HC Deb 27 March 1990 vol 170 cc418-32 5.49 am
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to seek considerable clarification from the Minister on the proposals for community charge capping, or, as it will popularly be known, poll tax capping.

On Second Reading of the Abolition of Domestic Rates etc. (Scotland) Bill, which introduced the poll tax in Scotland, the Government spelled out the long-standing benefits that they felt would come from the community charge. The then Under-Secretary of State said: The Bill is no short-term stop gap. It is no hurried or temporary expedient. It is a well considered and well worked out reform which sets up a new and viable system for financing local government for generations to come."—[Official Report, 9 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 275.] It is now clear that, within three years of introducing the tax in Scotland, and within two years of introducing it in England, the Government will no longer be in office and the tax will be swept away and consigned to the dustbin of history.

We are puzzled about why any sort of capping should now be necessary. The benefit of the system was to be the accountability which the tax would bring to local authorities and local councillors. On Second Reading of the Local Government Finance Bill, which introduced the tax in England and Wales, the Secretary of State for the Environment said: The objectives of the Bill are, first, to abolish the inequities of the present domestic rating system; secondly, to make local councils more responsive and accountable to their electors".—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1115.]

But the poll tax does not make local councils more accountable or responsive to their electors. If that is necessary, local people know that they can vote out their local councillors at elections, and that that is the democratic way of doing it, not by the underhand method that the Government have pioneered and have for 10 years imposed on local government—juggling with support figures to make sure that some councils appear to be overspenders because they had high rates and will now have high poll taxes, when the truth is that they are due much more to the diminished levels of support as the Government have welshed on their responsibility for funding local councils, and less to do with overspending. That is why so many Conservative authorities now are likely to be threatened with poll tax capping.

The Bill was originally commended in 1986 as one which would help to get rid of the unfair burdens of the old rating system. The Secretary of State for Scotland said: The pattern of gainers and losers which the analysis shows gives the lie to Opposition claims that it is a measure which is simply aimed at helping the rich at the expense of the poor."—[Official Report, 9 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 209.] He made no apology for the fact that the Bill did not contain details of the rebates scheme. Before the rebate scheme has even been introduced in England and Wales, it has been thoroughly discredited. This week and last the Government have had to act fast to make the rebate scheme slightly more generous—certainly more generous than it was during its first year of operation in Scotland. The Government know that the poll tax is deeply unpopular in Scotland and that the rebate scheme has brought benefits to few people there.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) rightly asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how the poll tax could be fair when someone living in a house worth £1 million pays exactly the same as someone living in a hovel, with rain pouring down the walls. He failed to get a satisfactory explanation. When I asked the Secretary of State, during the debate on Second Reading, if it was unfair that rural councils such as Orkney should have to pay a high proportion of the community charge because of the phoney nature of the rebate scheme, the Secretary of State said that I would not expect him "to know the details."

That is one of the tragedies and the flaws of the Government's case for the poll tax. They have not concentrated on the details. They have not considered how it will affect individual poll tax payers and they have not bothered themselves about the deep concern, the aggravation and the problems that they have forced upon many people—particularly senior citizens and the disabled—with a flat rate tax, for which it is difficult to claim rebates, and which has caused a great deal of suffering to many people.

After standing firm against those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, the Government were forced to concede that it was possible to give a rebate to sufferers. That was after they had made statements saying that there was no proper medical test for Alzheimer's disease and after the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that the symptoms of the disease appeared to increase and decrease in severity and therefore could not be properly measured. The concession was wrung out of the Government, but many more concessions are needed if widows, people on low incomes, the sick, the disabled and senior citizens are to get any sort of fair deal under the tax.

All the expert opinion given to the Government about the poll tax spelled out that it was unworkable. Churches, charities, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses all warned the Government that the tax would not be workable.

The Economist labelled it the "bad" tax. The Confederation of British Industry stated that it could not support the proposals because of the social and political problems of the community charge. Little did its members think that the political problems would result in the Government losing a seat which had a massive Tory majority, that Conservative party members would resign from the party and that Conservative councillors would be packing up in disgust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) then shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, spelled out all those things, but he was ignored. It is interesting to look over recent records of what hon. Members have said and how they have voted on the issue.

When the poll tax was first debated on 1 December 1986 during the Second Reading debate on the Scottish aspects of the tax, there were no fewer than six Conservative contributers—the then hon. Members for Oxford East, for Edinburgh, Central, for Edinburgh, South, for Fife, North-East, for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and for Aberdeen, South—who subsequently lost their seats. There is no doubt that they did not have the confidence of the electorate when they explained that this tax was one of the key parts of their election manifestos.

Other hon. Members who did not contribute to the debate, but who voted for the tax on Second Reading, and raised not one voice of dissent were the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), and the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), all of whom are now so vociferous in spelling out the problems of the tax to the Government. Sadly, they voted to foist it first on Scotland and now on the people of England and Wales. At least two hon. Members had the good sense, decency and consistency to absent themselves from that Second Reading debate—the hon. Member for Selly Oak and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour).

When we consider how poll tax capping will affect local authorities—and, more important, those who have to pay it—we move into a legislative minefield. We know that local authorities are already expected to handle both poll tax rebates and the transitional relief measures that the Government were forced to bring in at the last minute; we also know that rebate—according to the Government—is supposed to be calculated on the basis of the "relieved" bill. But, as the Government have not given local authorities time to organise the relief by 1 April—next week—poll tax payers will receive, and are currently receiving, a bill that has been rebated on the basis of the "unrelieved" figures.

That means that, when the relief is worked out, the rebate will have been overpaid. Local authorities have been advised by the Government to recover the overpayment by reducing the future relief: goodness only knows how the poll tax payer is expected to understand that. However, if the relief reduces the rebate to below 50p a week for any given claim, no rebate will be payable. The claimant could therefore lose more in rebate than the amount of the relief that he or she would otherwise receive.

To prevent that, the Government have advised local authorities to work out whether the problem would arise in each and every case, and, if it would, not to award the relief. The local authority associations have informed the Government that the calculations will create major computer programming problems, especially as they are being introduced at the last minute.

As we bring in any form of poll tax capping emanating from the House, the confusion will become even greater. Poll tax capping means that the relief and the rebates, and the relationship between them, will be automatically wrong in capped councils and will have to be recalculated. We have three different factors with which to juggle. We know only two of the estimates at present, which is why it is important for the Minister to spell out the implications of poll tax capping and to give us an idea of the criteria that he will apply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday expressed his fear that the criteria would be based on only one factor—whether the political complexion of a council began with L or T. Perhaps I can assist the Minister's reply by asking him about a number of Conservative authorities that seem to have embarrassingly high poll tax figures.

In Derby city council, for instance, the figure is £458, against a Government target of £315. In Dartford, Kent, the poll tax figure of £324 is 40 per cent. above the Government's estimate. Its Conservative leader, Malcolm Nothard, has said that he deeply resents his council being considered inefficient, and has been highly critical of the tax. He said: our legislators"— referring to the Minister and his colleagues— were unaware of the true consequences of much of what they were doing. They continue to be unaware of the consequences of what they are doing.

The figures for Tory Essex are above the Government's guidelines. Tory-controlled Blackpool in Lancashire has announced a poll tax figure of over £350, compared with a target of £261. It is hardly surprising that, throughout the country, with Conservative councils overshooting Government guidelines by a considerable factor, Labour is winning by-election victories. In Braintree in Essex, Labour overturned a Conservative majority with a swing of 11 per cent. There was a 19 per cent. swing to Labour on Portsmouth city council. Again Labour took a seat from the Conservatives.

Conservative councillors throughout the country are criticising the Government for having introduced an unworkable poll tax. Labour candidates are winning elections and becoming Labour councillors. Conservative councillors are quitting in disgust. The leader of Lancaster city council, Geoff Hannah, resigned and six Conservative councillors resigned their chairmanships of other councils, In other councils, such as Beverley, Conservative councillors have quit, again in disgust, and resigned the Tory whip. One of the Beverly councillors explained that this was as a direct result of the unfairness of the Government's implementation of the poll tax.

Councillor Stephen Parnaby, the chairman of the finance committee, spelled out more clearly and convincingly than we can, because he is a Conservative, the feeling about the modern Conservative party. He said that Conservatives feel unable at the present time to be aligned with a government which constantly refuses to listen". That is at the heart of the debate.

For a number of years, from the day that the poll tax was first suggested, the Government have refused to listen to critics on all sides. Even worse, the fears that were spelt out, not just by the Labour party but by the CBI and other groups that are normally friendly towards the Government, have proved to be true. Their predictions have come true. The Government have no one else to blame for the chaos that has ensued. As Mr. Parnaby, the Conservative councillor, said: The poll tax has got nothing to do at all with Labour councils.

The unpopularity of the poll tax is due to the fact that the Government want to cut their local authority expenditure commitment. They seek to shift the blame for the cuts on to local councils. It is about time that the Minister stood up, took full responsibility for cutting the Government's contribution to local authority expenditure and acknowledged that that has led to declining standards, whether it be in street cleaning, schools or other local authority services, and that where services have been improved it is due to councils standing up for their local communities and ensuring that, by hook or by crook, proper revenues are raised.

If we look at the type of people who are standing up to be counted with the Labour party on the poll tax, we get a clear idea of just how beleaguered the Government are on this issue. Take Mr. Arthur Lester, who joined his local Conservative club in Morecambe 37 years ago. He spoke for club members when he said: There is a strong feeling among a majority that the present charge is unjust and immoral and can't be justified". He continued: We are very concerned with the financial burden that is going to be placed on many people who cannot get a rebate. Those concerns are being voiced not on the basis of misinformation allegedly supplied by the Labour party and others, but because in Scotland people have not received rebates in the last year and because even with the rebates announced last week, few people will benefit.

Mr. and Mrs. Lester, who are disabled, have a state pension. He has a small occupational pension. In many ways he typifies the person who commands respect, who prudently set aside some money for an occupational pension but who is being heavily penalised because of the new poll tax system. The Lesters spent £275 on rates last year. This year they will have to pay a combined community charge of £771. The increase will swallow up the bulk of Mr. Lester's occupational pension and part of his disability benefit. He feels that he has not received a sympathetic hearing from the Government. He said: When ordinary decent people are referring to the Prime Minister as a dictator, there is something wrong. Remember, he is a member of a Conservative club. He said he was taking up the matter with his local MP, and added: I suppose we will only get excuses. There is nothing he can change. That has proved to be right. Little wonder that Mr. Lester is so disaffected with the party with which he has had links for over a quarter of a century.

The former Conservative mayor of Brighton, Bob Cristofoli, announced earlier this month that he was resigning from the Conservative group. He has for long been opposed to the poll tax and feels that he cannot be associated with the Government, who are increasingly out of touch with the people, including their own supporters. That is why people walked out of their homes as Conservative voters in Mid-Staffordshire last week and into the polling stations to vote Labour for the first time. If the poll tax remains in place until the next general election, people in increasing numbers will vote Labour.

The pressure on the Government on this issue has never been greater. There is disarray among Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers seem to be torn between blaming profligate councils, many of them Tory-controlled, the Secretary of State and, unfairly, his Department, for miscalculations. The problems caused by high poll tax levels were inevitable as the Government sought to relieve the rich from the burden of paying their way. There were property taxes in Britain during nine previous poll taxes, the last one ignominiously consigned to the dustbin over 300 years ago.

A survey of local councils carried out on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy showed most councils coming in at well above the Government's original estimates. Of 370 councils surveyed, the average target charge was exceeded by 34 per cent. in most cases. The average Conservative council was paying 81 per cent. above the Government's predictions.

We want the Minister to recognise today that those are the very councils which are likely to suffer from any poll tax-capping measure. We need the Minister's assurance that poll tax capping—which I do not support—will be applied fairly. The Minister should explain the criteria for poll tax capping and also tell us the type of councils—I have given him a few Conservative councils from which to choose—that will be capped when legislation is introduced next week.

The reason why the Minister is having to introduce poll tax capping gives the lie to the crucial argument behind the poll tax, which was that it would make councils more accountable to their electorate. If the electorate will automatically know that where councils levy a charge, it will be placed on them as individuals, and if they will be careful—as they have been anyway—about how they exercise their vote because they will, as the Government argue, for the first time have to pay directly any higher costs for improvements, services or any mis-spending by local councils, why do the Government not leave councils to suffer the consequences?

The answer to that rhetorical question is that the type of Conservatives whom I have mentioned know that the councillors are not to blame. They know that the Government are clearly to blame and that, when the Government allowed only 3.8 per cent. for inflation in grants to local authorities in the coming year, that was a bogus figure which was bound to lead to the burden being shifted from the Government on to the local poll tax payers when inflation is running at almost double that level, at 7.5 per cent.

Those Conservatives know that, when the Government calculate their figures for the contributions to local authorities on a 100 per cent. collection—which was never achieved under the rating system and will never be achieved under the poll tax system—they are deliberately trying to deceive councils and the electors. However, the electors are too clever for that.

The Government make no calculation for service improvements for which people are crying out. One has only to walk around the streets outside this building to know that the cleaning requirements are greater than ever. People are willing to pay for those service improvements, and they believe that it is only right that the Government should pay their fair share from all the taxes they collect, yet they have not been doing that.

The reason why the Government have been withdrawing their support is a mystery to many people. Ten years ago, my own authority—Edinburgh—was receiving a two thirds contribution towards local spending. For every pound spent by the local council on behalf of local residents, 66p to 67p came from central Government. That two-thirds contribution to local services has been cut drastically to about one half. The impact of that was to send rates bills, as they were, and now poll tax bills, soaring.

It beggars belief that the Government thought that they could bring in the poll tax in England and Wales at a lower level than rates, especially as there has been no revaluation in England. In Scotland, we had the twin blows of the Government withdrawing support from local councils and then we had revaluation, which shifted the budget burden from industry and from large businesses and heaped it on to small businesses and individual ratepayers. In England, people have moved from the system of rates straight to the system of poll tax, without revaluation. That is one of the key reasons why the poll tax is proving so high. The way to tackle that is not to attack councils and, through councils, the levels of services, but to honour commitments made by previous Governments to give a fair contribution to local councils and services.

Even the distribution is now so skewed as to be ludicrous and beyond comprehension. In Edinburgh, for instance, if my constituents were to receive the same support for their local services as people in the west of Scotland, in Glasgow, do, the poll tax figure in Edinburgh would be cut by £166 to £272. The Secretary of State has offered no explanation why the figures have been rigged to ensure that Edinburgh gets so little in the way of support, or why Glasgow gets inadequate support—because even those higher figures for Glasgow are not enough for a city which has legendary problems to overcome and has suffered from the collapse of the industrial revolution in Scotland.

When the Minister is spelling out which councils he wishes to poll tax-cap and giving us details of the criteria that he will apply, I hope that he will also turn his mind to the complexities of administering the poll tax. In particular, I hope that he will be able to tell us how he expects local authorities to spend on reprogramming computers and interviewing all the individuals who will be eligible for a different set of rebates when the poll tax-capping figure comes in and is imposed on councils.

I hope also that the Minister will take note of the fact that, in Scotland, the cost of implementing the poll tax—the real cost, not the hypothecated cost that we are getting in England—has been two and a half times the cost of collecting the rates. Millions, hundreds of millions, thousands of millions, of changes in the records have been required as people have moved house and disappeared or come on to electoral and poll tax registers.

In the Lothian region, it is costing some £20 per poll tax payer to collect the poll tax.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In the countryside, it can be more.

Mr. Griffiths

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) rightly says, more than that, because an extra £10 is being charged to individuals for the capital cost of implementing the poll tax.

Mr. Dalyell

There are particular problems in the rural areas. My hon. Friend represents a city; I represent some of the rural areas, and they are a special problem.

Mr. Griffiths

My hon. Friend is, as usual, vigilant about the problems that his own constituents face in a rural area. I certainly recognise those problems, and they are recognised by Lothian regional council and by councils and councillors throughout the country.

It is impossible to achieve the 100 per cent. collection figure, not least because people are coming on to and leaving the register. The Government have created an army of bureaucrats to administer this unworkable tax. They have substantially increased the amount that each person has to pay. In my constituency—indeed, in every constituency—people would rather see the £20 that has been heaped on their poll tax for administrative charges go direct to services or to reducing their charge. The last place they want to see it going is on the added bureaucracy that the Government have imposed on local councils.

That added bureaucracy has been justified by Ministers as allowing a direct relationship to be forged between each individual poll tax payer as an elector and the councillors and the decisions that they are taking. We know that this debate and the announcement that legislation is to be brought in next week, give the lie to the accountability argument. The Government are not prepared to sit back and allow councils to face the consequences at the polls. The reason is clear. It is not because councils are overspending but because the Government are underfunding local services.

The Minister should spell out the criteria. It is only fair that councils should be given some warning five, six or seven days before the tax comes in. While we expect him to do that in the interests of fairness, we do not think that he is likely to do so if the Government's track record is anything to go by. Everyone should know the criteria that are being applied. The same criteria should be applied to all councils, whether they are Labour, Conservative or of another complexion. However, the Government's record on rate capping shows that they are unlikely to be applied fairly.

The people, having seen through the Government and their bogus tax, will see through any sleights of hand or attempts to rig the system to pass the buck to local councils. It is time for a Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, "I accept full responsibility for this unpopular tax. I defend this tax unequivocally. We do not intend to repeal it." We have yet to hear anyone with a shred of sense saying that. I await the Minister's response.

6.26 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

From the many hours that we have spent together in Committee on the Property Services Agency and Crown Suppliers Bill, the Minister will know that I do not spin lines either in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I hope that I have always said what I meant.

It is against that background that I seek to address questions being asked by Conservative Members. Is the poll tax situation just a matter of teething troubles? Are there not difficulties in introducing any new tax? Will it not settle down soon, as our parliamentary and governmental leaders tell us? Those are the questions that are being asked repeatedly.

In the 27 years in which I have had the privilege of being in the House of Commons, I have never endured such continuing, sustained constituency misery as that caused by the poll tax. I fear that it will not get better for a number of reasons, only one of which I give. There is a geological flaw in the tax, in that people are mobile. The tax will never be any easier to administer. The figures ably deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) are only too true. As he said, there are 70,000 people in our region who have not yet paid. It is not a question of their not being willing to pay—in the overwhelming majority of cases at my surgeries, people genuinely cannot pay.

There is mounting resentment. The whole question of poinding is incredibly unpleasant. What does one say to people who not only have sheriff officers coming to their door but the fear of that action? That fear can cause physical illness. I am not spinning a yarn. That is what is happening in the second year of the tax. Many Conservative Members are friends of mine and I advise them that they had better understand—I say this to them publicly and privately—that year two is more miserable than year one, with an endless number of difficulties which will go on and on.

At my surgery at Winchburgh only last weekend I encountered two cases of widows whose husbands had died more than 12 months previously but had poll tax demands addressed to them. It is no good Ministers saying that the local authority is incompetent or that the officials have been careless. The truth is that they are going demented trying to operate this thing. It is difficult not to make such insensitive mistakes. For pity's sake, let the Government of this country have a second thought about the poll tax.

I owe the House an explanation. As can be seen from the Order Paper, I was lucky enough to get the ninth Consolidated Fund debate—on the circumstances of the acquisition by William Cook plc of the Atlas Steel Works at Armadale. As usual on Consolidated Fund debates, I telephoned the Minister to explain exactly what I wanted to ask. The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) listened courteously and said that he had a problem. He was due on a train at 8.10 am for important ministerial engagements in the city of Liverpool and it looked as though my debate would begin at 8 am or thereabouts. I do not think that it serves any purpose if Ministers of whatever party have to cancel, at the shortest notice, long-set-up ministerial engagements for which many other people have gone to a great deal of trouble.

In those circumstances, I willingly accepted the Minister's suggestion that he write to me, and indeed he has sent me a most helpful letter. He says: You and the industrial companies concerned are doing exactly the right thing in making representations to the Director General, who is currently carrying out a preliminary study of the case. I promise you that we wish to see the advice in this office as soon as possible for the Secretary of State to make his decision. I am told by the Director General's office that they will use their best endeavours to bring this to a Mergers Panel within two weeks following our discussion. I hope that all of the necessary information from those wishing to make representations will be available to him in good time, so that he can meet that timetable. He would then aim to get the advice for the Secretary of State as quickly as possible following that Mergers Panel meeting. Meanwhile you might like to know that the Chairman of William Cook plc has given the OFT a verbal assurance that they will take no precipitate action to dismantle the foundry. This assurance is still to be put in writing. I hope that this is satisfactory to you. You will appreciate that I cannot comment on the merits of the case as the Secretary of State does need first to seek advice from the Director General. Thank you for agreeing that this letter can be in place of replying to a Consolidated Fund debate. The hon. Member for Wokingham has honourably done exactly what he said he would do, and I thank him for it.

6.32 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

In one sense, there is a short answer to this debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for the Environment are currently considering information about local authority budgets and when that consideration is complete, announcements will be made about whether there will be capping in the coming year. Those announcements would also cover any criteria that would be applied. I cannot go further than that.

We have been treated to a speech lasting over half an hour from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths)—

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

How long has the Department had the data from the local authorities?

Mr. Chope

Data are still coming in from the local authorities. I believe that all local authorities have now set their budgets but that budget information has to be delivered to my Department and to other regional Departments and then considered. That is what is happening at present.

We had a speech of over half an hour from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South. I thought that we would be treated to a resumé of all the merits of the roof tax. I know that the Labour party in Scotland is leading the field on developing the roof tax proposal and I am aware of the Labour party's enthusiasm for it nationally. I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman would compare a capping scheme for the roof tax with a capping scheme for the community charge. He avoided talking about the roof tax or any alternative to the community charge. He referred only in passing to the problems caused by a revaluation under the rating system.

When I was in Scotland recently, the feeling came through strongly that the rating system was unjust. That injustice was made manifest by the revaluation. Many people in Scotland felt that if there had been a domestic revaluation in England, the manifest injustice of the domestic rating system in England would have become even more apparent, as the effects of revaluation came home to people. The hon. Gentleman seems to agree with those points; I shall give way to him.

Mr. Griffiths

Does the Minister accept that the injustice that he has omitted is the injustice of the Government's abolition of the Labour scheme that gave a 100 per cent. rebate to widows, the disabled, the elderly and those on the lowest incomes? Does he agree that it was a terrible injustice to abolish that 100 per cent. rebate?

Mr. Chope

I believe that it is reasonable that every adult makes some contribution towards the costs of local government services. If a person is on income support, the level of support reflects the fact that a contribution has to be made towards the cost of local government services. It is reasonable that someone on income support who lives, for example, in the London borough of Lambeth, will end up paying 20 per cent. of the charge in Lambeth. If the person lives in Wandsworth he will pay 20 per cent. of the charge in Wandsworth. The amount that he has to pay will be 20 per cent. of £148 in Wandsworth and 20 per cent. of about £600 in Lambeth. That brings home even to someone on income support the way in which the council conducts its affairs. That is an important element of accountability.

Many people living in Lambeth, whether on income support or not, will realise during the forthcoming local election campaign exactly the extent to which they are victims of the extravagance of their council. People will vote for lower community charges. Even if people have to pay only 20 per cent. of the charge, they could make a real saving. That is why they will vote for Conservative candidates.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it true, as some of us read, that Wandsworth is receiving favoured son financial treatment from the Government? Are we to believe it, or is it wrong?

Mr. Chope

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that. If we make the comparison between Lambeth and Wandsworth, we see that external support per adult in Lambeth is £324 more than in Wandsworth. Notwithstanding that amazing extra generosity of the taxpayer in Government support to Lambeth community charge payers, Lambeth borough council proposes to set a community charge which is roughly £450 more than that in Wandsworth. If it does, Lambeth will be spending some £775 more per adult than Wandsworth. Most of that additional expenditure is simply wasted. I speak with some feeling on that, because my address in London happens to be in the London borough of Lambeth. I see the poor quality of the services and the inefficiency with which they are delivered. To suggest that the difference between the two boroughs can be put down to the grant going into them is a red herring.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South may be surprised and amazed at the figures I have given, but he must realise the extent to which Labour councils have a propensity to waste community charge payers' and ratepayers' money. Under the new system a ready reckoner is provided so that one can compare the position in one borough with that in another. That is why it is so helpful, as it introduces accountability and ensures that, overall, pressure is brought to bear to achieve better value for money in local government services.

A political environment is all about choice—the choice between a Conservative council and a Labour one, and the choice between a roof tax or a community charge. I understand that there is serious consternation in Scotland about what a roof tax will involve, whether or not a capping scheme is attached to it. I am told that in Scotland a roof tax could cost £1,000 plus per adult. The more exemptions and reliefs associated with that tax, the higher it will have to be for everyone else.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) recently confirmed that the Labour party believes that the same amount of money should be raised locally from ordinary citizens as is currently raised by the community charge or the domestic rating system. The Labour party has not said that the local contribution should be smaller, but that it should be distributed on a less fair basis, which would penalise those who wanted to improve their homes.

Mr. Griffiths

The only consternation felt in Scotland is among the staff of Conservative central office, who are worried whether the Conservatives can hold a single parliamentary seat at the next election.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I was in Scotland a couple of weeks ago and I happened to be in Alloway. Within the past three weeks, at a local government by-election in that area, the Labour majority of more than 400 was reduced to one of just over 100. That shows the way in which the people of Scotland are increasingly disillusioned with the Labour party, particularly its alternative to the community charge.

I must pay credit to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland for coming clean with an alternative proposal so that the Scottish people can judge the community charge against the roof tax. I have seen some of the posters in Scotland that show a picture of a house with vultures sitting on top of its roof. Those vultures represent the Socialists, the Labour party, and that campaign is having a major impact in Scotland.

I am sure that, when the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) becomes a little less coy about the Labour party proposals for England, we shall witness growing consternation about the threat of a Labour Government introducing a roof tax, which would be extremely unfair. As with all its proposals, the more the Labour party alternative to the community charge comes under scrutiny, the more it wriggles about and suggests that everyone would be better off under the roof tax. In reality, most people would be a lot worse off.

The roof tax would be extremely unfair and bear heavily upon widows, widowers, single householders and people who live in areas where the capital values of property go up because of market demand.

The roof tax would also bear heavily on the sort of people I met yesterday when I visited Stoke-on-Trent and a local improvement area in which the value of properties had gone up substantially as a result of improvement grants and the efforts of the council, housing associations and the private sector to improve the quality of the properties. I said yesterday—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), who was present, did not deny it—that under the roof tax people who benefit from improvements to their properties will be expected, by reason of that benefit, to contribute significantly more towards the cost of local government services. Opposition Members may think that that is fair. I do not, and nor do most of the British people.

Mr. Dalyell

Ornithologically, the vulture is a bird of warning. May this particular vulture give the Minister a word of warning? In disputed cases in Scotland we find that there is argument about where a person was at a particular time. That has to be established, and people are then asked where they were on a particular night. That question easily becomes interpreted as the question, "With whom were you?" Such a situation shows that it is difficult to tax mobility. At least property is static. The general idea of the roof tax, which is actually the rates wrapped up under a new name, is basically as good as one will get.

Mr. Chope

That is an interesting observation, but the roof tax goes further than the old rating system because the document produced by the Scottish Labour party states that it not only taxes on the property value, but takes into account the income of those living in it.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

indicated assent.

Mr. Chope

I see that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South confirms that that is so. If it takes into account the income of those living in the property, it has to identify them and be able to work out their means. That means that the roof tax proposal is even more complicated than the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) seems to be prepared to accept, and certainly much more complicated than the community charge, which does not require another property valuation every time there is a change in the market, an improvement is carried out to somebody's home or facilities are added on for the disabled.

Mr. Griffiths

Under the Labour proposal, it is not intended that every time an improvement is made in the home another valuation should be made. That makes it completely different from the poll tax, under which every change of circumstance and every move that people make, no matter how temporary, affects their assessment. Under the Labour scheme, with 100 per cent. rebates, the very widow to whom the Minister and Prime Minister enjoy referring will gain. The poor widow will get a 100 per cent. rebate. At present, the Minister makes such widows pay tens of hundreds of pounds.

Mr. Chope

Under the existing domestic rating system in England, widows and widowers pay many hundreds of pounds, often thousands of pounds. Single pensioners will be the main beneficiaries from the abolition of the domestic rating system in England.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying that, in Scotland, vast numbers of people, regardless of their means and merely because they are widows—even if they are millionairess widows—will be entitled to a 100 per cent. rebate.

Mr. Griffiths


Mr. Chope

Oh, so not all widows and widowers will be exempt? Gradually, we are getting the information about this scheme. How many people will be exempt from the roof tax in Scotland or England, and what would be the extent of those exemptions? It is clear that the overall impact would be average bills of about £1,000 per adult, if not more. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare; most people in Scotland can see that, which is why they are increasingly rejecting the idea. When it is developed further in England, people here will also wish to reject it.

Politics is all about alternatives. It is easy to criticise a system, particularly a taxation system. Most people agree with Conservative Members, and say that they feel in their bones that most of our town halls could spend much less money, and be substantially more efficient. We need a system that will bring pressure to bear to ensure that those efficiency savings are made.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South referred in passing to some selected examples of increases in spending in England. I shall take him to task on one or two of them to show that he is entirely out of touch with reality. He criticised Derby, which is Conservative-controlled and has a well-run council. He said that there would be a substantial community charge in Derby. That is right, but whereas Conservative-controlled Derby city council has a budget below its standard spending assessment—in other words, it is providing services with greater than average efficiency—Derby county council is spending at 25 per cent. above its standard spending assessment. That spending amounts to £157 per adult on top of what would have to be paid if the council spent in line with its standard spending assessment.

The hon. Gentleman has scored an own goal. Whereas Derby city council, under Conservative control, has shown that it is well able to live within the standard spending assessment and provide good quality services, Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council has shown that it is extravagant and has no regard to the means of the people living in its area to meet high community charge bills. There are those who say that Derbyshire county council should be capped to provide some protection to the hard-pressed community charge payers in that area.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

What about Beverley?

Mr. Chope

The situation in Beverley is not dissimilar from that in Derby. Humberside county council is Labour-controlled, and it increased its spending dramatically. Some of the Beverley councillors fear that it will not come across clearly to the people that the increase in spending and the high community charges are associated with the high-spending Labour policies of the county council. When the bills come through, however, that should become apparent. The hon. Gentleman would wish that not to be so, but the reason will become increasingly apparent.

Perhaps it would help the House if I said a little about the relative spending levels of different counties and districts that are under different political control. Labour-controlled counties are planning precepts that are £82 a head more than their standard spending assessments, whereas Conservative-controlled counties are planning precepts that are only £25 more than theirs. On average, Labour-controlled counties are overspending by three times as much as Conservative ones.

Labour-controlled shire districts are planning precepts of £45 per head more than their standard spending assessments, whereas Conservative districts are planning spending only £7 a head more than their assessments.

The starkest contrast is to be found in the London boroughs. Many regard the London Labour-controlled boroughs as the heartland of the Labour party. Much Labour party policy is developed in these areas, including high spending by local authorities. These boroughs dominate the Labour party. In London, the Labour-controlled boroughs are spending £223 a head above their standard spending assessments, whereas Conservative boroughs are spending only £3 a head above theirs. In other words, £220 per adult more than the standard spending assessments is being spent in Labour-controlled boroughs compared with the small excess of Conservative-controlled boroughs. That is a strong message that is going out to the people of London. It will bring home to them and to others nationally the extent of Labour extravagance and overspending.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

My hon. Friend was talking about Derbyshire and Humberside. He might like to know that Nottinghamshire is in the same position as those counties. It is overspending and overcharging the Nottinghamshire people by £80. The Conservative opposition drew up a budget that would have been almost on target and would have saved charge payers £80 each. My hon. Friend might also like to know that, last year, Nottinghamshire could not even balance its education budget. It was overspent by £2.5 million. Worse still, the authority could not account for £750,000. Those are the sort of people who are running Nottinghamshire.

Mr. Chope

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I sympathise with his constituents who have to live under that council.

The essence of the new system is that it will bring increased accountability so that people can choose between the better councils and the worse councils. Almost without exception, Conservatives in opposition are proposing substantial reductions in the community charge when they are elected to office.

Let me conclude by referring to the position in the Labour-controlled metropolitan districts, which are spending £93 a head over their standard spending assessments, whereas Conservative-controlled metropolitan districts are spending only £20 over the SSAs. We see a pattern across the country of Labour spendthrift policies and Labour overspending. That is why the Labour party despises the community charge. The community charge puts a premium on accountability and the Labour party does not like accountability. It does not like local people to realise where the blame for high spending and high bills lies—almost without exception in Labour town halls.