On March 30th in the middle of the Scottish election campaign, Scottish Labour made a shock announcement. A much touted £100 rebate, for low earners caught in the party’s 1p income tax rise net, was now scrapped.
The U-turn came out of the blue. Kezia Dugdale had initially proposed the idea two months earlier. It had garnered her party a raft of positive headlines from a Unionist media keen to punt Scottish Labour as reborn and a genuine left-leaning alternative to the SNP. Now, smack bang in the middle of an election campaign, the pledge was binned.
It was a disaster for Scottish Labour. Newspapers and broadcasters were as one in their presentation of income tax as the dominant electoral issue. New powers were coming to Holyrood and tax had taken centre stage. Labour looked to be in disarray.
The U-turn was covered on that evening’s edition of Reporting Scotland. You can see the clip below.
If you watched the clip you’ll have noticed something peculiar. BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell makes no mention of the tax rebate U-turn.
He starts off by informing viewers that Scottish Labour intended to protect people on low incomes. This is accurate. However as he progresses he makes no attempt to explain the mechanism by which this goal was to be achieved in the first year, which of course was the now ditched £100 rebate.
Glenn Campbell had structured his answers to Jackie Bird in a manner that ensured minimal damage to Scottish Labour. Bird herself had managed to distil Labour’s U-turn by claiming the party had merely appeared to change its tax policy.
Believe it or not, you cannot complain to the BBC if a reporter fails to report fully. There’s nothing licence fee payers can do when reporters simply omit pertinent facts from a news report. You can though complain when a reporter misleads the public.
Listen to Glenn Campbell on GMS on March 31st, the day after his Reporting Scotland appearance.
Glenn Campbell made a very specific and unambiguous claim. He told listeners that it was “not a surprise” Labour had scrapped its plan to offer a £100 rebate to people earning under £20,000 in tax year 2016/17. The BBC Scotland reporter claimed this was “because they [Labour] always made clear that was a proposal for this financial year if they’d been able to persuade the Scottish government to adopt their idea.”
This was entirely false. Scottish Labour had indeed sought to persuade the Scottish government to adopt the idea when the budget had been set. Kezia Dugdale’s bid failed.
However Scottish Labour was still planning to implement the proposal if it won May’s election. We know that because on March 18th, thirteen days before the Campbell interview on GMS, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale confirmed her intention to hold an emergency budget to implement the policy should Scottish Labour win the Scottish election. That confirmation had come in an interview on Good Morning Scotland.
Kezia Dugdale ’emergency budget’ interview.
Moreover, the Scottish Labour leader had underlined her intention to introduce the rebate in a BBC TV debate hosted by Glenn Campbell just days earlier.
Clips from the TV debate were played during Glenn Campbell’s March 31st radio broadcast, but Ms Dugdale’s rebate comments were edited out, thus denying listeners the opportunity to hear her confirm the rebate plan.
Glenn Campbell knew fine well Scottish Labour’s £100 tax rebate was not conditional on persuading the Scottish government to adopt it. He had misled listeners on the issue.
The observations above formed the basis for a complaint which was submitted to the BBC. Below is the response from the Deputy Head of News & Current Affairs. The response is reproduced in full along with my observations [shown in blue].
Our political correspondent Glenn Campbell spoke to GMS presenter Gary Robertson about a news story which said that Scottish Labour had confirmed it would no longer offer a £100 payment to workers earning less than £20,000 pounds as part of its income tax proposals: the party argued that changes to the personal allowance for income tax meant the rebate was no longer necessary.
Glenn Campbell reported that Labour had always made clear that the rebate proposal to counteract the effect on lower paid people of raising all tax rates was for that financial year only. You say that was “entirely false”.
This response in fact contains a deliberate misrepresentation of the complaint. The Deputy Head of News & Current Affairs has removed key parts from the complaint in order to give a false impression of what was being challenged.
Below in bold is exactly what the complainant wrote:
‘In a discussion on Scottish Labour’s sudden change to its income tax policy, reporter Glenn Campbell told listeners that it was “not a surprise” Labour had scrapped its plan to offer a £100 rebate to people earning under £20,000 in tax year 2016/17.
The BBC Scotland reporter claimed this was “because they [Labour] always made clear that was a proposal for this financial year if they’d been able to persuade the Scottish government to adopt their idea.”
This was entirely false. Scottish Labour had indeed sought to persuade the Scottish government to adopt the idea when the budget had been set, and had failed. However Scottish Labour was *still* planning to implement the proposal if it wins May’s election.’
The complainant wasn’t challenging Labour claims that George Osborne’s changes to the personal allowance had negated the need for a tax rebate. The complainant was challenging Glenn Campbell’s claim that Labour’s tax rebate U-turn was “not a surprise” because it had always been conditional on the Scottish government adopting it.
You explain that by saying that on GMS on 18th March the Scottish Labour leader “confirmed her intention to hold an emergency budget to implement the policy should she win”.
That is far from clear: she certainly confirmed there would be an emergency budget but she did not specify that the £100 rebate would be in it.
Dugdale was unambiguous in the interview, listen to it again:
The Scottish Labour leader very clearly signalled her intention to hold an emergency debate in order to implement her tax proposals. The interviewer, Gary Robertson, very specifically questioned her in the context of the £100 tax rebate. Dugdale even went as far as confirming the rebate could be implemented for £1 million.
To claim that Kezia Dugdale did not specify that the £100 rebate would be in the emergency budget is stretching credulity to bizarre lengths. It is also an insult to the interviewing abilities of Gary Robertson who himself very clearly inferred that the rebate would indeed be part of such an emergency budget.
Earlier in the same interview she said: “Well, of course, the rebate element of that proposal was linked to this year’s budget in the Scottish Parliament [I take this to mean this year’s budgetary proposals for the next financial year]. We were saying that when the 2017 powers come in, there are more finessed, more nuanced, more elegant ways of ensuring that those on the lowest incomes will not pay any more tax.”
Gary Robertson then said: “So you will not be offering the rebate?” – to which Ms Dugdale responded: “Gary, you will not need the rebate because the Scottish Parliament powers will mean we can use a penny rate, a new income threshold to deliver that same protection for those earning less than £20,000 a year. What was important was that we came up with a mechanism to say ‘I cannot wait till 2017 to stop cuts, we have to stop the cuts now.’ (…)”
When Dugdale talked of “this year’s budget in the Scottish Parliament” she was referring to the budget that was set by John Swinney in February 28th this year. That covered the period April 2016 to April 2017. The personal allowance powers will not be in place for this period. They will only come into force for the 2017/18 tax year.
Dugdale did indeed say that the tax rebate would not be required from 2017 when the new personal allowance powers come into force. However this made no difference to the tax rebate proposal which was for the year beginning April 2016.
Dugdale immediately confirmed there would be an emergency budget because of the need to “stop the cuts now”. That emergency budget, as was clear from her responses to Gary Robertson, would have included the tax rebate proposal.
However, she then entered into a debate with Gary about the cost of rebating £100 to certain taxpayers, with him pressing her on SNP figures which suggested it would be many times more costly than she was saying.
She did indeed and Gary Robertson did indeed press her on the costs. This though is not relevant to the complaint.
In the TV debate chaired by Glenn Campbell on Thursday 24th March, Kezia Dugdale said that in the budget just past Labour had advocated a rebate mechanism. Glenn said that was only till 2017 and he pressed her no fewer than five times to answer his question about how those on less than £20,000 a year would not have to pay more tax under Labour. Ms Dugdale said they would use the new threshold rates. Five days later, she was telling Nicola Sturgeon in the STV debate that changes in personal allowances by the UK Chancellor meant she could guarantee that no-one on under £20,000 p.a. would pay more tax than they do now.
Glenn Campbell – and I agree with his judgement – considered that that was the important part of the story when he spoke to Gary Robertson two days later, namely that in the course of five days, in the middle of a closely-fought campaign, a major party appeared to be signalling a change in tax policy. That is why he did not use the part of the BBC debate clip that you would have liked him to use.
It’s difficult to work out how the segment from the BBC TV debate that was cut from Glenn Campbell’s interview with Gary Robertson is not relevant. It is reproduced below.
The exchange clearly demonstrated that Dugdale still intended to introduce a 1p tax rise in 2016/17 together with a £100 tax rebate for those earning less than £20,000. This of course would only have been possible by means of an emergency budget.
Dugdale confirmed she intended to scrap the rebate from 2017 onward and use the new personal allowance powers instead. Her plans for 2017 are not relevant to the complaint. In the STV debate five days later she may well have claimed the UK Chancellor’s personal allowance changes meant no-one on under £20,000 would pay more tax than they do now, but again, this has nothing to do with the complaint which, remember, is about Glenn Campbell insisting that Dugdale’s tax rebate U-turn was “not a surprise” and that it was always conditional on the Scottish government implementing it.
He also pointed out to Gary on 31st March on GMS that the words carefully chosen by Ms Dugdale about tax and those on lower pay did not reveal that in Scotland they would be paying more tax than those similarly waged and salaried elsewhere in the UK.
Glenn Campbell did indeed point this out and the clip played from his March 31st broadcast showed this was the case. However, this exchange specifically related to 2017 when the new personal allowance powers come into force. Previous to this exchange Dugdale had already confirmed her party’s plan to protect people on low earnings in year 2016/17 by using the rebate mechanism, but those comments did not appear in Campbell’s march 31st broadcast. Below, again, is the part of the televised debate that was edited out.
You state “Glenn Campbell knew fine well the rebate was not conditional on persuading the Scottish Government to adopt it”. There is no basis for that assertion, given what I have said above.
You twice accuse Glenn of misleading people. I reject that wholly unjustified assertion. Glenn Campbell is a highly valued and respected journalist who takes very great care to report stories fairly, thoroughly and accurately. Thank you again for your interest.”
Up until March 30th Scottish Labour’s policy was to introduce the £100 tax rebate. Kezia Dugdale on March 18th confirmed an emergency budget would be held and her tax proposals for 2016/17 would be implemented. These proposals included the tax rebate. Dugdale confirmed her intention to use the tax rebate in a BBC debate when asked how she would protect low earners.
The attempt by BBC Scotland to conflate Dugdale’s pledges for 2016/17 with her pledges for 2017/18 and beyond is indicative of a broadcaster that knows one of its reporters has erred. The radio broadcast came after the BBC Scotland reporter had failed to even mention the tax rebate U-turn on Reporting Scotland the previous evening. My feeling at the time was that the reporter was deliberately trying to play down Scottish Labour’s tax turmoil.
The complaint has now gone to the Editorial Complaints Unit where no doubt the BBC will obfuscate and twist as they have done here.
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