HL Deb 15 October 1985 vol 467 cc472-5

2.56 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have decided to propose and carry out a fundamental reform of the system of local government rates.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Elton)

My Lords, we hope to publish proposals in a consultative document at about the turn of the year.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. During the period of consultation will the Government give high priority, first, to achieving a new system which will be regarded by the public as a fairer way of raising local taxation; and, secondly, to improving the position of industry and commerce which at present bear considerable burdens in rates payments and have little say in how the revenue is used?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is the perceived unfairness of the present system and the way it bears on industry and commerce that have led us to make this review. We shall certainly bear these in mind not only during the consultation but in preparing the paper.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, given the Government's quite clear pledge to abolish domestic rates, can the noble Lord say why the Government are lurching from uncertainty to indecision from month to month and from Green Paper to Green Paper? Can he say clearly whether the Government are going to adhere to that pledge and abolish domestic rates; or are they going to have a residence tax or a poll tax; or are they going to charge the poorer section of the community 20 per cent. of the rates? Is that their plan? Are we going to get a clear statement from the Government this time or are they going to go on messing around with a subject which is of close interest to all people in this community?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if the noble Lord were speaking from this Dispatch Box he would see that it was not possible to plump instantly for one solution without creating uproar. We are not lurching from uncertainty to indecision. We are proceeding carefully towards what I hope will be a solution satisfactory to all; and that can only be achieved by a process of consultation which will be continued in the paper of which I have spoken.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, since we have already had a consultation paper from this Government—and that was followed by a White Paper and then by a decision that there was nothing basically wrong with the rating system—is the noble Lord aware that a Scottish Office Minister (I think it was Lord Ancram) has said that promises are not enough? But the Government still have taken no definite action on getting the reform for which everyone in Scotland is anxious. When is it going to take place?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I have already said that the consultation paper will be issued at about the turn of the year. The difference between this round and the earlier rounds is that in the earlier rounds we were considering rates on their own. We are now considering them in the context of a reform of the whole of local government finance.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, will my noble friend encourage his right honourable friends to pursue their endeavours to find an answer to this problem and not to be deterred by the fact that whatever they eventually produce will be opposed hook, line and sinker by the Benches opposite?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I always enter into these things with wide-eyed and optimistic innocence. It is possible that there will be some things in the consultation paper that they may be able to approve.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, since the anomalies in the rating system are much more apparent in Scotland—and this will be confirmed by the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland—would the Minister care to comment on the prospect of separate legislation for Scotland which could avoid some of these anomalies, rather than await a United Kingdom solution?

Lord Elton

My Lords, there will need to be consultation for the whole of Great Britain and I do not think there is any question of one part being required to wait for another.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland has already made it very clear that he is so impatient with his own Government that he is very likely to be producing his own legislation and that, as he said just last week, he may very well go it alone? Can we perhaps have some nice competition between the two sides or parts of the United Kingdom that are rating authorities to see who can come up first with the better solution?

Lord Elton

My Lords, there is enthusiasm throughout the Government for improving all aspects of government. The pace will depend of course upon the difficulty and upon any achievable measure of consensus.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the Minister has referred on a number of occasions to consultation. Does he recall that when the House was discussing the Local Government Bill there was pressure from all quarters of the Chamber for a proper and full review of local government finance? Who is conducting the present review? Would it not be better to have a proper review of local government finance rather than one which is based on a party political view?

Lord Elton

My Lords, reviews of government are commonly conducted under the aegis of the Government, but that will not prevent the noble Lord and his friends making trenchant comments which will be taken into consideration.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, the noble Lord has said that he is seeking a solution which is acceptable to all. Is he not aware that is equivalent to saying that he proposes to take no action, since solutions acceptable to all are not even available to God Almighty?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I described what we were seeking as our goal. I did not say how far towards it we would get.