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.

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Myles: Claiming my right to reply to Shock and Awe

I have listened to the “shock-and awe” interventions of the last week from the Westminster, Whitehall, ‘Fleet Street’ and the ‘City of London’ elite into the great Referendum debate. I don’t question their right to their say – but I do claim my right to reply.  As far as I can tell, what they are saying falls into roughly three carguments, and this is, in short, is what the message and tone seems to me to be.

(1) We really love you and want you to stay in the UK as it currently is. Yes, we’ve had second thoughts at the last, desperate moment, about exactly what the “status quo” is going to be, and at one minute to midnight, we have decided you can have more control over your pocket money and, perhaps, you can have complete decision making power over the train set and a few other toys. We have also decided we will rabbit on inconsequentially about “this family of nations” and “federalism” – but none of us are prepared to say the blindingly obvious and admit that the only way we could have a federation and a fair solution to the British question is to set up an English Parliament as an equivalent of the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s because we believe that British democracy is already the best in the world – even if we will admit that the elections are permanently rigged and that we retain the power to stuff half of Parliament full of our lifelong cronies, But forget all of that negative stuff. Nothing more than a spot of tinkering is required.

(2) We really think that you are threatening to upset the way that power is distributed at the moment – and that is a bad thing, because we are so good at wielding that power on your behalf. Look! We’ve given you nuclear weapons. We’re building the biggest warships ever – even if we don’t have the cash to put the aircraft on them yet. We’ve held on to the remains of the Empire and turned it into tax havens. We’ve bullied that Junker chappy into giving us a corporatist agenda in Europe so we might not have to leave the EU after all. Why on earth do you Scots want to upset the apple cart that has allowed us to make the dominant ideology of our day one where economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny corporate, largely public school, not-quite-hereditary elite for the 364 days of the year when we are not having an election or a referendum?

(3) We really think it would be stupid of you Scots to take all the risks of Home rule and make the prices in Tesco’s and at the petrol pumps go up. And what about your pensions? And your currency? You do realise that we are not going to be at all reasonable when it comes to negotiations, despite the fact that we will still want to hoover up your share of the common wealth? No. If you have been naughty, you will have to be punished! And you will be poorer! Don’t you realise that greed is the only real motivation we humans have? But then, of course, we KNOW that you are not that stupid.

Well, do you know what? These arguments, and your methods of disseminating them, disgust me. My decision will be about how to assure the best form of government we can have as a community. And if nothing else persuaded me that our British elite, and their international corporatist cronies are unfit to govern, and should have their power and wealth dramatically redistributed, it has been the pantomime of panic we have witnessed over the last few days. I hope your “media grid” manipulation of what, I accept, you see as the truth, is seen for what it really is – the desperate desire to hold onto and increase all the power you already have.

And I am still waiting, patiently, for you to tell me one, single way in which you intend to make the UK better than the tawdry polity you have created whilst paying lip-service to the principles of democracy, liberty and self-determination.

Andy Myles is former Chief Executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats – and is voting Yes.