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Engagements

Volume 171: debated on Tuesday 1 May 1990

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Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 May.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Does the Prime Minister accept responsibility for the chaos and confusion at the heart of Government over the poll tax? Does not she owe it to the House and the people before they vote on Thursday to give a straight answer to a straight question? What, precisely, is she going to do about the poll tax?

Had the hon. Gentleman read he Official Report of the debate we had on that subject last week, he would have known the answer. We are looking to see whether any adjustments need to be made to the community charge for next year. Some of those were indicated in the debate, and there is no surprise about it. When one goes from a rate tax to a community charge, adjustments will, of course, need to be made, and we are looking to see which ones need to be made for next year—[Interruption.] If there is any confusion or any high rates, that is in the minds of Labour local authorities. High community charges are due to local Labour councils. Most councils have got out their charges with the rebates and the traditional relief included in them.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 May.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for a local authority to cave in to threats of a politically motivated strike, particularly to secure the reinstatement of a leading member of Class War who hailed the Trafalgar square rioters as heroes?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that Hackney suspended a person who hailed the Trafalgar square rioters as heroes, that the National and Local Government Officers Association threatened to go on strike and that Hackney then caved in. That tells us a lot about the people whom Hackney employs, a lot about NALGO and a lot about what life would be like under Labour.

Will the Prime Minister tell us now, is she or is she not going to introduce legislation to change the poll tax in this Session of Parliament?

When we have a statement to make we shall make it—[Interruption.]—and it will be far more detailed and thorough than any statement we hear from the right hon. Gentleman about roof tax.

Does the Prime Minister recall telling me just a few short weeks ago that she thought:

"The community charge will he very popular?"—[Official Report, 22 March 1990; Vol. 169, c. 1231.]
Does she still believe that, and if she does, why is she sending her Ministers off in every direction, desperately searching for an escape route from the poll tax?

The community charge is a much fairer charge than rates—[Interruption.]

—and a far fairer charge than the alternative roof tax. I notice that when the right hon. Gentleman gave an interview to The Independent on 21 April, it stated that Mr. Kinnock—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister was asked a question. She must be given a chance to answer.

It stated:

"Mr. Kinnock then gave a strong indication of his own thinking. He said 'the tax base for rates was imputed rents and that's one thing we can take into account now and bung into the computer.'"
Does not he know the old computer saying, "Garbage in, garbage out"?

Cannot the Prime Minister understand what just about everybody in the country now understands —that the poll tax will never be fair? It cannot be amended; it must be got rid of, even if that means that the Prime Minister goes down with her own flagship.

Cannot the right hon. Gentleman understand that domestic rates have been abolished; that they were a most unfair tax; and that the enemy is not the community charge, but the high-spending Labour councils?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that as only 19 million people paid the rates and 36 million people will now pay towards community services, the community charge is already infinitely fairer for over half the adult population?

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. I noticed that in a recent poll over 70 per cent. of people thought that everyone should make some contribution to local authority spending. That is precisely what the community charge does, with more generous rebates than have ever been given before and with generous rebates for transitional relief. It is a much fairer tax than either the rates or the roof tax.

Is banding of the poll tax one of the adjustments that the Prime Minister has in mind, so that people can pay on the basis of their ability to pay, or is the Prime Minister opposed to that in principle? Or are there practical arguments, in which case perhaps she will enumerate them to us?

Those who cannot afford to pay get generous community charge rebates—far more generous than ever before. Some 9 million people will benefit from them. Those who have a sharp difference between the old rates and the community charge are eligible for transitional relief. That applies to some 7 million people. The people who do not get sufficient transitional relief live in the areas of high-spending labour councils, which care nought for their citizens but are more anxious to dig their hands deeply into their citizens' pockets. People who are better off pay far more to local services because the taxpayer is the greatest contributor to local authority spending. The top 10 per cent. of income earners pay 40 per cent. of the income tax yield and therefore pay more for local services than the people in the bottom 10 per cent.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 May.

During her busy day, will my right hon. Friend spare a moment to commend Medway city council on setting the lowest community charge in Kent? Will she list the five local authorities that have the worst education record, the largest number of empty council houses and the highest rent arrears?

I gladly pay tribute to the eficient Conservative authority in Medway.

With regard to my hon. Friend's question about the five worst education authorities and so on, I am sure that the House is avidly waiting to hear my reply. The five councils with the worst education results are Knowsley—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Waltham Forest—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Barking—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Newham—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; and Sandwell—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."].

The five authorities which have most empty council houses are Manchester—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Liverpool—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Sheffield—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Salford—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; and Birmingham—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]. Between them, those Labour-controlled authorities have more than 20,000 empty houses.

The five authorities with the highest rent arrears are Southwark—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Lambeth—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Liverpool—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Brent—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; and Islington—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]. Between them, those authorities are owed £86 million in uncollected rents.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the many thousands of people in the United Kingdom who have been discriminated against because of a hostile interpretation of rules governing concessionary television licences for the elderly and the disabled? Although they live in identical circumstances, because of the regulations they are being denied what is rightfully theirs. In the twilight of the Prime Minister's premiership, will she now find it within her heart to instruct her Ministers to give to retired people that which is equal and just?

I am not aware of any discrimination in interpreting the regulations. Interpreting the regulations is a matter for the Department concerned and I am sure that if people are entitled to receive a concessionary licence they will do so.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 6,000 people in Ealing have been sent bills for the full community charge, regardless of their rebate applications? Some of those people are pensioners and students who are entitled to pay only one fifth—£87—but instead are being required to pay £435 by Ealing's Labour council, which will not process their rebate applications until after the local elections next Thursday. Is not that another wicked Labour con trick?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Most local authorities have been thoughtful enough of their residents to deduct the community charge relief and the transitional relief from the bills, so that they do not raise needless fears. That is naturally good administration. If there are any who have not done it, it is bad administration and demonstrates sheer lack of consideration for their own citizens.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does the Prime Minister recall those heady days when she described the poll tax as her flagship? Now that Thursday's election torpedo is fast approaching, despite the captain's apparent order to change course, does she recall the fate of another flagship, the Belgrano?

The hon. Gentleman could have done rather better than that.

As regards the community charge in Scotland, where it has operated for a considerable time, far more councils are now either holding the charge or reducing it. Accountability in Scotland is at last beginning to work, as this year councils know that they cannot blame increases on anyone but themselves.