HC Deb 25 July 1990 vol 177 cc458-9
16. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any proposals to change the joint and several liability rule included in the community charge legislation; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Portillo

It is important that every adult should receive a community charge bill of his or her own. Any couple on low income will have their need for benefit assessed as a couple, but where one partner is not earning, joint and several liability provides an important protection which I do not propose to remove.

Mr. Michie

Why has the Minister chosen during the review period not to take into account strong representations about the present suffering, particularly of non-working wives and non-working mothers? Surely there is a good argument for giving those people special consideration, but for some reason the Minister has ignored it. Is it because he is blinded by the policy or does he regard those people, too, as freeloaders?

Mr. Portillo

I reject what the hon. Gentleman says about suffering. The needs of people on low income are assessed to see whether they qualify for community charge benefit. A couple's needs are assessed together. Obviously, the system takes into account that a couple has higher needs than a single person and that if it is a pensioner couple, if one of the couple is disabled or if the couple has children, the needs are higher again. The needs of a couple are fully assessed within the system. The provision of joint and several liability is there to ensure that where one of the partners is not earning, the debt can be recovered from the earning partner, who has liability for the couple as a whole.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my hon. Friend assure the community charge payers of Ealing that, with all of us, he will strenuously resist the reintroduction of rates, remembering that in 1987 the Labour-controlled Ealing council introduced a rates rise of 65 per cent? Some pensioners nearly starved as a result, but Labour Members do not care.

Mr. Portillo

It was remarkable that throughout our recent two-day debate on charge capping, not one Labour Member once talked about the hardship for community charge payers of the high community charge bills being put out by Labour-controlled authorities. My hon. Friend has that concern for his constituents. I only wish that it was shared on the other side of the House.

Mr. O'Brien

Is the Minister aware, or may I remind him, that millions of women stay at home to look after a family consisting of children or elderly relatives and thus do not earn any money or have any income or their own? Those women did not pay rates under the previous system, as the Minister pointed out. Is there any valid reason why they should not receive transitional relief, as they qualify in every way for it? Can the Minister explain why they do not qualify? When will he do away with the unfair and iniquitous provision of joint and several liability?

Mr. Portillo

We believe in treating couples as couples. A couple may decide that one of the partners will not earn and that the partner who earns will bear the responsibilities of the entire family. That decision is made by couples. If the amount that the partner who is earning receives is so little that the couple qualifies for relief, they will be assessed as a couple and their needs taken into account. As I have explained, if a couple has children, is elderly or disabled, the assessment of their needs will be higher. That is appropriate. The provision of joint and several liability exists to protect the non-earning partner.

Mr. David Nicholson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the position so clearly in reply to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie). Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to bring home to the public the fact that the onus for paying the community charge within a couple where one partner has no income must rest on the partner with income?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have joint and several liability to emphasise the fact that, although under the benefit system we treat couples as couples, we recognise that two people who each receive a personal community charge bill, when one is earning but the other is not, should have joint and several liability so that liability can he recovered from the earning partner if required.