The treatment of outstanding community charge debt is a matter for local authorities, in line with their statutory obligations and in consultation with their auditors as necessary. That is similar to the practice in England.
Does the minister agree that it is entirely unfair that Scottish local authorities continue to hound people for outstanding poll tax debts, which are now between 10 and 15 years old? He is well aware that the same debts in England were written off some years ago. Will he accept that many of the 150,000 Scots who have not registered to vote are afraid to do so because they cannot afford to pay those outstanding poll tax arrears? Does he agree that it is particularly ironic and unfair that the hated poll tax, which we in Scotland endured first but which has been rightly consigned to the dustbin everywhere else, continues to haunt Scotland?
Mr Fox is wrong to state, as Ms Leckie did in my local newspaper, that there was some sort of amnesty down south. I have confirmed with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that there is no general amnesty and that those who are in debt will continue to be pursued. The ODPM made the clear statement, which I support, that such a move would be unfair on the vast majority of people who have paid their local council tax debts. Mr Fox is just plain wrong. Perhaps he was misinformed or perhaps he has misunderstood—I understand how that could happen.
Such an amnesty would be unfair on those who have made an effort to fulfil their responsibility to pay local taxation. We all have a responsibility to continue to do that. The sum of between £1.3 million and £1.6 million of poll tax debt that was paid in the six months up to summer 2003 goes towards our public services and helps to provide nursery places in our communities and the emergency services on which we all rely. It is absolutely wrong that people who have debts to society and to their local council should not pay
Strangely, I agree with most of what the minister has said. Does he agree with me that, if an amnesty were offered for the £554 million in council tax that is currently owed to local authorities, it would be unfair on all those who have been prepared to pay their council tax?
I share that view. As one of my constituents said in a letter to the East Kilbride News :
"It would be nice, too, to consider the struggle suffered by all those who scrimped and did without" at the time to pay their local taxes. I agree with that point. However, Phil Gallie's comment is a bit rich. When the poll tax was introduced, we all knew that it would be a difficult tax to collect. In one year, only 67 per cent of the poll tax was collected.
Let me also take the chance to clarify something that appeared in the newspapers last week. I said in a press release that I was encouraged that councils had collected more council tax than ever before, but I also made it clear that I expected them to do better and to collect more council tax. I am encouraged by the fact that local authorities are working hard to collect their moneys. Those moneys go to good use in local communities.