A MAJOR row has broken out over plans to prevent councils from trying to collect hundreds of millions of pounds of unpaid poll tax.

In a surprise announcement, First Minister Alex Salmond said the Scottish Government would legislate to ban local authorities from pursuing people for the debts dating back more than 20 years.

He said the tax, introduced in 1989 and officially named the community charge, was a hated levy and should be "consigned to the dustbin of history".

Local councils, however, which are struggling to maintain services in the face of deep spending cuts, expressed shock at the move.

David O'Neill, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), described it as "one of the oddest decisions ever to have come out of the Scottish Government" and said it overturned a strict duty on councils to collect all outstanding debts.

Conservative MSP Alex Johnston said the plan was a "tax dodgers' charter" aimed at winning votes.

Mr Salmond's announcement yesterday follows calls for the details of voters who recently added their names to the electoral roll before the independence referendum to be used to pursue poll tax and council tax arrears.

The First Minister made clear it was quite proper for councils to use new information on the electoral register to recoup outstanding council tax debts.

But he said: "The poll tax was a hated levy, which poured untold misery on communities across Scotland. It was a hugely discredited tax, even before it was brought in - and it was rightly consigned to history just four years after its introduction in Scotland.

"It is not appropriate for councils to use current electoral records to chase arrears from decades ago. After 25 years it is high time the poll tax is finally consigned to the dustbin of history."

The poll tax, brought in by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, replaced rates in 1989 but was scrapped in 1993 after widespread protests. Some poll tax arrears have effectively been written off under laws that extinguish unacknowledged debts after 20 years. In addition, a number of councils have taken a decision to write off all their poll tax debts.

However, a total of £425 million is still outstanding, according to Cosla, including more than £100m owed to Glasgow, Scotland's largest local authority.

Most councils are continuing to recover poll tax debts, albeit in relatively small amounts. Collection has fallen from £1.3m across Scotland in 2010 to £396,000 last year. Glasgow collects about £5,000 per year.

The Scottish Government will bring forward a law banning future collection as part of its legislative programme, due to be unveiled after Mr Salmond steps down as First Minister next month.

Yesterday he said councils would not be compensated for the full amount they are owed but the "near negligible" amounts they recover each year.

Mr O'Neill, a Labour councillor in North Ayrshire, said councils had until now been under pressure to maximise collection rates for all unpaid debts.

He said: "It seems very odd that now we have an improved tool at our disposal in the form of an expanded electoral register that may help us maximise collection rates, it is the self-same Government that tells us they are going to legislate immediately to prevent us from using it."

He added: "Cosla is very sensitive to the requirement to increase political engagement and electoral registration, but everybody recognises that becoming involved in the political process demands responsibility as well as rights."

MSP Alex Johnstone, welfare reform spokesman for the Tories, said: "This is a move geared towards winning a few extra votes, and is nothing but a tax dodgers' charter."

Glasgow Council treasurer Paul Rooney said: "As the First Minister knows, we are already years beyond the point at which tracing poll tax arrears ceased to be cost effective and new electoral data would not have made the slightest bit of difference to that fact."

This week Willie Sullivan, of the Electoral Reform Society, said using the electoral roll to pursue people for council tax arrears would harm democracy.