Giving evidence to Holyrood committees need not be a taxing matter

SP Petitions CommitteeHOLYROOD’S committee system has been a hot topic since MSPs returned from their summer recess and a stushie erupted about who was sitting where.

Opposition parties cried shenanigans when ministerial aides were appointed to the same committees as their bosses, suggesting the SNP were “stacking the deck” to limit scrutiny of legislation.

Nicola Sturgeon acted swiftly to end such appointments, but this won’t be enough to silence critics who say committees dominated by the ruling party are failing to provide the necessary checks and balances.

Despite this recent flurry of drama, it’s probably fair to say the average person doesn’t take a close interest in what happens behind the scenes at the Scottish Parliament, in the committee rooms where MSPs meet to review and debate evidence and to go through bills line by line. This work might seem less exciting than the cut and thrust of FMQs or chamber debates on hot topics, but the exciting part is that you can get involved.

If there’s an issue you care about, why settle for casting a vote every few years and hoping for the best?

I don’t mean you can shout out from the sidelines when the MSPs are in action – that doesn’t go down well anywhere in the Parliament. But you can go one step better and make your views known in advance, to the right people at exactly the right time. If there’s an issue you care about, why settle for casting a vote every few years and hoping for the best when you have the chance to help shape legislation directly?

Now is the time to respond to two calls for evidence about areas of crucial importance to the creation of a fairer, more progressive Scotland. The Local Government and Communities Committee is seeking views on council tax reform by Wednesday [September 28], and the Finance Committee is inviting submissions on a Scottish approach to taxation up until next Friday [September 30].

If you live, work, play and spend in Scotland then you have a dog in the fight about how you are taxed

Perhaps you don’t feel qualified to have a say. After all, isn’t it the job of academics and other experts to provide the evidence that underpins good policy? Well yes, but that’s not the only kind of evidence that matters. If you live, work, play and spend in Scotland then you have a dog in the fight about how you are taxed and how the government spends the money it collects. You have the right to an opinion on the decisions that affect you, and while there’s no guarantee you’ll influence the work of any given committee, there’s no use grousing afterwards if you didn’t put your points across when you had the chance.

The Scottish Government is proposing to increase council tax bands E to H, with rises starting at 7.5 per cent and peaking at 22.5 per cent for those in the most expensive properties. The most expensive in theory, that is. In reality council tax bands do not directly correspond with market values, hence several of those who have responded to this call to evidence so far believe hikes would only be fair if they were accompanied by a nationwide revaluation – a position supported yesterday by the Greens. Others have called for taxation based on income or occupancy level, to better reflect ability to pay or actual use of council services. One respondent lives with his wife in a two-bedroom semi in Johnstone that falls into band E, and considers it unfair that they have to pay more than those who are a “greater drain on resources”. Another has little truck with such complaints, stating: “if you can afford to purchase the house, you can afford the associated costs.”

When thinking about ability to pay, shouldn’t wealth and assets be taken into account?

Similar conflicts are at the heart of the broader consultation on taxation, which invites comment on how best to achieve a system that is proportionate to the ability to pay, provides certainty to the taxpayer, provides convenience/ease of payment, and is efficient. Here, again, is the question of whether those being taxed can afford it, but what exactly does this mean? Conflating ability to pay with income is certainly efficient, but in reality it’s a crude approach, hence the current patchwork system where the tax man taketh away via PAYE then giveth back via tax credits. When thinking about ability to pay, shouldn’t wealth and assets be taken into account? What about essential outgoings such as housing and childcare costs? When the only certainties are death and taxes but the timing of the former cannot be accurately predicted, is it fair to ask older people to downsize or release the equity in their homes? Some might say they’ve worked hard all their lives to provide for themselves … but is the implication that asset-poor Generation Rent just aren’t trying hard enough?

Case studies can help flag up potential unintended consequences of well-meaning changes

These are political and philosophical questions to which there can be no definitive answers. The MSPs charged with shaping tax policy will have the benefit of evidence from other jurisdictions, along with expert projections about the likely impact of any changes, but case studies are valuable too, helping to flag up potential unintended consequences of well-meaning changes.

When responding to a consultation or call for evidence you need not answer all of the questions posed, or provide references, or share your life story. But firing off a few clearly argued bullet points sure beats shouting at the TV or setting the world to rights in the pub, therapeutic as both of those activities may be. Committees may not be perfect, but they can only ever be as good as the evidence they receive. It’s time to answer the call.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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