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Column 413applied in enforcing the law. Nothing makes that harder than the utterly unforgivable behaviour of those hon. Members who do everything in their power to undermine the process.
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : Does the Secretary of State accept that the most unbelievably arrogant part of his statement was his assertion that he would "improve the quality of local decision making"? That came from a representative of a Government the quality of whose decision making has so far cost us £13.5 billion. Will the Secretary of State assure us that any future assessment or review of the quality of decision making will include the quality of decision making in the Tory Government?
Mr. Heseltine : If the hon. Gentleman had spent even a tiny fraction of the time that my hon. Friends and I have spent consulting local councils, he would have discovered that what I said about the ability to manage local authorities and about the sort of people now attracted to them was not a party matter. Everyone is preoccupied about the problem of finding men and women with the time and resource to give to that vital part of our national life. By turning this into a party issue, the hon. Gentleman simply trivialises the debate.
Mr. David Howell ( Guildford) : My right hon. Friend is to be commended on his unwavering determination to reform the structure, functions and financing of local government together, rather than--as in the past, with such unhappy results--separately. Certainly he will not get an atom of constructive help from the Labour party. My right hon. Friend has not mentioned business taxation, although he did talk about a wider local government tax base. Will business taxation still be left out? Does he recall that a previous Secretary of State, during our debates on local business taxation, assured the House that close and intimate links between the local authorities and businesses in their areas would be reinforced?
Mr. Heseltine : I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is fundamental that, in the review, the structure, functions and financing of local government be linked. In my statement, I made it clear that the Government have no intention at present to make changes in the uniform business rate arrangements.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Has not the main cause of the suffering and turmoil in local government been the successive cuts in rate support grant--from 60 per cent. in 1979 to 42 per cent. today? The burden of taxation was switched from central government to local government so that the Government might take the credit for tax cuts, and the local authorities the blame for increased rates and cuts in services. Was not the purpose of the poll tax to sweep away Labour local government by imposing a large charge on everyone in the hope that the town halls would get the blame? The British people had too much intelligence to fall for that scheme. It backfired and swept away the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). Is not the present commotion the sound of panic-stricken rats deserting the flagship?
Column 414local payer, whether of rates or of the community charge, began in 1976 under the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). By 1979, the rate support grant had been reduced to 61 per cent. It is perfectly true that the change continued thereafter. Not until the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor delivered on Tuesday was the direction reversed. The reversal is to be maintained at about the present rate.
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of our constituents fully supported the principles that lay behind the community charge but thought that there were faults in the way in which it was implemented? People will feel that the proposals that he has presented in outline today meet the criteria and, at the same time, are practical. I congratulate him on his refusal to be pushed into presenting detailed proposals at this stage, and on his intention to put the matter out to consultation. That will provide the opportunity to ensure that, before matters are finalised, there has been proper discussion, that details have been worked out, and possible anomalies avoided.
Mr. Heseltine : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. We have tried very hard to adopt an evolutionary approach. The local tax meets certain criteria that are widely accepted, especially in the Conservative party. It is absolutely fundamental that changes of this sort be introduced following consultation with the people who will have to apply them. That is what we are doing, and we have no intention of allowing ourselves to be stampeded or forced to move faster than we think is compatible with proper completion of the job.
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : Can the Secretary of State tell us whether women with no personal income who stay at home to look after their families will be expected to pay the new poll tax, head tax, adult tax--or whatever he calls it--and whether the joint and several liability proposals will still apply?
Mr. Heseltine : If the hon. Lady waits until we have produced the consultation document, she will see the assumptions upon which it is based. There will, of course, be a rebate scheme associated with our proposals. As for the period between now and the introduction, in 1993, of our local tax proposals, we have no intention at present to change the incidence of the scheme.
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South) : My right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) appears to have confused the Ides of March with the equinox--not that either appears to be particularly relevant.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on one aspect in particular of his excellent statement, and that is the proposal to introduce more unitary authorities, which has the great merit of making it easier for the taxpayer to identify excessive spending authorities. Is he aware that that is particularly relevant in Lancashire, where there used to be several county boroughs and where we now have an excessively spending Labour-controlled county council?
Mr. Heseltine : My right hon. Friend represents his constituents extremely effectively because when I was in Blackpool not long ago I was left in no doubt about the depth of feeling there. I must not prejudge any local
Column 415consultations or recommendations of the local government commission, but I understand exactly the strength of feeling.
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood) : In relation to the £140 per head subsidy for the poll tax mark 1, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wholly unrelated to the demands on, or resources of, the local authority? If there is to be a subsidy for the poll tax in the current year, should it not be based on the principle, from each according to his resources and to each according to his needs? In relation to the poll tax mark 2, will the registration arrangements be substantially different from those obtaining now?
Mr. Heseltine : I have already said that it is possible in the new arrangements that a register of the sort associated with the community charge will not be necessary. It is a detailed and technical matter that must be looked at. We shall be putting forward in the consultation document a number of options--they are not firm proposals now--to deal with the matter because it is important, as I have said several times, that the local authorities become involved at this stage in advising on the most effective way forward. If the Labour party decides to end its ostrich-like silence, we shall listen to what Opposition Members, along with everybody else, have to say.
Sir William Shelton (Streatham) : There will be great sighs of relief among my constituents in Lambeth as a consequence of the abolition of the community charge. Will my right hon. Friend please use his powers to cap the Lambeth budget, which is £8 million or £9 million above the £307 million allowed by the Government? On the other hand, will he urge his Department to be as sympathetic as possible over the back debt repayment due to Lambeth's inefficiency over many years? He must be aware that, of the present poll tax set by Lambeth, little over half is going to pay for the services of the council and the remainder towards the wretched debt accumulated by its inefficiency.
Mr. Heseltine : I am wholly in agreement with my hon. Friend. The new system that we introduce will, of course, be seen as a fair system, but it will also reflect the need for local authorities to bear down on their expenditure patterns. That principle will remain with the new system. It is worth saying that it is not just the community charge that the Lambeth authority does not collect. It does not collect the rents, and it did not collect the rates before the community charge was introduced. The most profound anxieties are developing about that local authority. They exist across the Floor of the House, and there are deep and justifiable concerns on the part of the Labour party because, after all, that party is in control there.
Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton) : In the muddle of criteria, platitudes and principles contained in the Secretary of State's announcement, he seemed to forget two principles that we used to hear from the Conservatives. The first was that one could not solve problems by throwing money at them--even though the Conservatives then threw £4.25 billion at the poll tax problem--and, secondly, that the Government had no money of their own because it was all taxpayers' money. Those two points seemed to escape the right hon. Gentleman as he tried to get out of the muddle into which the Conservatives got themselves.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman think it behoves Opposition Members to give him advice now when he was
Column 416so well advised by us before he introduced the poll tax? We gave him advice on Second Reading, in Committee and on Third Reading of the measure which introduced the poll tax. He took no notice whatever of our advice. Why should we think that he will take notice of any advice that we give him now?
Mr. Heseltine : The more I listen to Labour Members, the more I wonder why I keep asking them whether they want to join the consultative process. Patently they have little to say. If I may offer a personal word of advice in commenting on the hon. Gentleman's welcome conversion to the view that one cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, it is lucky for him that there are so few of his hon. Friends left or he might be deselected.
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us are relieved that the new proposals which he has announced today will take account of ability to pay because that is a fair system which is essential to any new tax? Will he accept that I and many of my hon. Friends to whom I have spoken about the matter will do all that we can to unite the party and the people behind the proposals, which this time have been fully discussed and agreed within a united Government and a united Cabinet? In the review, will he pay particular attention to the peculiar way in which the community charge operated among our armed services, who were subject to whims of movement over which they had no control and who must be considered fairly in the new arrangements?
Mr. Heseltine : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the consideration that we have given to members of the armed forces. If I may pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Minister in my Department who has taken a particular interest in the matter, he has showed great concern for those who played such a conspicuous part in the Gulf. We must all be grateful to him.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) for referring to the fact that I have stressed ability to pay. My hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in these matters, and I am glad that he feels that what we have done today reflects his concern.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State referred to a £140 reduction, will he tell us how many people will get a reduction of less than £140 under the new system, taking into account the first transitional relief scheme, the second tranche of transitional relief and the fact that some people pay only 20 per cent.? Since the Tories have consistently told us that 11 million people are not paying the full poll tax, can the Secretary of State tell us how many will not get the reduction of £140 and whether some will not get anything at all?
Mr. Heseltine : All the hon. Gentleman has pointed out is how generous are the schemes that we have already announced. Of course, if we have given people benefits once, we cannot give them benefits again.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : May I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for listening to those of us who come from low-rated areas in the north- west for lifting the burden from us? May I thank the Secretary of
Column 417State too for giving county towns the prospect of running their own affairs, as my colleagues in Blackpool and all the other areas wish to do, so that we may have the opportunity of getting out from under Lancashire county council once and for all?
Mr. Heseltine : I welcome my hon. Friend's observations. The north- west is a particularly important part of the country and we have considered its problems carefully. Again, I am enthusiastic about the way in which my hon. Friend is indicating that there may be local interest in some of the changes that we have in mind. I am sure that she will play her usual active part in pursuing them.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : The Secretary of State is well known for wanting to get rid of the poll tax, and his Minister of State is well known for wanting to retain it. I am concerned, therefore, that when the Secretary of State was making his statement the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities was nodding in agreement.
It appears that we will get the worst of both worlds--a poll tax based on property. Can the Secretary of State tell me how the tax will be collected? Who will be responsible? Will each person be responsible for his own tax, or will one person in the property be responsible for the whole lot? As he is now keen on consultation, will the Secretary of State overrule his office and meet the leaders of South Yorkshire county council--the South Yorkshire authority--whom his office has refused to meet concerning a difference of opinion among his office, the Department of Transport and ourselves about the funding of the super tram?
Mr. Heseltine : We are in some confusion as to which authority the hon. Member has in mind, but we run an ever-open-door policy in the Department of the Environment and I am sure that we will bring our usual courteous attention to bear on any formal requests that we receive.
The hon. Member referred to the support that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities was giving to what I said during my statement. It would have been impossible--if I do not embarrass him in front of the Prime Minister--for any Minister to give more support to the Secretary of State than my hon. Friend has given me on this matter.
The hon. Member asked how we will collect this local tax. I said in my statement that there would be a single bill to the household ; and that will be exemplified in more detail in our consultative document.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I am very anxious to ensure that all hon. Members who wish to put a question on this very important matter shall do so. I ask hon. Members, in view of the fact that many of the questions have been answered by the Secretary of State, to put new questions and perhaps single questions, and then all of them will be called.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : I have never made a secret of my support for the community charge, but, as one who has the misfortune to represent a constituency in the ghastly overspending county of
Column 418Humberside, may I tell my right hon. Friend that the structural reform proposals that he has announced today make his statement worth studying very closely with a view to giving it wholehearted support, not only on the structure but also on the finance? It is the structural reform as well as what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said on Tuesday which makes it possible now for us to get local government bills down for the people who have to pay them.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Is it not fair to say that what the Secretary of State has announced today is nothing more and nothing less than poll tax mark 2, insofar as it relates to the number of individuals in a household and will also call upon information held in the register of electors? Is that not the case?
Mr. Heseltine : No change is necessary in the basis of collecting information in any new system that we have in mind. No one has raised this issue as a problem in the course of designing it. No one has raised it with me as a problem in moving from the community charge to the local tax, so I have no reason to suppose that there is any problem that I must account for.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : As we have so acceptably slashed the burden of the community charge upon the charge payer, and as my right hon. Friend has so courageously decided that we could get rid of county councils if the local authorities wanted, some of us are left wondering why it is necessary to introduce a complex property tax which most of us have spoken against for the past 20 or 25 years. Will my right hon. Friend give some assurance that refusal to pay this tax, which might be branded as uncollectable, will not be a reason for withdrawing it in due course?
Mr. Heseltine : I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will feel that, as the last question but one referred to it as a poll tax and he sees it as a property tax, it may be that I am entitled to insist that it is a local tax and cannot be defined in any of the neat packages that are being used so to do. I believe that it will be seen as a tax which complies with the principles that I have set out, which means that most people will pay towards it, it will reflect people's ability to pay and it will be seen as fair. It is in no way capable of being described by either of the labels put on it. What I have said today is not a prescription for getting rid of counties or districts ; it is to look at the administration of local government on the ground and come to a view of what makes sense.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Does the Secretary of State realise that, ever since he first became Secretary of State for the Environment, local government has suffered greater difficulty and its ability to deliver quality services has been reduced? Is he aware that this review will further prejudice the ability of local government to work properly and that it will reduce the confidence and the professional expertise of those who are professionally involved?
When the Secretary of State says that the 22 per cent. and the means of obtaining it will be reviewed, does he
Column 419include by definition the poll tax or "head" element, or would he permit other ways of raising that relatively modest 22 per cent. of tax?
Mr. Heseltine : I do not identify the figures that the hon. Member gave from what I have said. If he has any further exemplification that he wants to put to me, perhaps he will write to me and I will try to deal with it. I cannot accept for a moment, however, that what I have proposed will do other than enhance the possibilities and prospects for local government. In all seriousness, my Ministers and I have spent an inordinate amount of time, with great pleasure, talking to councillors of all political parties who have put to us a remarkable consensus of view on what should be done ; and it will not serve the best interests of local government if the Labour party now tries to besmirch the opportunities that we are determined to achieve.
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham) : My right hon. Friend's statement will receive a warm welcome in my constituency where it will be widely seen as promoting a fair system of providing local government finance, in particular, his assurance that properties in the south-east will not be disproportionately disadvantaged because of high value. Will he take it from me, however, that there is a disproportionate disadvantage to business properties in the south-east which were revalued at a time of historic highs in trading and where the UBR has had a disproportionately large impact?
Mr. Heseltine : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can reaffirm our clear awareness of the imbalances that are thrown up by capital values between one part of the country and another. When we publish our consultation document, my hon. Friend can rest assured that we will address that issue directly. We are also quite aware that there have been changes in valuation since the initial uniform business rate valuations. There are proposals for a regular revaluation process, but I would be very surprised if we have not seen a restoration, at least in substantial part, of the values of south-eastern property by the time we get to that point.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is the Secretary of State aware that, as long as everyone in the household has to pay the same amount of money minus any rebate, it will be totally unacceptable? Why is it that the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Cabinet have responded to those members of the Conservative party in the House of Commons who clearly want to keep the poll tax, as has been indicated this afternoon, instead of listening to the overwhelming number of people who time and again have said that they want no poll tax, mark 1, mark 2, mark 3 or anything else? Is it not clear that when the elections come--the May local government elections and the general election--the British people will reject the mark 2 poll tax as they have rejected the mark 1 tax?
Mr. Heseltine : I am sure that the hon. Member will do his best with wholly inadequate arguments to put that case forward, but he will find that it is not very successful, particularly as he will have to explain how his own party is proposing to go to one system of local government finance in one year and then tear the whole thing up and go to another in the following year. He will also have to explain how his party will finance both those systems when
Column 420it has rejected the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to put £4.25 billion into the system.
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that in south Staffordshire there will be few tears for the poll tax but many cheers for the courage that the Prime Minister and he have displayed? Is he further aware that as long ago as 1974, when the Labour party was in office, our right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was co-sponsor of a Bill which would have introduced the sort of system that he is now advocating and which would have saved us a great deal of aggro?
Mr. Heseltine : My hon. Friend will not expect me to go too far back in history. When dealing with local government, history has a way of rearing up and smiting one. I thank my hon. Friend for the tribute that he paid to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has unquestionably played the decisive role in bringing about the conclusion that I have announced today.
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : The Prime Minister said on Monday night that the poll tax was uncollectable because so many people were not paying it and the courts were overloaded. Does the Secretary of State realise that, despite the rout today and on Tuesday, in the words of a saying, it is not over until it is over, and it is not even over then? There are 15 million people in Scotland, England and Wales facing prosecution, the threat of bailiffs or the threat of gaol and the Secretary of State has said nothing about them today. Unless that threat is lifted and compensation is provided to the millions of others who went into debt to try to pay the poll tax, he will find that those numbers will increase from 1 April and that the flagship of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) will be his Titanic.
Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent proposals. Will he bear in mind the reprehensible behaviour of authorities such as mine in Birmingham, which, in setting the new poll tax level, incorporated the Government's transitional relief of 65 per cent. and £25 extra to allow for non- payers of the present rate, making the total £150 higher than the Conservative proposals? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the non- payers are brought to heel as 50 per cent. of them have followed the advice of Birmingham city councillors about non-payment and are council employees?
Mr. Heseltine : I share my hon. Friend's concern. Perhaps he will share the dilemma of the Secretary of State for the Environment, who knows that the irresponsible behaviour of Labour councillors is an every-day, inbuilt definition of the job that he does.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Does not the Secretary of State think that keeping the poll tax in 1992-93 as well as in 1991-92 is totally unacceptable? Does he have so little confidence in his hybrid tax that he has to keep the poll tax that extra year? If by any horror the Tories should win the
Column 421next general election, what is to stop the headline figure for the poll tax for 1992-93 soaring again? Is not the poll tax still the curse of the undead?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman obviously did not follow my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement. He made it clear that he intends to preserve in subsequent years the balance that he has struck for 1991-92. Of course that will not deal with overspending local authorities. It will deal with Government support and maintain it at the same levels as have been broadly outlined by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but if local authorities choose to overspend it will still leave bills of unacceptable levels for the local community.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we should move faster. The practical solution is that there is no way of moving from where we are today in a quicker time scale than that I have outlined. That is why the Labour party is prepared to inflict on local government two different systems in two consecutive years.
Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us supported the community charge because of the unfairness and inequality of the old rating system? I feel sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that it is absolutely right to hold further discussions with the people who thought that the community charge was unfair. Let them give their views as to how we can make the new tax fairer. Let us hear their views before we settle into another system.
Mr. Heseltine : I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. We have considered this matter carefully in Government and have decided that there must be a degree of certainty about our intentions. That is why we have announced that our new local tax will be in place, hopefully, by 1993-94, which we believe is the earliest practical time that that can be achieved. I wholly accept my hon. Friend's point about the unfairness of the old rating system. That is one reason why one is utterly aghast that the Labour party wants to bring it back.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : Is the Secretary of State aware that he has cut a sad and sorry figure today? He has looked and sounded like an old-style ship owner with a leaky old tub on his hands who is not sure how much longer it will stay afloat, how much longer passengers will be willing to pay, how much he is willing to charge them or how he will count them on board. I appeal to the Secretary of State and, more importantly, to the Prime Minister to ease the grief and misery of the British public, sweep away all the commissions, consultative documents and discussion papers and let the people of Britain have a general election so that they can choose between the Tory poll tax mark 2 and Labour's fair rates plans.
Mr. Heseltine : If the hon. Gentleman is pressing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to hold a general election so that the electorate may be better informed, I am sure that he will press his right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to provide the basic information needed to enable a proper judgment to be made about the relative merits of both systems.
Mr. Ian Stewart (Hertfordshire, North) : I thank my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for the care and thoroughness with which they conducted the consultations before bringing forward today's proposals. I also thank my right hon. Friend for taking into account the fact that many of us believe that there were not only serious defects in the rating system and the community charge but that by avoiding those and incorporating the better part of those two systems the proposals are likely to command widespread approval in the House and outside. Will my right hon. Friend be reassured about the effectiveness of his statement by the looks of frustration and disappointment on the faces of Opposition Members?
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : In setting out his proposals for the longer term, the Secretary of State said that most people should make some contribution. Until now the Government have insisted that everyone must pay at least 20 per cent. Who will be exempt in the future, and why cannot those categories and individuals be exempt now?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman has obviously not followed the way in which the community charge works. The 20 per cent. was, in large measure, reimbursed through the social security system for those on full benefit.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. I represent a constituency where average house prices in relation to average incomes are much higher than in most parts of the country. Will my right hon. Friend pay special care and attention to the need to ensure that in those circumstances the new system of local taxation will be fair and reasonable?
Mr. Heseltine : I assure my hon. Friends that we are fully aware of the regional disparity in capital values and the need, therefore, to address that specifically. It will be in the consultation paper. I would go further than that. Like everybody else, I keep an eye on what is reported in the newspapers. I have seen figures quoted for the effect of the proposals that we have in mind for certain parts of the country, principally the south-east, which bear no relationship to reality.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Will there be a new poll tax register for the new poll tax, or will the electoral register be used? Different answers have been given to different Opposition Members. It will be a disgrace if the electoral register is used because it will be a direct tax on electoral registration, and that would concern us all. Even with a separate poll tax register, last year 600,000 people were missing from the electoral register. Will the Government produce figures for the position this year? The problem is that these proposals are simply an attempt to have something to say in a general election.
Mr. Heseltine : I have answered that question several times. I said that under the new system we shall not need a register. I have made that clear. Answers to such quesitions will be clear in the consultation document.
Column 423welcome, not least because of the proposed review of structure and functions? Does he agree that the unitary authorities of the 32 London boroughs provide a good example of successful structures? Does he also agree that it is necessary to consider the functions of local government expenditure, especially with regard to national services such as the police and fire services?
Mr. Heseltine : I am glad to respond to my hon. Friend. The unitary model in London is preferable to that which existed before, especially for the large urban conurbations. There is no question but that the Government's decision to get rid of the Greater London council, the metropolitan counties and, later, the Inner London education authority has been a remarkable success. It clarified matters and saved money and jobs. That is important. In the context of the review, I do not think that we intend to make further changes to the structure of the London authorities. However, the functions that they perform and their internal management would be included in the consultative process that I have described.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, had the rate support grant remained at its 1978-79 level, the current poll tax would not be £250, as is proposed, but £150? Are not the Government the biggest robbers from local government funds? The record of the Government's attack on Labour-controlled authorities dates back to the Local Government Act 1972, which was the first to cause chaos, to the attack on the metropolitan county councils and on the GLC, all of which were Labour controlled and all of which were abolished because of a political vendetta carried on by the right hon. Gentleman and his cronies. What safeguards will he provide to ensure that the local government commission will not be a Tory quango with the sole aim--secretly, behind closed Whitehall doors--of abolishing Labour-controlled authorities?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me. The idea would not have occurred to me if he had not put it into my mind. Having considered it--albeit briefly--I reject it. As is customary, the independence of the commission will be secured.
Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only as a result of the introduction of the community charge that local spending was put under the spotlight by encouraging all members of the community to analyse the quality of services and the calibre of councillors? I have no objection to any of his proposals because they marry two systems. Had he not retained an assessment of the number of people in a house but reverted to the archaic system proposed by the Opposition, this would be an old-fashioned party. I welcome the fact that he will continue to consider carefully the internal workings of local authorities. If not, there could be no guarantees of value for money. We must consider contracting out the management of housing and education. If my right hon. Friend wants evidence of poor housing management, will he please come to Wolverhampton? I could fill a book for him.
Mr. Heseltine : It looks as though I shall be busy visiting my hon. Friends' constituencies, which will be a great pleasure. I support what my hon. Friend said. She has particular expertise in internal management systems. I
Column 424agree that that issue has not been considered for too long, but it will be considered in the consultation exercise that we have promised today.
My statement reflected my agreement that we must move further and faster towards the concept of enabling authorities to offer choice and have competition and to see the vast baronies of power moved from the public sector to a more competitive sector. The idea of marrying two systems by reflecting the number of people in a household was always one of the preferred ingredients of the package from the earliest days of our review.
Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar) : How will the Secretary of State's announcement affect one policy which especially concerns the public and which local authorities are already trying to implement--community care?
Mr. Heseltine : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking that question. The Government have announced their plans. Local authorities know the timetable, and nothing that I have said today changes the Government's known position.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : Much of the Secretary of State's statement was taken up with setting up consultations and commissions to rectify the actions taken by the Government since 1979 and the reorganisation by the previous Tory Government of 1970-74. The words that he used to commend the sanitised version of the poll tax--poll tax 2--were similar to those used to commend the original version. Why should the people of Burnley, which is Labour controlled and has a low poll tax, and the people of Ribble Valley, part of which I represent, which is Tory controlled and has a high poll tax, have confidence that the Government have got it right? How much has this sorry saga cost the nation over the past two years?
Mr. Heseltine : The people of Burnley may like to consider the level of expenditure in the Labour-controlled county council of Lancashire. That might colour their view. The verdict in Ribble Valley is that we shall have a Tory Member of Parliament there after the next election.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : Since most questions have already been asked, besides welcoming the excellent statement, may I ask my right hon. Friend about local government reorganisation? Does he intend to give greater powers to parish councils, especially on planning matters? May I also ask about privatisation and contracting out? Does he envisage the contracting out of planning departments and their architects and planners?
Column 425question of contracting out planning departments, but there are some interesting ideas about how they could be changed.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition of the strength of the unitary authorities and the essential factors of comparability between authorities and accountability. If a consensus emerges for the assessment to be based on capital values, will my right hon. Friend consider carefully the idea of capital values being based on rebuilding costs rather than on market values? That might help to smooth out things across the country.
Mr. Heseltine : I am aware that there are many ways of assessing capital values, one of which is by reference to building costs. I ask my hon. Friend to wait for the publication of our consultative document, which will set out a range of options. We can then hold detailed discussions.