Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Hill : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cunningham : No.

But whatever the Secretary of State's message today, our message is clear : the poll tax will go when the Prime Minister and her Government go. There can be no future for such an iniquitous, unfair, inefficient and capricious tax. A Labour Government will abolish it. 4.13 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten) : I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add instead thereof :

"supports the introduction of the community charge, the principles of which are manifestly fairer and simpler than those that now apply to domestic rates ; welcomes the exemptions conferred on those who cannot be asked to pay and the generous discounts, rebates and increased income support available for those on low incomes ; recognises that the unified business rating system introduces a valuable stability for non-domestic ratepayers ; congratulates Her Majesty's Government on implementing proposals that will improve the accountability of local government by insisting

Column 864

that all who benefit from their services should have a say in their quality and cost ; and notes that either a local income tax or a two-tax system based upon local income tax and capital value tax would be much more expensive to implement, much more unfair and make local government much less accountable."

I shall begin as I am sure the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and I will go on. The hon. Gentleman paid me some very genial courtesies, and I return the compliment. As the House knows, the hon. Member for Copeland was a Labour moderate before it became compulsory. He was a moderate before anyone had heard the name of Peter Mandelson. As a result, he has always enjoyed the respect of the House. I realise that, for as long as the hon. Gentleman comes to the Opposition Dispatch Box, I shall always have my work cut out. Between the two of us--wild-eyed fanatics that we both are--I am sure that we shall keep our debates within the bounds of sobriety and public decorum.

A combination of typical ministerial humility and concern for all right hon. and hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate persuades me to be brief. [Laughter.] I knew that the hon. Member for Copeland would believe that. It is always tiresome when Front Bench speakers take up too much time in short debates.

The burden of the comments that I have heard from Labour spokesmen, such as those made on television last night by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and in the speech of the hon. Member for Copeland is--I shall try to be briefer than the hon. Gentleman managed to be--different man, same policy. Having listened to the comments of the hon. Member for Copeland, I have an overwhelming feeling that, had I been privileged to participate in earlier debates, I could say of him now-- same man, same speech. The House can be in little doubt that the hon. Member for Copeland does not care much for the Government's reform of local government finance, but he remains more than a trifle obscure on what he would do instead. There is an unfashionable degree of consensus on one particularly important point. On the Opposition, Conservative and Democrat Benches, there is agreement that the existing system of domestic rates must be replaced. The main reason why that must be done is that the domestic rating system is unfair. Whatever may have been the case in the 19th century, there is little relationship today between the rateable value of domestic property and the value of the services that individuals receive from their local authorities. Still less is there much of a relationship in many cases between the value of a house or flat and the ability of its occupant to pay for local services. Moreover, the present system obscures the relationship between expenditure on services and payment for them. I shall deal with those points in more detail shortly.

I was not sure from the remarks of the hon. Member for Copeland, and from the Opposition's comments over the past few weeks, about their alternative. Sometimes they seem to have one, sometimes not. Today seemed to start as a have day, then it was a not day, and then a have day again. On have days-- and perhaps this is one of them after all--it is suggested that about 80 per cent. of locally raised revenue should come from capital value rates. That would exacerbate the problems of the existing system. We all know well enough that an increase in the value of our house or flat does not mean that we can afford to pay more

Column 865

for local authority services or for anything else. If that is true for most people, what about the retired, the widowed, and all those people living on fixed incomes?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is the Secretary of State aware that the Select Committee on the Environment of the 1979 Session, which had a Conservative majority, totally rejected the poll tax as an alternative to the rating system? The poll tax was rejected also by one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors as Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member of Henley (Mr. Heseltine). May we take it that the Secretary of State is enthusiastic about the poll tax as an alternative to the existing rating system?

Mr. Patten : My memory of past Environment Select Committee reports is clearly not as extensive as the hon. Gentleman's. What I do recall is that I, along with my right hon. and hon. Friends, have fought two elections arguing the case for a community charge, and that we won those elections with what can only be described as comfortable majorities.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : If the Secretary of State is going to cling to this policy, may I suggest that he learns his history a little better? Is he not aware that a White Paper in 1982 specifically rejected the idea of a poll tax, on the grounds that it was unworkable and unfair? Does he recollect that the Government went into the 1983 general election making no mention of a poll tax, and--again--specifically rejecting the possibility of one?

Mr. Patten indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilson : It is no use the Secretary of State shaking his head. The poll tax was invented in panic after revaluations in Scotland in 1984. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that it is both paradoxical and an insult to his own intelligence that he should start his speech by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) on his moderation and then--apparently--give notice that he is going to accept uncritically the most extreme and offensive of the Government's policies?

Mr. Patten : That intervention suggests that we should not give way in debates such as this as often as we would like. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman--I know perhaps even more than he does about these matters-- that we began to advocate the abolition of domestic rates in 1974, and included that view in our election manifesto. [Interruption.]

Dr. Cunningham : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I do not give way to hon. Members who sit and shout abuse during debates.

The Secretary of State does not seem to have a very clear grasp of the chronology of policy development in his own party. Is he not aware that his right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has gone on record, as have his supporters, as making it clear that he worked with all his might and main to ensure that no mention was made of the poll tax in the Tory party's 1983 manifesto?

Mr. Patten : Whatever our disputes about the history of Conservative manifestos, I think that even the hon.

Column 866

Gentleman will concede that there was a clear mention of the community charge in our last manifesto. If it will suit him, I will settle for one example : the majority that we won in the last election, which we fought on the community charge.

I was pointing out that capital-value rates, as advocated by Opposition Members--coupled with a local income tax--would not be fair or administratively simple ; nor would they overcome the lack of accountability to the electorate. That is one of the great drawbacks of the existing system. I know that the Opposition have criticised us for allegedly distorting their policy and its effects, but I am prepared to do a deal, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider it fair. If the Opposition will tell us clearly exactly what their policy is, and the assumptions on which it is based, we shall be willing to work out with them a fair comparison of our proposals and theirs. I do not think that anything could be fairer than that.

Dr. Cunningham : The Secretary of State's predecessor made the same offer. The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewksbury (Mr. Ridley), however, was not aware that I had already tabled a parliamentary question asking him to do just that. When we are ready, we will ask the Secretary of State to do it, but as he wants to avoid distorting the implications of our policy, why does he not consult the Institute for Fiscal Studies? The Sunday Times --not, incidentally, a known supporter of the Labour party-- invited the institute to examine our proposals, and this is what it reported : "Smith found that Mr and Mrs Average, a couple with children, and an income of £13,000 a year, could expect to pay a total of £394 a year in poll tax, but only £363 under Labour's plan."

In other words, they would do better under Labour.

The Rating and Valuation Association has also carried out studies, which conclude that our proposals are not only fairer but more efficient than the poll tax. Why does the Secretary of State not read those?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman had better have a word with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who only last week told the hon. Gentleman and others that their policy needed sophisticating, as it was not quite right. When the hon. Gentleman has finished his sophisticating, and has put his policy in place, we shall be happy to look at it. I hope that, when we do so, the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members will not complain as they did last week when we present the House with the consequences. Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) rose --

Mr. Patten : I have already given way as many times as the hon. Member for Copeland, and I wish to get on.

There are three main attacks in the motion and the hon. Gentleman's speech. We are told that the new arrangements are unfair, undemocratic and unworkable. We all know that domestic rates are an unfair tax on property. They are paid for by only half the adult population. They take no account of the number of adults living in a house, and there is a poor fit between the rateable value of a property and the income of its occupants. Four out of 10 people in above-average rated properties have below-average incomes. By contrast, the community charge is fairer, simpler and more honest. It is based on people rather than property, and for the first time

Column 867

it will be paid by almost all adults. The charge will share the cost of paying for local council services more widely and fairly, but people will not all pay the same bill.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. He has served in Northern Ireland in the past. Can he enlighten us as to why the boon has not been extended to Northern Ireland? Is it because, in the past, we believed that those who paid rates had a responsibility to take part in local authorities?

Mr. Patten : I had some responsibility for local government in Northern Ireland a few years ago. As the hon. Gentleman will know, local government in Northern Ireland, for a variety of historical reasons with which the hon. Gentleman will disagree, has different functions and responsibilities from local government in this country. If the hon. Gentleman would like the community charge to be introduced in Northern Ireland, he will be able to pursue that in conversations with the responsible Minister in the Northern Ireland Office.

As I have said, people will not all pay the same bill. The rebate system that we are introducing offers help where it is most needed--among those with low incomes or no income at all. It is more generous than the present system of rate rebates. Taking the arrangements for the community charge and the rebate together, it is worth noting that one in four charge payers will receive a rebate. I am extremely concerned that those who need help should receive it. I am asking my officials, as a matter of urgency, to review the arrangements we are making to maximise the take-up of rebates. For 5 million people, the continuation of the maximum rebate and the uprating of income support, which has already taken place, will mean that, unless they live under a very high-spending authority, they will not be paying anything extra in community charge. Indeed, they may well be a little in pocket.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test) : When my right hon. Friend is listening to the selective figures from the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) will he give the figures for Southampton, which are extremely favourable to a city of 250,000 people? At the same time, will he try to get out of the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen their policy to take over from the poll tax?

Mr. Patten : I am afraid that my knowledge of the position in Southampton is not as encyclopaedic as my hon. Friend's. I will encourage my hon. Friend who will reply to the debate to refer to those figures. Widows, single-parent families and others who are hard hit by rates in particular areas will be more fairly treated. The next plank of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Copeland is that there is something undemocratic about the new arrangements. There is certainly something deeply undemocratic about the present system. Only half the local electorate pay for the services enjoyed by us all.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : Why does the Secretary of State continue with the myth that, because there are only half as many rate bills as poll tax bills, only half as many people contribute? Do not all members of his household, like all other households, contribute to the rates bill? I assure the right hon. Gentleman that in my constituency,

Column 868

if a son is working, he contributes to the rates bill and if a wife has an income, she contributes to the bill--all the family pay the rate bill.

Mr. Patten : That is not the criticism that has been put and believed widely by those who have argued against the domestic rating system for many years--certainly at every election that I have ever fought.

We have seen the results of undemocratic weaknesses in many parts of local government, particularly in some inner-city areas governed by the extremist councillors that the Labour party tries to keep under wraps. We have seen sky-high rates for domestic ratepayers ; businesses and jobs chased away from where they are needed as a result of rocketing business rates ; and waste, inefficiency and extravagance in local authority budgets, contributing to an ever-increasing burden on the few who pay rates.

Under our system, there will be a simple link between the cost of services that an authority chooses to provide and the level of the community charge. People can decide what they think about the quality and cost of those services. The community charge bill will show this crucial relationship in the clearest possible way. Every pound per adult that an authority chooses to spend above the standard level of service will mean £1 extra on the community charge bill. Equally, every £1 per adult saved feeds through to £1 off the bill. That is a major improvement in local accountability and democracy. It gives a clear choice about the cost of local authority policies, which is precisely what the Labour party is so concerned about. The community charge puts the community in charge.

The other argument that we hear from the Opposition is that the new arrangements are complicated and unworkable. The hon. Member for Copeland referred to a scare story and to invasion of privacy. The legislation was drafted specifically to limit the amount of information for which registration officers can ask. We give specific advice, which we agreed with the local authority associations and the Data Protection Registrar, on the registration form. Some registration officers went beyond that and, quite properly, were pulled up short by the registrar. I hope that they will listen to our advice.

Dr. Cunningham : This is one of the few points of debate on which there is some agreement. That statement has been made previously by Ministers, but it seems to have gone unheeded. Why does not the Department take action by writing to community charge registration officers or issuing notes for guidance to stop this practice, which is an unnecessary invasion of people's privacy and, in some cases, is illegal? I assume that there is no party political dispute about that matter at least.

Mr. Patten : As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have issued guidance. I am certainly prepared to consider whether there is a case for further guidance, because I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in some cases registration officers have gone beyond what the law should have allowed.

It would be remarkable if a system that abolished rates and introduced a long overdue reform of local government finance could be achieved without some disadvantage to some people. Without undermining the principles on which this reform is based, we shall continue to do all we

Column 869

can to smooth the transition. Much of the recent discussion about the new system has, understandably, concentrated on the safety net. The changes that are coming next April are substantial. We are moving from a discredited system under which grant is distributed largely on the basis of rateable values to a fairer system. Inevitably, whenever there is change, some people benefit but others are worse off.

One of the main changes is the ending of resource equalisation. That has meant in practice that grant is taken from areas with high rateable values and directed towards areas with low rateable values. This might be a sensible basis for paying grant, but only if one accepts that rateable values are a fair basis for local taxation. As I have explained, that is not the case. With the move to the community charge, we are doing away with that cross-subsidy. It is a cross-subsidy of which few people are aware. It illustrates one of the problems of lack of accountability in the present system. Councils providing the same level of service will in future be able to set the same community charge. If we had not introduced the new system, those authorities contributing to resource equalisation would have had to continue to pay that back-door cross-subsidy indefinitely. We shall do away with that unfairness.

The issue is how fast we can move to the new system. Some of my hon. Friends want us to move the whole way immediately. They represent those who have been paying the burden of resource equalisation in the past. They want to get rid of it now. I appreciate their concern, but it would not be easy to move to the new system overnight, and what my right hon. Friend proposed last week makes a big start towards phasing out a penalty and phasing in a gain.

Those areas which have traditionally benefited from resource equalisation need a period, however short, to adjust to the new circumstances. Other hon. Members representing those parts of the country have stressed that they need time for people to adjust to the withdrawal of the hidden subsidy. We have, first, made the system explicit. No longer will there be disguised cross-subsidy in the grant system. But we have proposed a temporary safety net which is separately identifiable and which makes clear what is happening. Secondly, we have nearly halved the amount which contributors will have to pay to the safety net. Over 200 authorities will be better off as a result of the change. They will now pay 40 to 50 per cent. less in the first year than they would have paid under the old safety net proposal. That is significant progress.

I wish to make it absolutely plain that I shall look carefully at the points that were made when my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) made his statement on local government finance last week. Naturally, some would like to go faster, with more of the gains coming through immediately. Others would wish to go more slowly, giving greater protection to the losers. I am not sure whether that circle can be squared, but I shall pay the closest attention to what is said in this debate and in future discussions. I come to these issues relatively new. The hon. Member for Copeland made that point. I recognise that there will be many further exchanges across the Floor of the House before the charge is brought in next spring. I shall of

Column 870

course want to listen to any helpful suggestions on how we might make the transition as easy as possible. It would also be a welcome change to hear from Opposition Members--perhaps we have been making progress today ; a bit here and a bit there--precisely what they would do, sophisticated or perhaps not so sophisticated.

For our part, we shall continue to press ahead with the introduction of this reform, whatever the kebabing tactics of the Opposition. We shall press ahead for the reasons set out in our amendment to the motion, and I urge the House, for the reasons there set out, to vote with us at the conclusion of the debate.

4.38 pm

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West) : I listened to the maiden speech by the new Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), with great interest. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. I have known him for some time in the House. I met him first as a colleague on the Select Committee on Defence, and I recognise his outstanding ability to grasp, and master, issues. I do not think that he needs to excuse himself if he finds this issue difficult to grasp. I caution him that he does not need to look at the crystal ball-- in Scotland we have the book. The poll tax books are coming through the door. Some of the three-monthly payments are due right now. Nice little letters come through the door to remind us that, if we do not pay for the three months, the whole year will become due. I caution the Secretary of State because I think that he, is a fair man. He comes from overseas development, where he considered the world situation. It was his responsibility to attempt to transfer resources from the richer nations to the poorer nations. An outstanding example of that was his experience in Nepal. We know that because the Select Committee on Defence went there and because of our exchanges with him.

I shall give a graphic illustration of the effect of the poll tax. An old man, aged 90, in my constituency told me that he and his wife, aged 88, have £6,000 in the bank. They pay two poll taxes. He asked, "Dick, my boy, does that mean that I will have to pay the same as the Earl of Elgin?" I told him, "Aye, that's the law." In God's name, is that fair? How can one say honestly that someone who has taken notice of the credos of the Tories, who has been careful and has built up a capital sum, should pay two poll taxes?

An old lady moved about 200 yards down the road to look after her mother, aged 90. The law says that she is now resident there and they will have to pay two poll taxes there and two poll taxes at the standard charge rate for the house that she has vacated. Instead of paying about £800 in rates, they are paying £1,200. How in God's name is that fair?

We have a tax on property. Does the Secretary of State not know that the standard charge is a tax on property? I part company with many of my hon. Friends on many issues, but I think that, in a system of taxation which is multi-based, there is no reason for excusing property. Everything else is taxed, so why in heaven's name is there a case for exempting property? That is what the Tories have tried to do, however, on the basis of accountability.

If one wants to evade accountability for looking after old people properly within the community, what does one

Column 871

do? Put them in a hospital, or a nursing home, where they do not pay any poll tax. Have them in the bosom of the family, however, and they will pay the tax. How in God's name can that be defended in a civilised society which prides itself on trying to look after elderly people?

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : In their constituency surgeries, Scottish Members have come across people who have been crippled by the poll tax. Does my hon. Friend agree that, yesterday, we saw a plain reaction to the Scottish poll tax in the resignation of the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger)? Does he also agree that the right hon. Gentleman's resignation shows plainly that he and others in Ayr have given up hope of the Conservatives retaining that seat, because of this and other legislation?

Mr. Douglas : I will not digress too much.

The Secretary of State has had experience of Northern Ireland. There is no way the Government would try to introduce the poll tax in Northern Ireland without first putting it in their manifesto, but they did that in Scotland. They put it into practice without it being in the manifesto and the Scottish people have pronounced on it--we have voted on it.

I ask the Secretary of State to give me his attention and not to talk to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who is trying to get his ear.

In Scotland, we pronounced on the poll tax. Accountability is the argument for the poll tax, but the only part of the United Kingdom that had the poll tax in 1987 was Scotland, and the Scottish people overwhelmingly rejected it.

The Secretary of State should not look at a crystal ball when he can read the book. He should consult his colleague, the Secretary of State for Scotland and, in a moment of reasonable quietude, perhaps achieve some understanding of what is happening there. Many people are paying poll tax, but many others, like me, are not. We will accept the odium.

I notice that people in certain parts of England have achieved a change of Secretary of State by burning an effigy of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor. I wholly disapprove of that practice. I think that it is more illegal, and more of an incitement to bad behaviour, to burn an effigy of the right hon. Gentleman than to say there is a basic right in a civilised society to object, through civil disobedience, to the imposition of an unfair and unjust tax that has been rejected by our people in a democratic ballot. What can we do if they do not listen?

The Secretary of State's closing remarks showed, although it is early days, that he is looking at ways in which the safety net can be shaded. I think that a large proportion, if not all of the safety net, will be borne by the Exchequer.

We came first in Scotland and the Scottish people inherently and instinctively resent being made the guinea pig for legislation which cannot work in any part of the United Kingdom and is certainly not working in Scotland.

I do not know what the figure will be--whether we will have 500,000 non- payers by August--and I cannot predict it, but I predict that it will be substantial. That underlines the fact that payment has brought about an enormous amount of resentment, which has been added to by behaviour in this House last week such as when the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) who,

Column 872

although he is a supporter of the poll tax, said that he resented the way that the safety net has been arranged. Also, for the first time in the British media we have seen resentment at the poll tax. Last year, I ran all the way from Edinburgh to London to protest against the poll tax. I shall continue to protest. This is a marathon race that has been taken up by Opposition Members. We do not intend to renege on that. We will go the distance until the poll tax legislation is removed from the statute book, because it is unfair and unjust, and does not do what the Government have suggested it does. It is unfavourable to the poorer sections of the population and to those sections of the population who ought to be cossetted--the sick and the mentally handicapped. Those people ought to be assisted.

I have sufficient faith in the right hon. Gentleman's background--I will not dwell on his religious upbringing--to believe that, when he examines the matter, there will be adjustments, but they should come in Scotland first. The ideal solution is to remove the legislation from the statute book.

4.48 pm

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North) : I recognise the time constraints in this important debate, but I should like first to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) to the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for the Environment. We served together in the Northern Ireland Office, and I am sure that he will do an excellent job in charge of the Department of the Environment. It is an important portfolio. I welcome also my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) to his new portfolio- -because he will reply to the debate, I have tried to win his favour before deploying my arguments.

First, I believe in effective local government. I do not want power to be centralised, because liberty comes from a balance of power. I spent 10 years in local government and I do not want local government to be stripped of its powers. Over the past 20 years, local government has been threatened because often the majority party in local government differed from the party in government, so they do not have much time for each other. The danger is that the party in control may ride roughshod over the other party.

Secondly, I believe in the community charge. There is a straight difference of opinion between the two sides of the Chamber on this matter, but I believe that people should pay at least something towards what they vote for. That is what responsible government is about. We can argue about the amount that people should pay and about the amount of rebates.

It has been said that people pay as part of a family, but in some parts of the country only one in four of the people on the register pay rates, compared with one in three and one in two in other areas. That is wrong. There is an incentive to increase expenditure when some people can vote to spend other people's money. As a northern nonconformist, I believe that there is no political morality in that. I welcome the community charge as a means of bringing political responsibility into local government voting.

We have frequently heard about the peasants' revolt. Their revolt was basically against the oppressions of the feudal controls on the labour market. I would argue that that was a Thatcherite revolution. If I had met Wat Tyler

Column 873

on his way to London bridge, I think that I could have made him a member of the Brent, North Conservative association. His supporters wanted a free labour market. If they were marching on us today, I believe that there would be more of their supporters sitting on the Conservative Benches than on the Opposition Benches.

Thirdly, the present method of funding the safety net is immoral and is political suicide for the Conservative party. The idea of transferring money over four years from the heavy community charges levied on careful Conservative areas to spendthrift Labour authorities is unsaleable in Conservative areas. That will take place over a full four-year cycle of local government elections in England and Wales, over a general election and within one month of the next European election. All that time, electors in prudent areas will see that they are transferring through their community charge £25, £50 or £75 per person per year to areas that have more amenities because they have spent more money.

About a fortnight ago, a list that I compiled was printed in, I think, The Times. I referred to 25 Conservative seats in which all the constituents were to transfer considerable sums through the community charge over four years to largely Labour areas, yet the majority vote in favour of the main party was less than 5,500 in each constituency. This matter will be raised repeatedly in those constituencies.

Dr. Godman : Shame.

Sir Rhodes Boyson : There is no shame in it. Those authorities made a decision to be prudent--the shame lies with those who have wasted the money. The shame is that people in prudent areas have to pay for someone else's waste of money. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to bring in a moral point. This is a dangerous and indefensible action.

Fourthly, I believe that a safety net so funded will break the morale of many good Conservative authorities. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred to Wandsworth. It was Thatcherite before Thatcherism, John the Baptist before anyone else came along. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), who I believe is still in the Department of the Environment--it is difficult to keep up with everything that is happening--made his name in Wandsworth by being a Thatcherite and bringing down expenditure. The average rates bill per household in Tower Hamlets is £500, compared with £360 in Wandsworth. Tower Hamlets is usually Labour-controlled but at present is under the control of the Liberals--most hon. Members on both sides of the house, except perhaps the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), hope that that is only temporary. After the calculations on the community charge and safety net have been made and the money has been passed back and forth, an individual in Tower Hamlets will pay £153 and an individual in Wandsworth £148. That is the result after all the efforts over the past 15 years in Wandsworth to build up a Conservative careful authority, which documents such as "Good Council Guide : Wandsworth 1978-87" have made famous. It is a green-coloured document, which shows that the council was going green at that time and knew what would happen to the Department of the Environment.

Column 874

Mr. Matthew Taylor : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Rhodes Boyson : I shall give way when I have finished this point. We must go through paragraph by paragraph--it is much tighter and neater that way. It is like writing essays--we must do it properly.

After all that time, people in Wandsworth will be only £5 better off than people in Tower Hamlets. That is why I believe that this proposal will destroy the morale of many Conservative authorities. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Truro, as long as he makes just an intervention, not a speech.

Mr. Taylor : I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that there are differences between Tower Hamlets and Wandsworth in terms of, for example, housing pressure. Tower Hamlets has large immigrant communities moving in, unlike Wandsworth. I think that all hon. Members accept that point. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that Tower Hamlets, under the Liberal Democrats, has cut rates.

Sir Rhodes Boyson : For the hon. Gentleman's benefit, I shall repeat my point. Wandsworth will compare the old rates and the new community charge and ask what it has done over those 15 years. I stand by what I say, whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees with me.

Fifthly, the safety net is a strange formula. I spent nine months as Minister for Local Government. I always wondered where the calculations came from, where we changed them and what the computers did. Sometimes I felt that there were satanic demons, or gremlins, in the basement and, after we had all gone home, they moved the computers around. I believe that they have now moved up the stairs and are coming out.

I am sorry that the hon. Members for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) are not in the Chamber. Using the straightforward community charge, people in Brent will have to pay the second highest amount in the country--£561 per person, according to the projected figures. The safety net was supposed to give councils a chance to get it right, but Brent will have to transfer £36 per person per year to other overspending authorities. Anyone who can defend that should be a member of the Magic Circle and performing at the London Palladium.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people in the Department of the Environment and elsewhere believe that Brent Council, as presently constituted, is beyond redemption?

Sir Rhodes Boyson : I must not get into a religious argument with my hon. Friend, for whom I have great respect, but I believe in the saving of souls and the redemption of all men. It seems that I may have cross-party support on that.

My sixth point is that, if there is to be a safety net, the money must come from the Treasury. It must not come from the good authorities, because that makes a farce of the community charge and destroys the whole basis of the new arrangements. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wants to retain the safety net--and that is his right as Secretary of State--the Treasury must pay the lot. We do not want all kinds of formulas that we cannot understand ; we have had too many of those from the Department of the Environment already.

Column 875

We are told that £630 million will be needed next year to cover the safety net. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State comes back in October and says, "My right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North can sit at ease ; he does not need to intervene because I have got hold of the £630 million," I shall decide that his is the best of the recent appointments. He will command my support on almost every other issue--that is a dangerous thing to say--for as long as he and I are still battling in the Chamber.

Consider what a headmaster would do. If 10 boys broke 10 windows in my school, I would charge the 10 boys, as would all old schoolmasters ; even Scottish dominies would charge the boys, and it would be for the boys to decide how to raise the money. The last thing I would do would be to say to those 10 boys, "Go away. You have done nothing wrong," and then call the rest of the school together and say, "You are paying for the 10 windows." There would be a riot in the school, and there is no doubt in my mind that when Conservative voters find that they are paying for windows, as it were, that others have broken, there will be a riot in the constituencies.

I shall vote against the Opposition motion this evening, for the simple reason that there is a new Secretary of State in whom I have great faith. Earlier, we were talking in religious terms. I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend should move mountains ; I just want him to remove the safety net. That will do for me at the moment. My right hon. Friend can move mountaains later as part of the Department's activities on the green side, but on the local government side, all I want is for the safety net to be removed. If, by the time we next debate the safety net in the House, it has not been announced that it will be financed from Treasury money, I shall certainly vote against it. I am not putting the Secretary of State on probation. I have total faith in him and I know that he will solve the problem-- [Interruption.] I must not argue with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas). I am sorry that no Treasury Minister is here to listen to what I, at least, believe to be words of wisdom. On the day when we discover that the safety net is to be funded by the Treasury, a cheer will go up throughout the country. I look forward to that day arriving before we reassemble after the recess.

5.2 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I join in welcoming the Secretary of State to his new role. There has certainly been a change of image. The only thing that I would say to him--I am sure that others have given him this advice--is that the quality of the salesman will not make up for duff goods. The fact that we have already heard criticisms from Conservative Back-Bench Members, mollified only by his newness and not by his remarks, is a sign of the difficulties that he may experience in his new role. I wish him luck, however, and I hope that we see some changes in practice as well as in presentation.

The poll tax is the most unpopular measure to have come from this Government so far. I say "so far" because it has had to jostle for its place with other measures. Later this evening I shall refer in an Adjournment debate to the reform of the National Health Service, and I think that the Bill containing the proposals for that reform may topple the community charge as the most unpopular measure when it is introduced in the autumn.

Column 876

I am afraid that we are past the point at which we can expect Ministers--under this Prime Minister at least--to say, "We got it wrong. We shall change the provisions fundamentally." Ministers have committed themselves to the proposal. I suspect that, when the Prime Minister interviewed replacements for the previous Secretary of State, she checked that they were not likely to rock the boat. I can imagine her asking the current Secretary of State some questions : "You are patron of this organisation the Tory Reform Group. You don't really mean it, do you? You are there as a figurehead, are you not? I am sure that you do not stand by what that body says and that you would not want to have to take responsibility for it. You would not agree with its members any longer, would you?" I can imagine the right hon. Gentleman thinking about it, but not very hard, and deciding that perhaps he could sell the required message. With a change of Prime Minister or a change of Government, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will get the chance to do otherwise.

This debate allows us a moment of reflection, and it is to be hoped that it will allow the new Secretary of State to consider changes that he may be able to introduce even under a Prime Minister who has an iron will and dislikes deviation from the set course. I was pleased to hear at least one Conservative Member speak up from the Back Benches. I was particularly pleased that the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) pressed for change by calling for Treasury cash. The great error that the former Secretary of State made when he addressed the House last week was to try to reconcile the irreconcilable by telling those whom he had previously said needed help and support that they would get a little less, to help those whom he had said were getting more than they deserved. That was not an easy concept to sell, and he failed to sell it. If a safety net is needed, it should be funded by the Treasury, not by calling on other local authorities to step in merely to suit the Treasury's other financial aims.

The debate has been called so that we can consider the effects of the poll tax on ordinary people. One thing seems certain : As with so many measures that have been introduced under this Government, the effect of the poll tax will be to hit the poor and advantage the rich--in particular, to hit the old and the young--

Next Section

  Home Page