The Prescription (Scotland) Bill passed its final stage in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, after a stage 3 debate that saw ministers successfully resist amendments to reduce the time within which council tax arrears and overpaid DWP benefits can be recovered.
The bill, which follows recommendations of the Scottish Law Commission, is principally intended to clarify the period from which time starts to run where a person seeking damages is not fully aware of the circumstances of their loss or who caused it. However consumer and debt advice agencies have been attempting to have it amended so that council tax and benefit related debts are brought into line with most other money obligations.
Devolved Scottish welfare benefits are subject to a five year rule, but a 20 year period applies to UK benefits and to council tax debts.
For Labour, Neil Findlay and Mark Griffin argued that there should be an obligation to collect debts within a reasonable timescale, and there were numerous cases of people are being pursued for debts "that they have never been notified about and where the historical records from councils and the DWP produce very little to back up the case. That causes stress, anxiety and family pressure", Mr Findlay said. Any payment or other acknowledgment by the debtor restarted the five year period.
Local authorities opposed the amendments; Community Safety Minister Ash Denham said the bill was about the difficulties that negative prescription had had in practice, and "It is not an appropriate place to make substantial policy changes in specific areas, and it is not a shortcut for Neil Findlay to make far-reaching and unrecognised changes to the recovery of council tax."
Only Labour, sometimes with Green support, backed the amendments, and after they were lost the bill was passed with no members voting against.