HC Deb 10 July 1991 vol 194 cc935-7
4. Mr. Summerson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment which local authorities are imposing a surcharge of £20 or more on their community charge payers for the financial year 1991–92 to make up for any non-collection of community charge in the financial year 1990–91.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo)

We do not have precise information on what is being charged this year for the non-collection of community charge last year, but I know of 71 councils which have added £20 or more to this year's charge for non-collection during the current year.

Mr. Summerson

Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the Labour-controlled London borough of Waltham Forest for its imposition of a surcharge of no less than £50.29 on the people of my constituency as a result of its failure to collect a reasonable proportion Of the community charge last year? Will my hon. Friend further condemn the Labour leader of that council and those of his Labour colleagues who publicly announced last year that they would be refusing to pay the community charge, thus heaping an even greater burden on my constituents this year?

Mr. Portillo

Yes, I warmly support what my hon. Friend has said, and I feel sorry for his constituents. The London borough of Waltham Forest is number seven on the list of non-collection. Lambeth is top, Liverpool second, Islington third, Newham fourth, Southampton fifth, Birmingham sixth, and Waltham Forest, seventh. Those are the worst performers in collecting the community charge, and they are all Labour controlled. In a similar case in Wirral, the leader of the council—Councillor Nolan, who advocated non-payment, putting £75 on the community charge bill—was thrown out by the electorate even though she had a majority of 1,000. The next election in Walthamstow will not be for the London borough but for my hon. Friend's seat, and he will benefit from the backlash.

Mr. Alton

Does the Minister agree that, in a city where existing services are virtually non-existent as a result of industrial disputes, it is especially offensive that residents are having to face extra bills of £70.99 this year because of the council's failure to run services properly or to collect outstanding community charge payments? Is it not disgraceful that people are, in effect, being charged double? How does he intend to ensure that people will not face the same situation with the new local tax?

Mr. Portillo

I fear that across a variety of taxes and charges, those people who are public spirited end up paying for the feckless. We must demand that local authorities take effective action. It is offensive that an additional surcharge has been made in Liverpool. I am sure that the people of Liverpool will find it offensive that, on some vital issues, the Liberals voted with Militant and thus prevented the Labour council from being as effective as it would otherwise have been.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Is there not a certain inevitability that, if senior Labour councillors run around inciting people not to pay their community charge, tax evaders will take advantage of that and consider it respectable not to pay their taxes? Is it not desperately unfair that, as a consequence of the example set by Labour councillors, ordinary law-abiding people have to pick up the tab?

Mr. Portillo

Quite honestly, I put not paying the community charge, and advocating that, on the same moral plane as fare dodging or shoplifting from supermarkets. It amazes me that Labour Members who advocate non-payment are not thrown out of the Labour party by the leadership. Despite all the fuss that is made about the hard left, some Labour Members are still advocating non-payment.

Mr. Gould

Was it not the Prime Minister who described the poll tax as "uncollectable" and was it not because the Secretary of State and the Minister agreed with him that they decided that the poll tax had to go? Why are the Minister and his colleagues still trying to make political capital out of the difficulties faced by local authorities, especially those in urban areas with highly mobile populations? Why does the Minister not acknowledge the anxieties expressed by the Audit Commission about the problems created for the judicial system and the whole of local government—problems that are intrinsic to the poll tax and are therefore the Government's responsibility? Why cannot the hon. Gentleman be helpful to local government for a change, and begin by abolishing the 20 per cent. contribution rule which carries high administrative costs with virtually no revenue gain?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman cannot shuffle off his reticence about his hon. Friend's advocacy of non-payment. He constantly tries to escape from his responsibility not only to denounce that but to lead a campaign within the Labour party to have those people thrown out.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point, I can tell him that the collection rate on average has been about 90 per cent. We are talking here about Labour authorities with collection rates as low as 67 per cent. in Lambeth and 68 per cent. in Liverpool and Islington. Labour councils have failed to collect and Labour leaders have advocated non-payment.