HC Deb 20 December 1989 vol 164 cc346-7
6. Mr. David Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he intends to abolish the system of warrant sales in Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind

The system of warrant sales was reformed by the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. Those reforms removed the most resented and harsh aspects of the procedure. Those reforms were welcomed by the Opposition.

Mr. Marshall

The Secretary of State's answer is pathetic and disgraceful, and he should be thoroughly ashamed of it. Despite the change made in 1987, warrant sales are degrading and humiliating. The practice belongs to the middle ages, not the 1990s. Does the Secretary of State not appreciate the urgency of the situation, when the Government's iniquitous poll tax is forcing thousands of poor people into utter destitution? Will he not reconsider even at this stage? Is it not legalised theft to allow sheriffs' officers to value goods worth many hundreds of pounds at a mere pittance? There are other methods of dealing with the matter. Why will not the Secretary of State use them and abolish warrant sales once and for all?

Mr. Rifkind

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish Law Commission examined the matter, and as an independent advisory body pointed out that the system enforced in Scotland is similar to that permitted in virtually every other country of whose practices it was aware. The hon. Gentleman referred to non-payment of community charge. One year ago, when the question in Scotland was of non-payment of domestic rates, Strathclyde region issued summary warrants against more than 77,000 people—but at the end of the day, there were only two warrant sales. It is very much open to the hon. Gentleman's own Labour-controlled regional council whether or not it wishes to adopt warrant sales.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Does the Secretary of State accept that Opposition Members believe that such an outmoded form of debt collection should be abolished? They will be introducing a Bill to that effect later today. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Scottish National party finance convenor for Grampian regional council preferred to lose his post rather than condone the continuation of the warrant sales system?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mrs. Ewing

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does not the Secretary of State think it a disgrace that Labour councillors—so-called Socialists—are threatening thousands of people with warrant sales and are happy to serve as Thatcher's poll tax collectors?

Mr. Rifkind

While the hon. Lady is criticising the Labour party, which I have no doubt that she is entitled to do, she might also inquire into the practices of the only local authority controlled by the Scottish National party—Angus district council—which I understand is properly carrying out its legal obligation to implement the community charge. I congratulate the authority and commend it for taking what is clearly a more responsible attitude to its legal obligations than the hon. Lady seems to wish.

Mr. John Marshall

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that four SNP councillors in Midlothian who had promised not to pay the community charge are now paying it? Does he share my hope that the habit is contagious and that Labour Members of Parliament who have refused to pay the charge will soon do so, because by not doing so they are restricting the extent of local authority service and hurting those in greatest need?

Mr. Rifkind

I am happy to say that the vast majority of members of the public are paying the community charge—up to 98 per cent. in the Borders and more than 90 per cent. in Fife. As for those who say that they will not pay, it will soon be brought home to them that if they succeeded in their objective they would simply impose an increased penalty on the other 90 per cent. of the population, for which they would not be thanked. As I have said, the vast majority are carrying out their legal obligations, as Parliament would expect them to do.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Secretary of State agree that the great majority of Scottish local authorities, especially Labour authorities, have an excellent record in not pursuing warrant, sales? Does he accept that the new pressures on local authorities derive entirely from the imposition of the poll tax, to which virtually all Scottish local authorities of all political persuasions were opposed? Will he guarantee that the Scottish Office will take no punitive action against councils which, on grounds of human decency, do not use the abhorrent weapon of warrant sales?

Mr. Rifkind

It is for the Commission for Local Authority Accounts, not the Scottish Office, to examine any allegations made about individual local authorities. The level of payment of the community charge is broadly comparable with domestic rate payment levels at this time a year ago, when local authorities were issuing tens of thousands of summary warrants against domestic ratepayers. More than 77,000 were issued in Strathclyde region. There has been no change in the procedure, or in the legal rights of local authorities, and I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me about that.