Discussions to be held by Cosla could be ‘disrupted’ by Labour councillors intent on attacking the SNP over Alex Salmond’s recent pledge to fund an extension of the council tax freeze for a further two years.
There are fears that the Labour bloc could try to use the discussions as a platform in order to mount an attack against the Scottish National Party after Iain Gray’s ill timed pledge to increase the tax left Labour looking out of step with the Scottish electorate.
An emergency meeting is to take place next week between Scotland’s local umbrella body and the SNPs Finance Minister John Swinney in order to address the financial predicament faced by Scotland’s 32 local authorities as a result of Westminster spending cuts. However the meeting faces being disrupted by the Labour group who claim that SNP Ministers were being “deceitful and dishonest” when they made the tax freeze announcement at their recent Perth conference.
Jim McCabe who is leader of Labour run North Lanarkshire council and who heads up the Labour bloc on Cosla has claimed that the “concordat” between local and national government was “in the bin”.
Mr McCabe said: “I thought we were having constructive discussions with ministers on flexibility to raise council tax. That was before last weekend’s SNP conference where we hear they want a council tax freeze for another two years.
“At the Cosla meeting I accused ministers of being deceitful and dishonest. They already had their minds made up.”
However political opponents have claimed that it is only the Labour group that are intent on disrupting discussions and that the other parties are working constructively together.
Derek Mackay, the leader of Renfrewshire Council and head of the SNP group at Cosla, said:
“Most parties think Cosla is working constructively to get a settlement to protect our services and jobs and I think that Labour is beginning to show that it’s out of step with Scottish opinion and the positive approach others are taking.”
Labour’s problems over the council tax began when Holyrood leader Iain Gray recently confirmed that the party would seek to raise council tax across Scotland if Labour win next year’s Holyrood elections. However, the wisdom of the pledge was questioned when only days later a poll by the BBC indicated that such a move would not be supported by the Scottish electorate.
The announcement by the SNP at last week’s Perth conference appeared to put Labour on the back-foot over the issue and Labour local authority figures have been prominent in Scottish newspapers and on the BBC as the party seek to repair the damage.
Last week Labour councillor and head of Cosla Pat Watters sent a letter to SNP Finance Minister John Swinney attacking the timing of SNP announcement claiming that it would harm relations between the Scottish Government and Scotland’s 32 local authorities. The letter was leaked to The Herald newspaper and was then used as the basis for an article critical of the SNP.
This Sunday the sister paper The Sunday Herald also attacked the SNP plans claiming that it will cost the nation more than £1 billion and that it will help the rich far more than the poor. The paper also claimed that the longer a freeze goes on the more the rich will benefit and that this will “add to pressure” on the SNP to scrap their pledge.
The attacks by the newspaper were a repeat of similar attacks from senior figures within Labour in Scotland who have also claimed that the rich will benefit.
However this weekend Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray undermined the attacks by stating that his party are not opposed to a freeze on council tax and that Labour’s only objection was that the SNP were not funding it adequately. This endorsement of the freeze, at least in principle, has led to real confusion over Labour’s council tax stance and is indicative of the mess that the party are in over the issue.
Labour’s current policy is to seek rises in council tax bills in order to plug the funding shortfall left by the Westminster cuts. As yet though, Iain Gray’s group of MSPs have yet to say what limit they will set on any such rises. Labour’s last term in office saw council tax bills rise by 60%.