HC Deb 19 May 1982 vol 24 cc341-2
11. Mr. David Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to publish a White Paper on rate reform.

17. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many letters he has received from the general public on the rating system since the publication of the Green Paper on rating reform.

Mr. Heseltine

I have received more than 1,100 responses to the Green Paper, including 658 from members of the public. These are now being analysed by my Department. When the analysis has been completed, I shall be making proposals to my colleagues. I can assure my hon. Friends that I am committed to achieving real reform as quickly as possible.

Mr. Atkinson

Notwithstanding the longer term nature of some of the options in the Green Paper, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will be able to bring forward legislation in the next Session of Parliament to relieve the burden on hard-pressed ratepayers, particularly those on pensions and fixed incomes?

Mr. Heseltine

I know how important the issue is to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We are considering the matter, and I cannot anticipate the Government's findings.

Mr. Taylor

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the alarm among ratepayer organisations that the Government may be considering a poll tax on top of rates, so that there will be two taxes instead of one? May we have his assurance that, if he cannot achieve the comprehensive reform that many of us wish for, he will do nothing at all?

Mr. Heseltine

I cannot give an assurance that I shall do nothing at all, but that is very different from stating what I shall do. I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). While I am making proposals and submitting summaries to my Cabinet colleagues, it would be wrong to anticipate their judgment.

Mr. Kaufman

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that in any rating reform he will not include spending targets, spending penalties and exemptions from penalties, since his present system of unlawful targets, penalties and exemptions has resulted in local authorities spending £1.4 billion more than he wishes to be spent? Will he also give an assurance that there will be no midyear holdback to deal with the £1.4 billion overspend?

Mr. Heseltine

Under our regime, for the first time for 30 years, local authority current expenditure has been brought under persistent control. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seaks.

Mr. John Townend

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rate reform is extremely urgent in areas of high unemployment like Humberside, where the Labour council has in the past year increased county rates by 61 per cent., thus making it extremely difficult to attract industry to the area?

Mr. Heseltine

I sympathise very much with my hon. Friend. There is no automatic association between high levels of unemployment and high levels of rates. The almost automatic relationship is between Labour control and high levels of rates.

Mr. Home Robertson

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread support for changes in the rating system? Will he confirm that he is holding consultations with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in the course of his review of the rating system following the Green Paper?

Mr. Heseltine

I can confirm that there is widespread support for reform of the rating system. There is an equally widespread difference of view over what the reform should be. I shall keep closely in touch with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales.

Mr. Pawsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable support for maintaining the rating system for non-metropolitan district authorities and introducing a local income tax for county councils?

Mr. Heseltine

It is perfectly correct, as my hon. Friend puts it, that there is a measure of support—

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Not here.

Mr. Heseltine

—but it is obviously not wholly universal.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 3p in the pound of the increase in rates in Humberside is due directly to cuts made by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in higher education in Humberside? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as a result of policies followed by his right hon. Friend, more money is being paid in support of students reading sociology than is being paid for students reading such subjects as engineering and applied science? Would it not be a good idea if the right hon. Gentleman, before he starts looking at rates, had a word with his right hon. Friends about the types of cuts that they are making in things that are essential for the prosperity and employment of people in Humberside?

Mr. Heseltine

I do not have detailed knowledge of the educational priorities of the Humberside authority. I am, however, aware that it was not a consequence of the ongoing education provision but a consequence of the change of political control that precipitated the very large rate increase in Humberside.