The poll tax has cast a long shadow: in the past year about 1,100 people have been sentenced to jail, most of them in their absence, for non-payment of the tax. Meanwhile pounds 1.75bn remains unpaid, and it is costing town halls more to collect the tax than to collect refuse. The Audit Commission says councils cannot afford to write off this sort of debt, and says: 'They must use every available means to recover the money.'
However, many lawyers believe that hundreds of people have been unlawfully imprisoned for their failure to pay. Under civil law, magistrates cannot send non-payers to prison as a punishment, yet many have done so.
Ms Cooper, for instance, was given a payment schedule of pounds 5 a week when she was pounds 400 in arrears. When she fell 10 weeks behind in that timetable she received a court summons. She borrowed the money from her parents and brought herself up to date in her payments. She was keen to attend the hearing to ask the court to take future payments directly out of her income support, but the magistrates refused and imposed a 67-day jail sentence to start immediately.
That night Ms Cooper found herself in a police cell and the next at Risley Prison in Warrington. Then she was transferred to Drake Hall prison at Eccleshall in Staffordshire. 'I was really frightened,' she says. 'Many of the other women were in for really serious crimes, and there was a lot of bullying going on. I thought, I'll have to keep myself to myself, but it wasn't that easy.'
A probation officer at the prison contacted Richard Wise, a Birmingham solicitor who has made something of a specialism of getting poll tax defaulters out of jail. He took Ms Cooper's case to a High Court judge in chambers. The judge decided that there was some doubt over her lawful imprisonment and ordered her release. Since then the sentence has been ruled unlawful.
Mr Wise said: 'The legislation on poll tax is quite clear. Defaulters can only be sent to jail as a last resort and then only if there is no other way of recovering the money. Prison may not be used to punish, only to coerce.'
Mr Wise works with his brother Ian, a barrister, on poll tax cases, and, of 80 cases dealt with in this way, all but three prison sentences imposed by magistrates have been judged unlawful. The Wises have got a total of 180 people out of jail, and many more cases are waiting to go before the High Court.
Richard Wise estimates that 95 per cent of the jail convictions this year will be found to be unlawful.
He said: 'Ordinary people are being locked up with hardened criminals as a punishment, and it's serving absolutely no purpose. It's a national scandal.'
Among other 'ordinary people' who have been sent to jail are:
David Macgregor of Medway in Kent, who suffers from agoraphobia and often sought refuge from his condition by sitting in a wardrobe. He sent a doctor's note to court to explain why he could not attend a hearing. Despite the note he was given a 14-day sentence. The sentence was later ruled unlawful by the High Court.
Mervyn Bold, who was arrested a fortnight after leaving a psychiatric hospital and given 90 days in jail for his failure to pay poll tax to Congleton council. The chairman of the Bench later said that the 90-day maximum sentence had been 'a slip of the tongue'. He had meant to impose a 14-day sentence but had said 90 days by mistake, and the magistrate sitting with him had not noticed either. As a prisoner sentenced for a civil offence, Mr Bold should not have been made to do any work. However, he was given the worst job in the jail, picking up faeces thrown out of cell windows by other prisoners. He served 14 days before the High Court ruled his sentence unlawful and ordered his release.
John Mullen, who was pursued by Liverpool City Council for unpaid tax after his name came up on some old tenancy records. Mr Mullen had left to live in Knowsley before the poll tax was introduced, and was fully paid up with Knowsley council. This explanation failed to satisfy the magistrates. They found him guilty of wilful refusal to pay, and jailed him for 28 days. He served 10 of them.
The cost of keeping such people in jail was far greater than the poll tax they owed - and in every case the council will not now get the money anyway. Ms Cooper, Mr Bold and Mr Macgregor are taking the Government to the European Court of Justice and suing for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. It is not possible to get such compensation through the British legal system.
The chairman of the Magistrates' Association, Rosemary Thomson, believes that magistrates have not been kept fully informed. 'Councils should have exhausted all available means of recovering money before they bring a case to court. We have felt that it exempts us from going through the whole process again. But it seems messages from the High Court haven't been getting through to magistrates. That is very regrettable.'
Despite the High Court rulings, councils are still adopting tough policies to recover unpaid poll tax, in which the threat of prison is clearly stated. In the West Midlands, Dudley council has recently said that it has made more than 1,000 applications for non-payers to be sent to jail over the past 12 months.
The neighbouring Sandwell council has also persuaded magistrates to send defaulters to prison. Its finance committee chairman, Adrian Bailey, says that 'given all the opportunities they've had to pay, neither I nor the public has much sympathy with them'.
Many councils are taking action because they believe they owe it to those who have paid to pursue those who have not. But it is doubtful that even the most conscientious payers of the poll tax would be as zealous as Sandwell. One of those sent to jail this year for failing to pay the council was Lyn Jeavons. On her arrival, the prison doctor declared that Ms Jeavons 'was not mentally fit to be detained'. Her MP, the Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd, intervened and next day she was released.
Robert Pigott is local government correspondent for the BBC in the Midlands
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content