Privacy, payment, participation – the poll tax controversy

I’m rather liking the Maximum Eck Mark II, the version of the First Minister which, on his exit strategy, he is off the leash. His opponents might fulminate and froth at the mouth, but I suspect the public is rather liking it too.  No longer is the First Minister prepared to ignore slights and calumnies: no one is safe and the newspaper letters pages and media phone-ins are great ways for him to settle a few scores.  And make his point.  It’s the sort of communications strategy that makes minders and spinners very nervous but you can’t deny it’s having an impact.

The First Minister wrong footed everyone on the poll tax issue, including the Scottish Parliament.  Which was a little bit naughty, as the Presiding Officer pointed out.

Still, he stole a march on his rivals, treading yet again where others have feared to, by consigning the poll tax to the rubbish bin of history, as he put it.

What had occasioned it was the opportunistic behaviour of local authorities, seizing the opportunity of all those new entries on the electoral register to find those who owed outstanding sums of council tax and community charge. This raises serious concerns on a number of levels.

Firstly, do local authorities have rights to do this at all?  Are they entitled to take electoral rolls and compare that with information held on databases about who has paid what in terms of council tax and community charge?  One issue is whether Valuation Joint Boards (VJBs) which compile and hold electoral rolls are separate entities – for the purposes of data protection – from local authorities.  Another is what Boards’ statutory obligations are in relation to protecting the privacy of data and in sharing that data. Lothian Valuation Joint Board’s data protection entry sets out the circumstances in which and bodies with whom it might share data: it does not seem to indicate that sharing the data with other aspects of local government for the purposes of debt collection is allowed.

Then there is the issue of the edited or open register.  Even if local authority finance teams are allowed to access – or indeed, pay for access – to the register, surely the same rules apply to these departments as apply to others purchasing access to this marketing information.  And if an individual has ticked the box to remain off the open register, then debt collectors (including local government finance departments) should not be given access to their details.  Of the hundreds of voters I encouraged to register to vote during the referendum campaign, I also encouraged each and every one of them to tick that box, explaining why they should do so.  If others doing voter registration during the campaign did not, then some training and education is needed.

 

All of the above may be moot points – local government may have powers different to the rest of us in terms of sharing data beyond the original purpose of its collection;  VJBs might be legitimate parts of local authorities and therefore, not treated as external bodies for data protection purposes.  Whatever the rules are, some clarity would be welcome from the Information Commissioner and indeed, VJBs, electoral assessors and council Chief Executives on how they handle our data.

Moreover, we need to counter the Tory mantra of no representation without taxation.  That is not the law nor indeed, within the ambit of human rights.  Local authorities – as agents of the state – are under duties to hold “free elections”.. by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”  The UK incorporated this article 3 of the 1st Protocol of the ECHR into the Human Rights Act 1998.  It applies in Scotland therefore, to all elections, and it is arguable that linking the act of registering to vote with chasing down local tax debt is a condition which restricts the free expression of some people.  The right to vote applies to all, whatever the state of their finances and we need to stand up for these rights and challenge the Tories – and others’ – base assumptions.  These kind of arguments are important because they go to the heart of who we are and who we purport to be.  We want to be and be seen to be a fair and equal society?  Then let’s start talking in a way which creates standards about how that society should operate.

This is not what motivates local government of course. Councillors are proclaiming upset at having a potential income stream turned off.  Apparently, ridding Scotland of the right to collect tax owed from over 20 years ago will further limit councils’ income in cash-strapped times.  COSLA has said £425 million remains outstanding: the amount collected last year?  £396,000.  At this rate of recoup, it would take Scotland’s councils some 89 years to clear the arrears.

The handwringing is misplaced and disingenuous, when considered alongside local authorities’ success at collecting sums currently or more recently, due and outstanding.  Since 2004-05, Scotland’s local authorities have collected less council tax each year, year on year.  That year, it collected 96.9% of the amount due – by 2011-12, that had fallen to 96.0%.  Clearly, in a recession, collecting tax becomes a harder business.  But the point remains: COSLA complains – whether or not it is actually true – of being shackled by the council tax freeze, of cuts in Scottish Government funding causing cuts to services and of severe financial difficulties. Yet, for each of the last 8 years in which we have audited figures, it has collected less of its own income.  The cumulative impact has been to deny these same local authorities nearly £531 million in income which could have been spent on vital services – more than is outstanding on poll tax.

And it’s not just on council tax.  While income collected from businesses through non-domestic rates has increased every year, every year less is also collected than is budgeted for.  In short, there are more lucrative income streams available to local authorities than going to the expense and trouble of decades old community charge.

The reality is more complex – the cost and effort that goes into collecting the outstanding sums of any tax is considerable.  There are as many can’t pay, shouldn’t have to pay in terms of changed or straitened circumstances in relation to council tax and indeed, business rates, as there are in relation to outstanding poll tax.  But equally, I’m prepared to hazard that there are plenty who could pay and should pay who currently aren’t. Is anyone proposing to chase them down using the electoral roll, or subtly to undermine their right to vote by linking it to taxation?  Of course not.

COSLA’s Vice President, Councillor Mike Cook – an Independent elected member on Scottish Borders council – accused the Scottish Government of not really having a clue and questioned if £396,000 should be sniffed at in the current [financial] climate local authorities were operating in.  In light of the evidence above, his remarks suggest that he needs to do a little homework on the issue he purports to represent Scotland’s councils and elected members on.

 

 

Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

Where next?

So we are back to doing what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.

But this round of meetings is necessary. There are lots of enthusiastic newbies – folk who just a few short months ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting in a draughty hall talking politics.  Now they are queuing to get in:  all are most welcome. As are those who’ve been involved before – for decades, years or just days.

We need to vent a little behind closed doors – it can’t all be positive and onwards and upwards, without first letting off a little steam.  People are masking a lot of pain and there needs to be a collective howling at the moon.

As long as it lasts for five minutes only.  And most definitely isn’t played out on social media or in endless protests about how the vote was rigged or how the meeja did us down.  Or how we was robbed.  Or how folk were duped.

This much we all know already: playing it all out on a loop over and over won’t get us anywhere.  I get the feeling from some that they are surprised at what the British establishment threw at us to thwart our ambitions, that Shock and Awe in the last week was unexpected by some.  Still, now you know: welcome to the world of the SNP for all of its existence.

Yet, in the last ten years in particular, the party worked out how to deal with it, to work with it (needs must) and how to get round it to reach the hearts and minds of Scottish voters.  The party learned to leave aside the politics of grievance and engage with the aspirations of Scottish people.  There’s a wee lesson in that for all the Yessers, about what works and what doesn’t in this game.

It would have been helpful for Yes Scotland to have hung around even for a couple of weeks beyond the vote to facilitate the greetin’ part of these meetings.  But apparently all the staff were let go the day after the vote, the Chief Executive is apparently in or en route to his holiday home in Florida and the organisation is toast.  Not even a cheery email newsletter goodbye or well done or thanks to the many thousands of volunteers who helped to pay the wages at Hope Street, as well as actually fought the campaign out there .  Ah well.  Still, at least we ended the campaign with more Facebook likes than David Cameron.

So, fifteen minutes of howling and gnashing and wailing is required.  But then, it’s onwards. Time not to get mad, but even.

Everyone agrees that we need to keep the movement alive.  Some are already way ahead of the curve – a new board for Common Weal; a funding venture for new media activity over at Bella Caledonia; a merger between Newsnet and Derek Bateman; a Women for Independence event which was over-subscribed not once, but three times (we’ve settled for 1000); plans for a RIC conference in November that over 7000 have said they want to go to.

And all those folk joining the SNP, Scottish Greens and the SSP.  Funnily enough, some of the self-same meeja who did the cause of independence down are sceptical about the membership claims.

Let me re-assure them.  Having volunteered for an hour in SNP HQ processing online applications, I’m not actually sure that the official tally is keeping up.  When I left after my hour, there were nearly 38,000 applications to be processed.  We hadn’t made much more than a very small dint in the total. And that’s only the online ones.  The phones were going constantly and the postie had delivered plenty by snail mail.

It is a quite astonishing and almost inexplicable phenomenon.  Of the few applications I processed, there is no real pattern in membership: there are men, women, young, old, rural, urban.  But a lot from the West of Scotland, a lot of trade union members and a fair few with university degrees and from the professions too.  Labour should be very afraid.

And then there’s a new SNP leadership to be determined, hopefully after a contest of ideas.  And a new Programme for Government – please make it radical and bold, something we can all get our teeth into.

And new powers coming in 2015 to get acquainted with.  There’s also the new, more powers’ process which is owned currently by the politicians but which many of us – especially on the Yes side – think should incorporate some kind of citizens’ element.  How to achieve their contribution is something that needs worked out.

This public consultation element is actually key.  Most polls over the years have suggested that a majority of Scots want control over everything but defence and foreign affairs to be devolved – devo max – or at least, a devo much more than most of the parties have offered to date.  Labour will try to drag the offer down to its level, from the starting point of the Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission proposals. Ensuring the Scottish public – brimful of enthusiasm for the politics of ideas and still having #indyref related conversations on trains, in pubs and in workplaces – gets a say and gets what it wants requires resources and resourcefulness.

And what to do about all those communities and people who not only registered to vote for the very first time, but actually voted in unprecedented numbers?  Who voted for their one chance in a lifetime, who believed in hope, who got that this was absolutely about transferring power and control?  Do we just shrug our shoulders and say sorry, it’s all going to stay the same?  Do we let them slip back into disengagement and disenfranchisement?

Then there’s the need to build a bridge, rather than a trench (as Andrew Wilson so deftly put it) between the 45% and the 55%.  We can probably ignore the top 25% of the No grouping.  They’re the diehard Unionists and the Scottish part of the establishment and the uber rich in the country who really don’t get that we need a fairer society all round. And of course implacable pensioners (though not all are).

But that leaves 30% to coax across – some are already Yes buts who on the day became reluctant Nos. Others rationalised their decision to hold on to what they have by not being persuaded that Scotland could be a successful, independent country; that Scotland just isn’t ready yet to go it alone; that there are too many risks, uncertainties, unanswered questions about our economic potential.

So we need to work out how to remove these fears, but there is also something in leaving them alone to find their way home. Six billion of cuts to the Scottish block grant, interest rate rises, ongoing pay freezes, more austerity cuts from Westminster (whoever runs the show), the likelihood of Labour not winning the UK election next year and the distinct possibility of UKIP in coalition with the Tories – all this is bound to take its toll on the left-leaning middle classes of Scotland who voted for the comfort of a continued feather-bed courtesy of the current settlement.

Where next is the cry from the Yes movement?  Well, immediately it’s off to Holyrood today to lend our family’s support for a good-natured celebration of all that we have achieved in the last few years and to make our contribution to the food bank collection.

After that?  Who knows.  All or at least some of the above.  The swarm continues; some are jockeying for Queen Bee position (and I don’t mean Nicola Sturgeon) and a hierarchy is definitely forming, or being deliberately formed (check out the new look board of Common Weal…); though some worker bees stubbornly refuse to conform and seem content organising themselves. The fact that the first Where Next meeting in Edinburgh was organised by someone who just wants to keep it going, rather than any group or branch or body, speaks volumes.

This round of Yes meetings might be necessary but once the greetin’ is over and we’ve all had a go at determining where next and what next, can we just form a plan and get on with getting there?  And vow to stop spending time sitting in rooms – real and virtual – agreeing with each other.