HC Deb 10 December 1991 vol 200 cc831-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

10.23 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

One of the central features of the hearing that saw me expelled from the Labour party on Saturday was my attitude to the poll tax and my work in the past three years to defend those who are unable to pay, by welding together with many others that force, which resulted in not only the demise of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), the former Prime Minister, but the Government's biggest climbdown in their 12 years by abandoning what the right hon. Member for Finchley called the flagship of the third term of the Tory Government.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

The third Reich.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Yes, the third Reich.

Mr. Nellist

Perhaps, more accurately, if not the third Reich, as my hon. Friends, whom I am still happy to call my hon. Friends, have just said, certainly the Titanic of that regime.

It is even more apposite to stand here this evening and to begin a short debate on the poll tax and its enforcement procedures on a day when attitudes have hardened in Scotland and a headline has apparently appeared in the Evening Times, "Poll tax war in Glasgow streets."

I realise that the Minister speaks on environment matters not for Scotland but for England and Wales. However, today 1,000 people in one of the poorest boroughs in western Europe stood in solidarity outside the homes of those who are unable to pay the poll tax, to attempt to stop an especially pernicious and mediaeval barbarity called poinding, which is the theft of items from people's homes by what we would call bailiffs, but by what are referred to in Scotland as sheriff officers, to sell those goods—often at a fraction of their value—to try to meet civil debt.

Of the 1,000 people, 29 were arrested. Although some were young, there were also a number of middle-aged men and women—a cross-section of working-class people—who stuck together on the cold streets of Glasgow. I think that it is the first time that sheriff officers, without any provocation from protesters, have called in the police in Strathclyde in that way. It marks a hardening of attitudes in Scotland on the enforcement of the poll tax. It is one year ahead of England and Wales on enforcement of the poll tax.

Strathclyde—a Labour authority—like many others, has promised, using the terms of the legislation and almost the words of the Secretary of State for the Environment, that only "wilful" non-payers, who can pay but refuse to do so, would ever have the full weight and majesty of the law thrown at them.

One of the people who was being protected in Springburn today—whose door the sheriff officers threatened to kick down—was an old woman who was wheelchair-bound. A large proportion of those suffering the ultimate sanction of imprisonment in England and Wales, have not been people on high salaries, whom Ministers and Tory MPs like to categorise as the only ones involved in the battle against the poll tax. In Scotland, England and Wales, the poorest and weakest are hardest hit by the poll tax and by the oppressive, authoritarian and barbaric measures of enforcement which are now being deployed.

In Britain, the final sanction is imprisonment, but it is ironic when one considers the expense. I do not know the value of goods collected today. I am told that one door went in and about £150-worth of goods were brought out. I should like to see the figures tomorrow showing how much police time and the time of sheriff officers, court and council officials was spent to get £150-worth of goods out of that person's home.

Where is that effort on a Sunday? I know that you ruled that Sunday trading was wide of the mark in a previous debate, Mr. Speaker, so I shall make only a slight diversion for a sentence or so. Where were the V formations and the special patrol groups in B and Q and Sainsbury on Sunday, enforcing the Shops Act 1950, in the same way that 25,000 hours of court time has been spent in England and Wales in the past 15 months to enforce poll tax legislation? If the same tests were applied to that legislation as Ministers have apparently said should be applied to the Shops Act, millions of people voting with their feet by ignoring it, millions of people have certainly voted with their feet on the poll tax.

We know why B and Q and Sainsbury do not get attacked in that way. Perhaps it is because B and Q put on dances for agents at Tory party conferences and Sainsbury has representatives at ministerial level.

The poll tax is unenforceable and uncollectable in Scotland—after three years, 64 per cent. of the population have not paid, and in Strathclyde 84 per cent. have not paid. Out of 3.7 million adults, 2.5 million have received sheriff's warrants. The figures are also huge in England and Wales. The best description is that they are of herculean proportions.

The Home Office has admitted to me—it took a while to get the figures readily—that, in the 18 months from 1 April 1990 to 30 September 1991, 8,023,621 people in England and Wales were summonsed to court, and 195,845 had turned up, taking up 23,558 hours of court time. That is what the Prime Minister meant, shortly after he came into office, having seen the right hon. Lady deposed, when he told a Back-Bench Tory committee that the poll tax was uncollectable and unenforceable. Up to the end of September in England and Wales, 195,000 people had turned up in court to tell the magistrates why they could not and would not pay the poll tax. Committal warrants for prison have been issued in respect of 2,815 of those people.

Although the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will be replying to the debate, I asked the Home Office only a few days ago for comparable figures for the five years before the poll tax of the number of people who had not paid their rates. It did not collect the figures. I am not surprised; it did not want a comparison. The citizens advice bureaux did a survey in 1987, which showed that 370 people were summonsed and given committal warrants for non-payment of domestic rates. That is about 15 per cent. of the number of committal warrants issued so far in connection with the poll tax, with only one fifth or one sixth of local authorities moving down that road.

The latest figures show that 54 local authorities have sought to gaol 152 people. As of tonight, 115 have served sentences. Again we are told that they are deceitful and wilful non-payers—not people who cannot afford to pay. Let us hear an explanation when 30 were unemployed, 15 were pensioners, and three were on invalidity benefit.

Let us hear an explanation of why, a fortnight ago in Stroud, 22-year-old Maria Jones, having offered £5 a week out of her £42 a week benefit and having explained that she was 31 weeks pregnant, was still sentenced to 60 days in prison. Let us hear what her major crime was. Let us find why Richard Northover, so far the oldest person to go to prison, was sent there, not for not paying the poll tax—he had paid it—but for not having filled in the registration form two years ago. He got 28 days in HMP Dorchester at the age of 80.

Other pensioners of that age have been put away. Bill Jones, from St. Helens, was taken into HMP Walton—the same prison in which my good friend and comrade, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields), served 58 days of a sentence in principled opposition to the sentencing of pensioners and those who cannot afford to pay the poll tax. When Bill Jones arrived at Walton, what happened? Bill is old; he is also a war veteran; he is a diabetic and he has only one leg. So they collapsed his wheelchair, gave him a firefighters' lift up the stairs and put him in a cell. Bill has voted Tory all his life—another little irony. I do not think that he will be voting Tory after that experience.

Pensioners have had heart attacks in Preston and other prisons. None of this is to collect money. If we take the costs of imprisonment, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders says that prisoners cost an average of £47 per day. It is not long before that is no longer cost-effective when the poll tax debt is £200.

There are too many poll tax prisoners. I have dealt with a number of cases with the Home Office, particularly in Kent, where people have been kept in police cells for some days. One was there 15 days. According to NACRO, the average cost of keeping prisoners in police and court cells is £220 a day. It costs only £190 a night to stay at the Ritz. Keeping a prisoner in a police cell for one day usually costs more than the entire bill the prisoner is fighting.

There are other examples, such as 69-year-old Ron Cassidy from Northumberland, near where I come from. He is a star dominos player in his local pub, where his team used to win every night. Two nights in a row they lost, so they went looking for Ron. They found him in Durham maximum security prison. He owed £62 poll tax and they put him away for 90 days in that prison—a day in prison for every 69p that he owed.

What about the Guinness scandal? What happened to Ronson? Eight million quid went in that scandal, but he got one day in prison for every £30,000 that he owed. He was not sent to a maximum security prison, but to an open prison. He was entitled to remission, and parole. Poll tax is a civil debt, however, and there is no remission and parole—one serves the full sentence when one is put away. Ronson got that parole and remission, and when he got out he was invited to dinner with the Queen Mother. No poll tax prisoner has received a letter from the royal family inviting him to dinner.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend has illustrated powerfully the double standards employed by the Government to deal with ordinary people and those in the City. My hon. Friend should accept from me that his powerful case is ample justification for his award as Back Bencher of the year and why I believe that a serious error was committed in West Bromwich on Saturday.

Mr. Nellist

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that on the record.

Many of those who have been sent to prison rely on income support alone. Others, such as pensioners, are on fixed or low incomes. Some have no income. A number of women with no income have been sent to prison because they were unable to pay the poll tax.

No doubt the Minister will tell us that safeguards were built into system when income support was increased to cover the 20 per cent. of poll tax for which everyone is liable. That support was based on the false assumption that it covered the rise in real poll tax levels as opposed to the notional, national averages. It was also based on the even worse assumption that the actual level of income support in April 1990 was sufficient for people to live on in the first place.

Four years ago, I argued with the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security about the Fowler review, which led to cuts in income support. A 33-year-old widow with four children in my constituency lost free school meals and housing benefit—a total loss of £25.

Millions of people lost as a result of those cuts, but the difference between their anger and that felt by those in the poll tax battle is glue. In the anti-poll tax struggle, nearly 2,000 groups emerged, and at its peak we had 25 groups in Coventry. Those groups welded people together and provided collective community action. People did not have to face the problem alone as they do so often when it comes to social security benefit cuts.

In April 1990 the amount of income support was not sufficient for people to live on, so the increase to cover the 20 per cent. poll tax charge was not sufficient. Thorough research conducted by Newcastle polytechnic has been passed on to me by the Rev. Paul Nicholson, who has done sterling work to highlight the problems of those on income support. He has also opposed the imprisonment of those unable to pay their poll tax.

The research revealed that, in April 1990, the income support—including the supplement to cover 20 per cent. of the poll tax—for a family of two adults and two primary school children who use the cheapest form of fuel and do not "waste" their income through smoking and drinking, constituted two thirds of the minimum sum experts have identified as sufficient to meet their living requirements. Those who were compelled to use oil for heating and enjoyed a drink and a smoke received an income support entitlement that was just over half of what experts identified as necessary to meet their requirements.

The Secretary of State has refused to answer my questions on this matter. The Government trumpet the £140 reduction, but the reduction given to those on income support is inadequate and does not match the needs of those in receipt of that money.

In conjunction with the Home Office, the Department of the Environment should issue a circular immediately to every magistrates covrt. I do not know whether the rules and procedures governing magistrates' decisions on poll tax cases have been communicated to them in a proper training package. I have tabled parliamentary questions about that, but I have received no proper answers. The Secretary of State should issue an instruction tonight to all magistrates to the effect that they have the power to remit the payment of the poll tax for anybody who cannot afford to pay. It should be their automatic policy from tonight that anyone in receipt of income support or low incomes equivalent to income support—and, say, 50, 60 or 70 per cent. above those levels—should automatically have their poll tax debts remitted.

I now intend to bring before the House a series of private Member's Bills. The first will be designed to bring English and Welsh law into line with Scottish law, which four years ago, under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, abolished in Scotland the medieval barbarity of putting people in prison for civil debt. That law should apply in England and Wales as well. Were it to do so, literally hundreds of thousands of people would tonight not be sitting at home frightened about whether they might be dragged into the courts and on to prison.

Many people have been forced, when trying to pay the poll tax, into choosing between food, fuel and clothing and paying the tax. In 1991, we should not be making the poorest in society the scapegoats for a policy that even every Tory Member admits is dead, is dying and should be abolished. We could do something tonight by having the Minister announce that magistrates will stop putting in prison people who cannot pay their poll tax. He should seek immediate discussions with the Home Office with a view to having the law altered, to bring English and Welsh law into line with Scottish law.

I ask the Minister to do one more thing for those millions of families, many of whom are part of that 250,000 who are more than six months in arrears with their mortgage repayments, who fear that their homes will be taken from them and who have paid the poll tax. They have been responsible locally, particularly in areas of the highest deprivation, and they are paying surcharges to local councils of £20, £50, £70 and more a year for those who cannot pay the poll tax. Those who have paid have been surcharged. That should be on the national Exchequer, not on those locally who are trying to make ends meet.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put those arguments before the House. I do not expect much joy from the Minister tonight, but I give warning that, for the time I remain on these Benches, with the label on which I came here eight and a half years ago—as a Labour Member of Parliament, albeit a Member who has a label beneath his name on the TV as an expelled Labour Member—I shall bring before the House the necessary measures not just to talk about the death of the poll tax but to bury it once and for all.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) on his success in raising an important issue on the Adjournment. I also congratulate him on winning The Spectator's Back Bencher of the Year award. I fundamentally disagree with his proposition, although I congratulate him on the stand that he has taken for his principles. Many parliamentarians would also congratulate him, however strongly they might disagree with him.

The hon. Gentleman illustrated his argument graphicaly, and so shall I. No hon. Member will forget the riots in Trafalgar square and elsewhere in the country that were provoked by those opposed to a system of taxation endorsed by Parliament. Nor will we forget those hon. Members who were regarded as the darlings of the rioters. Whatever justification there may have been 600 years ago for riot and revolt, there was never such justification today. The House will recall just how often in recent years the hon. Gentleman was compared to Wat Tyler, leader of the peasants' revolt of June 1381. They have precious little in common, except that they both worked in the construction industry before journeying to London.

I begin my answer to the hon. Member by reminding the House that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. I will show why the hon. Gentleman has achieved nothing of any worth or substance by his protest. Tyler was a mob leader. He would have been quite at home in those Trafalgar square riots. He and his comrades sacked and pillaged their way from Rochester to Canterbury, from there to Lambeth palace and Southwark. They dragged Archbishop Sudbury from the chapel in the Tower of London and plundered and slaughtered their way through London. They, too, felt strongly about prisons. They incited prison riots, burned prisons down and sacked and burned John of Gaunt's splendid palace of the Savoy. Was history repeating itself when The Spectator magazine recently perpetrated the huge joke of wining and dining the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East on his success as Back Bencher of the Year at today's Savoy palace?

Wat Tyler was defeated by the courage and judgment of his king—a boy of 14—and the wisdom of Parliament. History surely repeats itself in the poll tax rebel's end. Wat Tyler was struck down and fatally injured by the sword of the loyal Lord Mayor of London, whose name is commemorated in time-honoured fashion. In the road named after him, today's so-called tribunes of the people decided to bring to an end the antics of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East. The Lord Mayor who saved the king and all that he stood for was William Walworth. The young king had made concessions to appease the rioters and prevent further loss of life and bloody rioting, but within a year, they were revoked by Parliament, and no permanent results were obtained by Wat Tyler's poll tax revolt. None have been obtained by the hon. Gentleman, either.

The legislation ensures that people have a statutory right to pay the community charge in manageable instalments. The community charge regime is an improvement on domestic rates in that respect. On receipt of a bill, the charge payer is given a specified date by which he or she should pay each instalment. The date governing the first instalment cannot be sooner than 14 days after the issue of the bill.

If an instalment is not paid, a reminder is issued. That requires the outstanding instalments to be paid within seven days. The authority may issue a second reminder notice, but it is under no obligation to do so. Charge payers are therefore given at least two opportunities to pay their community charge instalment.

If, following the issue of the reminder, the charging authority still does not receive payment, the right to pay by instalments is lost and the charge payer becomes liable to pay the authority the full amount of community charge outstanding for the remainder of the year. That sum must be paid to the authority within a further seven days.

If payment is still not received, the authority will take enforcement action against that person to ensure that the required sum is paid. To start that procedure, the authority applies to a magistrates court for a summons. The summons requires the person to attend the court to explain to the magistrate why the sum has not been paid.

If the bill and the reminder notice have been issued in accordance with the regulations and the charge is still outstanding, the magistrate must issue a liability order to the council so that it can take action against the defaulter. That order is made for the aggregate of the sum payable and for costs incurred by the charging authority and the court in obtaining and issuing the order.

Once the order has been issued, the charging authority has a number of recovery options available to it. We have strengthened and widened those powers compared with those that were available to authorities for the enforcement of the old domestic rates. Under the rates, the only means of enforcement available were to distrain and sell the ratepayer's goods in order to discharge the debt or, if insufficient goods were found, to apply for a committal warrant. Both remedies apply in the case of the community charge and will apply to the council tax.

In relation to the community charge, we have given authorities the powers to attach a defaulter's earnings or to ask the Department of Social Security to make deductions from income support payments. Those remedies were added because we believe the payment of debt by manageable amounts to be more civilised than distraint. Those are powerful additions to an authority's enforcement battery. They will also apply to the collection of the council tax.

Mr. Nellist

First, will the Minister give an assurance tonight that his Department will start to collect statistics on the attachment of earnings orders and how many have been collected or returned? I have asked for those figures, and apparently none exist. Secondly, why is there imprisonment in England and Wales when the Government abolished it four years ago in Scotland? Why are there two different systems of law?

Mr. Key

That is an historical question, which the hon. Gentleman should address to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have answered parliamentary questions from the hon. Gentleman when I have been able to do so. Where the information was not available, I was obviously not able to do so.

On imprisonment and so-called amnesties, it is illegal and irresponsible to withhold payment of the community charge. Such action merely deprives authorities of funds that they need to provide services enjoyed by the whole community. It also transfers the debt to those law-abiding charge payers who pay their charge, many of whom will be earning considerably less than hon. Members who chose to default.

The Government have made it clear on a number of occasions and I repeat it now: there will be no amnesty for non-payers. People must realise that local authorities will pursue non-payers until they have secured payment, however long it takes. The introduction of the council tax will not mean that people who have not paid their community charge can forget about it. If they still owe their local authority money, they must pay it: they will not be let off the hook.

As I explained earlier, the community charge procedures give charge payers every opportunity to pay their community charge. Enforcement action can be stopped at any stage by the payment of the amount due. If a charge payer is in financial difficulties but is prepared to offer to pay off any arrears at a reasonable rate, most authorities will accept such arrangements. However, if someone wilfully refuses to pay the charge, it is right that he should have to pay the price for his illegal action. In those circumstances, a magistrate can sentence someone to a maximum of three months in prison. So far, only a tiny minority of the 36 million law-abiding charge payers in this country have chosen to face that ultimate sanction. Most of them did so to make a political point and to gain publicity.

The hon. Gentleman has made much of the power of imprisonment for non-payment. He has pointed to the difference between the treatment of offenders in Scotland and England, and said that the Scots do not imprison defaulters following their acceptance of the Scottish Law Commission's report, which recommended that civil imprisonment for the non-payment of rates and taxes should be abolished.

The collection position in Scotland is far worse than in this country. The Scottish National party must take much of the blame for the lack of payment in Scotland. They have irresponsibly encouraged people to withhold payment, and then at the eleventh hour they have made payments, leaving those poorer people who were foolish enough to follow their appalling example to face the consequences of now owing a lump sum.

The threat of imprisonment for non-payment of local taxes is not unique to the community charge. It existed under the old domestic rating system, and still exists for those who do not pay rates in Northern Ireland. Among our European colleagues, people in the Netherlands who do not pay local taxes can also be imprisoned.

To deprive someone of their liberty is never an easy decision to make. Imprisonment is a harsh measure that should be used only when every other reasonable avenue has failed. However, I state again that enforcement procedures offer plenty of opportunities for someone to pay their dues and so avoid imprisonment. Before any committal warrant is issued, the magistrates court must hold a means inquiry, and it is only following that that a warrant can be issued.

The courts have shown themselves sympathetic in cases where the charge payer does not have the means to pay. The court will issue such a warrant only where it is satisfied that the failure to pay the charge was wilful or negligent. Those warrants do not necessarily need to be served by the police. A local authority can make its own arrangements to arrest defaulters, which can include the use of bailiffs, and the defaulter must comply with such a warrant from the court.

People who go to prison for non-payment of the community charge do so because they choose to lose their liberty rather than pay the amount that is rightfully theirs to pay. Some Opposition Members have campaigned to stop the imprisonments. We have no wish to see people imprisoned any more than they have, but the law must be upheld. If someone deliberately flouts the law in that manner, they only have themselves to blame for the consequences. I urge all Opposition Members who have not paid their poll tax to do so without delay.

Mr. Terry Lewis

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Key

Of course I shall not give way. There is no question of my giving way—

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.