HC Deb 21 March 1990 vol 169 cc1108-12
5. Mr. Madel

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he is yet able to say whether he will community charge-cap Bedfordshire county council for the financial year 1990–91; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. David Hunt

We are now looking at the budget information that we have received from local authorities. Until we have reached our decisions, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot speculate whether Bedfordshire county council or any other local authority would be capped in 1990–91.

Mr. Madel

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his forthcoming elevation. Before he crosses the River Dee to take up his Welsh duties, may I draw his attention to the fact that the Audit Commission has strongly criticised the Labour-Liberal Bedfordshire county council for overspending? Despite that, the county council is increasing spending next year by 14 per cent. which will cause an unacceptably high community charge. As the community charge is designed to increase accountability, will my hon. Friend consider changing the electoral system whereby one third of county councillors would come up for election every year? That would not only make the county council more accountable, but would give us in Bedfordshire the chance to remove Labour and Liberal county councillors who have caused this huge community charge.

Mr. Hunt

First, I thank my hon. Friend for this kind remarks.

Bedfordshire has done very well from the settlement, and the external support for Bedfordshire authorities, taken together, is 15.8 per cent. higher than in 1989–90. Yet, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, the county council seems to have decided to increase its income by approximately twice the rate of inflation. That is a serious matter and it is worth reflecting that, perhaps the county council would not be doing that if it has to face its electorate this year.

Mr. Gould

I add my congratulations to the Minister on his promotion. How long does he estimate that it will take charge-capped authorities to prepare and issue revised bills? What calculation has he made of how much that will add to the already excessive cost of collecting the poll tax? What help does he propose to offer in respect of the cash flow problems that such authorities will undoubtedly face? Does he have any concept of the impossible burden that he is imposing on local authority treasurers, Tory as well as Labour, who are already hard-pressed, through his refusal to specify what his charge-cap criteria will be?

Mr. Hunt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and look forward to explaining in Wales, as I have in England and still will for a further two months, the way in which the community charge is a much fairer and simpler system, which makes local authorities more accountable.

Capping was a matter for Parliament to decide and it decided to give the power to charge-cap to the Secretary of State. Once we have considered all the budget information available we shall take our decisions and announce them to the House. Until then it would be wrong to speculate about the timing or operation of any capping scheme that we might operate. We have made it clear, however, that we shall cap authorities that have chosen to budget excessively.

Mr. Bright

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is complete nonsense for people in Bedfordshire to compare this year's community charge with last year's rates? Under the spendthrift Labour-Liberal authority that we have in Bedfordshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear!"]—those people would have felt a considerable impact if the rating system had remained. That factor should be considered; at present, we are not comparing like with like.

Mr. Hunt

I agree with my hon. Friend, and the response from the House demonstrates how true his words are. Had the rates system continued, for Bedfordshire authority to have raised the same amount of income from its local people, there would have had to have been a substantial increase in domestic rates. If Bedfordshire council was run by the efficient Conservative administration in Luton, the community charge would be much lower.

6. Mr. Clay

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the average poll tax for England in 1990–91.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten)

On the information available to me, I estimate that the average community charge in England is £363.

Mr. Clay

Will the Secretary of State admit that his estimates of the poll tax were probably made up on the spare page of a fairytale book? Does he accept that councils of all political persuasions have been forced to fix the poll tax on average 30 per cent. above his phoney guesstimates? As he and the Government cynically misled the British people about the levels of poll tax, what right has he or any of his colleagues to deliver sanctimonious lectures to the millions of people in this country who are determined to resist this evil tax?

Mr. Patten

The principal reason for the level of community charge in the coming year is that local authorities' gross revenue expenditure will be £5 billion higher next year than this year. On those figures, domestic rates would have increased by about 33 per cent. The only lecture that I will give is that people should obey the law and pursue democratic argument through the ballot box. I hope that that is the lecture that Opposition spokesmen will give to the hon. Gentleman who, as I understand it, advocates that his constituents and other people should not pay the community charge.

Mr. Squire

Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is producing a schedule setting out what the charge would have been for each local authority had the rating system remained? Will he further confirm that that schedule will distinguish between authorities that suffered a substantial reduction in real terms in Government support and those that shamelessly increased their expenditure, to stratospheric levels in some places?

Mr. Patten

We shall certainly attempt to give the sort of information for which my hon. Friend has asked. In due course the House will wish to know what the consequences for domestic rates would have been in individual authorities given some of the spending levels that have been set. The community charge—or domestic rates if we still had them—will be higher in areas controlled by Labour councils. For example, the average charges in Labour-controlled London boroughs are £167 higher than in Conservative boroughs.

Mr. McKelvey

Will the Secretary of State compare the average charges in England with those of the Labour authorities that control most of Scotland? Will he give the amounts that might be reclaimed in rebates and state whether they take into consideration the changes made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday? Does the Secretary of State believe, as I and most other Scots do, that the changes should apply retrospectively to Scotland? Does he further understand——

Mr. Speaker

Order. One question please.

Mr. McKelvey

—that despite the transitional payments, which are part of the poll tax and were announced at the Conservative party conference, not one person in Scotland has benefited from the supposed changes?

Mr. Patten

The responsibilities of my Department are extensive, but do not go as far as the bounds of the hon. Gentleman's question. He will have noticed that the research on Scotland shows that people in low-income households pay a smaller proportion of their income on the community charge than they paid on domestic rates. I take it that part of the hon. Member's question was addresed to the generosity of the local authority grant settlement in Scotland.

Mr. Tracey

My right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the Chancellor on his welcome announcement on community charge relief. Will he assure the House and our constituents that the new reliefs will be paid before the bills have to be met this year, following the changes made by the Chancellor?

Mr. Patten

All local authorities will want to do everything that they can to ensure that people get the relief they deserve as rapidly as possible.

The Department of Social Security will be talking to local authorities to ensure that relief is paid as expeditiously as possible. As my hon. Friend said, yesterday's statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was widely welcomed and shows that we have listened to some of the constructive criticisms.

Mr. Pike

For once, will the Secretary of State stop knocking local authorities for overspending and recognise that local authorities such as Lancashire and many others are trying to meet the needs of the people who elected them? If poll tax-capping is introduced, will he accept responsibility for the services that are cut and at some stage will he say what he will do to help people who cannot pay the poll tax?

Mr. Patten

What is of most concern is not whether I am knocking local authorities but whether local authorities are knocking community charge payers—and all too many of them are. I am extremely pleased that the community charge benefits are more generous than those available under domestic rates.

Mr. Mans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the wide range of community charge levels reflects the wide range of council manning levels and shows that some at least are overmanned and inefficient—Lancashire, for one? Will he take an early opportunity to publish a list of manning levels of local authorities so that community charge payers can see whether they are getting value for money?

Mr. Patten

An inevitable and welcome consequence of the introduction of the community charge is that more local voters are becoming interested in value for money in local government. The sort of figures for which my hon. Friend has called will be of considerable interest to many local charge payers.

Mr. Blunkett

Does the Secretary of State accept that although Opposition Members warmly welcome the statement of the Chancellor yesterday, we are very concerned that the Treasury and the Department of the Environment seem not to understand that, while lifting the capital disregard for entitlement to rebate on poll tax and to housing benefit, they have failed to alter the taper? In consequence, people who have capital investments or savings of over £10,000 a year, despite the lifting of the ceiling to £16,000, will not be entitled under present rules to either housing benefit or poll tax rebate. Will he state this afternoon that the Government are prepared to change the rules, which involve £1 of income being counted for every £250 of capital savings held over £3,000, so that people are entitled to benefit? Does he accept that, in making a complete mess of this—as they have of everything else—the Government have misled people into believing themselves entitled to help that they will not get?

Mr. Patten

The hon. Gentleman is not well informed on that question. I hope that he will recognise that the taper is already more generous than it was previously. That is why many more people will benefit under the new system than did under the previous system.

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