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Valuation Roll Not To Include Domestic Subjects

Volume 116: debated on Wednesday 13 May 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 9, after "the" insert financial".

5.11 pm

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 14, 26, 27, 29, 30, 34 to 36, 40 to 48, 51, 53, 55 to 62, 65, 68 to 77, 79 to 109 and 117 to 132.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In case there was any misunderstanding when I intervened on a previous point of order, in no way was I challenging your ruling. We should all have known that the debate was limited to an hour. I confess that I was not aware of that, although I did know that the time taken on the guillotine motion was to come out of the time for debate. If there was any misunderstanding, I apologise.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would never expect him to reflect adversely on the Chair.

I say to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) that he and I are in the same position. During the past two debates on the Bill — the one on Third Reading and the one that has just finished— we were both talked out by others in the Chamber. This is the first occasion, therefore, that he and I have had to speak on the Bill for some time.

Hon. Members of an arithmetical frame of mind may have noticed already that the first group contains nearly 100 amendments, or about three quarters of the total number made in the other place. The very first amendment, which changes a reference to "year" in subsection (1) to "financial year", reflects very well the general nature of the amendments in the group, since they are essentially of a drafting and technical nature and make no changes of substance to the Bill as it left the House. The House may be relieved to hear that I do not intend to describe each amendment in the group individually. They fall into fairly well defined categories, and I am sure that it will be for the convenience of the House if I confine my explanation to those categories.

First, as I have mentioned, there are the amendments concerned with references in part I of the Bill, which includes schedule 1, to the expression "year". At present clause 6(1) provides that "year" is to mean the financial year of a local authority. However, in view of the proposed relocation in clause 26 of the definitions now in clause 6(1) — for which amendment No. 26 paves the way — the appropriate references in part I of the Bill to "year" in relation to a local authority are now being changed to references to "financial year". This is the approach already taken for the other parts of the Bill.

Most of my colleagues have spent many hours on the Bill. As a newcomer, may I ask why it is said more and more that the administration costs of the proposals are enormous and far greater than was first thought by the Government? The definition of "year" creates great difficulties when people are moving from accommodation to accommodation. Do the Government think that the financial difficulties of administration are greater than they first thought''

In Committee, representations were made to us not only by hon. Members but by outside bodies, such as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, that the complications of administration were compounded by the proposal in the Bill at that time to have a transitional period of three years when there would be two systems running in tandem. Because of the valid concern about the cost and complexity of administering two systems together, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State decided that we should get rid of the transitional period and go for the clean break in 1989. Some of the major concerns put to us by local authorities and others who would have the responsibility of administering the legislation were met by that decision, which was carried through by my right hon. and learned Friend on Report.

With respect, the Under-Secretary failed to answer the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He answered the question about running two systems. That is perfectly fair, and we accept that. But it does not answer the question that, standing on its own, it is going to be a much more expensive system to administer than the present rating system. Is that or is that not correct?

We have never said for a moment that this was going to be as cheap to collect as the rating system. Nobody could deny that the rating system has the virtue of being simple and easy to collect. Obviously the community charge is going to he more difficult and, therefore, more costly to collect. Although I was not alive at the time, I am informed that the window tax was a very simple and easy tax to collect. However, that was no justification for keeping it, as it really was a tax that nobody could justify. To argue against the introduction of a community charge on the basis that it will cost somewhat more than the rates to collect, rather than to compare the fairness of the present system with the fairness of the community charge, is the Labour party's last faltering attempt at opposition, which it has failed so constructively to do up until now.

Before the Under-Secretary of State leaves that point, will he help the House by telling us, roughly speaking, how much more proportionately it will cost?

This does not arise directly out of the amendments. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the debates in Committee he will find that this was discussed on a number of occasions and that estimates— they have only to be estimates—were given. I do not have them to hand, because they do not arise out of these amendments. However, I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman receives the information that was made available in Committee.

The second series of amendments deals with the definition of the term "rates". The main amendment here is No. 77, which provides a general definition of "rates" to mean the non-domestic rate under clause 3 and the non-domestic water and sewerage rates with which schedule 5 to the Bill is concerned. What is intended is that wherever the word "rates" appears in statute, unless the context otherwise requires, it will have this meaning. It will be clear when the context is concerned with local government finance and with rating, and consequently when rate means those three forms of non-domestic local taxation or assessment, as opposed to simply an amount or standard.

The introduction of a general definition of the term "rates" has, in turn, required a number of consequential amendments to other provisions in the Bill. Those are the subject of amendments Nos. 72, 85 to 87, 89, 92, 96 to 102, 105 to 109, 127 to 129 and 131 to 132. I could give hon. Members examples of those amendments if they wish, but I rather gather that the House would wish me to proceed to the third category of amendments.

The third category of amendments in this group continues the theme of refining the Bill's provisions regarding definitions. I have already mentioned amendment No. 26, which paves the way for the amalgamation of clauses 6 and 26 so that the Bill will contain only one clause containing definitions of the terms which it uses. I am sure the House will agree that, in terms of legislation, that is a useful and constructive amendment. The other amendments in the category are Nos. 69, 70,71, 74 to 76, 88, 91, 93, 95 and 103.

The fourth category comprises a series of drafting and consequential amendments relating to what will shortly become the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. This covers amendments Nos. 80 and 117 to 124. In general, these amendments parallel the provisions for the recovery of rates in section 247 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947, as replaced by paragraph 1 of schedule 4 to what will become the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987.

The new clause contained in amendment No. 80 makes amendments to relevant parts of the Debtors (Scotland) Bill itself. The general effect of these amendments is to ensure that procedures and definitions relating to the recovery of community charges parallel those in the Debtors (Scotland) Bill for the recovery of rates. The amendments raise no new issues of principle and seek simply to apply to the community charge system the reformed system of diligences in the Debtors (Scotland) Bill 1987.

When the Minister explains it like that and in this environment it sounds very clinical and reasonable. Can he explain exactly what it means? What will it mean in circumstances where someone has not paid and the sheriff officer comes to his house and kicks him out on to the street with all his furniture? What will it mean for ordinary people who are caught in that sort of net? Will the Minister spell it out instead of reading the civil servant's description? Will he put it in graphic words, more human terms, so that an ordinary person can understand?

It is nice to see the hon. Gentleman at this debate. Had he been to some of the other debates we have had on the Bill, he would have had the answer to his question in full and in detail. Indeed, had he attended—I suspect from his question he did not—the proceedings in the House on the Debtors (Scotland) Bill 1987, he would be well aware of the new provisions and systems of diligence that are being introduced. Many of them are being introduced as a result of the Scottish Law Commission's report, which I seem to remember the hon. Gentleman has supported in the past and called for the Government to put into legislation.

I am sure that the fact that we are now making sure that the forms of diligence that are operable under this Bill match those within the Debtors (Scotland) Bill on the matter of rates is something that the hon. Gentleman will welcome. I am convinced that, given his history on this matter, had we not done that he would have been the first to criticise us. As I said, I welcome the fact that he is here and I am sure that he will be able to read the lengthy debates we have had on this matter in the past. However, I am sure he would not wish to bore his hon. Friends by a repetition of those debates.

The last category of amendments in this group comprises a series of drafting and technical amendments. One example would be amendment No. 73, to clause 26, which makes an adjustment to the definition of part residential subjects. At present, the definition opens with the phrase
"lands and heritages which are occupied partly as the sole or main residence of any person".
The amendment would substitute the word "used" for "occupied". The difference is perhaps a small one, but the term "used" creates greater consistency of terminology within the Bill.

Again, amendments Nos. 34 to 36 and 43 to 45 clarify the circumstances in which long-term tenants may be liable for the standard or collective community charge. At present, tenants may be liable if the premises
"have been let for a continuous period of 12 months or more".
That could be taken to imply that a lease would have had to run for 12 months before any question of a tenant's liability arose. As hon. Members will recall, that is not our intention, and the amendments simplify the provision to make the tenant liable when premises
"are let for a period of 12 months or more"—
that is, when a lease for 12 months or more exists, the tenant is liable.

None of the amendments in this group has any significant policy content. Taken together, however, they do represent a significant improvement to the Bill, particularly as regards its organisation. In many cases they arise from criticisms or comments that have been made, either here or in the other place. They leave the Bill very much clearer and sharper. As I said at the beginning, they are largely technical. That is why, with respect to the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), I did not go into a great deal of detail about the individual provisions within the amendments. I am glad to commend them to the House.

I accept that these are largely technical amendents, some of which we asked for, some of which were asked for elsewhere and some of which were asked for by our technical experts outside. They do improve the Bill. However, one would have thought that when the Government were changing definitions in the Bill and making them more precise and exact they might have introduced an amendment, now that it is accepted, to take out the term "community charge" and put in the term "poll tax". After all, as that is what the Prime Minister now clearly calls it, why should we not call it the same? It is what the author called it when he originally wrote his articles. The Government do not do that because in previous White Papers they have rejected it.

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not just the Prime Minister who calls it a poll tax? Yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs also referred to it as a poll tax.

I accept that. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has referred to that point.

The Minister studied history, as I did, and I believe that it was at the same university. It has always been my view that the window tax was nearer to the poll tax because of was difficult to collect and easy to evade and was given up simply for that reason.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has made the valid point that this amendment should be made. These are not community charges because they are not spread across the community in any sort of equity. They are the introduction of a poll tax. There is no way in which that can be denied by the Government. Even the Prime Minister in her last moment of remorse has put the proper title to this charge.

It is quite clear that the Conservative party in Scotland, or what is left of it—they are now all members of that rather selective and dying species, a small group called the league of lemmings—will not be in the next Parliament to answer the recriminations from the people about these issues. It is quite improper that this enormously radical change in the raising of local revenue should be introduced in the inappropriate terminology of a community charge when it is nothing of the sort. The word "community' suggests a sort of fairness in the measure; but, of course, there is no fairness in a measure that introduces a retrogressive tax, a poll tax, which no other Parliament in Europe—indeed, in the civilised world—has dreamt of introducing. It is a measure of the reactionary nature of modern Toryism—not the old Toryism of Disraeli, with his one nation—under the present Prime Minister, about which numberless Conservative Members are extremely unhappy but have not got the guts or the gumption to attack. It is quite unacceptable that these very radical changes should be introduced in a House as empty as this one is when the implications for England——

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are dealing with Lords amendments of a very narrow sort. I hope that he will address himself to the Lords amendments.

I have ranged a little broader because the implications of this legislation will, in the unfortunate eventuality that the Conservatives get back, be applied to England and Wales. I am the only Member in the House this afternoon representing an English constituency. The fact that I happen to be a Scot is one of those fortunate accidents of fate, because most English constituencies do rather better in their representation if they are represented by a Scot rather than by the half-educated English.

Tell that to your constituents.

They are well aware of that and they return me with unfailing regularity, as I have no doubt they will at the next general election.

I simply want to make the point that on the question of the amendments, to use the phrase "community charge" is misleading not only to the House but to the wider electorate outside. It should be rephrased to use the exact description, which is "poll tax". I hope that during the election campaign the point will be made about the implications of a poll tax for every individual in Britain—not just in Scotland, but in England and Wales. It will be massive in terms of the effect on the charges they are going to have to pay to raise local revenue.

It would have been more responsible of a more responsible Government—which, of course, we do not have — had these measures been examined in great detail. Every single aspect of the raising of local revenue should have been examined to see how a more equitable system than the rating system could and should have been introduced.

With that, Sir, because I see your eye looking somewhat averse at me, I shall end my comments on this amendment in the hope that we will have another chance to raise these massively fundamental issues of how local revenue should be raised.

It would be less than kind if I did not respond to the first English intervention on the Bill.

Order. I understand that the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) was, in fact, born in Tanganyika.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you make my argument for me. Not only do the Scots have to represent English interests, but the Scots also have to show the rest of the world how to conduct their lives to a better purpose. The fact that my father was a Scottish missionary only underlines the importance of the point that I am making.

5.30 pm

I am interested to learn the origins of the species of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). I have a close link with the hon. Gentleman, because he was once at school in my constituency and I am sure that that is where he managed to adopt the accent with which he entertained the House.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Warley. East mention the word "equity". I understand that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on that subject. The hon. Gentleman raised the serious question why there is not an amendment about the words "poll tax". He wanted to know what was fair about a flat rate. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in many walks of life there are flat rates. We pay a flat-rate television licence. We pay the same rate of excise duty on the petrol and drink that we buy and, if we happen to smoke still, on the tobacco that we smoke.

Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend reminds me, on VAT. There are many examples of flat rates. We should look for the ability to pay not within the context of the community charge, but within the context of the largest proportion of local government expenditure and from where that is financed, namely, the central taxpayer where the ability to pay is underwritten throughout.

The hon. Member for Warley, East said that after the election, whether my right hon. and hon. Friends constitute the Government, there will be recriminations against the imposition of the charge. He echoed the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that Scotland would be lumbered with the community charge. I am delighted to hear Opposition Members say that. That shows that, in their heart of hearts, they believe that the Conservatives will win the general election.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 14 agreed to. [One with Special Entry.]