MSPs vote to end collection of poll tax debt

LEGISLATION to end the collection of historic poll tax debt has been passed at Holyrood.

The Bill would effectively write off the controversial levy introduced by Margaret Thatchers government which has never been paid. Picture: Getty
The Bill would effectively write off the controversial levy introduced by Margaret Thatchers government which has never been paid. Picture: Getty

The Community Charge Debt (Scotland) Bill effectively writes off £425 million of the controversial levy introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government which has never been paid.

The proposals were brought forward last year by former first minister Alex Salmond after several councils said they would use the details of people who registered to vote in September’s independence referendum to recover outstanding debt.

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Local government minister Marco Biagi said the legislation “draws a line under the last remnants of the tax” and “put one of its last bitter legacies behind us” by ensuring that people can register to vote without fear of being pursued for unpaid poll tax.

Arrears collected by councils across Scotland fell to £327,000 in 2013-14 and some local authorities have already ceased recovery of the debt.

Councils are to receive a share of £869,000 from the Scottish Government in 2015-16 based on what they could still reasonably expect to collect.

Mr Biagi added: “We wanted to make it crystal clear through this Bill that local authorities were absolved of their obligations to pursue and collect poll tax debt.

“Extinguishing this historic debt will let local authorities concentrate on breaking the cycle of debt.”

Addressing concerns that the legislation may have an adverse effect on the payment of council tax, the minister added: “It will remain for each local authority to determine the most appropriate means to recover council tax debts.

“This Bill leaves that liability to pay council tax unaffected and local authorities’ duty to collect council tax unaffected too.”

Labour’s Alex Rowley said: “I think it is right to draw a line under the poll tax.

“It was a bad tax, it was a wrong tax and it needed to go.

“I think today it is important, as we draw a line under the poll tax, that we do equally recognise that many people throughout that difficult period paid the poll tax.

“For some of those people, they absolutely struggled to pay it, but they did so because they valued local government services.”

Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown saw his amendment to the legislation - which would have created an obligation to publish information on the impact of the Bill on council tax collection rates - voted down by MSPs.

He said: “We are against this Bill on principle.

“The principle is pretty straightforward and one espoused many times by (Finance Secretary) John Swinney himself: people should properly pay the taxes for which they are liable.

“On this side of the chamber we don’t deviate from that.”

Mr Salmond attacked the Conservatives and their “tax-evading donors”, and reaffirmed his reasons for devising the Bill in the run-up to the independence referendum.

“Democracy is a precious thing,” he said.

“We have 98 per cent registration on the voters register and we had an 85 per cent turnout in the referendum.

“That is so much more precious than any of the normal political arguments that take part in this chamber.

“We should defend it with every available opportunity.”

He added: “If I have one criticism it’s not of this minister (Mr Swinney), it is of myself as first minister. I should have brought forward this legislation years ago.”

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