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Column 764every street corner--will be able to spread the burden. It will be nothing like as difficult for them as for the small businesses which do not have the option to move from their village or town. Acceptance of the proposal to ensure a maximum increase of 10 per cent. in one year is the very minimum that people should expect from a Government who claim to understand the difficulties of small businesses. If that is not forthcoming, small business people will draw their own conclusions on the basis of their bank balance and the experience of their national competitors who will benefit from the changes in the years to come.
The changes that the Government are introducing almost monthly in both the poll tax and non-domestic rating arrangements are extremely complicated and far-reaching. It is almost as if the Government tear up the proposals and start again every time they look at the figures. I do not believe that when Ministers first started to debate the changes they understood the difficulties that the proposals would cause for the Government, for the local authorities which would have to implement them, and for the people who would have to pay the charge.
Your best course of action would be to rethink the proposals and admit that the poll tax arrangements do not work as you originally expected them to. However, I accept that you are unlikely to accept that until the ballot box announces its verdict in future. The Government should recognise the complications that they are causing for the local authorities which must implement this proposal. Even those authorities that are most willing and most supportive of what you are trying to do--and there are some authorities like that--are finding it virtually impossible to keep up with the pace of change that the Government are trying to impose on them in an attempt to meet some of the difficulties that they have finally recognised. At the very least, you would be wise to delay the implementation of the poll tax in England for a year to allow the changes to be properly absorbed and to allow the poll tax to be introduced, if not fairly, at least in an administratively clean way.
Mr. Bill Walker : It is not surprising that we have just heard a Mickey Mouse-type speech. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) was actually addressing you, Mr. Speaker, when he thought that he was addressing the Government Front Bench. He therefore expected the Chair to make the changes that he really believed should be made by the Government. That is not surprising because the hon. Gentleman's speech was of a Mickey Mouse character and that is why it contained Mickey Mouse information.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has left the Chamber and I can well understand why. He referred to a Government White Paper from 1983. The hon. Member and his colleagues always fail to draw attention to the fact that housing benefit was rightly referred to in that White Paper because it runs into hundreds of millions of pounds in Scotland. When they refer to the alleged reduction in public or taxpayers' support for local government, the Opposition somehow forget the massive amounts going to the housing coffers as public support money.
Column 765Government introduced their latest changes in housing benefit in Scotland, why were 2,500 people taken out of housing benefit?
Mr. Walker : I never have any difficulty supporting the reasons why I vote or do not vote for things. I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) will be able to look back and say, "When it was required, I at least voted the way that my conscience dictated."
We welcome the transitional relief arrangements in Scotland. Contrary to the noises from the Opposition Benches, many Conservative Members have been lobbying from the outset for such measures.
Mr. Wallace : The standard community charge amendments which were tabled by the Government in the other place and which are for approval this evening are substantially the same as those that I moved on Report. If the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has been lobbying for the changes in the transitional arrangements since the poll tax was first introduced in Scotland, why has he been so singularly unsuccessful until his English colleagues started bleating?
Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman should know that I am the last chap that he should take on when talking about a unitary Parliament. I support the unitary Parliament. Through my hon. Friends in English constituencies, it is right and proper that I should bring pressure to bear on the Government in whatever way that I want to bring it. I have no hesitation in saying that I do that all the time because I believe that the unitary Parliament is a protection that we all enjoy. It is important that we can look at different aspects of our legislative system and enjoy the benefits. That is what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and his colleagues are prepared to throw away with their nonsensical ideas about breaking up this unitary Parliament and have small Mickey Mouse assemblies in different parts of the country which will take Mickey Mouse decisions of a kind that we have just heard described by the hon. Member for Truro.
It is important to Scots that we are to backdate these changes. One wonders what Scottish National party-controlled Angus district council will do. It has been nasty to people who are not paying the community charge, although it is party policy not to pay it. The council has been nasty to individuals who are entitled to rebates but who, because of difficulties, are paying only a certain amount. Those with rebates will now be able to pay, and the Scottish National party will again find itself facing two or three directions at once. I welcome the changes to the standard community charge. In a large rural constituency such as mine, many people will be able to enjoy the benefits that are brought about by the multipliers. Contrary to some of the noises from the Opposition, these changes will be welcomed, and I am delighted that the Government have responded quickly to hon. Members' requests.
Mr. Douglas : I do not agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). One of the changes announced by the Government proves that non-payment works. Scottish hon. Members pressed amendments in respect of Alzheimer's disease, and we were told by the Government that they could not be accepted. We pressed for transitional arrangements, but we were told that they could not be made, and the Scots proceeded to pay-- some of them did--on 1 April 1989. All the "concessions" have been achieved by English Back-Bench Members who are frightened for their seats, and they have not yet paid a penny. Non-payment works.
The Secretay of State alluded to registration in Scotland. In one authority it is 106 per cent. The Secretary of State should not be taken in by that percentage. Enormous registration anomalies always take place. The threatened non-registration penalty was severe. If one did not register, one was fined, and the fine could be repeated. One of my constituents received five forms. He did not register, but he is on the register. I have never registered, Mrs. Douglas has never registered, and my daughter has never registered, but we are all on the register. Poll tax registration officers are very efficient.
In Fife, there is a zealous poll tax registration officer named Mr. Thompson. He has registered people who have not completed registration forms. If the Secretary of State does not discuss these matters with anybody else in Scotland, through the good offices of the Secretary of State for Scotland he should speak to the poll tax registration officer in Fife. He described the tax as crazy. In a report to Fife regional council, he said that the tax will collapse because of its internal contradictions. It will be the duty of all hon. Members to pursue those internal contradictions. That is why I may not be too gracious this evening. I welcome these changes. The more changes there are, the more absurd the tax becomes.
Let us consider the changes in relation to Alzheimer's disease and to the severely mentally impaired. How can it be fair to take people from homes where, at present, they are exempt from making a payment and bring them into the community without wanting to establish the same basis for exemption? Those concerned will have to go through the humiliation of declaring an individual to be severely mentally impaired. We must ask what the Government are trying to do in this task. The Government are bringing many people into the tax bracket who were not in it before by taking people out of homes, where they were not paying the tax, and bringing them into the community. In my view, it is an obnoxious and nauseating--
Mr. Chris Patten : I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman was saying because as a constituency Member of Parliament, I have been involved --I am sure that this is true of the hon. Gentleman also--for a number of years with local organisations working with those suffering from senile dementia. I have taken up cases of people suffering from senile dementia who have been paying rates year in and year out, yet although that issue was around for decade after decade, I do not remember it creating much concern anywhere in the House, including among Opposition Members. The change that we are making regarding those suffering from senile dementia--I use that phrase deliberately rather than saying "Alzheimer's disease"--is extremely important.
Mr. Douglas : I accept that the Secretary of State is a humane man, but, with great respect to him, I do not think that he is grasping the nature of the point that I am trying to make. I am not excusing the fact that people might have paid rates and that that might have placed a burden on a particular individual ; I am simply trying to illustrate to the Secretary of State that to avail themselves of this exemption, a husband, wife or parent will have to declare that their spouse or offspring is severely mentally impaired. Perhaps the Secretary of State cannot grasp the significance of that, but, as a parent, I can.
Mr. Douglas : The Minister mentions doctors, but there are several gateways to this. Not only does a doctor have to be consulted, but the individual concerned has to be in receipt of certain benefits. Naturally, I welcome the extension, but, as I have argued before, if we are to extend the provisions, why not take the fact that an individual is in receipt of benefit as being the relevant factor, instead of the relatives having to go through the procedure of declaring somebody severely mentally impaired? Moreover, why do we not illustrate that fact on the public record by removing that person from the register?
If the Secretary of State cannot accept that, so be it, but I have another illustration for him. If the individual concerned were to remain in a nursing home, he or she would be exempt from the charge and would not have to pay the poll tax. However, if that person is brought into the community, the procedure that I have described must be gone through. I rest my case there.
My basic argument is that the more the legislation is changed, the more absurd it will become. The Government are now moving away from their basic contention in relation to the standard community charge, which was that the poll tax should be a charge for services rendered, because the changes that they are making in the standard community charge make it a tax on property- -
Mr. Douglas : My hon. Friend says, "Not enough", and I shall return to that point because I want to face the argument about the Labour party's policy changes. I do not know what they are and--thankfully or otherwise--I am not responsible for them.
Mr. Douglas : The hon. Lady asks, "Who is?". I would argue forcibly that if we are to have a multi-based system of taxation, we should not exempt property. Although that is what the Government are trying to do, they have partially failed. All the arguments that they have advanced about old widows living in big houses and paying rates on those big houses, while inhabitants of a local authority house where three or four adults are working may find themselves absolved from paying rates, fall down on examination. That individual is heir to a gain which could be liquidated but the person in the local authority house is not.
In certain areas, there has been a transfer of title from one section of the community to another because of poll tax. Property values in Edinburgh have soared because the burden on the house has been reduced. Can anyone in their senses suggest that that is fair?
Column 768In my constituency, the Tories in the village of Saline argued that they ought to have the rates burden reduced because the village was remote. They achieved that. Now people in Saline, where property values are high, pay the same poll tax as my folk in Steelend, who cannot get proper roads.
The argument that it is a charge for services rendered--like the television licence--falls down. Generally, one hopes that television reception is the same throughout Britain. Sometimes we hope not, in view of some of the programmes we see.
Mr. Bill Walker : It is nonsense to say that television reception is the same throughout Britain. Anyone who represents a rural Highland constituency knows that because parts of the constituency do not receive some programmes. The hon. Gentleman mentioned an old lady living in a large house, but it could have been a rented house.
Mr. Douglas : It may have been a rented house. Most of the examples given of unfairness relate to property, and many relate to properties whose value had been enhanced and now have been further enhanced by the poll tax.
I shall not argue about television reception. If it is not the same, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt kick up like billy--and say that we deserve the same if we are paying the same licence fee.
My folk in Dunfermline and north-east Fife want the same services throughout the Fife region but there are differences in poll tax levels. Services in Auchtermuchty, where I live, are not as good as they are in St. Andrews. How will that anomaly be cleared up by the poll tax? Instead of starting from a level base, we are starting with a system that has numerous anomalies, which is illustrated by the attempts at safety nets and transitional arrangements.
I hope that there will be a Labour Government and that my colleagues will be in it but I must tell them that, after the promises the Labour party has made, if they come to power on Thursday, by the following Monday there will be very few payers of the poll tax in Scotland. Anyone who doubts that should look at the situation now. The number of non-payers may be between 500,000 and 700,000. Many of us will go to Hampden next week. I hope that there will be 60,000 people there. We former Govanites are extremely flexible when it comes to football matters. If there are 60,000 people in the bowl there, four times that number will certainly not be paying poll tax. If that is not a mass movement, I do not know what is. My hon. Friends have been looking for a mass movement to lead. It is there in Scotland and it is not necessarily being led.
The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State ignore that movement at their peril. Dislike of the tax in Scotland is enormous. We are supposedly paying that tax, but we see the concessions that the English have already got by non-payment and, therefore, the feelings of dislike towards that tax will increase. That feeling is felt across the political spectrum and is not confined to Labour party supporters.
The tax is disliked because it is unfair, unjust and undemocratic. I was not at the Labour party conference, but I read a report in The Times which recounted how my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said that our fundamental disagreement with the tax was that it was immoral. It is immoral to use the state
Column 769apparatus to take from those who do not have and give to those who do. It is immoral to take from a couple aged 92 and 89 who live in my constituency. Because that couple have £6,000 in the bank, they must pay the full whack--the same as the Earl of Elgin. That is immoral. If the Government do not understand that, it is clear that, having sown the wind, they will reap the whirlwind at the next general election.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, last year, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) was reported in the Glasgow Herald as saying that all responsible politicians have now rejected the case for a mass campaign of non-payment? What is the hon. Gentleman's message to his own Front Bench?
Mr. Douglas : I do not believe that my hon. Friends would welcome any great message from me on this occasion. I have made my position clear. I do not want to break the law, but if someone asked me the most effective way in which to stop the tax I would cite the English example and tell them not to pay it. Ministers may murmur as much as they like, but if Conservative Back Benchers had meekly taken the Government at their word and accepted that the tax was perfect and wonderful, the concessions given tonight would never have been achieved. We tried to get those concessions, but because we did not have the political arm-twisting necessary--
Mr. Douglas : Those concessions have been achieved because the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee) and a former Minister at the Northern Ireland Office--both of whom are absent now--strongly suggested to the Secretary of State that if such concessions were not given they would lose their seats at the next election. They did not say that they would not administer that tax or that they would not necessarily pay it, but, because of their representations, concessions have been made in England and Wales before a penny piece of the poll tax has been paid. I wish those hon. Members well in their campaign.
I must tell the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, however, that there ain't enough sheriff officers in Scotland to collect from the non-payers. No one should try to get a warrant sale in Dunfermline, West--don't anybody try that. They will need a lot more than the police force of Fife to carry out that procedure. There will be massive opposition to the poll tax because its fundamental flaw is its immorality.
Mr. David Nicholson : I listened to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) with care and with particular enjoyment when he pronounced so loudly that "non-payment works." As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested, he should convey that sentiment to the Leader of the Opposition, perhaps through the medium of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who seems to have his own unauthorised programme on a variety of matters.
I welcome the transitional proposals that have been announced by my right hon. Friend. During the past few months the feedback that I have received from my constituents--no doubt my hon. Friends have had a similar experience, has not, surprisingly, been opposition
Column 770to what is the most significant change to the domestic local government finance system--the extension of liability to pay to the third or fourth working adult in a family. Most people accept that that is a just change and it is the counterpart to the example of the widow who lives in a fairly large house and who pays a large rate bill. The complaint has partly been about people on low incomes, but I shall refer to that when I talk about rebates.
The main problem which I have encountered--I think that my hon. Friends have encountered similar ones--is the result of the out-of-date system of values in relation to local government finance which we have in this country. The rateable system is 16 years out of date, which means that anomalies have occurred in all sorts of constituencies. People on relatively modest incomes in one sort of property pay up to £700 in rates a year in my constituency. People on similarly modest incomes, who live in different sorts of property, find that because of the vagaries of valuation they pay only £170 or £180 on rates, without rebates.
It was necessary for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues to respond to this difficulty. Certainly, those of us who have lived in London know that revaluations took place on an ad hoc basis. My house was revalued some years ago. When we started living in it, it was a building site and when we left it three years ago it was still a building site, but its rateable value had doubled because someone from the Inland Revenue decided that we should pay higher rates.
I tabled a question to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities and he replied :
"Since the last general revaluation rateable values have been altered most commonly because of a change in the physical state of the property or in its environment. I estimate that some 3,200,000 alterations have been made to the rateable values of domestic property in England since 1982."--[ Official Report, 3 Nov. 1989 ; Vol. 159, c. 275. ]
A certain amount of ad hoc revaluation has taken place all over the country, and so it was right for us to take the measures which we have.
As I said in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), those who complain about the change in their bills as a result of a move from rates on low value properties to the community charge must bear in mind that if domestic rates had been kept--particularly for those living in terraced houses in urban areas where there is strong pressure for occupation or cottages in tourist-favoured areas such as I have in my constituency--their rates would have increased under the old system.
I wish to welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's concessions on the disabled. I am sure that he will confirm that the Alzheimer's disease concession will be extended to those with senile dementia. There has been some concern about that, and my right hon. Friend made a telling intervention in an earlier speech.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made an important point about advertising. It is right that my hon. Friends and Ministers in other Departments should get right the advertising of this changeover. The television advertising of the water authorities has not entirely been a standard to follow. I hope that we shall learn from that. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West made the point that it is important
Column 771that those entitled to rebates should apply for them. The rebate system is more generous than Opposition Members concede and many of our constituents are aware.
I tabled a question to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard)--the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. It was answered on 1 November. She revealed that next year, on a community charge of £250, a pensioner couple aged 60 to 74 who were not working would obtain the minimum rebate up to an income of £123 a week--which is quite a way up the income scale for pensioners. She said that a couple with two children under 11, who were working, would, on a community charge of £250, obtain a minimum rebate on an income of up to £147-£148 a week. She said that for a community charge of £300, the income for the pensioner couple would be £134 a week and the income for the couple with two children would be £158. Those are useful figures.
Mr. Tony Banks : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for picking up my earlier point. The Opposition have no argument with advertising that points out what rebates are available. We do not like the poll tax, but we want people to have all the rebates that are available. We do not want an advertising campaign that tries to sell this immoral tax as something that is as good as sliced bread and in the interests of the people. The Government must stick to telling people what benefits are available. If they try to sell the political concept of the poll tax, that would be objectionable.
I welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), who dealt with business rates. There is a problem for small businesses that will be encountered throughout the southern constituencies, but I must emphasise that it is not caused by the uniform business rate. Again, we come back to the issue of revaluation. In Somerset, had the uniform business rate been introduced on present rateable values, it would be 4p or 5p lower than the current rate set by the party of the hon. Member for Truro--the Liberals, the SLD or whatever it calls itself. The rateable value is 16 years out of date. There will be difficulties, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will carefully consider what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby.
Nevertheless, in the long term there will be advantages for business and industry throughout the country. They will operate on up-to-date values and, most important, on a single national rate. The current system is quite ridiculous--as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) must know--with businesses taking off, relocating and reinvesting so that they can avoid the very high rates in Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, and parts of the midlands. There is strong justice and fairness in the reform of the business rates that acts as a convoy for the introduction of the community charge, which itself is more controversial. However, as my right hon. Friend knows, I have consistently supported the Government in their proposals for the community charge.
Column 772is rare for me to feel sorry for a Conservative Minister, but the right hon. Gentleman has been left with a Bill that he did not begin and that has been changed several times during its passage, especially during its stages in another place. The right hon. Gentleman not only has to defend all that ; he has also to defend the poll tax, even though it was introduced by his predecessor. He is like a man trying to walk with his shoe laces tied together. The simple fact is that, although the transitional arrangements are an improvement, they cannot overcome the basic fault of the poll tax, which is the failure to base it on fairness and on the ability to pay.
Some of the amendments relate to matters that we tried to impress upon the Government during the many hours that we spent in Committee a year ago, but the then Secretary of State was not prepared to concede any of them. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and the Secretary of State both refer to revaluation. The Goverment have a cheek to refer to the fact that there has not been a revaluation for 16 years, because their first action when they were elected in 1979 was to cancel the proposed revaluation in England.
Mr. Pike : It goes back further even than 1963. The Government have been in office for 10 years. They know of the problems that arose in Scotland, and their cancellation of revaluation in England led to the problem that now confronts us, with valuations that are 16 years out of date. It is incredible that the Government want to keep turning the clock back. They will soon start talking about the actions of a Labour Government in 1929. The Government's cancellation of revaluation in their first week of office in 1979 created the current problems.
The Secretary of State asked whether any right hon. or hon. Member wholly agrees with the present rating system. I admit that it creates problems and anomalies, but it is no use replacing a flawed system with one that is even worse.
Many different issues are covered by the amendments before us, and I appreciate your difficulty, Mr. Speaker, in selecting amendments for debate. As to the likely business rate that was announced this afternoon, we shall not really know what it will be until revaluation. When business rates are finally revealed, they are likely to be met by uproar in many parts of the country. Also, although the Government promise that there will be consultations between local authorities and businesses, they will come to regret the fact that a locally fixed rate is to be replaced by one that is determined by central Government. That will serve to sever many of the valuable links and relationships between local authorities and the businesses in their areas.
Exempt categories were debated at length in Committee and on Report, but the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor was unwilling to move further on them. We welcome the additional exemption categories and hope that the Secretary of State will continue to exhibit more thoughtfulness and concern than did his predecessor--and will, as time goes on, and as he becomes even more aware of the difficulties created by the poll tax, increase their number.
I acknowledge also the right hon. Gentleman's statement that those receiving benefit will, by the nature of the taper, have only 15p in the pound deducted rather than
Column 773the present figure of 20p. We welcome that improvement, but I still believe that it is only half the story. People have yet to be told how much they will receive, and how much they will have left. There is an element of "kidology" involved, and people should not leap with joy until they know the full story.
Protection for property of a lower rateable value is of concern not only to Burnley but to north-east Lancashire as a whole. The Secretary of State surely recognises that property there has the lowest rateable values of the whole of England. Pendle is the lowest rated and Burnley the third lowest, with an average rateable value of only £103.
Mr. Winnick : Is my hon. Friend up to date with the latest information? Interviewed on the BBC's Nine o'clock News, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee) made it clear that the poll tax would cause tremendous difficulties, and would be of acute disadvantage to his constituents.
Mr. Pike : I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I did not know that the hon. Gentleman had been on television, although he asked a question about the issue earlier this afternoon. That is one reason why he left ministerial office : he recognises that the poll tax will lose him his seat. His constituency is adjacent to mine, and he will be faced with considerable problems next year--
It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
That, at this day's sitting, the Lords amendments to the Local Government and Housing Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
Lords amendments again considered.
Question again proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.
Mr. Pike : The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee) is clearly very concerned about the issue of rateable value, and rightly so. It is a pity that a year ago he kept trooping through the Lobbies and voting for the measure.
Hon. Members have mentioned the fact that only two people in a property will receive protection, and the problem of determining which two it should be. The Minister must tell us how that will be dealt with, as it will cause considerable friction. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will be interested to hear his response. The amendments that the Government will push through tonight will not solve the problem of the poll tax legislation. The very fact that the arrangements are transitional makes that certain--and, as the Secretary of State has said himself, the Government cannot legislate for permanent protection. Of course they cannot ; if they did, they would be admitting that the legislation that they forced through last year was nonsense. The fact that they are having to do the same thing now shows the folly of their policy. As the temporary arrangements are phased out, people will find themselves faced with the full unfairness and inequity of the legislation.
The real reason for the Lords amendments--the reason why we are debating them today and why they were forced through the other House--is not that the Government wish to be fairer, but that they want to gerrymander and, if possible, help some Conservative Back Benchers to save their seats in a couple of years, before the poll tax is fully payable. The Government have not really made a generous
Column 774concession ; they are trying to con the people. They will fail, however, and the poll tax legislation will be repealed as soon as the Labour party takes office.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : I wish to respond briefly to the points raised by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. We welcome the concessions that have been introduced, especially those relating to the standard charge. The Government amendment is very similar to new clause 1, moved on 14 June by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). On that occasion the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), said that the new clause was
"based on a misconception that there are significant differences between the positions north and south of the border and that the English and Welsh arrangements are more flexible. That is not so as I shall seek to explain." --[ Official Report, 14 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 1021.]
That debate revolved around the fact that we believed that it was so, and that changes were needed. At that time the Government said that the new clause was not necessary and resisted it. We welcome the fact that our arguments have now prevailed, and that the Government have recognised their strength, producing an amendment that gives much wider powers to both the local authorities and the Secretary of State than are contained in the guidelines given to us by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. I am grateful for the Minister's guidelines, but they raise a few questions that I hope he will address in his reply.
He distinguished between categories that would be zero rated as of right and categories that would be zero rated at the local authority's discretion. Into which categories are student nurses and doctors who work in hospitals likely to fall? Student nurses are incensed at not having been treated as students on the ground that they receive an allowance, although it is very low. Therefore, they will be forced to pay the full charge out of their very low allowance. That will represent a real cut in the allowance. Student nurses have understandably become cynical over the years. Every time that an allowance is reviewed they usually find that the cost of, say, meals has increased by more than the allowance and that the real value of the allowance is eroded year by year. Student nurses will be significantly worse off under the proposals. I think that the Minister implied that local authorities will have discretions, but the Government ought to make the position clear.
The same applies to hospital doctors. They have made
representations to me and, I am sure, to other hon. Members about the implication, which they resent, that they may have to pay the poll tax on their home and also on their residence in hospital if they are resident there for more than half the time. Therefore, they would have to pay the poll tax twice. That would be an injustice and would amount to double taxation, to which they should not be subjected. I think that the Minister also implied that that would be left to the discretion of local authorities. If local authorities decided to exercise their discretion, the cost would have to be met by all the other poll tax payers. Local authorities would therefore be under pressure to resist discretionary reductions of that kind. As the cost of the National Health Service is met by the Government, they ought to agree to fund that concession.
The Minister did not refer to second homes and holiday homes, about which there has been much correspondence and many representations from both sides of the House. His omission leads me to think that the Government will not address the issue. If Barratts or any other large
Column 775organisation runs a time share operation, it does not pay poll tax on its property ; it is assessed at the commercial rate. However, an individual with a modest holiday home--perhaps a cottage with a couple of bedrooms that is very low rated--has to pay the standard charge. Similarly, a farmer who wishes to supplement his farm income may let a few cottages on his farm to tourists. He will be squeezed out of a profitable business by having to absorb the standard charge. Will the Minister clarify whether local authorities will be able to exercise discretion? That would be an improvement. If they can, will that fact be taken into account when calculating revenue support grant? I hope that I am right in assuming that local authorities will have that discretion. I see that the Minister is nodding, and I am grateful to him. If it is a modest property, it is reasonable that local authorities should be able to set a ceiling so that the standard charge does not have to be paid twice. The letting of a few cottages may be an important supplement to a farmer's business. The same discretion ought to apply to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has already referred to the fact that the £3 a week rebate is certainly an improvement, although very late in the day, and that it is based on the Government's assessment of what the poll tax in any given authority ought to be rather than on the actual outturn. If that is the case, it is a cheat because the Government know perfectly well that those targets were unrealistic and that virtually no authority, including those controlled by the Conservative party, has been able to achieve them. The rebate should be based on the average poll tax rate rather than on Government targets which were never realistic. The Minister made no reference to the safety net in Scotland. As a Member for a constituency in Grampian region, I feel very strongly that Grampian region poll tax payers have had to pay between £46 and £54 per head, according to where they live, towards the cost of the safety net for Glasgow and Strathclyde. I fully accept that the needs of Glasgow and Strathclyde justify that degree of safety netting, but I do not accept that the burden should fall on Grampian region poll tax payers rather than on the general taxpayer.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance on that point. The safety net, in its present form, will be phased out over three years. That means that those authorities which contributed to the self-financing safety net this year will receive their revenue support grant entitlement in full for 1990-91. Areas such as Glasgow which have benefited from the safety net will receive protection for a further three years, with the cost being met by the Exchequer.
Mr. Bruce : I thank the Minister for that helpful information. I still have slight reservations as to whether we will get the full amount back, but I accept the Minister's assurance in good faith. I do not wish to be sour as we have had some effect and my colleagues and I who have campaigned consistently and promoted amendments have been vindicated. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) does democracy a great disservice when he says that Opposition Members are wasting their time as the Government never accept suggestions from them. I do not believe that is the case. However, politics being what it is, Conservative
Column 776Members respond only when they see their majorities being whittled away. But they have responded, and most of the Government's concessions today are those that we pressed for a year ago. I do not believe that the Government will recover any ground in Scotland because people in Scotland know that the Government care not a docken for the plight of the Scots who have to face the imposition of the poll tax and that the Government were prepared to act only when the English majority was threatened. I am quite sure that Scottish voters will not return to the fold with any gratitude.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I shall speak on my amendment opposing Lords amendments Nos. 332, 347 and 421. However, before doing so I should like to use some of the leeway that you, Mr. Speaker, have allowed hon. Members who did not get in on the statement on the poll tax by saying that we would be able to catch your eye and raise those points in tonight's debate.