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Community Charge (Leaflet)

3.31 pm

Mr. Speaker : Before calling the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to ask his private notice question, I should inform the House that the main issue with which it deals is to be the subject of judicial review in the High Court on or before 25 May and is therefore sub judice. The terms of the relevant sub judice resolution allow me to exercise my discretion and to waive the rule if I see fit, and I have decided to do so on this occasion. Dr. Cunningham. Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. The whole House knows that points of order are taken after questions.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : I would like to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment--[H on. Members :-- "Where is he?"]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Such behaviour takes up a lot of time. Dr. Cunningham.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that he is in the House of Commons.

Dr. Cunningham : I should like to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment a question of which I have given him private notice ; namely, if he will now abandon the distribution at the taxpayers' expense of the misleading leaflet entitled "The Community Charge (The So-Called Poll Tax') : How it will Work for You."

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : Mr. Speaker-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Gummer : Pending the-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Minister's answer is one for which the House has been waiting. Mr. Gummer.

Mr. Gummer : Pending the hearing before the Divisional Court-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I shall find it very difficult to call hon. Members shouting from a sedentary position.

Mr. Gummer : Pending the hearing before the Divisional Court of the substantive application by the London borough of Greenwich, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment gave instructions yesterday to the Department's contractor, the Post Office, to halt distribution of the leaflet in compliance with the terms of the order made on 9 May. My right hon. Friend made immediate application to the court for the earliest possible hearing, and a little more than one hour ago the court agreed to hear the case next Monday.

Dr. Cunningham : Given that the Secretary of State for the Environment has on six previous occasions been found to be acting illegally, is it surprising that on this seventh occasion on which he has fallen foul of the courts he has sent Postman Pat to answer in his place? Does not this latest humilitating exposure of the Secretary of State's

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attempt to present people in England with misleading and inaccurate information demonstrate once again his cynical abuse of high office? Why does the leaflet omit any reference to the highly controversial issue of joint and several liability, when the leaflet issued by the Secretary of State for Wales includes it? Does not that contrast prove that the Secretary of State for the Environment is guilty of a deliberate omission of important and objectionable facts about the poll tax?

Given that the judgment in favour of the Labour London borough of Greenwich was delivered at about 3 pm yesterday, will the Minister of State tell the House exactly when his right hon. Friend instructed the Post Office to halt delivery of the leaflets? Is he aware that throughout the day, all over England, the Post Office has continued to deliver it? It has been delivered in my home town of Chester-le-Street--which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice)--and in the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment himself.

Does the Minister of State know that his right hon. Friend's constituents have been telephoning Labour party headquarters and my office to complain? Is that not evidence of flagrant contempt of the High Court decision? How can a decision announced at 3 pm yesterday still not have been implemented by lunchtime today? What is the explanation?

Has not the Secretary of State's political trickery already cost taxpayers several millions of pounds, and will not his incompetence and prevarication cost them several million more? Is it not about time to stop making taxpayers foot the bill for this squalid and incompetent exercise of Tory party propaganda?

Mr. Gummer : In my experience, the more offensive the hon. Gentleman is, the weaker is the case whose weakness he is trying to cover up. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that with the hearing taking place on Monday it would be wholly inappropriate for me to enter into the merits of the case-- [Interruption.] I shall, however, be happy to give the hon. Gentleman any details that he would like about the timing, if he will kindly be quiet enough to listen.

The court made its order at 2.45 yesterday afternoon, without hearing any representations from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Counsel for Greenwich faxed a copy of the order to the Treasury Solicitor two hours later, at 4.45 pm. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. These are important matters of great interest to the House and to those outside.

Mr. Gummer : It is important for the House to hear the full details for which the hon. Member for Copeland asked. When the hon. Gentleman has heard the figures, the dates and the times, he will be sorry for the form in which he framed his question. Perhaps that is why he is trying not to listen to the answer. The order reached the Department 20 minutes later and the Secretary of State immediately considered its implications with his advisers. As a result of that consideration, he instructed lawyers to seek as early a hearing of the case as possible and at the same time instructed officials-- [Hon. Members :-- "When?"]--I will tell exactly the moment.

At the same time my right hon. Friend instructed officials to tell the Post Office to stop distribution until further notice-- [Hon. Members :-- "When?"] The Secretary

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of State gave that order at about 6.20 pm. The COI was telephoned at 6.30 pm. The COI, as agent for the Department, telephoned the Royal Mail immediately, and subsequently the Royal Mail's solicitor, and told them to stop distribution immediately. That was confirmed by fax to the Royal Mail's solicitor shortly after 7.30 pm and the COI then gave instructions to Post Office Counters not to display leaflets in Crown post offices. A letter was delivered by hand from the COI to the Royal Mail at 9 o'clock confirming those instructions.

Therefore, the House will note that at no point from the first delivery of the order to the Government was there any delay whatsoever.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the London borough of Greenwich issued with its rate demand and at ratepayers' expense this year a leaflet which was pure propaganda against the community charge? Will he look carefully into the matter? [Interruption.]

Mr. Gummer : I am aware of that fact. I am also aware that the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham sent out at ratepayers' expense a document which said-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Minister has been asked a question and he must be allowed to answer it.

Mr. Gummer : The document said that the poll tax or community charge will require all adults

"to pay the same amount irrespective of their income, size of property or ability to pay."

when there is a rebate which covers 9.5 million people.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : The House will agree that the Minister has shown contempt for the people of this country and for the use of public funds, and that nothing he says about any local authority will scrape over the fact that he has acted improperly at a national level. Can the Minister explain to the House the series of delays in notifying the Post Office that it should not deliver the leaflet, which is being delivered all over the country today? Can he explain why the Department was not represented in court, and if it was represented in court, why the message was not sent directly to the Department of the Environment?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman is not a lawyer ; I am not a lawyer but I know what an ex parte injunction is. The hon. Gentleman shows as much ignorance of the law as he does of the nature of the document. He has clearly neither read the document nor understood what is in it.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us wish that the Post Office would deliver our election addresses as promptly as they have delivered the leaflet? Is my right hon. Friend aware that while some Conservative Members did not share the Government's enthusiasm for the measure last year, that debate is now over, the Bill is an Act and the public have a right to be informed about it? While the courts will decide the accuracy of the leaflet, does not the standard registration form that is recommended by the Department, which will be signed by members of the public, make it clear that there is joint liability between husband and wife?

Mr. Gummer : The standard registration form makes it perfectly clear that there is joint and several liability between husband and wife, so anyone filling it in, unless

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they cannot read it, will be in no doubt about that fact. If my hon. Friend lived in the London borough of Islington, he would have received a guide which says,

"Scream And Scream Again Poll Tax on Upper Street",

which was paid for by ratepayers. Under the heading,

"What happens if I live with my girlfriend/boyfriend?"

the London borough of Islington fails to mention that if one lives with someone of the same sex one is not liable for their community charge.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) : Has the Minister discussed this matter with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales? Is this leaflet being distributed in Wales? Has the Attorney-General given clearance for it to be distributed in Wales? Does the Minister agree that in last week's by-election the people of Wales decisively rejected the poll tax?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman's last comment shows that this is a political rather than legal argument. Opposition Members should realise that the leaflet that is being distributed door-to-door in Wales is honest, clear and concise, as is the leaflet that will be distributed throughout the rest of Britain.

Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire) : In view of the Labour party's quest for the truth, will my right hon. Friend challenge it to come clean with the public and explain how much the wealth tax, on top of the local income tax, on top of national income tax-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman's question must be confined to the subject of the private notice question.

Mr. Gummer : The House would take more kindly the comments of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) if he had answered questions put to him about his two-tax policy, which he has failed to do, letting down the British people as a result.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : As the Minister has been caught with his hands in other people's letter boxes, will he take immediate steps to consult his Scottish colleagues to determine how much misinformation was distributed in Scotland last year at public expense? Do80 per cent. of Scottish people remain bitterly opposed to the poll tax in spite of or because of the Government's campaign of misinformation?

Mr. Gummer : The community charge leaflet that has been distributed in England, like the material that was distributed in Scotland, is accurate, wholly true and entirely without misinformation. The Government will stand and fight on that.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the leaflet is one of a series of nine being distributed that give the true picture of the community charge? The reason for the smokescreen thrown up by the Opposition is that they recognise that the more people know about it the more popular it will be.

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is entirely right. The more people know about the community charge, the more they will support it. The Opposition are so frightened of the community charge that they are not prepared to call it by its proper name.

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Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : Will the Minister tell the House how many judgments have been entered against the Secretary of State for the Environment since 1979? In the event of appeal being dismissed, will the Conservative party meet the cost of the leaflets and the legal charges? Who decided that the Central Office of Information was the proper organisation to inform the Post Office not to distribute the leaflets further, bearing in mind that the normal function of the COI is to arrange lunches for hon. Members?

Mr. Gummer : The COI is the agent for the Department of the Environment in its dealings with the Post Office. That is why it was properly asked to carry out its job as agent. The Government are utterly confident that the document that has been put out is wholly fair and concise and, without question, we shall win the case.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : If the pamphlet is withdrawn, will my right hon. Friend appeal to the leader of the Labour party--I mean this sincerely--to use what influence he has over the Labour London boroughs to persuade them to stop handing out leaflets, such as the one I have in my hand, which cause distress and anxiety to pensioners and poor people, describe the poll tax as a kind of plague and, unfortunately, tell people to deny that they have received an official form and urges the general public, when someone comes to the door, to deny who they are. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be better if the Labour party was to start having pamphlets which were acceptable because they told the whole story rather than this rubbish, which genuinely upsets simple people, poor people, and pensioners?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend would agree that the Opposition's case is undermined when we see the material that has emerged from, for example, the Lambeth and Norwood Labour party, which says : "If canvassers come round to question you, say you are the baby-sitter or looking after the premises while your friend is away Wait a week or two and then write back saying your dog ate the form, it fell in the washing-up, or you never received a form any excuse will do."

That is what the Labour party wants to tell the people. We want to tell them the truth.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : First, on the Minister's own account, is it not true that the first reaction of the Secretary of State to the decision was not to carry out the terms of the injunction, but to discuss a challenge to it in the courts? Should not the first response of any law-abiding Minister, particularly a Minister belonging to a party that claims a special position on law and order, have been to contact the Post Office immediately to give the court's instructions? Secondly, does there not appear to have been some deliberate delay so that it would be more difficult for the Post Office to carry out those instructions? Thirdly, can the Minister explain--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Briefly, please.

Mr. Cryer : Can the Minister explain why the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), failed to notify hon. Members adequately of her visit to Leeds and Bradford to distribute the leaflets personally? Should she not be involved in getting them back so that the injunction is carried out?

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Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it was somehow improper for my right hon. Friend to spend an hour and 35 minutes discussing with lawyers the precise import of the order. If he had not spent that time, he might have made a decision that broke the contract we had with the Post Office. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that it was proper to decide what the order demanded and then to do it, which is what my right hon. Friend did. The hon. Gentleman has never run anything in his life, so he is not in a position to make complaints.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman has as much right to be heard as anyone else.

Mr. Shaw : Is my right hon. Friend aware that we discussed the community charge in Committee for 143 hours, considering an immensely complex Bill, and that the Bill is so complex that he has my congratulations on getting his Department to produce an excellent summary of it? Is he aware that the Act is 179 pages long and that it goes on for 100,000 words? Is he aware that his summary is only about 2,000 words and is extremely efficient? Furthermore, is he aware that his summary leaflet deals with the issues about which my constituents want to hear?

Mr. Gummer : It is clear that a large number of people in Britain want to know more about the community charge, including the borough of Scunthorpe, which has distributed to its ratepayers a leaflet that says :

"The poll tax will be a flat rate charge for local services payable at the same rate by all adults."

That is a lie.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : The Minister will recall that yesterday afternoon on this very issue the Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) that it was "vital that people have accurate information".--[ Official Report, 9 May 1989 ; Vol. 152, c. 722.]

The Minister will also recognise that we do not need courts or lawyers to tell us that the leaflet is both misleading and inaccurate. To avoid wasting any further public money, will the Government agree to withdraw the leaflet immediately? In view of what the Prime Minister said yesterday, would not the honourable thing for the Secretary of State to do be to resign before he is sacked by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Gummer : As always, my right hon. Friend is right and the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : As the Divisional Court has seen fit to grant an injunction in respect of a leaflet which was in every respect accurate, why does not my right hon. Friend make similar applications to the Divisional Court to prevent the publication of the appalling leaflets to which he has referred?

Mr. Gummer : Because I believe that the public will see through the nonsense of the Opposition and recognise the difference between the truth as presented clearly and concisely by the Government and the party political propaganda presented by the Opposition.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating the London borough of Greenwich on bringing this matter to the

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court. Will the Minister tell the House how much this piece of Tory party propaganda cost the taxpayer, and if the appeal is turned down, what will happen to the leaflet? If it was a local authority that had been caught out, there would be demands for surcharge. Will the Secretary of State be surcharged or will he add hypocrisy to recidivism? Surely the best defence for the Secretary of State is to go into court and cop a plea of guilty but insane.

Mr. Gummer : No public funds have been used for Tory party propaganda ; that would be entirely wrong. A great deal of public funds appear to have been used by local authorities for Labour party propaganda.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I shall allow three more questions from either side and then we must move on.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone) : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that not a single line of the document in question has been challenged on its factual content, that all the furore is about an omission and that, without printing the entire Act, there was no possible method of avoiding omissions? Will he also confirm that this is an interim injunction and not a final judgment and that the baying and bawling from the Opposition show that they are making hay while the sun shines and are dubious about the final judgment?

Mr. Gummer : I think that my hon. Friend is wrong. The furore is not about an omission ; it is an attempt to stop people knowing about a charge that they are to pay and to hide the fact that the Opposition do not dare tell people about the two taxes that they would introduce instead.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East) : Can the Minister shed any light on the reason for the different wording of the leaflet in England as compared with that in Wales? Is it not time that the Government realised that the poll tax is regarded as equally pernicious in both countries?

Mr. Gummer : Happily, in this country we have three Secretaries of State who are responsible for environmental matters. Each leaflet was written separately. Each leaflet is different. That is proper, because each country is different.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that action will in no way impede the introduction of the community charge and, therefore, will mean that the recent local elections were the very last in which there was no full accountability of what local councils do? That is why the Labour party is concerned about the introduction of the community charge.

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Mr. Gummer : The reason Opposition Members hate the community charge is that, for the first time, they will be responsible to the electorate instead of to their local management committees.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : The Minister said that the document was accurate, wholly true and entirely right. In fact is is full of disinformation, inaccurate and entirely untrue. It states that, if a local council wishes to spend more, the community charge will go up. It does not state that 75 per cent. of local council expenditure is controlled by the Government through the business rate and the revenue support grant. If either of them goes down, local council expenditure will go up. Why does the document not state that?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that 75 per cent. of the money which local councils spend comes from taxpayers and business ratepayers. That is not control ; that is paying the price of local government.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : Is it not essential that there is accurate and fair information on the community charge? This week, the Labour party distributed in my constituency leaflets which stated that the new tax will be the same for the rich and the poor. That is a deliberate lie, because the leaflet takes no account of the fact that, for poor people, there will be rebates of up to 80 per cent. As half of local government funding comes from national taxpayers, the top 10 per cent. of wealthy families will pay 15 times more for local government than the bottom 10 per cent. of families.

Mr. Gummer : The truth is clear. Those who need help to pay the community charge will get it. The truth is stated in the document that was put out by the Government. If anyone wants to see anything misleading, all that they have to do is to look at what local branches of the Labour party have put out. It is because Labour Members are ashamed of what they put out that they tabled this private notice question today.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : How does the Minister respond to statements by senior civil servants at the Central Office of Information at lunchtime today that there are lies, damned lies and the Secretary of State for the Environment?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman now has the worst reputation but one in this House for making statements under the cover of privilege which he dare not make outside.

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Points of Order

4.2 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In case there has been any inadvertent misleading of the House, I should be grateful if you would ask the Minister whether, although not formally represented, Government officials were present at the court hearing.

Mr. Speaker : It is not for me to ask that question.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : To make it absolutely clear, the Government were not able to make their representations to the court. [Hon. Members :-- "Were you in court?"] The Government were not able to make their representations in the court-- [Hon. Members :-- "Answer."] I will answer the question- -simply because it was an ex-parte injunction. Therefore, the Government were not able--the Government had the advantage of the fact that an official was present in the court. [Hon. Members :-- "Ah!"] The situation is perfectly clear. The court's order has to be received as an order in its fulness, otherwise no lawyer will advise on it. I know that to be true because I asked for advice when the material was not in front of us. Advice was not forthcoming because no lawyer worth his salt will give advice on an order the contents of which he has not got.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : Further to that point of order--

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I remind you that during the one hour of Question Time there was only one question--No. 11--that directly concerned the House, and that was about the finances of the EEC? The taxpayer contributes £1.6 billion to the EEC and is directly concerned about the fraud in the EEC. On the other hand, for instance, you allowed a discussion of about 10 minutes on the situation in the middle east. I have no doubt that every citizen of the middle east will be waiting to hear tomorrow what the House of Commons has said about its problems. Surely it is wrong to have a truncated discussion of the EEC in questions to the Foreign Office. It is a disgrace that we, on behalf of the British taxpayer, could discuss that issue for only two minutes. Is there not a very strong case for a reconsideration of our procedures, so that, at the very least, we get the old quarter of an hour in which we can discuss this country's most important alliance?

Several Hon. Members rose--

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