HC Deb 04 March 1992 vol 205 cc350-8

  1. 13A.—(1) Regulations under this Schedule may include provision that, in any proceedings before a magistrates' court under any provision included by virtue of the preceding provisions of this Part of this Schedule—
    1. (a) a statement contained in a document of record shall be admissible as evidence of any fact stated in it of which direct oral evidence would be admissible; and
    2. (b) a certificate which is made with respect to a document of record produced by a computer and purports to be signed by a responsible person shall he admissible as evidence of anything which is stated in it to the best of his information and belief.
  2. (2) In this paragraph—

(5) In paragraph 15 (joint and several liability), in sub-paragraph (3), for the words "it appears to the authority concerned that no (or insufficient) goods of that person can be found" there shall be substituted the words "the person making the distress reports to the authority that he was unable (for whatever reason) to find any or sufficient goods of the chargeable person".")

Read a Second time.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment, amendment (a) in line 38, at end insert 'who can be made available to the court to testify to the proper and secure operation of the computer, and the accuracy of the record'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 31, 37 and 55 to 57.

Mr. Cohen

The amendment concerns personal privacy, which the Government are guilty of invading. My amendment would ensure that a responsible person would have to be made available to the court to testify to the proper and secure operation of the computer and the accuracy of the record before computer evidence for the council tax could be used in court. That would ensure that evidence from council tax computers was admissible in court only if rules similar to those adopted under sections 68 and 69 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 also applied.

If, at the end of the legal process, the Government intend to imprison poll tax or council tax payers who cannot pay their debts, the evidence that sends them to prison must stand up to cross-examination in court. As a prison sentence might be involved, one would expect the rules of evidence to be analogous to those used by the police when they present evidence that ultimately sends a criminal to prison. That particularly applies to a number of those poll tax payers caught by the 20 per cent. rule who have been sent to prison.

Section 68 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act states that any documentary evidence must be presented in court, supported wherever possible first-hand by a witness. The same should apply here. Section 69 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act states: a statement in a document produced by a computer shall not be admissible as evidence of any fact stated therein unless it is shown—

  1. (a) that there arc no reasonable grounds for believing that the statement is inaccurate because of improper use of the computer;
  2. (b) that at all material times the computer was operating properly, or if not, that any respect in which it was not operating properly or was out of operation was not such as to affect the production of the document or the accuracy of its contents."
Various sections of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act require a witness to be a responsible person who can be cross-examined and sign a certificate that states that in his knowledge the operating conditions of the computer were those outlined in section 69 during the production of the documentary evidence.

If that is appropriate for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which sets out the process used to send other people to prison, it should be appropriate in relation to the council tax and that is the fundamental point of my amendment which should be addressed by the Government.

Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 41 also refers to the need to safeguard privacy which is even more relevant under the council tax than the poll tax.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will realise that, first, it has not been selected and, secondly, it is out of their Lordships' hands.

Mr. Cohen

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am slightly confused because I have an amendment (a) to both Lords amendment No. 30 and Lords amendment No. 41 and I was not sure which had been selected.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are dealing with Lords amendment No. 30.

Mr. Cohen

I hope that the Minister will respond to the point I made. The rules under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act should also apply here if, at the end of the day, people are to be sent to prison for civil debt, which is something that I oppose.

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

I shall be brief, because I have made my points earlier. We are debating the transitional enforcement provisions and the admissibility of evidence. I ask the Minister to reply to the following three points. First, may we have a clear statement on the question of retrospection? According to the letters that I quoted earlier from the Department of the Environment and the Home Office, the taking of cases for judicial review has been almost couched in terms of advice to courts that there would be no problem in proceeding and that judicial reviews could not take place more than three months—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I make it clear that we are dealing with amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 30. Perhaps when we have disposed of that we can ask the Minister to move Lords amendment No. 30. I am advised that it will be in order for us to discuss them together.

Mr. Nellist

My understanding is that, while the judicial review usually takes place within three months of the question in the lower courts that needs to be examined occurring, it is at the discretion of the higher court. What is the Government's position on that?

Secondly, this group of amendments, particularly No. 30, speaks of regulations being brought in. I understand that, once the Act receives Royal Assent, which I understand is scheduled for tomorrow, the regulations regarding evidence will be tabled and those regarding bailiffs will follow the Lord Chancellor's review. Some time ago I asked whether those regulations had been drafted, and I was told that they had not. Are they ready now, and will they be tabled tomorrow? The Minister should answer that.

Finally, admissibility of evidence in the cases with which I have been involved with the Coventry magistrates, the city council and the hearing in February at the High Court, revolved around the use of computer evidence and the liability order stage. What about the burden of proof and the use of computers for the posting of demands and notices? That is also hearsay evidence as far as the Civil Evidence Act of 1968 is concerned. Is that contained within the amendments and the regulations to be published or is it, as I understand local authority associations have said, a further area which is not covered by the regulations? If so, as I said earlier, we should have had more time to discuss this, because the amendments are defective.

Mr. Blunkett

I sincerely hope that this will be the last formal speech that I make from the Opposition Front Bench for the foreseeable future. It is a great shame that it has to be on the mess that we face at the moment in terms of non-collection.

I well understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) in moving his amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 30. All of us will be mindful of the need to avoid mistakes, as has been referred to this evening, which would cause distress to families where payment had been made or liability did not exist.

However, what we face is the result of what amounts to four years of absolute fiasco. From the passing of the poll tax legislation for England and Wales and some time earlier for Scotland, we have faced one administrative and political nightmare after another, a degree of incompetence never previously foreseen or experienced in Britain.

The position that we face on the inadmissibility of computer records and the correcting of the position is another illustration of that. It would never have occurred and this matter would not be before us if it were not for the implementation of the poll tax with the misery and political and administrative difficulties that that has caused and the considerable legal problems, which have resulted in the discrediting of our legal system to which the poll tax has contributed.

I do not dispute the number of summonses; I do not need to double-count. If they total more than 11 million, it is a fiasco in any terms, and creates a syndrome whereby non-payment or resistance to payment will be with us for some time. Every effort must be made to avoid that happening. I do not suggest that the poll tax is something which the public should have readily warmed to or accepted, but the problem of raising money to spend on essential services is something of which everyone should have cognisance.

Disastrous difficulties have confronted local authorities in terms of local government credibility and the proper delivery of services. The sum outstanding of £1.5 billion has implications for the country's wider economy, the national debt, inflation—in terms of the impact on borrowing—increased future local authority expenditure because of that borrowing, and the regrettable imposition of additional charges to cover the expenditure necessary to maintain local authority services while the poll tax is collected. Those are the crucial issues that we must consider tonight.

Also at issue is the Government's culpability in failing to heed early enough the warnings that they were given and to take action—not against those people who had paid their poll tax and were pursued, or who were not in any way liable but were requested to pay, but those who were genuinely liable. Many of them could afford to meet that liability but chose not to do so, and passed on their bills to someone else.

Last July, Camden council quite properly brought to the attention of the Department of the Environment the inadmissibility of computer records and the dangers that created for the cases that it was pursuing. The Government refused to heed that council's warning, and to take notice of the Rating and Valuation Association conference debate last October. The Government refused to heed also the warnings given last November and December by local authority association technical working groups on the proposed so-called council tax. The Government refused even to heed the warnings sounded by the court cases that were heard in the new year.

Local authority officers raised the issue again in January, but it was not until 23 January that the Prime Minister's office made it known that action would be taken "shortly". A quarter of an hour of debate remains to consider the Bill, so more than six weeks seems a little longer than "shortly". The Government must unravel the mess that confronts local authorities, which they failed to assist in their efforts to collect the tax and to avoid the imposition of additional charges as a consequence of non-collection.

We can only presume that the Government deliberately took six weeks to introduce this measure—never mind the previous six months. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said earlier, one can only conclude that they believed that there was more political mileage in the accumulation of outstanding poll tax and failure to collect than in taking immediate action—hence the response by the Secretary of State for the Environment to my hon. Friend's proposal more than five weeks ago that both sides of the House should co-operate in passing a one-day Bill to enact the necessary amendments.

Instead, on 30 January, the Secretary of State suggested that the "antics" of the Labour party in delaying the final stages of the Education (Schools) Bill were responsible for the Government's failure to act at that time. Goodness knows what the Secretary of State thinks of the "antics" in another place earlier this week in respect of that deeply flawed and unacceptable legislation. His pronouncement was nonsense and a deplorable excuse.

Consequently, the public will receive higher poll tax bills. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) pointed out that councils will incur enormous legal costs in addition to those that they have already suffered. Local authorities of every political persuasion will be confronted with the difficulty of picking up the pieces.

The latest statistics show that Labour authorities have brought court actions against 29.47 per cent. of those liable for poll tax, whereas the figure for Conservative authorities is 22.76 per cent. No one wants to see that happen again, and I give those statistics only to show the enormous lengths to which local authorities have gone to collect poll tax.

Haringey, which is reducing its poll tax, issued 149,000 liability orders. The figure for Camden is 110,000. An equally desperate situation exists in Kensington and Chelsea and in Barnet. The Conservative-controlled council in Barnet hoped to pursue 20,000 liability orders in the current calendar year, but has not managed to take action on even one, because of the computer records disaster.

Who is liable for that situation? Who devised the poll tax? Who spent £14 billion introducing it—including the 2.5 per cent. increase in value added tax? Who would not listen to the Opposition's warnings of what would happen, and of the cries that would come from those who could not pay the tax? Who would not heed the warnings given about its uncollectability? My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham reminded the House of the Prime Minister's words about the "virtual uncollectability" of the poll tax. Who warned the Government that if they continued to impose the poll tax for another year, collection problems would grow much worse? It was Opposition Members.

We gave the Government warning after warning. We made request after request for the Government to take action. We pointed out that non-collection would arise and that those who could not afford to pay would experience pain and be the victims of the poll tax.

We are in the last throes of a Session of which the Conservative party should be deeply ashamed. The Government ought to apologise tonight to all those who paid their poll tax but had unwarranted claims made against them, and to those who, through no fault of their own, have had to pick up the bill for non-collection. We deplore that situation. Those responsible for it are the Conservative Members seated opposite, and those who are not present in the Chamber but who are prepared to go through the Lobby with Ministers on the nod.

The way in which the computer records issue has been handled may be just another example of the Government's complete indifference to the way in which the poll tax has impinged on the lives of ordinary men and women throughout the country. Alternatively, it may represent a deliberate decision to use the last dying cough of the poll tax—before we take office and act, first, to ameliorate the present position and then to abolish it—to gain what it is possible to gain: to acquire a kind of twisted political kudos by trying to blame local authorities for a problem that is of the Government's own making. Local authorities should not be expected to carry records for which they did not ask; the Government have brought about a fiasco.

6 pm

We have requested that the 20 per cent. contribution be abolished to help the process of collection and that immediate action be taken on computer records. We have supported the desire of local authorities for an advertising campaign to ensure that the maximum amount can be collected, in order to minimise borrowing and the misery that it has inflicted. None of our requests has been heeded. It has taken weeks for an amendment to be tabled in the House of Lords—and, because of the delay, court action cannot be organised for many more weeks: the current backlog means that it will be held up until April, May or even later.

The Government should he ashamed of themselves; and the British public will know where to put the blame on 9 April.

Mr. Portillo

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) mentioned, we have served together for some time; even so, the sheer humbug of the Labour party still takes my breath away.

The problem of computer evidence existed in the same form under the rates, but we did not know about it in those days. The problem has now come to the fore because non-payers—people who are determined to bust the laws of our country—have tried every ploy in the courts in an attempt to break the community charge law, and to defy legislation passed by Parliament. Labour Members of Parliament and Labour councillors who refused to pay ihe community charge, and urged their constituents not to pay it, played an important part in the attempt to create a culture of non-payment. That was a disgraceful campaign by legislators who asked others not to obey laws passed by the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Brightside, deeply embarrassed —rightly—by his party's dreadful record of complicity in the attempt to undermine Acts passed by Parliament, now hopes somehow to claim some virtue on the ground of being an advocate of payment. He can claim no such virtue. His party is deeply stained by its efforts to undermine the works of the House, and deeply stained with the sin of non-payment. Indeed, it is worse than that: Labour has led people up and down the country to follow the example that it set, and to build up massive debts. Those people must redeem their debts, for there will be no amnesty; they will be pursued for a maximum of six years.

Meanwhile, Labour Members have quit the scene. They have paid their community charge out of the fat salaries they receive, and they have dumped their constituents: they have left them in the lurch. Theirs is a disgraceful record, and nothing said by the hon. Member for Brightside can begin to mask what has occurred. The Labour party is deeply implicated in the creation of a culture of non-payment.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had been prepared to offer the Government an opportunity to present a "quic:k Bill". Not only did Labour's record lead us to doubt its sincerity; that very evening, Labour Members were involved in disrupting Government business. That was a bogus offer, which could not be taken seriously.

The amendments—apart from Lords amendment No. 57—relate to the process of enforcing the community charge, the non-domestic rate and in future the council tax, and in particular to enforcement by distress and committal. During the passage of the Bill in another place, a number of concerns were expressed about the activities of bailiffs and the amendments were brought forward in response to those concerns. Before describing the amendments, I should draw attention to the recent announcement by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor that he is conducting a review of civil enforcement agents, including bailiffs. I am sure that the House will welcome that decision.

In addition to the review, the Government felt that they should take two further steps on the community charge, non-domestic rate and council tax. The amendments propose two regulation-making powers. First, the Secretary of State would be able to prescribe the goods that a bailiff should not be able to distrain. The provision is intended to bring greater clarity to the work of bailiffs, and to ensure that items essential to the charge payer for his domestic and work use are protected from distraint. We propose to consult on the items that should be included in the list, and we are therefore not ready to make the regulations.

Secondly, we propose a regulation-making power that will enable the Secretary of State to prescribe by description the persons whom local authorities may employ in community charge, non-domestic rate and council tax enforcement work, in addition to their own staff. We do not intend to use that power until the outcome of the Lord Chancellor's review is known—and only then, if we think it appropriate, in the light of full consultation. Again, the regulations are not imminent.

The second part of Lords amendments No. 30, and Lords amendment No. 56, also relate to the activities of bailiffs. It has been argued that there is some ambiguity in the present law as it relates to the position where a bailiff seeking to levy distress fails to gain access to a property and the local authority wishes to institute committal proceedings. The amendment makes it clear that where a bailiff—for whatever reason, including failure to gain access—finds no or insufficient goods on which to levy distress, the authority may institute committal proceedings. Lords amendments Nos. 31 and 37 ensure that Lords amendments Nos. 55 and 56 will take effect immediately on Royal Assent.

Mr. Nellist

Surely the Minister realises that the committal procedure was originally intended not as a punishment, but to force people to pay up. How can he say that, if the bailiffs have not found sufficient goods for a debt to be met, an authority should proceed immediately to committal?

Mr. Portillo

I did not say that that should take place immediately. It is not for me to say. What I do say is that the fact that a bailiff has been denied entry to a property should not then be used as a block to the next stage—if appropriate—of proceedings to committal. I can make no decision about how those proceedings should be conducted; that is for local authorities and courts to decide.

The third part of Lords amendment No. 30, and Lords amendment No. 57, deal with the admissibility of computer evidence in community charge, non-domestic rates and council tax cases. As the House will be aware, some recent court decisions have thrown doubt on the ability of local authorities to present computer evidence of accounts in applying for liability orders against community charge defaulters. That uncertainty could not be allowed to continue, and, it is essential that local authorities should be able to present evidence of this type if the process of obtaining liability orders is to be manageable both for authorities and for the courts. The purpose of the amendments is to put the position beyond doubt as regards the community charge, the non-domestic rate and, in future, the council tax.

The amendments provide for the Secretary of State to make regulations to do, in essence, two things. First, the regulations will make computer evidence admissible in relevant community charge, non-domestic rate and council tax hearings in the magistrates courts. The regulations that we propose to make as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent will cover hearings on the issue of liability orders, complaints about the levying of distress and committal to prison. Secondly, in presenting computer evidence, the local authority will be required to provide a certificate signed by a person responsible—for instance, the computer manager—stating that the computer that produced the documents in question was in proper working order to carry out the required task.

The computer evidence provisions are designed to make computer-generated documents admissible as evidence. With the documents, before it, it is for the court to weigh the evidence against any provided by the charge payer, and to decide whether it is satisfied that a charge has become payable and has not been paid.

I emphasise to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) that it is still for the court to decide on the issue before it. It is still for the court to weigh the computer and other evidence against evidence that may be presented by a defendant and to decide whether the community charge is payable or whether it has been paid.

Amendment (a) would make that provision unworkable. It would require the officer who had signed a certificate to appear in court that on every occasion. I do not believe that that is necessary, but I stress that it is for the court to weigh the evidence.

The hon. Member for Leyton will recognise that, generally, authorities will wish to be represented in court, albeit not necessarily by the officer who signed the certificate.

Mr. Cohen

The essential point that I made in my brief speech was that the rules of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 should apply to the collection of debt. Why is the Minister saying that that basic standard should not apply? Why should the rules be more lax for the poll tax and the future council tax than for other criminal cases?

Mr. Portillo

I have been at pains to explain to the hon. Gentleman that the certificate says that the computer was in good working order and therefore attaches to computer-generated evidence. It is still for the court to weigh whether that evidence is sufficient compared with evidence that may be advanced by a defendant to prove that the community charge was payable but has not been paid. In considering which evidence outweighs the other, the court may wish to question a representative from the authority, but I believe that it should not necessarily be the officer who signs the certificate.

It being two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion relating to Local Government Finance Bill (Allocation of time), MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order this day.

Question, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made, put and negatived.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 68, 73 and 77 agreed to.— [Special Entry.]

Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.