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Live Reporting

By Ailsa Brown and Craig Hutchison

All times stated are UK

Good night

That concludes our live coverage of the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 26 February 2015.

Remember you can watch all the video from the day's business at

BBC Scotland's Democracy Live.

Holyrood
BBC

We'll be back on Tuesday 3 March, until then have a good weekend.

Decision time

MSPs back the amended motion from the Scottish government debate on the commission on local tax reform, having backed Labour's amendment.

88 MSPs backed the amended motion with 13 MSPs voting no.

Commission remit

The commission will identify and examine alternatives to council tax, says Mr Biagi as he brings the debate to a close.

Replacements for council tax

The minister says the commission has quite an ambitious remit and a tight time scale, focusing on replacements for council tax.

VAT

Mr Biagi says in 2010 Labour and the SNP united against the rise in VAT as it was the wrong thing to do.

Local government funding

Local Government Minister Marco Biagi
BBC
Local Government Minister Marco Biagi

Mr Biagi says local government funding, from 2013 - 2015, has seen a 2.6% increase in cash terms.

Council tax freeze

Local Government Minister Marco Biagi says the commission is here to achieve greater clarity.

Mr Biagi says the council tax freeze has been both fair and funded, it helps those at the bottom twice as much as those at the top.

Labour close

Mr Rowley says the importance of having a proper system of local taxation is that it can address policies at local level.

He says the local government is the front line at tackling inequality and poverty day in and day out.

The Labour MSP says his party will bring forward a vision for local government in its 2016 manifesto.

'Well informed report'

Mr Rowley says it would be wrong at this stage for any party to say we're going to sign up for whatever the outcome of the commission is.

He says hopefully we'll get a well informed report coming forward in the Autumn.

'Disappointing'

Labour MSP Alex Rowley says between 2007 and 2011 there was an unofficial coalition between the SNP and Conservatives and had there been a political will they could have scrapped council tax.

Mr Rowley says local government is so important that the Labour party in Scotland is going to work as part of the commission to look at the options that are available and where consensus can be found.

Labour MSP Alex Rowley
BBC
Labour MSP Alex Rowley

The long term sustainable financial programme for local government is very important and that is why it is so disappointing the Conservatives have not signed up to the commission, says the Labour MSP.

Conservative close

Mr Brown say the Labour party want no recommendations, the Lib Dems want recommendations and the SNP want a menu of options.

He says he has outlined very clearly why the Conservatives will not join the commission.

No political will

Mr Brown says had there been the political will he has no doubt that the SNP could have scrapped council tax in 2007 and 2008.

'Quiet on the issue'

Conservative MSP Gavin Brown says the relationship between central and local government is key.

Mr Brown says we should all ask if we want local government or local administration in the run up to the 2016 Holyrood election.

Conservative MSP Gavin Brown
BBC
Conservative MSP Gavin Brown

He says there are strong arguments for devolving powers downwards from Holyrood to local government.

Mr Brown says the SNP speeches saying how awful the council tax is had been heard in 2007 and 2008 and then they went quiet on the issue.

BACKGROUND

Members have been appointed to the

Commission on Local Tax Reform to look at fairer systems of local taxation.

Eleven representatives of political parties and the finance, law and advice sectors will examine alternatives to the council tax to fund local government services.

The commission will be co-chaired by Local Government Minister Marco Biagi and President of COSLA Councillor David O'Neill.

Bin lorry
BBC

It met for the first time on Monday February 23 and it will report to the Scottish government and COSLA in the autumn.

David O'Neill said: "A great deal of work lies ahead, but this commission is a chance to take a step back and think about the best way to pay for the local services that communities rely on every day."

Lib Dems

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie says he has spent the last five years being accused of being right wing so it is refreshing to be called left wing and he thanks Gavin Brown.

Mr Rennie says this commission in not about deciding whether tax should be high or low - this is about coming up with a taxation system that will work for Scotland and local government.

The Lib Dem MSP says he thinks the commission should be aiming for a consensus but avoid binding itself.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie
BBC
Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie

He says it will try to shine a light on the issue and if it does not come up with an agreement will at least lead to a better understanding.

Mr Rennie says the Liberal Democrats are strong advocates for local income tax.

'Extremely pleased'

Local Government Committee convener Kevin Stewart says he is "extremely pleased" the government listened to the recommendation by his committee to set up an independent cross party commission.

Mr Stewart says "it is just a pity the Conservatives have chosen to take their ball home on this one".

SNP MSP Kevin Stewart
BBC
SNP MSP Kevin Stewart

He says the SNP government has ensured tax payers have not been hammered by freezing the council tax for 8 years.

The SNP MSP says he is pleased at the remit and membership of this commission,

'Hammer tax payers'

Mr Brown says he genuinely does not see any prospect of the Conservatives agreeing with the SNP or the Greens on what local taxation might look like, adding that Labour don't know what they want to do yet.

"We are pretty clear all of those parties would want to hammer tax payers in a way we would not."

Tory commission

Mr Brown says he is genuinely confused as to what the purpose of the commission is.

He says the Conservatives chose not to sit on the commission because the party is to set up its own commission looking at finance more widely.

Conservative view

Conservative MSP Gavin Brown says he is surprised by the first two speakers about what the commission is going to do.

Mr Brown says he staggered to learn the commission will get all of these people together over a year and at the end of all of that, to quote the minister, 'we are just going to produce a menu'.

Conservative MSP Gavin Brown
BBC
Conservative MSP Gavin Brown

Then Mr Rowley says the commission will not produce a recommendation at the end of its musings.

Mr Brown says: "It sounds just like a talking shop."

What is the point of getting all these people together if we are not going to get recommendations out of it, he says.

Discussion

Mr Rowley says there is no doubt about it that the council tax freeze has been popular, but there has to be a discussion with communities and people across Scotland about public services and how to fund them.

Importance of local government

Labour MSP Alex Rowley says with local government funding expected to exceed £11.5bn across the 32 local authorities, the importance of local government is self evident.

Mr Rowley says there is an area of unanimous agreement that the current system of finance needs to be reformed.

Labour

Labour MSP Alex Rowley gets to his feet to speak to his amendment.

Labour MSP Alex Rowley
BBC
Labour MSP Alex Rowley

Mr Rowley highlights the role of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee in the creation of the commission.

He says he is disappointed that the Conservative group will not participate in the commission.

'Profound importance'

The minister says: "Council Tax, fundamentally, is of profound importance to so much of our lives in Scotland."

Another council tax bill
PA

The local government minister says its replacement has to deliver financial accountability to local government.

Mr Biagi says he hopes 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 later this afternoon.

Co-chair

The minister says he accepts Alex Rowley's amendment, which gives due recognition to the work of the Local Government Committee.

He says he and Councillor David O'Neill, President of COSLA will co-chair the commission.

'Independent commission'

Mr Biagi says the present system is not fit for 2015.

He says the first minister set out in her government programme that an independent commission, to examine fairer alternatives to the current system of council tax, would be created.

Local Government Minister Marco Biagi
BBC
Local Government Minister Marco Biagi

Made up of local authorities and with all political parties invited to be involved, it met for the first time on Monday, says the minister.

BACKGROUND

Last November First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

announced a commission to look at alternatives to the council tax.

Replacing the council tax has long been an SNP ambition but it has proved easier said than done.

Council tax bill
BBC

In 2007, the party advocated replacing it with a "local income tax". In practice, this would have used Holyrood's power to raise income tax by 3p to help replace the money raised by council tax.

The parliament backed the idea of a local income tax but it proved impossible for the minority SNP administration to win enough support for its actual proposal.

'Not progressive'

The minister says the council tax is inherently not progressive and adds that the lack of progressivity is hard wired into the 1992 Act.

He says Band H properties, having a value of at least 4 times that of a Band D property, have a Council Tax liability of only twice that of Band D.

Council tax montage
BBC

As those values are based on the situation in 1991, it takes no account of subsequent changes in relative price, says Mr Biagi.

Ability to pay

The present council tax, as set out in the 1992 Local Government Finance Act, does not adhere to being proportionate to the taxpayer's ability to pay, says Mr Biagi.

Tax

Mr Biagi says in looking at tax, the Scottish government bases its approach on four principles:

  • efficiency
  • convenience
  • certainty
  • being proportionate to the taxpayer's ability to pay

Commission on local tax reform debate

Local Government and Community Empowerment Minister Marco Biagi is leading a debate on a commission on local tax reform.

Mr Biagi says he supports the establishment of an independent cross-party commission to examine alternatives to the council tax.

Expert Review Group on NPS

The

expert review group report features six key recommendations:

•Recommending that licensing authorities should attach conditions and restrictions in relation to the sale of NPS when issuing public entertainment or similar licenses. This could be extended to include drug paraphernalia.

•Producing a tool-kit and operational guidance to help frontline trading standards staff in tackling NPS.

•Establishing a national centre of excellence in forensic analysis to lead in the detection and identification of NPS in Scotland.

•Developing a specific definition of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) that can be adopted across all areas in Scotland.

•Asking the Scottish Government to consider adapting the key elements of the Irish approach, working in partnership with the Home Office, in its creation of new legislation and ensuring that any new legislation delivers maximum effectiveness in Scotland.

•Developing a formal protocol between relevant agencies, setting out roles, responsibilities and information-sharing protocols.

Funding

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes says given the importance of tackling the menace of NPS what additional funds would be available to forensic services.

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes
BBC
Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes

Mr Wheelhouse says public services are under pressure due to funding constraints, however he will work with Police Scotland to see what is possible within existing resources.

Conservative question

Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell asks about how many people who supply NPS have been convicted.

She says there does not appear to be an overarching leader of the expert group.

Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell
BBC
Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell

Mr Wheelhouse says there are a number of different strands to the efforts to tackle NPS but says he can assure Ms Mitchell they are co-ordinated and complimentary.

Collaboration

Mr Wheelhouse says 81 new substances emerged nlast year which shows how difficult it is for the authorities.

He says the government is looking closely at what is being done in Wales and are engaging with colleagues in that country.

"We want to work collaboratively with the Home Office and UK government."

Labour questions

Labour MSP Elaine Murray says Scottish Labour will be happy to take part in the Ministerial Cross Party Group.

Labour MSP Elaine Murray
BBC
Labour MSP Elaine Murray

Ms Murray draws the attention of the minister to the approach taken in Wales and asks if powers over NPS should be devolved.

NPS Ministerial Cross Party Group

The community safety minister also announces an invitation to MSPs from across the parties to join him in a Ministerial Cross Party Group on NPS.

Research

Mr Wheelhouse says the Scottish government will shortly be commissioning specific research to enable us to better understand the prevalence and harms of NPS use within specific vulnerable subgroups of the population.

Data collection

The group will also be reviewing existing systems of data collection and information sharing to improve our knowledge on the extent of NPS use and associated harms, says Mr Wheelhouse.

NPS definition

The community safety minister says the NPS evidence group will be working to develop a definition of NPS that can be used consistently across different sectors.

This will assist the courts, forensic experts and those supporting people using NPS, he says.

Legal highs

Mr Wheelhouse says the the biggest difficulty, and perhaps frustration, is that the existing legislative framework enables these substances to remain legal, where not knowingly sold for human consumption.

Legal highs are often sold as bath salts and plant food to avoid drug laws in the UK
StreetDrugs.Org
Legal highs are often sold as bath salts and plant food to avoid drug laws in the UK

They therefore do not come under the traditional radar of the Misuse of Drugs Act, on which we have relied to control drugs.