The aim of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign was to make the tax unworkable. If enough people refused to pay, then the Poll Tax couldn't be enforced. The courts would be blocked; the bailiffs would be turned away; wage arrestment would prove too complicated; and the final solution — prison — would prove politically disastrous for any Labour council (and in any case was unenforceable because there was no room for large numbers of non-payers in the prisons). The councils tried all of these enforcement measures but were persistently resisted by the Anti-Poll Tax Unions.
Councils In Chaos
Even before the campaign of resistance got underway, it received a massive helping hand from the councils who presided over the biggest administrative farce in British taxation history. For months it looked as if they were unlikely even to get the system up and running. The press was inundated with stories of bills which had been sent to babies and dead people. Councils were lambasted for their callousness and inefficiency. At the heart of the problem was the Poll Tax register which had to be kept accurate and up to date. People were charged according to the length of time they had lived in the area, but in many areas, the population was changing so rapidly, it was impossible for the councils to keep up.
A 1991 report by the Audit Commission showed that the register turnover was much higher than expected. Inner London had the worst figures with over 55% of the population changing address within the financial year. Even the shire district councils had a population turnover of 36% and, in the first year, Scottish local authorities had to make 1.5 million changes to the Poll Tax register. In addition to this, councils were inundated with correspondence. Many people genuinely didn't understand what the Poll Tax was about. Others mounted campaigns to delay registration by endlessly asking questions about the form. All of these had to be answered. Councils sat under a mountain of paper. Everything they did seemed to create more work:
The paperwork involved with administering the charge is enormous — and likely to get worse. Backlogs switch from one area of activity to another. Indeed, local authorities cannot really do anything without generating more paper-work. If they attempt to canvas more people for registration they will also produce more people who will refuse to register.
Poll Tax Legal Group, Law Review No.4, March 1991.
The problems didn't stop there. Councils which were capped had to send out new bills which doubled their workload. Then people wrote in to say that they didn't understand which bill they were supposed to have paid. The cycle of administrative chaos got worse with each day. In May, Bristol's Venue magazine reported:
There is no immediate prospect of reminders being sent out to those who haven't paid. The council's Poll Tax officers are too busy trying to sort out a variety of disasters and administrative nightmares including:
• The half-built Poll Tax HQ, Amelia Court — It had been hoped that work would have finished on the building before the bills were sent out. Last month the construction firm went into liquidation.
• Poll Tax payment books which few people have received. The machine being used to print them broke down.
• A predicted 25% change in the Poll Tax register over the coming year.
In Lothian, it was widely reported that Anti-Poll Tax activists had managed to put a bug into the computer, which randomly wiped out every sixth record on the register. The virus story was never proven. However, a month before it was mentioned in the newspapers, its effects were accurately described to two Anti-Poll Tax activists by two computer hackers one of whom had worked for Lothian Regional Council and had been sacked.
Wherever the council registration officers went they were harassed. In Glasgow violent threats drove canvasser Robert Stevenson to quit his job. He was physically threatened twice in four weeks and continually harassed:
I'd just put the form through the door when this guy across in the garden opposite started shouting. He was sitting in the garden with about four others and they were all giving me dirty looks. He said that if I came back to collect the form I would need a tank for protection. I was in no doubt that they were serious. I didn't finish my last street. I just chucked it.
Glasgow Evening Times, 9/7/88.
The Evening Times reported the case of another canvasser who was 'harassed by a gang'. In this case, it was reported that:
Four or five youths cornered him in a close in Gairbraid Avenue and subjected him to abuse. A Strathclyde police spokesman revealed: 'They said it was a 'No Poll Tax Area' and told the worker to get out, which he did.'
Following these reports, the Poll Tax registration officer admitted that 'there had been at least four other incidents involving canvassers' and that his workforce had found letter-boxes blocked by campaigners, barbed-wire wrapped around garden gates and canvassers had been threatened (leaflets were grabbed from their hands). Already over two members of his staff had resigned because of fears about their personal safety.
This general level of harassment badly affected morale. Some such as Mr. Trueman, a Poll Tax snooper whose job was to call on people and badger them into filling the registration forms, were unable to cope with the abuse that they received:
Mrs. Trueman found the corpse of her husband as she came back from shopping. Fred Trueman, 52, an employee of Bristol City, had hanged himself. 'No-one can imagine what terrible pressure he had to work under,' she claimed. 'He was sworn at and threatened; he couldn't stand it any more'
Der Spiegel, 5/3/90.
But it was not only the canvassers who were at risk. As well as these individual cases of harassment, there were incidents which led to fears for office staff safety. In Cambridgeshire two petrol bombs were thrown at the Poll Tax Headquarters and Anti-Poll Tax slogans were sprayed on the side of the building (only one of the petrol bombs ignited and no-one was injured). These events aren't only important because of what they say about the morale of the Poll Tax office workers. They also tell us something about the degree of anger about the tax.
Ordinary people on local estates were expressing what they felt. Sometimes this manifested itself as intimidation, occasionally as physical violence, but it was real anger. It was not orchestrated by any political group. This gave it a greater impact. Council Poll Tax departments began to face a major recruitment crisis. Despite the fact that they were offering higher salaries and part-time rates to Poll Tax staff, few wanted to work there. Many were simply outraged by the Poll Tax and would not work for it on moral grounds. Others were aware of the very real consequences — of losing friends and constant abuse:
Of 210 full-time workers, it has only man-aged to recruit 145 so far, whereas the [Anti-Poll Tax] federation is inundated with volunteers who manage to fit in one morning, afternoon or evening shift be-tween jobs and family commitments.
Bristol Evening Post, 9/5/90.
Even before the impact of non-payment, councils were struggling to keep their heads above water, but morale in the Anti-Poll Tax Unions was high.
Taking The Battle Into The Courts
We will clog the courts with non-payers, we will make them unworkable. The Anti-Poll Tax Unions will support the people in their fight for basic rights, and when the people turn up in their hundreds and thousands the Poll Tax will be made unenforceable.
Danny Burns, speech to Bristol demonstration, March 1990.
It was after lunch. A fraction of the 1,845 cases had been processed; delaying tactics were working, some reaching the level of stand up comedy, others that of surreal farce... A heckler was dragged out by police — the court became jittery, Mr. Rice cleared the public gallery, then it was Michael Harrison's turn. Single-handedly he reduced the day to the fiasco it had been warming up to — his determined questions about why reminders were sent out second class paid off. All summonses withdrawn, £8,000 down the drain.
Description of the Medina Council court cases, Local Government Chronicle, 15/6/90.
By the middle of 1990, official figures showed that millions of people hadn't paid the Poll Tax. These people would all have to be taken to court. In England and Wales, councils had to get a court 'liability order' for each non-payer before they were allowed to proceed with action to recover the Poll Tax.
Councils had gone through a similar process to recover debts under the rates and generally saw it as a formality. However, the sheer numbers involved in non-payment of the Poll Tax made this situation quite different. Bristol City Council issued summonses to 120,000 people, Leeds summoned 110,000 and the numbers in almost all other big cities were comparable. In order to get through this number of cases, councils had to hope that defendants wouldn't turn up.
Courts are busy places, they often have little time available to listen to civil cases of this nature, and in many areas councils could not expect to be allocated more than ten or twenty days of court time in a year. The strategy of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions was to make sure that as many people as possible came to court. In law everyone had a right to have their case heard individually. The calculation was that even if only a small percent-age of people had their cases heard, the courts would be blocked for years.
Initially, neither the councils nor the courts took the judicial procedure seriously because they didn't expect anyone to turn up. They had never done so under the rates, so they had no reason to believe that they would do now. Medina Council (on the Isle of Wight) summoned 3,000 people to attend court on a single day. South Tyneside Council summoned 3,500 to appear on two afternoons. A total of five hours was allocated to hear all these cases — an average of four seconds per hearing. When people heard this they were furious, because it was obvious that both the council and the courts saw the process as a rubber-stamping exercise. Many people had assumed that if they couldn't pay then they could go to court and explain their situation. This was obviously not going to be the case. The Anti-Poll Tax Unions publicised the strategy to block the courts, with leaflets and posters and articles in the local newspapers.
Mass demonstrations were called for the first day of the hearings, and in some areas the courts were brought to a standstill. In Warrington on June 28th 1990, 1,000 people took over the court and all the cases were postponed. Similar events took place in Southwark:
1,500 people, mostly women and children, turned up at Southwark court and occupied the building. It was absolute chaos, the courts couldn't handle the numbers. The police were stopping people from coming into their own court cases. The crowd didn't move until the court declared all 5,000 cases adjourned.
Counter Information, No.30, February 1991.
In every part of England and Wales local groups mobilised to provide support for non-payers in the courts. Tens, if not hundreds of activists in each region attended legal briefing sessions. These were run both by activists and sympathetic local lawyers. People were given ideas about how they might disrupt or delay the court proceedings. These included simple things, like asking for a glass of water because their throat was dry, demanding to see the identity cards of everyone present in court, to fainting in court or arranging for fire alarms to go off. People were told to demand their rights to see and read every document which was produced as evidence against them. They were also given briefings on the basic technical arguments.
By October 1990, when most of the court cases had started, virtually every Anti-Poll Tax Union in the UK had trained at least two or three of its members to become conversant with the Poll Tax law. Throughout England and Wales over a thousand people were trained to do court support work and could quote the relevant legislation. This is unique in the history of popular campaigning.
The Anti-Poll Tax Unions hoped to use the legal precedent of McKenzie versus McKenzie (1970), which said that a person can 'attend a trial as a friend of either party (to) take notes and quietly make suggestions and give advice to that party'. This person would be known as a 'McKenzie friend'. McKenzie friends had no right to address the court, but they could advise the non-payer what to say.
In this way everyone would be able to offer technical defences and thereby delay the proceedings. The campaign needed lawyers only in the most technical cases. Lawyers were often seen as a liability, because they represented an individual client, and it was in their interest to get through the procedure as quickly as possible. It was in the campaign's interest for everything to proceed as slowly as possible.
Nevertheless, legal knowledge and guidance was essential. This arrived with the creation of the Poll Tax Legal Group, an organisation which was set up by two Anti-Poll Tax activists from Hackney: Alan Murdie and Len Lucas. The Poll Tax Legal Group researched legislation and case law. It set up a network of lawyers throughout England and Wales who could support the legal challenges of Anti-Poll Tax groups and produced over 30 accessible legal bulletins on the Poll Tax and a book called To Pay or Not To Pay. These underpinned the legal needs of the movement and helped ordinary people to get to grips with the law they needed to use.
Many magistrates immediately restricted the use of McKenzie friends, arguing that they had discretion over when and where it was appropriate to allow them. They often adopted very questionable criteria. In Bristol, people were asked their profession. They were allowed a McKenzie friend if they were a building worker and not if they were a teacher. Presumably, they assumed that manual workers were thick, and teachers intelligent. The hypocrisy of the courts was exposed by their sheer irrationality. The following exchange summed up the situation:
Magistrate: You are a teacher, you have read the liability order and understand what is written on it, so why do you need a friend?
Non-payer: Because this is a complicated matter of law and I have never had any dealings with the law.
Magistrate: Well, I'm sure you are quite capable of understanding the proceedings without help. They should be quite straightforward for someone with your background
Non-payer: Well, if they're so simple why do you have to keep asking the learned clerk what to do every five minutes? You obviously don't understand it yourself.
A legal challenge by the Leicester Rights Centre in the High Court, ruled that magistrates were under no obligation to allow McKenzie friends. This judgement was later overruled by the appeal court in July 1991, but by this stage the McKenzie friend strategy was not proving too successful anyway, mainly because non-payers had little time before their court cases to become familiar with the technical arguments their McKenzie friends were trying to convey. Nevertheless, the campaign managed to reduce the speed of Poll Tax cases to a slow crawl. This was possible because activists shifted their tactics towards giving detailed briefings outside the courts and focusing on the most common areas on which the councils had been wrong-footed (for example, getting addresses wrong and not giving enough notice). Non-payers were also advised to prepare a political speech and not to stop talking (so that they couldn't be interrupted by the magistrate).
Experience showed that the most effective way of wasting time, for those who were not familiar with the law, was to relate direct experiences of hardship. People talking in their own language about their own circumstances were much harder for the magistrates to dismiss than legal technicians. Many people made political speeches which lasted for as long as ten minutes, others outlined their financial circumstances. They all took up valuable time, and sometimes made a powerful and moving impact on the public gallery.
The detailed briefings held outside the court-room were combined with political speeches from activists about the campaign. This political presence was an important confidence booster for those who were being processed through the court system. They saw how professionally the campaign was organised and this strengthened their resolve not to pay. Few of those turning up to court had had any previous contact with their local Anti-Poll Tax Union, so the court waiting-rooms provided a place in which people could meet other non-payers from their local area. It was often their first opportunity to organise together, and as a result, a number of new Anti-Poll Tax Unions were formed in the waiting rooms.
Using the time constructively in this way helped to keep people interested, and ensured that people stayed at the courts all day. In some areas, the scale of the operation in the courts was immense. In Bristol the campaign had five activists available two days a week solely for court support work. Briefings were delivered every ten minutes or so for the first two hours each day and a creche was organised. In Bristol, where over 10% of non-payers consistently turned up to court over a period of five months, there were always willing volunteers. But this experience was not universal. In most rural areas, local groups found it hard to sustain any presence at all after the first week. Even cities like Leeds found it fairly difficult to persuade non-payers to turn up to court. Other activists had similar experiences:
Some activists in Stamford Hill Anti-Poll Tax Union felt that the massive emphasis on court work could lead the movement up a blind alley. It was very difficult to inspire people in court. Most people went in desperation and left the court even more desperate and frightened.
Alan Hirons, Stamford Hill APTU, 3/9/97.
Nevertheless, in most courts the public galleries were full. People were learning how the courts worked, some awed by the situation, others amused by the ridiculousness of the pomp and ceremony. Extremely technical cases were punctuated by pure farce. Some examples of exchanges between magistrates and non-payers indicate how easy it was to ridicule the courts:
Court clerk: Are you Mr. I. Smith?
Non-payer: No, I am Mr. I. T. Smith.
Court clerk: Mr. Smith, you did respond to a notice to come to this court which was addressed to Mr. I. Smith did you not?
Court clerk: Then are you not Mr. I. Smith?
Non-payer: No, I'm Mr. I. T. Smith
Court clerk: Well, if you aren't Mr. I. Smith then why did you answer the summons?
Non-payer: Because I wanted to make sure you didn't mistake me for Mr. I. Smith.
Court clerk: Mr. Smith, is there anyone else in your house who might be called Mr. I. Smith?
Non-payer: I don't know
Court clerk: Do you live with your family?
Court clerk: Well, what sort of house do you live in?
Non-payer: An ordinary terraced house.
Court clerk: Do you own the house
Mr. Smith? Non-payer: Yes.
Court clerk: Well, does anyone else live there?
Non-payer: I'm not sure, there might be someone living in the spare room.
Court clerk: You don't know who lives in your spare room?
Court Clerk: Mr. Smith are you sure that you haven't got anyone living under the floorboards of your house?
(The names in this dialogue have been changed.)
Exchanges of this sort were meaningless, and didn't constitute any sort of defence, but this was the essence of the strategy. People also made use of their personal circumstances and played them to their limits:
There was a chap from Pudsey. He told me that he was a diabetic and that he might need to give himself some Insulin. So he dragged his court-case on as long as possible. It was about fifteen minutes, then he shuddered and explained to the magistrate that he needed his jab, and asked if it was OK if he gave it to himself. They said fine and he rolled up his T-shirt in full view of them and stuck a needle into his stomach. One of the magistrates looked as if she was going to be sick.
Ian Greaves, Secretary, Leeds Federation APTUs,17/5/91.
These exchanges got a good deal of local media publicity and demoralised the court officials. While they soon became adept at minimising this sort of wilful disruption, they never eradicated it. Some extremely interesting legal defences were mounted. One was a claim that if you were a Cornish tin miner you were exempt from the Poll Tax. A Cornish tin miner was technically someone who held shares in a Cornish tin mine and the Stannary Parliament of Cornwall:
The argument was that by virtue of a Royal Charter of 1508, the Stannary Parliament has a power of veto over all taxes levied by the government on tin miners, descendants of tin miners in perpetuity, owners of tin mines and workers in the tin industry.
Poll Tax Legal Group, 1990.
This was made possible because, in 1974, a Cornishman Fred Trull revived the Cornish Stannary Parliament and became its clerk. Fred Trull started selling shares which cost £1 plus 50p for postage and packing. The press liked the story and covered it extensively. As a result, Fred Trull, started to receive thousands of letters; on one day he received over 100,000 letters of application for shares. He had to hire a local hall and enlist two dozen volunteers to deal with the mail. He said:
Legally they can do nothing about it. On what pretext can a foreign government take a foreign national to their courts.
Unfortunately they did do something about it. Fred Trull was arrested for illegally selling shares, and his legal argument, after trundling through the High Court for some time, finally ground to a halt. Nevertheless, he had provided people with something else to argue about in court. Delaying tactics were mixed with serious legal technicalities. Councils were challenged, for sending notices to the wrong addresses. Given the rate at which people moved houses, it was difficult for the councils to keep up, and as a result many cases were dropped because people hadn't received proper notice.
Big legal challenges were also made over 'correct procedures'. These came in the first few weeks and resulted mostly from the inexperience of councils in dealing with this sort of process. The first day of Medina Council's cases (on the Isle of Wight) is probably the most famous example. The reminder notices were sent out with second class stamps, they consequently arrived late, people didn't receive the statutory notice which they were entitled to, and the court threw out all 1,900 cases. The council had to start again.
Justice Is Not Seen To Be Done!
'Now for the evidence,' said the King, 'and then the sentence.' 'No!' said the Queen, 'First the sentence and then the evidence.' 'Nonsense!' cried Alice, 'The idea of having the sentence first.'
Lewis Carol - Alice Through The Looking Glass., 1872
One of the unique factors about the Poll Tax court cases was that magistrates were not allowed to take into account the circumstances of the people who were up before them. This was written into the legislation and marked a complete departure from the rates system. In rates cases magistrates had the power to waive debts if they believed defendants were suffering genuine hardship. Under the Poll Tax, magistrates could only take people's financial circumstances into account when the local authority had tried every other means of recovering the money and the non-payer was in court again facing imprisonment.
This infuriated people, because they came to the courts in their hundreds, armed with figures about how much they spent on food, how much on clothes, how much on rent and how much was left. They believed that if they could prove that they literally had no money then the courts would show them justice. Unfortunately, it was not that simple:
We aren't here to discuss political issues... We aren't here to decide whether you can afford to pay or not...
Local Government Chronicle, 15/6/90.
These same lines were repeated in court after court. Frequently magistrates would talk over the non-payers while they were in the middle of a sentence: 'liability order granted, fine £18.50, next case please.' The magistrates then signalled to the police officer and the non-payers were hustled out of the court, protesting that they hadn't finished their defence. Often people didn't realise the case was over because they were still in the middle of speaking when the magistrates pronounced 'guilt'.
One woman in a Bristol court brought in a detailed list of all her income and living costs. These showed that after she had paid for basic necessities, she only had £3.50 a week left (Poll Tax for her and her husband amounted to nearly £20 per week). After she had explained this to the magistrate, the clerk of the court replied dryly, 'Is that the only reason why you have not paid your Poll Tax?' This disregard of basic circumstances contravened most peoples' understanding of justice. While it is true that technically the courts didn't have any discretion to consider circumstances, they did have the power to treat people with dignity and listen to what they had to say.
In some areas, anyone who started to put a serious case forward, had their case stopped in the middle, and were told that if they wanted to be heard they would have to wait until the end of the day. It seemed farcical that people were being punished for presenting a case when they thought that this was what the courts were there for. For many, this was their first experience of the British judicial system, an institution some had respected in the past. Their respect soon turned to rage:
They didn't listen to a word I said... They just made an order while I was talking, there isn't any justice in the courts, but I didn't expect justice because it's impossible to administer this tax in a just way. I'm appalled at the way the magistrates abused people psychologically, they were very intimidating. Its' just disgraceful intimidation of the population, people are being hassled through, not being allowed to say anything or make a case even if they have a case... people aren't being allowed to have any support whatsoever. It seems really strange in this day and age that this is allowed to happen.
This is a kangaroo court, they aren't allowing people to have a proper defence, the magistrates are making this a political trial.
interviews with people after they had appeared in court, Bristol Magistrates Court, 1/2/91.
Despite this, the court strategy was effective in delaying the granting of liability orders. Some courts, like Hackney in London, were severely disabled. Others, like Bristol, slogged their way through the cases but, as I have described, were still hopelessly far from their targets. In Bristol, where the magistrates were stricter than in most areas, 1,600 people were summoned every Friday.
Unfortunately for the council, well over 150 non-payers came to have their cases heard each week. On some weeks, where there were strong Anti-Poll Tax Unions (they summoned people on an area basis) 400-500 people turned up. Over a period of five months, over 10% of those summoned consistently arrived at the courts to have their cases heard. The mathematics were simple. Even if cases only averaged five minutes each (and some took considerably longer), with an average of 10% of those summoned turning up, the courts would need 120 full days of court time (they were only able to negotiate about 35 from a busy court before the end of the financial year) to get liability orders for the 120,000 non-payers.
By the end of the first financial year of the Poll Tax they had got less than half. Many councils tried using the press to dissuade people from turning up. Local papers, such as the Docklands Recorder in Tower Hamlets, printed long lists of non-payers in an attempt to shame them in public. This plan failed miserably as hundreds of people wrote to the letters' pages asking why they weren't on the list, saying they were proud to be non-payers and wanted everyone to know.
The lists also gave a helping hand to campaigners who were finding it hard to get hold of information on who had been through the courts, because the councils and the courts had refused to make the lists public. Now the activists were able to look them up in the newspaper. This information was vital for the next stage — telling people personally about their rights in relation to bailiffs and wage arrestment. This extraordinarily successful campaign in the courts was only the beginning of the enforcement nightmare for the local councils. In many areas, it would take years just to get the pieces of paper to allow them to start enforcement action. Actually getting the money would be another story!
No Bailiffs Here!
There can be no greater infringement of an individual's civil liberties than to have a sheriff officer examine their personal belongings to ascertain if there is anything worth poinding
David Begg — Chair of Finance, Lothian Regional Council, Local Government Chronicle, 14/9/90.
Bailiffs are legally sanctioned thugs who are employed to recover debts from people who have not got the money to pay them. In the fight against non-payment, bailiffs and Scottish sheriff officers were used indiscriminately by councils to harass and degrade the poor. In England and Wales, they were authorised by law to take furniture and household goods from those people who had no other assets (in Scotland they could only take 'luxury' goods). This procedure is called 'distraint'.
In 1986, the Law Commission recommended the abolition of distraint. That recommendation was ignored. Labour councils were just as thorough in their use of bailiffs as Tory ones. This is all the more remarkable as, even in pure economic terms, the cost of recovery was likely to be far higher than what was raised. Poor people don't tend to own much, and the resale value of what they do own is likely to be minimal — certainly not enough to pay the £400 or £500 Poll Tax demanded by many councils. Most people will do anything they can to pay a debt, before allowing the bailiffs to come in and sell off everything they own at a fraction of what it is worth. So, it is only the very poorest who have no alternative source of money who will allow themselves to reach the stage of bailiff action. For many the only way of paying the debt was to go to the loan sharks, and it is clear that the establishment was well-aware of this:
Remember household goods don't produce large prices at auction and replacement of those goods on credit can make the situation worse.
Local Government Chronicle, supplement 16, November 1990.
But most councils seemed less concerned about the actual impact of these actions than the way they were perceived. One piece of advice from the Local Government Chronicle was: 'The word bailiff is an emotive one, and gentler titles should be used.' But no amount of cosmetic dressing could disguise the naked brutality of the bailiffs' work. In Scotland the process of distraint was particularly degrading.
Sheriff officers had the right to recover debts without a full court hearing. They would send round threatening letters in an attempt to intimidate people into paying. If this failed they turned up on the doorstep to carry out a 'poinding' — a valuation of people's goods. To do this they had to get into people's houses and, in Scotland (if they gave four days' notice), they had the right to break and enter.
The sheriff officers then had the right to hold 'warrant sales' (public auctions of people's goods) inviting the public to buy the goods for a pittance. Debtors didn't only have to suffer the loss of their few personal possessions but also to face the humiliation of exposing their desperate financial plight to their friends and neighbours. In England and Wales, the situation was not quite so bad. Bailiffs could only be used after liability orders had been granted in the courts. Bailiffs didn't have the right to force entry. They were allowed to climb through an open window, and if, unknowingly, the non-payer let the bailiff into their house the first time, the bailiff subsequently had the right to break in. But, if they were consistently stopped at the door, they had no right to enter, however many times they came back:
Their powers of entry are rather like those traditionally associated with vampires — they have to be invited in or allowed in by an occupant of the property, or find an open door or window.
Poll Tax Legal Group, 1990.
These differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK compelled the Anti-Poll Tax Unions to adopt different strategies. In Scotland, the focus was on getting hundreds of people outside homes which were threatened, and physically stopping the bailiffs. This particular battle was more intense because it was the last course of action the councils could take — people couldn't be imprisoned for debt in Scotland.
In England and Wales, while organising physical defence against the bailiffs was important, the main focus was on huge propaganda campaigns to make sure that people knew their rights. In most cases of debt, before the Poll Tax was introduced, just the threat of the bailiffs was enough to secure payment. According to Simon Smith, the Secretary of the Association of Certified Bailiffs for England and Wales:
Under the rates, goods were actually removed in only around 1% of cases — 99% of the time the bailiffs secured payment or the promise of payment.
Labour Research, October 1990.
Normally when goods are poinded, the debtors see how low a value the sheriff officers are placing on their goods and somehow find the money, often by borrowing from relatives, to pay up.
Glasgow Herald, 7/7/89.
Because of this, distraint was seen by councils as an efficient method of debt collection. The situation had got so bad in the past because few people knew their rights. So, when bailiffs had intimidated people into letting them in, or barged the door down, often with police collusion, there was no community resistance. So the first task of Anti-Poll Tax Unions was to inform people about what the bailiffs could and couldn't do.
In Scotland, people were advised not to tell the sheriffs where they worked, not to tell them which banks they used and not, under any circumstances, to let them into their houses. They were also told to inform the local group as soon as the sheriffs threatened any-thing. The Anti-Poll Tax Unions advised people to move possessions to local friends' houses before the date of the poinding and offered to help with the moving. People were told to leave their cars well away from their homes. They were informed that a wrongful poinding could be appealed against and, in many cases, this was done successfully.
People were also told how to avoid bailiff action by signing away their possessions to people who lived outside of the area or, preferably, to their children. There are now young children who technically own all of their parents' possessions. Some local law centres went onto the offensive against the bailiffs, providing information to the public, which totally undermined their actions. One morning in May 1991, the bailiffs delivered over 4,000 intimidation notices to people throughout Bristol. By 7.30 am. the law centre had heard about this and contacted all local radio stations. By 8.00 p.m. the news bulletins which went out every fifteen minutes, reported:
Today bailiffs have delivered notices for payment to over 4,000 people in Bristol. A spokesperson from the law centre said that they were illegal and should be ignored.
So most people ignored them. This is a good example of the way in which voluntary groups were able to contribute to the campaign.
While an important part of the resistance to the bailiffs, propaganda was not enough. Direct responses needed to be organised. Action against the bailiffs was planned months in advance. Throughout Britain, city-wide bailiff busting groups were formed. Activists in Edinburgh formed a group called 'Scum-busters' which was equipped with CB radios, and squadrons of cars. Telephone trees were organised; bailiff companies were monitored; their car registration numbers were taken and distributed to activists in all the local areas. Camden, in London, followed their example in 1991:
We have organised a rota so that we know who and when people are available to do whatever shift. We have organised a 'knock up system' giving people different responsibilities for knocking up each part of the estate when the bailiffs are spotted. Telephone trees have also been established. We have approached a couple of mini-cab firms who have agreed to be bailiff spotters... We visited the bailiff's office in Wandsworth and, believe me, they are worried. After all they are used to intimidating old-aged pensioners and one parent families but now they know we are organised it's a different story.
Josie Alverez, Mornington Crescent APTU, Camden, London, All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation newsletter, September 1990.
In Bristol a bailiff monitoring group was formed. The bailiffs Roach and Co. were permanently watched for a week; their vehicle details were taken. Information was found out about individual bailiffs; their home addresses were distributed to the local groups. Pickets were regularly organised outside their offices.
The first Scottish people to face poindings were given advance warning by the sheriff officers. This gave them the legal power to force entry, but also enabled the Anti-Poll Tax Unions to prepare for their arrival. The sheriffs' first attempt was at the Glasgow home of Jeannette McGuin on Tuesday July 4th 1989. Jeannette owed just £59 for non-registration. Over 300 people turned up outside her house. Banners were hung out of the window saying 'God Help the Sheriffs'. The sheriffs didn't show up and Jeannette McGuin never heard another word from them.
As the non-payment cases began to emerge, the level of activity picked up. For example, in Edinburgh over 300 people filled a central high street to prevent a poinding on March 3rd. 200 activists guarded flats in the Grass Market area on April 11th, and 150 people guarded 11 flats in Stockbridge and Comely Bank on April 17th and 18th — an event which featured two street parties, a march around the local area, and the physical chasing of two sheriff officers out of the area.
Similar situations developed across Scotland:
The very first poinding which was supposed to have been taking place was in a small village called Pathead. The woman was getting a bit worried, she'd had no contact whatsoever with any Anti-Poll Tax groups, but she'd heard about the Anti-Poll Tax movement. She'd phoned up the federation office. The federation phoned me as a contact... I spoke to her, telling her I could get her help in the area if she wanted the people to come. She was a bit dubious to start with. She thought, 'Oh well, he's only saying that, the Anti-Poll Tax movement willn'y come and help me. I mean Pathead must have been fifteen to sixteen miles from Edinburgh, would people come from that area for to help us.'
So I went up again on the Thursday, explained everything again to her, reassured her... I put up the Mayfield/Newtongrange banner in her garden, took along the federation banner, hung that from her window... The back of eight o'clock everybody started coming up, they actually started running a relay service, a shuttle service with cars going to collect people, and I'd say by about half-past nine to ten o'clock we had 110 people standing in the garden. It was a beautiful day, it was like everybody was sunbathing, having a day out, we stood about there, everybody singing songs, we had the records on, a couple of them had a wee drink, things like that, waiting on the sheriff officers coming... So she thought 'I wonder if the Anti-Poll Tax movement is going to stay here because they had a lot of poindings on that day?' But I guaranteed her we'd have people there from eight in the morning to eight at night. The sheriff officers turned up, got on the phone and, lo and behold, a police car turned up...
So the police came up and asked us if the sheriff officers could get in and I said 'Well, I'm telling you, under no circumstances whatsoever are we allowing any sheriff officers into anybody's house to carry out a poinding.' So everyone was shouting and jeering in the garden and that, they were dancing about and that. I says to them, 'Listen, could you keep quiet just now so that we can hear what the police and the sheriff officers are saying?'
So the sheriff officers turned around to the police, and says 'I want him arrested, because he's organising this,' and the police says 'Well, we can't do a thing.' And everyone in the garden, I says to them well, 'They want me arrested.' They says, 'Well, if you're getting arrested then all of us are getting arrested.' And by this time, the local coalman had come up the road in his lorry, stopped his lorry and blocked the street. The two guys at the back jumped off, and the coalman who was driving the lorry, they jumped over the fence and joined us.
The local council workers, who were doing the windows at the time, downed their tools and got in the garden and supported us. It's worse than jungle drums, because the local baker heard it, he came around with his baker's van and started dishing out cakes to us. The sheriff officers were getting quite panicky by this time. The police got in their car and left the sheriff officers. I told them again. I said, 'You'd better get going, it's a waste of your time, we know you're not going to get in, so there's nothing else you can do.'
So they asked for the woman in the house... She spoke to them over the gate. I says, 'The first thing that you must tell me you're a sheriff officer?' He says, 'I am.' I says, 'Well, look, I want identification,' because they carry a card, and their photograph. So he had a big folder. He opened the folder, his hands were shaking that much that I had to have the folder and take his identification out for him. I got the identification, he showed her it and I says, 'Well, what's your business?' He says, 'Well,' he says to, Mabel Brown, her name was, 'We're here to execute this summary warrant on you for to gain entry into your house to carry out a poinding.'
We took it off him. I says to Mabel, 'Well, you know what to do with that,' so she ripped it up, took it into the house and threw it in the fire. I says to them, 'There's no way you're getting in,' so they were quite persistent. They tried to get in for five or ten minutes and by this time the crowd were getting quite hostile, and I says, 'I think you'd better go to you're car while you've still got four wheels and you're still able to walk.'
Jackie Moyers, Mayfield/Newtongrange Anti-Poll Tax Union, 6/5/91.
In the South West of England the preparations for the bailiffs were put to the test on August 3rd 1990. Bailiffs from Roach and Co. (Bristol) were due to go both to Barry, near Cardiff, and the village of Bishops Lydeard near Taunton. A picket was called by the Avon Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions for 7.00 a.m. outside Roach's headquarters. This was aimed at getting maximum publicity across the day, and blockading any vehicles which happened to go from the central compound. At the same time federation members set up a watch on the Severn Bridge.
At 7.30 a.m. one of Roach's cars was spotted crossing the bridge. This was telephoned through to the Cardiff Federation who had 50 people waiting on the estate which the bailiffs were due to visit. The car was later spotted three miles away with its tyres slashed. In the meantime over 100 people had been on the end of telephones waiting to be called up if necessary. The action at Bishops Lydeard was even more dramatic. A large number of the tiny village's population took the day off work. They divided up into small groups, and blockaded every road into the village. Barricades were constructed and every vehicle which tried to enter was stopped and asked its business.
Cars were driven up and down the country lanes to spot the bailiffs. In the end, the bailiffs didn't come near the place. In one or two places when the bailiffs got desperate, they made attempts to distrain goods found outside people's houses. A classic example came from Bristol when Roach and Co. attempted to get into the house of someone on their list for non-payment. They couldn't gain entry so they took away his garden equipment (including the lawn mower) and three cars which were parked outside his house. It didn't occur to them that if he were not paying the Poll Tax, he probably didn't have much money, so he probably didn't have three cars. The next day they discovered that one of the cars was owned by the next door neighbour, and the man from whom they had intended to seize goods had actually paid his Poll Tax. He sued for illegal distraint and joined the Anti-Poll Tax Union, saying that he was not going to pay next year. But the campaign was not only defensive.
Many local activists decided to visit the bailiffs in their homes, and let them know that they were not welcome in our communities. On May 1st 1991, around 80 activists from around the South-West converged on the little town of Nempnett Thrubwell, where Mr. Roach the owner of the Bristol based bailiff company lived. This extract from my diary describes the event:
We thought Mr. Roach needed to see what it felt like to be intimidated in his home... The press were all there. Mr. Roach wasn't. We informed all his neighbours that Mr. Roach was a bailiff. 'Oh,' said one of them, 'I wondered why he had such a flash car.' Another, an old bloke, came out of his house wielding a stick. He said, 'You shouldn't interfere with other people's property.' That's what we've come to tell Mr. Roach,' we replied. At about 7.30 p.m. we saw the others come over the horizon with banners and slogans, filling the country lanes with chants of 'We won't pay the Poll Tax'. The village didn't really know what had hit it.
There were certainly more Anti-Poll Tax activists than houses. Everyone gathered around Roach's house. A banner which read 'Bristol Bailiff Assassins' was planted on his lawn. It just so happened, that Mr. Roach had been building himself a garden wall and there were a lot of new bricks lying around, so people started to brick up his doors and windows. Others had a look at Mr. Roach's double garage —the door was open. Any good bailiff should know that if you want to keep your property safe, you shouldn't leave your door open. Well, there wasn't a car inside, but there was a mountain bike; fishing tackle, clothes, bottles of wine, garden equipment.
In fact, the place was chock-a-block. A mock auction was held in front of the press. Anyway, his possessions ended up strewn all over the garden, and slogans were daubed across the back of his wall: 'Fuck off bailiff, we'll be back!' The police arrived about five minutes after we had gone. We heard that Mr. Roach was escorted home later that night in a police car. It's good to give people like that a taste of their own medicine.
Danny Burns, extract from diary, 2/5/91.
The story, which was widely covered by the regional press, made people laugh and made the point that they didn't have to wait helplessly until the bailiffs came to them. It also inspired other actions elsewhere. In Edinburgh, local Anti-Poll Tax groups started a campaign, called Operation Suburban Storm, to visit local councillors' homes and carry out mock poindings. Occupations were another common tactic of the campaign against the bailiffs and the councils.
On September 20th 1989, Edinburgh activists took over the council chamber when the Labour council decided to go ahead with warrant sales. On November 17th, they occupied the offices of Sheriff Officer H.M. Love. Similar actions took place in Glasgow. On October 12th over 50 Glasgow Anti-Poll Tax protesters occupied the offices of sheriff officers Gray and Scott. This occupation (which was organised by the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation) demanded that a threatened warrant sale against a woman, Mrs. Patton was dropped. Within three hours the sheriffs agreed to drop the case and hand it back to the council. The level of activity grew more in-tense:
In Strathclyde there have been at least four occupations of sheriff officers' offices. On April 18th the offices of George Walker (sheriff officers) were occupied by 40 people for over 28 hours. In the following week, three other sheriffs' offices were occupied, including one by Pollock Against The Poll Tax on 23rd April. On 11th May, 40 people occupied an Easterhouse DSS office for 10 hours to protest at Poll Tax deductions from claimants' benefits.
Counter Information, No.27, June 1990.
While these were all serious political actions, many of them had a funny side. John Cooper from Glasgow describes an occupation of the Poll Tax Office on Queen Street:
We had about 30 people and it was quite well-organised. So we went through the office, and I happened to notice that there were still people arriving to pay their Poll Tax. The staff had all kinda moved back out of the way, so I just sat down at the desk and said through the glass, 'Can I help you?' I says 'It's OK you don't need to pay any more, its abolished!' and the guy says, 'Are you sure?' I says, 'I'm positive, you know what I'd do with this money, go and spend it, have a good time.' He says, 'You're having me on.' I could see the guy was still uncertain. So there was a bunch of pads for phone messages, I ripped one of them off, and said 'If there's any bother just send that in to us.'
John Cooper, Glasgow, 8/5/91.
By April 1991 (after the Poll Tax had been introduced for a year), few bailiff companies had recovered enough to survive on. Bristol City Council for example had only received £54,000 in response to their threatening letters (from a total of over 120,000 non-payers). As long as non-payment held up, the odds were dramatically stacked against the bailiffs. There were simply not enough of them to deal with the problem.
At their 1990 annual conference, Simon Smith, the Secretary of the Association of Certified Bailiffs, admitted that with only 1,000 registered bailiffs and over 10 million expected non-payers they didn't have a chance of enforcing even a small fraction. The biggest problem for the bailiffs was that they were paid on a commission basis. If they didn't recover the Poll Tax debt for the council, they didn't get paid for the work they did. This proved troublesome, not least because they had lost the safe source of income which they used to receive from the rates. Many bailiff firms faced serious cash flow problems as they needed to employ more people but received less money. A report in the Hackney Gazette highlighted their problem:
Rayner Ferrar and Co., whose contract ended this week, added that they faced bankruptcy if they had continued working for the Town Hall. David Rayner, a director of the bailiff company, said: 'We had 15,000 liability orders given to us to chase up. Four out of five of all those liability orders were not collectable because the Poll Tax register is in such a terrible mess. People named in the register weren't at the address given, or they were paying by direct debit and it wasn't on the computer, or they were liable for rebates they hadn't received. We desperately need accurate financial information. It is not financially viable for us to act for Hackney Council any longer, we'll go bust if we continue.' Town Hall bosses have refused to agree to the new terms the bailiffs demanded — a set payment for every case they chased up whether or not the rebel paid up, plus the agreed commission. Previously they worked on a commission only basis.
Hackney Gazette, 79/4/91.
In the South-West two bailiff firms went out of business. This was not uncommon elsewhere. By July 1981, when the tax had been in place for more than two years, Scottish bailiffs had carried out 41,102 poinding visits (Labour Research, October 1991) but they hadn't managed to sell the goods of a single one, and, in England and Wales, the number of successful bailiff actions could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Defying The Threat Of Income Deduction
In many cases the appeal of attachment of earnings orders to the government parallels the appeal of the charge. Both are deceptively simple and in an ideal world, where good citizens follow their statutory duties on time, and with attention to detail, then the problems so obvious to practical collectors evaporate. Unfortunately, it is the collectors' view which is closer to the real world, not the government's.
Local Government Chronicle, Poll Tax supplement, 16/11/90.
The alternative to bailiff action was wage arrestment, income support arrestment and, in Scotland, the freezing of bank accounts. Local councils had the power to instruct employers and the Department of Social Security to deduct money directly from people's incomes. A number of high-profile actions were taken against income support deductions such as the occupation and roof-top protest carried out by Tottenham Anti-Poll Tax Union on 17th July 1991, but the focus of activity was on practical advice and attempts to get the trade unions to resist.
Anti-Poll Tax Unions advised their members to take their money out of the four big banks and use smaller banks or building societies. In some cases, even bank staff warned people that their accounts would be frozen, so they moved their money elsewhere. In the end, the banks made it clear to local councils that freezing bank accounts was not an effective enforcement procedure and they would not co-operate indefinitely:
The Committee of Scottish Clearing Bankers has written to the regional councils urging them not to proceed with mass account arrestments. The banks are particularly worried about mass speculative arrestments where sheriff officers send lists of names to bank head offices in the hope that some of the people named will have bank accounts. The banks have to circulate the lists to branches who have to check their records. The 'success rate' according to the Committee is only around 5-6%.
LGIU, Poll Tax Focus, No.11, December 1989.
As a result bank account freezing was not included in the enforcement options when the Poll Tax was introduced to England and Wales. Wage arrestment on the other hand, appeared to offer some chance of success, but it turned out to be just as problematic. In the first instance, it didn't act as a deterrent for people on low incomes because there was a maximum amount that councils could deduct each week. This operated on a sliding scale but could be no more than £1.75 per week for those on income support, and £3 per week for someone earning £100. So, even if someone did get their wages arrested, they would end up paying less per week than if they paid the Poll Tax direct. This meant that there was an incentive to wait.
The threat of trade union action was also a potential problem for councils. Attempts to resist wage arrestment through union action were focused around setting up work-place Anti-Poll Tax Unions. These bypassed official trade union structures, because even those few unions such as NALGO who had a theoretical policy of support for non-payment, refused to put it into practice. A number of workplaces set up groups, but these ran up against heavy resistance. George Thorne, of the Stockport branch of 'Postal Workers Against The Poll Tax' highlighted some of the difficulties in an article for Socialist Voice:
We borrowed some union notepaper and put up a notice asking anyone who was interested to attend a meeting. The meeting was well-attended and we formed our group calling ourselves The UCW Anti-Poll Tax Group. Almost immediately we came into collision with the UCW. The Union said that we should not have used union headed notepaper. In the August edition of our union newspaper The Post, there was a small unsigned article advising members not to support PWAPT.
This was a typical union reaction and these organisational problems ensured that only a few workplace groups thrived.
There was some strike action by council workers, but it tended, like the strike of Greenwich housing workers, to be more related to improving the working conditions of Poll Tax office staff than challenging the Poll Tax itself. As a result, there were very few examples of unions and employers who refused to deduct from wages.
However, the councils still had one insurmountable headache. They had to find out where people worked. This was a real nightmare because other than asking the people concerned, they had no real way of getting the information they needed. When a liability order was granted by the court, non-payers were sent a form which requested details of employment. Failure to fill it out carried a fine of £100 and £400 if the non-payer provided false information. But this didn't act as a deterrent either, because, if people couldn't pay the Poll Tax itself (and the court costs which were added), then it made little difference if the council added another £100.
A survey carried out by the Audit Commission in late 1989 showed that, nationally, only 15% of people who received the form actually sent it back. Like electoral registration, it was widely ignored even though this was a criminal offence. As a result it was difficult for the councils to arrest the wages of anyone other than those employed by large institutions (their own employees, colleges of further education, and some large corporations), but these only represented a small fraction of non-payers.
By July 1991, Scottish local authorities had only managed 14,102 wage arrestments and 14,710 bank arrestments (Labour Research, October 1990) which, from a population of over a million Scottish non-payers, was laughable. They achieved more income support deductions (72,819 by June 1991) but, because of the small amounts involved, it cost councils more to administer them than they got back. Councils in England and Wales could do no better. Now, their only hope of recovering the money was to threaten imprisonment.
Too Many People To Jail
The threat of imprisonment was the final deterrent aimed at intimidating people into paying. The first person threatened was a 74-year old pensioner, Mr. Cyril Mundin. He was arrested on Thursday 11th October 1990, by bailiffs from the firm of Madigans. After spending one and a half hours at the local police station, he was escorted to the magistrates' court, where he was given fourteen days to pay his outstanding tax. He was threatened with a fourteen-day prison sentence if he refused to comply. Bailiffs had unsuccessfully attempted to enter his house on three occasions.
Activists, angered by the action of Northampton Borough Council, occupied the offices of the City Treasurer, refusing to let him go for over an hour. In the end, Mr. Mundin didn't go to jail, his Poll Tax was paid by The News of the World. This action was not a spontaneous gesture of sympathy, it was an attempt to deflect the bad publicity which the jailing of a pensioner would have received.
It was not long before the first non-payer was jailed. On Friday 7th December, Brian Wright was jailed for 21 days by Grantham Council. Brian received over 800 cards and letters from well-wishers, 700 demonstrators turned up outside the prison a week later and the local council was inundated by hate mail from Anti-Poll Tax activists. Douglas Hogg, the local MP and government minister was visited by twenty people including members of the Wright family. Through pressure, they forced the MP to ensure that Brian was allowed to be visited every day, and he was released after only fourteen days.
Political pressure of this sort, surprisingly seemed to have an impact on the conditions of imprisoned non-payers and some had their sentences reduced. The second non-payer to be jailed was Patrick Westmore on the Isle of Wight. Patrick was a Militant supporter and Chair of the local Anti-Poll Tax Union. While he demonstrated that he only had £36.70 a week to live on, he was still imprisoned for fourteen days — clearly singled out because of his political role.
By September 1991, 70 people had been sent to prison for non-payment, mostly for a couple of weeks but in some cases up to three months. The Labour MP, Terry Fields, was imprisoned for two months. Regular pickets were mounted outside the prisons. In many areas, the local prisoners' support groups, which had formed after the Trafalgar Square demonstration, carried out similar work for non-payment prisoners. They arranged visits, sent cards and books, and ensured that letters and statements from the prisoners were published. For those who were not in a position to make a principled stand, the committal hearings were important because magistrates were obliged to take into account the financial circumstances of the defendants. So, far from acting as a deterrent, some people saw them as the only chance they would get to explain their financial circumstances to the authorities.
Defendants had the right to a full means hearing and had the opportunity to present their family accounts. This meant that it was in the interest of everyone (even those who decided that they would eventually pay) to wait until the committal hearing, because they were likely to get a more favourable instalment deal from the court than the council. In addition to this, at the committal stage, magistrates had the right to waive debts.
On 26th February 1991, Sharon West a mother of three children was brought before the Taunton Deane Magistrates' Court for non-payment. If she had been imprisoned, her children would have been put into care. The magistrates let her walk free. Other magistrates were not so sympathetic, apparently unable to comprehend the poverty people faced:
The Finneys offered to pay £.5 a week. The magistrate said that it wasn't enough. He wanted to know why Mr. Finney, who is a labourer for a pottery firm, spent E10 per week travelling to work. 'Didn't he have a company car?'
Newcastle Under Lyme Magistrates' Court, June 1991.
While the number of people facing prison appeared frighteningly high, the situation had actually been far worse under the rates. Unknown to most people, an average of over 300 people a year had been imprisoned for inability to pay the rates over the previous ten years (Stoke on Trent CAB, survey, 1987). Now for the first time the councils had been forced to expose what they were doing. Because imprisonment was the last stage of the enforcement process, councils needed it to be an effective deterrent. So, officials of Labour councils stood up in court and argued for people to be imprisoned, even where the non-payer offered to have their wages arrested or tried to pay in monthly instalments. But still people were not deterred.
In September 1991, Bristol City Council started taking 40 people a week through the courts for committal hearings. A local councillor, Robin Moss (one of the rebels expelled from the Labour Group for his stand against the Poll Tax), managed to get hold of the list of those due to appear. He noticed the name of someone he knew on the list, and immediately rang her up. 'Did you realise you are due to appear in court tomorrow for a committal hearing?'. 'Oh yes' she replied, 'but I have to take some kids to see the dinosaurs.' This captures the mood of indifference to the actions of the authorities.
Of that first 40 people, five came to an agreement with the council before the court case, five cases were heard (four were given suspended sentences and one was imprisoned), but the other 30 didn't bother to turn up. They could technically be arrested by bailiffs (and one or two were) but it was impossible to track them all down. The Bristol cases were instructive for another reason. The first man to be sent down, Tony Whitfield, was held for three days in a police cell in Frome because there was no room in any of the Bristol police stations or in Bristol's Horfield Jail. The second man imprisoned, David Britain, was sent to a police station in Hampshire, because, there was no space available anywhere in Avon. The third, Paul Chamberlain, was taken to a police station in Bridgwater and then transferred to Plymouth.
So, if the authorities were having trouble dealing with the first three cases, how were they going to deal with the hundreds who had already been given suspended sentences, let alone the 150,000 non-payers waiting to be summoned? It is worth adding that it cost the government around £600 per week to put people in jail, so for each two-month sentence they were paying over £5,000 in lieu of perhaps £500 unpaid Poll Tax. Most councils quickly realised that it would be impossible to imprison more than a handful of people and slackened off the pace of committal hearings, but the public also realised this, and knew that there was now no effective sanction against non-payment. The State was reduced to the futile mass production of threatening letters which were increasingly ignored by an angry and confident population.
Sinking The Flagship
So I say: let us have some recriminations. This was not some natural unforeseen disaster. Everything that happened to this miserable, misbegotten, mean spirited piece of legislation was predicted right from the start. Even large sections of the Conservative Party especially in local government, warned privately of what would happen. But most shamefully kept quiet in public because Mummy wanted it, and Mummy knew best. Can one even begin to imagine the outcry there would have been in the Tory newspapers if a Labour government had made such a catastrophic mess?
So let Messrs. Baker, Ridley, Portillo, Gummer, Howard, Patten and the rest be forced to parade through the streets wearing placards, dunces' caps and red noses. Let them be beaten about the head with pigs' bladders. Let the Thatcher Foundation be presented with a bill for £3,390m. Let all members of the Adam Smith Institute be debarred from holding public office in their lifetimes. And let every Right-wing scribbler and leader writer who defended the tax attend a great televised banquet at which they are required to eat their words without the benefit of alcohol.
Robert Harris, Sunday Times, 24/2/91.
The events I have narrated describe the downfall of the Poll Tax. Crippled by the impossibility of enforcement, the government was forced to back down. This section chronicles the way in which that happened. From the beginning of 1990, the government went through a series of tactical retreats. Month after month, minor modifications were made to reduce the burden of taxation on this group or that. In February 1990, following the Town Hall riots and a series of opinion polls which showed overwhelming public opposition to the Poll Tax, Thatcher ordered her Environment Secretary, Chris Patten, to investigate further changes:
Ministers privately admit that the chaotic run up to April's introduction of the Community Charge is proving so politically damaging that changes will have to be made.
The Observer, 18/2/90.
But this was not to be a 'root and branch' review. Its purpose was still to sort out the 'anomalies', and the Tories continued to defend the principle of the Poll Tax. On March 25th the Sunday Correspondent produced an opinion poll which showed that Michael Heseltine (a consistent opponent of the Poll Tax) would reduce Labour's lead in the polls if he were to become leader of the Conservative Party:
Even more remarkable is the demonstration of Mr. Heseltine's electoral potency. Labour's standing in the poll is 55% compared with 28% for the Tories, but when voters were asked how they would vote if Heseltine were Conservative leader the lead narrowed dramatically to 48% for Labour, 41 % for the Conservatives.
Sunday Correspondent, 25/3/90.
He began to talk openly of his reservations about the Poll Tax but still refused to challenge the Prime Minister, pledging support for her and the party:
I have made it clear many times that I expect Mrs. Thatcher to lead the party into the next election and that the Conservatives will win.
Sunday Correspondent, 25/3/97.
But, his carefully worded statements served only to fuel press speculation about a possible leadership challenge. In April 1990, following the Trafalgar Square demonstration, the Tories lost the key Mid-Staffordshire by-election with a swing to Labour of 21.3% — the biggest swing from Conservative to Labour since the Putney by-election of 1934.
The May local council elections produced a mixed result. The Labour Party had a substantial overall victory (albeit not as big as predicted), gaining over 300 council seats, but it was tarnished by an effective Tory propaganda campaign which focused solely on the results of their two 'flagship' local authorities, Westminster and Wandsworth. These two authorities had managed to get their Poll Tax level down to £176 and £149 per head. Both authorities increased their share of the vote and the Tories were able to argue that the problem with the Poll Tax was that Labour authorities were spending too much and setting their Poll Tax too high. They argued that people were not rejecting the principle of the Poll Tax, but the level. The argument was flawed because the Labour Party increased its share of the vote in Haringey which had the highest Poll Tax level in Britain. Also both Westminster and Wandsworth received far greater central government subsidy than virtually any other councils.
Nevertheless, the Tories scored a propaganda victory which enabled them to struggle on with the Poll Tax, maintaining the belief that if they ironed out the anomalies, and imposed limits on Labour's ability to spend through capping, then they would see out the political difficulties. Over the next months, as non-payment quietly mounted and the enforcement process began, trouble for the Tories opened on a different front. The deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, made a mortally wounding speech in the House of Commons attacking Thatcher for her position on Europe and exposing her autocratic style of government. This speech opened up the floodgates. It was swiftly followed by an attack from Nigel Lawson, her ex-Chancellor, who also attacked the Poll Tax. The door was finally opened for Michael Heseltine to challenge for the leadership. The main election issue was the Poll Tax.
Thatcher won the first ballot, but failed to gain an overall majority. The 'Iron Lady' was wounded, and it soon became clear that many Tory MPs would no longer support her. On November 20th 1990, Thatcher reluctantly withdrew from the leadership contest and resigned as Prime Minister. John Major was elected as the new party leader, and, in a bid for party unity, brought Michael Heseltine into the cabinet, giving him responsibility for reforming the Poll Tax. Major authorised Heseltine to carry out a fundamental review of the tax. But he also made it clear that he didn't intend to abolish it. When he was asked on TV AM's Frost on Sunday whether he would veto a proposal from Michael Heseltine to abolish the tax, he said, 'I am sure he won't suggest that, the situation won't arise.'
On March 7th 1991, the Liberal Democrats won the Tories fourth safest seat at the Ribble Valley by-election, overturning a majority of 19,528 to win by over 4,000 votes. All the opinion polls carried out in the weeks preceding the election showed that the overriding issue of concern was the Poll Tax. This was a deeply worrying sign for Tory Party election strategists. In the year since its introduction the government had been forced to extend rebates to more and more people, and had widened the scope of relief payments. Neither of these changes had dampened down public anger. Changes now had to be made which were more than cosmetic:
Mr. Major has admitted that there must be something wrong with a tax which starts with the principle that everyone should pay, and ends with a system under which 18m out of 36m have to be offered rebates to damp the political furore.
Financial Times, 21 /2/91.
These were made possible by the new budget of the Chancellor Norman Lamont. On March 19th he announced that every Poll Tax bill in the country would be reduced by £140. This reduction was to be paid for by a 2.5% increase in VAT - an initiative designed to take the sting out of the resistance to the Poll Tax. But because it involved recalculating 35 million bills it created even deeper administrative chaos for the councils. It also created the perverse situation in which residents of Wandsworth didn't have to pay any tax. This was widely resented.
Over the following week the Tory Party furiously debated the future of the Poll Tax. The Right-wing clung faithfully to the principle that 'everyone should pay something.' As a result, a hybrid tax was touted around the corridors of Westminster, a tax which would be partly a head tax and partly a property tax. This too was attacked from within the Tory ranks - described by Nigel Lawson as the 'son of Poll Tax'.
On Thursday March 21st, Michael Heseltine announced the abolition of the Poll Tax. He said it would be replaced in 1993, by a new taxation system based on ability to pay. This new 'Council Tax' was to be a banded tax based on property value. The Anti-Poll Tax movement celebrated, but remained firm in its commitment to non-payment as it was still two years before the new tax would be introduced.
They knew that if people couldn't pay the first years Poll Tax there was no possibility of them paying a second or third. It was also difficult to predict how progressive the new Council Tax would actually turn out to be. The political parties all declared that the victory was theirs. The Liberal Democrats proclaimed that the Ribble Valley by-election was the reason why the Poll Tax was abolished:
This victory for the Liberal Democrats has put paid to the Poll Tax. If there was any doubt that it was the issue that was going to settle this by-election then there's no doubt now. When the Poll Tax is finally laid to rest in the grave, its epitaph will read: 'Here lies the Poll Tax killed in Ribble Valley'.
Mike Carr, Elected MP for Ribble Valley, The Guardian, 8/3/91.
They failed to admit that the reason for their victory was the vibrant campaign mounted by the non-payment movement. But the Prime Minister John Major made it quite clear why the tax had been abolished. In his address to concerned Right-wingers, a week before the announcement of abolition, he said that the Poll Tax was unenforceable. He cited figures of 17.5 million people who had either not paid or were in serious arrears — about half of those liable to pay. As The Observer reported:
If the Poll Tax is dead it was killed by non-payment, a tactic which each of the three main parties insisted was pointless and wrong. Extra-parliamentary action, that nightmare of Westminster politicians, proved itself and in the process exposed the hollowness of our claims to democracy... This weekend each and every one of those non-payers should feel proud of themselves...
The SNP can claim more credit from the affair than most, but their non-payment campaign was never the true engine of the revolt. The much trumpeted 'list of 100,000' non-payers was never convincing and some of the party's own councillors buckled when faced with hard choices...
Labour councillors... shed crocodile tears which would have shamed a Nile crocodile while inviting non-payers to take a close look at the law's teeth...
Few of Scotland's politicians have anything to be proud of at the end of this episode. When most needed they were found wanting and it was left to a rag-tag army of ordinary people to destroy a bad law.
The Observer, 24/3/91.
What a powerful army it proved to be! The publication of the first 1991 report on the Poll Tax by the Audit Commission must have made sobering reading. By the end of January, non-payment averaged 18% in shire district councils, 27% in metropolitan districts, 23% in outer London boroughs and 34% in inner London boroughs. Most councils were borrowing heavily to bridge the gap. In Scotland, non-payment had almost doubled from 18% in the first year to nearly 35%. In England and Wales, even when people had been through the courts, only 28% of people paid up when they received liability orders. And it was not only the non-payers who were causing trouble. The Poll Tax Legal Group, who attended an Audit Commission conference on enforcing the Poll Tax, reported a number of interesting insights:
The conference revealed the existence of a vast unorganised protest movement who are sabotaging the community charge quite independently of the existing non-payment campaigns. These include people who are paying only their old rates' bills, people who are deducting the transitional relief portion of their demands and people paying direct debit who run 'disorderly accounts' whereby no or insufficient money is to be found in them when payment is due.
Poll Tax Legal Group, Law Review No.4, March 1991.
In 1991, following the announcement of abolition, non-payment levels in many of the big cities of Britain rose even higher. In many London boroughs, Strathclyde, Bristol and other large cities it rose above 50%. People were not going to pay a tax which had been abolished because of its unfairness.
Thatcher and the Poll Tax had been brought down by a people's campaign which was persistently dismissed by the political establishment until it exploded with a force that was unstoppable.