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Mr. Skinner : You, Mr. Speaker, preside over the Second Reading of Bills and the money resolutions. A money resolution must be in order and in accordance with the Bill as presented. From what the Minister said, it is clear that the scheme may be cheaper or it may be dearer. If it is dearer, I ask your Office to check whether the money resolution that was presented on Second Reading is now in order and can incorporate the changes that have been announced by the Secretary of State today.
We now return to the Adjournment debate. I must say to the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) that they should divide the next hour between them--about 28 minutes each.
Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn. 11.34 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) : I am grateful for this opportunity to refer to COCOM and, in particular, to draw the attention of the House to the recommendations of my report to the Western European Union, which were unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary assembly in Paris earlier this month. As the House will be aware, COCOM stands for the Co-ordinating Committee for Multi-lateral Export Controls. It is the means by which for the past 40 years the western Alliance has prevented what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently described as
"our most cherished scientific achievements"
from falling into the hands of the Soviet bloc. Matters in which the West is understood to have superiority include micro-electronics, optics, super- conductivity, passive sensors, phased array radars, lightweight composite materials, and air-breathing propulsions. In general, it is believed that we have a 10-year lead in technology over the East, with the Soviet bloc, for example, being eight years behind in semi-conductors, five to seven years behind in computers, and a decade behind in machine tools. When applied to western defence, that superiority in strategic technology has ensured peace and is contributing to the end of the cold war.
I accept that there remains a continuing need to protect those technologies through COCOM until arms control negotiations and reductions and confidence -building over a reasonable period justify a review of that need. However, my report to the Western European Union suggests that the western Alliance should now accept a number of realities in the light of current events in eastern Europe which have immediate consequences for the COCOM rules that control the trade in technology. It suggests that, in the light of performance, the enforcement of those rules needs to be critically examined. It suggests that the basis of those rules--the state of Soviet technology--needs to be reassessed. It suggests also that opportunities for trade in technology between East and West should be discussed more openly than ever before in a forum that already exists--the conference on security and co-operation in Europe--while still accepting that both sides have secrets to protect in the interests of their own security.
Despite our success in establishing the technology lead that I have mentioned, it is relevant to remind the House that COCOM's rules and controls have failed to prevent a serious transfer of technology to the Soviet bloc at the expense of our own security. The list of COCOM violations reads like a horror story. Illegal exports of American precision ballbearing grinding machines now enable the Soviet Union to manufacture more accurate guidance systems for missiles trained on western targets. Western technology, which manufactures drill bits for the Soviet oil industry, enables the Soviets to produce new armour-piercing projectiles. Western oceanograph technology enables the Soviet Union to locate our submarines with greater accuracy. Probably the most publicised recent violation was the illegal sale of lathes and numerically controlled machine tools to the Soviet Union, for which Toshiba is paying a considerable price in being outlawed from United States
Column 630markets. The theft from last year's Farnborough air show of the technology behind the Agile Eye helmet, which allows fighter pilots to aim missiles at targets simply by looking at them, should remind us that there is no let-up--what the Soviet Union cannot obtain by fair means it will seek to obtain by espionage, subterfuge and outright theft.
It is understood that the foreign intelligence section of the KGB and the GRU Soviet military intelligence remain as strong and as committed as ever to engaging their officers in missions of scientific and technological espionage, which is why, for as long as the Soviet Union undertakes such operations, it must always expect its spies to be expelled when they are found out. It cannot have it both ways--glasnost and espionage. That is why my report urges controls and enforcement procedures that are more effective, more efficient and common to all COCOM member states. Clearly they have not satisfied those criteria in the past.
Ideally, it must surely be sensible to seek national legislation based on an agreed control list that is commom to all COCOM member states. That, in itself, would do much to dispel the widespread resentment of many western companies that complain that the United States can control the exports of other COCOM states through its extra-territoriality claims yet appears to turn a blind eye when its own companies are selling banned items. The continued charge of double dealing and cheating is threatening to discredit COCOM--in particular, United States participation in it.
The United States attempted to embargo British and other western equipment for the construction of the Siberian pipeline but we subsequently found that it was supplying much of the equipment. On a much smaller scale, there appears to be a growing number of cases of European business men who dare not set foot in the United States because they have been put on a CIA blacklist simply for selling to eastern Europe without licence technology that is clearly obsolete. Others have found that they have been set up and entrapped by over-zealous United States customs officials on the pretext of breaches of the COCOM rules. A constituent of mine, Mr. Andrew Kuzan, obtained an American licence to export a second-hand obsolete test head to Hungary. The licence was withdrawn at the last minute without explanation. He was arrested for attempting to export sensitive technology illegally, and he has just spent two years in an American gaol. It was particularly galling for him and his family to find that only a few miles away from their home in Bournemouth there is an American enterprise that has won a Russian order to supply more advanced versions of the test equipment that he had been convicted of selling illegally. I drew my constituent's case to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement nearly two years ago when he was Minister of Trade.
My second recommendation concerns the assumption of the current state of Soviet technology that is the basis of the COCOM rules. There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that the COCOM rules are being inappropriately applied because our assessment of the state of Soviet technology does not stand up to analysis. For example, it was understood that the Soviets were well ahead in ground-based laser technology to knock out satellites and incoming missiles. But when American Congressmen visited the Soviet facility at Sary-Shagan this July, it was
Column 631concluded that the Americans' own technology, being developed at White Sands, was further advanced and greatly superior and that the Pentagon had presented a worst-case assessment to boost the strategic defence initiative and advance COCOM. That is not the only example. Last month, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee accused the United States Government of defence statements that are "out-dated at best and absolutely false at worst."
To the United States' credit, on that country's initiative, COCOM members have recently established security and technology meetings--STEM--to assess the state of technology for both East and West, but those assessments are not being reported to COCOM and are being left to national Governments to interpret for themselves. Nor have they said much about the state of Soviet technology. I urge a fundamental reassessment of the current state of Soviet technology and a complete review of the COCOM list in the light of the reassessment.
When President Gorbachev addressed the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg in July, he said of COCOM that, even if one could justify such practices at the peak of the cold war, today many of its restrictions seem utterly ridiculous. He suggested that experts and representatives of respective Goverments could get together and break down the cold war logjams to bring secrecy down to the reasonable limits that are still required for security and to give the green light to normal trade in scientific knowledge and technology. Since then we have been told that such a transfer of technology would not be a one-way process and that there are benefits to us in the West to share.
Last month the Soviet deputy premier, Dr. Abalkin, urged in Brussels that there should be more technological co-operation between his country and the European Community :
"The Soviet Union has something it can offer, several lines of technology that have not yet been developed in the West. This has become clear since we lifted the lid of secrecy from our defence and space programmes. We want to act as partners on the basis of equality."
I believe that the time is now ripe to respond positively to President Gorbachev's appeal for western technology to support the restructuring of his economy for the betterment of his people, and for the sharing of technology between East and West for mutual benefit.
My report to the Western European Union suggests how we might achieve that. First, where on-site verification procedures for the transfer of sensitive technologies would be appropriate and would satisfy COCOM member states, let the list be liberalised accordingly. Secondly, as there is already an opportunity forthcoming for Europewide economic co-operation to be discussed, let it be used to discuss trade in technology. That opportunity will come as soon as next March in Bonn with the conference on economic co- operation in Europe as part of the CSCE process. That provides exactly the right forum for trade in technology to be discussed because it involves all COCOM member states--and all the states that it prescribes--that belong to Europe. It will also be underpinned by the Helsinki principles of security co-operation, human rights and confidence-building so recently reinforced by the Vienna concluding document.
Column 632There is already an impressive list of possible collaborative projects, most notably in space, which the strict application of COCOM rules, as they stand today, would prevent. If that happened, Europe would be the loser. Those projects range from the technologies of manufacturing and distribution, which can transform the standard of living of the people of eastern Europe, to participation in the Eureka project, shared research in nuclear technologies and the joint Anglo -American and Soviet project for a supersonic business jet. Is there not scope for the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union to combine their resources and technology to produce that "space plane" known as the Orient Express, Hermes, Hotol and Sanger in the West, which it is the ambition of each country to build? That would be a symbolic end to the scandal of costly competition and duplication in space. I recommend that, should there remain areas of mutual suspicion and mistrust based on a false assessment of the state of each side's technology, a committee of experts should be established within the CSCE framework to make recommendations for the way forward in the sharing of technologies between East and West. That will clarify the no-go areas for each side and will confirm the areas that are ripe for mutual and maximum co-operation and on which future binding commitments can be entered into with confidence by both sides.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that my recommendations for the future of COCOM are responsible and realistic, and reflect the mood of these historic times. We are now, at last, moving forward to a new world in which man can share and pool his vast technological achievements for the benefit of all without fear that he is abandoning his own security. It is, of course, essential that whatever changes we propose, we carry our ally the United States with us. It has, after all, produced most, although not all, of that technological superiority under whose protection we have enjoyed unparalleled peace and prosperity. There is now evidence that the United States is responding. President Bush, after the Malta summit, said that President Gorbachev's approach
"now absolutely mandates new thinking on the part of America." I hope that it will be accepted that the COCOM rules can be revised without abandoning our secrets, our advantage or our security and that the part of our technology that it is now prudent to share should be used to support reform, to enhance civilisation and to encourage perestroika in the Soviet Union, on the understanding that a stable, country and a happier Russian people are also in the interests of a stable, happier and peaceful world.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude) : The House owes a considerable debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for giving us the opportunity to discuss COCOM. It is not an organisation which frequently sees the light of day or is frequently the subject of great public discussion and scrutiny.
My hon. Friend is right when he says that the times through which we are living--times of great change, excitement, hope and opportunity in eastern Europe and in the Soviet bloc--throw into sharp relief the issues that
Column 633the COCOM organisation and the COCOM principles embody. He has done a considerable service to the House in enabling the matter to be debated at this time.
However much COCOM may be reformed and retargeted, the fundamental point remains that it has a vital role in protecting our security interests through protecting our strategic technology. Running through my hon. Friend's speech was a recognition that that was the case. COCOM is not an economic embargo or a mechanism for applying sanctions. It is not a form of political leverage on the "proscribed destinations", which are principally the countries of the Warsaw pact and China. It is not a mechanism to ensure and preserve a technological gap between West and East for economic and commercial reasons.
Mr. Gorbachev, speaking to the Council of Europe in July, said : "East-West relations have of late been bled white by COCOM." That is a gross overstatement and it is wrong on two counts. Our exporting potential and performance have not been bled white ; nor is the crippling economic mess in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union a result of our strategic export controls. It is true that COCOM has had success in denying the Warsaw pact access to critical technology, but that has had virtually no impact on the eastern European civilian consumer. The impact has fallen on the military consumers, which is, of course, the purpose of COCOM. That is the real cause for the Warsaw pact's complaints about COCOM.
It is undeniable that COCOM controls have borne directly on some industrial sectors, but the real stranglehold on eastern European economic development has been caused not by controls on the top slice of western technology, but rather by the chronic economic, industrial and infrastructure inefficiencies stemming from a system of centralised planning. The current problems are due not to technology starvation, but to starvation of rational economic management and the West is already beginning to help the East to remedy this. As my hon. Friend has stressed, Europe is experiencing a wind of change the like of which it has, perhaps, never experienced before. A vivid demonstration of this was provided recently in the halls of NATO where a Soviet Foreign Secretary criticised the Romanian regime, an ally in the Warsaw pact. However, we need to be assured of two points : that sensitive technology can be put to effective civil use, and that it will not instead be diverted to military use. The West can gradually help to encourage the conditions for the former and, in the meantime, COCOM helps to prevent the latter. The movement in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union towards greater democracy and freedom in economic and political behaviour is vital. And I do not believe COCOM can or will stand in the way of this. Although it is an institution which was created at the time of Stalin, COCOM is not somehow a counterpart to Stalinism. We welcome the Soviet, Polish, Hungarian, Czech and East German debunking of Stalinism. However, the fact that that is happening, encouraging though it is, does not mean we can now debunk COCOM. Great expectations have rightly been aroused by developments east of the iron curtain. We shall do what we
Column 634can to help to bring those expectations to fulfilment. However, to flood those reforming countries with high technology cannot be the answer.
All partners in COCOM recognise the need to control only those items of genuine strategic significance. With them, we are urgently considering ways in which COCOM can respond both prudently and imaginatively to recent events. Media headlines of a move, especially from the United States, towards wholesale liberalisation are misleading. President Bush at a news conference on 16 December said on the need for reviewing COCOM :
"there are certainly still legitimate national security interests that must be preserved But I think it is timely that we take a new look at some of the commercial constraints."
There is nothing here with which we or, I believe, our partners in COCOM would disagree. The question is how to turn agreement on the need for a measured yet flexible approach into practice.
Many ideas are already under discussion in COCOM and more widely. Let me set out a few of these. The first is streamlining--the process of continuously reviewing the COCOM control lists to ensure that they apply only to genuinely critical items. This process must and will continue.
Secondly, there is verification. Poland and Hungary have offered guarantees against diversion from civil to military end use. Those are welcome, but guarantees alone, as my hon. Friend will accept, are not enough. The verification of certain exports is already a part of COCOM procedure, but verification cannot unlock the door to a flow of high technology across the iron curtain. We shall use this method to the fullest practical extent, but we should not fool ourselves by believing that we shall be able adequately to police every sensitive export for the duration of its strategic life.
In principle, of course, it would be ideal if we had a totally detailed knowledge of the extent of Soviet technological capability, but this is impossible to measure accurately even if we could be granted access to every Soviet office, factory or laboratory. I remain to be convinced by the suggestion that the Bonn economic meeting of the CSCE should provide a forum for the detailed discussion of eastern technological capabilities. I doubt whether that meeting would have the necessary levels of expertise, but of course we can raise this with partners. It may offer a way forward in some respects.
All these ideas and others now need vigorous discussion between COCOM partners. Following the high level meeting in October, senior officials will again meet in Paris, probably in February. Their aim will be to draw conclusions and policy decisions from the present mix of ideas. It is too early to predict what policy lines will merge, but we shall be arguing that COCOM's response to reforms in eastern Europe should be developed in a considered and co-ordinated manner. As my hon. Friend has observed, COCOM countries have two alternatives, both of which involve taking risks, and they should take the more imaginative of the two paths.
I can assure the House that, subject to the continuing need to protect our vital security interests, COCOM will not be, must not be, an impediment to reform in eastern Europe. We can both assist the East and keep up our own insurance. COCOM need not, I believe, be inimical to these twin objectives.
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West) : I regret that at this festive time of year I have to raise the unhappy topic of the implementation of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987. No single item of legislation in the past Thatcher decade better illustrates the Government's philosophy than that legislation, which the Prime Minister has called her flagship.
The theory underlying the legislation is that consumers of local government services should pay for them and that those who administer the services should be accountable to the electorate for their provision. Therefore, we have the concept of the community charge, which is in reality a tax, based on the view that it is possible to make people pay a flat-rate charge for local services. Conservative Members have argued that people should pay a flat-rate charge in the same way that they do for a television licence. But a moment's examination shows how absurd that is. If one could afford it, one could have three, four or even five televisions in the house, but pay for only one licence. Therefore, the consumption of the service is not related to the charge.
Originally, the view on the community charge--more appropriately called a poll tax--was that, if implemented, it should be as a supplement to and not a replacement of the rates. It has been well documented that the panic measure was introduced in the House because of the revaluation in Scotland in 1985. The Government sought a cheap and effective way of replacing the rates, initially in Scotland, and they introduced the legislation just before the 1987 general election.
It is valid to examine the legislation because when it was introduced it applied to no section of the United Kingdom other than Scotland. Even now, there is no poll tax legislation for Northern Ireland. We are a United Kingdom Parliament and theoretically we are all subject to similar, if not the same, levels of taxation, but there are differences and distinctions.
At the time of the 1987 general election, no other piece of legislation, passed by the House, was subjected to the direct examination of a part of the United Kingdom. The Government argue that they are accountable to the people for legislation which affects local authorities, but when we examine what happened in Scotland at the general election we find that the Tories were almost wiped out. No one can say, with any measure of truth, that the poll tax legislation was not the subject of intense debate at that time. Scotland, the specific subject of the poll tax legislation, overwhelmingly rejected that legislation, yet we still got it. So much for electoral and democratic accountability.
I do not know how any Scottish Minister, knowing that he owes his place at the Dispatch Box to the electorate, can say at the next general election that, even if the Government's record is rejected, they will continue with their policies because they have a majority in the United Kingdom Parliament.
This legislation, the Government's flagship, places an enormous strain on the Union. Those who persist in neglecting the democratic views of the Scottish people and at the same time mouthing unionism in terms of the United Kingdom are verging on being hypocritical. They are endangering the Union. The Government cannot say that people have a vote which counts, which has to be related
Column 636to a specific piece of legislation, and yet, when the electorate affected by that legislation rejects it, continue to force that legislation down their throats.
Unfortunately, memories are short when it comes to the implementation of the legislation. One of the most invidious features of the legislation is the infringement, and continued infringement, of individual liberty. The poll tax registration officers seek personal information to find out where a person is living and whether they should be subject to the poll tax. They even get hold of unlisted telephone numbers.
A student was living with one of my constituents. His telephone number was unlisted, but, somehow or another, the poll tax registration officer in Fife managed to get hold of it. That is the extent to which he was prepared to go to get hold of information. He is responsible to no one--neither to the Secretary of State nor to the regional councils in Scotland. No democratic control is exercised over poll tax registration officers.
The poll tax bears no relation to ability to pay. It is a flat-rate tax. The Government argue that its effect is modified by a complicated rebate system. However, the tax burden will be shifted from the backs of those who have sufficient resources to the backs of those who have not. It is a highly regressive and painful tax. That pain is inflicted in various obnoxious ways. In order to secure the payment of the poll tax, certain sanctions are imposed. We know about the sanctions relating to income tax and rates.
As for the cost of administering the poll tax, yesterday the Under- Secretary of State gave what I consider to be a wholly bogus figure when he said :
"The cost to local authorities of collecting the community charge in 1988- 89 is estimated by authorities at £31.8 million." That is well over £14 million more than the cost of collectting rates. I believe the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which says that the true cost of collecing the community charge will probably be £50 million. The Under -Secretary's figure does not include indirect charges. The poll tax costs more to collect and employs 2,000 additional people. Scotland has lost jobs in shipbuilding, steel and coal mining, but those losses are compensated for, theoretically, by the creation of 2,000 additional jobs. So much for keeping control over local authority manpower.
When the local authorities considered how much the poll tax would yield, they believed initially that there would be a downturn in the yield of about 6 per cent. There ought to be about 4 million people on the register. I ask the House to bear that figure in mind. If the tax is to work, the penalties must be severe, and the Government know that. It is one thing to try to enforce penalties in relation to a tax that people have accepted as fair but another to have similarly severe penalties in relation to a tax that people do not accept and have voted against and that is manifestly unfair. The penalties for non-payment include arrestment of wages or salaries, arrestment of bank accounts and such things as income support and the poinding of one's goods and, eventually, one's savings.
I want the House to realise how obnoxious the warrant sale procedure can be. I do not think that this has been shown before. One of my constituents, Mr. Terence Donnelly, received a letter dated 14 December from H. M. Love and Partners, 8 Abbey Park place, Dunfermline. Representatives of that firm called at Mr. Donnelly's house while he was working. The letter stated :
Column 637"We refer to the Summary Warrant granted at Dunfermline Sheriff Court in connection with arrears of Community Charge for the year 1989/90.
As payment has not been made, our Officer has called today with instructions to carry through a Poinding of your household effects. As no one was in attendance, you are hereby notified that unless payment, as detailed below, is made to our office immediately, our Officer may be instructed to return to your premises.
It should be noted that the warrant carries authority to open and shut lockfast places."
If the householder is absent, the sheriff officers or the messenger-at-arms can break in. That is the sanction which the Government are willing to impose to collect this regressive tax. The Minister must respond to that point in relation to the sanguine speech that the Secretary of State made in Edinburgh on 4 December and the figures that were repeated yesterday. The Secretary of State said that 70,000 warrants were being issued in Strathclyde, but only a minute number of warrant sales are being effected.
All Scottish local authorities have avoided the imposition of warrant sales. I am told that Strathclyde has not had a warrant sale in 14 years. Depending on how the figures are calculated, nine months into the financial year between 500,000 and 750,000 Scots have not paid the poll tax. If the Government want to impose the full rigour of the law, they will have to stand back--they will say that this is not their responsibility but that of the local authorities--and watch those authorities get themselves into extreme financial difficulties. They may say, "It is your responsibility to collect these sums." To put it crudely, Scottish Labour local authorities will have to do the Tories' dirty work.
Scottish local authorities have assured-warrant sales for the rates. I shall repeat Strathclyde's record because it is worth repeating: it has had no warrant sales in 14 years. However, the local authority is to issue about 300,000 letters through the sheriff officers saying that people are in debt. I do not see how warrant sales can be avoided if the full rigour of the law is enforced. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain his proposals and how local authorities can avoid that.
In addition to those complications, we have the pressure applied by English Back Benchers to alter the scheme halfway through. The Opposition have arguied that people with Alzheimer's disease should be totally exempt but the Minister said no.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) :Warrant sales would be required for large amounts of money if we are talking about a year's poll tax. The furniture collected and sold secondhand and the costs involved with that mean that a person's house will be virtually stripped bare and still the money would not be raised to pay the poll tax and the debt would be outstanding. That is a horrendous device.
I return to the subject of altering the rules of the game--with some justification--halfway through, and the complexity involved for Scottish local authorities. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said that the stumbling block over transitional relief is the Government's desire to see the recalculation of rebate for any qualifiers who are currently in receipt of such benefit. COSLA says that it cannot administer this along the lines that the Government suggest and that the cost will be
Column 638enormous. The Government are now suggesting that COSLA employs a firm of consultants to investigate the cost.
One of the forms of arrestment was to go to the bank. In a letter of 22 November the Scottish clearing banks said that the cost to the banks of trawling through their accounts would be considerable. A paragraph that was not entirely accurate in terms of total numbers but which illustrates the point said :
"Press reports suggest that there are now 450,000 non-payers which could result in an inordinate cost being placed on the banks if a corresponding number of arrestments were to be served on them. Should even 100,000 arrestments be served on a bank, the cost for that bank would run into several millions. If these costs are multiplied across all four banks, the costs could exceed £20 million."
What is the Government's reply about the cost effectiveness of the collection of taxes?
Round one of safety-netting transferred resources from the rural regions to the more urban regions. Next time the Government will finance part of it and the charges to Strathclyde and Glasgow will rise to an estimated £20 million. So the poll tax will soar. I know that time is short. As it is the season of good will I will not be unduly offensive to my absent friends in the Labour party although I have given notice that I intend to refer to them. The Government are in a dilemma and so is the Labour party-- theoretically the party of conscience. At a rally a few weeks ago the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) paraded themselves in front of a banner saying, "No warrant sales." Does the Labour party mean it? If it does, how will it present itself at the next regional elections? Will it say, "If you elect a Labour regional councillor there will be no warrant sales"? That is difficult to do. Will it say, "If you elect us, wait until the next Labour Government in order to get the poll tax repealed"? If we raise that level of expectation and Labour is elected on a Thursday, by Monday nobody in Scotland will be paying the poll tax. The depth of hatred for the tax is not seen in the south-east of England. If that level of expectation is raised, nobody in Scotland will wait a year or 18 months for a Bill to go through the legislative process.
We are in the season of good will. To put it in biblical terms, if Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem to pay their poll tax, they might have had to pay the standard charge for the stable and when they returned to Nazareth they might have found their furniture poinded and subject to a warrant sale.
The Bill is the Government's flagship. It epitomises a policy of making the poor pay. My party was created, in effect, to defend the poorer sections of the population. That is our raison d'etre. I am sad that my party says that it is opposed to warrant sales and poinding furniture but at the same time tells people that they must obey the law and pay the poll tax. To propose that people should obey the law is to imply that the law is just. But the law should have a democratic sanction behind it. This law does not have that sanction in Scotland. The Minister knows that, and knows that if the Conservative Government and the Conservative party continue to behave in the manner that they have, come the next election there will be no Conservative Members in Scotland. What will the Government do then? If there is a Labour Government
Column 639there will be a dilemma, and if there is a Conservative Government those who persist in stuffing this type of legislation down the throats of the Scottish people will be responsible for splitting the Union.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : In the limited time available I shall seek to answer as many as possible of the points that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) raised.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues prophesied great difficulty in introducing this form of local authority tax. In fact, 99 per cent. registered and those who said that they would not pay failed in practice. I stress that we said consistently that over 1 million people in Scotland would receive rebates. It is now clear that that is indeed the case. Those on income support had their benefit increased to take account of the 20 per cent. of the poll tax that they would have to pay. They are exempted from paying the other 80 per cent.
The principle behind the community charge is that it introduces far more accountablity. We are convinced that it is an incomparably fairer system than the previous rating system under which only about 40 per cent. paid rates, although more contributed to them. Accountability is the principle.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of telephone numbers. I cannot comment on the circumstances of the case that he mentioned without further information. I suggest that it is reasonable that people who are liable for the community charge should be registered so that they pay their fair share towards the cost of local authority services.
The figures for the cost of implementing the poll tax are as given in the parliamentary reply to the hon. Gentleman. One of the common threads running through our debates on the community charge is that the Opposition have never presented a clear view of their position on the community charge. As the hon. Gentleman says, the official position is that people should pay. The hon. Gentleman represents a minority view in his party.
The number of people who have made some payment of community charge throughout the regions is largely within the range of 85 to 95 per cent. of those liable to pay. In one region 98 per cent. of people were recorded as having paid something. I acknowledge that those figures do not take account of people who are in arrears. As I said to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West, the figures are not available from local authorities. The figures for the total number of people in arrears would be misleading. The legislation allows people to be up to two instalments in arrears before they risk losing their right to pay by instalments. Many people take account of that in their payment pattern, just as they did under the domestic rating system.
Even the figures for summary warrants do not provide a particularly accurate guide to the number of people in arrears. Those figures simply show the number of people who failed to clear their arrears at particular dates at which local authorities decided to proceed with the next
Column 640stage of their arrears collection process. The ideal course is for everybody to pay on time, but I have yet to hear of any tax at any time for which that happens.
The collection procedures are no different from those used under domestic rates. They were agreed by the House of Commons as recently as the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. We have heard a great deal about the numbers of people that local authorities are pursuing for arrears. It is the last hope of those campaigning for non-payment that these procedures will prove ineffective. However, there are already signs that people are responding to the notifications that they have received about summary warrants and are paying up or entering into a payment arrangement with their local authority. All the evidence suggests that that pattern will be repeated across Scotland. All that people who have received a summary warrant will have gained is a 10 per cent. surcharge.
Much has been made of the numbers of warrants so far and those likely to come next year. One non-payer per local authority is one too many because that person is consuming services without paying for them--simply getting a free ride at the expense of the rest of the community. Nevertheless, realistically a certain level of non-payment must be expected and authorities have budgeted for that.
Inevitably, comparisons are sought to be made with the rating system. They are difficult because many aspects of the two systems are different. The figures emerging from local authorities are broadly in line with what we expected at this stage from the evidence of what happened under the rating system.
Recently there have been reports that the local authority power to arrest bank accounts might prove unworkable. As with so much else, the reports were misleading. I understand that in recent meetings between local authorities and representatives of the banks many of the banks' initial fears were allayed. Moreover, bank account arrestment is only one of several diligences available to local authorities.
The ultimate sanction is the warrant sale. It is fair to say that nobody wants any case to reach that stage, but it is only right that the process should be available to local authorities as a weapon of last resort. It is important not to get this aspect of debt collection out of perspective. It is not the case that almost everyone in arrears will face a warrant sale. First, other means of collecting debt are available to authorities, such as the arrestment of bank accounts or earnings. Secondly, almost all people either pay their debts in full or reach an agreement with the authority before a sale is reached.
I have been informed that last year in Strathclyde the number of warrant sales in respect of rates arrears could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The hon. Gentleman claimed that there were none. Whatever the case, it shows the scale on which warrant sales were carried out.
The Scottish Law Commission found similar arrangements existed in every other western country. After looking thoroughly at the whole question, it concluded that the procedure should be retained in Scots law. However, it recommended that some of the more resented
Column 641aspects of warrant sales, such as the advertisement of sale showing the debtors' name and address, the requirement to hold the sale in the debtors' house and the inclusion of most household effects in the goods to be sold, should be changed. They were changed in the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 and it is noteworth that when the Bill went through the House the Labour party did not vote against it in principle. Before a sale is reached, the person in question will have been given every opportunity to settle his debt by other means. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is recommending non-payment of the community charge. Few of us like paying taxes, but it is wholly irresponsible for a Member of Parliament to adopt that attitude, not only because Members of Parliament should be setting an example and not encouraging law breaking, but because they are wealthy members of the community who can well afford to pay. It is unfair for a Member of Parliament to refuse to pay and, by his actions, put a burden on the less well-off members of the community that he represents. In the circumstances, it is right that the local authority should have the power to enforce payments. If non-payers were allowed to get away with it, authorities would have to cut back on essential services or on the number of employees, or they would have to require more people who pay the charge to subsidise those who do not. I believe that that would be unfair.
The hon. Member mentioned the transitional--