17 May 2006

Home Again

It's good to be back home

FINALLY, after two months, MSPs were allowed back into the debating chamber.

As you will remember, we had to evacuate the chamber in early March after a roof beam swung loose during a debate.

I must say that it was good to be back on the floor, as I feel that the chamber surroundings add something special to debates.

Also it meant that visitors could take their place in the public gallery and view proceedings from close quarters. After all, that is what our Parliament was meant to be - a People's Parliament.

Most of my colleagues agreed that gaining access to the chamber again was a real boost. Thanks to the public, the atmosphere was charged.

This week my party had the choice of debates, and we started on a subject that many people have raised with me: that of Council Tax and pensioner poverty.

The SNP believes, along with a majority of people, that the current council tax is unfair because it is based on neither income or ability to pay.

We believe that local taxation will be made fair only when Parliament introduces a local income tax.

We believe that the local income tax scheme should be based on the ability to pay.

A local income tax would have a number of clear attractions. As a new system for collecting local taxation, it would have the advantage of being local foremost.

This would enable local communities to be in control of how much they wish to contribute to pay for local services.

The income tax system already identifies those who are liable to pay income tax, and a local income tax would be a bolt-on to that system.

A local income tax would be clear and simple and would not involve the bureaucracy of council tax and the council tax benefit system.

At present, Scots pensioners aren't claiming what is rightfully theirs. Recent figures highlight that more than 200,000 pensioners in Scotland who are entitled to claim council tax benefit do not claim it - and therefore pay more council tax than they should.

That means that more than one in five Scottish pensioners pay an extra £540 every year. Scottish pensioners pay a staggering £118 million more than they should in council tax.

This fact shows that Scots have been over-paying into the system for years, and it should be seen as a great cause for concern, especially when we think that since Labour came to power in 1997, council tax has increased by some 50 per cent.

The council tax was introduced in 1993 under the last Conservative government as a result of the backlash from the dreaded poll tax.

But the Council Tax is now just as unfair and unjust. It hits working families and pensioners hardest.

The Executive should remember the echoes of the past: people who feel hard done by will take action.

The action that we have called for is for the adoption of a fair and balanced local income tax.

Stewart Stevenson
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