HC Deb 03 May 1989 vol 152 cc165-7
6. Mrs. Fyfe

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what discussions he has had about the collection of unpaid poll tax; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lang

None. It is clear from their own budget proposals that regional and islands councils do not expect non-payment to be a significant problem.

Mrs. Fyfe

Does the Minister realise that people are on income support because they do not have enough money to survive without it? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the DSS the standard of living that is likely to be endured by people on income support whose benefit is deducted, leaving only 10p of income support? Clearly, such a standard of living is extremely poor. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his policies are harsh and oppressive and will he repeal the statutory instrument that creates this problem?

Mr. Lang

As the hon. Lady knows, people on income support will be eligible for a maximum rebate. In addition, income support has been increased to help meet the remaining 20 per cent. of the charge.

Mr. Allan Stewart

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the campaign of mass resistance, which was constantly predicted by the Opposition, has failed to materialise? Is it not the height of irresponsibility for certain Labour councillors in Edinburgh to announce the highest community charge rate in Scotland and subsequently declare that they will not pay it?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. Campaigns of non-payment are futile and irresponsible. It is shameful that people in elected offices should encourage others to break the law.

Mr. Sillars

How does the Minister justify a case which has been publicised of a schizophrenic woman with a mental age of seven who is just recovering from a cervical cancer operation and who has no capacity to earn? How does he justify applying a poll tax to her, and how will he get the money out of her?

Mr. Lang

If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about that case and if the person is his constituent, I shall look into it. The Scottish National party's campaign to generate a phantom army of 100,000 non-payers is futile and irresponsible. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that, even if the SNP succeeded in finding 100,000 such non-payers, local authority revenue would be reduced by less than 0.5 per cent.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Assuming that the lady who has been described by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) previously lived alone, how would she have paid her rates?

Mr. Lang

My hon. and learned Friend has made a fair point. I have offered to look into the case if it concerns a constituent of the hon. Member for Govan. Perhaps I may leave the matter there.

Mr. Douglas

Does the Minister accept that many people will not pay the poll tax because they cannot understand the rebate system? What steps has he taken to prolong the period during which they may apply for rebates? On the question of non-payment on principle, is not there an honourable tradition in democratic countries of resisting unjust and unfair taxes and withholding what is felt necessary?

Mr. Lang

Many people who thought domestic rates grossly unfair continued to pay them. We have now replaced them with an infinitely fairer tax that spreads the burden more evenly.

We wish everyone eligible for a rebate to apply for it and we are advertising extensively to achieve that. We have also enabled people to backdate their application by extending the period for such applications, exceptionally, to 56 days.

Mr. Stanbrook

Is my hon. Friend aware that a young constituent of mine who is attending a Scottish university has been informed that he is not eligible for a community charge rebate because his parental home is not in Scotland? Will all British students be entitled to rebate regardless of where they happen to live in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Lang

Students are not eligible for rebate; they are entitled to an exemption from 80 per cent. of the community charge. If my hon. Friend writes to me about his constituent, I shall certainly be happy to clarify the precise position.

Mr. Buchan

Is it not clear already that the rebate system is in such a mess and so complicated and difficult that the 56-day period is quite insufficient and should be extended? Will the Minister confirm that the most chicken-hearted leaders of all are the leaders of a political party who will not suffer themselves if they do not pay the poll tax but who are calling upon others who cannot afford to do so not to pay it?

Mr. Lang

I think that the talk of "chicken-hearted leadership" was used by the Scottish National party about the Labour party. It is not my purpose to intrude in a family squabble between Socialists.

We are certainly keen to encourage people to apply for rebates. More than 750,000 applications have been accepted by local authorities for processing. They are coming in in their thousands every day and are being processed very quickly.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that those who recommend selective obedience to the law are producing a recipe for anarchy? Does he also agree that it is scandalous that hon. Members should threaten not to pay a tax duly authorised by the House? Does he further agree that if the policy of non-payment succeeded, it would serve only to reduce local authorities' cash flow and restrict the services that they can provide, thus hitting those on the lowest incomes rather than somewhat self-satisfied Labour Back Benchers?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes his point extremely well. Fortunately most local authorities have not only assumed that at least 95 per cent. of those liable to pay will pay but the anecdotal evidence suggests that payments are flowing in well, although it is a matter for them.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Minister accept that, with income support set at bare subsistence level, there is genuine cause for concern about the indefensible principle of deduction of benefit without the consent of the individual involved? Will the Minister explain why that system has been introduced? Does he also accept that there is genuine concern—I suspect on both sides of the House—about the impact of a raft of changes affecting those on low incomes, on fixed incomes and on benefit? That includes the housing benefit changes and rent increases as well as the poll tax. Will the Minister commission an independent survey to assess the impact on those people? I ask that in the hope that the evidence which I think it will produce will persuade even him to think again.

Mr. Lang

The deduction from benefits is a well-established precedent which has been used by previous Governments. Income support has been increased by up to £2.30 a week for a couple, which, in many parts of Scotland, is more than enough to meet the 20 per cent. level of community charge. It would be more than enough in even more parts of Scotland if some local authorities had not levied such a high rate of community charge.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Is the Minister aware of the anger and concern being voiced by many people in rural parts of Scotland, particularly in Easdale in my constituency, at the fact that they must pay a flat-rate poll tax for unequal services? People in Glasgow pay the same amount, but the people of Easdale have no pavements, lighting, roads or libraries.

Mr. Lang

By implication, the hon. Lady is suggesting that people should pay only for what they get. The vast majority of local authority costs fall on the education budget, yet a great many people have no children. The important point is that local authority costs should be spread around the adult population of a region and district. Apart from anything else, it will encourage them to take a closer interest in the work of their local authorities and demand better, more relevant and efficiently delivered services.