First Minister’s Questions – Council Tax
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Gareth Bennett – First Minister, if I could raise with you the issue of council tax, I think it’s interesting that we are, this month, marking 20 years of the Welsh Assembly, because this 20-year period hasn’t been particularly great for Welsh council tax payers. If we look at the figures, band D council tax rates in Wales have increased by 244 per cent since 1996. This is much higher than the general rate of inflation in that period. First Minister, do you think that rapidly-escalating council tax increases are a price worth paying in Wales to enjoy the benefits of a Welsh Labour Government permanently running the Welsh Assembly?
Mark Drakeford – Well, the reason that there is a Welsh Government in the Assembly, Llywydd, as the Member knows, is because, whenever there has been an election since devolution, that has been the decision that the citizens of Wales have made. That’s the reason why. It’s not some sort of act of God; we didn’t win it in a raffle. We won it by being on the doorstep and persuading people to vote for the Labour Party.
As far as council tax is concerned, those are decisions for local authorities across Wales to make. They too are answerable to their local populations. They too face elections in which local populations can pass a verdict on those local authorities. And, in a period of severe public expenditure restraint, where every week on the floor of the Assembly Members in different parties pop up demanding more money to be spent on local authority services—you can’t have more money spent on services without raising that money from somewhere, and the council tax and the pressure on it is a reflection of the fact that we do not have money coming to Wales to invest in those services in the way that we would like to see it, and local authorities find themselves at the sharp end of some of that difficulty, and decisions on the council tax are made in that context.
Gareth Bennett – Yes, thank you for that answer. I’m glad that you recognise that the act of voting at the ballot box isn’t an act of God, it’s something that people with informed opinions actually do, and so you do take heed of the decisions, because that isn’t the line you generally take as regards the vote of the people in Wales during the Brexit referendum.
Now, going back to the precise issue of council tax, yes, of course, local authorities are answerable to the electorate—that is a response that you have a habit of giving to me whenever I raise local government issues with you here in the Assembly. But, First Minister, it isn’t going to impress people in Wales very much if we have an Assembly and you simply use the Chamber to dodge issues and avoid taking responsibility for policy areas that are clearly part of your responsibility as First Minister. Now, if we look at this issue of council tax, surely you must accept it’s a preposterous situation when a Welsh council taxpayer who owns a £220,000 home in Neath pays more in council tax than the owner of an £85 million mansion in Kensington, as is the case this year.
Mark Drakeford – Well, Llywydd, council tax rates are not set on the floor of this Assembly Chamber. The Assembly is responsible now for major taxation decisions that we make every year, but setting the council tax is not one of them. It is as a result of actions agreed in this National Assembly that we still have in Wales a national council tax benefit scheme, so that people who have the least pay no council tax at all, whereas the poorest families in the land in the part of the United Kingdom to which the Member refers are now paying £200 a year on average from benefits that have been frozen since 2015 towards council tax bills, and, in Wales, those families, I’m really pleased to say, pay nothing at all. So, where we are able to act and where we have responsibility to act, I think the National Assembly and the Welsh Government have acted together to protect those families who need that protection the most, while respecting the separate democratic accountabilities that local authorities have to make decisions that fall to them to make.42
In terms of respecting democratic decisions, I take note of what the Member says about the European Union referendum. I think it’s his party’s policy that we should now have a third referendum on whether the National Assembly should continue to be in existence, despite the fact that we’ve had two referendums here, both of which—the first of which brought this Assembly into being, and the second of which confirmed its existence and strengthened its powers by a completely decisive majority.