survey: Community Charge and Benefits, indicated that 58 per cent of local authorities did not expect poll tax recovery to be completed by next April, when council tax replaces poll tax.

It also said that fundamental problems persisted with poll tax registers - the data that will be used by councils to check single householders' claims for their 25 per cent council tax rebates.

Mr Straw said: 'The poll tax fiasco lives on and is likely significantly to upset the implementation of the council tax. The country has already paid too dearly for the mess of the poll tax. It looks as though the council tax will replace one fiasco with another.'

Following yesterday's report in the Independent that as many as 1.5 million householders are expected to appeal against council tax valuations, and that average bills in London and the South-east are expected to be well in excess of the pounds 400 mooted by the Government last year, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Conservative MP for Brent North, warned that ministers had to 'get it right' before next April. 'We are talking about the Conservative heartlands here, and people have long memories,' he said. 'We have been landed with council tax now, but that does not mean that we have to wait until we get into trouble as we did with the community charge. We have to take this issue by the horns and do something.'

Rejecting the idea that transitional relief would solve the Government's political difficulties with the tax, Sir Rhodes urged ministers to move homes in London and the South-east into the next band down the council tax valuation table, to take account of the 15 per cent decline in property values over the last year.

Yesterday's leaked report showed that potential problems with council tax would be aggravated by the legacy left by poll tax.

Two in five local authorities said that difficulties with poll tax registers would most adversely affect council tax implementation, while more than a quarter were concerned about residual poll tax debt collection.

For 1991-92, a total of 2.8 million poll tax liability orders had been obtained. Analysing the pounds 1.2bn liability orders still outstanding at the end of March, the consultants told the department that in just under a third of cases people had agreed to pay; 37 per cent of cases had been referred to bailiffs; 5 per cent had had their earnings attached by court order; and in another 5 per cent of cases deductions were being made from income support.