HC Deb 30 January 1991 vol 184 cc935-7
11. Mr. Nellist

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he is making with his review of the poll tax; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Portillo

My right hon. Friend has announced the new community charge reduction scheme, which is the first result of our review and which will be in place to reduce next year's charges. Work on the longer tens is continuing.

Mr. Nellist

Despite the answers given yesterday by the Secretary of State to me and by the Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) that local authorities could be flexible about the poll tax and the troops in the Gulf, does the Minister agree that the 32 Tory councillors on Newbury district council must have approved sending a poll tax demand to 20-year-old Private Mark Patchett, who received it in a trench on the Saudi-Kuwait border? Even though I have not altered my opposition to both the tax and the war, does not the Minister accept that he should take the opportunity this afternoon to do as President Bush did in America last week, when he announced that United States rank-and-file service men and women were exempt from federal income tax, and announce that British troops in the Gulf are henceforth exempt from the poll tax?

Mr. Portillo

I listened to the exchange yesterday between the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and my right hon. Friend and I did not think that the hon. Gentleman heard my right hon. Friend correctly. What my right hon. Friend said was that community charges registration officers have discretion and that we have recommended to them that where a service man is posted to the Gulf for an indefinite period, he should be regarded as exempt from the day of his posting. The local authority that the hon. Gentleman cited recognised that it had not operated in accordance with that guidance and it issued an apology.

I have no reason to believe that the guidance is defective or that there is need for legislation. If we found that the arrangements were not working satisfactorily for any reason, we would reconsider the matter. The important thing is to give our guidance a chance to work. I have no reason to believe that it is not working satisfactorily.

Mr. Channon

Since my hon. Friend announced recently that the review would take into account not only the community charge but the functions and status of local government, will he assure me that he is giving careful attention to the need to reintroduce county boroughs which would be popular in all parts of the country?

Mr. Portillo

I have noted that my right hon. Friend and others support that idea. Many of my hon. Friends would like to have more unitary authorities and they look back to the county boroughs which used to exist. Obviously, I cannot give my right hon. Friend a commitment now, but it is within the scope of the review to consider such matters.

Rev. Martin Smyth

In an earlier reply to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), it was suggested that the review was complex. Does not it add to the complexity of the review that although the Secretary of State invited parties to participate, he turned down the offer of the fourth-largest party in the House to take part, especially when that party represents constituents, particularly service men, who will be affected?

Mr. Portillo

I am happy to clarify the matter. The Government do not think that it would be productive to talk to parties from Northern Ireland about conditions in Northern Ireland, because that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. If representatives of parties in Northern Ireland wish to discuss the effect of the community charge and its arrangements on their constituents who live in Great Britain, I should be happy to accede to that and have a meeting with them.

Mr. Burns

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether during the review he has had any discussions with the Lord President's office or with your office. Mr. Speaker, about the rules of suspension from the House, to take into account Labour Members who are illegally refusing to pay their community charge?

Mr. Portillo

I have not had such discussions, although the question arises sometimes when local authority members who are not paying their community charge have voted on questions of non-collection. I believe that grave legal issues arise. I do not know how they would be resolved in a court of law, but elected representatives should be cautious not only about the example that they set but about voting on matters in which they have an interest.

Mr. Blunkett

In my letter to the Secretary of State on the exemption from the poll tax of service personnel in the Gulf, I offered the full co-operation of the Labour party in passing any regulations necessary to ensure that such action could be carried out by local authorities throughout the country. In the light of the comments yesterday of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) about the increase of £14 per head to residents of that area because of the number of people affected by the Gulf crisis, are the Government willing to reconsider yesterday's announcement so that full reimbursement can be made to local authorities, clarity can be provided to ensure that all people have the same treatment, wherever they live, and fairness and decency can apply?

Mr. Portillo

I am grateful for the Labour party's offer to speed through any necessary legislation, but, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), I am not satisfied that there is a need for legislation. Our recommendations will cope satisfactorily with the generality of cases. The specific case of local authorities with a large number of service men posted to the Gulf which are therefore losing community charge income will be raised at a meeting which I shall have at 4 pm with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who is leading a delegation. I shall listen carefully to what he has to say and it will be of broader application to other local authorities. When I have heard the case I shall consider it carefully.