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.

 

 

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They think it’s all over.. SNP leadership contest

So, Nicola Sturgeon is a shoo-in for next SNP leader.  Which means Scotland will have its first female First Minister.  Hurrah.

Various potential others have ruled themselves out.  Michael Russell, Roseanna Cunningham, John Swinney, Alex Neil and Humza Yousaf have all declared themselves not interested.  Some of them have also nailed colours to the mast by joining #TeamSturgeon.  So who’s missing?  Well, the not insignificant Kenny MacAskill for one.  Fiona Hyslop is another conspicuous by her silence.  Two big front-bench beasts who may just have taken the weekend off, rather than the weekend to take soundings.

Whatever, a meaningful contest to replace Alex Salmond now seems unlikely.  But Nicola should still be required to submit her nomination and set out her stall.  Hopefully, it will not just mark steady as she goes but also give an indication of where she aims to take the party in the future.  This bit is important, given the recent influx of new members to the party.  She will need to offer enough for all these new and eager Yes supporters to make it worth their while, but also ensure the old guard are taken with her.  No easy task actually.

There’s a lot of chatter about a post #the45 alliance of sorts, there’s also chatter about various bits of the movement setting themselves up as parties and a lot of chatter just generally on where next.  The SNP leader has a key role to play in harnessing all that energy and enthusiasm and ensuring that what emerges is a coherent offering all working broadly in the same direction. There’s an appetite for an alliance approach to the 2015 UK election, with the various, diverse elements of the Yes movement not standing against each other and thereby dissipating and fracturing the vote.  The SNP will have to give consideration to how it responds and how it engages.  To assume that the SNP gets to put forward candidates in all seats or in those seats it chooses would be full of risk – there is a need to keep the spirit of the swarm approach evident in the referendum campaign going.  Or else the SNP could be viewed as a block rather than a conduit to change.

And what change exactly?  Devo more?  Leading from the front for devo max?  Or biding time until the opportunity arises to push for full independence again?  Conceivably, all approaches could be part of the strategy but the point is that a strategy is needed that satisfies all appetites.  And that requires careful and inclusive consideration.  It cannot be for the SNP to determine on its own.

Nicola Sturgeon may be about to become SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister but she is also inheriting a role – a leadership one – in managing, co-ordinating and driving forward the ambitions of a much wider coalition.  That’s a good deal more tricky.

But what of her deputy?  Well, most are agreed that this is where it gets more interesting.  There are several potential contenders and several options for the party.  Someone from the Holyrood group, an MP or even an MEP?  And if either of these last two, a constitutional difficulty to overcome.  The Depute Leader of the SNP has until now become Depute First Minister – there’s no rule on this, for DFM is a position voted on by the Scottish Parliament and it would be for the SNP Holyrood group to put forward their nomination.  So we could, in theory, have a separate deputy at party level and Ministerial level.  But what would be the point really?

Except that it creates a leadership hub.  Stewart Hosie or Angus Robertson could become deputy party leader, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to have a deputy in government and parliament of her choosing (if she’s smart she’ll take a keen interest in the party role too to make sure she gets someone she can work with and who complements her strengths and skills with their own).

So, John Swinney could become a DFM without portfolio, a wingman good at the detail and who could take charge of reform more widely, providing a much needed core approach to what has hitherto been for Ministers to determine how reform is approach and addressed.  Or a young yin could be blooded – Humza for example.  Or here’s a novel thought – the role could be offered to the Scottish Greens, as tangible evidence of a new approach to politics and the movement for independence/more powers.

But there are also other strategic and tactical considerations to be made on this, to balance two, not necessarily conflicting but also not clearly compatible demands either.  First, Nicola Sturgeon will want to put together the team to lead the SNP to a third victory in the Scottish elections in 2016.  Second, it is important to keep eyes on the prize of independence – or at least, devo max.  Who is best placed to work with her on these objectives?

I suggested Shona Robison would make a fine deputy leader and First Minister.  The two MSPs have known each other since they were teenagers and worked well and closely as a Ministerial team too. Shona was somewhat sidelined in the last Cabinet reshuffle but was able to devote her energies more fully to ensuring the Glasgow Commonwealth Games were a success.  They were.  Well done her.

She therefore has a proven Ministerial track record, but she also has a proven track record electorally.  She was elected on the list for North East Scotland in 1999 and then for the constituency of Dundee East in 2003.  She has turned a marginal SNP-Labour seat into an SNP stronghold.  Her success in Dundee East allowed the party to build and take Dundee West.  It paved the way for her husband, Stewart Hosie to become MP too.  A strong SNP council group eventually became the dominant force and has formed the administration with an overall majority since 2012.

And vitally, her city transformed its SNP support into Yes votes – unlike many other SNP strongholds.

In truth, there are many key figures behind the Dundee success story but Shona knows what it takes to build – and to do so methodically and patiently – to deliver success.

Moreover, she is East coast, Nicola is West coast.  The only demographic issue is that both are city MSPs.  Yet, that might be what is required – for long enough, the SNP has been dominated by rural, North East interests (which did not translate into support for independence) and for too long, did not seem to know what was needed to make the break through in the central belt or in working class, traditionally Labour areas.  A Nicola-Shona leadership would answer that and also allow for a different direction to be pursued by the party.

But if not Shona then who?  Her husband Stewart Hosie has been touted and he would satisfy some, if not all of the above.

Keith Brown, MSP for Ochil and Minister for Transport and Veterans is another name being mentioned increasingly frequently in despatches.  A safe pair of hands, unflappable and well liked.  Crucially too, he straddles the fundie-gradualist (for which read, Neil-Salmond) wings of the party.  He’s also a detail man and reliable and resilient.  He was every SNP councillor’s go-to man on points of procedure and always – always – returned calls. His constituency is a rural/urban mix, of the Labour working class variety.  He’s done a good job with his Ministerial portfolio and did I say he is liked by all?  He’s not a divisive character but a unifying one.

The fact that he’s currently courting SNP folk as Facebook friends suggests he’s interested.  Good on him if he is.

First Minister’s resignation is a measure of the man

It’s been a long 36 hours with only 4 hours sleep.  And six hours in the 48 hours before that.

Forgive me then for being a little tired and emotional.  But I didn’t expect the tears that have been held back, to start to flow, listening to the First Minister’s own emotional but pitch-perfect resignation speech and press conference.

And for me to feel so sad and not just a little disappointed.

Everyone is exhausted on the Yes side. We gave it our all – as we would. And I’m not sure the immediate aftermath is the right point for all this to be unfolding.  A period of reflection over the weekend, enabling response rather than reaction would have been my preferred option.

But if anything proved just how different the First Minister is in reality from the gross caricature of him which has been painted by political and media opponents, and allowed to lodge in the minds of voters, it has been this action.  (Though not without his mischievous side still coming to the fore – he couldn’t help sticking two fingers up to the Unionist cheerleading papers by excluding from this press conference. Good for him.) He is taking full responsibility for the failure to win this campaign and doing the decent and honourable thing. There are few politicians these days willing to fall on their swords when they lead from the front and fail to deliver. Membership of the SNP not only requires supporting independence but a commitment to put the interests of the Scottish people and Scotland first.  On the latter, the First Minister is doing what he thinks is in his country’s interests. There is much more to this man in terms of his measure than has often been portrayed.

And yet, he has not failed, not completely. Independence for Scotland was voted for by a significant minority of the Scottish population.  Many more were nearly persuaded – the yes buts who decided instead to opt for the promises made by the Unionists on more powers. As the First Minister himself warned in the media conference several times, there are many No voters who will be angry if they now find they have been sold a pup. His leadership of the SNP has been key to enabling Scotland to arrive here, where we currently stand in terms of the power and control wrestled from Westminster’s grasp.

So in some ways, the First Minister’s resignation is entirely understandable and honourable.  He feels he has done what he can in terms of that journey and can do no more.

It also makes sense in terms of where we are in the Scottish parliamentary calendar and also, internally for the SNP.

Standing down now allows his successor eighteen months in which to make the role their own, to lead the Scottish Government and prepare a platform for 2016.  The SNP’s annual conference has been pushed back as a result of the referendum to November.  His resignation now allows for a leadership contest to be held meeting the internal constitutional niceties, but not so long that it involves a blood-letting in the party.  Crucially, it allows Nicola Sturgeon to put herself forward as the contender to replace him without attracting much more than a potential stalking horse – there has to be a venting at some point – rather than a more serious challenge.  It allows the changeover of leadership to be managed, dignified and some might say, stage managed.

But I am still disappointed.

Yes, Alex Salmond has led his party now for 20 years in total – he clearly has a thing about bundles of ten – and yes, he will be 60 in a few months’ time.  But I think he still had something to give and indeed, I rather think Scotland needs him and his tactical nous in these early days of a not quite better nation, but at least a somewhat improved model.

Firstly, there are eighteen months to go until the next Scottish Parliamentary elections.  Time then, for a re-energised First Minister to lead a radical programme of action within the powers the Scottish Parliament holds to show that the SNP is more than a one trick pony.  This administration has indeed been dominated by the constitutional debate, to the extent that real scrutiny of legislation, proper challenge of change-making and indeed, the introduction of big new ideas absent from the Programme for Government has been lacking.  Eighteen months of activity would set the SNP fair for fighting the next Scottish elections to win.  Again.

Secondly, Scotland needs him.  His resignation remarks identified the indecent haste in which the Vow is unravelling – which did so much to persuade the undecideds to stick rather than twist.  And it is happening.  Boris Johnson has said today that he’s not bound by the Vow.  The Prime Minister has inserted the issue – rightly – of wider devolution across these isles into the process:  some are arguing this makes conditional new powers for Scotland on answering the long-standing West Lothian question.  Ed Miliband has resiled from his part in the deal on the flimsy basis that this now changes things.

Already this process of new powers for Scotland is a tangled mess and it remains to be seen if anything meaningful will be delivered before the General Election.  We were promised by Gordon Brown a paper, today, setting out what those powers would be.  Time is ticking, Gordon.  And Scotland is waiting and watching.

So the First Minister is right that a careful watch on this process is required.  And who better to do it than him?  No one understands the tactics of such processes better.  No one knows how to push their buttons more effectively.  No one knows how they tick like he does.  Scotland needs him at his wily best, to hold them to account, to keep them in line, to ensure Scotland gets what we were promised.

Finally, for all that he has been demonised and raised as a doorstep issue during this campaign, no one is more surefooted at gauging the mood, needs and wants of the Scottish people.  Under Alex Salmond, the SNP has moved to be much more in tune with the mood of the Scottish people.  He has carefully intertwined leading and following, moving forward in the constitutional journey at a pace Scotland is comfortable with.  He, more than anyone else, in the party has brought us to this stage, whereby 45% of the Scottish electorate voted for independence.  We need him as our proxy in this new powers’ process.

Or rather needed him.  Because now he has gone.  Or at least is going.

And for all that I am saddened at his decision, it is to be respected for what it is.  An honest, emotional and well-meant reaction to the events of yesterday.  It is a measure of the man who history will show as having been a rather fine First Minister for Scotland and absolutely key to us as a country and a people taking more control of the decisions and powers which affect our lives.  His position in Scottish political history is assured.  And he is right.  The dream does live on.  And it will live on, without him. He has achieved much and clearly thinks he has no more to give.

I just wish he’d taken the weekend to rest up, reflect and then respond.