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The figures provided by the Secretary of State for the Environment in his statement this afternoon show a lot of sleight of hand. He was not comparing like with like. Table 2 was supposed to be comparing the rates with the community charge, but the rates figure included the local spending discretion--the amount that the local authority was spending on local needs. That figure was not in strict compliance with the Government's targets, but the community charge or poll tax level is strictly in compliance with Government policy. The Government's level of spending for local authorities is absurdly unreal and would mean massive cutbacks in my authority of Waltham Forest, for example. The Government have allowed only 4 per cent. for inflation, which is ludicrous. Under the safety net, Waltham Forest is having to pay £46 per person, thereby subsidising Tory-controlled Wandsworth.
All summer, Conservative Members bleated that the purpose of the safety net was to subsidise overspenders. Let us hear no talk of Waltham Forest being an overspender, because we are being penalised by having to pay into the safety net. The figures announced in the statement show that needs in inner -London boroughs are still not being properly recognised. There is still gross unfairness, because some boroughs are paying half the amount that their neighbouring boroughs are paying, purely at the flick of the Minister's pen. 10.15 pm
I oppose Lords amendments Nos. 332, 347 and 421, which relate to privacy. The disclosure of information is the thin end of the wedge, yet under those amendments, which the Government slipped through in the other place, disclosure will be allowed. This is the first case in which the Government have allowed data unconnected with the poll tax to be disclosed. Why should poll tax data be used for purposes other than the poll tax? The Minister should explain why, under this gaping hole in the legislation, virtually unrestricted access to information will be allowed.
Lords amendment Nos. 332 and 347 to schedule 5, which relate to the poll tax in England and Wales, and Lords amendment No. 421 to schedule 6, which applies to the poll tax in Scotland, should be rejected because they do not guarantee that anonymity will be preserved. The use of
Column 777the words "registration officer" in the amendment means that when the registration officer discloses information the recipient will be able to gain access to other lists in the possession of the registration officer and obtain personal information about an individual. The poll tax officer could disclose that three people live at 55 Acacia avenue. Two of those people could be exempted from payment because they are in prison or because they have Alzheimer's disease. The poll tax officer cannot supply the names of those people, but the recipient can check the electoral registers, telephone lists and other public lists to discover the names of the people listed. He can even use the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which introduced the poll tax, and check the entry in the extract of the poll tax register for 55 Acacia avenue to discover who lives there. Anonymous information goes to the wall. The fact that someone's name does not appear on the register can also be useful intelligence. The position under Lords amendment No. 421 is even worse, because the poll tax register can be photocopied as well as inspected.
The Lords amendments should be rejected because there is no guarantee that the Secretary of State will not use his powers to obtain anonymous information from other sources available to him, such as social security records. He can reconstitute personal information relating directly to people. He may misuse that information. He may withhold the social security benefit to which a person is entitled in order to punish him for being behind in his poll tax payments. There is no limitation on the availability and subsequent use--or perhaps misuse--of this sensitive information. The Government do not seem to care about protecting this sensitive information which can easily be handed over and get into the wrong hands.
There is no guarantee that anonymous information will not be copied on to the data bases of the police, immigration service, security service, credit reference agencies and other organisations with long lists of addresses. Again, big brother rides under the poll tax rules.
The Lords amendments are deficient in that there is no attempt to stop the recipient of the information attempting to reconstitute it to identify individuals. There is no attempt to stop any linking of anonymous information to the personalised information that a recipient already has. The reason that the Government advanced in the Lords for favouring these measures is bogus. They said that the information could be used for planning purposes. Local authorities can already use section 6 of the Census Act 1980 and call upon the staff of the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys to use the census data for planning purposes. The Minister can also call upon OPSC staff for statistics. Using the Census Act has several advantages over using poll tax data for planning--information is kept anonymous because it is protected by OPCS staff who are alert to the privacy issues involved in handling it. By contrast, local authorities seem to have been hauled up before the data protection authorities on a number of privacy issues involving the poll tax register. Under the Lords amendments, there is virtually no privacy restraint on local authorities.
The Lords amendments could lead to the back-door selling of poll tax data in the same way as information on the electoral register is sold. As with the electoral register, the so-called Government of choice do not give the individual the opportunity to object to disclosure of information about himself. The poll tax rides a coach and horses through personal privacy. It is a bailiff's and
Column 778snooper's joy and a computer voyeur's delight. The Lords amendments are yet another example of individual privacy being sacrificed to expedite the implementation of this repressive, inefficient and unpopular poll tax.
Mr. McAllion : Amendment No. 261 deals with the rate at which the standard community charge can now be levied. In dealing with it, the Under- Secretary of State listed a series of properties that would as of right be zero rated. He mentioned empty mansions, and the homes of prisoners, full- time students at university and college and those who had died. He went on to describe a second category, whereby a local authority would have discretion to designate properties that should be zero rated and included those properties where the owners' employment required them to be away from home for a long period. I should like to ask the Minister about another category of properties--local authority houses where the tenant is a long- term hospital patient but wishes to retain the tenancy and keep the house furnished while he is in hospital. In February this year, the Scottish Office wrote to the Tayside poll tax registration officer, saying that in these cases
"the liability to pay the standard charge would fall on the local authority as owner of the property since council houses are let on short, renewable leases."
How will such a property be affected by the changes that the Minister has described tonight? Will he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State give us a specific explanation? Will local authorities be allowed to zero- rate at their discretion local authority houses whose tenants are long-term patients in hospital, but who wish to keep their houses furnished and to keep the tenancy during that period?
The transitional proposals are supposed to protect groups of people who are affected by the poll tax. It is alleged protection because, as the Minister said, the limit of £3 will be applied only when the local authority imposes a poll tax that is in line with the Government's assumptions. In the case of my own district council of Dundee, the Government assumed that the poll tax should be £274 in the current year. In reality, the council was forced to levy £324--£50 or 18 per cent. above the Government's assumption. Will the Minister say that when the transitional arrangements are in place in Dundee everyone will be entitled to the limit of no more than £3 irrespective of the level of poll tax levied by the district council--even though that figure is higher than the Government's assumptions about the poll tax for Dundee?
We are expected to believe that we are dealing with a genuine, if sudden, conversion by the Government or with a sudden concern for those who are worst off. I use the word "sudden" advisedly. In Scotland, we have been dealing with the poll tax for a long time--longer than any other part of this allegedly unitary British state. We have a long track record on the poll tax and I have been in correspondence with Ministers for some time on the poll tax rebate schemes in particular.
About 18 months ago, I wrote to the Minister of State, who was then responsible for the rebate scheme. His reply gave me a series of assurances about the rebate scheme. He wrote :
"we have taken full account of the need to ensure that payment of the community charge is not an unacceptable burden for those with low incomes".
He went further and said that the Government had taken full account of those on low incomes, whether or not they were in employment. The Minister had unlimited
Column 779confidence in the virtue of the rebate scheme for people in Scotland such as the unemployed, the disabled, the handicapped, the low paid, single parents and pensioners.
Six months later, I received another letter from the same Minister on the same subject. His confidence in the rebate scheme in Scotland was still completely undiminished. He wrote :
"Overall, I do not accept that the community charge will represent a significant shift of the tax burden from the rich to the poor." He told me that the winning and losing households would be roughly equal and that for half of all those affected, the difference would be less than £1 a week. He also told me that there would be substantial benefits for those who were least well off. He singled out two groups and said that 90 per cent. of single pensioners and 85 per cent. of single adult households would be better off. Yet in the debate tonight both the Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), have referred repeatedly to single pensioners as a group who will especially benefit from the transitional arrangements. It is passing strange that, according to the Minister who had previous responsibility for the poll tax, there was no need for any transitional protection because they would all be better off, yet we are now told that they will be better off as a result of the transitional arrangements which have been introduced a year after the Minister made that claim. The last sentence of the letter sent to me a year ago sums up the Government's confidence in their rebate scheme. The Minister wrote : "In all cases--
and I emphasise the word "all"--
"the rebate scheme will ensure that nobody is called upon to pay an unreasonable amount."
etter was sent in October 1988. Why is it that a full year later we need a whole poll tax package of further concessions? Are the Government saying that the Minister was lying to me a year ago when he said that the rebate scheme then available would ensure that nobody would be called on to pay an unreasonable amount?-- [Interruption.] I never alleged anything of the kind. I am merely asking whether that is what the Government say now. At that time, thMinister told me that the rebate scheme would ensure that nobody would be called upon to pay an unreasonable amount-- Mr. Bill Walke: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that the hon. Gentleman was heard clearly by those of us on the Conservative Benches to have said that the Minister was lying.
Mr. McAllion : I would certainly have wished to withdraw, but I never said anything of the kind. I was merely trying to explain to Conservative Members that Ministers are now telling the House the exact opposite of what Scottish Ministers were telling me a year ago. The House deserves some explanation of that discrepancy. If
Column 780no one was being asked to pay an unreasonable amount a year ago, why do we now need a package of concessions and transitional protection for those who are, indeed, expected to pay an unreasonable amount? That is a serious matter
I have talked about what happened 18 months and a year ago. Six months ago we received from the Department of Social Security a so-called short paper dealing with poll tax rebates. We were told that from 1990 onwards the arrangements in England and Wales would be virtually identical to those in Scotland. Tonight we have been told that from now on the arrangements in Scotland will be virtually the same as those in England and Wales. In six months the Government have turned the whole thing round. They now tell us that what was happening in Scotland six months ago was unsatisfactory and that the arrangements will have to be changed to bring them into line with those for England and Wales.
The Department of Social Security paper contained a nice table showing a poll tax figure of £300, by which the Government sought to illustrate their point. As it turned out, that was a very convenient figure from the Government's point of view. With poll tax at £300, those on income support--which has been increased by £1.15 for a single person under 25, £1.30 for single people over 25 and £2.30 for couples--will be no worse or better off. It was, therefore, convenient for the Government to use the £300 figure in the tables illustrating the Department's paper.
In the real world, however, authorities are not levying poll taxes of £300. They are levying poll taxes well in excess of £300. In my constituency, for example, the figure is £324. Conservative Members may say that that will mean that those on income support will be only marginally worse off. How can they justify a system that makes those on income support marginally worse off and Scottish Office Ministers £1,100 a year better off? No system that does that can be justified.
Mr. McAllion : At the last budget meeting, the Conservative opposition on Tayside regional council suggested a reduction of 0.75 per cent. in expenditure. That would make very little difference to the poll tax ; the poll tax might even be bigger as a result of that opposition's activities.
I am trying to drag home to the House the fact that for 18 months I was repeatedly told by Scottish Ministers that there was no cause for concern-- that everything was fine and that the rebate scheme was marvellous. Suddenly after the Tory party conference in Blackpool everything changed. All bets are off. Everything must change in Scotland and Scotland must be brought into line with England and Wales. Have the Government suddenly come to their senses? No ; Conservative Back Benchers representing marginal seats have suddenly come to their senses. [Interruption.] There are very few Scottish Tory Back Benchers, and it is most unlikely that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has come to his senses.
Column 781In December 1988 Alzheimer's Scotland wrote a letter to every hon. Member in Scotland and I am sure that the hon. Member for Tayside, North received a copy. It wrote :
"It seems, however, that people with degenerative brain disorders such as dementia will not qualify. In the latter stages of dementia, a sufferer may lose the power of speech, may appear to understand almost nothing, may fail to recognise close family members and may be doubly incontinent. It is both illogical and unfair to attempt to differentiate between such people and others with conditions causing a similar degree of mental impairment."
The director of Alzheimer's Scotland wrote to me:
"Alzheimer's Scotland have drawn the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to this state of affairs."
The Minister of State, Scottish Office wrote to me in February 1989 :
"This is clearly a difficult question, but I can assure you it is one to which the Government gave considerable thought before deciding that people with dementia should not be exempt from paying the community charge."
That is what the Minister of State, Scottish Office, called excessive keenness on the Government's part. After considerable thought, they decided that they were not going to exempt sufferers from Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative brain disorders. Only as a result of pressure from public opinion in Scotland and from Government Back Benchers did the Government make any concessions. The Government are running scared now, but not because they have lost the argument. They lost the argument a long time ago. Now for the first time they can see the implications of losing the argument in the House and in England and Wales, where they will lose many marginal seats. The Government are papering over the cracks in an unjust and unworkable system of local government finance. No one wants it, especially not in Scotland where we have experienced it. I have decided that I will not willingly pay the poll tax and it will have to be taken from me. I have received threatening letters from my local regional council stating that I had better pay up in 14 days or else. However, other people in my street have not yet even received their poll tax payment books. That is the kind of administrative chaos facing regional councils. If the system will not work in Scotland it will not work elsewhere. The poll tax has degenerated into unsustainable chaos and the legislation will have to be repealed.
We have heard that the cost of the poll tax is enormous. Nearly £1 million was spent on propaganda in Scotland trying to sell the poll tax to the Scottish people. Does the Secretary of State for the Environment believe that that money was well spent? Was it cost effective? After spending £1 million on propaganda, 80 per cent. of the Scottish people rejected the propaganda and the poll tax with it. Perhaps the local government auditors should have a close look at the Government Departments that are wasting money in that way. Already millions have been wasted on computers and in administrative costs. Other huge costs will be incurred in rejigging the scheme to bring it into line with the transitional arrangements.
The Minister wrote to me and told me that he believed that all the costs were worth paying because the system increased accountability in Scottish local government. It is a sheer nerve for a Tory Minister responsible for Scotland to say that he wanted to see increased accountability in local government in Scotland. When are we going to have
Column 782increased accountability in central Government in Scotland? Only 20 per cent. of the Scottish people voted for the Government who are now imposing their will on Scotland. We cannot hold the Government accountable and we are denied the right to hold them accountable, but we are told that accountability is good for us in local government in Scotland.
The Minister also justified the costs and disruption that the poll tax would bring about with the idea that it was a fairer method of collecting local government finance. If a poll tax of £350 is levied in a local authority, someone on £62.47 a week will be expected to pay the full poll tax. He will pay £6.73 in poll tax--10.8 per cent. of his income. Someone in the same area earning £300 a week will also pay £6.73 a week in poll tax, but that is 2.5 per cent. of his income. How can it be fairer for the poor to pay four times as much as the rich in their contributions to local government finance? The whole tax is immoral. It is only a matter of time, not until the poll tax is repealed, but until the Government are defeated. Then the poll tax will be repealed.
Mr. Tony Banks : I congratulate the Secretary of State on inserting a Treasury tag into the Government's bulky document. It makes it very convenient to hang it on a nail. I assure him that I will put every single page to good use.
An annex to the document relates to special grants which will be paid to inner London local authorities. I do not resent that--many local authorities are getting fresh grants. However, why is the London borough of Newham not qualified to receive special grants? I am sure that the Secretary of State understands that, although the London borough of Newham is an outer London borough, it has the same problems as inner London boroughs. If its two next-door boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney are to receive special grants, I should like to know precisely why Newham is not to receive them and what they are all about.
It is grotesquely unfair that the poll tax payers of Newham will contribute to the safety net, whereas outer London Tory boroughs such as Bexley will get a safety net contribution. Why should the poll tax payers of Newham subsidise leafy Tory boroughs such as Bexley? I hope that the Secretary of State will tell me something that will make some sense to the people of Newham when they consider what was announced this afternoon.
Mr. Banks : I notice that the Box is now so crowded that they must double-park. It comes ill for the Government to start talking about special advisers and chairs' assistants in local authorities. They must carry a great weight of responsibility and they thoroughly deserve all the assistance they can possibly get.
The Secretary of State spoke about publicity for rebates and transitional relief. I saw the Minister, who is undoubtedly one of the most acceptable faces of extremism that we have seen on the Government Front Bench, nodding his head in grave agreement with my points. I want the Secretary of State himself to make a statement. I understand that the major poll tax advertising campaign will also involve television, and I trust that emphasis will be placed on rebates and transitional relief.
Opposition Members will support anything that points out how people can avoid the more iniquitous aspects of this invidious tax. If there are rebates and benefits, they
Column 783must know what they are and how they can get them as speedily as possible. If that is what the advertising campaign is to be about, we will not object. We have seen enough of the Government's information campaigns to know that they usually amount to nothing more than crude Tory Government propaganda.
The Secretary of State did not respond to me earlier, so I ask him again. If he is genuine in saying that the advertising campaign will be about rebates and benefits that poll tax payers can receive, will he consult local authority associations on the terms of the advertising campaign to make sure that we are all in broad agreement before we start? If not, I suspect that there will be much disagreement and a lot of mud will be flung around.
Mr. Winnick : Does it not prove that the Prime Minister has a sense of humour, if only an odd one, that she appointed a Secretary of State who was known to be opposed to the poll tax and who, as a Tory Back-Bench Member, made several wet speeches, and gave him the job of justifying this totally unfair tax?
Mr. Banks : I was about to say that it must be a perverse one. Indeed, when the Prime Minister develops a sense of humour, I will cross the House to join Conservative Members, but I do not think that there is much danger of that happening in the foreseeable future--or, indeed, in the unforeseeable future.
I ask the Secretary of State yet again, since his Minister of State has made it plain that the campaign on the poll tax will be about rebates and transitional reliefs, whether he will give the undertaking that I have requested and seek early discussions with the local authority associations on the terms of the advertising campaign that is to be inflicted on us in the winter.
Column 78510.45 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : I intend to be brief. I begin by apologising to the Minister of State, Scottish Office and to his Opposition counterpart for not being present for their opening speeches. They, more than most, will appreciate the difficulties of trying to be in several places at one time and they know that I listen with great interest to their words on numerous occasions. You will have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that many of the hon. Members who have participated in the discussion on these amendments represent Scottish constituencies. If at times Opposition Members sound less than gracious when concessions are made by the Government, it is perhaps because, having consistently voted and worked against the community charge in Scotland, all of us are well aware of the implications of the implementation of that legislation in Scotland and of all its drawbacks.
I advise Conservative Members who represent English constituencies that if they think that their mailbags are heavy or that their constituency clinics are particularly busy, they have seen nothing yet. As the community charge comes closer in England and Wales, those Conservative Members will find out what we are finding out in Scotland, which is that the vast majority of people are opposed to this tax on grounds of principle. They will face many difficulties in trying to persuade their constituents that the legislation should go through. If all the Opposition Members representing Scottish seats were to bring into the Chamber and to read chapter and verse all the letters relating to the individual cases with which they have had to deal over the past 18 months, they could keep the House sitting for many a long hour, well beyond the normal rules and regulations. I give that as a clear warning because many individuals in other parts of the country will now experience the difficulties that we have experienced.
However, having said that, I welcome the flexibility that is now--belatedly --to be offered to the Scottish regional councils when deciding on the standard community charge. It is only right to mention that one of the strongest campaigners on this issue has been the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), whom we all wish well and hope that he will soon be recovered and back with us. Along with others of us in Grampian region, the right hon. Gentleman raised the point that people were being described as having "holiday homes" and were being subjected to a standard community charge of £522 for a little property, sometimes merely a wooden shack with no running water or electricity, for which in previous years they had paid perhaps £20, £30, or £40 in rates. The fact that such people were being asked to pay the standard charge was against the interests of the tourist trade in our area, which is important in keeping small village shops open. That shop is often also the post office, where the pensioners collect their pensions, and it plays a significant role. We are talking not about people who live in mansions and have lots of money, but about individuals with a tiny cottage in which they can spend weekends or a fortnight in the summer, having a family holiday. This point has caused a great deal of upset. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will tell us the implications of what
Column 786has happened in the financial year 1989-90 for these people who have already been asked to pay such substantial charges for their small properties.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State wishes to comment also on what he has built into his calculations in respect of the bureaucracy of the charge. Regional councils in Scotland have suggested to me that, whereas the collection of rates constituted 2 per cent. of their income, a more accurate figure for the collection of the community charge is 8 or 9 per cent. That is a substantial increase. There are still warrants to be issued and people to be pursued who, like me, have had 14-day and seven-day warnings. There are still others who have not paid for whatever reason. We still do not know the financial implications of that. There must be some calculation of the bureaucratic implications of collecting the charge.
I welcome the concession about the sole or main residence for the purpose of employment. The Minister from the Scottish Office will remember the individual cases that I have sent him. Are there any implications for people who work abroad and use local services for only a few weeks of the year? A constituent who lives in Lossiemouth works in Dubai. Because of the nature of his work, he spends 12 weeks abroad and is then at home for three. In any financial year, therefore, he spends a minimum of nine weeks and a maximum of 10 weeks in the community, yet he is expected to pay the full charge. I am disappointed that there is no reference here to what happens if people die. I do not want to repeat the problems experienced by fishermen's widows who were issued with community charge requests for £3 or £4 for the two or three days of a month when their husbands were alive. I thought that was appalling. Some regional authorities have decided that £5 is the minimum bill for which they will send out a claim, but I should like a clear ruling from the Government that no community charge payment will be required retrospectively for the month in which a community charge payer dies. Such requests demonstrated one of the most despicable attitudes in the implementation of the charge, and the heartbreak that it caused to widows and widowers in my constituency was horrendous.
I welcome the concession regarding Alzheimer's disease, but it has been a hard long struggle, and we are still not 100 per cent. sure what the implications are for others who suffer similar conditions, such as senile dementia, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The Department of Social Security has announced that there is to be a substantial review of how payments and allowances are made to disabled people. The community charge must be considered clearly and sincerely in that review, because if we are to have emphasis on community care, the implications of the community charge are substantial for families who want to give independence to relatives with some form of disabling disease. The Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Security must take that on board.
We have experienced many other problems during the past year. If we in Scotland sometimes sound a little grudging about the concessions that are made, it is because we feel that we have been used as guinea pigs for this legislation. We have had the bureaucracy, the problems of constituents having eight pages to fill in to claim a rebate and local authorities saying that rebate forms have not reached them.
Column 787The few concessions that have been made do not in any way measure up to the anger, resentment and bitterness that many people feel about this charge in principle--not just because of the administrative chaos.
Those who seek to represent people must search their consciences. I believe that fundamental principles are at stake because of the community charge. I have searched my conscience and I know that I have not found it easy to become a non-payer. I do not find it particularly easy to break the civil laws of my country. Until those who seek to lead and to represent are prepared to take on leadership responsibilities, however, one cannot argue for changes in the law. I believe that the non-payment campaign has helped to cause the small amendments to be made. I believe that non-payment can still help to defeat the poll tax. Its replacement with a local income tax would mean the introduction of a fairer tax which takes account of ability to pay. The community charge is destined to failure because it is based on a simple flaw.
Mr. Kirkwood : I do not wish to detain the House for long, but the group of amendments that we are considering are complicated and make changes in Scottish law which is entirely different from the English legal system. I accept that there can only be one wind-up speech, but obviously the English Minister will reply. That means that some of the legitimate points that have been raised by Members representing Scotland will not be answered.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I shall certainly write to all Members if all the relevant issues are not dealt with. Many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) were dealt with in my speech, but she was not present at the time.
Mr. Kirkwood : The Minister would be less than his usual courteous self if he did not write to hon. Members, but, with respect, that is not the point. If we are having debates, they should truly be debates.
Earlier today English Members heard a ministerial statement on local government finance, which meant that hon. Members representing English constituences had the opportunity to raise constituency issues. Instead of writing to Scots Members the Minister should consider the alternative of making a statement of his own at some date as that would enable us to ask specific questions. Will the orders that flow from the legislation that we are enacting be negative, or affirmative orders? If they are negative, hon. Members must pray against them. If they are affirmative, hon. Members are guaranteed a debate albeit limited to one and a half hours. We now have the broad framework of the legislation, but the orders are important as they provide the important detail.
The statements that the Secretary of State has made in the debate have been helpful and I believe that they represent a move in the right direction. We must see the fine print, however, before we can make final judgments. But it is important that the orders that introduce the legislative details are affirmative so that we can discuss them here as of right.
Today, on such issues as exemptions for Alzheimer's disease and discretion over the standard community charge, Ministers have adopted a different tone from previous discussions. They now say that things can be done that could not be done a year ago when the Scottish legislation went through. If such changes can be made
Column 788suddenly, why is it not possible to consider introducing a system of local government that relates people's local government taxation to their ability to pay. That is the fundamental flaw in the poll tax legislation.
The Secretary of State made great play about retaining local government accountability in the amendments. The best way to achieve such accountability is by adopting the political solution of a system of proportional representation. That makes the electorate the judge and jury on levels of tax rather than Ministers sitting in Whitehall.
I am concerned about levels of business rates. My constituency has a low- rated rural base and I cannot see how local small businesses or high street shops will be better off in the long run as a result of the uniform business rate, whether it is based on a unified Scottish or United Kingdom rate. I have never had a convincing answer to that. I have not had one tonight, and it is something to which the Government must address themselves. I understand that transitional protection is built in, and I welcome that. However, in the longer term, small businesses and shopkeepers in high streets in constituencies such as mine will inevitably suffer.
I welcome the fact that the transitional protection will be retrospective. I also understand that substantial moves are being made to encourage people to apply for community charge rebates. If, in the course of the advertising campaign, people in Scotland are found to be eligible for rebate on their poll tax, will the rebate be paid in retrospect as well? Will the rebate system as well as the transitional protection be retrospective in Scotland? That is an important question, and one to which I hope the Minister will address himself.
I wish to ask about what will happen when local authorities take advantage of the new discretion to zero rate people's individual standard community charge. When people's contracts of employment require them to live outside their home, and a local authority allows their income to be zero rated, will central Government make good the losses to the local authority's revenue support grant? That is an important point.
Will the Government look carefully at a problem which has arisen in my constituency where, because of a computer programme failure, 18-year-olds have been missed off the register and have only just started receiving their original bills in the past few weeks? My local authority, which has the legal power summarily to insist that the full amount be paid forthwith, has given them to the end of the financial year to pay these arrears. That doubles the weekly and monthly charge which they are required to pay. Will the Government look at the possibility of extending the period available to extinguish arrears in such cases, where the fault for the arrears did not lie with the community charge payer, but was due to a local authority administrative hiccup? Such people deserve more time in which to pay the amount owed.
The concession which has been made on senile dementia is welcome, but the Secretary of State will not be able to allow the exemption to rest there. The category of exemption will have to be expanded to cope adequately with the present position in Scotland. Apart from anything else, the legislation drives a coach and horses through the Government's policy of trying to promote care in the community if individuals can be charged outside institutions within which they are exempt.
Column 789The Government have a long way to go. The changes announced tonight are warmly welcomed as far as they go, but they do not go nearly far enough.
Mr. Wallace : I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and wish to mention the unsatisfactory nature of trying to mix a Scottish debate with an English and Welsh debate. As the Secretary of State explained on a point of order, it was agreed between the usual channels, and no doubt Opposition Front Bench spokesmen work in a mysterious way to put the Scottish Office on the hop by allowing it to get away with a reply from the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is not responsible for the Scottish operation of the poll tax, despite his great talents in many other respects.
I also wish to congratulate the Government on bringing forward an amendment dealing with the standard community charge which is, in many respects, similar to that which I moved on Report. I well recall the occasion, not least because of the absence and silence of the other two Opposition parties in Scotland. The Government have done a complete U-turn from the position which they then held.
I also wish to congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) for implementing an undertaking which he gave on that occasion in relation to another new clause which I tabled about evidence on appeals arising out of the poll tax. That is dealt with in Lords amendment No. 419, and I acknowledge that it will improve matters.
Although the rebate scheme has been presented as a generous measure--and it is far better than nothing--it will still leave many people considerably worse off. In my constituency, because the poll tax does not amount to £150 per annum, or £3 per week, per person, no one will derive any benefit. It is clear from letters from my constituents that many of them find themselves worse off under the poll tax, but this rebate scheme will not bring them any benefits. It is important to put it on record that, although the amendments will bring some relief to some people, it by no means makes the poll tax a good tax ; it makes it only a little less rotten.
Mr. Chris Patten : With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply, albeit briefly, to a number of the points that have been raised. I shall not detain the House for an inordinate length of time.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) for his warm and charming welcome to my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who has joined my Department. I thought that at one point the hon. Gentleman was about to suggest that there was nothing in life that anyone could want more than a berth in Marsham street. My hon. Friend is a welcome member of the team. The hon. Gentleman and I must have felt at times as though we were intervening in a Scottish debate, but it was helpful to have such a wealth of experience brought to bear on a number of the Government's proposals for smoothing the introduction of the community charge. I want to take up three points that the hon. Gentleman raised. First, he referred to community care, and especially to those leaving care homes and going into the community after 31 March next year. Those in the position he
Column 790described will have all the protection already built into the community charge system. If they have low incomes they will be entitled to rebates. It is important to recognise that the transitional relief is in addition to the existing protection, so it is misleading to suggest that those who do not qualify for relief are being deprived of protection.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about senile dementia. The Scottish amendments deal with that and apply new definitions retrospectively. We have also announced that we shall change the provisions that exempt from the community charge those who are severely mentally impaired. As was made clear, that will allow the exemption to cover people whose mental impairment arises from degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or mental illness. The change in the definition in England will be made by order and no new primary legislation will be necessary. It will be done by adding attendance allowance and constant attendance allowance to the list of qualifying benefits and removing the requirement that the impairment must have arisen from a congenital or childhood condition or injury to the brain. Any person who is in receipt of a qualifying allowance and has a certificate from his doctor confirming that his intelligence and social functioning are severely impaired will be entitled to the exemption.
As there has been some misunderstanding on that point, I must make it clear that we will not be specifying by name the conditions that will qualify people for exemption. I think that that was the point which most concerned the hon. Gentleman. That aspect is important, given recent press reports on the difficulties of diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. Anyone suffering from any disorder that is severe enough to warrant the award of the attendance allowance or any of the existing qualifying benefits will be exempted if his doctor certifies that his impairment is a mental one.
The hon. Member for Brightside pressed his amendment and suggested that rather than spending the money that we have made available for the interim relief scheme we should be spending it on rebates, thereby making the existing system of rebates more generous. The hon. Gentleman will know that next year in Britain as a whole about £2 billion will be paid out in rebates, plus another £500 million in income support to help pay community charge bills.
There are two principal problems with the Opposition's amendment. First, it would be wrong to provide yet more permanent help through rebates. That would undermine the accountability which is so central to the working of the new system. Secondly, I doubt whether the Opposition would wish that those on average earnings should lose more than £3 a week next year and receive no help. No conceivable increase in rebates would help that group. It is right, therefore, to target help directly at those who stand to lose the most, and to provide such help on a transitional basis only. Most of the help is likely to go to those on relatively modest incomes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) made a powerful speech in supporting small businesses and the transitional problems that some of them will face. I know that he is extremely knowledgeable on the subject and has been a good friend to small businesses. He referred to the transitional arrangements for phasing in the uniform business rate, revaluation and the impact on small businesses. We have taken the view that protection against increases in bills should apply to