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Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West) : I shall, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, try to be brief. As you very well know, I tabled a motion on the poll tax that was not taken, for good or bad reasons, on Friday.
I want to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) about the 56-day rule. The Minister was somewhat sceptical about who speaks for Scottish local authorities. It is unfortunate that, once again, no Scottish Minister is on the Treasury Bench to instruct other Ministers about what happens in Scotland. I assume that the Minister knows that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and its president speak for Scottish local authorities. Mr. Milligan, the president, made a speech on 12 June in which he said :
"It is extremely likely therefore that a good number of those not paying at that time will be eligible for a rebate which authorities will be unable to backdate as the relevant period for doing so will have expired. These categories of potential claimants plus the general conclusions from our trawl"--
that is, of all local authorities--
"suggests that there may be up to 200,000 or so individuals who will lose out unless the 56-day rule is extended."
That is the view not of one local authority but of all Scottish local authorities, and 200,000 is not an insubstantial number. The Minister is under an obligation to redress the imbalance. People may not have cottoned on to all the sophisticated advertising. It may be that there has been obfuscation and that people do not understand it. Notwithstanding that, 200,000 people who ought to be receiving benefits that the Government suggest are generous should have their benefits fully backdated.
Those who are really suffering from the poverty trap are just above the income limit for claiming rebate. Scottish
Column 455local authorities have a great deal of sympathy for personal circumstances, but they are required by the legislation to carry out the appropriate debt recovery procedures.
What we are talking about was highlighted yesterday during the Prime Minister's exchanges with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). We are talking about taking money away from people who are on income support and benefits that provide them not with a luxurious standard of living but with a bare minimum standard of living. By the use of obnoxious procedures, any income support that they receive from the state will be taken away from them, probably leaving them with only 10p. The fact that only a few hon. Members are here this evening demonstrates the lack of knowledge about the subject. Only one Scottish Tory who might know something about it is here this evening. The rest of the Tory Members might know something about the theory, but we are talking about the practice.
We are talking about taking money back from people who are just above the poverty line to impose a tax that is completely unrelated to ability to pay. The Minister may shake his head, but it is the truth. It is not a charge for local authority services. All hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies could adumbrate their own experiences. I shall give one or two examples of what can happen.
An old woman came to me for advice. She has moved two doors down the road to look after her 90-year-old mother. The local authority deemed her to be living with her mother and so asked her for four lots of poll tax--two because she was living with her mother and two standard charges for the housing that she had vacated. That is not a charge for local authority services ; it is a property charge, as it applies to the house that has been vacated. It may be that the multiplier is wrong, but if the multiplier is wrong, why the hell do the Government use that multiplier for the rate support grant? You know quite a lot about taxation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I put it to you that this is the first tax that the Government claim has no anomalies. I suggest that it is riddled with anomalies. The Government will have to bend and review those anomalies, some of which bear most heavily on a section of the population which I have mentioned before and which I make no apologies for mentioning again--the severely mentally impaired.
I have a letter from the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped which has issued a leaflet at a cost of £725. I hope that the Minister will arrange through the Scottish Office for that sum to be reimbursed. The letter states :
"There are also cases where disabled people who are not exempt may be required to pay a Community Charge out of a personal allowance of £10 per week. This has happened in some hostels which have been treated as residential care homes for income support purposes but are classed as domestic homes by Registration Officers."
Column 456Why are we removing the burden from those who are most able to pay and putting it on the backs of those who are least able to pay? I know that I am at odds with some of my hon. Friends in the stance I have taken, but I know what is happening in my area. The position in Scotland is unlike the theories for England and Wales. It does not apply to Northern Ireland where the same social security legislation applies. The Government will not apply the poll tax in the Falls road or the Shankill. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. They should try it there.
An explosion is coming in Scotland. It is not that people want to defy the law. They will have no choice.
Mr. Douglas : Hon. Gentlemen should not say, "Rubbish." If they want to intervene, they should stand up and do so. It is not rubbish : it is fact. People will not be able to meet the obligation. I challenge any of my colleagues who have any responsibility for dealing with local authorities or any communication with them to tell me what is happening to housing debt. I know that it is soaring in Dunfermline, because people cannot meet their obligations. The poll is first call on them. It is automatic. It is an instrument whereby a button is pressed to take away their income support.
The House is empty of Scottish Tories tonight ; indeed, Scotland is nearly empty of them. One solitary Scottish Tory is here tonight, and he will vote for this, knowing that many people in his area do not want to defy the law, but will have no alternative, because this is an automatic process. The button is pressed, and income support is taken away. The button is pressed, and warrant sale takes place. It is pressed again, and wage arrestment will follow. The procedure will malign local authorities. If the Government want to implement this, let them take the stick. Let them administer the tax and do the dirty work.
Scottish local authorities cannot stand back another two or three years until the next general election, hoping for a Labour Government then. I dearly want a Labour Government to remove this burden. In the meantime, the people whom I represent will suffer all the more because of the passing of regulations such as these.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : At least the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) had the courtesy to accept that I know something about the situation in Scotland. I do not doubt the integrity with which he looks after his constituents. I hope that he does not doubt the integrity with which I look after mine. It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman highlight the problem of the lady who moved two doors down. I accept his worry on that score. I too am deeply concerned about that aspect of the community charge. I believe that the problem could have been resolved if the local authority had handled it a little more sympathetically. I have had the local authority's decisions reversed in one or two cases in
Column 457my constituency. In fact, that has happened on four or five occasions. I am not sure of the fifth occasion, because I have not had it confirmed in writing.
When a person moves to stay with a child--as is normal within families--he should not have to pay a double community charge on his usual nearby home. To have to do so is nonsense, as we all know. This anomaly has been created by the way in which some local authorities have handled certain cases. But this is not a long-term criticism. It was inevitable, during this dramatic change, that problems and anomalies would be highlighted. I have shown that many of them can be dealt with at local level.
These regulationss are to do with rebates and clawbacks, and the principles involved in them. The taxpayer is the chap on average income, with two children, who lives next door to someone who is in receipt of public support because his circumstances require that support. The person who pays for that support is the taxpayer. As my hon. Friend the Minister intimated, we should not deviate from the principle that taxpayers' money should be used for the purpose of support for which it was allocated. We have a duty to protect those on low incomes who pay income tax. Many do, and I wish that they did not.
I draw this to the attention of constituents who come to see me. I know where they live, and ask them whether they expect their taxpaying next-door neighbours to pay their dues.
Taxpayers are not the rich and wealthy. Instead, they are average individuals who form the majority. We must protect them, and that is why it is right that clawback powers should be provided in the regulations. We must deal with individuals, and my hon. Friend the Minister told us that each individual would be receiving a letter telling him how the system would operate and how claims could be made. It is right that each individual case should be treated on its merits.
I acknowledge that a small minority will cheat deliberately. We all know who they are. Our constituents come to us to complain about cheats. Those who live near them--perhaps in the same street--know who they are. My constituents tell me about them. When reports have been made to me, I have taken the matter further to the proper authorities. Where necessary, I have ensured that prosecutions follow. That is right and proper.
I do not believe that any hon. Members want those who cheat deliberately, who milk the system, to get away with it, whoever they are and at whatever level they operate. That is why I think it right that, when we use public funds we should--
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Has the hon. Gentleman considered the position of someone such as Lord Vesty, who is famous for cheating the taxpayer out of several thousands of pounds? Lord Vesty will stand to gain huge sums from the introduction and implementation of the poll tax in Cirencester, where he lives. The hon. Gentleman seems to be referring to those on low incomes when he talks about cheats, but he has not yet addressed himself to those who have not paid the poll tax because they cannot afford to do so.
Mr. Walker : The hon. Lady protests too loudly. If we live in a civilised society, and I hope that we do, and if there are genuine problems --I have said that individual cases must be examined on their merits--we must recognise them. I deal with each problem as it relates specifically to the individual who has brought it to my attention. I think that all hon. Members adopt that approach. I think also that we all find that not everything is as it is presented to us. An irate constituent came to me to draw attention to the problems that his mother was facing. He told me that his mother was required to pay the community charge in full. He argued that that was shameful as she was a pensioner, a widow and living alone. I told him that I would examine the circumstances. I did so, and found that the lady had £30,000-worth of equity. When my constituent returned to see me I asked him--I shall not give the names of these people because I am sure that they would not wish me to disclose them--"Do you think that Mr. So-and-So who lives next door, a bus driver with two young children, should pay your mother's community charge? That is effectively what you are saying. You are expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill." That is why each case must be examined individually.
I have no doubt that in some instances something will have to be done to recognise the special circumstances in which an individual finds himself, possibly as a result of events over which he does not have full control. It is essential that there are provisions within the system to allow for that. We must recognise that there will always be individuals, sadly, who will have to be helped out of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
When the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said that there was confusion, I pointedly drew attention in an intervention to the fact that the confusion in my constituency, in Dundee, West and in Dundee, East had been caused by the situation in Tayside. Nobody is in any doubt about where the Labour party stands on this issue. There is confusion in Tayside because the leaders of the Scottish National party are telling the public at large--including those in receipt of housing benefit, those on public support and those who will be affected by the instruments before the House tonight--not to pay the community charge.
But the SNP in office locally--the administration in Angus district--is collecting the community charge. Indeed, additional staff are being taken on to deal with it. So on the one hand SNP members are saying that they will bring in enforcement orders and issue warrants, and on the other, the SNP at the highest level is telling people not to pay. It is no wonder that there is confusion. That is why--for example, in Dundee, East, Dundee, West, Angus, East, Perth and Kinross and in my constituency--we have this problem.
The hon. Member for Garscadden was right to talk about confusion. The people of Tayside have no idea what the SNP--in or out of administration-- is telling people, and that is causing the most awful confusion.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Column 45911.47 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Frequently it seems to be my unfortunate duty to speak following the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). I hope that the bus driver of whom he spoke is voting for him, after all the hon. Gentleman's heroic efforts on his constituent's behalf.
After examining the instruments Nos. 507 and 476, my hon. Friends and I would like to know why people on income support for their basic income are being asked to pay the poll tax at all. The progenitor of the poll tax, former Councillor Douglas Mason, is quoted in an interesting article in the Aberdeen Evening Express of 14 June last-- [Interruption.] I gather that Conservative Members would rather I called it the community charge. In that article, Mr. Mason revealed that he had called it the poll tax, and he added disarmingly :
"I wish I had thought of calling it the community charge. It sounds so much nicer."
He went on to say that, from the point of view of the poll tax, he had three main criticisms of the measure that the Government had introduced. The report said of his second criticism :
"Secondly, because he designed the tax to make sure local authorities were accountable to the people they serve, he proposed that those who were on benefits should be made to pay the full amount"
of the poll tax. We find, therefore, that ex-Councillor Mason, the progenitor of the poll tax, is disappointed that the Government have gone only as far as making those on income support pay 20 per cent. of the poll tax, plus the community water charge.
It would not have been so bad had the Government arranged matters in such a way that those in receipt of income support and facing the poll tax charge were fully compensated for the amount of poll tax that they must pay. We can only conclude that a Minister who cannot even name three local authorities in Scotland is not aware that in Scotland there are many people whose uprating of income support will not cover the poll tax bill that they face. In my constituency, a single person loses by 31p a week, a married couple by more than 60p a week. In many other areas of Scotland where the poll tax is higher, the loss to those people on income support who face the poll tax is much greater. The Minister must say why, depending on where they live, those on income support in Scotland should find that the poll tax eats into their basic income levels.
This evening we must ask ourselves why the Government are bringing in statutory instruments which require more information and the direct deduction of poll tax from income support. The answer is given in the recent publicity about the 1 million people in Scotland who are not paying the poll tax.
This Sunday's Observer contained an interesting comment from the leader of the Labour group on Lothian regional council, Councillor John Mulvey, who said :
"the non-payment campaign is alive and well and going from strength to strength. There is clearly a sizeable number of people who are not prepared to pay the poll tax and their ranks are being swollen by those who cannot afford to pay.
In spite of council officials saying that things are going well, the reality is that they're really quite worried by the scale of opposition that is developing."
Not everyone in the Labour group on Lothian regional council shares his opinion. Councillor Eric Milligan was
Column 460mentioned earlier in this debate. In the words of Councillor Tony Kinder, the Labour councillor for Broxburn in the Lothian region, Councillor Milligan is the
"self-appointed poll tax collector-in-chief to the Conservative Party."
Mr. Salmond : The hon. Member mentions Grampian region. It is interesting to note that the Scottish National party finance convenor of Grampian region was the one finance convenor in Scotland who was prepared to go to the wall to stop warrant sales in the poll tax, while members of the Labour party in the Grampian region sat on their hands and allowed the Democrats and the Conservatives to vote him out of office. We all know that that is not something which "warrant sale Milligan" is likely to do in the Lothian region.
Statutory instruments Nos. 507 and 476 are signs of Government panic in face of the strength of the non-payment campaign in Scotland. There is no breach of civil liberties which the Government would not be prepared to encounter. There is no imposition on the poorest in the community that the Government would not be willing to consider to try to keep the poll tax show in Scotland on the road. However, the poll tax in Scotland will be ground into the dust of history where it belongs. That will be done by the strength of the non-payment campaign which is under way at the moment.
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : We have just heard the red Clydesider from Banff and Buchan talking about the great and stalwart fight which his colleagues in the Grampian region are conducting. His colleague sitting next to him, the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) comes from the local authority which is one of the most assiduous collectors of the poll tax in Scotland. However, I would be wasting the five minutes available to me if I talked any longer about this farce to my left.
I found none of the farce on the Conservative Benches at all funny this evening. These proceedings have been an outrageous mockery. We were talked down to by a Minister representing the rolling downs of Hampshire, who would not know a Scottish local authority if it hit him in the face. No Scottish Office Minister was present until the Whips went into the back shop and dragged the Minister responsible for the poll tax in Scotland away from his bottle of port. As soon as the Scottish press left the Gallery, the Minister returned to his drinks party in the back shop. Only one Tory Scottish Member of Parliament has sat through this farce from beginning to end, and that is the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), whom it is not easy to embarrass.
This farce typifies the sad position to which the government of Scotland has been reduced. These regulations will allow the poorest people in Scotland to be hunted down for a few pence and in the name of the community charge. It is only a few pence to Her Majesty's Government, who are sitting atop billions of pounds worth of surplus. The tax, and the farce associated with it, exemplify the reasons why each election and each opinion poll bring home--or ought to--to Her Majesty's
Column 461Government the extent to which they are now virtually bereft of popular support in the country of Scotland, which they purport to govern.
The Government, and their comprador in the Scottish Office, are a Government of Scottish Bourbons, who have learnt nothing and are forgetting nothing. There are no prizes for guessing who the Marie Antoinette is. I thought about who the Secretary of State might be, and the only figure I could come up with was Cardinal Rohan, whose patch was Strasbourg, but perhaps that is a delicate subject in these troubled times for the Tory party. The Government, who are implementing their mean-spirited, dire and pathetic regulations, are doing so without the slightest scintilla of popular support. As others have said, they are taking money from people on benefit, which, by definition, gives a level of financial support that is the very lowest that can be accepted in a civilised society of the Prime Minister's type. Even by this Government's standards, that is shameful.
Robin Small of the Low Pay Unit described the regulations as scandalous. He said :
"The whole notion of arresting Income Support which is considered to be subsistence level is scandalous.
How can the Government say they are keeping people off the poverty line by giving them Income Support and then take it away in certain circumstances?"
The Evening Times in Glasgow has fought a courageous campaign against the poll tax. It said in an editorial :
"The community charge is a tax without pity. Today we expose how it will be collected from many poor families who won't, or can't afford to pay Is this the sort of heartless society we truly want?" It describes the Minister's memorandum in this way :
"This is a brutal, oppressive memorandum. It shows how hard-nosed official channels are becoming about poverty. The State will have its pound of flesh, come what may, and never mind if people starve in the process."
There are people in Scotland who are pretty nearly going hungry, and this poll tax and these mean-spirited regulations will make it even harder for people living on the breadline to make ends meet. I hope that that is a pretty sight from the rolling downs of the Minister's constituency, because from where I sit, it is a pretty ugly one.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : It speaks volumes for the concern of the Scottish National party that, when the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is given the opportunity to criticise the perpetrators of the poll tax in Scotland, he instead spends his time attacking the only potential Government, the Labour party. During my short career in Parliament I have sat through debates on shameful pieces of legislation, but none more shameful than what we are discussing tonight. It might benefit the season ticket holders who have arrived late for the vote, and who were not here to watch the match, if I explained what the legislation is all about. Tonight we are contemplating taking powers to withdraw from essential benefits the anticipated arrears in payment of an unfair tax from those who can least afford to pay it.
If there was ever an admission of the callousness of the poll tax and of the Government who introduced it, this statutory instrument is it. We were told that it was a fair tax, that it took account of ability to pay, that it was designed to encourage individual responsibility and individual dignity. What a sham, what hypocrisy. What is fair about a tax for which arrears can be anticipated and
Column 462which will deprive the poorest in society of a minimal subsistence benefit designed to keep them not in comfort, not even in the less than comfort of the pension, but just minimally above the poverty line? How can a tax that takes any real account of ability to pay anticipate that the poorest will fall into arrears and inevitably will have to be punished by withdrawal of benefit? How can a tax encourage independence and dignity when, even before it is three months old, the Government are laying regulations that will reduce even further the little economic independence and dignity that anyone on income support can muster?
This is not simply a technical measure. It shows why the poll tax is absolutely rotten to the core. The poll tax already flies in the face of all progressive legislation by treating women as the chattels of their husbands. It stands on its head the Government's claim of individual responsibility by lumping husbands and wives together, even when the wife has only a minimal income. This measure is the most ignominious of all the aspects of the poll tax. It is no wonder that the Scottish Office Ministers did not have the guts to sit on the Front Bench while the Minister defended it.
This is not a tidying-up measure ; it is an open admission of the bankruptcy of the Government's social morality. It is an open admission that the poor will fall into arrears and will be punished for it. How much have we heard tonight about the technicalities of the regulations? We heard much about 10p and 56 days. We cannot possibly portray the misery of a family on the poverty line through some chap in a Civil Service office. We cannot possibly understand what families on income support who face the poll tax are going through simply by reading some fancy footnote from the Department of Social Security. We need to live with those families to understand what they face. The Minister's kids do not go to school with the kids of families on income support. The Minister does not have meals with those families. A Minister who cannot name three local authorities in Scotland and cannot name three families in poverty in Scotland has no right to introduce legislation that will so adversely affect them. I have many criticisms of the poll tax legislation. It is as needed in Scotland, as popular in Scotland and as useful in Scotland as the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). I have searched all night for a worse criticism, but I cannot find one.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : I am glad to have this opportunity to point out that when the memorandum from the Secretary of State for Social Security was sent to DSS offices in Scotland--it was based on statutory instrument No. 507--it was kept secret from Members of Parliament. When I asked to see a copy, I was told that I could not have one. I asked that it be placed in the Library, but that was refused. Another hon. Member asked whether it would appear in Hansard, but was told that it would not, on the grounds that it was only an interim order and that further instructions would be issued at a later date.
The Government were hoping to hide their iniquitous action. They were also hoping to hide the incompetence of the Ministers concerned. I managed to get hold of the memorandum and I have it here with me tonight. On page 2, it says that if a person fails to pay the poll tax, one of
Column 463the options open to obtain the poll tax from him is confinement in prison. One point about the poll tax that is well known in Scotland is that people do not go to prison in Scotland for not paying the poll tax. We have the spectacle of the Department of Social Security sending out a memorandum telling officials that people in Scotland go to prison for failing to pay the poll tax although that is clearly wrong. It is hardly surprising
It is hardly surprising, considering that the Minister could not name three of the Scottish local collecting authorities. It would help if he could at least manage to consult his Scottish Office colleagues to get right the law in Scotland and to avoid the embarrassment of the reaction that rightly came from people when the Evening Times exposed the fact that the Government were prepared to leave people in desperate need of money with as little as 10p of their income support. I do not know why they bother to leave 10p. Why not leave nothing, or at least 19p, so that those people can at least put a stamp on a letter to their Members of Parliament to take up their case? There is nothing more to say except that the regulations are one of the main reasons why this Conservative bunch who come in late and hear nothing of the debate
Mr. McAllion : I would consider giving way to the hon. Gentleman if he had had the courtesy to come into the Chamber and listen to the arguments about these regulations and the Scottish response. He has spent his time in the bar or somewhere else. He should go back there now and make no more attempts to intervene in this important debate. We have seen here tonight the best possible argument for the establishment in Scotland at the earliest possible date of a Scottish Parliament to deal with Scottish matters. Conservative Members have shown an absolute lack of appreciation not only of the Scottish issue--
Mr. Greg Knight : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman alleged that I have been in the bar. In fact, I have been in the Library, and I hope that he will give way to allow me to answer some of the criticisms that have been made on the subject-- It being one and a half hours after the motion was entered upon, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to order [16 June] :--
The House divided : Ayes 193, Noes 280.
Column 464Division No. 258] [12.07 am
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Quin, Ms Joyce
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Reid, Dr John
Roberts, Allan (Bootle)