HC Deb 15 July 1987 vol 119 cc1124-7
8. Mr. Ingram

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the cost of collection of the proposed poll tax compared with the present cost of collecting rates.

15. Mr. Redmond

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are his estimates of the percentage cost of collecting a poll tax.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Michael Howard)

Our preliminary estimate is that the cost per person liable of collecting the community charge may be broadly similar to the cost per person liable of collecting domestic rates.

Mr. Ingram

I understood that the Minister had said that it would cost twice as much to collect the community charge as it does to collect rates under the present system, so I am rather surprised at his answer. However, the Minister is the one who is really responsible for his Department and he therefore gave the right answer to the press—even the Labour press—on this occasion. What proportion of the cost of raising the community charge will be attributable to those who are not on the register through evasion or because the register has been incompletely or incorrectly compiled?

Mr. Howard

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's mystification is that almost twice as many people will pay the community charge as now pay domestic rates. I cannot apportion the cost as the hon. Gentleman suggests, because at the moment we have only very preliminary estimates available.

Mr. Redmond

Does the Minister agree that it is silly to talk about the two systems running side by side, given that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has estimated that the community charge will cost twice as much to administer? What would be percentage increase in costs if the two systems were to be run side by side?

Mr. Howard

That, too, is a question that cannot possibly be answered at this stage. As my right hon. Friend has said, no final decision has yet been made on that.

Mr. Raison

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that it would be perfectly possible for the Government to go ahead with their proposals regarding a unified business rate and rate support grant, while at the same time looking for an alternative way of raising the balance of local government spending that is more equitable and more cost-effective than the present proposals?

Mr. Howard

No such alternative has yet been advanced.

Mr. Squire

Has my hon. and learned Friend yet had the opportunity to discuss with local councils the Government estimates for collection costs? If so, what was their response?

Mr. Howard

We are engaged in a series of consultations with local councils about the details of enforcing and administering the community charge. Those consultations will continue.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Would it not be cheaper to collect the tax if it was collected from fewer people? Has the Minister seen The Daily Telegraph of today, which says that it will cost the Church of England £4 million if the tax is imposed upon vicarages, and so on? Does the Minister agree that if the Government were to waive the charges on those religious establishments and did not tax prayer and care it would mean that the tax would be cheaper to collect?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman leaves aside the fact that one of the principal objectives of the community charge is to restore accountability to local government. The more people who pay the community charge, the more accountable local government will be. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we should, above all, go for the cheapest system. If that is the case, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman advancing the charms of the window tax.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that whatever the charge and whatever the implications, one of the principal advantages of the community charge over any other form of local taxation, bearing in mind the cost of the community charge, is that in future more people will pay? Consequently, more people will be interested in what happens in local government, and consequently more people will eventually vote, and that must be good for democracy.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are doing is to restore the link between those who use local services, those who pay for local services and those who vote for those who provide local services. That link has been sadly and deeply eroded by what has happened in local government in the past few years.

Mr. Home Robertson

As the Government have acknowledged that they failed to register on the electoral roll 5 per cent. of the people who should be eligible to vote, would the Minister care to speculate on how much it would cost to compile a full register for poll tax purposes? Indeed, is there any prospect of compiling such a register?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman leaves out of account the fact that the two registers will be complied on a different basis, having different objectives in view. Therefore, any comparison of the kind that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make is totally misconceived.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

Does my hon. and learned Friend not agree that a cheap system, if it is unfair, is an unacceptable system, and that the prime consideration must be fairness and accountability?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Fried is absolutely right. It is those two objectives that the community charge will indeed provide.

Dr. Cunningham

What has changed since the Minister of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who is now on the Back Benches, told the House that the Government estimated that it would cost at least twice as much to collect the community charge as to collect rates? What has changed since then?

Mr. Howard

As I made clear earlier, nothing has changed. The fact that twice as many people will pay the community charge as presently pay domestic rates means that the cost per person liable is roughly the same under each system.

Mr. Cormack

Can my hon. and learned Friend tell us how many local authorities have expressed support for the proposed changes?

Mr. Howard

I do not think that I am in a position to—[Interruption.]—tell my hon. Friend either how many local authorities support the proposal or how many local authorities oppose it. [Interruption.]

An Hon. Member

Name one.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Howard

The fact of the matter is that the purpose of this reform is to benefit the people whom local authorities serve. It is their interests that we shall he serving by putting these proposals on the statute book.

9. Dr. Moonie

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consideration he has given to the enforcement of individual liability for payment of the community charge.

Mr. Howard

The enforcement procedures for the commuity charge were described in some detail in the document on the operation of the charge, which was placed in the Library on 15 December 1986. Since then further consideration has been given to enforcement procedures, both within Government and in consultation with local authority offices and representatives of the local authority associations.

Dr. Moonie

Can the Minister guarantee that the head of the household will not be liable for the registration of other individuals therein?

Mr. Howard

The head of the household will be liable severally and jointly for his spouse or the person with whom he lives, but not for his adult children.

Mr. McLoughlin

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that what has changed since his previous incumbent was in office is that there has been a general election, which the Conservatives fought on changing the rating system, and that we received an overwhelming mandate to change the present ridiculous rating system? Will he assure us that that will be done regardless of the Opposition?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is correct. The present system is deeply unpopular, deeply unfair and deeply unacceptable. It must be rare for a proposal for reform to have been explained in such detail to the electorate as the proposal that we shall put the before the House within the next few months.

Mr. Allan Roberts

If the head of the household is not responsible for including on the poll form the people in the house other than the spouse, will more than one form be delivered to each household in case the householder fills it in and does not include everybody else? If the spouse leaves because of a marital dispute and is not there when the form is filled in, but later returns, as sometimes happens, even in Bootle, how long will the head of household have to put the matter right before he is prosecuted?

Mr. Howard

So far as the form is concerned—and I may have misunderstood the supplementary question that was asked earlier—the duty will be to enter the names of all adults who are resident in the house. When it comes to liability for payment, the head of the household will not be liable for the payment of the community charge by adult children in the house.

Dr. Hampson

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that on the Government's own exemplifications of the community charge there will be deep concern in many northern inner-city areas with high-spending Labour councils over the proposed level of community charge that people will face? Will it not be the case that there will be less attempt at avoidance if the size of the tax is reduced? Therefore, will he reconsider the proposal of Sir Keith Joseph to have a 75 per cent. direct education grant, as that is primarily a national and not a local service?

Mr. Howard

No. I do not think that that would really deal with the problem, which my hon. Friend has rightly identified, posed by high-spending local councils in the north. That problem can be dealt with by voting those councils out of office. The community charge, by restoring accountability to local government, will encourage that process.

Mr. Rooker

Will the Minister explain how the enforcement will work on heads of households in some of our inner cities where the head of the household, because of his religion and cultural upbringing, would not under any circumstances seek a place in a local authority old persons' home for his parents or grandparents but would have them, as his extended family, living with him? How will members of the Asian community, who are saving taxpayers' money, be treated in those circumstances?

Mr. Howard

The position is quite clear. The charge should be paid by as many adults as possible. Exemptions should be limited, and those in the position to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be liable to the charge in the same way as every other adult.