Previous Section Home Page

Column 1020

absorb. The purpose of the proposed new clause is to provide similar protection for businesses faced with the same prospect as a consequence of the poll tax or community charge.

I was told by Grampian regional council today that it is very concerned about the implications of the charge. It has taken positive helpful measures, including a series of meetings with businesses at which it sought to offer advice on increasing the efficiency of water operations with a view to reducing waste. The council issued 38 information packs, offered consultancy advice to nine companies, and received one application for grant assistance. That shows a constructive attitude and a positive response.

I hope that the Minister accepts that a 109 per cent. increase in water charges still represents a severe burden. He acknowledges that the scope for manoeuvre was limited and that Grampian complied with the law. The increase in the Highland region was 72 per cent. and in Midlothian and Strathclyde it was 64 to 66 per cent. That sort of increase is a serious burden on companies. So far, the Government's ability to deal with the problem has given no satisfaction. Essentially, they have said, "That is the law. Grampian have interpreted it in one way. It is open to a different interpretation, but on balance that is right because that is what they have to do and the businesses will just have to lump it." Businesses should not have to expect such treatment. Given the Government's previous new clause 47 about the fixing of the new uniform business rate, it goes against the grain that they feel unable to intervene and help in this case. Given the treatment that has been meted out and the hardship that has been imposed on businesses in the Grampian region, the Minister must understand that there is little willingness to believe that what the Government propose in the form of their new rates measures for businesses will be beneficial. In a previous debate I raised the concerns in the Grampian region, but the Minister did not answer my questions. What we are proposing today shows, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland said, that we who believe in parliamentary democracy are putting the amendments in the right place-- the House of Commons. The Scottish National party Members are conspicuous by their absence. They rarely appear in the House, but stalk the country talking about illegal action, confrontation and extra-parliamentary action. At the end of the day, however, they achieve nothing but failure.

We come here in a constructive spirit to put the arguments to the Government, reflecting the clear representations which have been made to us on behalf of business, and asking for a constructive response. The points that have been raised deserve a serious and, I hope, sympathetic reply from the Minister.

Mr. Lang : I shall certainly respond to the points that have been raised in the debate, which has covered five entirely unrelated subjects. Opposition Members cannot, therefore, be blamed for taking slightly longer than expected. I know that the House wishes to make progress and so I shall stick closely to the amendments which have been tabled.

On new clause 1, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) spoke mainly about the decision of all Scottish local authorities, except Western Isles and Shetland, to choose to impose a multiplier of two, twice as high as they need have done. However, the intention of his

Column 1021

new clause is to bring Scotland in line with England and Wales with regard to the standing community charge arrangements, particularly for setting standard community charge multipliers.

However, the new clause is based on a misconception that there are significant differences between the position north and south of the border and that the English and Welsh arrangements are more flexible. That is not so as I shall seek to explain. There are some technical differences between setting the standard charge in Scotland, and doing so in England and Wales. The key point is that in all three countries local authorities have discretion to set the multiplier up to a maximum of twice the community charge for their area. In Scotland, local authorities' discretion starts at a multiplier of one. They can set a standard community charge multiplier at any point between one and two times the level of the personal community charge, and the multiplier which is determined will apply to any property which may be liable for the standard community charge in a local authority area.

Authorities in England and Wales will be able, subject to certain restrictions, to set multipliers at one of five different specific levels : nought, a half, one, one and a half or two. However, the range of properties liable for the standard charge is smaller in Scotland than in England and Wales. That is because certain Scottish properties do not attract the charge, either by virtue of a specific exemption, such as homes of people who go into hospital on a long-term basis, or by virtue of being retained in rating, for example properties which are not suitable for occupation throughout the year. Equivalent properties in England and Wales will be liable for the standard charge but maximum multipliers will be imposed on them by regulations, for example, nought for the homes of long- term hospital patients and one for planning properties of which the planning conditions do not permit them to be occupied throughout the year.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : My understanding is that, provided there is no closing order on them, properties which are not occupied throughout the year are levied for the full standard community charge. That is certainly true in my constituency. Is the Minister saying that that is not right?

Mr. Lang : It is not for me to question the decision of the community charge registration officer, but these are matters for appeal if they come into contention.

While the English and Welsh arrangements allow for different multipliers for different classes of property, it is important to realise that the different classes of property are closely defined and that there is no discretion for a local authority to determine its own classes of property for which it will set different multipliers.

In broad terms, the properties in respect of which the English and Welsh local authorities will be able to exercise discretion to set a multiplier of up to two will be comparable to those properties in Scotland, which will be liable for the standard community charge. I should make it clear that English local authorities have still to determine what multipliers to set on second homes. It is not possible, therefore, to compare outcomes between Scotland and England. If there are differences between Scotland and England in the way in which people are treated in practice, that is more likely to be because

Column 1022

local authorities in each country have chosen to use the discretion that is available to them differently rather than because of technical differences in the arrangements for setting the standard charge. This could arise if English authorities decided to set the multiplier at less than the maximum of two, which has been adopted by virtually all Scottish local authorities. In these circumstances I do not consider the new clause to be necessary or desirable.

10.45 pm

New clause 6, which was spoken to by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), relates to a specific interest on which he has expressed concern in the past, which is whether evidence can be heard at community charge appeals before the sheriff. We have given detailed consideration to the hon. Gentleman's proposals. I have already made it clear to him in correspondence that I consider his proposals unnecessary because under summary application procedures, under which community charge appeals are heard, the sheriff can effectively act as he thinks appropriate. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of our concern not to prejudice this general position. We are obviously concerned, however, that there should be no possible doubt that evidence can be heard. In the light of the particular case which has aroused the present concern, I would propose to consider whether we should introduce an amendment in another place along the lines of new clause 6, but making it clear that the power would be without prejudice to the generality of summary application procedures as provided for in the Sheriff Courts Act 1907. On the basis of that undertaking, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his new clause.

New clause 50 relates to sewerage. I listened carefully to the arguments which were advanced but I am not persuaded that payment towards domestic sewerage is any different from payment for other services which are included within the community charge. There are not enough reductions for those who have to maintain private roads, or who do not make use of the education system or who may not have access to a public library. There are many other examples. To concede that special arrangements should be made for sewerage would lead to a proliferation of requests for relief from payment towards services which are not provided or utilised. It would make the community charge register more complex and would introduce additional administrative costs.

Mr. Wallace : I anticipated that the Minister would refer to private roads and public libraries, but surely sewerage provision is most comparable to water supply. The Government have made a distinction between those whose properties are connected to mains water and those whose properties are not. Why make that distinction in respect of what comes in but not in respect of what comes out?

Mr. Lang : That is partly because it was our purpose in making changes to the community charge under the common business rate to minimise the disruption to the existing system. In the past there have been separate arrangements for water, which we have carried forward under a new guise. There were no formal arrangements of that sort for the reasons that I have described.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) spoke about women's refuges when he directed himself to new clause 44. I thought that his remarks were wholly intemperate

Column 1023

and inappropriate on a matter on which we have shown great concern. We have received a number of representations from Women's Aid about the designation of women's refuges as collective community charge establishments, and the present arrangements were introduced to meet the requirements of Women's Aid. However, we have decided to act upon its subsequent representations and to introduce regulations that will have the effect of moving the refuges back into rating. Officials from my Department met representatives of Women's Aid last week to discuss these proposals. I hope to be in a position to lay regulations before the House quite soon. I think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks were entirely misplaced because we have responded not once but twice, and comprehensively, to the attitude of Women's Aid.

New clause 53 is directed to the non-domestic water rate. Occasionally an amendment or new clause misses the bull's eye, but new clause 53 misses the target altogether. The source of the complaint is the impact of metered water charges. Other water charges, to which the new clause relates, have not increased in the Grampian region. The fact is that they have decreased. Non-metered water charges were 8.16p in the pound last year and they are now 7p in the pound.

The new clause has been tabled on the assumption that non-domestic water ratepayers need some relief, but the hon. Gentleman has failed to take account of the fact that in only two regions do non-domestic water rates amount to more than one and two thirds times last year's domestic water rate, which then applied also to the non-domestic sector. Last year, both regions levied a public water rate which we have now abolished.

If that were taken into account, the increases in those regions would be nowhere near the two thirds limit that the hon. Gentleman seeks to invoke. The new clause is misconceived. It would breach the fairness provisions that we were at pains to introduce in the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. Act. Any concessions would have to be paid for by other water users and would introduce additional administrative costs. For those reasons, I cannot accept the new clause.

Mr. Wallace : I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, even though it was fairly short, for understandable reasons.

His reply to new clause 1 was wholly unconvincing. The relevant legislation shows that there are clear differences

Column 1024

between Scotland and England. They are not on a par. England can have a multiplier of less than one, but Scotland cannot. The Minister completely failed to respond to the points that were made about holiday cottages and prisoners. The Government have missed an opportunity to rectify some of the injustices in the implementation of the community charge.

As for sewerage, the Minister failed to convince us that water should be treated differently from sewerage. Schedule 5 to the 1987 Act shows that, unlike libraries or private roads, a local authority is obliged to calculate separately its sewerage costs and apportion them between different categories of payers. Sewerage is dealt with in that Act in a way that makes it different from the other services. The Minister's reply--that the charge will not be reduced for supplies to those who are not connected to the main sewerage system--lacked conviction. It is a matter to which we shall return.

As for water charges, if the Minister had listened to what was said he would have realised that we appreciate that the new clause is not drafted as well as it might be. We referred to meter charges. I am always suspicious when Ministers say that the defect lies in the drafting of Opposition amendments. He did not address the issue. The Minister told the business community that there was no legislative opportunity to do anything about this problem. We have proved that he was wrong. He has failed to take that opportunity. I hope that it will be dealt with in another place.

I thank the Minister for having gone some way towards meeting two other points that we raised. I heard what he said about appeals. I welcome the fact that he is giving some thought to the matter and that he intends to ensure that an amendment is tabled in another place to make clear what are the sheriff's powers, while not compromising other legislation.

I welcome also his announcement about women's refuges. It underlines the point that I made at the outset. Those of us who complain about the poll tax and who believe in parliamentary democracy feel that we must make our arguments in this place. There has been some response from the Government tonight, which shows that those who have neither attended nor contributed to the debate and who only bluster have failed the people of Scotland. It is the Social and Liberal Democrats who stand up and tackle the poll tax in the one way that can be effective.

Question put and negatived.

Column 1025

New Clause 13

Individual privacy

Schedule (Preservation of individual privacy) to this Act (which amends the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987) shall have effect.'-- [Mr. Cohen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 7 :

Preservation of Individual Privacy-- 1. The Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 shall be amended as mentioned in the following provisions of this Schedule.

2. For the purpose of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Local Government Finance Act 1988, section 26(3) of the Data Protection Act 1984 and Schedule 1, Part II, paragraph 1(2) of the Data Protection Act 1984 (Interpretation of the First Data Protection Principal) shall apply.

3. In Section 20(2)(a) of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 the words "only for a purpose associated with the proper maintenance of a community charge" shall be inserted after the word "inspect".

4. In Schedule 2, at the end of section 17(2) (Inspection etc.) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, the words "only for a purpose associated with the proper maintenance of a community charge" shall be inserted.

5. Information concerning an individual who is subject to a community charge can only be disclosed by a registration officer or charging authority either :

(a) with the consent of that individual, or

(b) to another registration officer or charging authority for a purpose associated with the proper maintenance of a community charge.

6. It shall be an offence for any individual or organisation to hold or process personal data, as defined by the Data Protection Act 1984, that are wholly or in part obtained directly or indirectly from more than one community charges register, except where

(a) two different charging authorities or registration officers hold personal data for the purpose of the management of community charge when an individual changes his address and becomes subject to a community charge in one of the authorities, or

(b) an individual is subject to more than one community charge, or (

(c) the individual who is liable to pay a community charge, has consented to the holding or processing of his personal data. 7. Information relating to the date of birth of individuals liable to pay a community charge may only be retained by a registration officer or charging authority if :

(a) there is more than one individual liable to pay a community charge resident at a specific address, and

(b) the resident individuals have the same surname and initials, and

(c) there is no other simple means of identifying the resident individuals.

8. Sections 13, 14 and 15 of Schedule 2 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 are repealed.

9. Where a department of a charging authority or precepting authority is requested to provide information concerning an individual to a registration officer, the department may refuse that request if the department has reasonable cause to believe that the request for information :

(a) may cause serious degradation of a service provided by the department to that individual, or

(b) is unreasonable in terms of the cost to provide the information, or

(c) will breach an obligation to meet a duty of confidentiality.

Column 1026

10. Section 20(2)(c) of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987, and section 29 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 shall be replaced by :

"An electoral registration officer shall not sell the electoral register for purposes not associated with the election process if the officer uses any community charges register as a means of improving the accuracy of the electoral register".'.

Mr. Cohen : I shall be brief because hon. Members wish to consider the dog registration scheme, which I support. The amendment is similar to my Poll Tax (Registration of Individual Privacy) Bill which appears at column 162 of Hansard on 14 February 1989. I shall not repeat the arguments. The poll tax has a commercial exploitation and police state potential. It presents opportunities for enormous abuse of individual privacy. Until now the Government have handled this aspect very poorly and adopted a couldn't-care-less attitude. A farrago of misinformation and half -truths has been given to the public, and inadequate and inappropriate information has been given to local authorities by the Government, partly because they have not worked out the details properly. This is causing considerable and increasing consternation to the public. My measures restrict the collection and use of personal information by the community registration officer and the charging authority to purposes associated with the poll tax. This means that the information cannot be passed on for use for junk mail, determining credit ratings or vetting. My measures apply also to the principles and procedures of the Data Protection Act 1984 as they affect the collection and use of poll tax personal information.

There have been some odd questions on the registration forms that have been sent out in the past few weeks. Trafford has asked about the relationship of everyone in the household. Is that ultra vires? Hounslow and Solihull councils have asked who owns the furniture and where it is kept. Is that ultra vires? Croydon council has said that the local authority may use information for other "registered" purposes. That is not right. On 23 February, in an answer to me, the Minister for Local Government said :

"Community charges registration officers and charging authorities have no power to disclose data contained in registers to any third party other than those specified in the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and regulations to be made under it."--[ Official Report, 23 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 732. ]

That message has not got through to Croydon or, presumably, other local authorities. Will the Minister confirm that the information must not be used other than by community charge registration officers and the charging authority or for any purpose other than the community charge? Will he confirm also that the information must not be used internally by a local authority for any purpose other than the community charge? The Minister must give an unequivocal assurance. Will he confirm that Croydon council is acting ultra vires?

Privacy rights are being seriously eroded by the poll tax. The likelihood that the abuse will worsen is a menace to hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens. It is better that the Government should adopt the protective privacy measures in my amendment and new clause.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : I am happy to confirm my answer to the hon. Gentleman that the information which is requested for the purposes of the community charge may not be used for

Column 1027

other purposes. We have been particularly concerned to protect people's rights. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a person who fears that he or she may be in some danger can even have his name removed from the list so that it is not available. It can only be shown ; it cannot be copied or written down. An individual will, of course, see his or her own details on the list to ensure that it is accurate. The hon. Gentleman need have none of the worries that he has expressed. The law is very particular in the protection that it gives people and it gives community charge officers a restricted ability to gain information. They can gain only specific pieces of information--name and address being two, and age, when that is material to a person coming on to the community charge list at 18.

This is not the time of night to raise a controversial matter, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at his proposals and apply them to the Labour party's proposals to have two taxes, one of which would mean that local income tax information would have to be held in every town hall-- which is an incursion into people's freedoms and rights. It would be interesting to see whether people in Leyton appreciate the idea that details of their pay slips and such would have to be held. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to apply his mind to that. Information on the ownership and value of everybody's home would have to be held also.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under the Labour proposals one would pay the tax even on a tenanted property that one did not own? [Interruption.]

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend should not be led astray by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who rarely speaks other than from a sedentary position. I fear that my hon. Friend is perfectly right in what she says. The tenant would pay on the freehold value of his house, even though he would not gain any benefit from it.

11 pm

Whereas the regulations under the community charge are tightly drawn and present no threat to civil liberty, I could not say the same about the two- tax system that the Labour party is putting forward and which the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) supports-- [Interruption.] If Opposition Members do not understand that, they should ask to see the letters which show the distinction between the two systems. I think that the country understands.

I hope that the hon. Member for Leyton will now accept that his worries are unfounded and that there is no need for his new clause.

Mr. Cohen : I do not accept what the Minister has said because both a system of rates and a system of income tax are currently in operation. I do not agree that privacy would be more adversely affected. I have already referred to my ten-minute Bill, in which I set out a whole series of invasions of privacy--such as women being hassled under the cohabitation rules. The proof will be in the eating and the Minister will face the consequences.

In the interests of time, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn .

Column 1028

New Clause 16

Habitation (Standard)

.--(1) A local authority may draw up a scheme for the improvement of housing conditions in its area.

(2) Such a scheme may contain reference to a standard (to be known as "The Habitation Standard") to which all dwellings should conform. (3) The standard referred to in subsection (2) above shall include, but not be restricted to the provisions of Section 604 of the Housing Act 1985.

(4) The standard referred to in subsection (2) above may include the following matters :

(a) any dwelling should be free from substantial or significant disrepair (including electrical, gas and water supply facilities) ; (

(b) any dwelling should be substantially free from damp and not prone to condensation ;

(c) any dwelling should have adequate natural and artificial lighting and ventilation in all rooms in circulation areas ; (

(d) any dwelling shall have adequate space heating ;

(e) any dwelling should have an adequate supply of wholesome water within the house ;

(f) any dwelling should have within it satisfactory facilities for the preparation and cooking of food, including a sink with a supply of hot and cold water ;

(g) any dwelling shall have a wc for the use of the occupants, suitably located within the dwelling ;

(h) any dwelling shall have a suitably located fixed bath of shower provided with a satisfactory supply of hot and cold water ; (

(i) any dwelling shall have a suitably located wash hand basin with an adequate supply of hot and cold water ;

(j) any dwelling shall have an effective system for the drainage and disposal of foul, waste and surface water ;

(k) any dwelling shall be so arranged internally as to ensure the safety of the occupants ;

(l) any dwelling shall have satisfactory thermal insulation, and an adequate overall energy performance ;

(m) any dwelling shall have satisfactory sound insulation ; (

(n) any dwelling shall be free from progressive instability ; (

(o) any dwelling shall, wherever practicable, have a safe electrical supply and installation ;

(p) any dwelling shall be so located that the immediate environmental factors are tolerable ;

(q) the habitable rooms of any dwelling shall comprise a minimum size as specified by the Secretary of State for the Environment ; (

(r) any dwelling shall be free from noxious or hazardous substances.

(5) Before taking action in pursuance of a scheme drawn up under subsection (1) above, the local authority shall seek the consent of the Secretary of State which shall not be unreasonably withheld.'.-- [Mr. Battle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Parts V, VI, VII and VIII of the Bill refer to housing. If at this late stage of the evening we began to discuss the issue of minimum standards, it might be crowded out of the agenda and not receive a decent debate. I shall not pursue the matter now, but will return to it on Third Reading.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section

  Home Page