COUNCILS are to be banned from using the voting records of the millions of Scots who took part in the referendum to chase up historical poll tax debts, First Minister Alex Salmond has announced.
It means £425 million of arrears will be effectively written off, with new laws being introduced at Holyrood preventing local authorities taking advantage of huge numbers of people joining the electoral register to pursue non-payers.
“After 25 years, it’s about time the poll tax was finally dead and buried in Scotland,” Mr Salmond told MSPs yesterday.
But the move was branded a “tax dodgers’ charter” by opponents, who suggested some people may question the need to pay tax at all. The head of council body, Cosla, also hit out at the SNP government over the move, insisting the right to vote “demands responsibility” and warned that this set a “worrying precedent”.
Of the £425m in poll tax arrears still outstanding, said Cosla, just £396,000 was recouped by councils last year.Aberdeenshire Council, which covers Mr Salmond’s constituency, was among authorities which indicated they would use the vastly increased electoral roll to go after tax debts.
But Mr Salmond told MSPs: “It is over 20 years since the poll tax came to an end.
“It was a hugely discredited tax, even before it was brought in, and it was rightly consigned to history just four years after its introduction in Scotland.
“It is therefore not appropriate for councils to use current electoral records to chase arrears from decades ago.
“The electoral register should not be used to collect debts from a defunct tax – something which is even more important given the unprecedentedly high levels of democratic engagement we have seen recently.”
But he said local authorities could use current information to pursue unpaid council tax, which replaced the poll tax in 1993. He said: “Unlike the long dead, discredited poll tax, the council tax is a live levy which forms a key part of local authorities’ finances.”
The Scottish Government will bring in new laws next month to block councils taking further action to recover poll tax debts.
It will also step up calls for control over elections in Scotland. Mr Salmond said: “This issue also highlights the need to seek the power from Westminster to control the electoral register, specifically to remove the ability of the register to be sold to private debt collectors.”
The electorate for the last council elections in 2012 was 3,983,792, but the electorate for the referendum was 4,283,938.
The poll tax, or community charge, was a flat-rate levy on everyone regardless of means, which replaced council rates.
It was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1989 in Scotland, a year ahead of the rest of the UK. But it was scrapped four years later after a mass civil disobedience campaign, including widespread non-payment.
Cosla president David O’Neill hit out at the Scottish Government’s move. He said: “In my time as Cosla president this is one of the oddest decisions ever to have come out of the Scottish Government.
“Scotland’s councils are under a very strict obligation to collect every penny of outstanding debt owed to us,” he said. “They [the Scottish Government] are rushing with obscene haste to new legislation.”
He added: “Cosla is very sensitive to the requirement to increase political engagement and electoral registration but everybody recognises becoming involved in the political process demands responsibility as well as rights.
“In Cosla’s view, you cannot have one without the other. If that is not an accepted principle, we are very worried about the precedent writing off this debt would create.”
Jim Gifford, leader of Aberdeenshire Council, was among council chiefs who backed the use of the expanded roll to chase up debts. He said: “It sends out a terrible message that it’s OK not to pay your bills. We don’t treat any debt differently from any other and I’m sure every council in Scotland is the same.
“It’s very unfair on people who have paid their bills that we let people who haven’t off with it.”
He also rejected a suggestion from Mr Salmond that the move was politically motivated.
“There’s nothing political at all in this decision,” he said. “I’ve gone out of my way last week never to mention poll tax or community charge – we collect money owed to the council.”
Scottish Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said the move would be seen as a debt “write-off” unless councils were fully reimbursed for the outstanding poll tax debts.
He said: “If this is the Scottish Government’s approach on tax collection, why should anyone bother paying any tax at all?
“This is a move geared towards winning a few extra votes, and is nothing but a tax dodgers’ charter.”
But SNP Glasgow MSP James Dornan said people registered to vote in the referendum in “good faith”.
He added: “Any attempt to use their details in this way would have been a wrongheaded breach of that faith.
“As a result of the referendum, the Scottish public are now more engaged in politics than ever before. Voter registration and turnout are both at record highs of 97 per cent and 85 per cent respectively – this is a celebration of democracy and we must do everything we can to encourage it to continue.”
Controversial levy was a factor in Thatcher’s downfall
The poll tax was introduced to Scotland by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989 – a full year before it came to England and Wales.
The early introduction of the hated levy north of the Border led to angry claims that Scots had been used as guinea pigs for the controversial proposal.
Officially named the Community Charge, it became known as the poll tax, because payees were identified through the electoral register.
The legislation was brought in to replace the rates system, which was seen as unfair because it was based on property value and penalised those who had worked all their lives to buy a good home. The poll tax aimed to make every adult pay the same amount regardless of their income or property size – a move which meant many poor people would have to pay more.
Many Scots saw the early introduction of the poll tax as firm evidence of Mrs Thatcher’s disregard for Scotland.
In fact, she had not wanted this. It had been at the request of the then Scottish secretary, George Younger, because, unlike in England, rates were revalued every five years in Scotland. The decision to bring in the Community Charge in 1989 was in order to avoid an expensive review of the rates system, which was on the horizon. But the tax was met with angry protests in Scotland, including a widespread non-payment campaign.
In Glasgow, the campaign saw the rise of firebrand socialist politician Tommy Sheridan. He was chairman of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation and was the first person in Britain jailed over the tax. He was sentenced to six months in 1992 for trying to stop the sale of a debtor’s property to recoup a poll tax debt.
By the end of 1990, more than one million Scots had refused to pay and many came off the voting register to avoid detection.
The issue led to a variety of responses from the Tories’ opponents. The SNP backed non-payment, but Labour’s then Scottish leader, Donald Dewar, had to walk a political tightrope – opposing the tax, but advocating payment.
The anger in Scotland was also felt south of the Border when it was imposed there.
The simmering discontent led to the poll-tax riots in London and was a major factor in Mrs Thatcher’s downfall.
Her successor, John Major, replaced the poll tax with the council tax in 1993.