A row broke out at Moray Council on Tuesday when a leading member of the ruling administration voiced concerns over Scottish Government policy on historic Poll Tax arrears.
The independent councillor for the Heldon & Laich ward, Councillor John Cowe, was accused of being a “Tory in all but name” after he posed a question at a meeting of the local authority’s policy and resources committee.
Councillor Cowe was seeking clarification over the status of poll tax defaulters in Moray in the wake of an announcement by First Minister Alex Salmond that the Scottish Government would write off historic poll tax debts.
That move came after councillors in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire said they were considering using the increased number of people registered on the voters roll as a result of the independence referendum as a means of identifying poll tax defaulters.
Councillor Cowe’s enquiry sparked an immediate backlash from SNP group members, who after the meeting issued a press statement attacking Cllr Cowe, who chairs the economic development and infrastructure committee as well as the Moray Economic Partnership.
The leader of the SNP group, Councillor Pearl Paul, issued a statement after Tuesday’s meeting. She said: “What we have seen today is a Tory in all but name having a go at the poorest folk for not being able to pay an unfair debt that has come from an unfair tax.
“He also made the ridiculous suggestion of seeking compensation from the Scottish Government for their plans to cancel Poll Tax debt.
“The Council collected just £340 of this £1.6 million historic debt last year – at that rate it would take around five thousand years to collect and I have never heard such a ridiculous thing in my life.
“It is time to consign Poll Tax to dustbin and that includes these debts, most of which will never be collected anyway and which came from an entirely unjust system that hit our most vulnerable folk the hardest.
“This lack of compassion from Cllr Cowe has no place in the Scotland I want to see and he should have more thought for those who aren’t as fortunate as he is.”
Moray Labour group councillor Sean Morton expressed surprise at the manner of the SNP attack on Councillor Cowe.
He said: “The Poll Tax was hated – I was a young boy at the time and know the damage it did to poor families like mine. A lot of the debts would never have been recovered and perhaps it may in the end have been more costly for councils to pursue them.
“I’m surprised though to hear Cllr Cowe being attacked as a Tory in all but name – but not surprised at who is doing the attacking. I’m no Tory and I’ve always found him to be a reasonable voice in the chamber and a man who councillors on all sides can do business with.
“I can understand his frustration too. The SNP make so many commitments that cost councils money but costs them nothing.”
Councillor Morton did, however, agree with the Scottish Government move to scrap the chase for historic poll tax arrears, adding: “It would be very harsh indeed to continue chasing them 25 years on.
“When as many as a quarter of those still owing money are no longer with us, it makes sense to leave the poll tax in the past once and for all.”
Councillor Cowe hit back at the SNP accusations, telling insideMoray: “It appears that should you question the Scottish Government you are one if not all of the following – a liar, a scaremonger or a closet Tory or Labour supporter.
“I am none of these and made that abundantly clear from the outset.
“In my view there should be no politics in local government, there are 26 of us and we should all be working for all the people of Moray, not a political master in Edinburgh or London.
“I spoke on behalf of my constituents who have challenged me about writing off £425 million of debt , one of whom just happens to be an SNP supporter who paid their Poll Tax!”