JOHN Swinney has been dragged into a row with tax chiefs amid claims he “unjustly slurred” them over SNP plans to keep council tax benefit in Scotland.
The national body representing the country’s valuation appeals committees (VACs) has now complained to the head of the civil service over the handling of the changes by Scottish Government officials.
It has prompted concerns that thousands of Scots are missing out on the chance to challenge rulings which deprive them of the benefit.
The finance secretary wanted to hand the responsibility for the new council tax reduction (CTR) scheme to the local valuation appeals committees. But he accused the body of pulling out at the 11th hour.
Now, it has emerged that the Alistair Beattie, convener of the Scottish Valuation Appeals Committee (SVAC) forum, has taken umbrage at Mr Swinney’s version of events, branding it “very selective and misleading”.
“I ask that you take steps to set the record straight,” he states in a letter to MSPs.
“I consider that your comments about my colleagues and myself are an unjust slur and I hope you will withdraw and apologise for them.”
The SNP quickly moved to keep council tax benefit in Scotland for poor and vulnerable groups in April last year after the UK government announced it would be axed as part of the austerity agenda.
The new £40 million CTR scheme is to be jointly funded by the Scottish Government and the local government body Cosla, and will help an estimated 560,000 vulnerable Scots.
Local tax chiefs insist they raised concerns over training and resources as soon as the proposed new scheme emerged.
“We acted in my view with amazing speed to identify the key problems it presented and to alert your officials to these,” Mr Beattie’s letter adds: “Your charge that we delayed for months is completely unfair and unfounded.”
The letter was also sent to the Scottish Government’s top mandarin Sir Peter Housden because it “raises issues for civil service management” in Scotland.
The finance secretary claimed Mr Beattie had accepted in April last year that VACs would deal with CTR appeals in a letter to Holyrood’s welfare reform committee.
Only in November, Mr Swinney’s letter adds, did VACs “first express a very different view of their ability or indeed willingness to take on CTR appeals.
“Had this been expressed at the time of those earlier exchanges, there would have been an opportunity to identify alternative arrangements as the Council Tax Reduction Scheme was being developed.”
He said it was their lateness in flagging up concerns that forced ministers to create an alternative scheme for CTR appeals.
Mr Swinney said last night: “The Scottish Government is currently working to put in place a system for independently reviewing council tax reduction claims where the issue cannot be resolved between the claimant and their local authority.”