A Holyrood committee has called on the Scottish Law Commission to review its consultation process, as the Prescription (Scotland) Bill is supported by members in the stage 1 report.
MSPs on the Delegated Powers & Law Reform Committee comment that their stage 1 scrutiny process "had reached a different audience to that of the SLC and Scottish Government consultations, particularly in relation to the welfare rights sector", and recommend that the Commission "review its consultation processes with a view to giving policy considerations a greater level of attention when deliberating on law reforms".
The issue arises from the proposed exception in the bill, drafted by the Commission, for council tax and non-domestic rates, which would mean that they can be collected for up to 20 years from when payment falls due compared with five years for most debts. Similar exceptions apply to other tax payments due, and recovery of social security overpayments, as well as child maintenance payments. However the council tax and rates exception was not in the Commission's draft bill at consultation stage, and the committee intends to write to the Commission seeking an explanation for its decision to include it in the final version.
The council tax and rates exception was supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and other witnesses noted that the bill would provide a more coherent scheme in relation to debts due to public authorities. However the Law Society of Scotland, supported by Govan Law Centre, suggested that the exception was "unfair", since non-payment attracted a high penalty charge, and situations could arise where people mistakenly believed they had paid what was due. Citizens Advice Scotland claimed that debts sometimes built up over 10-12 years with no previous action apparently being taken to enforce them.
In the result the committee was unable to agree whether the exception was appropriate, and called on ministers to provide "further rationale for excepting council tax and business rates from the five year rule in advance of stage 2". It will also seek information from local authorities of the level of debt outstanding after more than five years.
As regards social security overpayments the MSPs also note that evidence has thrown up issues "that had not been in the foreground during the previous consultation periods", and "did not reach agreement as to the different prescriptive periods that would apply to devolved and reserved benefits".
Overall the committee recommends to the Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed to, while calling on the Scottish Government to give further consideration to a number of issues ahead of stage 2. These include how the revised "discoverability" test for when time starts to run would apply in situations of joint and several liability, and to consider "what alternative courses of action there are to remedy conveyancing cases that are harshly affected by prescription", in light of the new start date for the 20 year prescription.