It’s been tough to keep up with the developments in the past week, and even tougher to get time to sit and write about them. It’s as if politicians who advocated for a No vote in the independence referendum have seen things not only as a relief, but an active endorsement to pursue even further controversial measures. Hopefully time will prove this to be a mistake on their part.
Labour Councils to Pursue Poll Tax Debts
Firstly, we watched with incredulity as Labour-led councils announced that they would be using the increase in voter registrations prior to the independence referendum to check for those who may owe money from a refusal to pay the unfair Community Charge (aka poll tax) that was levied by the Conservative Thatcher government over 20+ years ago. (#) (#)
It’s almost unbelievable that this was even floated in Scotland, let alone accepted by the Labour party, who have repeatedly used the issue as a reminder of unjust governance. The strength of feeling about this particular issue is one of the reasons why the Tories have been effectively wiped out in terms of Scottish votes ever since. (To be clear, Conservative council leaders in Aberdeen were some of the first that floated this particular idea, but to accuse them of idiocy seems like a moot point. The hypocrisy of Labour is what is particularly galling.)
Poll Tax Limitation, and Writing Off Debt
Thankfully, the outgoing First Minister Alex Salmond announced that legislation would be brought forward to prevent this from happening:
I’ve seen references online from those who seem to think that this was unnecessary, as councils would be unable to pursue debts of this age under Scots law anyway – something that isn’t strictly true. Whilst Salmond’s assertion that it would be illegal for councils to start new proceedings against people they have never previously had interactions with (as evidenced in this devastating exchange with the Aberdeen Tory Councillor) is correct, the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 allows for a significant length of time past the original 20 years to collect poll tax owed. This is dependant on a variety of factors – including whether or not the obligation itself has been acknowledged. (s.7(1)(a)-(b)) In other words, the period of prescription is not fixed, and it is therefore possible that councils could manage to claw back some income in certain limited situations. Whilst important to note the slim chance involved (and hence the need to legislate), the likelihood of any income being generated from this route seems to be mostly fantasy.
‘Tax Dodgers’ Charter’
Others have decried this move as a ‘tax dodgers’ charter’, seeing it as a potential loss of hundreds of millions of pounds to local councils at a time when budgets are increasingly being squeezed.
This is ludicrous.
The money in question should never have been levied as a tax in the first place. Those who had the courage to refuse to pay at the time were an integral part of the reason that the disastrous experiment was abandoned just a few years later. The idea that they would now somehow have a change of heart after a couple of decades is preposterous – presuming, of course, that they are even still alive.
You can’t lose something that you never had in the first place.
This, by the way, is what the Scottish Conservatives (that titan of a political force) had to say:
The Scottish Conservatives said effectively cancelling poll tax debt raised “many unanswered questions” and claimed many people in Scotland would be “astonished” to have a government “which is basically advocating not paying tax”.
It’s worth noting that unpaid poll tax debts have been effectively written off in England, due to the differing laws regarding prescription and collection. To suggest that Scots should have to pay back unfair debts that have already ceased to be collectible in England and Wales is clearly nonsense. It’s exactly this sort of uninformed attitude that increases the tension and calls for independence in the first place.
Tax and the Electoral Roll
The right to vote should not come along with an obligation to pay the state for the privilege. This is something that has already been well fought and established. It is true that councils have an obligation to pursue tax that is owed, as a creature of statute. However, to go after voters who have been freshly re-engaged in politics because of the independence referendum, in order to attempt to collect a tax that is all but dead is despicable. Rather than choosing to highlight the issue to the Scottish Government and attempt to have the law changed, Labour have instead attacked the very people that they are meant to stand up for.
Their relevance in Scotland is rapidly coming to an end.