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Community Charge

Volume 180: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress in collecting the community charge in Coventry.

At the end of September, 82 per cent. of charge payers in Coventry had begun paying. No doubt that figure will move towards 100 per cent. during the next five months.

May I, on behalf of, I hope, the whole House, congratulate my hon. Friend on his welcome appearance at the Dispatch Box?

Whatever legitimate arguments there may be among some of us about the financial arrangements for the new system this year, we are all agreed that taxation should be collected and that it should be paid. Does not my hon. Friend agree that Coventry has done rather well, despite the opposition of some Coventry Members? Of course, it has not done quite as well as Taunton Deane in my constituency.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the majority of law-abiding people deeply resent the prospect of having to pay more next year because of those who default? Should not the capping mechanism take that into account?

Of course, it is true that both Taunton Deane and Salisbury have done rather better than Coventry. Some 94 per cent. of people have started paying and some 50 per cent. of the projected yield has been collected. It is also true that the poorest will suffer if people such as Members of Parliament do not pay their community charge.

I pay tribute to the great city of Coventry, especially on a very special day for that city, for achieving payment of its community charge very close to the national average.

I join the Minister in marking the fact that, 50 years ago tonight, some 600 people died in Coventry and several thousand houses were either damaged or destroyed. Of all the remarks made about Coventry that the Tories could have made today, of all days, the remarks about defaulters by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) were the last that we expected.

Is the Minister really so confident that Coventry is the only city where, since 11 July, defaulters have appeared in large numbers in the magistrates courts—100 people a day in July, 200 a day in August, 500 a day in September and 1,000 a day in October and November? They were dragged before the courts because the Tory poll tax in Coventry and everywhere else is the most unpopular tax in the country. Is the Minister also confident that in two weeks' time his new leader will have him at the Dispatch Box defending the poll tax?

My city of Plymouth suffered similarly during the last war, so I do not need any lessons from the hon. Gentleman. Coventry began issuing statutory reminders in June and held its first magistrates court hearing in July. It has not encountered any problems with court hearings. After an initially slow start, it increased the number of summonses to 1,000 a week. That figure has now reduced to 500 a week because Coventry has obtained most of the liability orders that it needs.

Does not the impact of non-payers, especially those who can and should pay but simply will not, concern people not only in Coventry but throughout Britain? This year, sensible limits have been imposed on what local authorities can spend. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that next year, it will not be possible for local authorities simply to add on a large sum to make up for those who will not pay?

It is interesting that under the previous discredited rating system, some 30 per cent. of people needed reminders. It remains true today that those who do not pay increase the burden of local taxation on those who do.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I feel almost diffident about asking my question as it will put his new job on the line. Will he ask the Secretary of State whether he thinks that the people of Coventry agree with the new Secretary of State for Education and Science, who on the radio earlier today suggested that we did not need a leadership election to understand that the Conservative party has a problem with the poll tax? He went on to say that it was a problem that the Conservative party needed properly to address before the general election. Does the Minister agree that the issue needs addressing properly, and if so, how will he do that?

The problem has been addressed for the past 20 years. I gather that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is promising jam tomorrow in much the same way as the Labour party has. It has done nothing but promise jam tomorrow. It is about time that we heard a little more about its plans. It is important to remember that about £3 billion extra external financing has been made available this year, as I am sure the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) will recognise.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman looks down the Order Paper he will see that, with luck, I shall be able to call him later.