HC Deb 17 October 1990 vol 177 cc1206-8
8. Mr. Ernie Ross

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss local government finance.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang)

My right hon. and learned Friend last met the president and senior office bearers of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on 6 July.

Mr. Ross

When the Minister met the president and office bearers, did he discuss with them the increasing difficulty that they and their members are encountering in encouraging people to pay their poll tax? Does he not realise that the inability of local government to draw blood from a stone by asking people living on poverty wages to pay a minimum of 20 per cent. is seriously challenging its ability to deliver services? Is it not time that he and his colleagues did away with the poll tax and started to deal with the serious underfunding from which local authorities have suffered for a number of years?

Mr. Lang

Part of the problem that local authorities have faced in collecting the community charge is the fact that so many Members of Parliament and councillors—in the Labour party and in other parties—have discouraged people from paying, thus leading them into considerable personal difficulty. In my view, they are embarking on a course of the highest irresponsibility. Despite that, however, authorities in Scotland now expect, on average, to collect some 95 per cent. of their budgeted targets. As the community charge accounts for only about one fifth of the total expenditure of local authorities, they will have about 99 per cent. of their total spend. In those circumstances, they should be able to meet the problem through prudent management of their spending.

Mr. Harris

Has my hon. Friend noticed that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) has moved from the Labour Benches to the Scottish National Benches? However, it does not matter—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Has this something to do with Scottish questions? The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to the question on the Order Paper.

Mr. Harris

It does not matter where an Opposition Member sits if that hon. Member engages in the irresponsible and reprehensible action of encouraging people not pay their community charge. That hits—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he knows that he must ask a question and not make statements.

Mr. Lang

I had noticed that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) had moved from the Labour Benches to those of the Scottish National party. As he has moved from one socialist party to another, however, it is hard to tell the difference.

As for the attitude to the community charge, the most unfair and irresponsible posture for any party to adopt is to encourage people not to pay their fair share. The most unfair feature of all would be for those who have contributed to the cost of local services to be asked to pay the cost of those who have not. That is something that local authorities should not be asked to do.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think that I should call Mr. Dick Douglas.

Mr. Douglas

When the Secretary of State met COSLA, did he not say that local authorities in Scotland had fallen into the trap that he had laid for them? They are caught between a rock and a hard place. In the beginning, COSLA said that the tax was unworkable so why is it now trying to make it work by the most draconian means? I myself—and I have already been referred to—have been the subject of warrants of a dubious nature. Is it really in the mind of the Secretary of State to tell local authorities that to make the tax work they must get into the barbarous atmosphere and attitude of poinding and warrant sales? Should not the Minister go back to COSLA and say that he will review the scheme and take it away completely?

Mr. Lang

The vast majority of community charge payers have paid and are paying their community charge. The system of recovery available to local authorities is broadly the same as it was under the previous rating system. Those who are willing to ignore the irresponsible advice of politicians who tell people not to pay taxes, and are willing to pay their due to local authorities, will not have to fear the processes of recovery.

Mr. Maxton

When will the Minister stop using the rather foolish non-payment campaign being run by the Scottish National party as a shield behind which to hide and pretend that the poll tax is working? Does he not recognise that research shows that the vast majority of those who have not paid their poll tax simply cannot afford to pay it? The simple fact is that he could end the crisis tomorrow by abolishing the 20 per cent. rule, allowing a moratorium on rebates back to 1 April 1989 and improving the rebate system to make it much more generous. He must recognise that Scottish local authorities are facing a financial crisis as a result of the poll tax itself and not because a few people are foolishly not paying it.

Mr. Lang

If the hon. Gentleman is trying to tell me that Labour Members of Parliament and Labour councillors are refusing to pay their community charges because they cannot afford to do so, I have to tell him that I do not believe it. The vast majority of people have paid their community charge, and more than I million are eligible for a rebate, so account is taken of ability to pay. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's irresponsible position explains why his party has inconceivably decided to go back to the even more unfair and most unacceptable payment of all, with a return to the old rating system.