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Local Government Finance

Volume 175: debated on Wednesday 27 June 1990

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2.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many suggestions he has received for alternatives to the community charge for the raising of local government finance.

We have received a number of such suggestions. However, it is clear that the community charge is the fairest of the options because it is based on the principle that everyone should pay something for the cost of local authority services. No other system makes local government as accountable to the electors.

Is not it remarkable that my hon. Friend has not yet received the Labour party's promised policy paper? Is not it the duty of any party that seriously expects to enter government at some stage to put forward its proposals? The Labour party has plenty to say in criticism of our proposals, but nothing of its own to put forward.

As my hon. Friend says, it is truly remarkable that the Labour party has not come up with an alternative. In its recent policy document it promised to publish that day a background paper setting out its proposals for local government finance. There was no background paper. I suspect that there is no background. The Labour party has no idea what it wishes to do about local government finance and that is why the deafening silence goes on.

Will the Minister take it from me that come the next general election the Labour party will have clearly stated its proposals on the matter—[Interruption.]

Will the Minister also take it from me that at that time the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) will very much regret his flippancy this afternoon?

The hon. Gentleman is a great optimist. I wish that I could share his optimism. The Labour party has been considering local government finance for 11 years and has been unable to come up with any answers. I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman should believe that another two years will give the Labour party the breakthrough that it needs. By the next general election, the basic fairness of the community charge will be well understood—certainly its great superiority to the rating system which is favoured by some Opposition Members.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend is robust in defence of the fairness of the community charge, and I hope that he will continue to be so. But in his deliberations will he look closely at the standard community charge and the iniquitous suggestion by some local authorities that it must always be at the two times multiplier?

Of course I will consider my hon. Friend's point. This is an area where the Government wished local government to be local. It is an area where we gave discretion to local authorities to apply multipliers on the standard community charge up to a maximum of two. I regret that not all local authorities took seriously enough the consideration of what multiplier should apply to different classes of people and I am now looking carefully at that.

Because of the great concern throughout Britain at the likely levels of the poll tax next year, when does the Minister intend to announce his alternative to his poll tax? In addition, may we be told when he intends to lay before the House for debate the Government orders spelling out the budgets of councils which he has poll tax-capped? Will he confirm that the delay in making those orders is due to the fact that the Secretary of State has now admitted using information that he received from Tory councillors on Calderdale, Derbyshire and Haringey councils in fixing their authorities' budgets? When does the Minister intend to bring forward his alternative to his poll tax?

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position. We are not bringing forward an alternative to the community charge: we are looking at any anomalies in the system. I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement on at least some of those before the summer recess. There has been a judgment today from the Appeal Court and I believe that the way is clear for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to lay before the House the remaining draft orders and, if the House approves them, to make orders stating the final caps for the authorities.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that my constituents find the community charge perfectly acceptable, but that they do not find acceptable the fact that Labour-controlled Humberside county council used the introduction of the charge to increase its expenditure by about 11.75 per cent. and they will have no early opportunity to oppose that at the ballot box? Moreover, most of the other districts in Humberside benefit from the safety net, but mine do not. Will he consider that in his review of the charge?

I have told my hon. Friend and the House that we will carefully consider any new evidence on the standard spending assessments.

I had the pleasure of making a speech in Humberside on Friday evening, when I was able to make the point that the very high spending and the very large increase in spending by Labour-controlled Humberside council has resulted in much higher community charges than would otherwise have been justified; and that, of course, has been the main cause of the high charges borne by my hon. Friend's constituents.