Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to a point of order which might interest you on the ten-minute Bill which is about to be presented to the House by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan)? I am sure that the matter can be explained. The hon. Gentleman wishes to have leave to bring in a Bill which will abolish warrant sales in Scotland. In the hypothetical case --
Mr. King : It is a matter of fact that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West is on record as saying that he has not paid his community charge. My point of order is that, in June 1858, in column 209 of Hansard, a resolution was agreed as follows :
"it is contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignitary of this House, that any of its Members should bring forward, promote or advocate in this House, any proceeding or measure in which he may have acted or been concerned, for or in consideration of any pecuniary fee or reward."
It is absolutely true that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West is not presenting the Bill for any financial reward ; one understands that. The point that I wish to make to you, Mr. Speaker, is that, in promoting the Bill, the hon. Member will be rewarded, if it goes through, by not having to pay community charge or perhaps not having goods seized from him in payment of that community charge. In 1858, the matter concerned members of the legal profession, but during that debate it was determined as applicable in a wider area. The resolution refers to "any Member" of the House, whether a member of the legal profession or not. It is therefore a point that you might care to consider, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker : I have in fact considered it. I am afraid that the hon. Member is not on to a particularly good point. There is no question of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) being paid for asking leave to bring in his Bill. That was what the resolution in 1858 was all about. If hon. Members could not advocate general changes in the law from which they would benefit themselves, it would never be possible to reduce taxation. I am sure that is not what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) wants. Therefore, the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West is fully in order.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the practice of warrant sales and to replace it with a Debt Arbitration Service ; and to control the employment and conduct of sheriff officers.
Column 794This is my third attempt to introduce such a measure. The last time, I managed to get cross-party support ; indeed, on checking Hansard , I note that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) was one of the sponsors of the Bill which I tried to introduce along these lines. I therefore expect him to vote with me, if there is a vote, and to encourage all his hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches to do likewise.
At the outset I should like to pay tribute to the late Jimmy Dempsey, the former Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie who campaigned for many years for the abolition of warrant sales. I should also like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who last year introduced a similar Bill. I was pleased to be one of her sponsors.
The practice of warrant sales in Scotland dates back to the middle ages. Since that time, they have caused untold hardship and misery to many people and their families. Indeed, people have sometimes been driven literally to suicide when faced with the threat of a warrant sale. At the moment, many families in Scotland are living in fear of a knock on the door from the sheriff officer coming to threaten or actually sell their belongings because the family has fallen into debt, often through no fault of its own.
Warrant sales have rightly been described as a barbaric form of humiliation and blackmail which ought to have been outlawed years ago. They are not even an efficient system of debt collection, because the expenses incurred through the warrant sale system are often out of all proportion to the amount of the original debt, and only about 3 per cent. of warrant sales are successful in the sense of recovering the total debt incurred. People's possessions are often sold at a fraction of their real value, with the result that the debtor loses the lot, the creditor gains little but the sheriff officer and unscrupulous salesmen line their pockets.
Recent legislation has extended the number of articles exempt from warrant sales to many essential household items and articles of furniture. Hon. Members may welcome those exemptions, but they go only part of the way. What is required is complete abolition, and that is what my Bill proposes.
My Bill also proposes to replace the warrant sales system with a debt arbitration service, which would facilitate arrangements between creditor and debtor so that a debt that is not disputed can be repaid by instalments, taking into account the debtor's financial circumstances.
My Bill would also control the conduct of sheriff officers by making them employees of the courts, and therefore more accountable. Under the existing system, they appear to behave like free enterprise agents ; firms of sheriff officers have connections with private debt collecting agencies. That should be outlawed.
Sometimes, sheriff officers behave almost like Gestapo officers, breaking into people's houses, bullying residents, subjecting them to fear and intimidation and threatening to sell off their furniture and other miserable possessions. My Bill would stop such legalised intimidation.
Since the advent of the poll tax, the case for the introduction of my Bill has been reinforced. Recent figures produced by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities show that, during the current financial year, more than 50 per cent. of Scottish poll tax has not yet been collected.
Column 795During the past financial year, 1989-90, 1,208,000 summary warrants were issued for non-payment of the poll tax.
After 20 months of the existence of the poll tax in Scotland, warrant officers have made 15,000 attempts to poind property. Only 1, 000 poindings have taken place and, as far as I know, there has not been a single warrant sale in Scotland for non-payment of the poll tax. That is not due to sheriff officers' good nature but to the strength of some local authorities and to the massive resistance of the anti-poll tax campaign.
Let us be straight about this : most people who are in poll tax arrears simply cannot afford to pay the poll tax, but they have been joined by many who can pay and who have chosen to make a stand so that those who cannot pay are not isolated and thereby become easy victims for sheriff officers.
I do not expect every hon. Member to agree with that stance, which is the one that I have taken. I have made it clear that, if Conservative Members want me to pay my poll tax, the sooner the Government abolish it the better. I am on record as saying, in the House and elsewhere, that as soon as the Government announce the abolition of the poll tax I shall gladly pay every penny of my arrears. I am not attempting to get any free ride.
Whether people agree with my stance or not, it is fairly self-evident that the more people who refuse to pay, the more difficult it will be for the 200 sheriff officers to target, hound and harass the poor people who have no choice because they cannot afford to pay. It is also self-evident that the more people there are who refuse to pay, the sooner the poll tax will be abolished. If everyone had stumped up every single penny of their poll tax, the former Prime Minister would still be at No. 10 Downing street and the poll tax would not be under threat. However, largely because of the anti-poll tax campaign, the Government have been pushed into undertaking some form of review.
I warn the Government that the anti-poll tax campaign, including non- payment, will continue until the tax is completely abolished. If the Government have any sensitivity at all to the feelings of the people of Scotland and of the rest of Britain, they will introduce their own legislation to abolish the poll tax and warrant sales. Unfortunately, there is no immediate sign of the Government doing that, so I ask the House to support my Bill.
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : I know that behind this Bill lie humane notions of helping people in financial difficulty, but I have more than a suspicion that its real motive is to excuse people who have not paid their poll tax from their respnsibilities and obligations under the law. It may be that some non-payers are in financial difficulty, but that cannot be said of the hon. Member for Falkirk, East, because, although he can patently afford to pay his poll tax, he decided not to do so.
"the hon. Member for Falkirk, East",
but I am sitting here quiet as a kirk moose.
I was making the point that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) --
Mr. Sillars : Can you, Mr. Speaker, intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), because he knows no more about Scottish geography than he does about the Scottish law of diligence?
Mr. Oppenheim : The hon. Member for Falkirk, West, can well afford to pay his poll tax, but chose not to--and by introducing his Bill, he seeks to absolve himself from the consequences of his actions. The hon. Gentleman is always among the first to criticise those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who fail to declare their interests, yet he has signally failed to declare his own interest in the Bill, which, if enacted, could result in considerable financial benefit to himself.
The interests declared by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West in the Register of Members' Interests include occasional fees for broadcasting and writing, sponsorship by the Confederation of Health Service Employees, and a trip to the Gulf in September 1990 as a member of the international peace mission. However, there is nothing about the hon. Gentleman's interest in the Bill or in poll tax avoidance.
Mr. Oppenheim : I accept that, Mr. Speaker, but I had expected at the very least that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is not known for his reticence in impugning others for their lack of propriety, would jump to his feet to urge the hon. Member for Falkirk, West to declare some interest in his own Bill, even if he is not strictly obliged to do so by the conventions of the House. Perhaps I expected too much. After all, the hon. Member for Bolsover also has an interest in the Bill, as a non- payer of the poll tax himself. Talking of Derbyshire Members of Parliament, of the four Opposition Members who represent Derbyshire constituencies, no fewer than three have failed to pay their fair share to their counties' local government costs for this year.
Perhaps hon. Members who have brought the Bill forward feel that in some strange way they are striking a
Column 797blow for working-class dignity, but that is not the way that they are perceived by most people. When the vast majority of people who have paid their poll tax--often, I accept, with some difficulty--see the likes of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is a millionaire many times over, refusing to pay his poll tax, they are rightly resentful.
They are all the more resentful when it is the very same hon. Members who are at the forefront of demands for more money for local government, who constantly demand improvements in public services and are the first to leap to the defence of any item of profligate spending by their county councils, who now refuse to make their fair and legitimate contribution to local government costs. They are always the first to make excuses for any excessive local government spending, but when it comes to stumping up for the bill, they are always the last in the queue.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. According to the Order Paper, as I understand it, the Bill is connected with the abolition of warrant sales in Scotland and does not relate to the poll tax. I ask you to consider whether it is in order to misrepresent the Bill in this way, when 99 per cent. of warrant sales, poindings and everything else relating to the law of diligence in Scotland relates not to the poll tax but to other matters of debt? Is it in order for the hon. Member to misrepresent the Bill?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) did mention the question of warrant sales in respect of the poll tax, in the latter part of his speech and therefore it is in order for the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) to do the same. However, I remind the hon. Member for Amber Valley that the Bill concerns warrant sales and not the application of this procedure in England.
People are especially resentful when Opposition Members fail to pay their fair share towards local government costs. They know that, in doing so, they are increasing the burden upon the rest of the population who, for the most part, are paying their fair share. I find it extraordinary that anyone who aspires to be a law maker can urge people to break the law, and even more extraordinary that he should then seek to legislate to absolve himself and others from the consequences of such law breaking. That a party which aspires to government should have so many law breakers in its ranks is bad enough, but that they should also be tolerated by the Leader of the Opposition in such a spineless way shows that their party is still far from fit to hold office.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :--
The House divided : Ayes 156, Noes, 109.
Division No. 49] [3.53 pm
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Paisley, N.)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Column 798Blunkett, David
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Quin, Ms Joyce
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N.
Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Harry Barnes and
Mr. Dave Nellist.
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes