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Mr. Macdonald : I appreciate that the Secretary of State has just recently completed a review, but does he not think that the whole issue needs to be looked at again, following the clumsy and inadequate way in which the commissioners have handled the allocation of test drilling permission for mineral deposits off the west coast of Scotland? Those deposits could eventually be very significant, so does the Secretary of State not think that it is time that such matters were handled by local and central Government working jointly and not left to the Crown Estate Commissioners, who are undemocratic, unaccountable, not especially experienced in this regard and deeply resented in the Highlands and Islands?
Mr. Rifkind : My understanding is that with regard to the particular incident to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the Crown Estate Commissioners have complied with well-established procedures. Indeed, on this occasion, they have consulted more widely than is usual. At present, all that is being considered is permission for prospecting purposes, not for actual mining, and that involves core sampling, seismic surveys and spot dredging of samples. The consultation procedure has been substantial. If, as a result of that, any further application were to be made, a more widely based consultation process would be required, which would have to be independently and expertly assessed. There would then be a full consultation process conducted by the Scottish Office, involving relevant Departments, local authorities, statutory agencies and others with a legitimate interest in the matter. At this stage, all that is being contemplated is permission for prospecting purposes. Any further action would require the much more substantial procedure that I have just outlined.
Mr. Kennedy : Will the Secretary of State note that many in the Highlands and Islands will think, listening to that response, that the Crown Estate Commissioners have carried out a more thorough consultation procedure than
Column 221normal--which would hardly be difficult? Given the growth of fish farming activity, does the Secretary of State not think that there is a strong need now for more local, democratic accountability for seabed leases and the like and that local authorities should be involved in that planning procedure, rather than it being left to an unelected and thoroughly publicly unaccountable body--the Crown Estate Commissioners?
Mr. Rifkind : The Government have just undertaken a review of the position of the Crown Estate Commissioners. As a result of that, I have just established a fish farming advisory committee and Lord Grieve has agreed to be the chairman of that committee. It will advise the Crown Estate Commissioners on how to deal with cases in which there is an objection to an application for a seabed lease from one or more of the statutory bodies represented on the committee. Cases of particular difficulty will be referred to the Secretary of State for advice and the Crown Estate Commissioners have undertaken to take into account the views of the Secretary of State on any controversial matters. There has been a substantial improvement in the appropriate procedures, which will ensure that the Crown Estate Commissioners will, in practice, take into account exactly the kind of considerations that would be relevant to other planning applications.
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that, to get over the difficulties of this apparently unelected body, it would be a suitable customer to be made into a private agency? Will he quickly consider whether it can be so converted and removed from the clutches of the state?
Mr. Rifkind : It is not so much the state, as the Crown for which the Crown Estate Commissioners are responsible. My hon. and learned Friend's suggestion, ingenious as it is, may not be entirely appropriate to a body that is responsible for administering the Crown's estates.
Mr. Wilson : I am sure that they will be quaking in their boots in Buckingham palace at the suggestion by the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) that the Crown Estate Commissioners should be privatised.
The replies given by the Secretary of State are inadequate and alarming. If indeed a review of the Crown Estate Commissioners has been carried out, I am disappointed that he can still give such complacent and inadequate replies. The consultation procedures, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) asked, were totally inadequate. Once again, Scottish coastal communities were left to find out at second or third hand about proposals that could have profound implications for their futures. The Secretary of State must accept that that is unacceptable and that the fate of Scottish coastal communities should not be in the hands of an organisation whose prime function is property development in London and the maintenance of Regent's park.
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman says that they did not. They did. He should check his facts before making such allegations. For the purpose of prospecting, the Crown Estate Commissioners carried out wide consultations, including consultation with the local planning authority. I believe that that was quite sufficient. I have already pointed out that if, as a result of prospecting, the company wished to go further, a much more exhaustive process would be undertaken, conducted by the Scottish Office, and that would provide the safeguards in which the hon. Gentleman is interested.
Mr. Lang : My right hon. and learned Friend has received a number of such representations. In particular, representations have been made on the impact of non-domestic sewerage charges on churches, church halls, charities and other organisations. I share the concern expressed and I am glad to be able to announce to the House today that we are changing the arrangements so that such bodies which already obtain some relief from non- domestic rates and from water rates will also obtain some relief from non- domestic sewerage rates. I shall be bringing forward proposals shortly. Consultations with COSLA will be put in hand at once.
Mr. Strang : Although we welcome that concession, we hope that it will amount to complete exemption for church buildings in the payment of sewerage rates. Will the hon. Gentleman take on board the need to match the 50 per cent. reduction on domestic rates payable on accommodation provided for Church of Scotland ministers and priests with a comparable concession in the poll tax? Surely the hon. Gentleman understands the dramatic effect of the changes on the finances of the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.
Mr. Lang : The community charge is, of course, a different system, being a charge for personal services rather than a property tax, and it would not be appropriate to have special arrangements for ministers. However, we have extended the mandatory relief on certain church property from 50 per cent. to 80 per cent., which may help to some extent.
We propose to introduce legislation to reduce to between 50 per cent. and 25 per cent. of net annual value the proportion of rateable value against which the sewerage rate is levied. That arrangement applies at the moment in the context of water rates.
Mr. Steel : Is it not a little difficult to know how warmly to welcome this concession until we know-- [Interruption.] Will the Minister please listen to me? It is difficult to know how warmly to welcome the concession until we know its exact relation to the charges made before the poll tax was introduced. Can the Minister tell us how much the concession will be worth?
Column 223example, with a rateable value of £7,000 would currently have sewerage charges of £280, but they might be reduced to £70 under the concession.
Mr. Jack : Does my hon. Friend think that members of the principal Churches in Scotland will come to recognise the inherent fairness of the community charge, the help that it gives to the single Scot and the generosity of the rebate scheme?
Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the inherently greater fairness of the community charge compared with the domestic rating system is self-evident. I am sure that ministers of the Church will come to appreciate that and to agree that it is far more appropriate that personal services provided by local authorities should be paid for by individuals rather than simply on the basis of property.
Mr. Canavan : Will the Government consider scrapping the poll tax, which had been described by various Church representatives as an immoral tax, as well as being expensive to administer and difficult to collect? In the light of recent estimates by Scottish local authorities that more than 30 per cent. of people on the poll tax register--well over 1 million people --have failed to pay their first instalment, will the Minister tell us his views on what level of non-payment would be required to force the Government to think again about abolishing this iniquitous tax?
Mr. Lang : It is clear from figures provided by local authorities that the level of payment is such as to render the hon. Gentleman's question irrelevant. I am sure that anyone assessing the community charge and taking account of the rebate system--which takes particular account of the needs and circumstances of the low paid, for which more than 1 million applications have been received--would recognise that a broader-based tax, such as the community charge, is a fairer and more appropriate way to pay for local authority services than the rating system that fell on only four out of every 10 adults.
Mr. Buchanan-Smith : Unlike the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Is he aware that it will be warmly welcomed, not only by the Churches, but by the many community associations that run halls and voluntary organisations? Is he further aware that in my constituency some local halls were faced with an increase in rates of as much as 1,000 per cent., and in some cases a potential increase of 5,000 per cent.? That is the extent of the concession announced by my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on it.
Mr. Lang : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I believe that my announcement will be widely welcomed throughout Scotland and will be of particular advantage to the Churches, bodies and organisations to which my right hon. Friend referred. The sum involved of £3 million is equivalent to about 2 per cent. of total sewerage charges.
Does the Minister accept, in general terms, the right of the Churches to speak out against a tax that they believe
Column 224to be socially divisive and unjust? If so, will he distance himself from the petulant and rather undignified complaints of the chairman of the Scottish Conservative party and the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science about those Churchmen who expressed their concerns about the impact of the poll tax? Is it not right that anyone whose conscience is troubled should protest against a tax that was described by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) as placing on an equal footing in the eyes of the tax collector
"the rich and the poor, the slum dweller and the landed aristocrat, the elderly pensioners living on their limited savings and the most succesful of today's entrepreneurs."--[ Official Report, 16 December 1987 ; Vol. 124, c. 1141.]
Mr. Lang : I certainly agree that it is appropriate for the Church and for members of Churches to express views on a wide range of issues, and no doubt the community charge comes under that category. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's description of the community charge, which clearly takes no account of the extensive rebate system, for which we estimate that some 30 per cent. of the adult population of Scotland may be eligible. It is the rebate system that makes the fairness and generosity of the community charge, taken overall, acceptable. It provides a better and fairer way of paying for the cost of local authorities.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : About 80 letters have been received from general practitioners in Tayside, direct or through hon. Members, referring to various matters arising from the Government's White Papers "Promoting Better Health" and "Working for Patients".
Mr. Walker : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that at meetings I had with individual GPs and with representatives of GPs in Tayside it became clear that the GPs had not understood-- [Interruption.] --properly and fully just how much control they would have over decisions affecting where they could send their patients-- because the payment will follow the patient--and how important that was for the popular community cottage hospitals in the future?
Is he further aware that doctors were horrified when they were made to realise that the lies contained in the leaflet distributed by them on behalf of the BMA were making many pensioners unhappy and concerned because of the fear that in future they would not be able to get their prescriptions and receive treatment, and as a result of that they propose to do something about it?
Mr. Forsyth : There is no justification whatever for patients being frightened or misled about the White Paper proposals. We have had a positive response from GPs in Scotland-- [Interruption.] Indeed, the new contract which has been agreed by their negotiators is based very much on the proposals which were put forward in Scotland. In response to Opposition Members who scoff at the assertion by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) about the degree of interest in the extent of control which GPs can obtain as a result of
Column 225GP-based budgeting and self-governing hospitals, I can say "yes" to my hon. Friend and tell him that I have received from his constituency representations not only about self- governing hospitals but about GP-based budgeting, with considerable enthusiasm being shown by the persons concerned.
Mr. Foulkes : May I inform the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), as a psychologist-- [Interruption.] He is not ; I am. May I inform him that there is absolutely no evidence to show that the general practitioners in Tayside are any less intelligent than the GPs in Ayrshire? All the GPs to whom I have spoken in Ayrshire understand only too well what is meant by the White Paper. They have passed a resolution unanimously condemning it and asking the Government to withdraw it.
If members of the Government, and in particular the Minister, mean anything when they use the word "consultation"--if they are not to be seen as people who are not men of their word--the only honourable action for them to take now is to withdraw the White Paper.
Mr. Forsyth : I am tempted to reply to the hon. Gentleman by saying "physician, heal thyself." I had a meeting with GPs in Ayr on Monday. After an hour's discussion with them I formed the same conclusion as my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker)--that many of the details concerning our proposals were not understood and had not been communicated to them.
I am happy to tell the House that the objectives of our White Paper--to increase patient choice, to increase the emphasis on preventive medicine and to make the NHS more responsive to the needs and wishes of patients-- are objectives which all of those GPs were happy to endorse. The mechanisms, mechanics and best way forward are issues on which GPs should not pass resolutions of condemnation. They should roll up their shirt sleeves and help us to get this right.
Mr. Hind : When my hon. Friend replies to the representations from the GPs in Tayside, will he emphasise that indicative budgets, both practice and drug budgets, mean that no patients need fear lest the resources for their treatment will not be available? Will he ask them to
Column 226withdraw the leaflet from the BMA, which unnecessarily winds up elderly and sick patients and makes them fear that the necessary resources will not be available?
Mr. Forsyth : I wrote to the British Medical Association in Scotland asking it to withdraw the leaflet from Scotland. I received a reply saying that the leaflet had been produced in London and that it did not take entire responsibility for it. I also pointed out the assertions in that leaflet about our proposals, which are frankly just untruths. The response from the BMA in Scotland did not seek to defend the assertions which are made in that leaflet. I believe that events have moved on and that there is a coming together to get the proposals right, certainly in regard to the contract.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is completely irresponsible to say to any patient that he will be denied treatment or drugs as a result of the proposals. That is not true. No general practitioner, whether a budget- handling GP or a GP subject to indicative budgets, will find that he does not have the resources to treat the patients. Opposition Members who say such things are causing needless anxiety to patients.
Mr. Robert Hughes : The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has made astonishing charges of ignorance against doctors in Tayside. Is he saying, however, that it is because the doctors are too thick to understand the White Paper or that the Minister is too thick to explain it properly?
Mr. Forsyth : I am saying that the type of intellectual approach that the hon. Gentleman has shown in his question is not one that I would expect from doctors. I would expect doctors to study the proposals carefully, to form a considered judgment, to identify the particular aspects causing them concern and to discuss with the Government the best way forward. That has not always been the case, but I accept what I think is implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question, which is that the vast majority of doctors will rightly see the way forward as being one which looks to their patients' interests. The White Paper is based on putting the patient first and ensuring that the Health Service delivers the best possible quality of care with the substantial additional resources that are available within the NHS.
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