At first minister’s questions on 1 October last year Alex Salmond said
It is over 20 years since the poll tax [community charge] came to an end, and I believe that the expanded electoral roll should not be used to collect poll tax debts … it is the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation to ensure that councils can take no further action to recover ancient poll tax debts.
Parliament agreed and the last stage of the Community Charge Debt (Scotland) Bill was passed on 19 February 2015. It awaits, I assume, royal assent.
The cases for and against the proposal might be summed up as follows.
FOR – this issue came about because the independence referendum energised many people who had been alienated from politics. Many came onto the electoral register for the first time. Some councils said they would use the new electoral register to identify and pursue poll tax debts from all those years ago. Little money is collected for those debts nowadays. It is appalling that the register is used to pursue citizens who have exercised a democratic right, maybe for the first time. What message does this send about their future democratic participation?
AGAINST – whatever you think of it, the community charge was established by legislation properly passed and most people paid it when required. Councils have always used a whole range of information sources to collect debts of all sorts owed to them. Nothing has changed. Because a debt is old it should not be cancelled. And what about those people who did pay it? What message does this send to them? Should they get a refund for the poll tax they paid? This is just a charter that will encourage people not to pay other debts.
Much more could be written about each of these cases. For example, most councils and their directors of finances responsible for collecting money owed to them argued strongly against cancelling community charge debts, both on the principle involved and its practical effect. But I think my summaries catch the essence of the arguments on both sides.
The purpose of this note is slightly different, to answer the question why did the SNP government do this and what does it tell us about them?
Part of Alex Salmond’s statement to parliament gives a clue – ‘the expanded electoral roll should not be used to collect poll tax debts.’
We have to be clear that (with the exception of the franchise for 16-17 year olds) there was nothing exceptional about the nature of the ‘expansion’ of the electoral register in the run-up to the referendum. All that happened was a plea, perfectly legitimate in itself, for people to register and vote in what was just about the most fundamental choice they could make, whether Scotland should be a separate nation state or not.
The reality is that the Yes campaign was much keener and more active than its opponents in encouraging people not on the register to join it. Not for any reason of high-flown principle, but because there was strong evidence that those people were more likely to vote Yes if they could be persuaded to turn out. On 10 September 2014 Salmond was quoted as saying
A week ago I saw something that I did not think I would see in my political life. People queuing up, and it was a long queue, in Dundee to register to vote … These are people who frankly could not give a stuff about political parties or any politician who are now engaged joyfully in this electoral process. Just for the absence of any doubt, I spoke to these people and they were not queuing up to vote no.
Whatever you think of Salmond, he’s not daft and there in essence you have it. He didn’t see these new voters engaging ‘joyfully’ in an electoral process for its own sake. He didn’t add ‘The important thing is to vote, however you cast your ballot.’ He said in effect ‘These are our people.’
And so you can follow directly through to his statement to parliament less than two weeks after he lost the referendum. His people, the people who turned out to vote Yes, should be protected from due legal process because they had avoided paying taxes.
Who knows what the balance of argument was in his mind when he decided to do this. It’s not unreasonable to suspect there was an element of emotion in the decision, fuelled perhaps by a few non-SNP councillors who made clear that their officials would be using any additional information in the updated electoral register to pursue debts, in the entirely legal way they always had.
One thing is clear.
By the time of Salmond’s announcement, the SNP had been in government for seven years, three of them with an absolute majority in parliament. They had not included what turned out to be a hurried piece of legislation in any of those previous seven years. So it clearly wasn’t a considered policy.
What this tells me about the SNP is what I already knew.
They are good at what is easy, what is symbolic rather than practical, and what plays in a directly partisan way to their own constituency.
They are not good at what should really matter for them – building an inclusive Scotland that the majority who don’t want separation can feel at home in, and making an even half-decent case for independence/separation, let alone for the ‘full fiscal autonomy’ that has become their current fall-back position. If in doubt on that latter point read what the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says about the latest edition of the Scottish government’s own publication, Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland
full fiscal autonomy would likely involve substantial spending cuts or tax rises in Scotland.
This is the really difficult stuff for the SNP. Of course, any counter-argument to separation is of no interest to those whose nationalism is a matter of faith rather than rational consideration. The IFS will be dismissed as it has been before, the reasons invented to suit the circumstances. Meantime, how much easier it is to play games with symbols of little practical effect like cancelling poll tax debt, even if they set a dangerous precedent for the future.