HC Deb 22 July 1987 vol 120 cc353-5
2. Mr. Harry Ewing

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans to bring forward modifications to the community charge scheme in Scotland in the proposed legislation introducing a similar tax in England and Wales; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang)

My right hon. and learned Friend expects that the fundamentals of the reforms to be proposed for England and Wales will be comparable with those already enacted for Scotland in the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987. If changes are made to these proposals, he will, of course, consider whether any parallel changes need to be made to the 1987 Act.

Mr. Ewing

During the summer recess, will the Minister, together with the Secretary of State, give most serious consideration to the proposal not to implement the poll tax in Scotland until the measure has been fully implemented in England and Wales? Does the hon. Gentleman understand some of the anomalies that will arise if he goes ahead and implements the poll tax in Scotland in advance of its implementation in England and Wales? Nurses who are training in nursing colleges in Scotland will pay the poll tax, and their colleagues in England and Wales will not; policemen in Scotland will pay the poll tax, and policemen in England and Wales will not; service men stationed at Glencorse barracks will pay the poll tax, and service men stationed at Catterick will not. Why does the Minister not gather all copies of the Act, take them to a site in south Edinburgh, get Michael Ancram to set them on fire, and put an end to the whole stupid carry-on?

Mr. Lang

One of the qualities of the House of Commons is its capacity to accommodate the separate need for Scottish legislation quickly and effectively. We brought forward the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill to meet a pressing need in Scotland arising from the injustice that is faced by ratepayers. We are meeting that need. The implementation of the Act cannot come soon enough to bring that relief to Scottish ratepayers.

Mr. Allan Stewart

Does my hon. Friend recall the remarkable ease with which the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 went through Committee? Earlier this week, the supposed great assault by the Labour party on local authority finance in Scotland ended in the humiliating fiasco of only 80 Labour Members staying for the final vote. Is it not clear that the Labour party's opposition to such matters is limited to making a lot of noise during the day? Labour Members will not stay and fight after midnight because they do not have the guts for it.

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In so far as the Labour party has any discernible policies on the matter, they are wedded to the discredited and regressive rates system. That is an intolerable system and we cannot accommodate it any longer.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Minister agree that it would be extraordinary if, with a majority of 180 in England and Wales, the Government were frit to introduce the poll tax in England and Wales this side of the next general election, but, with a minority of 62 in Scotland, decided to proceed with it in advance of that date, despite the humiliation that they suffered in Scotland on 11 June?

Mr. Lang

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that reform of the domestic rating system is a United Kingdom policy for which we have a United Kingdom mandate. The Scottish part has already been implemented and the English part will be implemented very soon.

Mr. Bill Walker

When considering amendments to the community charge in the light of what happens when the measure for England and Wales passes through the House, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that one of the great advantages of the community charge is that people will be paying for what they vote for? That being so, might it not be a good thing for the Government to consider having no rebates at all and insisting that everyone pays the full amount so that those in receipt of public support, whether they be students or people on supplementary benefit or pensions, had the average United Kingdom community charge level paid to them, which would encourage people still further to vote for low-spending authorities?

Mr. Lang

I shall have to reflect on my hon. Friend's recommendations. One of the merits of the community charge is that it is a simpler and fairer system which takes account of the capacity to pay. The rebate system is an important and integral part of it.

Mr. Worthington

The Minister will be aware that directors of finance believe that only 80 per cent. of the poll tax levied will be recovered from payers of the tax. By what amount does he advise local authorities to increase the poll tax for those paying it to compensate for that level of under-recovery?

Mr. Lang

The figure of 80 per cent. was the outside limit of a range from 80 to 95 per cent. The hon. Gentleman is therefore mistaken in his assumption. The vast majority of people are law abiding, the Act is now the law of the land, and we can expect that most people will pay it.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Will the Minister bear in mind that Conservatives were abolished north of the border almost as quickly as English Conservatives rushed through the Lobby to make the people of Scotland guinea pigs in the poll tax legislation? The Minister has not changed his mind since the election. Is he aware that almost every section of the community in Scotland is angry about implementation of the poll tax and that both the business community and the Church have been alienated from the Conservatives? Will the Minister reconsider the Government's failure to honour their promise in the White Paper "Paying for Local Government" that the churches would be exempt from poll tax?

Mr. Lang

I shall try to answer some of the hon. Lady's questions, although I am not sure whether she is claiming that the Scottish National party has a mandate to govern in Scotland. As the community charge is a personal tax, I should have thought that ministers of the Church of Scotland and other churhes would wish to pay it in the same way as other members of their community.

Mr. Fairbairn

Will my hon. Friend catch the drift of the questions from the Opposition and comprehend that if they have a mandate to govern in Scotland it follows that they have no mandate to govern in England? May we therefore assume that none of the Opposition, few of whom bothered to vote on Scottish matters the other night, will vote on the introduction of the poll tax in England?

Mr. Lang

Like my hon. and learned Friend, I find the whole concept of a Scottish mandate incomprehensible, the more so since the Labour party has abandoned half the policies on which it fought the general election.

Mr. Dewar

The electorate last month told the Government in no uncertain terms that the poll tax was unwantable, unworkable and ought to be abandoned. If the Minister insists on ignoring Scottish opinion, does he share the expressed view of the Secretary of State that it would be wrong to have different local tax systems in operation north and south of the border? As implementation of the poll tax in England is unlikely before the mid-1990s, does he agree that a gap of five years between full implementation in the two countries is totally unacceptable? Despite what the Minister has said today, will he give an assurance that he will reconsider the situation and ensure that the timetable for the introduction of the tax in Scotland will be delayed so as to overcome that difficulty?

Mr. Lang

I really do not recognise the difficulties that the hon. Gentlemen discerns. It was in response to representations from the Labour party, from COSLA and from others that we decided that phasing-in was not appropriate for Scotland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not now claiming that the Labour party has a mandate to govern in England.