HC Deb 20 December 1990 vol 183 cc547-58 11.43 am
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have addressed you before on the community charge. When I last did so, the House was packed and it was the most daunting experience of my parliamentary life to have to try to persuade my colleagues and Back Benchers that my Government had got something less than perfectly right. I lost the day on that occasion by a fairly modest figure, and since that day, two and a half years ago, we have had to live with a community charge that has proved to have been the single greatest mistake made by the Government in this Parliament.

However, that was another day and another age. Far from despairing now, I am full of hope that the new Administration are determined to put matters right and to make the necessary adjustments so that what is a reasonable way of collecting local government finance from all our citizens can be operated fairly because the unfairness rankled most. We look forward to the result of the Government's review, with the help, I hope, of the Opposition parties, so that we can find a way to finance local government for the next decade or so.

However, this morning I want to consider a particular aspect of the community charge which has rankled with me more than any other because, frankly, it was crazier than any other part of the system. I want to consider the way in which the community charge is applied to the armed forces.

Under the rates, service men were required to contribute to local government. That was perfectly right and proper. There is no reason why service men should not make a fair contribution to the costs of local government services, some of which they use. However, they are unique in that they are the only people who have to live and work where they are told. To that extent, they are different from the police force, the fire service, the ambulance service and the civil service. All those people can, if they wish, say, "No; I will not move to Yorkshire. I wish to stay here". That may affect their promotion or careers, but they have the right to say no. A service man does not have that right. he must go where he is told, and live and work where he is told for as long as he is told until he is ordered to move on.

The rates system was sensitive to that and was fair to the service men and to the local authorities. Every soldier, single or married, paid a sort of rate. The charge was averaged and deducted from his pay at source, and it remained the same wherever he was. The Ministry of Defence paid the local authority a rating charge for the barracks, and the local authority had a return from the MOD for the services that it provided. That worked like a charm. Everyone was happy with it and knew where they were. The service men had no complaints and 100 per cent. of the charge was collected because it was deducted at source.

After the change brought about by the introduction of the community charge, although I had views about the principle in general, I held a strong view with regard to the armed services. I believed that the system that operated for the services under the rates should prevail under the community charge. I could see no reason then, and have been shown no reason since, why that system should not prevail except for the dogma which, alas, accompanied the Government's attitude to the imposition of the community charge.

Instead of every service man continuing to contribute to local government by paying an average community charge collected at source and paid over by the Ministry of Defence, the Government decided that they had to treat service men in the same way as everyone else and that they must pay the charge in the area where they happened to be.

I pointed out at the time that that practice would produce anomalies, discontent and unfairness. It has done all those things to the extent that it is now a considerable source of resentment within the services, and I can well understand why. If a soldier is posted from district A to district B, the posting may be accompanied by a "fine", if I can put it that way, of between £400 and £500. If a soldier moved from Wandsworth to Camden in the course of his duty, he would move from paying less than £200 to paying more than £600, with no compensation, no choice and no ability to influence the local authorities through his vote in either place. Soldiers rarely get that chance.

I raised this problem at the beginning of our debates on the community charge with the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert). I said that the system was unfair and unjust and please would he change it. He wrote me a long letter on 11 January 1989 which, I am afraid, does no more than repeat the dogma that has accompanied this whole issue. He stated: We have decided that members of the Armed Forces in Great Britain will be treated as the rest of the population for the purposes of the Personal Community Charge". Members of the armed forces are not like the rest of the population. They cannot exercise the choice that can be exercised by the rest of the population.

What has happened has been a sorry tale of how a perfectly fair and reasonable method of ensuring that service personnel make a proper contribution to the cost of local government has been abandoned for a more expensive, more bureaucratic and far more unfair system. As far as I can discern, that was done only for reasons of ideology. I have not been given one practical reason why it had to be done in this way.

It seems particularly stupid to do away with a simple system and to devise a complex one instead. The simplicity of the former average charge is there for all to see. I do not need to develop that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) knows the anomalies that have been created because he has had difficulties in his own constituency about which he spoke when he was not a member of the Government rather more robustly than I suspect he will be able to speak today. The soldiers in Salisbury refused to pay because they had their own reasons for thinking that the system was unfair. We had the sorry sight of the courts having to deal with a large number of service personnel who were in default of the community charge.

Let me say straight away that service men, like anybody else, must obey the law. The fact that it is a bad law is neither here nor there. We are all bound by the law of the land, and the service men were wrong to refuse to pay. However, I can understand their resentment because there has been similar resentment in my constituency which has a large number of service personnel and—perhaps more to the point—a large number of transient service personnel. The community charge does not pose them as much of a problem as it does the local authority.

The school of electrical and mechanical engineering, which is located at Burton in the middle of my constituency, runs 12-week courses. Technically, on moving in, the soldiers should pay 12 weeks' worth of the local community charge and go away again. What a ludicrous system—because the soldier then has to be rebated at a different rate from wherever else he was previously for the 12 weeks that he spent in my constituency. That has to be worked out all the time. It is a nightmare for the local authority, which would far rather be without it. It is also a nightmare for those in charge of the service establishments, who are co-operating fully with the local authorities to try to unravel some of the complexities. It is a nightmare for the service men also.

Perhaps more serious than something that is wholly inconvenient is the fact that, when soldiers are sent to Northern Ireland, they are treated differently according to whether they are married or single. Is there any easier way of stirring up discontent when a battalion is moved and parted from families for four months to serve in Northern Ireland in one of the more dangerous jobs that the armed forces have to do than to find that the married soldier, on patrol with the single soldier, is treated differently and that one is being penalised while the other is favoured according to the amount of time that they have spent there? When soldiers go to do unpleasant tasks, the one thing that keeps the whole thing together is what one could call "the equality of misery". A soldier wants to be just as badly off as the chap in the next trench. A difference, especially a financial difference, is the first and most basic cause of discontent, but that is what is happening in Northern Ireland.

Our soldiers in the Gulf have also been in difficulties, although, rather late in the day, that is now being put right. Some have to continue to pay their community charge while sitting in the desert, possibly waiting to go to war. Others have not had to do so because their local authorities have not responded in the same way. However, it should not be for the local authorities to respond. It should not be left to the good councils to say, "We are not going to charge service men the community charge for the period they are in the Gulf," and for other councils to continue to levy the charge—not for political reasons, but because they are not as sensitive. That should not be the system. There should be a system throughout the armed services under which everybody contributes fairly. The Exchequer will get its money and the Department of the Environment can distribute it to the local authorities along with the rest of the grant.

What is even more extraordinary—my hon. Friend may not know this—is that when the system was changed the armed services offered to take on the bureaucratic burden of levying a standard community charge. The armed services offered to make the payment from the Ministry of Defence, which would have raised the charge from service men, to the Department of the Environment so that it could distribute the money fairly to the local authorities. I have to be careful in what I say about this, but this happened at the very highest level. The service chiefs said, "We will do this. It will be our contribution to collecting the charge simply, efficiently and fairly, and we will let you have it." However, the DOE turned that down because those in charge at that time said that a service man must pay his share wherever he happened to be. It was all part of what the Government chose to call "local accountability".

You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, because of the number of times he moves, a service man is jolly lucky if he can vote in a general election in the same place more than once, but we have made arrangements so that service personnel can retain their votes. However, that is even less likely in local government elections, given that such by-elections happen at much shorter notice than do parliamentary by-elections and the fact that a service man can move, go away on courses, go to Northern Ireland or Germany or across to Canada to train. He is not likely to be in his local authority area or to be able to play a significant part in local government.

Therefore, a service man cannot exercise the local accountability that was part of the ethos of the community charge that I understood. The Government have done so much to destroy local accountability that it is now practically non-existent. However, that is for another debate on another day, and I look forward with great hope to having that debate on general terms because there have been changes that make me hope that we shall be able to bring about great improvements.

Given that there cannot be local accountability, why, even now, can we not change the system? It would not be complicated. We are coming to the end of the financial year and, by 1 April, the services could comfortably have in place a system whereby they would collect from source a service man's fair and just contribution.

It would be the same for every service man, wherever he is serving in the world. It would make a difference when personnel are posted back to the United Kingdom from overseas. As service men do not pay the community charge in Germany, when they return here they have what they consider a cut in their pay. Of course, it is not a cut in pay; it is just that they now have to pay for a local service for which they did not have to pay before. But that is not the way that a service man looks at it, and nor should he—indeed, nor did he for all the years when he paid rates when he was in Germany or wherever else. The accommodation charges were part and parcel of the whole system.

I am offering my hon. Friend something that he should find very difficult to refuse—a change that will make his life simpler. It is a change that will bring in more revenue for the community charge so that the local authorities get more money. It is a change that will be implemented at no expense to his Department because the load will be taken by the Ministry of Defence. Although the Ministry would have a little more bureaucratic work to do, I believe that it would be relieved by the change because it would iron out many of the anomalies.

We would know that the collectability of the community charge would be 100 per cent., which it was before, but which is not the case now because many service men are getting away with it by being posted at times of the year that make it almost impossible for the local authorities to catch up with them. Above all, it would be a change that would bring to an end a widely felt source of resentment in the services—indeed, I need not tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about that, because he knows about the resentment in his part of the world.

Why can we not have this change? No reason has been given to me by the Department of the Environment or the Ministry of Defence, save the most spurious of ideological reasons, which were trotted out to me repeatedly: that this was the system and this was what was going to happen because the service man must be treated exactly the same as his civilian counterpart. The service man is not the same as his civilian counterpart in almost any other aspect of life because he lives within a disciplined organisation, his job differs from a civilian job, and at a moment's notice he may have to go anywhere in the world. We should be able to give him a guarantee that those demands on him will not bring him additional expense because of the way in which local authority finance is limited. He will look on it as a fine for doing his duty.

If my hon. Friend can bring this system to an end and bring a sense of fairness into this tiny part of it, he will see that that is easily done. I hope that that will add more power to his elbow and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make the whole system much fairer.

12.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key)

It is a great pleasure to answer this debate, which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). We all remember the valiant fight which he put up over a long period. It is good to see him back in his usual place, with the hearty endorsement of his constituents and constituency party in the new era which we face together.

It is important to recognise the service which my hon. Friend has done. Not only has he had a distinguished military service but he has done a service to the House in the way in which he has represented his constituents over many years—a task in which he acquired a reputation for fearless championing of many causes—and the way in which he has steered the important Select Committee on Defence, on which I congratulate him.

My hon. Friend referred to fairness, and I would add a sense of fair play—qualities which I share with him. Perhaps we share those important characteristics because we went to the same school, my hon. Friend attending a mere year or two before me. If one goes to a school as old as ours—Salisbury cathedral school will be 900 years old next year—and sings as sweetly as my hon. Friend—

Mr. Mates

And my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Key

—as I try to, perhaps it is not surprising that we share common values, which include a sense of fair play and justice.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is, unfortunately not able to be here today. He would have been on the Bench beside me, but he is visiting our troops in the Gulf and he has asked me to send his apologies to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East raised a sensitive and important subject in which he has taken a long interest. He raised it on 8 June 1989 in the debate on the Army and on 18 October 1989 in the debate on the defence estimates. I too have an interest in the proper and fair treatment of the armed forces. My hon. Friend said that I represent a large number of soldiers in my constituency of Salisbury. In fact, there are 14 Ministry of Defence establishments in my constituency, embracing all three services. Therefore, I could hardly have been unaware of these problems. It was a sad time for me last September when a large number of soldiers who had failed to pay the community charge on time were summoned to appear before Salisbury magistrates. They did not all appear, but many did, and I was subsequently able to meet their representatives.

This raises the important issue of the access of soldiers to their Members of Parliament. As my hon. Friend rightly said, they belong to a disciplined profession. They do not easily run to their Members of Parliament. They sometimes think that that will lose them status or credibility or get them into trouble. I went to considerable lengths as a constituency Member to ensure, with the commanding officer of the south-west district, that all the soldiers in his area had unhindered access to their Members of Parliament to discuss this important issue. That assurance was readily given. I believe that all hon. Members will always be available to soldiers and military personnel in all our services. That fundamental right is in no way denied to members of our armed forces.

I welcome the opportunity to restate that position. In terms of local accountability and the important fundamentals of the community charge, it is crucial that those who pay the charge should have the right to express their opinion to their local authorities and to Members of Parliament who approve the legislation. My hon. Friend mentioned voting rights. It is a complicated business. The proxy voting system for service voters is complex. Military personnel can nominate one person in one place to be their proxy and that person is not precluded from casting a vote on their behalf at local or general elections. Service personnel should be reassured on that point and should perhaps make arrangements to ensure that their vote is cast at local as well as general elections.

Mr. Mates

In case my hon. Friend was wondering why I sat down a few minutes early, it was because I forgot to raise one point about local accountability which I should now like to put to him. It concerns the Gurkhas who are stationed in my constituency. This point is not for his Department but for the Ministry of Defence. Everything that my hon. Friend said about the right to vote, local accountability and the right to appoint a proxy goes straight out of the window in terms of the Gurkhas.

One battalion of Gurkhas serves in this country. They have no right to vote. Their families are not here, there are no children here, they need no local schools or local libraries and need almost no local services, and they are paying what amounts to one month's pay in community charge. Hampshire district council, the local authority, is embarrassed at having to charge them. I raised this matter with the Ministry of Defence, which simply said that the Gurkhas were members of the British Army and, like everyone else, must pay their whack.

That is another point of deep resentment which I should have mentioned at the end of my speech. I put it to my hon. Friend in the context of what he said, rightly, about local accountability and the right to vote. The Gurkhas have no right to vote. They are not British citizens. They are here because we require them to be here. They are parted from their families and have no need of the raft of local services that other service men use, yet they pay the full community charge despite being paid less than British soldiers. That is nothing short of a scandal.

Mr. Key

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. It gives me the opportunity to explain how the arrangements affect the Gurkhas, for whom I have the highest regard. I am not a military man. It is true that in my school cadet force I rose to the dizzy heights of company sergeant major, but that was a bit different from the real thing. However, I met the Gurkhas in the Falklands shortly after hostilities ceased. I saw the remarkable strength and characteristics of that proud body of men. When I have developed my theme, I shall deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend.

It is true that not all service personnel currently register to vote and we have been seeking ways of increasing that number. Only about two thirds of service personnel currently register to vote and I hope that through this debate we shall encourage more of them to ensure that their right to vote is exercised in this country. We encourage service personnel and their spouses to register. They can adopt the service system with the service proxy if they wish. I am assured by my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence that annual reminders are provided through notice board displays, and that further advice is available at any time.

I thought that it would be helpful to provide some background about the community charge. One of the main policy objectives of the charge is that everyone should pay something towards the cost of their local services. That has been accepted by most people in this country. We have made exceptions for certain categories of people and ensured that those at the lower end of the income scale are eligible for rebates of up to 80 per cent.

Like all other adult residents in Britain, members of the armed forces make use of local services and are entitled to vote in local elections. It has been argued that service personnel do not make as great a use of local authority services as their civilian counterparts. That argument is largely without foundation, but it is certainly a source of trouble and misunderstanding, as I have found in my constituency. People have come to my surgery or have written to local newspapers about the problem. It is often Army wives who are incensed about the issue saying, "Why should we pay the community charge when we live in married quarters in a garrison town?" In fact, service personnel do make use of local services. They enjoy the benefit of local emergency services, and they do not all just sit in their garrison towns or barracks. They are part of our community. In my constituency, we welcome the fact that service personnel make an important input into the life of the local community, and we respond by treating them as part of that community. They benefit from emergency services such as fire and police if they are required. Perhaps people forget that roads and street lighting have to be provided, and that may not be the case if the Army or the Royal Air Force were not present in a particular location.

All the support services for those establishments are provided by local authorities. Even refuse disposal is ultimately the responsibility of the local refuse disposal authority. Some soldiers have told me that that is nonsense. They say that part of their duty is to sweep out their barracks and empty it into the dustbin, which is then taken to another part of the barracks and transported somewhere else in an Army truck. The "somewhere else" is a tip provided by the local authority. The Ministry of Defence and local authorities often negotiate contracts for the disposal of waste, and it may be that the Ministry of Defence pays directly for that service. However, more commonly, it is done as part of a local authority service, and the refuse is disposed of in the proper manner and to the highest environmental standards.

The local recreational facilities such as libraries and swimming pools are used by service personnel. Also, service personnel with children will be using local state-maintained schools. Their children make a great contribution to the life of those schools. In my constituency, those children, who have often travelled the world, make an enormous contribution that would be missing if the service personnel were not present. Indeed, many schools have been constructed by the local education authority almost exclusively for the use of service personnel.

Although many of the services may be applicable only to married members of the armed forces, single personnel living in barracks are in no worse position than their civilian counterparts for whom the same services are available. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East has had the argument put to him, "Why should I have such a high community charge when I am a single man of 22? I am earning my living and paying my taxes and I do not use the social services available for the elderly or live in a council house and I do not have children at local schools." The same argument applies to those of us who do not use a particular local government service.

Mr. Mates

That is right. It is part of the debate and part of the resentment. Everything that my hon. Friend the Minister has said is an argument for saying that service personnel must contribute their share. That is not the point of my raising this debate. I know that they must contribute their share, but why should they have to contribute a different share according to the whim of where they are posted over which they have no control? That is the point.

Mr. Key

I accept what my hon. Friend says about the lack of control over their own lives and where they reside. I shall come to that later.

In the circumstances, I think that it is accepted by everybody that armed forces personnel should pay something. Under the law as it stands, they must pay their share of the personal community charge. As my hon. Friend said, the law is the law and it must be obeyed by service personnel as by everybody else, even Opposition Members who currently refuse to pay their community charge. How unfair it is at Christmas that rich Members of Parliament should be refusing to pay their community charge when their less fortunate constituents are having to pay it for them and make their contribution towards the cost of local services. How selfish can one be?

We do, however, recognise that members of the armed forces are in a special situation. There are a large number of them in different parts of the country. They are also subject to posting over which they have no control and which is generally for short periods. Like other people, members of the armed forces are subject to the personal community charge in the borough or district in which they have their sole or main residence. In the vast majority of cases, it should be straightforward to determine where a person has his sole or main residence.

Given this special situation of service personnel, we were keen to see that all community charges registration officers came to similar decisions when determining the main residence of people serving in the armed forces.

I anticipate that my hon. Friend may say that that has not always been the case, that CCROs have not always taken the same views, and that sometimes, even within a garrison town that happens to straddle a local authority boundary, different decisions have been made. That is why, early last year, we issued guidance to all registration officers. It was non-statutory guidance on the registration of service personnel and was agreed with the Ministry of Defence and the local authority associations.

It says that single personnel detached or posted to service units and living in barracks or mess accommodation for periods in excess of 61 days will be regarded as having their sole or main residence in that accommodation as from day one. This is not an arbitrary figure but recognises that, under Queen's regulations, personnel in barrack accommodation do not have a right to return to that accommodation if they are away for more than 61 days.

Married personnel living in married quarters or in private accommodation will be regarded as having their sole or main residence with their families, while married personnel who are posted away from their marital home for periods of unaccompanied service in excess of six months will be regarded as having moved their sole and main residence to the new location as from day one. Single personnel who are householders will also be covered by this rule.

I am relieved to say that this guidance has been updated so that married personnel did not have to change their sole and main residence simply because they were posted to a different base, and that the area in which their marital home was would remain the area in which they were registered. That advice has no statutory basis and registration officers can disregard it if they feel that it is inappropriate to an individual's circumstances. I understand that CCROs are generally following the guidelines. It is important to set out these details so that my hon. Friend can see that we are aware of the special position of members of the armed forces and that we take it into account when preparing guidance.

A good example of our response is the situation of service personnel in the Gulf. Recently, we issued guidance on this to local authorities, after constructive dialogue with the Ministry of Defence. If someone is posted overseas for a period which is unknown from the outset, local authorities have been advised to remove them from their community charge register. In that way, such a person would make no payments during his absence. No direct action to chase payments or recover arrears will be taken against personnel temporarily overseas. Notices and reminders will be sent to their home base. The effect will be to relieve service personnel from worries about their community charge. Although the guidance was issued as a result of the situation in the Gulf, those arrangements will also apply to other postings which are regarded technically as being overseas for these purposes, such as Germany and Northern Ireland.

In a few cases, some personnel posted overseas, and therefore ceasing to be liable for the personal community charge, may become liable for a higher standard charge. If that happens because of a posting to the Gulf, the Ministry of Defence has agreed to reimburse the excess. Those arrangements will facilitate the pledge of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that no service personnel posted to the Gulf will be worse off as a result of that posting.

We have also brought forward new measures covering new classes and multipliers for standard charge properties. One of those new classes is for property which is empty because the person who owns it occupies another property which is job-related. The maximum multiplier for that class of property will be one half. That is intended to help people who have to live in job-related accommodation, and it should be of assistance to many service families.

Mr. Mates

I am fascinated to hear all that is going on to remove some of the anomalies. Does my hon. Friend agree that multipliers, special arrangements for empty properties, zero rating and arrangements for overseas postings could all be avoided if we returned to the old system under which a service man paid a standard contribution from source throughout his career? Would that not be simpler and fairer?

Mr. Key

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said that nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. I cannot say that we should return to the old system. We may or we may not when our right hon. Friend has completed the present review. Obviously, I listen carefully to my hon. Friend's advice.

My hon. Friend raised two specific points. He suggested that there should be a single averaged community charge. I am sure that he will recognise that to do so would undermine the accountability principle of the community charge, in that the armed forces would be cushioned against the effects of the spending levels, the provision of services and the efficiency or inefficiency of the authority in which they live. The converse would also be the case, in that an average charge would stop members of the armed forces from benefiting from lower charges. A member of the armed forces could pay less or more for the same services available to a civilian.

Mr. Mates

Was that not precisely the case with rates? Service personnel were not insulated against low-rated or high-rated areas. They took the rough with the smooth, and over the years it worked out fairly. If the Government were not concerned about that in the era of the rates, why this sudden concern in the era of the community charge?

Mr. Key

It is because we are a listening Government. We would not wish to see our soldiers having to take the rough with the smooth if we could think of a better system.

The Ministry of Defence recognises that members of the armed forces living in public accommodation whether married quarters, mess or barracks, have no choice over where they live, as my hon. Friend pointed out. They are ordered to a particular place and to specific accommodation over which they have no control or choice. That could mean that they are moved to an area with a very high community charge, whereas a colleague may be sent to an area with a low charge. The Ministry of Defence has recognised that and has made arrangements under which no member of the armed forces, or their spouse, who is living in service accommodation should pay more than a service average community charge for such accommodation, plus £1 per week. That is dealt with by a scheme of accommodation charge refunds.

For the current year, the service average community charge is £325, so with the addition of £52 the maximum individual personal charge payment for any member of the armed forces is £377. The cost of the scheme, estimated at £1.1 million in the current year, has been taken into account by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in setting the general level of accommodation charges.

Obviously, if service personnel are posted to an area with a lower charge than the average service community charge, they pay that lower charge. Personnel in public accommodation can therefore benefit from low levels of community charge, yet there is a generous limit on their maximum liability. They can pay no more than £377, whereas the maximum they could be liable to pay is £548, which many civilians must pay. Those arrangements go a long way towards alleviating the situation which my hon. Friend described.

The second point that my hon. Friend raised concerned the treatment of Gurkhas. I bow to no one in my admiration of these soldiers who have so often fought for this country.

It may be helpful if I set out how Gurkhas are paid. The basic pay of the Gurkha in the British Army is set by the Indian Army under the provisions of the 1947 tripartite agreement between India, Nepal and the United Kingdom. Under the terms of the agreement, the United Kingdom can provide allowances to Gurkhas serving away from Nepal, and separate Gurkha additions have been set for Brunei, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The calculation of the United Kingdom addition starts with the baseline of the British soldier's pay. That is abated to take account of the fact that Gurkhas receive a resettlement grant on their discharge and that they do not pay national insurance contributions. Gurkhas do not pay for their food and accommodation, so their pay is abated by the equivalent of the single soldier's food and accommodation charge. The result of all that is that, financially, a single Gurkha is in a similar position to his British counterpart.

When the community charge was introduced, the rates element of a single British soldier's accommodation charge was removed. That means that the single Gurkha soldier's pay abatement is smaller. The pay of a married Gurkha is not abated by food and accommodation charges, which puts him in a similar position to his British counterpart.

Since the Gurkhas are an integral part of the British Army, and when stationed in this country their pay is based on British soldiers' rates of pay, there are no grounds for singling them out for special treatment. The only case for treating them differently would be if they were financially disadvantaged by the community charge. As I have explained, we have sought to ensure that they are not financially disadvantaged in that respect.

This has been more than just an interesting debate—it has been an important one. I hope that my hon. Friend will be left with the realisation that members of the armed forces are treated fairly under the communtiy charge and that, within the bounds of the system, the Government have done all that they can to recognise the special position of service personnel.

As a constituency Member of Parliament, I acknowledge the special circumstances under which service personnel live, both as single service men and as part of families. Those problems are familiar to both my hon. Friend and myself. The Government have sought to ensure the basic tenets of justice and fair play to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks.

Mr. Mates

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is conducting a review, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept my remarks as formal input in that regard. When that review has been completed, perhaps someone will let me know how judgment has been reached on what I regard as an unfair situation, and how it is proposed to change it.

Mr. Key

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend an undertaking that his comments will be regarded as a formal representation for the purposes of the review. I shall continue to look forward to my hon. Friend's contributions, and I repeat my gratitude to him for raising the issue. It falls to me to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East a very happy Christmas.

Back to
Forward to