The SNP’s Car Tax is a Poll Tax on wheels - Brian Monteith

Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work Derek Mackay. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work Derek Mackay. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
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Even those who supported the Community Charge would have to admit that what started out as a well-intended reform of domestic rates became a public relations disaster for Margaret Thatcher and her government.

What was originally conceived by Douglas Mason, a Fife councillor, as a low flat rate levy to be paid by all, akin to the television licence, eventually mutated in the hands of Whitehall officials into a highly expensive charge that became so punitive it required discounts for those on benefits or low incomes.

Branded the “Poll Tax” by its opponents, who organised a number of highly effective political campaigns that had at their heart the fact the tax did not reflect a person’s ability to pay, it spawned its own mythology that demonised the Conservatives, especially in Scotland, for a generation. So powerful was the narrative that surrounds the Poll Tax that young voters of today can be found railing passionately against its introduction in the eighties even though they never lived through it and were born after is abolition by John Major in the nineties.

Of all the myths about Margaret Thatcher the accusation she treated Scotland as a Guinea Pig for the Poll Tax has endured. This is despite documentary evidence proving it was in fact Scottish Conservatives that pleaded with her to let Scotland start a year ahead of the rest of the UK, and against Thatcher’s better judgement. I have no doubt that the mendacious falsehood, doubly ironic because the idea for the Poll Tax originated in Scotland, more than anything contributed to the toxic reputation that caused the Conservative wipe-out in 1997 general election.

I remind readers of what happened some thirty years ago because last week’s announcement by the Scottish Government Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy presents the potential for a political phenomenon akin to the Poll Tax that could prove toxic for the SNP.

The intended Workplace Parking Levy will have at its heart no relationship to ability to pay and I expect it to become a genuine source of grievance to those forced to pay it. Its likely unpopularity will be all the more humiliating for Scottish nationalists as it will be introduced under devolution when the creation of a Scottish Parliament was in part meant to stop anything like a Poll Tax happening in Scotland again.

This new Car Tax was sprung on an unsuspecting public by Derek Mackay because he needed the votes of Green MSPs to pass his budget, rather than turn to the Conservatives, as John Swinney did between 2007-2011. The Car Tax is a Green pet-project because it is intended to change peoples’ behaviour so commuters no longer use a car to travel to work, reducing congestion and environmental pollution as a result.

The Car Tax will be levied on employers who provide parking spaces for their employees, with the funds going to local authorities who will, just as they did with the Poll Tax, set their own respective levy. It will be for employers to decide if they pass on the tax to their employees, in full or in part – but if they do not the Car Tax becomes yet another business tax in a country where economic growth is already trending behind the rest of the UK.

It is suggested the revenues from the Car Tax should go towards public transport improvements, such as Edinburgh’s proposed tram extension or, say, a rail link to an airport. I wager anyone expecting their Car Tax will help fund the repair of Scotland’s scandalous pothole epidemic will be disappointed, which is a pity as it is one benefit that might win the new financial burden some grudging support from motorists.

In anticipating potential opposition the Scottish Government has already ruled out applying the Car Tax to NHS workers, although I have not seen it clarified if this will apply to doctor’s surgeries, where nurses in GP practices technically work for private contractors. The Scottish Conservatives have been quick to call for the same dispensation to apply to teachers, many of whom drive to work and park in the school grounds. Similar calls for relief will no doubt be raised for those working in emergency services, such as firefighters, ambulance workers and the police.

It is in the nature of such ill-thought out and unjust taxes that there is no obviously fair distribution of who should pay. When public services are provided “free” at the point of use (and in the main they all are) then it is the corporate and personal tax revenues from the private sector that funds their cost. Why are the workers in the private sector judged to be of less importance, of less value to society, when their endeavours make public services – and all the vital work of NHS nurses, porters, doctors and admin staff possible?

In fact the workers who will pay the Car Tax must in part also be paying the cost of any public sector motorists who receive the 100% relief, for if instead every motorist was to pay the levy it would be set at a far lower rate (especially considering the NHS is the largest employer in Scotland). The simple truth is there should be no dispensations for particular workers because there should be no Car Tax at all.

Most obviously and unfairly the Car Tax does not take account of why people travel to work in a car or what their income is. A person driving from Peebles to work at, say, M&S in the Gyle has no possibility of making that journey sensibly using public transport because there is no direct public service. With retailers struggling to survive would they swallow their employees’ Car Tax? I doubt it.

Workers journeying from one small town to another – rather than into the cities are also likely to find there is no direct public transport – while rural motorists commuting will be at the mercy of their employers. People often take jobs because their car allows them to commute with relative ease and affordability. If there is no alternative they will be forced to pay the tax.

The SNP’s Car Tax is a Poll Tax on wheels – where the poorest worker will suffer most. An employee driving their second-hand Ka or Micra will pay the same as someone in their Bentley or Porsche. It will be the SNP’s very own Poll Tax unless they send it to the scrappy.