Front-line local authority staff fear an upsurge in abuse over changes to the council tax, MSPs have been told.
Union and council leaders have urged the Scottish Government to embark on a major communications drive to prepare the public for the reforms.
Holyrood’s Local Government Committee heard there is a risk of a “backlash” when the changes come in next April unless they are seen to be fair, and that households could in future face separate bills for council tax and water and sewerage.
Under the reforms, charges will go up in the four highest council tax bands E-H in order to bring in an extra £100 million a year to be invested in schools - a policy which has been criticised by councils as undermining local democracy.
The council tax freeze, in place since 2007, will end and local authorities will be able to increase council tax by a maximum of 3% per year.
Dave Watson, head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland, told the committee: “People are going to be faced this year with some, in many cases, quite big changes and there’s a huge amount of concern among the staff.
“People frankly don’t always understand, remember we’ve come off a very long council tax freeze and therefore this will be a change.
“What we are seeing more generally, as our annual survey of abuse and violence demonstrates, is a significant increase in recent years in both verbal and physical abuse towards local authority staff. It has gone up fairly significantly year-on-year, and clearly therefore we’re very concerned.
“We accept that at present there are a lot of uncertainties, there are still things to be sorted out and therefore the detail might not be there, but we do think with this type of communication exercise you can’t start too soon and therefore we would urge, and we don’t frankly care which - government, council - whoever does it, but we would urge a very major communication effort to explain the changes so that it’s not our members who get the grief on the doorstep.”
Councillor Kevin Keenan, from local government body Cosla, said: “I think that if local government make a choice to put up council tax themselves by 3% then a Band E in that area could see itself going up by 10.5%, and I think it’s incumbent on Government to make sure that they take responsibility for the part that they are putting up, that being the 7.5% that they’re adding, and they communicate that to people.”
Derek Yule, director of finance at Highland Council, added: “I would strongly advise the Scottish Government to take responsibility and ownership of the policy and to explain that clearly.
“The fear I have is the confusion that will be created in the public mind if councils take the opportunity to increase tax by 3%... so it won’t just be the impact of the multiplier it will be the up to 3% increase as well. That will cause confusion in the public mind.”
Asked whether councils could face a backlash that would impact on collection rates, he added: “I think I would flag it up as a risk, how big a risk it is I’m not entirely sure.”
Witnesses agreed that joint working with the Scottish Government will be needed to ensure council tax billing does not descend into a “political rammy” or “blame game”.
They also called for clarity over the implications of the changes for water and sewerage charges, currently combined in one bill with the council tax.
Mr Yule said that if the new council tax multiplier is not also applied to those charges, it would create a “major problem” for councils.
He said: “We’d have to issue separate bills for water and sewerage or there would be significant software implications and that would give us concerns in terms of the time-scales for implementation.”