Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Chapman.]
I am delighted to have the opportunity of introducing the Adjournment debate, the more so as it is being held at a civilised time of day. I believe that the effects of the community charge on service men should be discussed before the House rises for the summer recess and that remedial action should be taken sooner rather than later.I raise this subject at an appropriate time, following the dramatic political developments in eastern Europe in the past few months and, more parochially, the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on local government finance last week. Whenever major legislative changes are mooted, they inevitably cause disruption, uncertainty and occasionally dismay. The introduction of the community charge has been particularly difficult because, although there has been recognition—by Conservative Members at least—that the rating system was both discredited and unfair, an equitable alternative has proved elusive. Following these fundamental changes, Members from both sides of the House will have taken up cases of constituents whose circumstances have highlighted the anomalies in the application of the new system. It is thus not surprising, although hardly excusable, that the lot of service men seems to have been dealt with inadequately. My purpose today is not to lay blame for the situation at any particular door, although I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister and those responsible in the military hierarchy will acknowledge that there have been some deficiencies in the presentation and the application of this new form of local taxation. My purpose is to identify areas of apparent difficulty—I emphasise "apparent" knowing that my hon. Friend has the facilities to rebut my arguments—in the hope that any injustices can be rectified in the interests of the welfare of our armed forces. I have consistently, both in the spoken word and in political pamphlets, urged the need for greater accountability of local government. Now is not the time to rehearse the general arguments, but I should like to examine their application in the context of the armed forces. First, I ask the House to consider the principle of accountability. Service men are usually registered as either postal or proxy voters, and thus are unlikely to have a vote in the area in which they pay the community charge. By the nature of things, service men are less likely to register than civilian voters. I recently visited, on an informal basis, a United Kingdom-based regiment in which fewer than 60 per cent. of the strength was registered, and of that group only 2·5 per cent. was eligible to vote in the local area. There are many examples of military units with lower percentages in both categories. Indeed, if there is no local recruiting, the latter percentage may fall towards zero. The principle of local authority accountability is therefore not applicable. By definition, service men are unable to vote with their feet by moving to a local authority with a more acceptable community charge, as their duties decree otherwise. Secondly, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the position of single soldiers in barrack accommodation. I do not pretend that they are unique, but without doubt they are unusual because they are expected to pay for local authority services such as refuse collection, road sweeping, grass cutting, sports facilities, housing, street lighting, pre-school education and even cemeteries although another authority, the Army, provides for them in all respects. One of the main tenets of the community charge legislation was that people should pay for the services that they use. The fairness of that at least was recognised by most of those who were liable for the charge. It is a good deal less justifiable in a service context and the situation is aggravated if, because of the moratorium on service contracts, soldiers themselves are doing jobs that were previously carried out by the Property Services Agency or other contractors. An added irony is the total exemption from community charge of, for example, United States and German service men who are stationed in this country and who use local services as little as their British counterparts. The problem is worsened by the change in eligibility for rebates. Under the rating system single soldiers who went on exercise received a rebate on rates. Now the rebate is available only if they go on exercise overseas and clearly, when a soldier is in the field he obtains no benefit from the local authority. I understand that there is an exemption for a single soldier if he is posted for more than two months. But for married men the exemption becomes operative only after six months and one day. In Northern Ireland, where no community charge is payable, a typical posting varies between four and six months. Thus, the regulation is a strange one indeed. My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that accommodation in Northern Ireland is often spartan, to say the least. A single soldier in barracks in Great Britain is liable for community charge at a rate levied by the relevant local authority which, although capped—I use the term in this specific context—still allows for variations of up to £52 per year. That soldier may have to sleep four to a room and exceptionally—I have seen it for myself—there may be up to eight to a room in substandard accommodation with a 9 ft by 6 ft bed space in a barrack block of 50 men. The equity of the system is difficult to perceive, although no service man would wish to expect to be mollycoddled. While serving overseas a service man will be expected to pay a facilities charge. I understand that that charge is designed to replace the rates element of the accommodation charges overseas. But there is considerable confusion in the services about the reason behind what is being paid for and who receives the funds that are levied. In this debate I do not wish to go into the finer points of the argument, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to review the logic of this new system, if only to make it simpler to explain and administer. Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment not only ironed out anomalies but achieved greater simplicity in the interpretation of the law without the need to bring forward new legislation. I trust that my hon. Friend will be able to apply the same yardstick to the facilities charge. Service men will have welcomed the fact that the Government are now to impose rules for the multiplier for the standard community charge. The abuse by local authorities of their discretionary powers was outrageous, with an almost uniform use of a factor of two. That was especially onerous for people who had to live in particular premises as a condition of their job. A service man is of necessity a nomad. The proposed maximum multiplier of one will certainly alleviate the lot of a married service man posted overseas, but it still may not go far enough. The changes in transitional relief were also welcomed by the population as a whole, but my hon. Friend will be aware that single service men in barracks in this country were particularly hard hit by the introduction of the community charge because the rates were administered through their pay. They could now still be liable to pay over £5 a week more, without being eligible for transitional relief. If my facts are correct, and if the position cannot be justified, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will act to rectify matters. Lastly, we must consider the sensitive matter of so-called winners and losers. I do not wish to weary the House with the old arguments about the ability to pay. Knowing the considerable contribution made through central Government to local government expenditure, I have never had significant reservations in that respect. If I may be allowed to digress, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on his new appointment. I regret that it will mean a lull in his carefully argued contributions to debates in the House which were always well worth listening to. My hon. Friend produced a telling phrase when he declared that the losers felt livid and the gainers felt guilty. Service structure and discipline are such that that would be an overstatement in the context in which I use the phrase. The fact remains that the figures that I have been given for a regiment in the south of England show that the greatest loser is the married private or lance corporal, and the greatest gainer is a married commanding officer. The middle of the pendulum swing—the point at which losers become gainers—could not be more inappropriate. It is precisely between the figure for a married warrant officer and a single subaltern. As we await the publication of the "Options for Change" study, that position can lead only to more uncertainty with the added element of resentment within the services. As my hon. Friend the Minister and I have served in the Army, we are well aware that to refer to a regiment as a family has a sound basis. Unless the position that I have highlighted is remedied, it is likely to cause unease—I put it no higher than that—in the family. It may be stretching a point, but it has been suggested that promotion of the welfare of the family should be a feature of the Government's next term. Furthermore, if, as expected, the strength of our services is reduced—not I trust, at a precipitate rate, in view of the inherent danger of a changing but unstable world—more demobbed soldiers will face housing problems in local authority areas. I am already aware of the cases of two soldiers and their families who are having to live in hostels because no council housing is available. Although the services do much to promote home ownership during military service, that cannot be universal. It is to be deplored that such cases can occur after soldiers have given 12 to 15 years' service to the Crown. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that the best solution to many of the problems that I have outlined would be a flat-rate capped level of community charge to apply to the services on a nationwide basis. I was tempted to use the word "uniform" but I suspect that opportunities for a pun on the word could make it inappropriate. My suggestion would reduce bureaucracy, which often ties up one officer full time in every unit to record a complex pattern of postings. It would promote fairness and it would eliminate the problem of a soldier based, for example, in Yorkshire doing the same job as a soldier in Wiltshire but paying different rates of community charge. I have heard that the extra financial difficulties are becoming a major contributory factor in persuading service men to leave the service. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has no illusions about the importance of retaining trained soldiers. The armed forces have been put at a particular disadvantage in the application of the community charge. Its implications have been badly received and more so as they have become clearer. Service men have been inhibited in their ability to complain. Not only are there conventions about individual representations to the press, but often there is no easy access to a Member of Parliament. The strength of the British service man is that over the years he has shown that he can adapt to almost anything. The perceived unfairness of the community charge at a time of general uncertainty is placing his tolerance and resilience under severe pressure. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to offer some constructive comments, to make up part of the service dividend that is so vital for the well-being and morale of our service men, for whatever tasks lie ahead.
I congratulate and compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) on securing this debate at such a human hour. If we could always guarantee to have Adjournment debates at nine o'clock in the morning, I am sure that there would be a dividend for all right hon. and hon. Members in terms of our quality of life.I welcome this opportunity to debate the general subject of the effect of the community charge on service men and to comment on many of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised. He was kind enough to give me advance warning of some of them, and I hope to consider many of them in the time available. I will of course write to my hon. Friend with any outstanding answers. The introduction of the community charge signalled a sea change in local government finance, spreading the responsibility for the cost of local services and amenities across a far broader range of the population than was the case under domestic rating—highlighting costs and increasing the accountability of local authorities to their residents. As a per capita levy, the community charge is essentially fairer than domestic rates because it is the number of individuals rather than the size of property that influences demand for the various local amenities and services funded through the charge. All residents may benefit from such services and amenities, irrespective of whether they personally paid rates. All those fundamental arguments apply to service personnel as strongly as they do to other members of the community at large. At a very early stage, therefore, the Government decided after careful consideration that members of the armed forces should, in general, be subject to the community charge in the same way as the remainder of the population. They would be directly liable for the personal community charge to the local authority in whose area they had their sole or main residence. Before the introduction of the community charge, service personnel paid elements for domestic rates within their standard accommodation charges. They were derived from the average contributions paid over to local authorities in lieu of rates by the Government for each broad type of accommodation, and those elements were reduced for worse quality accommodation. Now that the community charge applies, those domestic rate elements have been removed altogether, providing amounts that may be offset against liability for the charge. Service personnel living in public accommodation—be it a married quarter, mess or barracks—have no choice at all over where they live, as my hon. Friend said. They are ordered to a particular place, and are allocated a particular unit of accommodation, with no choice or control over its location. They could therefore find themselves compelled to move to an exceptionally high community charge area, whereas a colleague might be sent to a lower charge area nearby. We recognised that degree of unavoidable liability, and made arrangements under which no member of the armed forces—or their spouse—living in service accommodation effectively has to pay more than the average community charge for such accommodation, plus £1 per week, by a scheme of accommodation charge refunds. For the current year, the service average community charge is £325, so the maximum individual liability is £377 including the £52 added on, against an overall national average of £357. The cost of this scheme—estimated at £1·1 million in the current year—has been taken into account by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in setting the general level of accommodation charges. Our personnel in public accommodation are therefore able to benefit from low levels of community charge, yet their maximum potential liability is generously limited. This year, the community charge payable in service accommodation ranges from if one can believe it, low points of £87 in the Shetlands and £150 on the mainland, which is the Wandsworth community charge, to £377, net of the accommodation charge refund payable in high charge areas. Without our refund scheme, the maximum would be £548. My hon. Friend mentioned that these personnel make little call on local facilities, but they are available for use should they choose to do so or, in the case of emergency services, if they need them and the locally provided infrastructure of roads, lighting and so on will be supporting or surrounding the establishments where they work. Service personnel of course already contributed to the cost of local services through their rates elements. Doubtless most members of the population could think of particular services or amenities that they do not use, but it is an established principle that payment cannot be on an a la carte basis. My hon. Friend made the point that people should pay for the services that they use, but, as I am sure that he would acknowledge, much of local expenditure goes on education, and people without children, or those who send their children to private schools, could argue that they should not be contributing to it. Personnel living in their own homes are a different case. They can take account of varying levels of community charge in deciding where to establish their homes, in just the same way as they could take different levels of domestic rates into account in the past. As my hon. Friend pointed out, service personnel are an exceptionally mobile category. The average length of their tours of duty is measured in months, rather than years, and at the end of each tour there is almost invariably a geographical move. Because of this, and because many of them may transfer for short periods to other service locations—for a training course or exercise perhaps—we felt that it would be helpful to agree guidelines with community charge registration officers, about the location of the "sole or main residence" of personnel in common circumstances, to help ensure equity of treatment, and minimise delays in effecting the correct registration for service personnel. These guidelines were published as a community charge practice note. They have been promulgated widely throughout the armed forces, and copies were placed in the Library of the House. The guidelines include the general presumption that a service man's sole or main residence is where he lives at his place of duty, although he may claim different treatment if the facts of his case justify it. One consequence is that all service units pass brief details of their personnel on a regular basis to community charge registration officers. This places an additional administrative burden on units, but one which we judge to be in the best interests of our personnel. It helps to minimise the action required by individuals on posting, and ensures that people moving away—perhaps overseas where no community charge applies—are transferred from the old register without delay. It also represents a considerable help to registration officers in their maintenance of accurate registers. We provide only the minimum information necessary for the administration of the charge. We do not specify military ranks, nor do we give subordinate addresses within the confines of unit boundaries. My hon. Friend's point about the principle of local authority accountability is well taken. Service personnel are advised on entry of the existing special arrangements to enable them to vote in United Kingdom elections. Annual reminders are given through notice board displays, while further advice is always available. My hon. Friend said that many service personnel vote by proxy or postal means. Currently some 65 per cent. of service personnel have registered to vote. In my opinion that is much too low a figure. My hon. Friend made the point that in one unit he had visited the figure was 60 per cent. We are implementing a number of measures aimed at increasing this figure. We are improving both our records of those who have registered and our methods of informing and advising those who have yet to register. Registration for local government elections in the area where the service man is living at the time is a different matter, however, and it is quite true that very few personnel take the trouble to register for and vote in local elections. We are looking at ways in which this position might be improved, and I will write to my hon. Friend about our intentions when these become clearer. My hon. Friend mentioned that many service personnel would have preferred there to be a common averaged or standardised rate of community charge payable by all members of the armed forces, irrespective of where they were serving. This would have been administratively simpler, without the need for re-registering with every move of location, but it would have cut across the fundamental principle of local accountability that the community charge regime aims to strengthen. It would have broken the key link between the amounts that charge payers actually pay and the level of local services that they enjoy. It would also have been hard to justify to our personnel living in low community charge areas why they should pay a higher charge than their civilian neighbours for precisely the same services and amenities. A limited number of service personnel are exempt from the formal provisions of the legislation on liability for the personal community charge and registration. This applies to personnel in short-stay accommodation, where registration would not be practicable and to those whose registration would not be in the interests of national security. The Ministry of Defence makes payments in lieu to local authorities on their behalf, and recovers these contributions from them at the local community charge rate. In effect, we operate a collective community charge regime for this group. I mentioned earlier that the former rates elements in accommodation charges worldwide had been removed with the introduction of the community charge. Overseas, the facilities charge has now taken their place. That charge represents a contribution to the costs of facilities and amenities available to members of the services and their families overseas, from which they continue to derive the same benefit as before. They include infrastructure items such as lighting, refuse disposal, fire and other emergency services, through education—for children and adults—to sports or leisure activities and welfare services. The facilities charge this year is set at a maximum of £246 per head, or £492 per married quarter, and is reduced for lower ranks and those in worse-grade accommodation. No one is currently paying more than 50p a week above last year's equivalent domestic rates element, uprated to April 1990 prices. For a typical soldier's married quarters overseas, the total charges payable rose by about 7 per cent. in April, almost exactly the same percentage as the first stage of the 1990 pay award. Very many service personnel own their own homes, but not all of them wish, or are able, to buy and sell every time they move from one duty location to another. In the past they would have had to meet the rates liability on those homes, but now they are potentially liable for the standard community charge if the property is no one's sole or main residence. The rules for the standard charge permit local authorities to set standard community charge multipliers of various levels up to twice their personal community charge for different categories of property. Some authorities have been exercising their discretion reasonably, setting a multiplier of zero—in effect levying no charge—or one, or allowing an initial period of grace. But other authorities have been applying the maximum multiplier of two times the personal charge. One, the city of Lincoln, even discriminates against the service home owner working elsewhere by applying a multiplier of two for this category, while granting civilians in the same position the benefit of a multiplier of zero. I am happy to say that one of the new measures arising from the Government's review of the community charge, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment last Thursday, is the prescribing of a maximum multiplier of one for property that is empty because the owner has to live elsewhere as a condition of his or her employment. This will apply from next April and should benefit service home owners whose homes are empty because they are "following the flag" and living at their unit. It will remain open to local authorities to set a multiplier lower than one, and I hope that this option will continue to be exercised in future. Under existing legislation, letting out such a property on a lease of six months or more normally transfers the community charge liability to the tenants. We already give financial assistance to personnel who wish to let their property when they are serving elsewhere, and will pay the costs of drawing up the tenancy agreement and inventory, and of recovering possession, should that unfortunately prove necessary. Many of the other costs associated with letting, such as advertising or agents' fees, may additionally be offset against tax. The community charge is a complex subject, particularly as it affects service personnel. We have issued copious guidance to service units and for wider dissemination, and have circulated leaflets on an individual basis to every member of the armed forces. Copies of that material were placed in the Library of the House at the time of issue. We have also published articles in service newspapers, broadcast on British Forces Broadcasting Service and given a number of local presentations. All in all, I believe that we have responded appropriately to the introduction of the community charge. We have recognised the particular needs of service personnel and balanced them fairly against the other interests involved, without breaching the principles of the charge.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Nine o'clock.