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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Motion made and Question proposed,

That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Richmond, Yorks in the room of the right hon. Sir Leon Brittan, Knight, QC, who, since his election for the said county constituency hath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty's Manor of Northstead in the county of York.-- [Mr. Waddington.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : I beg to give notice that at the proper time I hope to oppose the writ for the Richmond constituency.

Mr. Speaker : Objection taken. The proceedings will stand postponed until the commencement of public business.

Motion made and Question proposed,

That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Pontypridd constituency in the room of Brynmor John Esquire, deceased.-- [Mr. Foster.]

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : Object.

Mr. Speaker : Objection taken. That business will also stand postponed until the commencement of public business.


British Film Institute Southbank Bill

Bromley London Borough Council--

(Crystal Palace) Bill--

City of London (Various Powers) Bill--

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time tomorrow.

Midland Metro Bill

Read a Second time, and committed.

Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill--

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time tomorrow.

Wesleyan Assurance Society Bill

Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Rating Reform

1. Mr. Allen Adams : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans to meet the depute community charge registration officer in Paisley to discuss progress in compiling a comprehensive register.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Adams : Given that the community charge registration officer in Paisley has designated me as the responsible person in my house, and has said in a letter that my wife is not a responsible person, why is it important that my wife should divulge her age on the registration form? If she refuses to tell me her age, can the Secretary of State advise me how to extort that information from her?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the requirement for dates of birth was introduced following representations from local authority practitioners that it would be necessary. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may have some difficulty in establishing his wife's precise date of birth, but as I understand that he has already given that information to the press he should have no difficulty in giving it to the responsible officer.

Mr. Douglas : What advice has the Secretary of State given to registration officers in the Highland region who have registered numerous people, particularly females, as having a date of birth of 1 January 1800?

Mr. Rifkind : I am not familiar with the reasons which might have led to that date being inserted, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we received representations on the desirability of giving the date of birth because there could be circumstances in which more than one person with the same name resided in a house. The recommendation was made to enable a distinction to be drawn between such individuals.

Mr. Buchan : When will the Secretary of State begin to realise the unpopularity of this legislation in Scotland? Today a petition containing the signatures of many hundreds of thousands of people was presented to the Prime Minister at No. 10. Is the Secretary of State aware that one person, Terry O'Donnell who is here today, single-handedly on Paisley piazza collected no fewer than 48,000 signatures against the tax? When individuals do such things, and when the mass do such things, the Secretary of State must surely have some sense and shift his attitude.

Mr. Rifkind : The allegations made by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends about the community charge have turned out to be of little substance. For instance, the Opposition told us that registration would be a complete fiasco, and Labour and the nationalists campaigned against it, but registration is complete to the extent of more than 99 per cent. throughout Scotland.

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Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for certain individuals to cheat on society by using the services provided by local government and seeking to avoid paying for them? Does he agree that right hon. and hon. Members should take a lead in adhering to the law, rather than making promises to break the law?

Mr. Rifkind : Those who were not liable to pay rates under the old rating system cannot be accused of cheating on society because no one volunteers to pay a tax that Parliament does not require them to pay, but certainly those who are liable under the new legislation and for various political reasons threaten to avoid payment will be sponging on the rest of society--if they get away with it.

2. Mr. McAllion : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has taken steps to ensure that the community charge register for Scotland is compiled without reference to the electoral register.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : No, Sir. The electoral register is a public document, and section 17(2) of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 makes it clear that community charges registration officers--who are, of course, also the electoral registration officers--can have access to and the use of any information that is held for electoral registration purposes in their areas.

Mr. McAllion : Throughout Scotland, tens of thousands of registration forms have been returned bearing the imprint, "Not known at this address". Will the Minister confirm that registration officers will use electoral registers as one means of trying to locate missing persons liable to pay the poll tax? Does he understand that the poll tax, by taxing the vote, far from strengthening accountability within the democratic process, is driving out of the democratic process those who are poor and cannot afford to pay the poll tax?

Mr. Lang : As I have said, the electoral register is one source of information available to registration officers. It is significant that despite the Opposition's campaign to frustrate compilation of the register an average 99 per cent. completion has been achieved, so the "Stop It" campaign did not stop it. Only by spreading the tax burden evenly over the whole adult population will it be fairly borne by that population.

Mr. Worthington : Even at this late stage, will the Government show some common humanity and exclude from the register all those people suffering from degenerative diseases? All normal, decent people are offended that those suffering from Alzheimer's disease, for example, have to be included in the register. Will the Minister agree, even at this late stage, that that is offensive?

Mr. Lang : There are a number of exemptions from community charge liability, and there will be an opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman's point when the appropriate question is reached.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that in view of his statement that 99 per cent. of the electorate has registered, the problem is surely that local authorities have increased expenditure by far more than inflation, despite the fact that they have received greatly increased grants, so their community charges are much higher than they needed to be?

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Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is right, and it is undoubtedly the case that, perhaps under cover of the turbulence produced by the changeover to the new system, certain local authorities have sought to increase their spending substantially and blame the system for it. In due course, accountability will bring home to them the importance of taking account of the ability of all adults resident in their areas to pay the community charge.

Mr. Dewar : Is not the fact that the electoral register is at the heart of the registration process, illustrated by the fact that the Strathclyde registration officer issued forms already completed with names taken from the electoral register? Does the Minister think that that is desirable? Also, does he accept that a married couple living in a house of average rateable value will together have to pay substantially more under the poll tax if they live in Glasgow, Edinburgh or almost any other part of Scotland than they pay under the present system? Given the shift in the balance of taxation against areas already disadvantaged that is built into the poll tax, and the strength of feeling that exists in Scotland, is not the Government's thrawn determination to proceed with the tax a negation of democracy?

Mr. Lang : The main source of information for the electoral registration officer will continue to be the use of inquiry forms and the annual canvass. Clearly, the procedure adopted by the registration officer in Strathclyde has been successful in view of the very high percentage registered. As to the hon. Gentleman's example, if the burden on residents in that area is rising it is because the local authorities are increasing their expenditure. The local authorities will be answerable to the electorate at the next election.

Mr. Salmond : Will the Minister of State confirm that there are 39, 000 fewer people on the electoral register for this year than the Government forecast in 1985? Does he think that this is due to the disincentive effect of the poll tax, or is it because Tory economic policy is causing mass emigration from Scotland?

Mr. Lang : I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's figure, but we shall have to await the publication of the electoral register later this month. If there is misunderstanding as to the importance of the electoral register in the context of the community charge, it is probably because Opposition parties have described the charge as a poll tax, deliberately seeking to mislead residents in local authority areas.

Mr. Harris : Will my hon. Friend accept from me and from many other Conservative Members that the Government's stance on this issue has the overwhelming backing of all fair-minded people not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom? Does he understand the attitude of Opposition Members who seem to think that those who want the right to vote for local councils should escape their obligation to pay for the cost of those councils? My hon. Friend's attitude is right and the attitude of certain Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), is completely fraudulent.

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Mr. Lang : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's reassurance. I also understand the envy of some English colleagues because we in Scotland will be getting rid of the domestic rates a year before the English.

3. Dr. Moonie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what discussions he has had regarding the exemption of people with chronic degenerative brain disorders from payment of the poll tax.

Mr. Lang : My right hon. and learned Friend has received a number of representations from Members of Parliament, interested organisations and individuals about the liability for the community charge of people with degenerative brain disorders.

Dr. Moonie : As the stated aim of introducing a poll tax was to improve local accountability, how does the Minister propose that people with chronic degenerative disorders should exercise that accountability when they are incapable of voting? Should he not therefore consider exempting them from payment of the community charge?

Mr. Lang : We took careful medical advice. The balance of medical advice is that it is impossible to establish a method of assessment which would enable a precise and accurate moment to be discerned when an individual should be exempted from the community charge without creating more anomalies than it would remove. Anyone in that condition in a long- term care hospital will be exempt from the community charge.

Mrs. Ray Michie : Is it not an unfair burden on doctors to have to decide whether a person should pay the poll tax, and should not the registration officer also be medically qualified if, following receipt of a doctor's certificate, he has the right to determine whether or not to grant exemption?

Mr. Lang : The whole point of requiring medical advice is so that professional expertise may be available to the community charge registration officer. Doctors have to take difficult decisions on a wide range of matters affecting the health of patients. Our decision on this difficult and sensitive issue was based on clear medical advice.

Mr. Galbraith : Surely the issue is whether or not the patient is severely mentally impaired, not the way in which he comes to be so mentally impaired. Why should the 91,000 patients with Alzheimer's disease be discriminated against? They live for an average of 10 years after diagnosis. Why should they alone of the severely mentally impaired have to pay the poll tax?

Mr. Lang : The provisions in the Act exempt from liability those with severe mental impairment from birth or as a result of an accident. Degenerative diseases are often of a fluctuating nature.

Hon. Members : Rubbish!

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Lang : These are often of a fluctuating nature. There will be periods of lucidity. The best medical advice open to us has convinced us that there is no way of assessing the right moment at which exemption should apply without creating more anomalies that it would solve.

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4. Mr. Wood : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many jobs are associated with the forestry industry in (a) the United Kingdom as a whole and (b) Scotland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : At 31 March 1988 there were about 41,000 jobs associated directly with the forestry industry in the United Kingdom, of which 11,500 were in Scotland.

Mr. Wood : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that properly managed woodland can be both attractive environmentally and provide valuable jobs? Can my hon. Friend tell me more about the woodland, initiative for central Scotland and how that will help to improve the environment?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. Friend is right to say that many more jobs can be created by this means. We expect that several hundred jobs will be created by the central Scotland woodlands initiative and that this will bring more environmental and recreational opportunities. We envisage that in the next 20 years up to £50 million will be committed. The whole purpose is to improve the environment in areas where there are many derelict sites and scars on the landscape, and this will be of assistance to the local communities concerned.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths : Does the Minister realise that the headquarters of the Forestry Commission in Scotland is situated in Edinburgh, and that the workers there will have to pay £393 in poll tax, whereas if the Government gave poll tax payers in Edinburgh the same subsidy as in Glasgow, they would have to pay only £151?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : That supplementary question could not spring directly from the main question, which is about jobs in the forestry industry. We expect that the number of jobs in Scotland, and in Britain generally, will increase greatly. I am delighted that the Forestry Commission's headquarters is in my constituency, and I shall give every possible support to my constituents in this matter.

Mr. Andy Stewart : May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Office on its initiative in creating the new central lowlands forest? My hon. Friend will be aware that I am hoping that the English national forest will be in Sherwood. Will he send me the papers and tell me what job opportunities I can expect from the forest there?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I certainly will, and I will bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment as I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the forest of the legendary Robin Hood.

Rating Reform

5. Mr. McTaggart : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had from organisations on behalf of disabled persons concerning exemptions from the community charge.

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Mr. Lang : My right hon. and learned Friend has received representations from a number of organisations which act on behalf of people with various forms of disability.

Mr. McTaggart : Given the tremendous depth of feeling that exists on this issue, may I ask the Minister to agree that it is an absolute disgrace to differentiate between the severely mentally handicapped, the mentally handicapped and the handicapped to establish who should be exempt from this tax? It is also a disgrace that many of his well-heeled, greedy friends should gain enormously financially from the poll tax. Even at this late stage, will he abolish the tax or at least exempt this disadvantaged group?

Mr. Lang : No. The distinctions have been made on the basis of medical advice and I believe that they are right. A great many of the physically handicapped would resent the implication that they were somehow incapable of playing their full part in public life, including participation in local government matters.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Will the Minister note that under the previous rating system none of the categories mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McTaggart) was exempt and that our system is infinitely more humane than the Labour Government's callous attitude ever was?

Mr. Lang : My hon. and learned Friend is right. We are now spending about £7.3 billion in help for the long-term sick and disabled. That represents a 90 per cent. increase over what was being spent in 1979.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : Will the Minister agree that warrant sales are a barbaric and inhuman procedure? Will he commend Angus district council for issuing a standing instruction banning their use? Given that one poll tax registration officer tried to pursue a warrant sale against an 82-year-old pensioner, will the Minister issue an instruction banning their use against the disabled, the handicapped and anyone else?

Mr. Lang : Nobody welcomes the excessive use of warrant sales, but everyone acknowledges that a need for them exists. I believe that the modification that has taken place as a result of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1988 has improved the situation considerably. I commend Angus district council for its support for the implementation of the community charge.

Mr. Maxton : Will the Minister tell the House which medical advisers have told him that Alzheimer's disease is a fluctuating condition? Is it not morally repugnant that this tax is being imposed on those who are suffering from that disease, those who are mildly mentally handicapped and those who are severely physically handicapped, bed-ridden and in wheelchairs, while at the same time, on 1 April, the Minister and all his friends will receive a large fat increase in the money that they have, because their tax bills will be cut?

Mr. Lang : Many degenerative diseases fluctuate considerably, with periods of lucidity. Alzheimer's disease involves the problem that I described earlier--the difficulty of deciding exactly when it would be appropriate to exempt a particular individual from the provisions of the legislation. The vast majority of the disabled, if on rebate,

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would be eligible for a considerably enhanced entitlement to rebate in consideration of the disability premiums and allowances to which they are entitled.

6. Mr. Buchanan-Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received regarding the impact of the standard community charge on the tourist industry in rural areas and on agriculture ; and if he will make a statement.

8. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received concerning the effects of the poll tax in rural areas.

Mr. Rifkind : I have received a number of such representations. In response to these, my hon. Friend the Minister of State has today issued a consultation paper proposing that empty farm cottages should remain in rating and hence not become subject to the standard community charge. I am confident that this will be widely welcomed. Copies of the paper have been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : While I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for responding to the representations that I and others have made, and without being in any way ungrateful--I believe that he has done the right thing--may I ask him to extend that sensitivity to houses which are let for holiday purposes? In parts of my constituency, certainly, the community charge would hit the development of the tourist trade.

Mr. Rifkind : I thank my right hon. Friend for the earlier part of his question. With regard to holiday homes, part of the problem has been caused because most local authorities have insisted on a multiplier of two, when the Act freely enables them to have a multiplier of one. If those authorities were to allow a multiplier of one, as they have a discretion to do, the consequential tax would be halved.

Mr. Macdonald : Will the Secretary of State go one step further and restore the rating concession for crofters? Will he give an update on his 1986 estimate that the loss of the rating concession would cost crofters £500,000? Does he agree that this kind of financial blow to the crofting counties is senseless at a time when of the biggest economic problems facing Britain is the imbalance between regions.

Mr. Rifkind : We gave careful consideration to the position of crofters. The hon. Gentleman, who is an honest man, will be the first to appreciate that it is difficult to suggest that a crofter should be given an advantage over another member of the public who might have the same income. A crofter on low income-- [Interruption.] It is not only crofters who sometimes suffer deficiencies in services. A crofter on low income will be entitled to rebate. There is no reason in equity why a crofter with a specific income should be in a different position from any member of the public with the same income.

Mr. Bill Walker : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his helpful reply about empty farm cottages, but will he continue to bear in mind that in areas of Scotland where tourism is a vital and essential part of the local economy it is important that cottages, chalets, and so on, that are let on an ad hoc basis should be recognised as being part of a business and treated in the same way?

Mr. Rifkind : It was for precisely that reason that we gave local authorities the discretion to determine the

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multiplier to be used. With the exception of Western Isles district council, I believe that all other local authorities have chosen the higher multiplier. If authorities are concerned about the tourist implications in their area, it is open to them to halve the tax liability by using the discretion that Parliament has given to them.

Mr. Canavan : Does the Secretary of State accept that it is blatantly unjust to impose a £50 fine for failure to register on an old-age pensioner suffering from senility, whether that person lives in a rural or urban area, and then to threaten such a person with a warrant sale for failing to pay that fine? Is it not absolutely draconian that sheriff officers--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The question is about tourist cottages.

Mr. Canavan : --that sheriff officers in urban or rural areas are allowed to use Tory Government legislation to subject old-age pensioners to such Gestapo-type harassment?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that no old- age pensioner living in a rural or urban area is liable to face any fine through failure to register through genuine confusion, misunderstanding or anything other than deliberate intent.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Minister confirm his views on what I regard as his astonishingly dishonest comment on the second home multiplier?

Mr. Speaker : Order. Not "dishonest" in respect of the Minister.

Mr. Wilson : I will withdraw that word. Will he comment on his astonishingly flexible use of the truth in relation to second homes? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the Scottish Office's calculations of poll tax for each area were based on the assumption of a multiplier of two? Will he confirm that the absurdity of that aspect of the poll tax is highlighted by the fact that the consequence of introducing a multiplier of one on local authorities would have been even more massive savings for those who own the most expensive and palatial second homes in a given area? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that it is now possible for a traveller from Muckle Flugga to Machrihanish to pass through Scotland without encountering one single inch of Scottish territory held by a Tory Member of Parliament? Will he name one local authority in the Scottish rural areas, of any political persuasion, which regards the poll tax as anything but a further disincentive to live in rural areas and a further blow to fragile communities?

Mr. Rifkind : I am bound to say that the hon. Gentleman is getting into a lather with little substance. If rural local authorities believe that the community charge is an imposition on their local communities it is rather surprising that, in almost every case, they are proposing to increase their expenditure substantially and, as a consequence, are fixing community charges that are considerably higher than they would otherwise need to be.

Mr. Maclennan : Does the Secretary of State realise that many people in rural areas with cottages let them for a few weeks in the year? They include not only farmers, who might be covered by the review that he has in mind, but

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others who will be unable to let their cottages. Such people are having to seek expensive change of use approvals to take the cottages out of taxation. That is a disincentive to tourism and a positive burden on people who, in many cases, are on a low income. Will he extend his consideration of this problem beyond farmers to cover such people?

Mr. Rifkind : I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but in the shorter term his best course would be to make representations to the Highland regional council, as it is within its power to reduce substantially the level of tax on such properties. I shall, however, consider what the hon. Gentleman said about the wider issues.

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