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Column 381individuals through the very extensive system of rebates which should take care of anybody in an especially bad position. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. This statement refers to England. I therefore propose to call two for one because, of course, this is a United Kingdom Parliament and I shall then give Scottish Members an opportunity to put their point of view.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is only fair and equitable to help areas such as mine which have traditionally enjoyed low rateable values? Is it right that in Copeland, for example, the average rateable value per hereditament is £121 and therefore Copeland will benefit considerably from the statement? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that underlines that it is vital not to look at these matters in isolation, but to consider the alternatives? That is why my right hon. Friend was wise to warn people in Copeland on salaries of just £11,000 a year that they could end up paying £1,000 if the scheme of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is implemented.
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green) : My constituents enjoy the unenviable distinction of having to pay the highest community charge in the country--£642 per adult. No doubt that is due to the fact that the local authority is overspending by nearly £400 per adult, and no doubt the electors will take account of that next May. Will my right hon. Friend tell me why a constituency in that situation should be making a contribution to the safety net? Will he introduce powers to rate-cap, and will he apply them vigorously to boroughs such as Haringey?
Mr. Ridley : Haringey is both a high-spending authority and a high rateable value authority, so its ratepayers currently contribute to other councils as well as having to pay a great deal to their own council.
I assure my hon. Friend that capping powers are in the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and, if it is felt correct and necessary, we will not hesitate to use them.
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : The Secretary of State referred to what he called Labour party policy in relation to these seven pages. Can he tell the House the total cost of producing them--a cost borne by the United Kingdom taxpayer? Is the Secretary of State aware that, by producing these pages, he, personally has called into question the impartiality of the Civil Service? The head of the Civil Service ought to look at the damage that the Secretary of State has done to that service. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if Labour councils produced that kind of political propaganda the Secretary of State would impose a surcharge? We will be glad to see the back of him and of his double standards.
Mr. Ridley : I cannot understand why Opposition Members keep returning to this subject. It would be far wiser to try to forget it. [ Hon. Members-- : "Ah !"] I do not want to forget it. I am delighted for the hon. Gentleman to
Column 382raise it. Opposition Members seem to be so extremely sensitive about their proposals being mentioned. That surprises me very much. I have received a parliamentary question. Am I not supposed to answer it? Should I answer parliamentary questions from the Opposition but not from this side?
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : Is the reason that we are having to spend so much time this afternoon discussing safety nets, the consistent and persistent overspending by a large number of local authorities, almost all of which are Labour-controlled, such as the London borough of Lambeth which, on average, spends £303 per adult more than it needs to each and every year? Despite that, the council still has hundreds of council units of accommodation empty and hundreds that are full of squatters and it is spending thousands of pounds on the wages of former Labour Members of Parliament who have been defeated in an election and now act as its special advisers. Is it not necessary to introduce the community charge to protect the community as a whole from this consistent and persistent overspending?
Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is exactly right. Whether the new director general of Lambeth will succeed in putting up the community charge still further remains to be seen, but I would not be surprised if he did.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : Can my right hon. Friend confirm two things? First, are all the swings that we are so exercised about very modest compared with those that would have resulted from rate revaluation? Secondly, would not areas such as Canterbury, where there have been enormous movements in house prices for reasons that have had nothing to do with local prosperity and a great deal to do with second home owners and other outside factors, lose very heavily if we retained the existing system?
Mr. Ridley : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The high house prices in some parts of the south-east, particularly his constituency, are the worst possible reason for the people who live there to be asked to pay more towards local government even when their council is a low-spending one. It is absolute nonsense at present. To bring it back in the form of an annual valuation--we must consider the expense of administering it--to clobber people who happen to live in areas where there are high house prices, is the most suicidal policy I have ever heard of.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : What is the total additional funding that the right hon. Gentleman feels that he has to provide to meet the anxieties of English Tory Members now that the poll tax chickens have come home to roost? Does he realise that the maximum contribution change from £70 to £75 for 1990-91, implies an inflation rate for that year of 7.5 per cent.? Is that a forecast? If so, has he told the Chancellor?
Mr. Ridley : If the hon. Gentleman has listened to the statement, he would know that the aggregate external finance for England is £1.8 billion higher than the current year, which is an 8.5 per cent. increase. Those are the figures. The fact that they are higher than what we firmly believe the rate of inflation will be shows that this is quite a generous grant settlement.
Column 383Bury, I welcome the anticipated 20 per cent. drop in their rate bills. Will my right hon. Friend reassure domestic ratepayers-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Burt : Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Can my right hon. Friend reassure domestic ratepayers as soon as possible that the main determinant of the community charge will be local authority expenditure rather than Government expenditure policy?
Mr. Ridley : I have no doubt that the very large reduction in business rate poundages which will reach the north with the introduction of the new system will make an immense difference to the prosperity of those areas and to their ability to maintain high levels of employment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition of that.
We hope that the full community charge will begin to take effect as quickly as possible so that we get full accountability of councils to their electors. There will be two elements for a few years--the charge and the safety net--but that should not divert people from the essential task of looking at their community charge as a ready reckoner to assess the efficiency of their council.
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage) : I welcome the expected reduction in the business rate in Stevenage, which means that local businesses will be free from the high-spending local authority in that respect. The statement about safety nets clearly demonstrates the iniquities of the present system. I only wish that we were able to get rid of some of those iniquities rather more sharply.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Does the Secretary of State agree that the silence that greeted his statement before the unnatural break and the disarray that we have since heard from Conservative Members shows that the headless chickens are coming home to roost?
The attitude of those of us who are already suffering the poll tax and those of us who served on the Standing Committee on the Local Government Finance Bill who warned exactly what would happen to Tory Members who are now finding out about it is one of hell mend them, because they will find out a great deal more before it takes effect. Instead of spending money on bogus statistics, will the Secretary of State consider spending a little to set up a helpline for Tory Members who lose their seats because of the poll tax? There are plenty of counsellors available among former Tory Members in Scotland who lost their seats because of the poll tax.
Mr. Ridley : There are not nearly as many former hon. Members as there would be if there were a local income tax and capital value rates. In Cunninghame, North the Labour party would lose every seat if it brought that in.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of the voters of Lancashire, West who, as a consequence of his listening to the arguments about a safety net, will now benefit by £25 a
Column 384head? Will my right hon. Friend look at the figures in front of him for the Labour councils which surround Tory- controlled West Lancashire? He will know that every one of them--Knowsley, Wigan, St. Helens and Liverpool--will pay at least £40 or £50 a head, despite the fact that West Lancashire will contribute towards the safety net.
Mr. Ridley : It is a curious fact that the vast majority of authorities which can spend below their GREs are Tory-controlled and the vast majority which spend above their GREs are Labour-controlled. The reason for high community charges is high spending by inefficient Labour councils, and nothing else.
Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley) : Will my right hon. Friend accept my thanks for seeing me and other delegates prior to this announcement, when we asked for a fairer system? Will he please record my bitter disappointment on behalf of the Birmingham ratepayers at the fact that this so-called juster technical system which he has found is one which increases even more the injustice faced by Birmingham poll tax payers? Will he think of a transfer to national taxation in line with the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon)? That would mean that after the summer recess, we could, once and for all, do away with this iniquitous system which disprivileges the good housekeepers and is to the benefit of the bad.
Mr. Ridley : I must refer my hon. Friend to the fact that Birmingham currently contributes towards resource equalisation. The new system will phase that out. That is what we are doing, and that will be the beginning of the end of the rating system to which he objects so greatly.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Will my right hon. Friend accept that many believe that the safety net provisions place a premium upon extravagance and a penalty on prudence? Will he confirm that the community charge payers of Barnet will be asked to pay £55, while the community charge payers of Islington will receive £173? In view of the lack of gratitude on the part of the recipients, will he consider ending this compulsory tax on Barnet's community charge payers? Will he confirm that the cost savings under competitive tendering can be as high as 20 per cent.? What would be the cost to the community of a local income tax?
Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is quite right--massive savings are available under the new competitive tendering, which authorities can take much further than they are required to do by the law. That is one way, among others, in which they can reduce their community charges. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), who sat through the statement today, would agree that there are at least as many people who are grateful for the safety net as there are who resent having to contribute to it. It is obviously difficult to get the balance right, but I believe that in this case we have.
Mr. Tony Banks : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is well known that as you are Mr. Speaker, and stand as Mr. Speaker, you clearly cannot ask a question of a Minister, but you must have a constituency interest. I wonder whether I could assist you, Mr. Speaker, by asking the Secretary of State why, in Croydon--
Ms. Dawn Primarolo, supported by Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Ms. Clare Short, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Ms. Harriet Harman, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. George Howarth and Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, presented a Bill to restrict the location of pornographic material ; to provide for licensed vendors of pornographic material ; to extend the powers of trading standards officers ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 188.]
That the Bristol Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the holding of a referendum before the coming into operation of the Local Government Act 1988.
After that statement, this could not be a more opportune moment to bring my Bill to the House. It will allay some of the fears of worried Conservative Members because it brings a solution to their problem : we should not have the poll tax. The Poll Tax (Popular Consultation) Bill is not an extension of the debate on the pros and cons of the poll tax which appear to be continually debated in this House. Debates have taken place in every town and city which have involved the community in the widest sense. Churches of every denomination have participated, as have charity organisations and every sector of the community, including bishops, priests and vicars. An overwhelming majority have reached the common conclusion that the poll tax is an unfair, regressive tax which discriminates against those with low incomes.
The public at large have a more detailed knowledge of the poll tax than of any other Government legislation which has passed through the House this Session. They are aware that the poll tax makes no allowance for extreme differentials in income or wealth. The public are aware that an elderly pensioner can be required to pay as much as a millionaire or a millionairess. The public want a fair local tax, determined by locally elected representatives and based on ability to pay, with a rebate scheme which would fully offset any hardship which a tax on low incomes would otherwise inflict.
The public have made an informed decision and have rejected a tax which resorts to bailiffs and the seizure of household goods. They have rejected a tax that will get its pound of flesh by imprisonment and, most importantly, they have rejected a tax which fundamentally threatens their democratic right to vote.
My Bill deals specifically with that right as a poll tax issue. My Bill will fully restore that fundamental democratic right, and because it offers every British citizen an extension of his or her democratic rights, its consideration by the House could not be more opportune. Its democratic expression has an affinity with the wider expression of democracy conveyed in the current celebrations of the French revolution, an important landmark in human rights, which coincides with other important democratic revolutions that have been enacted across eastern Europe.
They are all important landmarks in the advancement of the individual and the collective rights of the people. They are major historical events that tend to eclipse and overshadow the English revolutions, especially the peasant revolutions, when the general will of the people forced a dictatorial sovereign to remove a poll tax from the statute book. Regrettably, previous British sovereigns were no respecters of people's rights and offenders were the recipients of the ultimate in physical lessons, and had their heads removed. Steps were taken through the parliamentary process to prevent any succeeding sovereign from challenging the democratic rights of the people.
However, those parliamentary changes failed to foresee or anticipate political usurpation, intentionally or
Column 387unintentionally, of the people's rights. That would require a Bill of Rights. Until that is on the statute book, I do not suggest that we should revert to the executioner's axe and, although I have heard people say that the Prime Minister behaves like a dictator, I do not suggest that we should remove her head--[ Hon. Members :-- "Why not?"] The Prime Minister is supposedly Britain's greatest advocate of human rights, and lord of the rights of every nation and its citizens. She has stomped the streets of Moscow on walkabouts and met Russian dissidents. This weekend, she emphatically defined the high value that she supposedly places on the rights of the British people when she admonished the French President and reminded him of the Magna Carta. She supposedly stands spiritually shoulder to shoulder with Lech Walesa and the Polish people's rights. I ask her to stop denying the British people their rights. If the Prime Minister insists on continuing her charade, it will take Bills like mine to put her and her Government in their place.
I consulted the Prime Minister about a poll tax referendum. I wrote to her on 31 May, before the European elections, and said that I should like to make the most economic use of the polling station facility provided at considerable public cost to carry out a Coventry, North-East poll tax referendum, with the poll tax forms to be provided at my expense. She referred that request to the Home Office for its adjudication, and the Minister's response on 12 June explained that the polling station facility could not be used in that dual manner.
Having been denied that facility, and in the knowledge that the imposition of the poll tax is a matter of serious concern, not only to my constituents but to every hon. Member's constituents, I have introduced this Bill, knowing that it will have the widest possible support. Any Gallup or MORI poll would confirm that, as it would give every elector the same right of access to the ballot box as the Prime Minister imposed on every trade union member.
While this simply worded Bill may not be as visually impressive as the multi-page, word-saturated documents churned out by the Government, it is the most important Bill to come before the House this Session. It gets to the heart of the matter. It recognises the genuine will of the people as it provides them, in 30 frugal words, with the right to exercise their choice on the Government's infamous poll tax. I am grateful for this opportunity to bring the Bill before the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Hughes, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Bob Cryer, Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mrs. Audrey Wise and Mr. Harry Cohen.
Mr. John Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to require the holding of a referendum before the coming into operation of the Local Government Act 1988 : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 October and to be printed. [Bill 189.]
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am amazed that the Bill moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) received the unanimous support of the House. It concerns a crucial matter, relating directly to the statement that we have just heard, and the critical questions that it raises. In view of the unanimity of the House, will you use your good offices to see whether there is any means by which we could, even at this late stage of the Session, facilitate the quick passage of the Bill, as it would not be opposed?
"The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn the special attention of the House to the Instrument in its Twenty Sixth Report".
That report is in the Vote Office, but the Committee has not been able to conform with the Standing Orders and make a full report because it examined these instruments, which were drawn to our attention by our counsel, yesterday afternoon at 4.15 when we had our usual weekly meeting. That means that the evidence, which was taken over a period lasting well over an hour from civil servants involved in the drafting of the instruments, and which contains a great deal of background and elucidation material, cannot be provided for the House. In those circumstances, although this is not a point for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I feel that the statutory instruments should be withdrawn. By crowding through these statutory instruments, the Government are preventing a Standing Order from being operated. I wanted to draw that to your attention.
Madam Deputy Speaker : I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman, but it is for the House to decide whether it wishes to have regard to the Committee's opinion. There is nothing out of order about the motions before us. This is a matter for the House to debate and for the House to take a decision on at the end of the debate.
Mr. Pike : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on two issues. I hope that you will be able to consult Mr. Speaker on the first point, which concerns the problem that the papers with the statement were said to be available in the Vote Office, but were not. This problem has put Mr. Speaker and the occupant of the Chair, whoever that person is, in difficulty on numerous occasions. It is time that Mr. Speaker, you and others involved found a better way for making papers relevant to statements available to hon. Members when the statements are made. It is even more appalling that those papers are handed out to members of the press ; they get a better service than hon. Members.
Column 389On several occasions the Secretary of State referred to a question that he had to answer, but it was a planted question, No. 215. This happens time after time. We always recognise those questions on the Order Paper because they bear that mark that shows that they were handed in for answer the day before.
What is particularly galling is that other hon. Members may have asked similar questions some time before, and got the answer afterwards in the reply to the planted question. The Chair should be making it firmly known-- it is your job, Madam Deputy Speaker, to protect the interests of Back- Benchers--that the practice of Ministers, through their parliamentary private secretaries, of asking one of their colleagues to table these planted questions is to be deprecated and should be stopped.
Madam Deputy Speaker : On the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised, I am sure that Mr. Speaker and my other colleagues in the Chair appreciate the sympathy that the hon. Gentleman and others have extended. I agree with what he said. As to the second point, it is a matter of procedure. I ask the hon. Gentleman to ponder it carefully and seek to raise the matter with the Select Committee on Procedure.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This concerns the documents appended to the statement, which we were told by the Secretary of State today referred to a parliamentary question outlining what the Secretary of State believes to be Labour policy. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is pure unadulterated lies and rubbish. Now
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. Mr. Speaker has already dealt with that matter. If the hon. Gentleman has a point of order, I must listen to it, but it must be a genuine point of order and not a matter for debate.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : This is not a question for debate. I have tabled many questions over the past 10 years that I have been a Member of Parliament and on a number of occasions I have received the reply that questions cannot be answered because of disproportionate costs. In replying to that question, the Secretary of State has set a precedent because he has accepted that a certain question can be answered at a particular cost. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Chair should establish what the cost was so that in future, when questions are not answered because of disproportionate cost, we might have the basis for appeal to the Chair to have the questions answered.
This is not a spurious matter. It is important because the precedent has been set for expensive questions to be answered. The Chair and Parliament should know what the cost was in this instance so that in future we can
Column 390measure whether it is fair and reasonable for a Department to state that a question cannot be answered on the basis of disproportionate cost.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When a Minister responds to a question referring to the Opposition's policy--this arises during questions to departmental Ministers and especially during questions to the Prime Minister--the occupant of the Chair will invariably remind the Minister that it is for the Government to state what their policy is and that we should not respond by referring to the Opposition's policy. That is because the Minister is responsible for Government policy. He has no responsibility for the Opposition's policy. This afternoon we have seen an extension of the practice that Mr. Speaker deprecates during Question Time. When Mr. Speaker says that an hon. Member cannot continue asking questions about matters for which the Minister has no responsibility, the hon. Member must resume his place. In this instance, the Secretary of State for the Environment answered a planted question from one of his hon. Friends about Labour party policy--
Mr. Skinner : I should have said "suggested" Labour party policy or "alleged" Labour party policy. As I have said, we have seen an extension of the practice that is deprecated by Mr. Speaker. If the practice is deprecated during oral questions, it is my opinion that the action of the Secretary of State for the Environment this afternoon should be deprecated and that it should be stopped.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : I did ask for a ruling. I ask that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, with Mr. Speaker, should establish the cost of answering the question which was the subject of my point of order. It would set a precedent for those of us who wish to establish whether we are being fairly treated.
Madam Deputy Speaker : I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time. I am familiar with the way in which he is able to elicit answers from Ministers. I suggest that he might take up the matter himself and seek the answer from Ministers by the various means available to him.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1147), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Surface Waters (Classification) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1148), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Controlled Waters (Lakes and Ponds) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1149), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Consents for Discharges etc.) (Secretary of State Functions) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1151), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water and Sewerage (Conservation, Access and Recreation) Code of Practice Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1152), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Director General of Water Services' Register (Inspection and Charges) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1154), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water Reorganisation (Pensions etc.) (Designated Persons) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1155) dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Trade Effluents (Prescribed Processes and Substances) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1156), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Discharges by the National Rivers Authority) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1157), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Radioactive Waste) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1158), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water Supply and Sewerage Services (Customer Service Standards) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1159), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Registers) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1160), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water Reorganisation (Pensions etc.) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1161), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Water Appointment (Monopolies and Mergers Commission) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1162), dated 7th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Control of Pollution (Revocations) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1150), dated 6th July 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th July, be annulled.