HC Deb 01 February 1989 vol 146 cc278-82
1. Mr. Allen Adams

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans to meet the depute community charge registration officer in Paisley to discuss progress in compiling a comprehensive register.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Adams

Given that the community charge registration officer in Paisley has designated me as the responsible person in my house, and has said in a letter that my wife is not a responsible person, why is it important that my wife should divulge her age on the registration form? If she refuses to tell me her age, can the Secretary of State advise me how to extort that information from her?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the requirement for dates of birth was introduced following representations from local authority practitioners that it would be necessary. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may have some difficulty in establishing his wife's precise date of birth, but as I understand that he has already given that information to the press he should have no difficulty in giving it to the responsible officer.

Mr. Douglas

What advice has the Secretary of Stale given to registration officers in the Highland region who have registered numerous people, particularly females, as having a date of birth of 1 January 1800?

Mr. Rifkind

I am not familiar with the reasons which might have led to that date being inserted, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we received representations on the desirability of giving the date of birth because there could be circumstances in which more than one person with the same name resided in a house. The recommendation was made to enable a distinction to be drawn between such individuals.

Mr. Buchan

When will the Secretary of State begin to realise the unpopularity of this legislation in Scotland? Today a petition containing the signatures of many hundreds of thousands of people was presented to the Prime Minister at No. 10. Is the Secretary of State aware that one person, Terry O'Donnell who is here today, single-handedly on Paisley piazza collected no fewer than 48,000 signatures against the tax? When individuals do such things, and when the mass do such things, the Secretary of State must surely have some sense and shift his attitude.

Mr. Rifkind

The allegations made by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends about the community charge have turned out to be of little substance. For instance, the Opposition told us that registration would be a complete fiasco, and Labour and. the nationalists campaigned against it, but registration is complete to the extent of more than 99 per cent. throughout Scotland.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for certain individuals to cheat on society by using the services provided by local government and seeking to avoid paying for them? Does he agree that right hon. and hon. Members should take a lead in adhering to the law, rather than making promises to break the law?

Mr. Rifkind

Those who were not liable to pay rates under the old rating system cannot be accused of cheating on society because no one volunteers to pay a tax that Parliament does not require them to pay, but certainly those who are liable under the new legislation and for various political reasons threaten to avoid payment will be sponging on the rest of society—if they get away with it.

2. Mr. McAllion

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has taken steps to ensure that the community charge register for Scotland is compiled without reference to the electoral register.

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

No, Sir. The electoral register is a public document, and section 17(2) of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 makes it clear that community charges registration officers—who are, of course, also the electoral registration officers—can have access to and the use of any information that is held for electoral registration purposes in their areas.

Mr. McAllion

Throughout Scotland, tens of thousands of registration forms have been returned bearing the imprint, "Not known at this address". Will the Minister confirm that registration officers will use electoral registers as one means of trying to locate missing persons liable to pay the poll tax? Does he understand that the poll tax, by taxing the vote, far from strengthening accountability within the democratic process, is driving out of the democratic process those who are poor and cannot afford to pay the poll tax?

Mr. Lang

As I have said, the electoral register is one source of information available to registration officers. It is significant that despite the Opposition'campaign to frustrate compilation of the register an average 99 per cent. completion has been achieved, so the "Stop It" campaign did not stop it. Only by spreading the tax burden evenly over the whole adult population will it be fairly borne by that population.

Mr. Worthington

Even at this late stage, will the Government show some common humanity and exclude from the register all those people suffering from degenerative diseases? All normal, decent people are offended that those suffering from Alzheimer's disease, for example, have to be included in the register. Will the Minister agree, even at this late stage, that that is offensive?

Mr. Lang

There are a number of exemptions from community charge liability, and there will be an opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman's point when the appropriate question is reached.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my hon. Friend agree that in view of his statement that 99 per cent. of the electorate has registered, the problem is surely that local authorities have increased expenditure by far more than inflation, despite the fact that they have received greatly increased grants, so their community charges are much higher than they needed to be?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right, and it is undoubtedly the case that, perhaps under cover of the turbulence produced by the changeover to the new system, certain local authorities have sought to increase their spending substantially and blame the system for it. In due course, accountability will bring home to them the importance of taking account of the ability of all adults resident in their areas to pay the community charge.

Mr. Dewar

Is not the fact that the electoral register is at the heart of the registration process, illustrated by the fact that the Strathclyde registration officer issued forms already completed with names taken from the electoral register? Does the Minister think that that is desirable? Also, does he accept that a married couple living in a house of average rateable value will together have to pay substantially more under the poll tax if they live in Glasgow, Edinburgh or almost any other part of Scotland than they pay under the present system? Given the shift in the balance of taxation against areas already disadvan-taged that is built into the poll tax, and the strength of feeling that exists in Scotland, is not the Government's thrawn determination to proceed with the tax a negation of democracy?

Mr. Lang

The main source of information for the electoral registration officer will continue to be the use of inquiry forms and the annual canvass. Clearly, the procedure adopted by the registration officer in Strathclyde has been successful in view of the very high percentage registered. As to the hon. Gentleman's example, if the burden on residents in that area is rising it is because the local authorities are increasing their expenditure. The local authorities will be answerable to the electorate at the next election.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister of State confirm that there are 39,000 fewer people on the electoral register for this year than the Government forecast in 1985? Does he think that this is due to the disincentive effect of the poll tax, or is it because Tory economic policy is causing mass emigration from Scotland?

Mr. Lang

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's figure, but we shall have to await the publication of the electoral register later this month. If there is misunderstanding as to the importance of the electoral register in the context of the community charge, it is probably because Opposition parties have described the charge as a poll tax, deliberately seeking to mislead residents in local authority areas.

Mr. Harris

Will my hon. Friend accept from me and from many other Conservative Members that the Government's stance on this issue has the overwhelming backing of all fair-minded people not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom? Does he understand the attitude of Opposition Members who seem to think that those who want the right to vote for local councils should escape their obligation to pay for the cost of those councils? My hon. Friend's attitude is right and the attitude of certain Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), is completely fraudulent.

Mr. Lang

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's reassurance. I also understand the envy of some English colleagues because we in Scotland will be getting rid of the domestic rates a year before the English.

3. Dr. Moonie

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what discussions he has had regarding the exemption of people with chronic degenerative brain disorders from payment of the poll tax.

Mr. Lang

My right hon. and learned Friend has received a number of representations from Members of Parliament, interested organisations and individuals about the liability for the community charge of people with degenerative brain disorders.

Dr. Moonie

As the stated aim of introducing a poll tax was to improve local accountability, how does the Minister propose that people with chronic degenerative disorders should exercise that accountability when they are incapable of voting? Should he not therefore consider exempting them from payment of the community charge?

Mr. Lang

We took careful medical advice. The balance of medical advice is that it is impossible to establish a method of assessment which would enable a precise and accurate moment to be discerned when an individual should be exempted from the community charge without creating more anomalies than it would remove. Anyone in that condition in a long-term care hospital will be exempt from the community charge.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Is it not an unfair burden on doctors to have to decide whether a person should pay the poll tax, and should not the registration officer also be medically qualified if, following receipt of a doctor's certificate, he has the right to determine whether or not to grant exemption?

Mr. Lang

The whole point of requiring medical advice is so that professional expertise may be available to the community charge registration officer. Doctors have to take difficult decisions on a wide range of matters affecting the health of patients. Our decision on this difficult and sensitive issue was based on clear medical advice.

Mr. Galbraith

Surely the issue is whether or not the patient is severely mentally impaired, not the way in which he comes to be so mentally impaired. Why should the 91,000 patients with Alzheimer's disease be discriminated against? They live for an average of 10 years after diagnosis. Why should they alone of the severely mentally impaired have to pay the poll tax?

Mr. Lang

The provisions in the Act exempt from liability those with severe mental impairment from birth or as a result of an accident. Degenerative diseases are often of a fluctuating nature.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Lang

These are often of a fluctuating nature. There will be periods of lucidity. The best medical advice open to us has convinced us that there is no way of assessing the right moment at which exemption should apply without creating more anomalies that it would solve.

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