FIRST Minister Alex Salmond called into a radio phone-in show to confront a local council leader over the pursuit of historical poll tax debts.
BBC Radio Scotland presenter Kaye Adams was taken aback when she took the call live on air from the departing SNP leader yesterday.
“You’ll never guess who’s phoned in,” she told listeners to the Morning Call show. “No, seriously, you’ll never guess who’s phoned in. We have Alex from Peterhead – good morning Alex.”
The departing First Minister quickly corrected the host to make it clear he was calling from his home town of Strichen before defending his controversial announcement this week.
He confronted Aberdeenshire Council leader Jim Gifford over official figures which indicate £1.7 million is still owed to the authority in poll tax arrears, with the SNP leader insisting only £2-3,000 was collected in the area last year.
“The only figure you have in your head is £1.7m, which is a totally phantom figure – it’s money you could never have collected in a month of Sundays,” Mr Salmond said.
But the Tory council leader said: “We use information from all kinds of sources to recover money that’s owed to us. We don’t differentiate between one debt or another.”
Mr Salmond told MSPs on Thursday that councils will be blocked from using the voting records of millions of Scots who participated in the referendum to chase up historical poll tax debts. New laws to be passed at Holyrood will prevent this.
He told listeners yesterday it was already illegal to pursue historical debts of Scots after 20 years and claimed some council leaders wanted to deter people from signing up to vote. “It would make them afraid that by the act of coming on to the electoral register, somebody was then going to hound them for something that happened
25 years ago,” Mr Salmond said.
“That’s why the Scottish Government acted.”
The poll tax was a flat rate charge for everyone regardless of means. It was introduced in Scotland by the Thatcher government in 1989, a year ahead of the rest of the UK. It was scrapped in 1993 after a mass civil disobedience campaign, including widespread non-payment.
Councils across Scotland have claimed there is still £425m of council tax owed and some set out plans to use the expanded electoral roll to pursue debts.
Mr Salmond also revealed it was listeners’ concerns voiced on the same show earlier this week which prompted the Scottish cabinet to “formulate” the proposal to thwart the pursuit of historical poll tax debts. He told Mr Gifford: “Your colleagues – because you say it wasn’t you – who started to talk about collecting poll tax arrears on Monday could only have done that with the cynical motive of putting the frighteners on people who joined the electoral roll.”
Conservative welfare reform spokesman Alex Johnstone last night claimed holes are emerging in the policy and called for clarity: “There are so many unanswered questions with this, and no sign of these being resolved anytime soon,” he said. “Will this stand up to a legal challenge from those who paid their tax in good faith?
“How much will councils be reimbursed and where does this all fit with the 20-year prescription rule on chasing up debt?
“It sets a terrible example on responsibility, and effectively says if you don’t want to pay your council tax – or any other levy you think might be unfair – don’t bother. We might have a government that writes it off
20 years down the line.”
• Listen to the audio clip from Salmond’s phone call by clicking here.