Marco Biagi MSP

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Marco Biagi MSP

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  • Member for: Edinburgh Central
  • Region: Lothian
  • Party: Scottish National Party

Marco is a member of the following Committees:

Marco is a member of the following Cross-Party Groups:

Parliamentary Activities

Search for other Speeches made by Marco Biagi

Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

I am sure that there will be something for dessert, but that is a debate for another day.

That process of change, which will probably happen quite quickly after the 2016 election—let us face it: we cannot continue a council tax freeze for 40 years; there has to be some long-term solution—has to carry legitimacy for those of us in the chamber as well as for the public. As a result, the commission is going to lead a participative process. In fact, that was one of the biggest topics that were discussed at the commission’s first meeting, and we aim to finalise and launch a written consultation very soon.

We also want to go out and have face-to-face meetings around the country to understand what the public want and expect. After all, we have had these commissions before. Commissions of the great and the good have examined things behind closed doors; local authority commissions have looked at the issue but have not really had the power to implement any changes; and there have been academic, professional and single-party examples. This commission brings together the people who could, as the next Government, be in a position to implement change. It has a wide political buy-in around the chamber that makes it uniquely capable of being effective.

In mentioning that wide political buy-in, however, I am very sorry that Gavin Brown did not just abstain from membership of the commission but actually asked, “What is the point?” I sometimes wonder that myself when I listen to Mr Brown speaking, but the point of the commission is to go through a process of engagement. Is the commission that the Conservative Party has set up going to examine all kinds of taxes as part of its remit? If no one from civil society or with a social justice background is on it, is it going to be able to examine things in enough detail? Will it be able to provide the detail for the carers whom Kevin Stewart mentioned? Will it be able to provide the detail on how regional mechanisms will work, which Clare Adamson highlighted? Will it provide clarity for everyone?

The commission on local tax reform will do that. I ask everyone to support it. If the Tories are not going to do so, it will, sadly, be just one more example of Scotland going one way and them going another.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

I hasten to add that I meant “suite”, not “sweet”.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

As the remit makes clear, the commission will identify and examine alternatives. We have to do that, because only a brave person will predict that the commission will unite around one option. However, we can unite around an assessment and a suite of options and lay the groundwork for relatively rapid—



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

As Willie Coffey has pointed out, the commission already has a quite ambitious remit and a tight timescale, and its focus is on replacements for council tax. However, the broader debate is in process. I have had meetings with COSLA about wider local government finance, and that debate will continue.

Going back to the menu analogy, I think that, if the commission produces a menu and Labour decides to order the meat and potatoes of council tax—in other words, stodgy but a bit familiar—it will still be well informed in its decision. The Greens might look at land value tax—the open-topped Scandinavian sandwich that everyone looks at but not many order—while others will consider some kind of fusion cuisine. However, what we will have will be a suite of informed options.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

The poorest were certainly not helped very much by the 10 per cent cut to the scheme that was made by the UK Government and which the Scottish Government had to step in to deal with. We should also remember that people who are just above the level required to qualify for council tax benefit suffer very severe increases. I used to think that the Conservative Party supported the person in the middle, the person of modest income and people such as pensioners on low but fixed incomes, but those are exactly the kind of people who have had difficulties with the council tax system.

Gavin Brown suggested earlier that Kevin Stewart was a left-wing tax cutter. I will leave that for the discussion afterwards, but this is not about cutting or raising tax. I simply point out that, when the VAT vote went through, every Conservative in the House of Commons became a right-wing tax increaser. The measure of the principle is not whether tax is going up or down but who it is going up or down for. In looking at the funding of local government, this commission has to set out that kind of cost benefit analysis, assess the options and provide the next Scottish Government—whoever that might be—with a platform on which to base local tax reform.

I previously described this as a menu.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

The commission is here to achieve greater clarity; that is its fundamental mission. If this debate has achieved anything, it is that I am now quite clear on the Labour Party’s position on the council tax freeze. I have heard repeatedly from Alex Rowley that Labour supports it. Perhaps that is a result of the Labour Party’s new leadership but, nevertheless, I am glad to have that clarity, which we, and all members, will factor into on-going debates about local government funding and the council tax freeze.

The council tax freeze, which Labour claims that it invented—even though Cara Hilton might dispute that—has been both fair and funded. It helps those at the bottom twice as much, as a proportion of their income, as it does those at that top, and no wonder, because council tax is a regressive tax. It hits the poorest hardest, so putting it up hits the poorest hardest and not putting it up helps the poorest the most. That is fairly simple.

On the wider issue of local government funding, which the debate has touched on, broadly there are three big chunks to what the Scottish Government spends money on: health, which everyone here agrees we have to protect; local government; and everything else. Between 2013 and 2016, the local government chunk is increasing by 2.6 per cent in cash terms. Everything else is increasing by just 1.0 per cent in cash terms. Let us accept that local government is under pressure—ideally, I would not to be in a situation where I was getting a 2.6 or a 1.0 per cent cash increase. However, we are all under pressure here, and there are Government departments coming under far more pressure than the local government finance team.

If you need an example of what austerity economics can mean for local government, you just need to look at England, where local authorities are facing in the current spending round a real-terms cut of about three times what local government in Scotland is facing. That is just today, but there is also tomorrow. If we look ahead to the spending round in 2020, there are massive implications for local government funding from the Conservative Party’s spending plans. The First Minister has set out an approach in which UK public spending should rise in real terms by 0.5 per cent per year. According to Office for Budget Responsibility analysis, that would result in the debt to gross domestic product ratio declining, but it would have massive benefits for local government if for no other reason than the fact that the £59 billion gap between the First Minister’s and the Scottish Government’s ideal situation for the UK and what the Conservatives plan to do would perhaps mean between £4.5 billion and £5 billion in Barnett consequentials. That would have a huge impact on the funding available to local government. A funding gap of £4.5 billion to £5 billion is broadly equivalent to every penny that we spend on nursery, primary and secondary schooling in this country, and the consequences for local government would be severe.

The Conservative Party’s plans would see us live out a decade of austerity and return to public spending levels not seen since the 1930s. If we want to protect the core funding that goes to local government, as well as the taxes that it raises to make up the rest, and protect the needy and vulnerable who depend on the vital services that councils provide, we have to work together as much as we can in this chamber to resist that austerity.

We all agree on the need to find more revenue, but I hope that none of us would want to raise it from those who are least able to pay. Gavin Brown should be aware of the difference between a tax that takes into account ability to pay, which to an extent council tax does, and one that does not. His beloved poll tax, which he has spoken about in previous debates, took no account of that whatsoever.

In Westminster in 2010, Labour and the SNP went through the lobbies together to oppose George Osborne’s VAT rise, because we agreed that, although it would create more money for vital services, which was needed, it would hit the poorest hardest and it was the wrong way to do it. That is the principle that we have here.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

I would be delighted to do so. I ask Gavin Brown to take just one moment in his speech to acknowledge that that did not take place in no small part because his party voted against it.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

I need to make some progress.

Perhaps with the exception of the Conservatives, we all recognise that the present system, as defined in an act that was passed in 1992, is not fit for 2015. Our 2011 manifesto committed us to

“consult with others to produce a fairer system based on ability to pay to replace the Council Tax”

and to

“put this to the people at the next election, by which time Scotland will have more powers over income tax”.

That is why the First Minister’s statement on the Scottish Government’s programme for government last November set out that we would establish an independent commission to examine fairer alternatives to the current system of council tax, to be advanced in partnership with local authorities, and with all political parties invited to be involved. That is why we accepted the recommendation of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s inquiry report, “Flexibility and Autonomy in Local Government” from last summer, to establish a cross-party commission. To that end I am happy to accept Alex Rowley’s amendment, which gives due recognition to the work of that committee.

The first steps in establishing the commission reflected our continuing partnership with local government; we found it to be fully supportive. It proposed joint chairing by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government. Those chair roles have now been taken by me and Councillor David O’Neill, who is the president of COSLA.

Our invitation to the other parties to participate in the commission duly followed through a joint letter from me and Councillor O’Neill inviting each of them to discuss a potential remit and membership. I am grateful to Willie Rennie, Alex Rowley and Patrick Harvie for contributing to the early discussion. That early discussion allowed a proposed remit to be refined and developed, and we were happy to take on suggestions. A number of key organisations that could contribute were identified from outside the world of politics. I record my sincere thanks to Citizens Advice Scotland, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Law Society of Scotland and the institute for society and social justice research as well as the political parties and the independent group in COSLA for all agreeing to nominate representatives for the commission. We met for the first time on Monday this week.

The commission that we have now established, which will be independent of the Scottish Government and COSLA but will report to both, brings to the process many strong voices, differing perspectives and experiences, as well as analytical rigour. On the basis of that first meeting earlier this week, I am confident that the membership has the right mix of skills and knowledge, as well as immense enthusiasm, to tackle the task that it has been set.

That brings me to the remit that has been agreed by everyone who is participating. The commission is being asked to examine alternative systems of taxation to support funding of local government services, with a range of what will, in effect, become tests to apply, covering inequalities, macroeconomics, administration, transition, democracy and scale.

In conducting its work, the commission will engage with communities across Scotland to assess public perception of the emerging findings and to reflect that evidence in its final analysis and recommendations. The commission is not being asked to make a specific recommendation, although it is perfectly entitled to do that if it reaches a particular view. Rather, we envisage that its work will be to develop a profound understanding of all the potential systems.

It is unimaginable that the next Scottish Government—of whichever party or combination of parties it is—will have a policy of maintaining the existing council tax as set out in the Local Government Finance Act 1992.

The commission will help us all to understand what the alternative propositions are, what they would mean and whether they would be politically viable. The evidential approach that will be taken by the commission will provide the basis for the alternatives to be more thoroughly developed and informed than they would be otherwise, and for them to be calibrated against public opinion. The work of the commission will mean that the appropriate knowledge will be in the public domain to allow policy options to be challenged and validated.

We have to be realistic, though. Perhaps we have all been missing something, but my expectation is that there is no perfect solution. There is probably not going to be one that everyone will look at and say, “Yes—that’s the tax that I’m happy to pay. Let’s do it.” The real world is about trade-offs. The work of the commission can allow us to understand the trade-offs and allow policy to be developed to address them. We may well make different choices: instead of thinking that the commission will deliver one main course, perhaps we should expect it to give us a menu from which we can all choose, in the knowledge that all the options have been rigorously tested.

In addition, the commission will look at international practice to see whether there is anything we can learn from abroad and apply to our system here. Furthermore, the work of the commission can provide an administrative route map for implementing alternatives. That is key because, whatever is wrong with the council tax—I have gone into that at great length—it delivers £2 billion of funding for public services. Whatever replaces it must be capable of doing something similar.

With that £2 billion going on funding the staff and workforce who deliver vital services that have to be planned years in advance, we would benefit from revenues being stable and predictable. We cannot afford a future change that introduces unmanageable revenue risks. Equally, the people of Scotland cannot afford a change that exposes them to unfair or unanticipated tax liabilities. That is just one of the real-world trade-offs that it will be for the commission to wrestle with.

Council tax is fundamentally of profound importance to so much of our lives in Scotland—to so many of the services that we deliver. Its replacement must deliver financial accountability to local government and transparency to the more than 2 million households that currently pay council tax.

Council tax today is visible. Aside from income tax that is paid by self-assessment and vehicle excise duty, it is the only tax that we must actually make an effort to pay. Every other tax is collected at source by employers and by providers of goods and services.

As I have set out, however, it is a flawed system. For those reasons, I am delighted that opposition parties and many civil society groups recognise the importance of this work.

I hope that parties in the chamber, in addition to showing their support by participating in the commission, will also show their support by voting in support of the motion in my name later this afternoon.

I move,

That the Parliament supports the establishment of an independent cross-party commission to examine alternatives to the council tax; welcomes this being undertaken jointly by the Scottish Government and local government; endorses the remit as set out in the response to question S4W-24542, and looks forward to its report in autumn 2015.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

Council tax was a reserved benefit. It was abolished. The funding was devolved with a 10 per cent cut, and we have had to step in and plug that gap.

In England, some councils chose to absorb the 10 per cent cut in funding within their budgets, but some now require people who are not in work, including disabled people and carers, to pay 30 per cent of their council tax liability. That is the wrong approach. Instead, this Government has implemented policies to protect people from the fundamental flaws of the present council tax system.



Meeting of the Parliament 26 February 2015 : Thursday, February 26, 2015
Marco Biagi

It is “linked”, but I said that it

“does not in a substantive sense adhere”

to the fourth principle. There is a linkage, but it could be greater.

The 1992 act hardwired in a lack of progressivity. Band H properties have greater liability than band D properties, but their value is at least four times that of band D properties while their liability is just twice that of band D properties. Therefore, it is clear that there is a limit to how close the link is. The values are based on the situation in 1991 and no account has been taken of subsequent changes in relative prices, so areas that have not benefited from house price increases have not seen their council tax bills become lower than those that had a bit of a boom.

The council tax valuation bands mean that there is no differentiation among properties that are in the same band. As with the late and unlamented stamp duty, there is a slabbing effect that penalises properties whose value brings them just into a higher band and no more by charging them the same as properties that are near the top of the band.

Even looking at the banding should raise concern. Some 74 per cent—almost three quarters—of properties are in bands A, B, C and D, and only one in 200 is in band H. It is all based on the assumption—which has been the subject of many debates in Parliament over many years—that the best way of assessing an individual’s ability to pay is by looking at the value of their home.

Since 2008, we have been addressing the worst failings of that flawed system by delivering funding to local government that has enabled all councils to freeze the council tax. With the continuing agreement of all councils in Scotland, that freeze is about to run for the eighth consecutive year. The cumulative saving over the 2008-09 to 2014-15 period for band D households amounts to more than £900 per household. We estimate that that will rise to about £1,200 by 2015-16.

Before the introduction of the freeze, the average council tax per dwelling increased by more than 50 per cent between 1997-98 and 2007-08. That was not just far beyond inflation; it was financially crippling for certain types of household—for example, pensioner households—that were dependent on a modest fixed income, but still earned a little too much to qualify for council tax benefit. For many, there was real fear in awaiting the annual council tax letter dropping through the letterbox onto the doormat. Now, that at least is no longer the case.

In addition, with our local government partners, we stepped in when the United Kingdom Government abolished council tax benefit to ensure that vital reliefs could continue. The council tax reduction scheme, which Gavin Brown kindly introduced to the debate, affords people targeted relief from council tax liability. At its peak, it applied to more than 550,000 people in Scotland. That corresponded to £360 million of support in that year and covered 22 per cent of all households.

We have to contrast that with the approach that is taken in England, where localisation of council tax relief has meant that more than 300 different schemes are being operated, some of which mean that the UK Government’s budget cuts are falling on those who are least able to pay—even more so than the council tax unamended.

Vote DetailMSP VoteResult

S4M-12423.1 Alex Rowley: Commission on Local Tax Reform—As an amendment to motion S4M-12423 in the n
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YesCarried

S4M-12423 Marco Biagi: Commission on Local Tax Reform—That the Parliament supports the establishment
>> Show more
YesCarried

S4M-12385 Liz Smith: STEM Education in Scottish Schools—That the Parliament agrees that a solid grou
>> Show more
YesCarried

S4M-12395.1 Fergus Ewing: An Energy Strategy for Scotland—As an amendment to motion S4M-12395 in the
>> Show more
YesCarried

S4M-12395.2 Patrick Harvie: An Energy Strategy for Scotland—As an amendment to motion S4M-12395 in t
>> Show more
NoDefeated

S4M-12395 Murdo Fraser: An Energy Strategy for Scotland—That the Parliament notes with concern the l
>> Show more
YesCarried

S4M-12385.3 Alasdair Allan: STEM Education in Scottish Schools—As an amendment to motion S4M-12385 i
>> Show more
YesCarried

S4M-12382.3 Mary Fee: Building Scotland’s Infrastructure for the Future—As an amendment to motion S4
>> Show more
NoDefeated

S4M-12382.1 Gavin Brown: Building Scotland’s Infrastructure for the Future—As an amendment to motion
>> Show more
NoDefeated

S4M-12382.2 Willie Rennie: Building Scotland’s Infrastructure for the Future—As an amendment to moti
>> Show more
NoDefeated

Search for other Motions lodged by Marco Biagi
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Motion S4M-12423: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 24/02/2015 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-12220: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 02/02/2015 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11597: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 18/11/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11537: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 12/11/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11342: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 29/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11341: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 29/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11324: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 28/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11237: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 17/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11218: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 15/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11194: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 13/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
This Member currently holds a ministerial post. First Minister and Ministers cannot ask the Government questions which is why no recent questions are displaying here. Please use the full search to find details of previous questions by this Member.
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Question S4O-03642: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 27/10/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03574: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 29/09/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03499: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 11/08/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03457: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 04/08/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-22195: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 23/07/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-21920: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 25/06/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03337: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 02/06/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4F-02142: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 31/05/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03268: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 19/05/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03242: Marco Biagi, Edinburgh Central, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 12/05/2014 Show Full Question >>

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