Poll Tax Rebellion Overwhelms Lothian Authorities

From the Glasgow Herald comes this dispatch from the poll tax rebellion:

Collection chaos in Lothian

76,000 face poll tax warrants

By Frances Horsburgh, Local Government Correspondent

Scotland’s second largest local authority, Lothian region, is this week issuing 76,756 summary warrants over non payment of the poll tax.

These higher than expected figures represent 12.8% of the 600,000 people on the register. This is the first batch of Lothian warrants which does not include the 160,000 people entitled to rebates.

Those named on the warrants who will now be pursued by sheriff’s officers over their total debt to the region of £25.5m are three months or more in arrears with their poll tax payments.

While Lothian’s Labour leaders described poll tax collection as “an administrative nightmare” of the Government’s own making, Opposition Tories attacked some members of the Labour group for “encouraging” non payment by their example. There was all party agreement that the level of non payment was much more severe than expected.

However, the Lothian Federation of Anti Poll Tax Groups said it was “ecstatic” at the level of non payment.

After hearing the figures, a meeting of the region’s finance committee eventually passed a Labour motion by seven votes to four stressing that Opposition parties had been warning the Government for the last three years that collection of the poll tax would be an administrative nightmare and non payment levels would be high.

Lothian’s deputy finance chairman, Councilor David Begg, told the committee it was important to distinguish between summary warrants and warrant sales. The Labour group still hoped there would be no warrant sales in Lothian over poll tax non payment. There were a large number of people in the new totals who could not afford to pay.

He claimed the Government’s chickens were coming home to roost as collection continued to run into difficulties and he accused Tory Ministers of making poll tax policy “on the hoof”.

Both Tory finance spokesman Councillor James Gilchrist and Tory Group leader Councillor Brian Meek recalled that a number of Lothian Labour councillors had declared they would not pay the tax and they accused them of encouraging others to follow suit.

Councillor Meek claimed that the level of non payment meant council services, staff wages, and essential spending were under threat because of the shortfall in income being received.

Councillor Gilchrist also attacked the recent warning by the Scottish clearing banks that they would not be able to handle hundreds of thousands of arrestments of accounts. It was hard to take advice from people who had thrown away billions of pounds in Third World debts, he said.

Councillor Begg said it was the law of the land that the banks had to carry out searches of people’s accounts.

Lothian region previously sent out almost 100,000 final notices warning people they had forfeited their right to pay by instalment. Those named on the warrants have not paid the sum owing or have not contacted the council to make an arrangement to pay.

After the meeting Mr Andy Clachers, vice chairman of the Federation of Lothian Anti-Poll Tax Groups, said he was “ecstatic” about the non payment figures. They had seen the power of the people sweep away governments within Eastern Europe and were now seeing the power of the people in Scotland pushing the poll tax “to the brink of collapse”, he claimed.

Strathclyde region expects to issue summary warrants “in the not too distant future”, according to a finance spokesman . The council is believed to have delayed applying for warrants while officials try to check which non payers will qualify for transitional relief under the Government’s new scheme. If the warrants are not issued in the next couple of weeks it is believed a political decision could be taken to wait until after Christmas.

Strathclyde issued 236,000 final notices at the end of which represented 16.4% of those due to pay the poll tax.

Grampian region was the first to issue summary warrants earlier this month. The total of 17,300 represented about 5% of those due to pay.

Fife region obtained 12,616 warrants two weeks ago representing 4.5% and in the Borders 3,600 warrants were issued last week, also representing 4.5%. Officials in the Borders are “optimistic” about the progress of collection.

Dumfries and Galloway region obtained summary warrants last week and they were due to reach defaulters morning. It is issuing 3000 warrants, which represents approximately 3% of those due to pay.

Highland region’s finance committee has decided to hold off pursuing summary warrants in the meantime.

A spokeswoman for Central region said it had issued 9649 final reminders, which represented 5% of those due to pay, but the council has not yet gone to court for summary warrants.

Tayside region has still to send out final warnings. “We are not at the stage of issuing summary warrants as our final notices will not go out until next week,” said a spokeswoman.

Those who are named on the warrants must pay the full amount they owe in addition to a 10% surcharge. If they do not pay they will face debt recovery procedures which include arrestment of bank accounts and wages or possibly ultimately a poinding and warrant sale.

Meanwhile, Argyll and Bute District Council announced it was seeking an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State over a £736,000 reduction in its Government grant which council officials say would result in an increase of 50% or £21 a head in the district poll tax on a standstill budget.

Councillor Robert Reid, chairman of the policy and resources committee, said: “I am utterly horrified at the situation. We do not run an extravagant authority and the numbers feel that the present method of calculating grant places a disproportionately high burden on the people of Argyll and Bute.”

Finance officials explained that it would not be accurate to compare the present position on non-payment of the poll tax with rates arrears. This was because under the previous system a large percentage of people paid their rates with their council house rent, so the regional council never had to take action against them for rates arrears.

If they fell into arrears with either rates or rent they were pursued by the district council. The officials explained that about 200,000 of the 600,000 now due to pay the poll tax in Lothian fell into this category and paid rates and rents to the relevant district council

A confrontation between officials and anti-poll tax protesters supporting a Labour Euro-MP facing debt recovery measures was averted . Demonstrators threatened to form a human blockade outside the home at Irvine of Mr Alex Smith, MEP for Scotland South, who has refused to pay a £50 penalty imposed for not registering for the community charge.

However, before the protesters arrived, two sheriff’s officers, who called at Mr Smith’s home, left without trying to force entry after he refused to let them in.

Are you sure you are not paying too much tax to John Bull? We have recovered or saved large sums for women taxpayers. Why not consult us? It will cost you nothing. Women Taxpayer’s Agency (Mrs. E. Ayres Purdie), Hampden House, Kingsway, W.C. Tel 6049 Central.

The conclusion to Ethel Ayers Purdie’s “Red Tape Comedy” comes from the issue of The Vote:

The Vote

A Red-Tape Comedy. — Ⅲ.

The Letters.

In addition to the letter from her husband’s mother, we have also her husband’s latest letter, received a few weeks ago, and I propose that you shall read both of them, handing them over as I speak.

This proposition appears to be quite unexpected, and scarcely seems to commend itself to the Commissioners. The letters are received and handled in the most gingerly manner, and they appear quite at a loss what to do with them. I am requested to indicate which is which. I point out the one from the mother-in-law, and a Commissioner, after regarding it with a very dubious eye, remarks: “There’s a good deal of it, isn’t there? I don’t think we will trouble to read that. I suppose it is quite friendly,” and I reply, “Oh, absolutely,” as he hands it back to me.

They mere glance at the heading and signature of the other letter, and the solicitor enters these in a great book. The Commissioners seem to be feeling as if it is not quite gentlemanly or sportsmanlike to read another fellow’s letter to his wife, and are palpably anxious to get rid of it. So I say, to reassure them: “Pray don’t hesitate to read it. We are most anxious that you should; and, really, it is quite a nice conjugal sort of epistle, just such as a man would write to his wife.”

But this, instead of reassuring them, seems to make them more alarmed than ever. They positively decline to read the letter, and insist on handing it back to me, entirely disregarding the Surveyor of Taxes, who has been eyeing it hungrily and waiting for his turn to come. He is plainly itching to get hold of it, and to see whether he can find in it something which will serve for another objection. So I calmly proceed to put it away, whereupon he says: “May I look at that letter?” “Certainly,” I reply; but, naturally, I don’t intend that he shall read it, when the others have passed it unread, and as he leans forward to take it, I present him with one corner of the letter, while I retain a firm hold on the opposite corner. Consequently he can just “look” at it, and no more; and finding I don’t relinquish my hold on it, he can only say “Thank you,” and let it go again.

The solicitor here says: “I beg your pardon, but I quite omitted to notice how the letter from Mr. Burn began. Would you have the goodness to tell me?”

“With pleasure,” is my reply; and then I say, in solemn tones: “It commences thus: Dear Alice—” “Thank you very much,” he says, and writes in his big book again. As far as I can see, it is duly entered on the official record that the appellant receives letters from her husband, who calls her “Dear Alice.”

Dr. Burn is asked to explain what she is doing in England all these years, and why she left New Zealand. She replies that she had a two-fold reason, namely, the better education of her child, and the obtaining of a medical degree for herself so that, by practical experience of Public Health methods as administered in this country, she might be qualified for an official appointment in her own country whenever opportunity offered. But although she does not say so, she seems to have reached the conclusion that if this case is to be taken as a criterion of English methods and administration, they are not exactly calculated to qualify anyone for anything but a lunatic asylum, and that her own country could teach England a thing or two.

After a few more desultory and half-hearted inquiries as to where she obtained her degree, who paid her fees, whether her husband sends money to her, and so forth, the Commissioners announce that they have heard all they want to hear, and request us to retire while they consider their decision.

The Verdict.

The appellant and myself sit in an ante-chamber, simmering with suppressed amusement. There are signs that tea is being partaken of by somebody, but none is offered to us. After some ten to fifteen minutes have elapsed we are recalled, and the solicitor explains to us that in order to justify the Commissioners in the decision at which they have arrived, they desire Dr. Burn formally to confirm the statement which I had made on her behalf, namely, that she is not judicially separated from her husband. This done, the solicitor says he will have to place on record how long she has been married, and the year in which the marriage took place, which is a bit of a poser, for Dr. Burn, like most of us, cannot remember these details off-hand. I know I never can myself, and I proceed to apologise for not having brought “her marriage lines” along, but am politely assured that it was not necessary, and a simple statement will suffice. Meanwhile, my client, by a prodigious effort of memory, has recalled how old she was when she was married, and by carefully subtracting this from her present age the required information is reached. She further recollects that it was “in the month of September.” This brilliant feat of memory is quite satisfactory; but as reference has been made to a child, its sex, age, and present location are required to be known, also if it is the only one. When all this domestic history has been duly entered in the big book, as if it were a Family Bible, the decision of the Commissioners is at length announced. It is:—

That the appellant’s case has been fully established, the Crown has failed to show any legal authority for taxing her, and therefore the assessment must be canceled.

“On a Point of Law.”

The surveyor, on behalf of the Crown, declares his dissatisfaction with their decision “on a point of law.” Hitherto, his great point, strenuously maintained by him throughout the case, was that there was no point of law about it at all, but only a “point of fact” Dr. Burn, being only a layman, is intensely astonished and perplexed by this sudden volte-face. But the rest of us, being old hands, and knowing that the decision has to be accepted as absolutely final, except one on a point of law, do not trouble ourselves about his “lightning-change” tactics, as we can fully appreciate his anxiety to save his face or, rather, the face of the Crown.

He hints that his Department will apply to have a case stated in the High Court, with the object of upsetting the decision. The others look as if they deem it very unlikely that the Department will do anything so foolish, and a Commissioner, smiling very affably, remarks to me: “You understand, of course, that this is only professional dissatisfaction. He is obliged to say these things.”

“I fully understand, and we are quite satisfied,” is my reply. “I think we need detain you gentlemen no longer, and will wish you good-day.” They are all standing up, the solicitor holds the door for us, and we are bowed out with the utmost respect.

(Most women will have observed that a man is never so respectful to our sex as when we have met him on his own ground, and bowled him out in a fair fight.)

Dr. Burn and I, however, are glad to escape from the realms of Topsey Turveydom, and to find ourselves once more amidst realities, and amongst plain, practical people whose lives are ruled by common-sense and not by tortuous red-tape and freakish traditions.

The Crown’s “Second Thoughts.”

The Crown has since indulged itself in “second thoughts” over the Commissioners’ decision, with the following result:—

Commissioners of Taxes.
Gateshead, .

Dear Madam,— Re Dr. Alice M. Burn. With reference to this appeal, heard at Durham on , and the dissatisfaction with the decision then expressed by the Surveyor of Taxes, I am instructed by my Commissioners to inform you that they have received a formal intimation that the Board of Inland Revenue do not intend to take any further action in the matter. — I am, yours faithfully,

H. Swinburne

Mrs. E. Ayres Purdie, A.L.A.A.

Mr. Swinburne is the solicitor and clerk to the Commissioners, and the above communication was quite spontaneous and unsought by me.

It strikes me as being exceedingly comic, because on looking back I find that Somerset House told me in two consecutive communications in , that Dr. Burn was correctly assessed, was not living with her husband, and Section 45 of the Income-Tax Act did not apply to her case, followed by peremptory demands for immediate payment.

In , they wrote: “Dr. Burn is living in England, and is therefore not living with her husband, who is in New Zealand. The duties are long in arrear, and payment cannot be allowed to be further deferred.” By , they had got themselves into such a frantic state as to be threatening Sheriff’s officers, writs of arrest and imprisonment, and various other nonsense. While the Surveyor of Taxes, not to be outdone by his superior officers, likewise indulged in extremely impertinent letters to me. In one dated Newcastle, , he said: “In reply to your letter of yesterday I beg to state that Dr. Burn is chargeable with Income-tax. You have misread Section 45. Be good enough to suggest to your client the desirability of paying the tax due without delay.” Again, in , he wrote from Sunderland: “I have to state that the assessment (on Dr. Burn) appears to be quite in order. I am quite unable to follow your statement that the assessment of your client is ultra vires. If you think you have any valid ground of objection, it will be necessary to state it specifically.”

And this after I had been stating the ground of objection in specific terms for months past.

No Taxation Without Representation.

There is a moral in the foregoing; in fact, many morals. Dr. Burn in her own land is a citizen possessed of equal rights and status with any other citizen.

She could not have proved more clearly how a colonial woman, by coming to this benighted and effete England loses absolutely all status, even the status of a taxable unit, and is regarded as the mere shadow and appendage of some male person.

The Government says, “Representation goes with Taxation,” and a woman has replied: “No Representation goes with No Taxation.” Let all the other women, married and single, hurl the same challenge at the Government which denies us representation and a voice in the expenditure of public money. If they all do this, something has got to happen.

Ethel Ayres Purdie.

[The End.]

For part 1 see The Picket Line, . For part 2 see The Picket Line, .