Britain ends poll tax to quash political upheaval

March 22, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Britain's unpopular poll tax will be replaced by a new property charge, the government announced yesterday.

The widespread revolt against the poll, or head, tax contributed to the ouster of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last fall and posed a serious threat to the re-election chances of Prime Minister John Major's government.

The poll tax, which imposed a flat levy on all voters, rich and poor alike, was designed to help fund local government spending. Critics said it placed an unfair burden on low-income people while giving relief to wealthy property holders. Public opposition was so widespread that it provoked riots and led to the defeat of Conservatives in local parliamentary elections.

Announcing its abandonment to the House of Commons yesterday, Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine said the new levy to finance local services, such as police and education, would be based on accountability, fairness, ease of collection and restraint on high spending.

Mr. Heseltine, who is in charge of local government, said the poll tax would be replaced by a single tax for each household, based on the number of resident adults and the property value.

"Most people should make some contribution," he said, inviting opposition Labor Party charges that he was introducing a "property poll tax" and "a pig in a poke tax."

But the Cabinet secretary insisted: "We believe it is right that, as far as possible, any tax should take some account of the number of adults in each household."

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who introduced the poll tax last year as the "flagship" of her third term in office, was not present to see it abandoned.

But Thatcherite members of Parliament made clear their

reluctanceto change it. Nicholas Ridley, the former environment

secretary who introduced the poll tax, warned that the proposed property levy would create "a new class of losers."

Labor Party legislators derided the turnaround on Mrs.Thatcher's policy.

"We have just heard the most complete capitulation, the most startling U-turn, and the most shameless abandonment of consistency and principle in modern political history," said Brian Gould, a Labor Party spokesman.

Mr. Gould demanded a formal government apology for 12 years of Conservative "arrogance," for the creation of "unprecedented chaos" in local government and for driving millions of taxpayers to "despair."

"We are left with all the objectionable features of the poll tax, but with all the difficult and transitional problems of a new and untried property tax," he said.

Earlier this week, the government signaled its retreat from the poll tax by organizing a major shift from local to central government funding of local services.

This reduced the average poll tax for this year from $700 per person to $450. The poll tax will continue to be levied until the new property levy is introduced, probably in fiscal 1993.

Voter reaction to the new tax will be crucial in the government's decision on whether to hold an early general election in June.

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