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Commons Chamber

Volume 171: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1990

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 25 April 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he is considering to amend the community charge regulations.

The operation of the community charge is of course being monitored. I have no proposals, at present, for changes to the regulations.

In the light of that reply, does the Minister accept that his policies on the poll tax and uniform business rate will increase dramatically the already record levels of bankruptcy among small business people, and have resulted in 200 shops and small businesses in the Minister's own constituency closing down? The policies were dramatically exposed in The Guardian by Mr. Francis Ching, who said that the poll tax was robbing the poor left, right and centre. It is an absolute scandal, and for the Minister to come to the House with such a reply is a disgrace.

With respect, the hon. Gentleman might await my reply. He had the courtesy to refer to my constituency, where two issues come together—first, the uniform business rate and secondly, revaluation. It is common to all parties that we support revaluation. That was made clear in January by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). We proposed a transitional scheme, about which I hope to have the opportunity to say more later. In my constituency, small businesses are considerably helped by the uniform business rate, which protects them from the higher rate increases that result from Avon's spending decisions. If the Opposition are now in favour of the uniform business rate, as well as revaluation, they will have a story to tell in my constituency and other places in the south.

My right hon. Friend may or may not propose to amend the regulations, but in the meantime the administration of the exemptions at local government level is what worries many of my colleagues. People are waiting weeks and weeks to receive the decision from their local authorities. In my case, Southampton city council is Labour controlled and has the poorest administration. People are waiting weeks in fear and trembling that they will not receive the exemptions.

I am concerned about what my hon. Friend says. To be fair to local authorities as a whole, in most the arrangements have gone pretty well and, as I was proposing to say later, most bills have gone out net of both transitional relief and benefit, which is commendable for the local authority staff involved. Where local authorities have done less well, there is cause for concern. That should be recognised by local authorities and we should compare what some have done with what the majority have managed to achieve.

May we take it from what my right hon. Friend said in his original answer that, in addition to reviewing any operational defects of the community charge, he will look at how the uniform business rate is operating in all parts of the country? Does he agree that although we concede that revaluation was long overdue, there is evidence that, in conjunction with rising rents in some areas, the difficulties being experienced by small businesses are considerable? Surely, it can be no part of the introduction of the uniform rate for small businesses to go the wall.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the interaction of rent levels and revaluation. In my constituency, even with revaluation, rates will represent only about 20 per cent. of the rental levels faced by small businesses. We must consider the transitional arrangements that the House has agreed for small businesses. I have made it clear time and again that if it proves necessary to extend the transitional period to ensure that small businesses avoid steep rises in their rates towards the end of that period, we shall be prepared to do so.

In a written answer to me last week, the Under-Secretary of State said that there was no intention of changing the basic principle underlying the community charge, which is that almost all adults should pay a contribution towards providing local services. As he emphasised that there was no change in that basic principle, what changes do the Government intend to make to remove the unfairness of the present system?

I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said. I shall be saying one or two things about the operation of the community charge later this afternoon and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman stays to hear the speeches.

While my right hon. Friend is conducting his review of the community charge, will he seriously consider disaggregating married couples, which has already been done for national taxation? Figures researched by the Library suggest that that would cost between £1 billion and £1·5 billion, but instead of angling the extra money to profligate councils, such as Lancashire county council, that would give the money directly to those, such as married and retired couples and young mothers, who actually need the help.

I note what my hon. Friend has said. She and other hon. Members have mentioned that issue in the past. It produces a quite different set of anomalies, but we shall certainly consider it in the next few weeks.

Are not the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friends engaged in a desperate search for a way out of the mess that they have created? Will he confirm, for example, that a meeting was recently arranged between senior officials of Strathclyde regional council and someone described mysteriously as an influential Conservative Member of Parliament? Will he further confirm—in case he does not know the answer, I shall tell him it—that that influential Conservative Member of Parliament was none other than his right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who, just a few months ago, was the Prime Minister's campaign manager in the leadership election contest?

I am afraid that although my responsibilities run all too wide, they do not cover either the diary of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) or the activities of Strathclyde regional council. But as I imagine that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us more information about this spectacular cross-border conspiracy later this afternoon, I look forward to hearing about it. We are also all agog to hear more about the Labour party's proposals.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any proposals to use empty Government-owned property for homeless people.

It is Government policy to sell such empty houses that are no longer needed. Where disposal is not practicable, Departments let property to local authorities or housing associations to relieve local housing pressures.

Is the Minister aware that there are about 35,000 Government-owned properties and that in the south-east alone there are more than 1,000 properties owned by the Ministry of Defence—some of them shown in pictures such as I have here? Does not he think it a scandal that about 18 per cent. of Government-owned properties are lying empty while only 2 per cent. of local authorities' properties are empty? How can he tell local authorities how to manage their housing when the Government obviously cannot manage their own?

Our policy is to sell Government houses that are not required or, when appropriate, to rent them on a short-term basis. To answer the hon. Lady directly, what is a national scandal is that housing authorities that are directly responsible for managing the housing stock are sitting on more than 100,000 empty council houses in England alone. The worst offenders are overwhelmingly Labour authorities. Labour is presiding over housing waste on a massive scale while at the same time bleating about homelessness.

Will my hon. Friend note that one of the great problems for the homeless in Lambeth is the cynical disregard of their plight by a local authority that has 2,000 empty homes, 1,900 people in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation and rent and rate arrears of £66 million? Would not the best news for the homeless in Lambeth be a return of a Conservative local authority on 3 May?

My hon. Friend makes a perfect point, which exactly illustrates what I have just been saying.

The Minister is misleading the House: it is not the Government's policy to sell these houses. Many of them have been standing empty for more than 10 years. There are literally dozens in my area belonging to the prison department that have been empty for 10 years, three years and so on. Why does not the Minister arrange for them to be let, through housing associations and local authorities? Does not he remember opening the Institute of Housing exhibition in this very House only a few weeks ago, in which the displays demonstrated that the Government's record is worse than that of any other housing body—local authority, housing association or private? In percentage terms, the Government have three times as many empty properties as local authorities. The Minister cannot blame local authorities when he is incapable of providing for homeless people the housing that he has right now.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman spoke about percentage terms, because we have a much smaller housing stock than local authorities, which are, of course, responsible for housing. Of course the percentage could be lower. The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government, and especially Departments such as the Ministry of Defence, have to keep surplus housing for contingency purposes. The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly be able to guess for himself what those purposes are. When properties cannot be sold we are beginning to let them to housing authorities. There have been 570 lets in recent months, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to say that the property is not being shifted.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the distribution of the £250 million package to combat homelessness in London and the south-east.

Allocations of £112 million have been made this year to local authorities. In addition, the Housing Corporation has announced £45 million worth of housing association schemes to help the homeless over the next two years. Bids for the remaining £93 million will be invited later in the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. How much of that money will be used to bring empty properties into use? What is being done to speed up the work of housing associations and others so that they can bring more affordable rented property on to the market in the south-east as an alternative to local authority accommodation?

The objective of that money is largely to bring into use housing that is not being used properly, thus releasing people from bed-and-breakfast places. That will help directly the single homeless. In that context I am placing in the Library today a list of 26 voluntary organisations that will be offered a total of about £1 million of funding this year for projects that will relieve or prevent single homelessness.

Does the Minister realise that the record number of homeless people means that there is a record number of disfranchised people in London and the south-east and in the rest of the country? Is not the truth of the Government's tragic and scandalous record of failing to provide housing, that people without houses do not support the Government and people who do not support the Government do not get a vote?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the scandalous record of the Government in not providing housing. An extra 1·7 million houses have been provided over the past 10 years whereas the population has risen by less than 1 million. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a problem of homelessness. It could be relieved overnight if Labour-controlled local authorities put on the market their void housing. Nevertheless, one needs to look at why there is a homelessness problem. It is overwhelmingly a matter of families splitting because of problems at home. That creates a demand for two houses when before there was a demand for one.

While accepting the congratulations, at least from Conservative Members, on the Government's latest package, my hon. Friend will of course accept that there is concern about homelessness on both sides of the House. Does not he find it astonishing that the Opposition's only solution, amid their carping about the Government's proposals, is to spend more money on local authorities, which too often have high rent arrears and long relet periods, and which exhibit a general incompetence which, among other things, was commented upon at length by the Audit Commission?

My hon. Friend is right. We are often accused of not providing enough resources. Rent arrears are overwhelmingly found in Labour-controlled local authorities. Some £319 million is not being raised because of rent arrears, and responsibility for the overwhelming part of that lies with Labour-controlled authorities. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that scandalous situation.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to what factors he ascribes the standard spending assessment for Barnsley metropolitan district council being the lowest of the metropolitan district authorities.

Barnsley's SSA of £112 million, or £669 per adult, has been calculated in accordance with the distribution report approved by the House on 18 January, using the factors applicable to all metropolitan district councils. Those factors reflect the demographic, physical and social characteristics of each authority area.

The Minister is probably aware that, even under the grant-related expenditure assessment, Barnsley's grant was always at the bottom of the list. At this late stage, will he look at Barnsley's SSA, as the low assessment has led to Barnsley being capped? That is unfair when Manchester has an assessment of £1,170 per adult to provide the same level of services.

I regret that Barnsley should have chosen to budget to spend excessively, and the figures are clear. In Barnsley's case, the budget of £142 million for 1990–91 is almost 27 per cent. above its SSA, which is equivalent to £178 per adult above the SSA. Using the measure used by the hon. Gentleman, the budget is also some 19 per cent. above the rescaled 1989–90 grant-related expenditure, so, on any reasonable measure, the budget is excessive.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what new controls he is introducing to tighten the regulation of the disposal of waste.

The Environmental Protection Bill will extend and strengthen local authorities' powers to control licensed waste disposal and, through the duty of care, will place new responsibilities on the producers and carriers of waste.

In my constituency, many 'waste disposal activities have been carried out sensitively. Is my hon. Friend as worried as I am about the future plans for Todmorden moor, which lies between our constituencies, where it is intended to take out coal and put in waste?

I am aware of the problems associated with Todmorden moor and of the keen interest and concern that characterises my hon. Friend's assiduous work in his constituency. As he knows, it will be for Calderdale metropolitan council to consider the matter and the specific points that he outlined.

Will the controls that the Minister mentioned have any effect on the problems in my constituency, about which I know that he is concerned, or does he think that those problems can be resolved only by the legal action that is under way?

The problem in Wath upon Dearne, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, may be settled through the courts, although whether it is to be within the jurisdiction of the American or of the British courts has still to be decided. We both know that it is a unique and difficult example. The Environmental Protection Bill strengthens controls and enshrines tougher measures covering the importation of hazardous waste.

Is my hon. Friend aware that 181 operations in London are licensed to discharge radioactivity, but do not have to reveal either what sort of radioactivity it is, or the level? Should not that be on a public register?

The Environmental Protection Bill will enshrine legislation to cover that point. Part of it deals with radioactivity, and many other parts cover increased public access to environmental information.

In a short time, we have seen how terribly important is the control of all aspects of toxic waste. While we welcome the tighter controls that will be implemented by the Bill, will not there be a special problem with chemical special waste treatment plants and toxic waste incinerators? Despite all the Minister's assurances during the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill, will he assure us again that he is in touch with what is happening on the ground? What extra staff will be needed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution so that it can take on board its extra responsibilities arising from integrated pollution control when those responsibilities are transferred to it from the waste disposal authorities?

The hon. Lady may recall that, under the Bill, the regulatory role is placed in the hands of local authorities. An environment audit on the various plans has to be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and that is true of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. Relatively few staff will be involved. Responsibility for regulation will remain with the local authorities, and it will be for them to provide the necessary staff to fulfil that task. It is important that I should say that the authorities can now charge for the licensing of the sites. We believe that those charges will cover the costs of the additional staff who will be required.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to make private housing properties which are unfit for human habitation or lacking basic amenities adequate for letting to help reduce waiting lists of local authorities; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

There is a statutory duty upon local authorities to take action against unfit properties, including those lacking basic amenities. Where such action is taken, financial assistance may be available under the new system of renovation grants starting on 1 July, to help owners carry out the necessary repairs.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I thank him also for visiting my constituency to see the problems on the former coal board site at Crackley. As a result of his visit, the council has written to the owners of the empty properties, none of whom has had the courtesy to reply. When will the Government give additional powers and moneys to local authorities to help them to solve that serious problem?

I enjoyed my visit to Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I was grateful to the hon. Lady for her presence. Newcastle-under-Lyme has done well as a result of the Government's housing policies. This year, its housing investment allocation was £4·159 million compared with only £1·69 million last year. That was an increase of about two-and-a-half times. I hope that that gives some satisfaction to the hon. Lady on the resources front. I have said that the local authorities have the appropriate statutory powers. The problem is that some authorities are not exercising those powers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of returning such properties to active use would be to go further in liberalising the rented sector? Shorthold tenancies are a step in the right direction, but there is a need to go much further.

My hon. Friend is right. The liberalisation that we have already implemented has brought many more properties into use in the private rented sector. In the light of that success, the Government may be looking for further progress.

Has the Minister read the report of the Association of District Councils, published six months ago, which states that one in seven houses in England and Wales is in need of repair and that the total bill would be a massive £36 billion? The ADC, which is Tory controlled, has urged the Government to provide additional moneys to the public and private sectors so that a start can be made on repairing badly needed houses. Is the Minister aware that the greatest concentration of poor private sector housing is in the north of England? When will he do something about that? Or does he intend, like his predecessors, to sit back and let further decay take place?

All Conservatives are concerned about the quality of the housing stock. The Government's record on improving housing is exemplary. I remind the House that during the last year in which the Labour Government were in office only £90 million was spent on home improvement grants. That massive sum has been exceeded fourfold in many years since then. There are regularly more than 100,000 improvement grants a year now, whereas under the Labour Government we were lucky if there were more than 50,000. That is an example of the Government's fine record on private sector housing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever we say about the private sector, the most effective way of reducing local authority waiting lists is to start on our own doorsteps, as it were, and to fill the empty homes that are available for occupation? There are about 2,000 such homes in Wolverhampton. If we were to collect the rent arrears of £7 million and invest that sum for the homeless, we would begin to get somewhere. There is much rhetoric about the homeless, but I am sure that as a result of the community charge the local authorities will begin to get their house in order.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The best thing that the people of Wolverhampton can do for themselves is to vote for a Conservative council on 3 May.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received over the provision of capital investment in housing following the autumn statement; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend receives such representations from time to time, including some drawing attention to the large increases in public expenditure provision for subsidised rented housing that we have announced.

Does the Minister accept that the Government's current housing investment policy is disastrous? The bottom has fallen out of the private sector and there is a major problem with pre-1919 houses. Are not hundreds of thousands of people waiting for proper accommodation, including the elderly and the handicapped who need specialised accommodation and who will die before it is provided under this Government's policies? As for Wolverhampton—

Public expenditure on housing is massive—£3 billion in housing revenue subsidy;£3 billion in housing credit; and a doubling of Housing Corporation expenditure up to almost £2 billion. The Government are spending astronomical sums. We inherited very bad housing stock from previous Governments, especially Labour ones. The real problem is bad Labour councils not managing their stock properly.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the large amount of housing investment made available to the voluntary housing movement is most welcome? Can he forecast the number of dwellings likely to be forthcoming as a result of that money?

The current average build from that money is about 17,000, rising to 20,000. In two years' time, the figure will rise to 34,000 a year.

When will the Minister at the Department of the Environment stop making cheapjack political points—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must make his own judgment about those matters.

Ministers are making cheapjack political points out of the homeless. It is all very well for fat Conservative Members to laugh about homelessness. More than 70 per cent. of my constituency casework relates to housing. If all these wonderful things are being done by the Government, why has homelessness in London doubled during the past 10 years?

I have not been making cheap political points; I have been making rather expensive ones during the past 10 minutes. One reason why the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency with such bad housing is that the housing authorities there and in surrounding constituencies are run by Labour councils. They have mismanaged their housing stock—

I am giving the facts. I am not necessarily making political points, but simply pointing out the facts to the hon. Gentleman.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the level of community charge in Barnet.

I continue to receive representations on many aspects of the community charge.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the community charge in the London borough of Barnet, whose schools had the best results of any local authority in England and Wales and which educates 2,000 refugees from Brent each day, compares very favourably with that of other local authorities? Will he confirm that its community charge of £338 compares well with the £498 imposed by Brent, £534 imposed by Camden, and £573 imposed by the London borough of Haringey? Does not that contain a message for the community charge payers of Barnet next week?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. Community charge payers in Barnet pay a £70 contribution to the safety net, without which the charge would be £268. Last week, I had the opportunity of visiting Barnet with my hon. Friend. The most common fear expressed to me by shoppers in the high street was of boundary changes. They asked me to make absolutely certain that none will be made, so that they will not suffer the consequence of becoming charge payers in Brent, Haringey or Camden.

Barnsley and Calderdale would benefit from the same poll tax levels as in Barnet, as that would help them to sustain some of their services. Over the past two years, the Minister and his predecessors have been happy to present the nation with estimates of gainers and losers showing that, according to the Government, 60 per cent. of the population would gain from poll tax. When the true figures were known, the Minister and his Department refused to produce them, despite pressure from myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and many other right hon. and hon. Members. Will the Minister confirm that figures from the House of Commons Library's statistical section reveal that, in reality, 28 million people will be losers under poll tax—79 per cent. of the population—and that the figures that he and his Department use are wholly mythical?

That is absolute nonsense. We have published all the figures. The statistics that have been published on many occasions, at frequent intervals, show clearly that as a consequence of the changes to the system, 60 per cent. of households will benefit. Those that do not benefit—such as in Barnsley—would do so if Conservatives were in charge of their councils. The message clearly coming through is that with a Conservative council, one pays a lower community charge. Conservative councils cost less.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his Department's target for the percentage of household waste that could be recycled using (a) source separation and (b) mechanised separation; and if he will make a statement.

Our aim is to recycle 50 per cent. of the useful content of household waste by the end of the century. Achieving that will depend on the right mix of collection and sorting facilities in each area for each waste stream and, above all, on encouraging the market for recycled materials and identifying the environmental benefits of recycling and the real costs of alternatives, such as disposal to landfill.

Has my hon. Friend heard the news that Birmingham city council, in co-operation with the private sector, is managing to recycle 92 per cent. of domestic waste without the need for separation? I thank my hon. Friend for visiting my constituency to see for himself the work done in that respect by Test Valley borough council. What measures does the Department have in mind to encourage local authorities, either with cash or in kind, to recycle more domestic waste?

I know of the scheme that my hon. Friend mentioned, and it sounds very interesting. Test Valley borough council has an excellent record of recycling. I can offer an additional incentive, in that I shall be introducing a new provision into the Environmental Protection Bill allowing waste disposal authorities to pass on to waste collection authorities such as Test Valley the financial credit for avoiding landfill costs by recycling waste instead.

Does the Minister accept that Greater Manchester waste disposal authority has done extremely well with its experiments in the mechanical separation of waste? However, the move from an experimental to a permanent basis will depend on the price that it can obtain for reclaimed materials. What steps are the Government taking to ensure a guaranteed price for reclaimed paper and plastics?

I have heard of that scheme. I have no theoretical preference for separation at source or the later mechanical separation that he mentioned. We are undertaking a number of experiments to see which is the best system. Most recycling makes economic and environmental sense. The Environmental Protection Bill will have the longer-term effect of raising the cost of landfill, which gives added economic incentives to recycling.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in creating a market for recycled products—in particular waste paper—it is important to set an example? Will he have a word with colleagues in other Departments to encourage them to use recycled paper, as the Department of the Environment does?

Yes, Sir. That is under active consideration in all Government Departments. I confirm that my Department uses recycled paper for all correspondence, and I hope that hon. Members will consider using recycled paper for their correspondence from the House.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many councils have so far set rent increases above Government guidelines in England and Wales.

About 75 per cent. of the English authorities which have announced their rents for 1990–91 have set rents above the guideline. On present information, the average rent increase per week is 76p above the guideline.

Is not that another sign that the Government have made a pig's ear of the assessment of rent levels to local authorities, as they did with the standard spending assessments and the poll tax? Is not it time that the Government admitted that, and had the courage to apologise to local authorities for the incompetence of the Department of the Environment? There is no doubt that it is having a disastrous effect on the economy of local authorities. Before the Minister answers by saying that Sheffield is Labour controlled, I should tell him that obviously it has had to put up rents because the guidelines are low. In Tory-controlled Redbridge, rents have gone up by£15 a week.

The variations are not excessive. I said 76p and that is not an excessive variation on the Government's estimate. When making their estimates, the Government took into account all the rent rebates that had to be paid and the cost of borrowing. One variant is the maintenance budget, which councils set for themselves. Another variant is rent arrears, and one problem is that in many areas large rent arrears go into the accounts and affect other people's rents. Throughout the country, rents in the public sector are well below market values. That is representative of the subsidies that we are giving towards rents.

But surely, morally and politically, those councils have no right to implement Tory policy on the poll tax or on rents. The Minister should say that those councils can resist and fight back. If democracy means anything, the fight back of the common people means a tremendous amount. People power does not happen only in eastern Europe. It can happen here. Does the Minister agree that those elected representatives can resist and fight back, and should not it be encouraged?

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear that, if I follow him correctly, I agree with him. The Government have done precisely that. They have given local authorities a great deal of discretion over the way in which they raise rents. That is precisely the discretion that they are exercising, so I think that I agree with the hon. Gentleman.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the 10 local authorities with the highest number of empty properties.

Local authorities with the highest number of empty council dwellings in April 1989 were Manchester—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Liverpool—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Sheffield—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Salford—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Birmingham—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Sandwell—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Hackney—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Southwark—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Wolverhampton—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; and Newcastle upon Tyne—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."].

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that it makes an absolute mockery of the Labour party's alleged concern for homelessness when its elected councillors cannot give proper care to the homeless within their areas?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The only other figures that I could have read out would have concerned rent arrears, which is almost the same list.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Liverpool's homelessness record is one of the best in the country? Might not that be due to the fact that, since 1983, when Liverpool city council came under Labour control, it has regularly been building houses for the people who live in the area? Is not it true that many of the so-called empty houses are blocks of flats that were built when the Tories were in power and that they are being demolished because they are a blot on the area? Is the Minister aware that the Government practically destroyed industry on Merseyside and that many rent arrears are due to the great poverty in the area?

I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I respond to him by asking him a question: who gave Liverpool the resources to build those houses?

Does the Minister agree that the picture is very much blacker than the list he gave in reply to the question? Is not it a fact that throughout the United Kingdom about 100,000 homes are standing empty in Labour-controlled council areas which, at a stroke, could take 400,000 people off the homeless list? Is not that diabolical? Instead of carping and shedding tears about it in this place, should not the Opposition get on to their friends in Labour councils about the homeless?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The figure of 100,000 has to be compared with only 40,000 people currently in temporary accommodation and 11,000 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

When the Tory flagship in Bradford is sunk without trace, will the Minister give a firm assurance that there is no prospect of his Department blocking grants for the building of new homes for rent and for the modernisation of older homes on the Lower Grange estate in Bradford, where many of my constituents have been living in the most deplorable conditions for many years?

It is this Government who have made the method of allocating credits across the country as transparent and objective as possible. We shall continue to use that objective assessment method in the future as we have done in the recent past.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce the final levels at which relevant local authorities have been community charge-capped.

The date for announcing final caps will depend in part on how authorities react to the caps that I proposed earlier this month, but I expect the capping process to be finalised in time for all capped authorities to set their new budgets by June or July.

Does my right hon. Friend find it deplorable that Bristol and Avon are about to waste more community charge payers' money going to court to get the right to spend more community charge payers' money? Is not this a case of heads, charge payers do not win, and tails, they lose?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that many of his constituents will raise an eyebrow about what has happened. I cannot comment on any case before the court, but my hon. Friend will be aware that there have been at least five judicial reviews on rate capping and that the local authorities failed to win any of them.

Has the Secretary of State's attention been drawn to a letter that is being sent out by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to people who write to him about the poll tax, in which he boasts that, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he persuaded the Cabinet not to proceed with the poll tax, that he believes that there will have be changes to a system based on the ability to pay and that he intends to take a close interest in the matter? Would not it be a good idea for the Secretary of State to consult his predecessor, who takes the view, shared by many people across the whole political spectrum, that the poll tax is a disaster and cannot continue to operate?

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) intends to take a continuing close interest in the evolution of the community charge. However, I am bound to say that my right hon. Friend's description of what he did when he was in the Cabinet, which I am sure is accurate, is slightly less illuminating than some of the descriptions of how the right hon. Gentleman justified his time in Cabinet.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will issue a definition of affordable rents.

Housing benefit is available for those tenants who would otherwise have difficulty affording their rents. In addition, subsidies to local authorities and housing associations enable rents to be kept within the reach of people in low-paid employment.

Yes, we know that, but the Minister was asked for a definition of affordable rents, given that rents vary for different reasons. Council house rents have been forced up by the Government, housing association rents have been forced up by the new financial arrangements and the pressure of interest rates, and housing benefit levels set a maximum rent of £55. The combination of all those factors, in addition to the reduction in the number of people claiming benefit, is to trap people on low pay in their poverty. That housing policy is against the declared aims of the Government and forces people into a poverty trap. What do the Government propose to do about it?

Average council rents at about £24 a week are far from unaffordable. The hon. Lady will accept that what is an affordable rent in any given case must be a subjective matter.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a considerable difference between many council rents and the rents charged by the all-too-small private rented sector? Does he agree that those who are fortunate enough to have council homes should pay realistic rents for good accommodation and that the revenue from such rents should be used to accommodate people who are in housing difficulty?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is the Government's policy that people who occupy council housing and can afford to pay reasonable rents should do so and that those who occupy council housing and cannot afford the rents should be entitled to housing benefit.

Coastal Pollution


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what measures he is taking to reduce the risk of excess nutrients building up around the coast.

Details of measures which will reduce inputs of nutrients to our coastal waters are listed in the United Kingdom North sea action plan. The decisions to ban dumping of sewage sludge at sea and to treat all substantial sewage discharges to sea will further reduce nutrient inputs by between 10 and 20 per cent.

I thank the Minister for that reply. What does he propose to do to prevent Welsh Water from redirecting sewage discharge from Cardiff bay to the Bristol channel should the bay development go ahead, as that will add greatly to the risk of eutrophication in the Bristol channel? The matter concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House.

So far, eutrophication has not been found to be a significant problem in United Kingdom coastal waters and has not increased significantly in recent years. However, the development plans to which the hon. Gentleman alludes will be carefully considered by my Department with that in mind.

Does my hon. Friend agree that while there has been a welcome across the broad spectrum for banning sewage effluent outfalls, it will be many years before we can provide alternatives because some of them are only just coming on stream, particularly in south coast areas?

My hon. Friend is right. It takes time to design such schemes and to obtain the necessary planning permission, but we have made an enormous commitment, and the water companies have a substantial investment undertaking, to put in place the necessary schemes. One reason why we are having to spend so much to catch up is that some of the companies languished for too long in the public sector.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received from tenants' organisations in favour of capital value rates.

I am not aware of having received any representations in favour of capital value rates from tenants' organisations or anyone else.

Would not a system of capital value rates be as unfair to those on low incomes as a local income tax would be unwieldy? Is not by far the fairest and most accountable system of local government finance—subject of course to proper implementation—the community charge?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. The more people understand about capital value rates, the more they despise the proposition.

If three out of four voters in England rejected a local government tax in the general election, and if a body elected—in the main—outside England subsequently ignored that vote and imposed that local government tax only on England, would the Minister describe those of his fellow countrymen who resisted that undemocratic imposition by every peaceful means open to them as shirkers and anarchists? Does he recognise that the danger of anarchy arises when Governments ignore the principle of democratic consent to law, as the Government have done with the poll tax in Scotland?

I do not follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am not well read in the principles of anarchy, but my clear recollection is that the question whether there should be a community charge was put fairly and squarely to the electorate at the last general election.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the impact of the uniform business rate on bed-and-breakfast businesses.

The impact of the uniform business rate and the non-domestic revaluation on bed-and-breakfast establishments which are subject to rating will vary among properties and areas of the country in the same way as for other properties. I am pleased to see that businesses as a whole in my hon. Friend's constituency will benefit from an average rate reduction of 45 per cent. in cash terms, without transition, as a result of the new business rate arrangements.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the anxiety about the suggestion of the 100-day rule? Will he examine more closely the problems that it could create? If introduced, it could discourage smaller bed-and-breakfast businesses from operating. That would have a profound effect, and would work against our policy to encourage more tourists to use tourist facilities off-peak.

I have met several hon. Friends to discuss the treatment of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are considering the arguments that they and others have put to us.

Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for the Environment? Perhaps they could trot down to Bath together. I have been told that there has been a revolt by the business men and women of that constituency. The result of that and other developments is that we could be recycling the whole Government, not just the Secretary of State for the Environment.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the 10 county councils with the highest percentage overspend over standard spending assessment.

The list is as follows: Derbyshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Avon—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Northumberland—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Cumbria—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Oxfordshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Cheshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Isle of Wight—[HON. MEMBERS: "Liberal."]; Humberside—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Nottinghamshire—[HON. MEMBERS "Labour."]; and Lancashire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]

Does not that send the clearest possible message to the local government electors that Conservative councils cost them less, and that Labour and other Opposition-controlled councils cost them much more?

I could not agree more: everywhere that we look, Labour councils cost the community charge payer more money.

Is the Minister aware that people in the London borough of Barnet who want to go swimming go to the Swiss Cottage baths in the borough of Camden, and that people who want to take their children to one o'clock clubs go to Parliament Hill fields, also in the borough of Camden? It is all very well for Conservative-controlled authorities to keep spending down, but their residents must use the facilities in neighbouring Labour-run boroughs because they are not provided in their own boroughs.

With a Conservative council, one gets not only a lower community charge but better value for money and better services.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, had we not changed the domestic rating system, the spending by the authorities that he mentioned would have given rise to such a huge burden on ratepayers that any Government who failed to get rid of rates would have been rightly and severely criticised?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The Government were the first with the guts to get rid a the iniquitous domestic rating system. We still await the Labour party's statistics for what it proposes in place of the community charge.

Broadcasting Bill

3.30 pm

The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) submitted on 14 March that the Broadcasting Bill, as amended in Standing Committee, is hybrid. The Bill has now been reported by the Committee and I am grateful for the opportunity which I have had to study the hon. Member's points.

The first point put forward was to the effect that clause 164 and schedule 14, as amended, require providers of broadcasting services to make available for general publication information relating to programmes, to the disadvantage specifically of the owners and publishers of TV Times and Radio Times.

As the hon. Member for Paisley, South said in my predecessor's words, a hybrid Bill
"is a public bill which affects a particular private interest in a manner different from the private interest of other persons or bodies of the same category or class."—[Official Report, 14 March 1990; Vol. 169, c. 487.]
I have studied clause 164 and schedule 14 with the greatest care. I am satisfied that it creates a class of "providers of programme services" and treats them all precisely the same way in the matter of the copyright of information about their programmes. Since there is no question of different treatment for different providers of services, the clause and schedule cannot make the Bill hybrid.

The hon. Member for Paisley, South also drew attention to the distinction between the provision for domestic satellite services and non-domestic satellite services. He will be aware that the Bill is drafted with separate definitions in clause 38 of these two classes of provider.

The hon. Member for Paisley, South referred specifically to Sky Television, but I am satisfied that it is not the case that Sky Television will necessarily, or in fact, be the only provider of a non-domestic satellite service. Here again, clause 38, as drafted, creates legitimate classes and I cannot therefore rule the Bill to be hybrid in this regard either.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the careful attention that you have paid to this matter. I completely accept your definition, analysis and statement. However, it creates a major problem because, regardless of the creation of a group, it still leaves the Rupert Murdoch News International holding in Sky as an isolated exception to the restrictions on holdings imposed by the Bill. For example, he owns 35 per cent. of the daily press and, for any other reason, would have been brought under the conditions to prevent monopoly control of a television station.

This was a genuine and serious issue and we shall have to pursue it in other forms. I hope that the Government will take on board the fact that a monopoly of exception has been created and that steps will be taken on Report to rectify this difficult and dangerous issue of cross-media ownership, which was expressly said in the White Paper to be excluded.

Points Of Order

3.33 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A motion on the community charge appears on the Order Paper in the name of the Leader of the Opposition for debate today. In line 4, the House is invited to deplore the allegedly "partisan way in which" community capping has been applied. As the authorities that have been capped have been granted leave for judicial review by the courts, may I invite you, Mr. Speaker, in view of the long-established conventions about the sub judice rule in the House, to deliberate and, if necessary, to rule on whether it is appropriate for the House to debate the partisan way in which it has been drafted and whether the motion is in order?

This matter was raised with me yesterday just after questions. The case has not yet been set down and the matter is not yet sub judice.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you have received any request from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or any of the finance Ministers to make a statement today about the disastrous trade deficit figure of £2·2 billion, which is more than 50 per cent. higher than the amount expected by the Government and City sources? You will recall that, on a number of occasions when the figures have been announced, the Chancellor or one of his deputies has come to the House and been questioned. Someone must stop the run on the pound—

I should like to raise a point of order, of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker. We have learnt that the Liberal county council on the Isle of Wight is one of the top 10 overspending councils in the country, that the Liberal local income tax would be more than £900 per taxpayer, and that the Labour party has admitted that it would not replace the community charge for at least two years, so it is clear that the community charge is here to stay.

The local Labour party is advertising a petition that is to be presented to me. I believe that, as community charge officers can use any source of information, hon. Members would be obliged if you would rule, Sir, on whether such a petition would be subject to parliamentary privilege.

Many Members of Parliament come to the Isle of Wight, even retired Members, from the other parties. Some of them have pledged that they will not pay the community charge. I would not want to be put in the invidious position where a community charge officer could demand that he see the petition and discover that Labour Members of Parliament on the Isle of Wight had signed it and refused to pay the community charge. In that circumstance, my constituents might feel that I had been less than even-handed in my treatment of the petition.

The hon. Member gave me notice of his point of order. I judge the matter to be hypothetical at the moment. I do not know what sort of petition it will be, but if it is a petition to the House, once it has been presented it is in the possession of the House and will not be available for inspection by non-Members.

Further to the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), Mr. Speaker. I am not questioning your ruling. However, the Broadcasting Bill will give a privileged position to Rupert Murdoch and Sky Television. As I understand it, your argument is that the Bill's provisions would apply to all people in the same position. However, the cost of setting up satellite television is so high that, in effect, Rupert Murdoch is in a privileged position. Given that fact and the representations that have been made, and accepting your non-hybridity ruling, I ask you seriously to consider the amendments that are tabled on this issue and to give them preference in the selection process.

I shall certainly give careful consideration to that point. However, I must first see the amendments on this subject after they have been tabled.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you well know, I rarely raise points of order, but I have been driven to do so, mainly because of planted Question 14, which allowed the rag, tag and bobtails on the Conservative Back Benches to do their pantomime act of saying, "Labour, Labour, Labour." My local authority was named and we do not have the opportunity to challenge the Minister's figures or claims. People should bear in mind that some houses are empty because of Government grants for refurbishment, and so on. Why cannot we have the right to reply?

The hon. Member has the right. If he seeks to take part in today's debate, he will be able to do just that. We have a busy day ahead of us, but I will take Mr. Gow.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you reconsider the ruling that you gave a moment ago in response to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost)? The House is aware that yesterday an application was made to the High Court by certain county councils which have been capped and that yesterday the High Court gave permission for a judicial review to proceed. In those circumstances, and as the proceedings have been begun and upheld in the preliminary stage, is not the matter sub judice, whether or not that affects what will happen?

The hon. Member is a distinguished lawyer. I am not a lawyer, but I have looked into the matter with particular and special care to make certain that I have got it right. I am satisfied that the case has not yet been set down and that, therefore, is not sub judice.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have read carefully the motion for debate this afternoon presented by Her Majesty's Opposition. Of course, we are all aware that it is an important debate. Having read the motion, I wonder whether the whole motion appears on the Order Paper. I refer you to line 8, which says:

"and bring forward a fairer system of local government finance so that … "
I believe that there may be a line or two missing after that because the motion makes no reference to what type of fairer local government taxation the Opposition propose. It makes no reference to a roof tax or local income tax. One would have thought that an Opposition motion would have mentioned that. Will you confirm that the full motion appears on the Order Paper; or has an error been made by the printers?

No error has been made. We had better get on with the debate because we may hear about that very matter.

Bill Presented

Australian Constitution (Public Record Copy)

Mr. Attorney-General, supported by Sir Geoffrey Howe, Mr. Secretary Hurd, Mr. Secretary Waddington and Mr. Solicitor-General, presented a Bill to exclude one of the record copies of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1990 from the public records to which the Public Records Act 1958 applies: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 132.]

Interdicts And Injunctions (Amendment)

3.41 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Fair Trading Act 1973 to allow the courts further powers of interdict and injunction to prevent purchasers of assets of firms which are the subject of a potential enquiry by the Office of Fair Trading or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission from pre-empting possible decisions of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry arising from recommendations of the Commission.
In moving this ten-minute Bill on the seemingly dry subject of interdicts and injunctions in the name of my parliamentary colleagues who are members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union group, may I say that, although the matter seems as dry as dust, it concerns the industrial base of our country and jobs.

The Atlas steel foundry in Armadale in west Lothian supplied the high integrity steel from which many of the Dreadnoughts were made. I am grateful for the presence not only of my senior colleagues and my party leader but of that of the Leader of the House. In Westminster Abbey today he may have been thinking about the ships at Gallipoli. The heavy steel for those ships was probably forged, if they were Clyde-built, in the Atlas steel works in Armadale. The steel foundry is unique in that it has extremely heavy cranes and kilns/furnaces which are not found anywhere else in Britain. If certain work—not all of it—were not done in Armadale, it would have to be done at Schaffhausen in Switzerland, Linz in Austria, by Thyssen at Gelsenkirchen in Germany or, arguably, in Turin. We are dealing with a unique facility.

William Cook plc of Penistone acquired that foundry. I hasten to add that in this Bill I seek to criticise no one, least of all William Cook. It acquired the foundry and, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), Andrew Cook is a go-ahead and progressive force in industry. However, it bought the foundry in order to close it and take away certain key assets. I referred the matter to the Office of Fair Trading, which has taken the case seriously and, for three weeks, has been working hard on it, with the possibility of referring it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

However, the nub of the issue, which forms the genesis of my Bill, was that when it became clear that the Office of Fair Trading was looking seriously at the case, it seemed as if William Cook plc was taking away some of the key components of the electric furnace. That would present the Office of Fair Trading and, if a referral were to be made, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission with a fait accompli. Therefore, the Amalgamated Engineering Union decided to try to get an interdict or an injunction in the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

I am in no way criticising the court or the judge because he gave us a perfectly good hearing, but we could not prove our case because there was a geological flaw. We could not show, albeit that there were other bidders, that William Cook plc had done anything wrong in law. I do not think that I misrepresent the judge by saying of Lord Marnoch that when it came to the judgment his line was that he wished he could have helped, but he could not in law.

For that reason, as my hon. Friend says, I believe that we should consider introducing new laws or changing the law. This Bill is about giving the courts flexibility and discretion that they do not have at present so that they can say that people should wait and see, and prevent a fait accompli from being presented to other bidders in industry until the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission have had time to look at the matter. Such a problem could come to all of us.

I said that my ten-minute Bill would be succinct, and so it will be. I know from last Friday that such Bills often have a difficult passage in the House. Sometimes people speak for 90 minutes in order that a Bill should not be heard. On this occasion, I hope that if my ten-minute Bill, in that form, does not see the light of parliamentary day, at least my senior colleagues, the deputy Prime Minister, and those Conservative Members who have done me the courtesy of being present and of giving me a good hearing, will reflect that what happened to the steel foundry in Armadale could happen to them.

There is an understandable reason for giving the courts the discretion not to alter events in finality—that is a matter for different laws—but to say that the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission should not be presented with a fait accompli.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tam Dalyell, the parliamentary group of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Mr. Stanley Orme, Mr. Ken Eastham, Mr. Richard Caborn, Mr. David Clelland, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. John Evans, Mr. Ted Garrett, Mr. George Howarth, Mr. Robert Hughes, Mr. William McKelvey and Mr. Bill Michie.

Interdicts And Injunctions (Amendment)

Mr. Tam Dalyell accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Fair Trading Act 1973 to allow the courts further powers of interdict and injunction to prevent purchasers of assets of firms which are the subject of a potential enquiry by the Office of Fair Trading or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission from pre-empting possible decisions of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry arising from recommendations of the Commission: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 4 May and to be printed. [Bill 133.]

3.49 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising out of the presentation of the Bill by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Is it in order for a group such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union parliamentary Labour group to be a sponsor of a Bill in the House, because it must surely include Members of the other place as well? Would not the Bill's list of sponsors have to have that group removed, or should not the names of the individuals in it be submitted?

Only the names of the hon. Members that were given will go down on the Bill.

Opposition Day

11Th Allotted Day

Local Government Finance

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. In view of the large number of hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate, I propose to put a limit of 10 minutes on speeches between 6 pm and 8 pm and I would ask those who speak before and after that time broadly to bear that limit in mind.

3.50 pm

I beg to move,

That this House condemns the unfair and excessive burden which the poll tax has imposed on many millions of people, regrets the further burdens placed on some local authorities and the communities they serve as a consequence of charge-capping and deplores the partisan way in which it has been applied; expresses concern at the heavy burden imposed on many enterprises, and particularly on small businesses, by the uniform business rate; and calls upon the Government as a matter of urgency to review the operation of the poll tax and the uniform business rate and bring forward a fairer system of local government finance so that individuals and their families, businesses and local authorities can all be relieved from the burdens they impose.
In common, I imagine, with most hon. Members, I have received thousands of letters about various aspects of the poll tax. Many of their writers have objected to the principle of the poll tax, some of them perhaps unconsciously echoing the criticism rather surprisingly made by Adam Smith, who is sometimes put forward as guru of the right. Many other letters have complained about the tax's unfair impact and others have asked about—indeed, complained about—the unworkability and the difficulty of administering the poll tax and the expense that has been involved in setting up the systems—in employing new staff, buying new software programmes and so on.

Other letters have expressed concern about the impact of the poll tax on the exercise of civil rights, because many people have noticed the increasing body of academic and other research that shows the worrying trend towards a substantial falling off in the numbers of those on the electoral register, and they are very worried that that is the consequence of the poll tax having inhibited people who fear that by exercising their right to vote they will somehow be caught for the purposes of paying the tax.

Still other writers—all these points are familiar, I am sure, to hon. Members on both sides of the House—have expressed concern about the pressure that the poll tax has put on family life: about their obligation to maintain an adult child or an elderly relative for whom there is suddenly a new responsibility.

Moreover—I believe that my experience is unlikely to be unique in this respect—the overriding question that has increasingly been asked by the great majority of those who have written is about why the poll tax bill is so high—[Interruption.]

I shall give way in a moment.

Conservative Members who were making a fuss a moment ago will know, if they are honest with themselves and the House, that such inquiries have come with just as great bewilderment—and, I dare say, greater outrage and anger—from people living in Conservative-controlled authorities as from those living in Labour or otherwise politically controlled authorities. They want to know why the bills that they were promised by the Daily Express in 1986 would be only £50 a head, which they were promised by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) about a year ago would be about £178 a head, and which they were promised by the present Secretary of State would be only about £278 a head, have averaged £90 more than that most recent forecast and now average about £360.

The answer that they understand and accept, because it is the true answer, is that the bills are so much higher than forecast right across the country because the Government got their sums wrong. It is not just the Labour party which makes that point. It is made by independent bodies of all types such as the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and others. It is made by Tory-controlled local associations such as the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils. They say that the Government made a series of mistakes. First, they chose to assume that local government expenditure for the financial year just completed was £1·6 billion less than it actually was. They did that primarily by choosing to overlook the fact that many local authorities had to dip into their reserves to maintain their spending even at that level.

The bodies that I have mentioned noticed that the Government made no allowance in their calculations for the additional costs of collecting the poll tax or community charge. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary estimated those costs at £400 million, but most people believe that that is a substantial underestimate. The Government also chose to overlook the fact that local authorities have had to accept a range of new obligations and duties, many of them imposed by the Government. No allowance was made for those new obligations.

The Government made the ludicrous assumption that every authority would collect 100 per cent. of the poll tax that was due to it. I do not think that one borough or district treasurer in the country has budgeted on that basis, because everybody understands that the incidence of collection for the poll tax will be lower than it was for the rates. Therefore, the best or perhaps the most optimistic estimate for the collection rate is about 95 per cent. It might even be more prudent to budget for a 90 per cent. collection rate.

The most remarkable mistake was that the Government solemnly assured local authorities that the rate of inflation on the basis of which those authorities should prepare their budgets for the coming financial year, now the current financial year, was initially to be ·8 per cent. It has now been slightly revised upwards, but it is still nowhere near the true rate of inflation, which, as we all understand and deplore, is running at twice the Government's initial estimate.

The cumulative effect of that catalogue of mistakes has led the Secretary of State himself unconsciously to admit that a gap has arisen between the real level of local government spending and the level that the Government assumed in a fit of super-optimism would be the case. He complains about that gap and has assumed that it is about £3 billion.

I am advancing a continuous argument and I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have finished it.

The Secretary of State has said that he has put a figure of over £3 billion on that gap. The bad news for poll tax payers is that, because of the way in which local government finance is now structured, every pound of that gap, every penny of the deficit, now falls on the hapless poll tax payer. Every £1 by which the Government's estimate has fallen short of what is required by local government, means that an extra £4 will have to be found from the poll tax.

There is a charitable explanation for that sad catalogue of errors. It is that the Government are simply incompetent. On the day when a £2·2 billion trade deficit has been announced, that explanation has a certain persuasiveness. However, I do not think that this was simply a catalogue of errors. I think that the Government deliberately set about creating this shortfall for reasons which I shall shortly elaborate.

If, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the Government got all this arithmetic so disastrously wrong, how did the Labour-controlled authority of Barking and Dagenham, which includes his constituency, manage to set its charge at just £2 over the Government's suggested figure? Is he saying that the Government were too generous with their grant for his council or is it uniquely efficient?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is making the case that the Government's errors were not uniform and comprehensive, but they nearly were. The experience of my borough gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that the poll tax in Labour councils is always higher than in Tory councils.

Let me return to the thread of my argument. I had carried the House with me to the point where we had explored this catalogue of errors and I had suggested that simple incompetence was hardly an adequate explanation. I believe that the Government deliberately set out to create that shortfall because they wanted to build into the poll tax the unfairness, the high bills and the oppressive burdens that are now manifest. Why should they want to do that? [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members do not want to listen, but they should hear the argument because it may help them to understand why they and their constituents are in such difficulties.

The real explanation is to be found in a close textual analysis of the claims that have so often been made for the poll tax. Let us reflect on the theory that underlies it and has so often been advanced as the major case for bringing it about. It was that local government was irresponsible, spent far too much and did so because it was not accountable to those who received the services. It was argued that, because everybody would pay it, the poll tax would improve the accountablility of local government.

It was only a small step from that to conclude that one way to make that accountability really bite and have an impact was to ensure that when people found that they had to pay the bills, those bills were substantial and hurt. The theory was that outraged poll tax payers would turn in anger and point the finger of accusation at their local authority and demand that the bills be reduced and services cut. The theory went further, because it was assumed, against the evidence that we now have, that that charge, that action and that demand would be made most intensively against Labour local authorities.

That was the theory, and the game was given away by the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, who argued, when criticised about the unfairness of the poll tax, that it was criticised only by those who had been taught to believe that the rich should pay for the services provided to others. There we have the nub of the argument.

The problem with all that is that the accountability that was meant to do the Government's dirty work for them, which would enable them to walk away from local authority finances, saying that it was nothing to do with them, and which was meant to allow them to sit back while irate poll tax payers undermined and weakened local authorities, has backfired in the Government's face. The reason for that is that Conservative Members have been joined by Conservative councillors and activists all refusing to play the part written for them by Conservative central office. They refuse to accept that the fault lies with local authorities.

If the hon. Gentleman's analysis is to be believed, how does he explain that in Scotland, in the second year of the community charge, 20 councils have kept their spending at last year's levels or below and the remainder are within the rate of inflation? Can he also explain why, today in Scotland, the Labour party has announced its proposals for its alternative to the community charge, which the hon. Gentleman has not yet endorsed? That does not surprise me, because it was not able to specify the different categories of homes and how they would be affected.

I shall gladly deal with Scotland later in my speech, when I shall invite the House to contemplate the rather mysterious meeting that was arranged between Strathclyde regional council and the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), whose specific purpose it was to consider amendments to the community charge. That was something of which the Secretary of State seemed to be unaware, and it shows how widespread is the anxiety within the Tory party about the poll tax as it has worked out.

The theory of accountability went wrong because many millions of people throughout the country were able to watch on their television screens Conservative councillors in West Oxfordshire resigning the Tory whip. They saw Conservative social clubs in Morecambe disaffiliating from the Tory party. They saw Conservative voters, Members and activists marching and protesting about the poll tax. So they knew that the Government's efforts to use accountability as a weapon against local authorities in general, and Labour local authorities in particular, would not hold water.

It is because of that growing realisation that we have had a succession of measures introduced almost day by day—for example, safety nets, transitional reliefs, changes to rebate schemes and new exemptions. These measures have been introduced by a Government who finally understand—I pay tribute to many Conservative Members for helping the Government to come to this realisation—that accountability has backfired in their face. The poll tax payer now holds the Government responsible for accountability.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) because I feel that I have an inkling of what he wants to ask.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is as generous as ever. I listened with keen attention to his remarks about the community seeking accountability from local authorities. According to him, that will not work. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to an article that appeared on the front page of the Birmingham Evening Mail last Friday. It was headed "Pasting for City Council". The council has been conducting MORI opinion polls over the last few years to ascertain the views of the local community on how well it has been performing. It seems that

"some 73 per cent. of Brummies blame the Council for wasting too much money on non-essentials, foreign trips and parties. And 57 per cent. believe the council is remote, out of touch and impersonal."
That is a Labour council. What advice will the hon. Gentleman give electors in Birmingham on 3 May? They would be presented with a lower community charge by both the Conservative and the Liberal parties and they are faced with a £406 charge from the Labour party.

On 3 May, accountability will have its day. That is the accountability which the Secretary of State was unwilling to trust when he chose to charge cap 21 authorities with less than a month to pass before the voters had the opportunity to express their judgment.

If we are to exchange press comment on the performance of local authorities and local communities, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Northfield read the report in yesterday's Evening Standard under the headline "Poll Tax Disowned by Tories". The article refers to the campaigning of the Tory group in Bromley, a borough with a considerable history in the annals of Tory politicking. In its leaflets and electioneering material the Tory group states:
"The community charge was introduced by central Government, not by Bromley councillors. Whatever your views on the current performance of central government, the forthcoming elections are about local government."

No, I shall not give way. I have another press clipping about the state of public opinion.

I refer to the poll which was published in The Independent today. I mention that only in passing, but it shows the 26-point lead that the Labour party has over the Conservative party. The most significant feature of the poll is that 55 per cent. of that large and growing band of people who are described as Tory defectors gave the poll tax as their reason for ceasing to support the Tories. When asked what they thought of the various options, only one in seven of the dwindling band of Tory supporters said that the poll tax was their preferred method of financing local government.

I intend to pursue the theme of accountability because so much was made of it putting the case for the poll tax. Yet as I have just mentioned, when all else had failed, when all the subterfuges and diversions and little escape routes had been tried and had failed to assuage concern, at last the Secretary of State felt obliged to concede that accountability had gone out of the window; that it was no longer the name of the game. On 3 April, just a month from the opportunity that millions of voters would have to express their views in the ballot box on the size of their poll tax bills, the Government had to intervene to sweep away accountability and to introduce charge capping—

I shall not give way, as I want to make the point that the Secretary of State had to introduce charge capping for local authorities.

Heaven knows how much midnight oil was burnt and how many hours of effort were put in by civil servants to produce the mathematical miracle of 20, rising to 21, local authorities that excluded every Tory authority. The amazing aspect is that the Secretary of State managed to produce a list that included local authorities whose poll tax bills were actually below the Government's assumed charge for those authorities. He managed to produce a list that included authorities that were contributors under the safety net. However, the list excluded some authorities that would appear on any list based on those with the highest poll tax bills. The right hon. Gentleman managed to produce a list that excluded Tory authorities that would have been included on any list of authorities that had most sharply increased their spending over last year. He even managed to produce a list that excluded Kensington and Chelsea.

I shall let the House into a secret. We did quite a bit of work chopping and changing the various criteria that the right hon. Gentleman might use—yet we found it virtually impossible to come up with a combination that would exclude Kensington and Chelsea. However, the Secretary of State has found a way to do that. The conclusion reached by the hundreds of people in Tory authorities who have written to us is that that list was a political fix. It was a political exercise—a concession to the fact that accountability could no longer be relied upon. All that was left to the Government was to try to shift the blame for the fiasco on their hands.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in order to cap Kensington and Chelsea I would have had to cap 58 local authorities? Is it the Labour party's position that I should have capped 58 local authorities?

I do the Secretary of State the honour of assuming that he knows his way around his own criteria a little better than he has just suggested. The fact is that under almost all combinations of criteria, Kensington and Chelsea figures high on the list. Indeed, on the combination of criteria that most people assumed that the right hon. Gentleman would use, Kensington and Chelsea came 21st. That is why many people assumed that he would produce a list of just 20, which he did.

Even the Secretary of State understood that, had he produced a list based on criteria that produced 20 local authorities excluding every Conservative authority, hut with that same set of criteria producing a Tory 21st local authority, it would be extremely embarrassing to draw the line just before that Tory authority appeared on the list.

Charge capping is a political exercise which is unlikely to succeed. I set aside the question of judicial review. I am delighted that a High Court judge has agreed that t here is a case to answer, and I shall be interested to see how that legal argument pans out. Even as a political exercise, capping is unlikely to succeed because it necessarily destroys the only case that was ever really made for poll tax—that it would increase accountability.

I suspect that many Conservative Members are uncomfortably aware that capping has immeasurably increased the anger of poll tax payers in Tory local authorities. They are the people who write in to complain, "How dare the Secretary of State draw up a list that excludes my Tory-controlled borough, which has imposed a whacking great poll tax bill on me?"

Contrary to the Secretary of State's efforts and expectations, charge capping has made the Government even more directly responsible for poll tax bills. Every aspect of local government finance—central Government grant, uniform business rate, and now the poll tax itself—comes under central Government control. In effect, charge-capped bills are those which have been issued by the Government under their own authority, and the remainder are, by implication, bills which the Government say can go ahead. Every poll tax bill that has arrived and is about to arrive bears only one set of fingerprints—the fingerprints of a guilty Government.

As the hon. Member for Dangenham (Mr. Gould) worries about the poor and needy, who have great difficulty paying the community charge, what advice does he offer the Labour-controlled local authority serving Weymouth and Portland? Putting aside the cost of the community charge, that authority has, according to the old system, imposed an increase in money collected from all sources of 50 per cent. How would Labour deal with that situation? That authority is not being capped because its budget has risen only from £4 million to £6·5 million, but clearly that increase is costing my constituents a lot of money.

The invented figure of a 35 per cent. rates increase that the Secretary of State has used sometimes is just as much vitiated as the poll tax calculation by the mistakes that I enumerated earlier, in terms of providing central Government grant. That is the major explanation. The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) ought to advise his constituents to pursue the matter with the Government, because they are responsible for the gap and for the supposed rates increase.

So much for accountability as a feature of the poll tax. Turning to the uniform business rate, we immediately encounter a paradox. The uniform business rate is in many respects the stablemate of the poll tax, yet whereas we were told that the poll tax had the major virtue of increasing accountability, somehow and mysteriously there is no mention of accountability in relation to the uniform business rate. Not only does it entirely overlook accountability but it totally denies it. It provides instead for a centrally-fixed national rate which breaks the link between local authorities and their local business communities.

The reason why the Secretary of State's business community is so worried about the uniform rate is that it offers no opportunity to respond to revaluation—which we welcome—by giving local authorities the power to fix their business rate according to local conditions. Conservative Members know as well as anyone how poorly the uniform rate is regarded. I would take a bet that every one of them has received representations from local business men to that effect.

The ability to meet the needs of local business communities has been taken from local government and is now entirely in the hands of central Government. That is why, when the Secretary of State encounters opposition from his business community through the organisation called Business Against Rate and Rent Increases in Bath—the most high profile of the growing number of protests up and down the country—and when he promises to see them but is reported as saying that he will do so only as a constituency Member of Parliament, he was profoundly wrong. The business community was right to ask to see him as the Secretary of State for the Environment, because he and the Government have introduced the uniform business rate, and have imposed it on business men up and down the country. There is no point in speaking to the local constituency Member of Parliament, because the uniform business rate is central Government policy.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the UBR in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would, on former values, have involved a lower rate bill than the rates exacted by Somerset and Avon county councils? Does he agree that the rise in the business rates bill in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend was caused by the revaluation, which was delayed for 17 years? What is the Labour party's position on revaluation? Would it cancel it, or would it postpone it, or would it go for an entirely different system of business taxation for which there is no consensus among industrial and business organisations?

As some of the more attentive hon. Members may recall—I am sure that the Secretary of State does, because he referred to it this afternoon—I have had no hesitation in supporting and endorsing the revaluation. Where the Labour party parts company with the Government is that they have built on and exacerbated the revaluation with a national rate which takes no account of local conditions. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) is wrong. If the business rate could be set by local authorities, it could be made to offset the impact of revaluation.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point. In my constituency and in many others the uniform business rate is 10 per cent. lower than the local non-domestic rate, so how does that square with his argument?

I shall leave it to the Secretary of State to make his case to his recalcitrant business communities. That is his problem.

May I also bring to the right hon. Gentleman's attention the real problems that local business men face. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, a large proportion of businesses will face an increase in their business rates. That increase will be particularly felt in the south-east, among small businesses, in retailing and in small high-tech businesses. Those businesses are offered—

No, let me continue for the moment. Those businesses are offered, as protection against the increases, a transitional scheme which, true to form and typically of the whole poll tax fiasco, is less generous than it seems.

The principle is that most ordinary and large businesses will be no more than 20 per cent. worse off in each of the next five years. The truth is that that 20 per cent. increase per year—said to be the upper limit for any increase—is a cumulative increase which takes no account of inflation. In reality, even with a 6 per cent. inflation rate, that transitional relief will be exhausted after three years.

Any business that changes its premises, moves to new premises, leaves premises empty, refurbishes, makes additions or makes any alteration to premises will lose the transitional relief immediately. That is why one will find a range of shop fronts boarded up in high streets in so many of our towns and cities; they will be unlettable. Anyone who took on those premises would immediately cop the full increase in uniform business rate, and that is what is proving so damaging to so many business communities.

I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us what explanation he gives his own business community on the subject and that he will bring us up to date on the Government's proposals for mitigating the worst effects of the poll tax. Decisions are needed soon. We cannot afford delay for much longer if local authorities are to be able to gear up for whatever changes the Government have in store. We need to know which of the options that have been floated in recent months the Government intend to settle on.

Are we to have—I shall give way to the Secretary of State on this point, although I suspect that he wishes to deal with it in his speech—the removal from local government expenditure of major items of expenditure, such as education or teachers' salaries? I think not, because the Prime Minister has made it clear that she is opposed to it. Are we, then, to have the restoration of central Government grant to make good—

No, I do not intend to give way for the moment. I should be grateful if, for a change, the hon. Gentleman would listen.

Are we to have the restoration of that £3 billion deficit in central Government grant? I think not—although it must be an attractive option—because it would put the Government in desperate straits in terms of their finances. How would they find that £3 billion—and probably more—to make good the gap without disappointing their followers' expectations that they might be able to offer yet more mysterious and insubstantial tax cuts in the run-up to the general election? How would the Secretary of State guarantee that an increase in grant would result in lower poll tax bills? Is not it likely that local authorities, which have been bled dry and have had to cut their services in the most painful and damaging fashion, would use any additional grant to restore their services, thus leaving poll tax bills unchanged? Are we, therefore, to have, as I think has also been floated, a universal form of charge capping? Is that what is in store? That would be the final admission that accountability is off the agenda.

Perhaps there is to be the banding of incomes—sometimes called the Mates option. The Secretary of State knows well, because he voted it down, that that is full of practical problems and that it would create all sorts of poverty trap implications. Furthermore, it denies the original purpose of the poll tax.

No, I do not intend to give way again. I am about to end my speech.

Always, of course, lurking in the wings is the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). Earlier this afternoon we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that the right hon. Member for Henley had carefully distanced himself from any responsibility for introducing this iniquitous tax. The point is that we do not yet know from the Government, although local authorities desperately need to know, what is their solution to the problem. They are aware of the problems. There is an excellent amendment on the Order Paper in the name of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). If the rules of order permitted it, Mr. Speaker, I would say immediately that we accept it and that we invite the right hon. Gentleman to join us in the Lobby. We also know, as hon. Members heard from my quotation of the case of—

Order. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) say that he did not intend to give way again.

Order. The hon. Member for Dagenham has given way generously. Interventions take up a lot of time. Many hon. Members, possibly including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), wish to participate in the debate.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice on the motion that stands in the name of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). It refers to a fairer system of local government finance. We have heard nothing about that during his speech. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to speak to his own motion?

I do not know, but what I do know is that if he is interrupted again we may never get there.

In order to show how generous I am, and out of my regard for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), I shall give way to him as a last gesture.

Will my hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That was said on purpose. In this House one can have friends across party lines. I agree with the Opposition that the policy put forward by my own right hon. and hon. Friends is somewhat less than satisfactory. That is at its kindest. I believe that the way in which the community charge will fall is unsatisfactory and unjust and that the way in which the uniform business rate will affect small businesses in particular is neither fair nor just.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that we are talking about vast billions of pounds that have to be found for local government expenditure? Although I think that my right hon. Friends are wrong, because the community charge does not take into account ability to pay, that money will have to be found, whatever the Opposition say. How are they going to find such sums? What sort of policy will they put forward, because, in the end, the money will have to come from somewhere?

I am glad to carry the hon. Gentleman with me to some degree at least, in that he joins us in the criticisms which the vast majority of people make of the Government's proposals. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am coming to the answer which hon. Members will find extremely useful.

The Government well understand—at least, they have no excuse for not understanding—that the time has come for them to recognise the fiasco that they have created. I have referred to the efforts that Tory local authorities and councillors are making to distance themselves from central Government. I have also referred to the poll in The Independent,which shows how much the poll tax is damaging Tory prospects in the local government elections. I have referred to the amendment tabled in the names of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North and some of his hon. Friends as just the tip of an iceberg which demonstrates how much concern and anxiety exists on Conservative Benches. I have also drawn attention to the meeting—we look forward to hearing an explanation of that meeting—which mysteriously has been organised between senior officials of Strathclyde regional council and the right hon. Member for Ayr. All those factors demonstrate how much difficulty the Government are in.

For the sake of all those who want to live in a fairy-tale land where people do not understand what our Labour replacement for the poll tax will be, let me read from the report in The Independent. When people were asked what alternatives to the poll tax they favoured, Labour's system of taking income and property values into account was the most popular—[Interruption.]Unlike those Conservative Members who are or pretend to be ignorant, 43 per cent.—[ Interruption.] I repeat for those who did not catch that figure that 43 per cent. not only understood and were familiar with Labour's alternative, but actually found it preferable to any other proposition. The next most popular alternative was a return to the rates, which was favoured by 17 per cent. A local income tax, which is favoured by the Liberal Democrats, was preferred by only 16 per cent. and surprisingly, only one in seven of that dwindling band of Tory voters—those who intend to vote Tory in the local elections—favoured the poll tax

Let me quote from The Independent. [Interruption.]

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key): I think that he will enjoy this. The article states:

"Even among the fairly small sample of intending Conservative voters, Labour's approach is preferred to any other".
We have now reached a point at which even the Government must understand—

No, I will not.

Even the Government must understand that the game is up. Even they must now understand that the time for political posturing is over; that what is now required is a recognition that the Government—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have just been told that 43 per cent. of people understand the new Labour tax proposals. If that is the case, will the hon. Gentleman please explain them to the House?

If the hon. Gentleman had had enough wit and attention to listen to what I said, he would have clearly understood the Labour alternative.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may not be aware that we have been trying to hear the debate for some time. So that we can understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about, could a copy of the Labour party's policy document be placed in the Library?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to listen to the debate, perhaps he and his colleagues should restrain themselves. I, too, am anxious to hear what the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has to say.


I wish to help the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Ward). First, I shall send him a text of the major speech that I delivered in Cardiff in February; secondly, I shall send him a copy of the statement on which we based a press conference in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election on our alternative proposal; thirdly, I shall send him a copy of the briefing that we have sent to hundreds of thousands of people, which no doubt goes some way to explain why 43 per cent. of people prefer our alternative.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not it customary for Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen on matters of some importance to tell the House their policy, rather than hiding behind—

Order. I hope that the debate will not be interrupted by a series of bogus points of order. Equally, I hope that the hon. Member for Dagenham will be given the opportunity to express himself to the House.

I am in a generous mood. I made an offer to the hon. Member for Poole, who intervened on an earlier bogus point of order. I shall also make a bargain with the Secretary of State: I shall send him copies of the same documents as soon as he sends us a copy of his statement on the Tory alternatives to the poll tax. That is the question to which people faced with horrific bills desperately need an answer. That is not in the interests of the Tory party, although we well understand why the Tories are running scared; people who are terrified out of their wits need to know the answers. We need to hear those answers from the Secretary of State now.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not this a United Kingdom debate on local government finance, on a motion on the Order Paper tabled in the names of Opposition Members? Earlier today, a statement was made in Scotland to which I referred in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould)—you were not here, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a local government debate of such magnitude, especially as it affects Scotland—

Order. The Chair will judge whether contributions to the debate are in order at the time that they are made and in the light of the wording of the motion. I hope that we can now get on.

4.39 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

`believes that almost every adult should make some contribution towards the cost of local services from which they benefit, with relief for the less well off; welcomes the embodiment of those principles in the community charge; notes that the scale and pattern of payments is related to ability to pay with 10 million people receiving rebates at a cost of £2·5 billion; welcomes the willingness of the Government to listen to constructive suggestions for improving the new system with a view to prompt implementation of any necessary changes; further notes that living under Labour costs people more; and deplores the fact that the Labour Party have not had the courage or honesty to come forward with their own proposals before the local elections on 3rd May.'

The Secretary of State will know that I am extremely grateful to him for giving way. The Government amendment accuses the Labour party of not producing the goods in respect of the roof tax. Is he aware that the reason why the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) was afraid to give way to me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Oh, yes. It is usual for an hon. Member to give way across the Chamber, not just to hon. Members on his side. He was afraid to give way to me because the Labour party in Scotland today produced figures for the roof tax. The average figure that it gave per household is £420, whereas two years ago under the rating system the average per household was £498. Will the Secretary of State, on my behalf, ask the hon. Member for Dagenham how it is possible to reach a figure of £420 per household, unless the Labour party is prepared to cut services massively in Scotland?

I will answer the hon. Gentleman's question straight away. I am sorry that, doubtless because of an oversight, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) was unable to do so.

The only question people were not asked in the hon. Gentleman's moving peroration was whether they believe that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. Had they been, doubtless the fairies could have produced the statistical information to which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) drew attention.

I am sure that hon. Members have looked forward to this debate. It is no secret that, on balance, the Opposition have opposed the community charge. However, they have been a little reluctant to give their alternative. They have had 12 Opposition days this year but have not chosen to use one to discuss the community charge. We assumed when the Labour party tabled the motion—the Leader of the Opposition graced us with his presence for a few moments, although he had some difficulty staying awake—that the Mandelson veto had been lifted and that we would hear its alternative to domestic rates and the community charge. Given hon. Members' high expectations, the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham was a disappointment. My hon. Friends were only too eager to hear what he had to say and they will read his speech with interest to discover what the 43 per cent. believe in.

Once again, the hon. Member for Dagenham came to the Dispatch Box empty-handed. I should like to deal later with some of the points he made, but may I start with the position today? We have introduced the community charge on the basis of the revenue support grant settlement announced last July which allowed for an 8·5 per cent. increase in aggregate external finance for local government. We distributed that grant under the new formula, the standard spending assessment. Since last autumn, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities—I pay tribute to his work over the past few months—and I have introduced the transitional relief scheme and have announced that contributions to the safety net will end after the first year instead of continuing for four years. In his Budget statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the doubling of the ceiling on capital disregards.

Whatever our political disagreements, and although there are exceptions to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred earlier, by and large, the administrative arrangements for this extremely complicated new way of raising—[Interruption.] The administrative arrangements in local government have worked pretty well. I congratulate the majority of local authorities on issuing bills in early April, net of transitional relief and benefit, despite the late introduction of the transitional relief scheme. All the local authority officials who worked so hard to secure that outcome are to be congratulated.

This is one of the biggest changes that has been made to our social and economic life for decades. I can say, with perhaps more personal authority and witness than any other hon. Member that it has not been an entirely hazard-free enterprise, but nor would have been a revaluation of domestic rates or the introduction of whatever the Labour party would put in place of domestic rates and the community charge. If it were easy, straightforward and popular, it is conceivable that the Labour party would have announced its proposals.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, in year two of the poll tax, the parliamentary banter seems out of place? May I say, with all sincerity, that for constituency Members of Parliament year two is sheer misery? If it has worked out so well, why is Lothian authority being asked to provide self-defence courses—I banter not and I do not exaggerate—for employees who must administer the tax? It is far from a laughing, yah-boo matter.

I wish that I had waited a moment or two before giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because there is something to which I wish to refer now and a little later. It is not surprising that, as we have introduced this substantial change, we have encountered several problems, anomalies and difficulties, such as the treatment of holiday caravans, which was referred to in a parliamentary statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, as well as the larger difficulties to which I referred delicately a moment or two ago.

We have made it clear that we intend to look at fresh evidence on the standard spending assessments, whether it be from local authority associations or individual authorities before the grant distribution next year. Several other issues have been brought to my attention by my hon. Friends. A range of constructive criticisms has been made by them and by others. It perhaps will not surprise the most distinguished of my right hon. and hon. Friends that not all the criticisms and proposals that we have received have been mutually compatible, but I dare say that that is in the nature of the argument.

We shall review all those issues in the next few weeks. Of course, it is important that, by the time we make the rate support grant settlement statement for next year, in a few months' time, we should have resolved all those matters and be able to say whether we need to make any modifications and, if so, what they should be. The basic principle remains the same: almost everyone should make some contribution to the cost of the services from which all people benefit.

I assure the Secretary of State that Labour Members are listening carefully to his comments, because the nature of the language that he uses shows that he offers substantial change. The right hon. Gentleman concedes fairly, as he has done before, that the standard spending assessments are somewhat less than perfect. Can we therefore conclude that he may be disposed not to contest the application for judicial review by those charge-capped authorities?

That was an ingenious way of asking a question—suggesting that I had made a statement that I had not made. Distinguished lawyer though the hon. Gentleman is, he would have been surprised had I given him such an answer, which he would have been able to send to his and others' learned Friends elsewhere. I said that we were prepared to consider fresh evidence on the SSAs, whether from individual authorities or from local authority associations. I have already made that clear in the House and I make it clear again. I do not think that it can be said that we are groaning under the weight of fresh evidence from local authority associations or local authorities, but we are prepared to listen to what people say.

Does the Secretary of State accept that it would have been highly desirable for those south Yorkshire authorities such as Rotherham which have real difficulties and relatively low spending assessments to have their position examined before he made his poll tax-capping announcement? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that it is unreasonable and unacceptable—I made this clear in an early-day motion tabled this week—that an authority such as Rotherham should receive as a standard spending grant a sum 459 per cent. lower than that for the city of Westminster, which is much more affluent?

No. I believe that the grant distribution formula that we used was right. Whatever the hon. Gentleman thinks about the SSA formula, the proposed Rotherham budget was 15·4 per cent. above the resealed grant-related expenditure assessment—the previous distribution formula. It would not be fair to argue that somehow everything had gone wrong because of a new SSA rather than the GRE. I repeat that we believe that the formula was right, but we are prepared to consider fresh evidence on it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that next week the electors in London and elsewhere should know on what basis they should compare local authorities. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that they should compare on the basis of community charge payments? My right hon. Friend will recall that, at the launch of the Labour party's local government campaign, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said that it would be at least two years after a Labour Government being returned—an unlikely prospect—before they would come forward with an alternative to the community charge. Does not that mean that people going to the polls next week will know that the community charge will be in place for at least four years and that they must judge that Conservative councils cost less?

Conservative councils certainly cost less. My hon. Friend did not refer to the figures, but the standard spending assessments in London, for example, show that Labour authorities are spending £216 and Conservative boroughs £3 a head above their SSAs—a difference of £213. That is a substantial reason for everyone in London voting Conservative next Thursday.