Home Page

Column 209

House of Commons

Wednesday 7 June 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Health Service (Women)

1. Mrs. Fyfe : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he has any plans to consult women on the Health Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : My right hon. and learned Friend has consulted a wide range of organisations and professional bodies about the Government's proposals for reform for the NHS. The views submitted will reflect the views of men and women alike.

Mrs. Fyfe : Now that the Prime Minister has set a new standard in personal health care by treating herself to electric mud baths when she is feeling under par, will the Minister explain to Scottish women why they and their families have to have the cheapest medicines and hospital care, and why they have to undertake so-called community care at great cost to their incomes, career prospects, leisure and health?

Mr. Forsyth : What the hon. Lady says is rubbish. No one in Scotland is required to take the cheapest medical care. The provisions in the White Paper and the basis on which the National Health Service is run in Scotland are that patients should have access to the best possible medical care, which does not always mean the most expensive.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that women doctors who often work part time in general practice or elsewhere in the Health Service have an important part to play? Does he further agree that under the new contract their position is safeguarded and enhanced, and that they can look forward to a good future?

Mr. Forsyth : Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The new contract which has been accepted by the general practitioners' negotiators protects the position of part-time women doctors. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance that we attach to having more women doctors in the Health Service, both for the extension of patient choice-- many people would prefer to see a woman doctor--and because many women doctors bring precisely the kind of expertise in preventive medicine that we aim to encourage in the Health Service.

Column 210

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : On behalf of the women of my constituency and of the community of Moray, I welcome the Minister's announcement last week that a new obstetric and maternity unit is to be built in Elgin in less than 10 years. When does the Minister envisage the option appraisals being completed and the first stone laid?

Mr. Forsyth : I thank the hon. Lady for her general welcome to the proposals. As she knows, the independent working group that we set up to examine maternity facilities in Moray saw the establishment of a specialist unit as a legitimate goal and suggested that it would take 10 years. I have asked the Grampian health board to try to achieve a specialist unit more rapidly than that. I have met the chairman of the health board and asked him to proceed with the greatest possible speed. As the hon. Lady knows, there are particular problems connected with the site at Dr. Gray's hospital in Elgin, but I assure her that every effort will be made to overcome them and to bring the facility into being as speedily as is physically possible.

Mr. David Marshall : Despite the Minister's answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), is it not true that the proposals for the National Health Service will lead to a reduction in the numbers of women doctors--especially those working part-time in the service? What effect will the proposals have on the career structures of part-time women doctors in the Health Service?

Mr. Forsyth : The proposals will not reduce the number of part-time women doctors or affect them adversely. I note that the hon. Gentleman produced no justification for his statement--

Mr. Dewar : Ask the doctors.

Mr. Forsyth : The doctors argued that it was essential to alter the criteria for the basic practice allowance, to set them at levels at which the allowance was payable, to begin with, for 400 patients and would continue up to 1,200 patients. We responded to that by doing precisely what the doctors asked, and the position of part-time women doctors has been protected as a result.

Freedom of Speech

2. Mr. Amos : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will consider extending section 43 (Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges) of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to Scotland.

10. Mr. Andy Stewart : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received seeking the extension of section 43 (Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges) of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to Scotland.

Mr. Forsyth : It was decided in 1986 not to extend to Scotland the provisions in the 1986 Act which became section 43 as there was little evidence in Scotland of the problems that prompted the legislation south of the border. Since then there has been very little evidence of disruption of free speech in universities or colleges in Scotland.

Mr. Amos : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. As our universities are funded nationally, how can he justify the fact that the law as it relates to Scotland in this matter is different from the law relating to England?

Column 211

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of freedom of speech being a feature of our universities and colleges north and south of the border. I think that it is right to say that the Left have been more disruptive in universities south of the border --hence the need for the 1986 provisions. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that when there are problems north of the border we shall address them.

Mr. Stewart : May I take this opportunity to congratulate students attending Scottish universities on accepting the principle of free speech? We take free speech for granted, but there has been a grave loss of life and sacrifice by Chinese students trying to achieve the same freedom. If the situation deteriorates will my hon. Friend consider keeping the matter under review?

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the responsibilities on students and especially on student unions to ensure freedom of speech in universities and colleges in Scotland. I understand that the Conservative candidate in Glasgow, Central was joined in support by Chinese students at his press conference today in Scotland.

Mr. McFall : When the Minister visited Glasgow college on 20 October last year there was a spontaneous demonstration against him of the type that takes place whenever he visits in Scotland. After that demonstration the Minister went out of his way to commend the students on their responsible actions. Will he take this opportunity to reinforce that comment and relate it to all Scottish students and thus emphasise that there is no need to introduce such legislation in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth : I remember that demonstration. I also remember the demonstration which greeted me in the constituency of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). At that time many of the placards being waved said, "Thanks for coming, Michael". That was entirely spontaneous. I regret to say that that was not what the placards said when I visited Glasgow college. I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that so long as students behave responsibly they will not need to look to the House to embark on legislation to keep freedom of speech in our universities and colleges.

Mr. McLeish : I am pleased to note that the Minister now endorses the good nature, good sense and good behaviour of Scottish students. I am also pleased to see him distance himself from the hard Right on the Conservative Back Benches who use education in Scotland as a plaything. Is he aware of the review of the 1986 Act being undertaken by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science? That Act is not functioning well and I sincerely hope that we shall not have any of that nonsense in Scotland. Will the Minister addresss himself to the real issue in Scottish education, which is the under-investment in higher education and not the behaviour of students?

Mr. Forsyth : There have been a record number of students as a result of the Government's investment in higher education. I am not distancing myself from any of my hon. Friends. They have rightly underlined the importance of freedom of speech in universities and colleges and I have given a clear commitment that, should Scotland experience the kind of problem that occurs in

Column 212

England, we would not hesitate to go down the legislative road. While student unions carry out their proper responsibilities there is no need for the House to become involved in their affairs.

Conservation (Woodlands)

3. Mr. Key : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what encouragement is given to conservation groups in the United Kingdom, including the Wiltshire Trust for Nature Conservation, to undertake projects in Forestry Commission woodlands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : The Forestry Commission actively encourages locaconservation groups to undertake projects in its woodlands. The Wiltshire Trust for Nature Conservation is represented on Forestry Commission conservation committees and advises the commission on the management of three sites, managing part of one of them on a leasehold basis.

Mr. Key : We are fortunate that the Wiltshire trust has been blazing a trail in that respect, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Forestry Commission has been a bit slow to establish joint projects and joint funding involving local environmental groups, and that where that is achieved it gives tremendous new access and recreation not just for tourists but for local people?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I agree that it is important for tourism that we should strongly support environmental measures and I am glad that Somerford common was given much prominence in the leaflet that the Forestry Commission helped to produce. We give considerable funds-- £200,000--to environmental groups. Scottish Office funds do not stretch as far as Wiltshire, but I will draw my hon. Friend's point to the attention of the Forestry Commission's chairman and that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. This year we are contributing £250,000 to setting up the Scottish Woodland Company and we may commit anything up to £50 million over the next 20 years in order greatly to improve environmental standards in the central lowlands of Scotland.

Mr. Kirkwood : Has the Minister seen press reports circulating in the Borders region that statements were made by Scottish Office Ministers to Conservative candidates suggesting that £500,000 might be available for the Borders road authority to engage in environmental and forestry projects in that region? Does the hon. Gentleman approve of that method of making announcements? Will he now make an official announcement and get round to making real funding available so that the roads authorities in areas such as the Borders can repair and maintain the links to trunk roads being destroyed by the forestry industry?

Lord James Douglas Hamilton : I met deputations from the Borders region and from Dumfries and Galloway region to discuss roads affected by forestry extraction. We responded after the public expenditure survey round last autumn when we were able to take their points on board. I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's point about the

Column 213

reports, which I have not seen, but we are very much in favour of improving environmental standards everywhere in Scotland.

Dr. Moonie : With due regard to the Minister's concern for the environmental impact on forests, what research has his Department commissioned in the past two years into the effects on Scottish woodlands of English pests?

Lord James Douglas Hamilton : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact figure, but I can tell him that we are spending about £6 million on looking into the problems of acidification, which are substantial.

Mr. Adley : I hope that neither the Opposition nor my hon. Friend will regard me as an English pest. Is my hon. Friend aware that we are entirely happy that the Forestry Commission has its headquarters in Edinburgh and that his Department answers our questions on forestry matters, but that it would be helpful if we could occasionally have answers on the problems in England for which he is ministerially responsible? He has now written referring me to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on a matter that I raised with him at a previous Scottish Question Time. Is it still Government policy to encourage the Forestry Commission to sell off land for the highest possible price?

Lord James Douglas Hamilton : Certainly as far as disposals are concerned, 140,000 hectares have been sold and receipts exceeded £120 million. Obviously certain areas that are surplus to requirements should be sold. It is important that the Forestry Commission should continue to supply timber mills on a steady basis, as that is important for their prosperity and for those whom they employ. I gave a full answer to my hon. Friend's point, which he raised on a previous occasion, in writing last night.


4. Mr. Eadie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he has calculated the loss of revenue to Midlothian district as a consequence of the proposed closure of Bilston and Monktonhall collieries.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : The closure of the collieries will, of course, mean some overall loss of income and spending power to the area. But any loss of rate income to the district council will be compensated for in subsequent years through a corresponding increase in revenue support grant.

Mr. Eadie : The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be aware that 7,000 jobs have been lost in the mining industry in Midlothian since 1978. The Secretary of State claims that the financial impact is very light, but is he aware that we have already undertaken a preliminary survey of the economic impact, which suggests that Midlothian will lose at least £20 million? A small area such as Midlothian cannot afford such a loss. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider meeting Midlothian district council with me to discuss that devastating problem?

Mr. Rifkind : I have just signed a letter to the hon. Gentleman agreeing to such a meeting. Income from employment in the area will fall as a consequence of redundancies, but excluding redundancy payments, a net

Column 214

loss of disposable income of around £4 million per annum has been provisionally estimated as a result of recent decisions. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that unemployment in his constituency fell by more than 32 per cent. in the past two years, from 4,700 to 3,300. Although that figure is still far too high, it is encouraging that the trend is significantly in the right direction.

Health Service (Competitive Tendering)

5. Mr. Michael Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on progress on competitive tendering in the Health Service in Scotland ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : Since the last general election, savings from competitive tendering have increased from £600,000 to £25 million on 74 contracts. That represents substantial additional resources for patient care in Scotland's health service over the next three to four years. Boards will continue to make progress in both the scope and range of services to put to competitive tender and are much encouraged by their success to date.

Mr. Brown : Bearing in mind the Opposition's attitude to competitive tendering, is it not the case that they would be prepared to deny £25 million of additional resources for patient care in Scotland? Is not that £25 million of extra care the direct result of my hon. Friend's decisions?

Mr. Forsyth : Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. Boards can use savings for direct patient care. The resources released so far could buy more than 2,000 kidney dialysis machines, or pay for 8,000 hip replacement operations or about 4,000 heart bypass operations. Mr. Dewar indicated dissent.

Mr. Forsyth : The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland scoffs, but he was among those who indulged in disruption to prevent competitive tendering and saw 3,500 operations cancelled in Scotland.

Dr. Reid : What instructions has the Minister issued to Scottish health boards about value added tax for the purposes of competitive tendering? Is he aware of the Treasury circular of August 1988 which lays down specific guidelines on the conditions under which VAT may be refunded to health authorities when it is incurred in putting work out to private tender? Why has that circular been ignored, and why have health boards been advised instead that the matter is under review? Is it not because strict compliance with Treasury conditions would reveal that much of the savings that the Minister boasts about are bogus?

Mr. Forsyth : VAT policy is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am aware of the circular, with which health boards are complying. They are asked to disregard VAT when evaluating in- house contracts as compared with those of private enterprise. However, the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the situation is incorrect. Three-quarters of the contracts awarded, and the bulk of the savings, have been achieved as a result of in-house tenders being accepted on which VAT was never levied. When making a comparison between in-house and private sector tenders, VAT is disregarded because it is a receipt to the Exchequer. The key point is that savings are made to the public purse as a whole.

Column 215

Mr. Galbraith : Why is the Minister conniving with the likes of the Scottish National party through competitive tendering in Tayside to sack some of the lowest-paid workers in Scotland? Is it not the case that competitive tendering in the National Health Service is subject to some extremely dubious accounting practices in which many costs to the private contractor are hidden, to the disadvantage of the in-house tender? Does the Minister agree that it is time that we had a full investigation into accounting practices and competitive tendering in the National Health Service and that until that is complete we should halt further competitive tendering within the National Health Service?

Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman's previous position was that there were no savings to be made. Now that savings of £25 million have been made, we are getting bluster. As for conniving with the SNP to make people redundant, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that three quarters of the contracts in the Health Service are the result of successful in-house bids. When people have been made redundant, they have received redundancy payments and many have been re-employed by the private sector. The public interest demands that the best possible value for money be obtained. The hon. Gentleman should look to the conduct of his colleagues in Lothian where, as a matter of political prejudice and ideology, the Labour party has put the ratepayers' interests second.


6. Mr. Tom Clarke : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is Her Majesty's Government's policy on devolution for Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind : We believe that the present constitutional arrangements provide for full and fair representation of Scotland's interests.

Mr. Clarke : Will the Secretary of State accept that in denying Scottish people a legitimate say in their own affairs, he is flying in the face of the views of the vast majority of Scots, who support Labour party policy, and that in so doing he has given short-term succour and comfort to a separatist minority view whose slogan is as unrealistic in Scotland as it is unworkable in Europe?

Mr. Rifkind : We believe that Scotland, England and the rest of the United Kingdom see this Parliament at Westminster as our parliament. It is the Parliament of Scotland as it is the Parliament of England, and no citizen of Scotland is denied any rights available to any citizen elsewhere in the United Kingdom. One of the problems of the hon. Gentleman's party's proposal for devolution, apart from its other defects, is that together with all the other proposed reforms it would exchange a system in which Scots pay two taxes for a system in which Scots would pay four taxes. The Labour party wishes to replace the community charge with a property tax and a local income tax, to have Scots paying income tax to the United Kingdom Government and to give a Scottish assembly power to levy a supplementary income tax. Four taxes for two does not seem likely to be in Scotland's interests.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that many of the proposals under the so-called banner of devolution are very difficult to distinguish from separatism, as is the question of

Column 216

Scotland's presence in Europe? Is it not interesting that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) has withdrawn his question about separatism from the Order Paper and is not present in the Chamber, perhaps because he knows that he has no real case to put forward?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is quite correct. In regard to the first part of his question, I am bound to say that I think that the Labour party is running scared. The ridiculous slogan "Independence in the United Kingdom", which has neither grammatical sense nor political wisdom, will live to haunt the Labour party.

Mr. Salmond : Will the Secretary of State tell us if, in his estimate, support for the independence in Europe policy is running at 52 per cent. or at 61 per cent. as variously estimated by Systems Three? If the people of Scotland regard this Parliament as a parliament for all the United Kingdom, what does the Secretary of State think the reaction would be in Scotland to the fact that five out of the first 10 questions at Scottish Question Time are from English Tory Members?

Mr. Rifkind : English Members may have tabled some questions, but at least they had the courtesy to turn up to ask them, unlike the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars), who, having been elected to the House, yet again manifestly fails to appear. Even when he tables a question that would undoubtedly be reached, he withdraws it because he has not the guts to be here to carry out his parliamentary responsibilities.

Mr. Gow : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware--


Mr. Speaker : Order. I ask the House to settle down ; it is very bumpy today.

Mr. Gow : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I am a Scotsman? Is he further aware that Conservative Members share his view that a legislative assembly in Scotland would put the Union at risk? Will he remind his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of that truth?

Mr. Rifkind : I have always thought of my hon. Friend as one of the most Scottish of my colleagues, and we are delighted that he is participating in our proceedings. I strongly believe that the Labour party's proposals for Scottish constitutional change would damage the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will, as he has before, put questions about Northern Ireland to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dewar : If the Secretary of State thinks that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) is the most Scottish of his colleagues--

Mr. Rifkind : One of them.

Mr. Dewar : That is an important caveat, but it suggests basic doubts about the Secretary of State's judgment. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, in voting this week for its own identity, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland was applying to its own affairs the principles of devolution and the case for passing power to Scotland? Will he join me in welcoming that and recognise that his party will never be a credible force in Scotland if it displays a thrawn refusal to listen to public opinion, putting it on a par with the Scottish National

Column 217

party, which, in refusing to join the constitutional convention, is apparently working on the principle that there should be no compromise with the electorate?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that one of the stems of the unitary state and Parliament in which we participate is that, over the past 250 years, the Scottish national identity has been preserved and enhanced. It applies not only to chartered accountants but to the Scottish legal system, of which the hon. Gentleman and I are members. It illustrates that it is not inconsistent with a unitary Parliament and a United Kingdom that Scotland's national indentity, institutions, culture and heritage can be preserved and enhanced.

Mr. Tom Clarke : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the Secretary of State's unsatisfactory answer, I shall seek to raise the matter again on the Adjournment.

Community Charge

7. Mrs. Ray Michie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is his Department's latest estimate of the administrative costs of collecting the community charge in (a) Argyll and Bute, and (b) Scotland.

8. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is his latest estimate of the costs of collection of the poll tax in relation to the costs of collection of the rates.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : The administrative cost of community charge collection for Scotland in 1989-90, including registration work but excluding the costs of operating the rebate scheme, is estimated by local authorities at £31.8 million. The cost of rates collection in 1988-89 was £17.3 million. Estimates of district councils' costs are not available centrally.

Mrs. Michie : Is the Minister aware that the cost of implementing the poll tax is continuing to escalate? In Argyll and Bute, extra staff have had to be taken on. In Strathclyde, 720,000 changes have already had to be made to the poll tax register. Strathclyde is having to pay £8 million more than the Government's estimated cost of implementation. How can the Minister justify this escalating cost and bureaucracy to implement the poll tax?

Mr. Lang : On the contrary, the costs now coming in are lower than those originally estimated when we published the Bill. If the hon. Lady compares the cost of implementing the community charge with that of a local income tax, which is favoured by the Social and Liberal Democratic party and others, she will find that a 1981 White Paper estimated the additional cost of collecting a local income tax at £500 million, in addition to which it would have involved the employment of tens of thousands of additional civil servants.

Mr. Dalyell : What evidence is there that costs are lower? Does the Minister deny the Strathclyde figure that, whereas the cost of collecting rates was £17 million, the cost of collecting the poll tax is at least £36 million?

Mr. Lang : What I said was that the costs are lower than those originally indicated when we published the Bill. The costs overall are higher for collecting the community charge because something like double the number of people pay, but the cost is roughly the same per head of the

Column 218

population. I think that that is a price worth paying for the extra fairness and accountability that derives from the community charge system.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : Can my hon. Friend tell me how much extra the community charge payers of Grampian have to pay because of the decision of the Labour-controlled city of Aberdeen district council not to operate the administration of the charge?

Mr. Lang : Such figures are not available to me at present, but it is undoubtedly the case that as a result of the decision of 15 district councils in Scotland not to assist in the handling of the community charge, considerable numbers of people are being put at risk, including the most vulnerable in society who may be unable to get rebates punctually.

Mr. John Marshall : Can my hon. Friend tell the House how the cost of collecting the community charge compares with the suggested costs of collecting the two local government taxes proposed by the Labour party?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend raises a sensible point. I have already indicated that the cost of a local income tax would be massive compared with the community charge. The community charge itself has a cost of collection of less than half of 1 per cent. of the total expenditure of local authorities. I think that helps put the matter in perspective.

Mr. Douglas : Is the Minister including the cost of the humiliation of individuals who have to register their offspring, parents, husbands or wives who are severely mentally impaired? How does he estimate that cost? Will he consider the anomaly whereby the services subvent service men who find themselves having to pay high community charges? Why can the Ministry of Defence do that for service men who may be highly paid when the same cannot be done for the disabled?

Mr. Lang : The arrangements for service men reflect broadly the arrangements that existed under the domestic rating system. As to humiliation, I recognise no humiliation in a system that invites all adult members of the population, with a few exemptions, to contribute to the cost of local authority expenditure and thereby play a fuller part in local authority democracy.

Local Authority Income

9. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what proportion of Scottish local authority income comes from (a) central Government funds, (b) the non-domestic rate and (c) the community charge ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Rifkind : A total of 52 per cent. of Scottish local authority income in the current year will come from central Government funds, 27 per cent. from non-domestic rates and 21 per cent. from community charges. The proportion to be raised from community charges is higher that it need have been because many authorities have budgeted to increase their spending by well over the rate of inflation.

Mr. Greenway : Community charge payers will note that answer. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the recent announcement that Scottish business

Column 219

ratepayers will achieve level playing fields with their English counterparts is good news for Scottish industry, for Scottish jobs and for everyone who cares for Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind : Yes, indeed, it has been a feature for many years of the Scottish business and industrial community that it has had a higher non -domestic rates burden than that south of the border, primarily because of higher local authority spending. Despite the cause of the problem, this Government are the first to ensure that that will cease and that in the United Kingdom we will have a common level of non-domestic rate poundage, thereby bringing the equivalent of £250 million of reduced rates burden to business and industry throughout Scotland.

Mr. Ernie Ross : Does the Secretary of State concede that his control of non-domestic rates will mean that if local government is to respond to the needs of the local business community, the cost of the expectation of increased services by non-domestic ratepayers will fall directly on domestic poll tax payers? How does he intend to help local authorities because of that?

Mr. Rifkind : I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I understand it, local authorities have welcomed our plan to reduce the burden on the industrial and business community in Scotland because they appreciate, even if the hon. Gentleman does not, that that not only will be of benefit to industry but will have consequential benefits for jobs and the overall prosperity and competitiveness of the Scottish economy.

Mr. Wallace : The Secretary of State will recall that when the Green Paper was published he said that there would be special arrangements for Orkney and Shetland because of the high proportion of non-domestic rates from the oil terminals and, in Shetland's case, because of the debt repayment policy that would mean lower non-domestic rates at a time when oil revenues were going down. In the light of his recent announcement, what steps does he propose to take to flesh out the proposals for special arrangements?

Mr. Rifkind : Yes, we said in our announcement on business rates that there would have to be special arrangements for Orkney and Shetland because of the facts to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are currently considering what those might be and there will be discussions with officials from the two island authorities to identify the most appropriate course of action.

Mr. Favell : Is it not a fact that following revaluation, the rating system in Scotland was highly unpopular and that it was only this Government who had the guts to do anything about it, unlike the gaggle of frustrated Socialists on the Opposition Benches, who have nothing to offer but wrecking tactics?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right, except in one respect. Labour Members are not offering simply wrecking tactics ; they are offering in exchange for the community charge a property tax and a local income tax. They seem to believe-- [Interruption.] --that two unpopular taxes will somehow be more acceptable to the people of Scotland than one form of rates or community charge. I notice that they are now trying to deny that, but the evidence is in their own policy documents, so we are entitled to refer to it.

Column 220

Mr. Maxton : Does the Secretary of State accept that there has been a massive reduction in the level of Government grant given to local authorities in percentage terms, from 68.5 per cent. in 1979 to the present 55 per cent.? That would realise £589 million at present, which would mean £151 per poll taxpayer in Scotland, if it were distributed in that way. Does he agree that it was that reduction in grant that put pressure on the rating system and which led the Government to introduce the absurd and unfair poll tax, which is now putting the burden directly on the very poorest in our community?

Mr. Rifkind : I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the last Labour Government who were responsible for the single biggest reduction in what was then called the rate support grant. I notice also that although speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Gentleman did not contradict my remarks about the Labour party proposing to replace the community charge with two separate taxes--a property tax and a local income tax.

Next Section

  Home Page