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.