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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Where have all the women gone?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Yesterday, the Herald Society Insight article posed the question, What kind of democracy overlooks what women have to say?  No one, it would appear, has any answers.  Yet, 52% of the population continues to be denied access to platforms and panels and more importantly, is not being allowed a voice, a say on a wide range of topical issues.

Some of us got fed up with broadcast media fielding all-male panels on current affairs programmes, particularly on the forthcoming independence referendum.  So we made a noise.  The answers were illuminating.  There aren’t enough women willing or capable, said some.  So, Lesley Riddoch published a list of names of women who might be willing to come on to programmes with a wide range of knowledge and experience to offer.  For a time, it was clear that efforts were being made.

But just as soon as we all shut up – off doing some dusting I shouldn’t wonder – the old ways crept back.  Men, men and more men.  No media outlet can claim anything like moral high ground here, though our two quality newspapers do better at including a range of women columnists week in, week out.  And very good they are too.  For the likes of me, they are a must read:  they cover different topics and they often take a different perspective on hot topics.  They add something to the mix – who knew?

Women, in informal and immediate ways, are fed up and beginning to take a stand.  Yesterday’s Herald article highlighted that a number of women who are fed up with institutions and agencies which organise conferences, seminars and events doing so with nary a glance towards gender balance, beginning to call them out. Hurrah!

And the current focus is on CoSLA’s new commission established to “renew local democracy”.  Announced with some fanfare last week, look at its membership and weep.  Four women out of twenty men.  No one from a black and ethnic minority background.  One person with a disability (or at least, prepared to identify themselves as such).  No one under 21.  No one over 65.  Indeed, all the people and groups largely excluded from local government representation posted missing.  And given that one of the issues hampering local democracy is its tendency to be “male, pale and stale” what better way to examine how to fix it by creating a panel that is largely “male, pale and stale”.

It’s also incredibly politically unbalanced, with Labour hogging more of the places than any other party, both in terms of actual elected representatives and the backgrounds of some of the non-elected participants.  It might as well exist in a parallel universe, one where STV doesn’t exist – and if some of the Labour members have their way, that might be one recommendation for the future.  A return to first past the post voting so that normal service of Labour dominance can be resumed.  Why the SNP is legitimising this by taking up a token place is beyond me.

Apparently, the original proposed panel had only one woman on it, until folk made noises off.  Now there are four.  This, it would appear, is progress to some.

Everywhere you look and listen in Scottish public life, women are as rare as pregnant pandas.  Except one.

Having set itself the goal of increasing the number of women selected for public appointments, the Scottish Government has made progress, real progress.  Last year, nearly 31% of women applied for a public appointment and 39% were appointed.  It’s still nothing like 50 – 50 but it’s better, because they are focusing on fixing it.  Not just with a token, temporary filip but with systemic measures designed to attract more women applicants and to ensure that as many women who are “best candidates” succeed as men.  The outcome is that now, 35% of all appointments to public bodies are women.  One hurrah then for the Scottish Government.  And an approach others can learn from.

Less helpful is the evidence that equal pay is still something of a goal rather than an achievement in NDPBs and indeed, within Scottish Government.  Unsurprisingly, the gap widens at the top.  Why and how it is acceptable for civil servants on the same grade, doing the same job to be paid differently in this day and age is a mystery – and in some cases, men are being paid less than women.  Why no harmonisation?  Why no equal pay claims supported by unions?

And kudos to all the political parties which selected a woman candidate to stand in the Dunfermline by-election.  Dunfermline’s next MSP is likely to be a woman, helping to improve the gender balance of our Parliament.  Two hurrahs.  By small steps, gains are made.  Though what we need are strategic approaches and indeed, positive action, to ensure that more women stand in elections at all levels.  It’s not women’s job to do this, but political parties.  Just as it is for media and public bodies and government at all levels to pay more than lip service to equality duties (in law for some) and moral responsibilities.

Because wherever we look in Scottish life, women are being discriminated against.  In public life, in allowing their voice and experience to be heard in the debates of the day, in pay and in representation.  This is Scotland in the 21st Century, a country which prides itself in its egalitarian outlook, where the reality is somewhat divorced from the spin.  It’s shameful.

Scotland needs a Who

Since the Spending Review was announced last week, we have had the usual suspects and interest groups jockeying for position and headlines, generally crying foul.

COSLA pronounced in capital letters, no less, that it was “VERY DISAPPOINTED WITH LEVEL OF SPIN PUT ON FIGURES”.  It calculated that over the next three years, it was going to be down by 15% when cuts and new demand for services was taken into account.  “That can only mean one thing”, the local government body’s press release said in sonorous tones, “a significant reduction in local services and local spend”.  To hammer home its view, it put up Cllr Jim McCabe from North Lanarkshire council for the discussion panel on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday night.  So armed was he with statistics that he not only managed to bamboozle the audience but flummox himself.  Fulminating against the council tax freeze, he was asked what he would put it up to.  He wouldn’t, he said, not in an election year.  Which gave the game away – it isn’t about economics, it’s about politics.  In fact, it’s not even that lofty:  it’s simply about getting elected.

We’ve also had business chipping in.  CBI Scotland considered it “alarming that the Scottish Government is proposing two business tax rises…”, referring to the public health levy and the review on empty property relief.  It also accused the SNP Government of being “in denial with regard to the dire state of the UK public finances.”  It then goes on to make a point in this regard which made little sense to me, so I won’t trouble you with it here.  The Federation of Small Business in Scotland was much more considered in its response, but even it felt compelled to warn that “public sector bodies must not use their local business communities as a pot from which to draw additional income”.

Then came the unions.  The PCS representative on Newsnight Scotland’s panel seemed to indicate that job losses would be fine but that a pay freeze would not.  Uh huh.  The union denounced the ongoing pay freeze as “an attack on Scottish workers”.  Apparently, the extension of the pay freeze “by our own government and employer will provoke anger as never seen before” and just to emphasise the point, “Scottish public servants will be very angry that they are facing this double whammy from Westminster and Holyrood”.  Perhaps we should point out to the PCS that their pay will only be frozen once not twice?

The STUC, meanwhile, tried to criticise nicely, but ingrained habits die-hard, and occasional slips allowed the rhetoric to ratchet up.  Thus, “transferring existing revenue spend to capital is less welcome – a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ exercise which will not add to aggregate demand and will further impact on public service provision” and “having praised public service workers yesterday for achieving £2.2 billion in ‘efficiency savings’, he has today imposed a similar requirement for the coming period but offered nothing in return”.  I would have thought a wage, albeit a frozen one, and a job for the foreseeable future might have been reward enough in the current climate?

Finally, the third sector got in on the act.  On the whole, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) was highly positive about the Review and in particular, the shift to preventative spending but it warned that “Scotland cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity of doing things differently by allowing the funds to be hijacked by acute services or local government structural reform.”

So pardon me for asking folks, but if not you, who?  If the Scottish Government is guilty of loading the impact of reduced money to spend on you, who is it you think should bear the pain?  For if not business, big and small, nor councils, nor workers, nor voluntary organisations, should it be pensioners, disabled people, low-income families or unemployed young people?

Oh I know you will all say that by hurting you, the Scottish Government is hurting them.  But a little less rhetoric and a little more reality.  Please.

For in her hour of need, Scotland and her people need a who.  Sectors, agencies and bodies who will accept that we are where we are.  And actually, it is not quite the meltdown that is being portrayed.

No one wants to see budgets going backwards.  But the overall decline in expenditure – in real terms – between this year and next?  1.5%.  The following year, it is 1% – that is a cumulative 2.5%.  Tough but hardly Armageddon.

Moreover, even though the amount of money we have to spend is less next year than this, it is still more than we had to spend five years ago (£28.67 billion) and much more than ten years ago (£20.08 billion).  We managed then, so what has changed now?

Sadly, we are all too Scottish for our own good.  This is a country where the glass is definitely half empty, where Rev I M Jolly embodied our outlook on life, where we never pass up an opportunity for a girn.  We are wedded to a deficit approach to life.  Yet, in these tough times, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear from sectors, agencies and bodies about what they are going to do to get by, how they will use the money they are getting to make a difference?  Instead of focusing on the money being lost, couldn’t everyone focus on the money we have?  And what we might do with it?

There is no doubting we are heading for choppy waters.  But it could be worse.  And what Scotland needs right now is a Who.  People, leaders and organisations who will focus on what we have.  Who will accept the challenge ahead and put their shoulder to the wheel.  Who will find the ways to do better with less.  Who will vow to work together for the common weal.