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Local Government Finance

Volume 170: debated on Wednesday 28 March 1990

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16.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what information he has as to how many extra staff have been employed by local authorities for the administration of the poll tax system.

Local authority staffing levels are the responsibility of individual authorities. Information on numbers of staff employed for particular duties is not held centrally.

I find it remarkable that, on this question, the Secretary of State is not facing the music. The poll tax is surely one job-creation scheme that Scotland could have done without. Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain how his right hon. and learned Friend's £4 million poll tax panic package will be distributed, and where the money will come from? Can he explain why his right hon. and learned Friend failed to protest in Cabinet last Tuesday; why he required us, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to explain that such blatant discrimination against Scotland was an outrage; and why his right hon. and learned Friend was looking like a right idiot on Thursday? What kind of humiliation will it take to make the Secretary of State resign?

My right hon. and learned Friend will make a statement to the House on the details of the scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Shortly. The Budget is, of course, secret until it has been delivered. The meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred was not a discussion session, but a relatively formal meeting. The matter has been taken up by my right hon. and learned Friend. As to the source of the funds, suggestions that the sum of £4 million will be taken from sensitive Scots programmes are incorrect. The sums involved are marginal in the context of the total resources of £9·5 billion. It is part of the normal good housekeeping practised by all Ministers within overall programmes to adjust resources in response to changed evidence of need. The £4 million for this purpose will be found as part of the normal process of good housekeeping, and not by deliberate cuts in any programme.

Does the Minister accept that, despite the increase in numbers employed, we have rightly had exemptions for Alzheimer's disease, transitional payments and now capital offsets? All those impinge on what Scots should have been paying since April 1989. Therefore, will the Minister instruct local authorities not to pursue poindings and warrant sales against costs that manifestly cannot be substantiated in law? Does he accept that it is not a matter just for the Budget but for the status of the Scottish Office, and that there is a clear indication that Scottish Office officials were not consulted and did not know what was happening in England and Wales?

I will not give any such guidance to local authorities. It is for them to choose the most appropriate measures to raise the revenue due to them from such persons as the hon. Gentleman. I will not give them any advice on that. Further exemptions, would breach the principle of accountability which underlies the whole concept of the community charge.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that on average about 90 per cent. of community charge payers are paying the community charge? Will he take time today to write to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who is a lawyer, to ask him why he refuses to condemn those of his hon. Friends who wish to break the law?

We look forward to the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and other Labour Front-Bench Members on their colleagues who are refusing to pay, which we believe to be wholly irresponsible because defying the law is a short-term policy which is unworthy of any hon. Members who espouse to be a future Government. I can indeed confirm what my hon. Friend said; on average 90 per cent. have paid the community charge in Scotland. I expect that figure to increase in coming months.

Will the Minister clear up the big remaining mystery of last week? Did he threaten to resign, and was that what really pulled the Prime Minister back into step? Is the Minister aware of the statistics that have come out about the change in the number of poll tax registrations in Scotland? Before the whole thing began, the official Government estimate was 800,000 registration changes in Scotland in the first year. The actual number has been 1·5 million, every single one of them generating bureaucracy, expense and confusion. Will local authorities be compensated for the wrongness of the Government's official estimate? Will the Minister assure the House that, whatever else the £4 million comes from, it will not come from local authority budgets within the Scottish Office?

It is ironical that the hon. Gentleman should express such concern about registration since he strongly opposed registration in the "Stop it" campaign. Those who have registered amount to 99 per cent. I believe that the system is working well. As to the hon. Gentleman's question about whether I or any of my colleagues threatened to resign, the answer is emphatically no.