If further evidence of the Scottish Government’s non-commitment to social justice is necessary, then one only need look today at the Annual Budget meeting of Glasgow City Council.
For the seventh consecutive year it will go through the formality of setting council tax rates. I say formality, as like many Glaswegians I have already received my bill for 2014-15 which sets the Council Tax rates at the same level they were at in 2006-07.
The Council Tax freeze is represented by the Scottish Government as a socially progressive policy which protects hard up families. However, there is now a growing body of evidence to show that’s what the Council Tax freeze is not doing.
Citizen Advice Scotland is reporting that although overall levels of personal debt are now falling, Council Tax arrears along with payday loans are increasing.
The Scottish Diligence Statistics for 2012-13 also show that over quarter of a million Charge for Payments were served on non-payers; whilst almost 203,000 bank accounts were arrested and 134,000 earning arrestments were executed.
When that level of formal debt enforcement is required in a country Scotland’s size, questions must be asked: are levels too high; or is the tax broken altogether?
I would say the latter.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also warned that the true beneficiaries of the policy have been better off, middle class families and not the poor; whilst Local Government trade union, Unison, has called for Local Governments to be allowed to set the rates again, pointing to the fact the brunt of the freeze is being felt by cuts to vital services, which the poor depend on.
Others, such as Professor David Bell from the University of Stirling have delivered reports showing the most effective way for the Scottish Government to reduce inequality now, is not to freeze Council Tax rates, but to use existing powers to increase the gaps between Council Tax bands.
If the Scottish Government is committed to increasing social equality and avoiding the poorest facing rising personal debt levels, the evidence is clear: they would be better reforming local taxation law and using the powers they currently have, than sticking a plaster over a broken system; whilst wasting parliamentary time introducing punitive measures such as they are doing with Clause Four of the Bankruptcy and Debt Advice (Scotland) Bill 2013.
What we are seeing is the same lack of commitment or understanding that led to the unnecessary delays in neutralising the effects of the bedroom tax and the increase in application fees for Low Income, Low Asset Bankrupts (which it was argued at the time was necessary to generate an additional £460,000 of income, but then led to a 60% drop in the numbers able to apply in a year in which the Accountant in Bankruptcy then went on to report a £1.3 million underspend).
Two thirds of Scots have even said in a recent Mori Poll, presumably those that can afford the current rates that they would be prepared to pay more in local taxation if they were assured it was to be spent on local services.
The reality is the only other beneficiaries of the continued Council Tax freeze, other than better off, middle class families, are the Sheriff Officers who are now being paid millions by local tax payers to collect debts that simply many cannot afford.