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That provision may be made about the treatment, in determining chargeable gains or allowable losses, of transactions involving the holding of shares in, and securities of, companies by other companies.-- [Mr. Brooke.]
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : The charitable view of these four ways and means resolutions is that they are a sign of the Government's flexibility and their welcome willingness to listen to representations. The uncharitable view is that they illustrate what a mess the Government are in over the Finance Bill. The Government have already voted down three clauses of their own Finance Bill and have had to delay the proceedings on other clauses in order to make time to rewrite other substantial sections of it.
I welcome the fact that the Government have listened to representations, but what they have done has strengthened the argument for having a separate technical Finance Bill
Column 442in which complicated matters of this kind are dealt with and are the subject of widespread consultation before they are brought to the House, as have been some other parts of the Finance Bill. I hope that the Government will learn that lesson for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That provision may be made amending sections 272 and 278 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1970 and section 97 of the Inheritance Tax Act 1984.
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made for the purposes of income tax about trustees and personal representatives.
That provision may be made amending the definition of trading company' in section 136 of the Capital Gains Tax Act 1979 and section 576 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988.-- [Mr. Brooke.]
Column 443Community Charge (Scotland)
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : I beg to move, That the Housing Benefit (Community Charge Rebates) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 361), dated 7th March 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th March, be revoked.
That the Community Charges (Deductions from Income Support) (Scotland) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 507), dated 15th March 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be revoked.
That the Community Charges (Information Concerning Social Security) (Scotland) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 476), dated 14th March 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be revoked.
Mr. Dewar : The regulations which we are discussing tonight make unfortunate and unhappy reading. As the House will know, they deal with the poll tax and the enforcement machinery designed to extract an unfair tax from one of the most vulnerable groups in the community, people who have, almost by definition as recipients of income support, suffered under this Government in half a hundred different ways. I am aware that we are not having a general debate about the demerits of the poll tax, and I wish to concentrate fairly briskly on the regulations and some of the salient points which arise from them.
Will the Minister say a word or two about the Housing Benefit (Community Charge Rebates) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1989, particularly paragraph 14? This is the paragraph that deals with the 56-day rule. In their doubtful wisdom, the Government decided that the payment of the poll tax would start on 1 April this year, and if an eligible person applied for a rebate within 56 days of the starting point, the rebate-- [Interruption.]
I use the word "fascinating" in some seriousness, because it is an illustration of the Government's approach. Let me recapitulate. If one applies within 56 days, one is held to have applied as at 1 April 1989, and any rebate to which one is entitled will be taken from that date. The 56 days have now expired, so anyone who now applies for a rebate will receive one, only from the date of application. As three months have already passed, anyone who failed to apply in that period has already lost three months' worth of rebate. We must not assume that the people who are involved are those entitled to the maximum rebate, but many will lose substantial sums.
The rebate system is a difficult and complicated jungle, and the pain and confusion that have followed its introduction have made it difficult to know exactly how matters stand. I am told by Strathclyde region,which is by far the biggest levying authority in Scotland, that it estimates that around 580,000 people are eligible for rebates. It told me that, on its best estimate, only 480,000 have applied. It looks as though some 100,000 applicants,
Column 444many of whom have dependants, will have to suffer because of the 56-day rule. They cannot now catch up, and have lost at least three months' rebate this year. Every day that they delay, mostly because of confusion--there is no doubt about the confusion and
misunderstandings that the complexities of the system have produced--means that they will suffer financially even more. That is not an unhappy situation, it is an intolerable one, and one that the Government have consistently refused to remedy, although the remedy was simplicity itself.
I and many of my hon. Friends, and many people who are not politically inclined but know the social realities, have pressed on the Minister the need to extend that 56-day period and to allow a more generous approach towards rebates. We have done so in vain. The Minister of State, Scottish Office, who has borne the brunt of the argument, has reinforced his reputation for not being a man of spontaneous warmth. He is not noted for relating to, and understanding, the problems of the deprived, and he has made it clear that the Government will turn a deaf ear to these proposals. That is a tragedy of which he and his colleagues should be ashamed. The 56- day rule is formalised in these regulations. If that were the only point at dispute between ourselves and the Government, it would fully justify a vote against them. I hope that the Minister will say something about paragraph 15. For the sake of simplicity, I shall merely quote the explanatory note. It says :
"This paragraph extends the information which may be provided by the Secretary of State to levying authorities to include a person's date of birth."
I mention it because I know that there is a great deal of genuine puzzlement in Scotland as to why the system in England is organised without a person's date of birth being used as part of the poll tax information package, but this has had to be imposed as a statutory requirement in Scotland, and further powers are being taken. This is not the most important point that we shall be debating. It does not have the social implications of the 56-day rule, nor its capacity for damage, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will say a word or two about it.
I do not often face the Under-Secretary across the Dispatch Box, and I do so tonight with an open mind. He will gain valuable brownie points in my eyes if he can provide the explanation that his colleagues in the Scottish Office were unable to provide in the many hours of debate that we had about the machinery of the poll tax. The real crux of the debate, and the point of particular concern to me and my hon. Friends, is that the main drive of the principal order is to allow the deduction of poll tax arrears from benefit, especially from income support. It is a mean measure that will force the worst off in our community to fall below even the subsistence level of income support as presently calculated by the Government. We know from recent exchanges with Ministers--and even with the Prime Minister-- that the Government do not think that the basic pension is designed to provide comfort or to be an adequate income in itself. If that is true of the pension, it is very much more true of income support, which allows no gracious living, no room for the little luxuries that mean so much to morale and the quality of life of families. I know from constituency experience--as, to be fair, must Conservative Members--that those
Column 445on income support have to struggle and do not have the decent sufficiency that almost all of us want accorded to those in the greatest difficulty.
It is a shabby proposition to claw back poll tax out of income support. There is no real defence and no social justification for it. I appreciate that the Minister will no doubt advance a number of arguments, one or two of which I can anticipate. He will say that it is perfectly fair because those in receipt of income support have had a special supplement to cover the cost of the minimum poll tax contribution. Of course, the calculation of that is an arcane art, and one that I cannot pretend to have mastered. My understanding is that it is calculated on a United Kingdom basis, which is odd because the poll tax does not yet apply throughout the United Kingdom. It is also odd because in Scotland there are substantial variations, based upon local policy and local needs, in the amount of poll tax to be paid. In a broad-brush approach, everyone apparently has the same supplement--£1.15 this year for a single applicant under the age of 25 ; £1.30 for those over 25 and, strangely, for a couple it is £2.30, although we might reasonably have expected it to be £2.60. All that is most unconvincing. I know from conversations with many people that few will believe that it is adequate cover to allow people living at that economic level to meet their poll tax commitments without difficulty or financial embarrassment. I have tried explaining that first, we take the income support personal allowance for the current year, take out the rates element, uprate it by the retail price index less the housing element, arrive at the magic figure of 4.7 per cent.--which sounds suspiciously low compared with the real rise in the cost of living--and then add on the special supplement. There is no credibility in that exercise. Any such argument is blown away by the pressures of reality, the pressures of poverty and the true condition in which those who will be victimised by the rules actually live. No one will think that justifiable, because nothing can justify the tax itself and the basis on which it is levied. There is no doubt in my mind that many people, faced by the clawback authorised in the orders, will find themselves living at a subsistence level that none of us should be prepared to accept. The Minister may argue that there are many precedents for clawing back from benefit. The main precedent is where there has been overpayment of benefit, and because it must be reclaimed it is taken out of that same benefit in subsequent months. That may have unfortunate financial consequences, but there is a logic in it. It is all in the same benefit payment and there is a rough consistency which most people can understand.
There are occasions on which the South of Scotland Electricity Board or the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, if not too outre or faraway organisations for the Minister to contemplate, have direct deductions to meet debt. It is, of course, theoretically possible for that to be done without the consent of the debtor, as I understand it, although the Minister may want to comment on that. However, in almost all cases in which I have been involved, which must run to many scores, such a step has been taken with negotiation and consent. The debtor is, of course, anxious to reach that consent because he has a specific service--the supply of electricity or gas--that he wants to maintain. There is a logic in that and a benefit for the person concerned, which is understandable.
Under the 1988 regulations for housing benefit, it is possible to deduct an overpayment from income support.
Column 446However, talking as I did with a number of local authorities in Scotland, I believe that, very properly, that power has never been used. If it were used, it would lead to bitterness and a lack of confidence in the system, which would do none of us any good. I do not believe that, in terms of precedents or in terms of the financial calculations of income support personal allowances, there is a case for what the Government are doing. I perceived justice, and in term of social impact, there is no case at all.
I recognise that many of my hon. Friends want to contribute, so I will not make a long speech. However, I want to ask a couple of technical questions about the regulations. Perhaps it is my curiosity that is to blame, and there may be simple answers to my questions. I want to draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 2(2)(a), which deals with the issue of a summary warrant in the name of a couple. Perhaps the Minister could give an example of a circumstance in which it would be likely that a summary warrant would be issued in the name of a couple. I understand that a husband and wife living together or a man and a woman living together may be jointly and severally liable for the poll tax debt of each. However, as I understand it, there would be an attempt to recover from both individually and only if one failed to pay would a bill be issued for the debt to the other. It is unlikely, although I may have misunderstood the matter, which is why I am raising it, that summary warrants would go out in the name of both parties, as a couple. Perhaps the Minister could explain when that would happen.
I hope that he will also say a word about the appeal procedure. There will be appeal to the commissioners and in certain circumstances not to one commissioner but to three commissioners, and on a point of law ultimately to the Court of Session. It is an interesting comment on the complexity of the system and on the labyrinth we are constructing that that mass of overlapping and extending appeals is being erected. Perhaps the Minister--
Perhaps the Minister could also say a few words about deductions, which are the key to the matter. As I understand it, if a single debtor is involved, the deduction is 5 per cent. of the personal allowances for a single claimant aged not less than 25. Although it is not stated, because it may vary from time to time, I believe that it is £1.75 a week at present. For a couple who are both over 18, the relevant allowance is £54.80, I believe that the deduction is rounded up to £2.75. There is a reference to another claim and another test that has to be met. The unfortunate victim of the scheme is left with a minimum of 10p of income support.
I accept immediately--I do not wish to mislead anyone--that if someone is living on income support alone, the £2.75 maximum if he is living as part of a couple will still leave him with quite a significant income, not merely 10p. If someone is left only with 10p, he clearly has a significant amount of other income. However, I repeat the important charge that, even so, many people will be in a difficult situation because they will be living significantly below the very basic level which has been laid down by the Government, who are not noted for their generosity in this area. They are a Government who openly argue that the
Column 447poor need the spur of poverty so that they will better themselves in the market place. If we are driving people below even that standard, all hon. Members, whatever their political convictions, should take time to pause and to consider.
As the Minister no doubt knows, about 150,000 old-age pensioners in Scotland have to supplement their income with income support payments. Some of them will doubtless be driven near to the 10p rule and test by the deductions. In effect, they will then be living on that basic pension which the Prime Minister herself made clear that the Government recognise as not being sufficient for a decent standard of living. Is it right that we should force people into what the Prime Minister has recognised as an inadequate situation simply to recover 20 per cent. of a tax that has no valid basis and that is almost universally seen as unfair and unjust? The answer to that question is a resounding no.
I object strongly to the fact that, typically, it is the local authorities that are being put in the firing line. They are being given the duty of administering a scheme that they neither like nor want. Under the regulations they have to apply in writing to the Department to have the deduction machinery put in motion. As Ministers have doubtless calculated, it will be the local authorities that will be left to take the flak and the burden of the protests. Having spoken again to the local authorities in my part of the world, which I do frequently, I can report that they have a good record in dealing with those in genuine poverty who find themselves wrestling with the problems of debt to statutory authorities. Strathclyde's record will stand any examination because, sensibly, that authority does not make dilettante political statements about policy, but takes each case on its merits and applies humane and sensible tests, while avoiding the rigours of civil diligence, which is naturally repugnant to public opinion and is a disaster for the individuals concerned.
I expect the same understanding to be applied in this case. However, I believe that on behalf of my hon. Friends I am entitled to protest that local authorities with such records are put again in this embarrassing and difficult position in defence of a system that they regard as an anathema.
Once again, it is a case of the poorest in the community being made to suffer--people who, by definition, are in unfortunate financial circumstances. It is another example of social legislation--because there are important social implications in this--further dividing society and driving a greater and greater wedge between those that have and those that have not.
One third of my constituency--one of my regional wards--has an unemployment rate of over 36 per cent. I am not talking about a couple of streets chosen at random but about large swathes on the west side of the city of Glasgow. Many people there are living in genuine poverty, dependent on benefit. Thoughtless, mean-minded legislation such as this exacerbates that problem, yet Ministers wonder why they face alienation and a level of dislike in Scottish politics that is almost unique in my experience.
Measures such as this are not simply about the mechanics of a collection system. A social principle is involved. A difference of approach is built into this legislation and it shines through the debates and
Column 448arguments on this matter. If the regulations are forced through by the Government--I accept they will be tonight, perhaps by many hon. Members who have not had any opportunity of considering them--the House should be ashamed. Even now, the Minister should think about drawing back.
I wish that the Scottish Office was represented on the Treasury Bench to try to defend a system which the vast majority of the people of Scotland regard as unrelated to the ability to pay, which is unjust and which shifts the burden of taxation on to those who can ill afford to bear it. In reinforcing that essentially unjust system, this mechanism has on its shoulders all the disadvantages, all the difficulties and all the shame of the grand design.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) raised some points which it seems sensible for me to deal with straight away. He asked particularly about the date of birth. Inclusion of the birth date was requested to make it more convenient and easier for the local authority to distinguish between individuals of the same name-- [Interruption.] Local authorities may not have asked for it--I do not know--but certainly it is being put in for their additional convenience. That is the reason for it. I am glad to be able to answer one of the first points about which the hon. Gentleman asked.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : Does the Minister agree that the real reason why the date of birth has been made a statutory requirement is that local authorities will have to trace people as they move around the country and every individual in Scotland has been given a computer tag? Does he agree that that is why the date of birth has been made a statutory requirement?
Mr. Lloyd : It makes it easier for local authorities to distinguish between people of the same name living in the same household. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden asked about appeals. The appeal system is the normal social security appeal system. First the adjudication officer is involved, then the social security appeal tribunal and finally the commissioners on a point of law. It will be exactly the same as in the usual procedure. That is the method with which the social security system and local offices are familiar, and that people on social security who have appealed before know well. The hon. Gentleman also asked about summary warrants. It will be possible to take out a warrant against one individual when there is a debt in respect of a couple, and it will be possible to proceed against the couple. That is for the local authority to decide.
Mr. Lloyd : The local authorities will want to recover the community charge owing to them in exactly the same way as they want to recover rates that are owing to them. There is no difference in principle or in the final procedure. On behalf of all its rate or charge payers, the local authority will need to collect what is due. There is nothing new in that.
Column 449With regard to the regulations before us, I will begin with the Community Charge (Deductions from Income Support) (Scotland) Regulations 1989 which were laid before Parliament on 17 March and came into force on 8 April. They reflect the intention that there should be equality of treatment, wherever possible, between those in employment and those receiving benefit. The hon. Member for Garscadden rightly made the point that deductions from income support for those receiving benefit represent a parallel and equivalent measure to arrestment of earnings for those in work.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in October last year, as part of his uprating statement, that there would be a once-and-for-all adjustment to income support levels to meet the minimum 20 per cent. contribution which recipients will have to make to the community charge. Because this extra amount has been included in income support it is only right to ensure that it is used for its intended purpose.
As it has to with those in work, the levying authority must first obtain a summary warrant, to prove it is owed the money. This will be the trigger for these regulations. Principally, they provide that an authority, having obtained a summary warrant, may apply to the DSS for deductions from income support to meet that debt. In asking for such deductions the authority has to provide sufficient information to enable the local social security office to identify the debtor. Here the birthday date helps. We shall only consider deductions for the amount specified on the warrant or the authority requires.
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : My wife telephoned me tonight and told me that she had a letter saying that the Government want young people in YTS schemes. Such young people would probably receive about £35 per week, and would then be expected to pay 20 per cent. of the poll tax, plus 15 per cent., which exceeds their income support of £27.40. Therefore, a young person who gets, say, £35, which the Government are encouraging, is now expected to pay another £1.14 per week. Does the Minister not think that it is tragic that the Government are encouraging young people to come off the dole and into training schemes for which they will be given some money, but then taking some of that money back? Young people are really being sent to the graveyard, because they will not be able to pay the poll tax. Does the Minister realise that letters have been sent out to the managers running the schemes, and the managers are putting their hands up in horror, because young trainees are expected to live on the trainee allowance? What does the Minister say about that?
Mr. Lloyd : The Minister says that the purpose of the community charge is that everybody should make a contribution. The rate will be set by the local authority and there are rebates for those on low incomes. Those who are on YTS obviously come into the category of those on low incomes, and they are likely to get a substantial rebate.
Mr. Graham : Does the Minister not realise what I am saying? The Government have implemented a programme to encourage young people to go into employment training schemes--YTS--by saying that, from the guaranteed income support of £27.40, they would be expected to pay a 20 per cent. contribution to the poll tax. The Government are now saying, however, that because they receive additional money for travelling costs, the
Column 450Government will take that amount off in poll tax, which comes to a loss of £1.14 a week. Will the Minister answer that? Young people in Scotland will have that amount deducted, while those in England will not have that money deducted until next year. The young people in England will be far better off on the YTS scheme. Will the Minister tell the young people in Scotland what they are expected to live on?
Mr. Lloyd : The young people on YTS are earning above the income support rate for their age group, so they have a rebate in exactly the same way as anybody who is on income support, but adjusted for their actual earnings. That appears to be a much fairer system than the one we have now- -the one that the hon. Gentleman appears to be defending--where some people pay heavy rates bills and some people pay absolutely nothing. In our system the burden is spread across the whole of the population. It is adjusted for those on lower incomes to suit those incomes. That appears to be basically fair and I should think that the hon. Gentleman would find it very easy to explain that to YTS trainees.
Where there is an outstanding community charge debt and sufficient income support, as decided by the adjudication officer, the rate of deduction will be, as the hon. member for Garscadden said, £1.75 a week for a single person and £2.75 a week for a couple, if both partners are debtors. Those weekly deductions are fixed by the regulations. There is no provision for them to be varied. The adjudication officer will decide that there is sufficient entitlement to income support only--again we come to a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Garscadden--if, after the deduction, the person is left with 10p or more of that part of his income which comes from income support.
This is easy to misrepresent--the hon. Member for Garscadden sailed near to it, but he did not quite go across the line--but this safeguard, which appears in existing provisions for deductions to pay third parties, is there to ensure that we do not extinguish entitlement to benefit. The fixed flat rate deduction for a single person is £1.75 a week, and it is totally wrong to suggest that we propose to make that deduction and leave someone with an income of only 10p. Benefit can be reduced to 10p only if income support was very low to start with and the individual relies mainly on another source of income.
Mr. Dewar : I think that the hon. Gentleman would concede that I was very careful not to make that suggestion. If he reads my speech, he will see that I spent some time establishing that point. Will the hon. Gentleman, however, address himself to the example that I cited, which is that of the many thousands of old-age pensioners in Scotland who have the basic pension and income support? Some of them might well be taken down to an income near the basic pension, if not down to 10p above it. We know from the Minister for Social Security and the Prime Minister that it is accepted that that is not sufficient for a comfortable living. Is it necessary that they should be driven into that situation in order to recover the poll tax in the way that is outlined?
Mr. Lloyd : My right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security was referring not just to income support but to housing benefit. The amount taken away will not be more than the income support element of their social security benefits. That is what the hon. Gentleman is asking about.
Mr. Lloyd : It could get down to a level 10p above the basic pension, but the hon. Gentleman is forgetting that that pensioner may have housing benefit and may well be paying 20 per cent. of the rates now. The point that my hon. Friend was making was that not all the household outgoings have to be met by the single person's pension alone. There are other benefits in addition to income support.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : The Department is about to introduce the scheme into Macclesfield, Scarborough, Cambridge, Bolton and all sorts of other places. With that in view, would it not have some sort of report from the Scottish managers on how matters have worked out in practice? Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), is the Minister saying that the managers think that things have worked out as smoothly as he has suggested to the House?
Mr. Lloyd : I have not suggested that it has or has not worked out smoothly. I have not reached that issue yet. The community charge has started extraordinarily well in Scotland. It was an enormous change. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but I have sat in this Chamber listening to Opposition Members explaining how registration would be a complete disaster, how it could not be managed by Scottish local authorities and was administratively impossible. But I understand that Scottish local authorities have done much better than Scottish Members ever believed possible and that the numbers registered range from 99 to 100 per cent.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : I do not know how familiar the Minister is with recent Scottish newspapers, but is he aware that, in a report in The Scotsman last week, local authority finance officers in Scotland estimated that at least 1 million Scots have not paid their poll tax? What does the Minister think about that?
Mr. Lloyd : One cannot rely on such figures put out in the newspapers. What I do know is that the expectations for registration have been fulfilled, that many of the bills have been sent out, on time and rebated, but not all of them. There is a large backlog to be made up, as one would expect with any substantial change in a system such as this. Our estimates of the case load for rebates was 780,000, which includes couples and individuals. That means over 1 million individuals. At the end of the 56 days to which the hon. Member for Garscadden referred, we had about one and one third of a million applications. If one grosses that up for the individuals we find that our predictions for the caseload look as though they are being fulfilled.
Mr. Dewar indicated dissent.
Mr. Dewar : I am sorry to intervene again, but this is important. I took the trouble to speak to senior officers of the biggest authority, Strathclyde region, today. Their genuine and best estimate was that the authority was about 100,000 short of its estimate. In other words,
Column 452somewhere out there in Strathclyde there are about 100,000 applicants who are probably eligible who have not yet applied. Even if there were only a handful, would there not be a strong case in humane terms for extending the 56-day rule and not penalising those people, particularly in view of the extraordinary confusion that all Scottish Members find in their surgeries every week, when constituents come in with a mass of incomprehensible papers that they do not know what to do with?
Mr. Lloyd : The 56-day concession was suggested by Scottish local authorities and we were happy to adopt it, knowing that there would be difficulties at the beginning of the changeover. The total arrangement comprises those 56 days, eight weeks, allowing for two demands for payment, and three spare weeks afterwards. The most vulnerable--those receiving housing benefit--automatically transferred on to the rebate. Those receiving income support were sent a personal letter with a claim form well before 1 April, so they received not a general but a specific notification. Since then there have been television advertising, press advertisements, and a great deal of editorial comment, assisted by the attacks made by Opposition Members, for which I give due credit and for which, in this context at least, I am very grateful.
Applications for rebates not only match but exceed our expectations. The number arriving now is quite small, but one expects applications to continue as people move or become entitled to rebate for the first time. However, from the figures that I have seen and on the basis of our calculations, there is no justification for extending the 56-day period. Other people may produce different calculations, but I am sceptical of the basis on which they were made.
There remains the good cause provision for backdating entitlement, available to those who can show good reason for not having yet made an application. It is for the local authority to judge whether or not the individual had a valid reason for not knowing that application could be made, or for not being able to apply, or was totally confused by wrong information or propaganda--or even by the advice that he should have nothing to do with the community charge.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : As one English Member to another, may I ask the Minister how many Scottish local authorities he has visited to discuss at first hand with officials the difficulties that are arising?
Mr. Lloyd : Speaking as one English Member to another, I think that the hon. Gentleman knows the likely answer to his question. Of course I have not visited local authorities in Scotland. I rely, as all Ministers do, on information from not just one, two or three local authorities but, through the system of reporting, from every Scottish local authority. I have information from them all, which is far more valuable and a much sounder basis on which to form a judgment than dashing up on a train or plane to spend a few days in Scotland talking to just one, two or three local authorities.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Is my hon. Friend aware that the degree of confusion that exists in Scotland has been brought about by politicians making comments about non-collection of the community charge? I refer
Column 453particularly to members of the Scottish National party, yet the only district council that it runs is collecting the community charge. Is it surprising that confusion exists?
Mr. Lloyd : It is not surprising at all. As I said earlier, local authorities in Scotland have done extraordinarily well to introduce the system with such efficiency and effectiveness, given the tirade of propaganda from Opposition Members. I am certain, however, that those efficient local authorities will be able to judge whether some individuals have been confused--retirement pensioners, for instance--and will take that into account and allow them to backdate their rebates to 1 April.
The Community Charges (Information concerning Social Security) (Scotland) Regulations 1989 permit the Secretary of State, through the staff of DSS local offices, to pass certain specified information to community charge registration officers. As people on income support are receiving additional money to help them pay 20 per cent. of the community charge, it is reasonable that they appear on the community charge register. The purpose of the regulations is to ensure that that happens. I will explain to the House why the regulations take the form that they do.
Community charge registration officers need access to certain sources of information so that their registers are as accurate as possible at any given time. They are able to require the information that they need from the authorities which administer housing benefit and community charge rebate, so they have access to the names, dates of birth and addresses of everyone who has claimed either or both those benefits. If it were not for the regulations, however, the CCROs would not have access to information from DSS offices, as information about income support is held on a confidential basis. That information may be passed to CCROs so that they can check it against their registers and ensure that there are no discrepancies. I stress that the information that is specified is the minimum necessary for the purpose, and that the CCRO may not use it for any purpose other than for maintaining his register.
The Housing Benefit (Community Charge Rebates) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1989 make a number of changes to the arrangements for rebating the community charge in Scotland. Some were necessary to maintain alignment between these regulations and the Housing Benefit (General Amendment) Regulations 1989. It is important that the two schemes should be as closely aligned as possible so that they are as simple as possible for local authorities to administer, and as easy as possible for claimants to understand.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : The rather dry manner in which the Minister is dragging his way through his brief gives me the impression that he may be having a dummy run for this time next year, when he will be applying the same regulations to England. Will he have a shot at convincing me that he is not simply using Scotland as a guinea pig? Can he also convince me that he knows something about what he is talking about by naming just three local authorities in Scotland which administer the poll tax?
Column 454was a larger and earlier demand for a change in the rating system there after the revaluation. That is why Scotland is lucky enough to be experiencing this excellent change first.
If Scotland were being used as a guinea pig, we should have delayed the provision for England and Wales for another year. It might then have been possible to learn some lessons from Scotland--if there are any lessons to be learned. The English legislation is already on the statute book, however, and the preparations are well down the track, so we are treating England in exactly the same way.
The hon. Gentleman asked for three examples of Scottish authorities administering the poll tax. Well, Strathclyde is certainly one. Another is Central. How about that?
There are a number of other points which might be touched upon, but I have already commented on the main issues that have been raised by Opposition Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Garscadden and I wish to leave time for other hon. Members to make their points, which may be different from those that have already been made. I have confidence, nevertheless, in commending these excellent regulations to the House.
Several Hon. Members rose--