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Yesterday’s decision in the Senedd to approve new arrangements for helping people with their Council Tax bill marks a potentially significant shift in the Welsh Government thinking.
The Welsh Government has to date made much of its policies of providing certain kinds of service free to anybody, irrespective of their income. So, free prescriptions, free bus passes for over 60s, free breakfasts for school children and free swimming to name just the most high profile. The arguments in favour of these “freebies” have been many and various – some, such as free prescriptions – having in my view a rock solid rationale of being part of free NHS treatment, others being rather more shaky.
Yet the idea that people get something “free” has flown out the window when it’s come to Council Tax. The principle of univeralism seems to mean that everyone will now have to pay, not that everyone gets a benefit. The argument that maintaining the current system is “unaffordable” doesn’t stand up terribly well either – £20 million support for business rates in Enterprise Zones has just been announced and the £20 million for apprenticeships was the settlement reached between Labour and Plaid to get the 2013-14 budget through.
The decision also muddies the much claimed “clear red water” between the Welsh Government and the UK Government – in supporting a tougher regime of means-testing it is doing more of the same not something radically different. There was without doubt little time to reinvent a whole new system, not least because the devolution of Council Tax support came as something of a surprise and very late in the day. But it wasn’t and isn’t impossible.
It remains to be seen if the regulations approved yesterday are short-term expediency to be replaced by something more in keeping with the Welsh Government’s ideology, or whether they really do mark the begining of a shift in position that could, in time see the end of other universal so-called “freebies”.