Council dodges poll tax question

Scotland’s cash-strapped councils are set to write off hundreds of millions of pounds in unpaid poll tax when the debts “expire” next year, writes Sandy Neil.

But Scottish Borders Council (SBC) is yet to confirm whether it will pursue the £150,000 still owed to it since the poll tax was replaced in 1993.

Scottish local authorities are still owed more than £320million from people who refused to pay the controversial community charge (poll tax) introduced in 1989 by the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher.

A 1998 Scottish Office report showed the estimated outstanding poll tax debt was £503million. Fourteen years later the amount outstanding from the 27 Scottish councils which replied to freedom of information requests was £322,753,870.

The outstanding poll tax still owed to SBC stands at £147,016, a council spokesperson revealed to TheSouthern.

But he admitted he had “not been able to get a straight-forward answer on whether we would write it off”.

Furthermore, he added: “I’m under the impression we already have written off some of the debt.”

Four local authorities have already given up chasing the poll tax owed, including Inverclyde, which cancelled £6million of debt last year. Argyll and Bute Council last year collected only £174 of the £3.4million still owed, and South Lanarkshire clawed back just £31,409 of the £30.9 million due.

In Edinburgh, council chiefs are owed more than £72 million, but collected just £65,838 last year. Glasgow City Council alone is owed £125 million, but stopped pursuing debts seven years ago as recovery costs were so high. Other local authorities are preparing to write off the bulk of the outstanding debts when they expire in 2013.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the highly unpopular poll tax being replaced by the council tax. Under Scots Law, the milestone means that any outstanding payments will automatically be written off. In England, most poll tax debt was written off more than seven years ago.

Campaigners have called on the Scottish Government to write off the debts now, warning it is becoming too expensive to pursue them. But critics attacked councils for letting tens of thousands of dodgers off the hook, and for not attempting to recoup every penny, when they are cutting spending on roads, schools and bin collections to try to balance the books.

Eben Wilson, director of campaign group TaxpayerScotland, said: “Clearly, taxpayers who paid their tax have since subsidised the debts owed by those who have not paid. This sort of shambles shows that high taxation rates that change behaviour are highly unfair to the law-abiding. Poll tax may appear to be historic now, but high council tax rates also lead to more and more evasion.”

Alan McIntosh, a former anti-poll tax campaigner, said: “It is unfair that some councils have written off these debts but others are still pursuing them. We have an SNP administration which campaigned against the poll tax, but has done nothing about the debt since it got into power.”

A spokesman for the council umbrella group Cosla said: “What needs to be remembered is that there is a hard core group who go out of their way not to pay. We are talking about unpaid as opposed to uncollected – there’s a massive difference between the two.”

The poll tax was introduced as a replacement to the rates tax system in Scotland from 1989, and England and Wales from 1990, in order to part-fund local government. It provided for a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority.

The new charge inspired a series of mass protests and disturbances called the Poll Tax Riots in British towns and cities. By far the largest occurred in central London on March 31, 1990, shortly before the tax was due to come into force in England and Wales. The riots contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who resigned as Prime Minister in November the same year, defending a tax which an opinion poll had found 12 per cent favoured.

The next Prime Minister, John Major, announced it would be abolished in 1993.