HL Deb 29 June 1988 vol 498 cc1614-53

4.29 p.m.

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 1.

Baroness Robson of Kiddingtonmoved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 12, at end insert ("subject to the provisions of paragraph 11 of Schedule 1 below").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, which is a paving amendment, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 20 and I shall make reference to the amendments to be moved by the Minister which are grouped with mine. I should like to thank the noble Earl for writing to me and for sending me a copy of the letter which he wrote to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

We welcome the concessions made by the Government in the amendments to be moved by the noble Earl and we thank them for going as far as they have. However, before I proceed I should like to make one thing clear and I should like to seek an assurance from the Minister. In view of the fact that there is now to be no community charge imposed on people sleeping rough, I wonder whether the Minister can give an assurance about Open Christmas organised by Crisis at Christmas. That organisation is not a hostel in the true sense. Under the original proposals in the Bill Crisis at Christmas would have been responsible for paying a community charge for its visitors for the six days it was open over Christmas. Most if not 100 per cent. of the people who make use of the six days of Open Christmas are people who normally sleep rough. Can the Minister set my mind at rest by assuring me that there will be no imposition of the community charge at all on the provision of Open Christmas by Crisis at Christmas?

We welcome the concessions made by the Government in relation to hostel accommodation for people undergoing personal care either for drug addiction, alcohol abuse or various other medical reasons. We also welcome the Government's concession as far as it goes in relation to general purpose hostels. The Government have agreed that those hostels will not now have to collect the full community tax and then ask for a rebate; they will now collect 20 per cent. of the community tax. However, that still leaves charities with the role of tax collector. In my view that is unsatisfactory.

One can anticipate that many people who need to use those charitable voluntary hostels may be put off from using them because they feel that they must pay the 20 per cent. community tax, which they cannot afford. It could therefore increase the number of people who sleep rough on the streets.

Furthermore, I do not believe that many of those voluntary hostels would even attempt to collect the 20 per cent. charge. It would be almost physically impossible to do so. As a result, as I pointed out at Committee stage of the Bill, the level of service that the hostels could provide would be reduced because they would have to use some of their voluntary contributions to pay tax. That could impose quite a substantial drain on their income and therefore on the services they can provide.

The Minister, in justifying the Government's decision not to allow voluntary hostels relief from the collection of the community charge, states in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, that: People who stay in these hostels make use of local services and can vote in elections". He also says in the final paragraph of his letter to me that it is essential for preserving the vital principle of local accountability".

I should like to ask the noble Earl what are the services from which people who stay at voluntary and charitable hostels benefit. I can see that if a local authority runs a hostel they benefit from the services of the local authority. However, when that accommodation is provided totally from charitable contributions it has nothing to do with the local authority. My contention would be that the only service provided by the local authority is a pavement for sleeping on and the occasional park bench. I do not consider that one should have to pay the community charge for those.

I should also like to ask the noble Earl whether or not he can estimate how many of the people staying in voluntary and charitable hostels are included on the electoral register. It is not very easy to get on to the electoral register. It is certainly not easy for those people who tend to stay one or two days, a week or maybe two in one hostel and can be at the other side of the country when it comes to election day.

I am afraid that I do not believe that the question of accountability and of enjoying the benefits of local authority services and the right to vote in elections applies to the people about whom we are talking. In view of the fact that the Minister has been so good as to make concessions I sincerely hope that he will make this last concession so that we can all agree about the provision. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, before we proceed perhaps I may raise a question of procedure. We have here an amendment moved by the noble Baroness with which has been grouped some very significant government amendments. I wonder whether the House would agree that, although normally at Report stage the Minister would be the last speaker before the proposer of the amendment, it would be appropriate for the Minister to introduce his amendments now, for the debate then to proceed and for the Minister to have a further opportunity to reply to the debate.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, if that is the wish of the House I should certainly like to do so and take the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, has been kind enough to offer me of saying a final word at the end of the debate.

I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Baroness in proposing her amendment. Perhaps she would allow me to concentrate on my own amendments but inevitably, because the amendments are grouped together, discussion will at the same time take on board her concerns.

The government amendments are Amendments Nos. 36, 39, 41, 42, 43, 238, 240 and 241. These follow the undertaking given by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur in Committee to look again at the effect of the community charge on short stay hostels for the homeless. As your Lordships are aware, we have considered very carefully the points raised in Committee about the homeless and hostel dwellers. As a result we have brought forward a number of amendments which take into account, and I believe go a very long way to meeting, the concerns which your Lordships expressed at an earlier stage.

Perhaps two of the major groups of amendments that I shall be moving at a later stage are linked. First, there is the question of the homeless, to which the noble Baroness referred. In that respect we have put forward a government amendment that would exempt those who sleep rough. That is a major concession and a major change following consideration of what your Lordships said. The second point is covered by the amendments which we are now considering. The effect of those amendments will be that residents of certain types of hostel will be liable to pay only the minimum 20 per cent. daily contribution for the area without having to apply for a rebate.

So far as concerns hostels, we have already provided—in paragraph 9 of Schedule 1—an exemption for residents of hostels which provide a substantial level of personal care or treatment. We intend that regulations under paragraph 9 will cover many of the hostel residents about whom concern was expressed in Committee: for example people receiving personal care while undergoing a programme of rehabilitation for drug or alcohol abuse in hostels such as those run by Phoenix House—which is of concern to my noble kinswoman Lady Masham of Ilton—and the Simon Community, which is of concern to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. The exemption will also cover people with mental or physical disabilities receiving personal care in hostels. I believe that many of those in Ryder homes come into this category, so some of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder of Warsaw, are also met.

The hostels not covered by the exemption will be what we call general purpose hostels, which provide accommodation and food for individuals who stay there for anything from a day or two to, in some cases, much longer. Residents of such hostels are quite different from those people in need of a substantial degree of care for whom we believe an exemption is justified.

People who stay in general purpose hostels make use of local services and can vote in local elections. Because they are not receiving professional care or treatment, they are considerably freer to come and go than those in the hostels we shall be exempting. That in turn means that there is inevitably a rather different relationship between the owner or manager of a general purpose hostel and those who stay there than in the case of a hostel providing care and support where we accept that the relationship may be particularly sensitive.

We therefore do not believe it would be right to provide a blanket exemption from the community charge based solely on the fact that a person stays in a general purpose hostel as opposed to a bed-sit, a flat or a house. We have therefore decided that to widen further the hostels' exemption to take in residents of general purpose hostels would not be justified.

However, we fully appreciate that many—and in some cases most—of the people who stay in general purpose hostels will require help in paying the community charge. Many of them would qualify for a maximum rebate under the provisions of Schedule 13. We are sympathetic to the concern rightly expressed by such bodies as the Salvation Army that residents of short-stay hostels may find it difficult to claim a rebate. This would put hostel managers in the position of having to demand the full unrebated charge from those who should have received help in paying.

Because of that—and particularly because of some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, at Committee stage in col. 713 of the Official Report of 23rd May—we now propose an entirely new provision under which the residents of certain types of hostel, which have been designated for the purposes of the collective community charge, will be automatically liable to pay only 20 per cent. of the collective charge contribution for the area without having to apply for a rebate. The landlords of these properties will be required to collect contributions at only 20 per cent. of the full rate from all those who stay on the premises and so the landlords' liability will be reduced accordingly. The income support payments of the residents will also include an amount to help pay the 20 per cent. contribution.

This substantial concession will be restricted to hostels used mainly by people who would be eligible for community charge rebates. But we envisage that it would cover, for example, all Salvation Army general purpose hostels. We believe that this new provision, together with the proposed treatment of the homeless, and care hostels, meets the concerns expressed in Committee.

Obviously I have not gone far enough to satisfy the noble Baroness and at a later stage in the debate I shall, of course, be dealing with some of her further points which she raised earlier today. But perhaps I may deal with a matter which I know is dear to her heart, namely, Crisis at Christmas, and which indeed, is dear to the heart of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve who has been associated with it since its inception.

The noble Baroness referred in Committee to work carried out by Crisis at Christmas. I understand that it provides free accommodation to homeless people for seven days over the Christmas period. It goes without saying that I have the greatest respect for the people who run Crisis at Christmas and other free hostels. In devising our proposals that residents of certain hosels should pay only 20 per cent. of the usual collective charge contribution, we have hostels that provide free accommodation very much in mind. We have accepted that in such hostels a daily charge of perhaps just under £1 could have represented a substantial burden, either for the residents or for the organisation running the hostel, even if the residents were able to reclaim a rebate. I feel that reducing the residents' contribution to only 14p a day in the average area, or perhaps 19p a day in an area with a high charge, brings the problem down to a manageable proportion and represents a very real concession by the Government.

So far as Crisis at Christmas in particular is concerned, it does not seem particularly likely that a property used for one week of the year would be designated at all for the purpose of the collective community charge. But I can give this assurance to the noble Baroness: my officials will enter into discussions with representatives of local authorities to consider how such a very short-term hostel should be treated in practice.

But even if it were the case that a very short-term hostel were to be designated, its residents would certainly benefit from the special concession that I have announced, and would have to pay only a very small amount—less than 20p a day—in contributions. That means that the sum of all the contributions for Crisis at Christmas would be under £1,000—far less than the £4,000 mentioned by the noble Baroness. That is the measure of the Government's concession.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, I should like to raise one point. The Government gave an undertaking during the proceedings on the Scottish Bill, which is repeated as regards this Bill, that any concession made in this Bill would be followed up and that the Scottish Bill would be amended to the same extent. I have looked in vain for these concessions in government amendments to Schedule 15, which I think is where they should be.

May I ask whether these amendments could be available fairly soon because, as the noble Earl will appreciate, they are fairly technical and we need advice? I am sure that those of us who are interested in the Scottish Bill will want to make sure, as I am sure will the Government, that we get it right. As I understand it, the last day of the Report stage is now planned for Tuesday of next week. We do not have very much time and it would be of very great help to the House if we could have these amendments as soon as possible.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, let me first thank the noble Earl for having met me on the point on bail hostels about which he wrote to me. This represents an improvement so far as this part of the Bill is concerned. But may I come back to the point about Crisis at Christmas? As I understand it, the noble Earl has suggested discussions with local authorities on the point, but I am bound to say, having listened to him carefully, that I find it extremely difficult to understand the logic of the Government's position.

As I understand it, the noble Earl's position is this. As a result of his amendments, the tax imposed on an establishment involved in Crisis at Christmas will now be far smaller. That is as a result of what he has put down on the Marshalled List. That obviously is welcome. But why should there be a tax at all? The proposition seems to me to be quite absurd. The noble Earl says it is highly desirable that people going to hostels even for a period of seven days, which is the period to which he referred, should pay this because, after all, they will have the right to vote. Quite apart from the question of how many people stay in hostels over a period of seven days at Christmas, how many are likely to be passionately knocking at the doors of the polling stations waiting for them to open? I do not know how much involvement the noble Earl has had with local government, but those of us who have been involved find it extremely difficult to persuade those who are normal ratepayers to vote in elections. The idea that there will be a march from these hostels to the polling stations seems to me a little unusual.

But let me come back to the central point. The people we are discussing go to these hostels at Christmas for seven days, but the register for the next local elections is not made up until the following September. So the people who are staying at a Crisis at Christmas hostel this Christmas could not possibly get on the electoral register until September next year, on a register which comes into operation in February of the following year. When the noble Earl comes forward with an argument of this sort, I really must ask him to look at the basis of his case.

It seems to be that the Government are really adopting an extraordinarily doctrinaire position. They could quite easily agree to make a concession on this point. It has nothing whatever to do with accountability so far as concerns the local authority. I very much hope that when his officials and his right honourable friend have read the report of our debate today, they will realise the threadbare character of their argument and agree on Third Reading to make this concession which they should have made today.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I hope I am right in assuming that the noble Earl was speaking also to his Amendment No. 19. I had to leave the Chamber—

Noble Lords


Lord Hunt

In that case, I shall sit down.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the Minister referred correctly to Crisis at Christmas, which is a one-off charity looking after people who are homeless at Christmas-time and which was started 20 years ago this year. The idea that the people who come to us as free guests for seven days and seven nights are always those who have been sleeping rough is incorrect. Crisis at Christmas was started because many people were sleeping rough when the agencies where they would normally be looked after for the rest of the year closed because those running them wished to go to their own homes for Christmas. That was why Crisis at Christmas was started, and that is why it continues.

I would be right in saying, I think, that our guests have other accommodation to go to during the rest of the year and that very few would always be sleeping rough. If I am correct, Crisis at Christmas surely should not be required to collect any money. That would prove very difficult and, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said, most people would think that the meanest thing that the Government had ever done was to collect money from people when everything else is free.

I make the plea to the Government that Crisis at Christmas should be treated as a one-off charity and that we should not be obliged to collect money from our guests, who have never had to pay for medical treatment, haircutting, sleeping or any of their three meals a day for the last 20 years. It would be a great pity if we were put into the position of having to collect money from them.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, anyone who has been a junior Minister must have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Earl. Junior Ministers—I have been one myself—are occasionally landed with some nonsense that their masters dream up, and have no choice but to read it with a straight face. I have every sympathy with the noble Earl. In some years' experience around the building, I have never encountered anything sillier than this measure. It is based on a doctrinaire nonsense. The assumption in the Bill as a whole that people will suddenly take a passionate interest in local government because the basis of their local taxation has changed is a nonsense. To suggest that the halls used over the Christmas period for the purpose of Crisis at Christmas would in future be alive with animated discussion about local government and which councillors they will vote for in the next round of elections is, I think, open to argument and some disbelief.

What worries me even more—and anyone involved in local government politics is immune to dealing with nonsenses because all governments have them from time to time—is that this will be a very expensive bureaucratic nonsense. The amounts involved are laughable. The machinery that will have to be devised to cope with it is amazing.

The noble Earl would do the House and himself a service if he were to go back to his Minister and say, "I've done my best with this; I have read it! I don't believe a word of it; I think it's rubbish. Please, for the reputation of the Government, give way in this area because it is indefensible on grounds of common sense, sympathy, logic or any other basis".

Baroness Ryder of Warsaw

My Lords, I have had to sleep rough in my life and have shared the conditions of being frozen by the cold and stiff from rain followed by the feeling of being unable to face the ordinary people of society and ashamed of being dishevelled. As a social worker and auxiliary nurse, I am never surprised in the work which I represent to see these homeless people resort to drinking from the tops of ordinary citizens' milk bottles on their doorsteps or trying to pinch sandwiches or fruit from a barrow. We cannot say that it is all their fault that these people are homeless because there are so many reasons for an individual to sink rapidly to this point. They are travellers of the road; the mentally deranged; the genuine persons who cannot cope without a job in areas of high unemployment and who misguidedly thinks that by reaching London he or she can find work easily; and they are the socially inadequate and those whose families have rejected them or those who have literally no one in the world. I could go on ad lib.

I am of course pleased, thankful and delighted by the Government's change of heart about the charging of people sleeping rough. To have no fixed abode is bad enough, but sleeping under a bridge or under a cardboard box if one is lucky imposes strains that few of us can imagine. It seems to me eminently sensible, necessary and humane to exempt these people from the community charge.

That said, however, the Government should think further about the position of homeless people who are lucky enough to find a roof over their head for a few days at a time in a short stay hostel. Short stay hostel accommodation provided by organisations like the Salvation Army is the only respite that many homeless people have from the continual wear and tear of their barren existence in parks or under bridges. We should remember that the consequences of being homeless are far wider than not having a home to call one's own. Employment may he difficult or impossible and health can and does suffer. The physical surroundings create stress and affect mental well being. The existing structure of public provision increases the social isolation caused by homelessness so that hostels can he a real lifeline for these people even if they can stay for only a few days. The proposals to charge homeless people when they stay in hostels threaten this very lifeline, and can only add to the plight and distress of rejected people.

The amendment makes clear that the force of the argument put forward in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, and others has been reconsidered. I appreciate that the decision to levy 20 per cent. of the local charge per resident in any hostel or short stay shelter home is a substantial improvement on the original plans to make the full charge. However, I am bound to say that what was originally an error has become a rather mean-minded exercise to squeeze a few pounds out of homeless people and, further, out of the very charities that provide for them. We should be under no illusions about what the prospect of 20 per cent. would do: it would deter people from taking up hostel provision and introduce an unnecessary and unsavoury fear factor in decisions about where people can afford to sleep, as mentioned by the noble Baroness.

I do not believe that we can afford to build these financial barriers against entry into civilised existence. A 20 per cent. charge represents a substantial amount of money for the severely disadvantaged. Indeed, many have nothing, and I know many reasons why they have nothing that are too long to tell. We should not take solace in the knowledge that many charities will refuse to levy the charge on their residents but will draw on their greatly needed and slender resources to save their clients from the charge.

The Government have gone some way to recognise the difficulties inherent in their plans for a collective community charge. I should like respectfully to suggest that logic should be combined with emotion in this instance. By adopting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, the Government could exempt homeless people from the indignity of turning down a chance of sleeping in a bed for one night, and at the same time relieve charities of this extra and immoral burden. It seems to me a winning combination of arguments. I hope and pray that the Minister will regard the amendment sympathetically.

This work is not only vital hut is becoming daily more so as, sadly, the numbers increase. We are trying to cope on a one-to-one basis where possible. However, the work is exceptionally hard for reasons that I have outlined: the different emotions, and the different circumstances in which people find themselves on the streets. If a hurricane or an earthquake should hit this city one can imagine all the instant action groups. We should be swamped by help. But, because the homeless are there in the long term, they are not emotive nor even understood.

We call ourselves a civilised nation. We thank the Government for their concessions and—I truly mean that—but let us please go the whole way to tackle such an appalling contrast in our very midst.

5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in introducing his amendments the Minister said that they constituted substantial concessions. I agree, and I thank him sincerely for the concessions that he has made. They are clearly made with the right spirit and in response to a very strong feeling which was made clear at the Committee stage.

From reading the amendments that he has put down perhaps I may say now that this will not be the first occasion during this Report stage when I shall thank him sincerely for the concessions that he has made. However, we still have very grave difficulties with the particular cases which are referred to in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, and which were referred to with such knowledge, understanding and feeling by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder.

These short stay hostels are a particular case. I am not saying that Crisis at Christmas is a one-off case because that would raise many difficulties about a government Bill. However, short stay hostels of the kind described must be treated with a degree more consideration than others. If the Government have difficulty with the wording of the amendment, I beg them to maintain the impetus that they have given themselves towards humanity by saying that it is the wording that is at fault and that they will come back with something better at Third Reading. Under those circumstances, the position of these hostels under the Bill, even as amended, is nonsensical. Here we have people who come in to short stay hostels who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said, are not paying for their lodging, food, or the services provided for them during this short time. These are not people who will claim back from income support the money that they are paying out for the 20 per cent. of the community charge. These are the people, almost by definition, who are not claiming their income support.

We know that a very high proportion of people throughout the country do not claim their income support because they are too proud, too apart from society, or that they do not understand what it means to claim income support. As has been said, they are clearly not voting. The idea of accountability, even reduced to the 20 per cent. Level—to 14p, 20p or 25p, or whatever it may be—is a bureaucratic nonsense and a complete misunderstanding of the nature of these people who are on the fringes of our society and whom we ought to be helping to come back into our society.

I beg the Government to recognise that, even if there were no element of rehabilitation—which would clearly be a nonsense in many cases—general purpose hostels of this kind do not deserve to be put in the position of taking away and then seeking to give back small amounts of money in response to this principle. I shall not argue it now. I believe that the principle has less validity than the Government argue. It is certainly not applicable in these cases. I should like to see the Government find some way out of the difficulty in which they find themselves by accepting the principle of the proposal even if they cannot accept the wording of the amendment. Let us make progress on this very important matter.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the people who worked on the Scottish Bill have been considering this matter for a long time because it arose previously. We appreciate that the the crucial question is where one draws the borderline. That is what we are talking about. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, touched upon the argument that the collecting of the community charge from the least well off people is nonsense. Although one can say that, noble Lords know that I do not think it is nonsense. We discussed that at Committee stage.

However, the question of the borderline is raised where none of the reasons for the community charge apply. I do not think that noble Lords have been over-emphasising the position on this occasion. They are not being sentimental. These are hard facts. The position becomes not only pointless but wrong. It is extremely difficult to know where one draws the line. I do not know enough about short-term hostels. I do not know whether there are people who live entirely in short-term hostels and who, by going from one to another, might be exempted from the community charge where others in a very similar position are not. That would be very unfair. The noble Baroness knows a great deal about this problem. Perhaps she is sure that she is drawing the line in the right place. When she replies to the debate perhaps she will tell us about that.

I hope that my noble friend will also justify his suggestion of where the line should be drawn. We can then understand and form our attitude on this issue. It is not the same debate as that on the community charge with regard to the least well off. We are discussing those on the fringe. It is a question of where we draw the line. I shall listen to my noble friend and to the noble Baroness with great attention.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may pick up the kind offer of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. Perhaps I may begin on a positive and, I hope, generally acceptable point. The noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, asked when the Scottish amendments would be available. Of course we can oblige. They will be available shortly and in good time for the noble Lord—I hope today. However, as we know, some of the amendments—unfortunately from both sides—have not been tabled as early as we would have hoped.

Perhaps I may deal with the one matter which is slightly different from the rest; namely, Crisis at Christmas. For the purpose of this debate I shall class it as a one-off. What my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve said surprised me. She said that Crisis at Christmas is used by people who have a home for the rest of the year. However, if people staying in Crisis at Christmas have other accommodation they will most likely have their sole or main residence at that other accommodation.

The consequence would mean that Crisis at Christmas could not be designated for the purposes of the collective community charge, because property can be designated only if it is used by people who have no other sole or main residence. That is provided in Clause 5(3)(b). If that is the case, Crisis at Christmas is in a class that will not be subject to the collective community charge. But I should like to take up and exemplify a point I made earlier—

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, I have been listening with some anxiety. My understanding is that Crisis at Christmas will house certain guests; some will have homes that they have come from to spend time with Crisis at Christmas. But others will be homeless. If that is so, is it still true that Crisis at Christmas will not have this levy imposed upon it or upon any of its guests?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that was just the point I was coming to because it was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. The Bill gives the registration officer a discretionary power to designate properties for the purposes of the collective community charge. In general that power will be used to designate hostels which are used all the year round. Crisis at Christmas is, as the noble Lord knows and as we have been told, open for only seven days in the whole year. It seems to me to be most unlikely that a hostel that is used for only seven days in a whole year will be designated at all in practice. It is that practical matter of designation that we wish to discuss with local authorities. However, when we discuss it with local authorities I assure the House that we shall bear very much in mind what your Lordships have said today.

In moving her amendment the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, suggested that the collective community charge would turn those who run some hostels into tax collectors. In fact any landlord who runs a hostel at present effectively acts as a tax collector if he collects any payment at all from the hostel residents because at present he pays non-domestic rates, even if only at a reduced rate of 50 per cent. In most cases he recovers the cost from the residents. I draw to the attention of the noble Baroness the new provision in the Bill which allows the collector of the charge to retain 5 per cent. of the charge for what he is already doing and will continue to do in future.

I move now to a matter raised by my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour. She took up the point of where one draws the boundary. We agreed to an exemption for those who sleep rough because of the arguments put forward in Committee, but we did so in the knowledge that any exemption creates a boundary problem. One of the disadvantages of an exemption is that it deters people from taking up permanent accommodation. If we were to exempt those who stay in some hostels, we should not avoid a disincentive but merely change the place at which it applied. An exemption for hostel dwellers would, I must point out to the House, inevitably create a deterrent for people who stayed a long time in accommodation which would not be exempt and where the individual might then be subject to the personal community charge.

As I have listened to the debate, I feel that we have missed some of the main arguments and perhaps the debate remains a little confused, as it was in Committee. The Government are saying that, first, there are hostels where there is care and rehabilitation. Those individuals are exempt, for very good reasons which your Lordships will appreciate. Then there are what we call the general purpose hostels. These cover a wide range of hostels. They cover the hostels where people are charged and make a contribution at the moment. I suggest to your Lordships that many of the Salvation Army hostels charge people something to stay the night at the moment, perhaps a few pounds for food and the ability to stay the night. What we are saying is that in those situations a person would have to pay 20 per cent. of the community charge.

If that is in an area of average community charge that would be 15p a night over and above what that person is probably paying now. It may not be, because, as I have said, included in the charge at the moment may be a contribution to the rates that exist. At the other end of the spectrum we move to the hostels that are free and provide facilities and food for people at no cost because they are run by charities. That covers quite a wide band.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. The noble Earl mentioned these very small amounts that would be levied; he mentioned, for example, a figure of 15p. Can he tell the House what the administrative costs of dealing with those kinds of sums would be, even as a proportion?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there will be an administrative cost to the local authority which I am afraid I do not know. There will be a slight cost to the person who runs the hostel. But there is a provision in the Bill that that person should retain 5 per cent. of the charge. That matter was debated at some length in Committee.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, while we are discussing this matter, perhaps the Minister can help the House a little more. If I have followed his arguments correctly, in many of these hostels some of these residents or guests will have a home and therefore will not be subject to the collective community charge. But others will be. The people running the hostel will not only be responsible for collecting the money and taking away 5 per cent. of 15p—a very grand sum—but they will also be responsible for deciding from whom they should be collecting.

5.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

No, my Lords. They will be responsible for collecting from everybody.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, the Minister just said in relation to Crisis at Christmas that people who had a home would not be forced to pay the community charge, but we also have people who do not have any other homes. The Minister stated that they would have to pay the community charge.

The Earl of Caithness

No, my Lords. What I said was that if those in Crisis at Christmas were the small number who had homes elsewhere, then it would not be designated for the purposes of the collective community charge. Perhaps that has clarified this fact for the noble Baroness.

To go back, even after the Government's generous concessions on the homeless—and we shall be coming shortly to community service volunteers—we are left with these general purpose hostels. They cover one extreme, namely, those who are already charged a few pounds a night at the moment right through to the those whose accommodation is provided totally free, where the food is also provided free and no charge is made. That is what one might describe as an overnight stay hostel.

Where a charge is already made, such as at a Salvation Army hostel, we have gone a long way towards meeting concerns about collection and reducing to the 20 per cent. contribution. I believe it is right that there should be a contribution. I take the point where meals and accommodation are provided free at the other end of the spectrum. I should like to discuss that point at another stage with my right honourable friends.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl saying, as he has just indicated on this narrow point, that he will consider this matter and return to it at Third Reading?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. I shall be discussing these matters with my right honourable friend. It is important on this narrow point of where accommodation and food are provided free.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, some years ago I used to be chairman of the Church Army. We have one of these hostels in Great Peter Street. I urge my noble friend in the course of these consultations just to visit that hostel, and possibly the Salvation Army hostel next door, and talk directly to the people who administer them. I am sure that if he does that he will not persist in this argument. He will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that it is totally untenable.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, with leave of the House as the noble Earl has not resumed his seat, will he point out to his right honourable friend that many of these hostels make a deliberate point of levying a small charge for accommodation. This is not true of housing and of Crisis at Christmas. But it is true of others because they want to instil a sense of responsibility in the people who are staying in their hostels. The very limited concession which the Minister has indicated that he might be willing to discuss with his right honourable friend does not cover that matter. Therefore I suggest that it does not go nearly far enough to meet the points made in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, before I finally sit down, I shall bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has just said and also what my noble friend Lord Sandford has said. I assure him that we have already had detailed discussions with those who run the Salvation Army and Church Army hostels, and we shall continue to do so.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I am sorry, but I did not hear the end of the Minister's answer.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we shall continue to do so.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I must admit that I was hoping for a much more forthcoming answer.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, there was a slight reassurance as regards Crisis at Christmas. However, that is a minute part of the whole problem, although the organisation provides a wonderful service.

Towards the end of his reply the Minister said that he would look at some of the hostels which provide free board, accommodation and food. That is a concession, subject to it coming to something when we reach Third Reading. But in my view it does not answer the question. The amendment provides for short stay hostels, and I believe that there is no difficulty in defining such a hostel. Most of the hostels have rules about how long people can stay. They look after people who have failed to find any other accommodation. I should like the Government to make the final concession on this matter but I do not consider that the assurances that I have been given are adequate. I intend to test the opinion of the House.

5.22 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 94; Not-Contents, 100.

Allen of Abbeydale, L. Falkender, B.
Amherst, E. Flowers, L.
Ardwick, L. Gallacher, L.
Attlee, E. Galpern, L.
Birk, B. Glenamara, L.
Blease, L. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Blyth, L. Greenway, L.
Bonham-Carter, L. Grimond, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Hanworth, V.
Bottomley, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Hooson, L.
Carter, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hughes, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Hunt, L.
David, B. Hunter of Newington, L.
Davies of Penrhys, L. Jeger, B.
Dean of Beswick, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. John-Mackie, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Kilbracken, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Ennals, L. Lawrence, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Leatherland, L.
Ezra, L. Lloyd of Hampstead, L.
Longford, E. Seear, B.
Lytton, E. Seebohm, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Shaughnessy, L.
MacLehose of Beoch, L. Shepherd, L.
McNair, L. Somers, L.
Marsh, L. Stallard, L.
Milverton, L. Stedman, B.
Mishcon, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Stoddard of Swindon, L.
Mulley, L. Strabolgi, L.
Nicol, B. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Northfield, L. Thurlow, L.
O'Neill of the Maine, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Oram, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Peston, L. Underhill, L.
Pitt of Hampstead, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Walston, L.
Porritt, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Prys-Davies, L. Whaddon, L.
Robson of Kiddington, B. [Teller.] White, B.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Rochester, L. Winstanley, L.
Russell, E. Winterbottom, L.
Sainsbury, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Hesketh, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Hives, L.
Ampthill, L. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Arran, E. Hooper, B.
Ashbourne, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Astor, V. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Auckland, L. Kimball, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Layton, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Long, V.
Beloff, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Belstead, L. McFadzean, L.
Bessborough, E. Macleod of Borve, B.
Blake, L. Marley, L.
Blatch, B. Merrivale, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mersey, V.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Brookes, L. Mottistone, L.
Broxhourne, L. Mountgarret, V.
Butterworth, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Caccia, L. Munster, E.
Caithness, E. Nelson, E.
Campbell of Croy, L. Norfolk, D.
Carnock, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Coleraine, L. Orkney, E.
Colnbrook, L. Pender, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Cork and Orrery, E.
Cox, B. Portland, D.
Craigavon, V. Pym, L.
Craigmyle, L. Radnor, E.
Crathorne, L. Renton, L.
Daventry, V. Renwick, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Rochdale, V.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Romney, E.
Dulverton, L. St. Davids, V.
Dundee, E. Selkirk, E.
Eccles, V. Skelmersdale, L.
Elibank, L. Strange, B.
Ellenborough, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B.
Elton, L. Swansea, L.
Fanshawe of Richmond, L. Terrington, L.
Ferrers, E. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Forbes, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Fortescue, E. Trafford, L.
Grantchester, L. Trefgarne, L.
Hanson, L. Trumpington, B.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Harris of High Cross, L. Whitelaw, V.
Havers, L. Windlesham, L.
Henley, L. Young of Graffham, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

5.30 p.m.

Clause 2 [Persons subject to personal community charge]:

Lord Morton of Shuna moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 2, line 7, at end insert— ("(3A) A person's sole or main residence shall be determined by the registration officer and shall be the premises occupied on the greatest number of occasions by the individual during the preceding twelve months within the area of the authority. Any such decision of the registration officer shall be subject to an appeal by the individual to the Valuation and Community Charge Tribunal in accordance with section 23 of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with this amendment we turn to a different issue; namely, the question of how one determines a person's sole or main residence. Your Lordships may recollect that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, initiated part of the discussion on this in Committee by taking his personal example of living somewhere in Huntingdonshire and somewhere in Camden and discussed which was to be his sole or main residence.

This is a very difficult Bill to construe for various reasons. One of those reasons is that we start with the basis of the Scottish Act passed last year by this Government and the general legal presumption that if a Bill dealing with the same subject or trying to deal with the same subject deliberately uses a different word, it means something different. A difference is meant to be there if a different approach is used. That is a fairly normal approach to statutory construction.

If one begins with the Scottish approach, Section 8 of the Scottish Act states: Any person who is solely or mainly resident in the area of a local authority in any financial year shall be liable to pay". That is not the approach of this Bill. Clause 2 states that a person is subject to a charging authority's personal community charge on any day on which he has his sole or main residence in the area of the authority at any time on the day. Therefore one approach asks, "How many houses does this person have and which is his sole or main residence on Tuesday, and is it the same on Wednesday?", and so on.

The other approach should be to look at where he resides on the day. That approach is assisted if one goes to the amendment discussed in the last group; namely, government Amendment No. 22. Presumably the draftsman of that amendment had some connection with the drafting of the Bill. That states: A person is an exempt individual on a particular day if (a) throughout the day he has no fixed abode in England and Wales or elsewhere and (b) at the end of the day the place of his sole or main residence does not consist of a building, caravan or residential boat". Therefore he is not excused if he goes into a Salvation Army hostel for the night and that then becomes his sole or his main residence.

You cannot have the words "sole or main residence" meaning different things in different parts of the Bill without saying what you are doing. If the Government are trying to say that each day should be looked at and it should be asked: "Where did you have your residence on that day?" I am sure that one or two of us who were here until fairly late this morning would like the Minister, who I believe had the night off, to tell us whether we were solely or mainly resident on these Benches. If not, where were we solely resident on that day? Perhaps I may speak personally. I came into this building at 10 o'clock yesterday and did not leave until about half-past seven this morning; and I left early. Where was I resident on that day?

It may be that that is not what the Bill means, and I suspect that that is not what it is intended to mean. However, it is an interpretation which could be argued for, especially bearing in mind the distinction in the approach of the Scottish and the English Bills. I have some difficulty in understanding why, when the Government fought so hard to get the Scottish Bill through and knew that it covered matters such as community charges, they did not take that section and adjust it for an English approach and use it as the basis instead of wandering off in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to be as different as possible, which makes matters difficult.

If the intention is what is achieved and we have to look at a person and say of a person who has a home in Huntingdonshire and a home in Camden, "Which is your sole or main residence'?" we must set some standard by which it is to be judged. Certainly over the past few months I have regarded myself as still having my home, which is not a word used in this Bill, in Edinburgh. However, I seem to spend two nights of the week there and therefore on a mathematical basis it is not my sole or main residence.

What is the basis of this approach'? Of course one can choose which is to be one's home for income tax purposes or for mortgage relief; and it perhaps does not really matter very much in view of the way house prices are at the moment because there is a limit on the amount of mortgage relief which one can claim. However, it matters immensely if one thinks about a situation of somebody living in an area having two homes, one in an area which has a very high poll tax rate and another in an area with a very low one. Perhaps I may take an example. If the personal level is £500 in the high area and £100 in the low area a single person will wish to be resident in the area with the high poll tax because he will pay his standard charge, which may go up to one and a half or two times in the low one. On the other hand, if he is the earner in a family of four people, all of them over 18, the reverse will be the case. If there is a difference between the two poll tax rates then there is a great deal of confusion; so that is very important.

I mentioned mortgages. The other element which comes in in considering what is one's home is capital gains tax, which will affect some people far more than others. However, it is very important for a person who pays capital gains tax to know which is their home and which is their second home. This Bill does not help us at all. There is no guidance given as to how valuers, the registration officers, are to decide where these people with two residences are to be looked at.

The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord McIntosh attempts to do that. I appreciate that this may not be the logical answer. It is difficult to say that there is a logical answer because this is a very illogical Bill. Even assuming that a poll tax is a logical approach, the logical approach is to get away from the idea of residence on the day and get back to the idea of where one is usually resident for a period, as did the Scottish Bill.

In case the Minister has forgotten his title, the Scottish Bill was steered through by this Government. Therefore, I do not see why the approach of the Scots Bill is so inimical to the Minister's department. It is very difficult to work out how people with two homes in different areas will be dealt with, quite apart from the other difficulty we are talking about. I suspect there could be a very nice argument put forward that, by taking it as where you are resident on the day, especially on Amendment No. 22, you are talking about where you actually live that day, in which case people who move about will have an entertaining time comparing different areas and different poll taxes. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, how nice it is to continue the discussion with the noble Lord on the differences between Scotland and England. I can assure your Lordships that this is not the last discussion we shall be having on the matter. I know that the noble Lord will be teasing me gently throughout the rest of the Report stage and doubtless on Third Reading. He knows well that there are innumerable differences between any piece of Scottish legislation and an equivalent piece of legislation for England and Wales. The differences result from different legal—I am sorry, I cannot read the next word.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, if the noble Earl will forgive me while he is trying to read his notes, may I say that there is one similarity? We both use the same language and, unless they are technical legal terms, English words tend to mean the same. We both use the same dictionaries north and south of the Border.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, not all the time but I hope most of the time.

The differences reflect the different legal traditions, different legal systems, different histories, different local government practices and even different draftsmen. The noble Lord would be the first to complain if we swept away all these differences. Indeed, I remember in earlier discussions with him when I was dealing with the Scottish legislation how keen he was to keep the differences. The important point is that there is no difference in intention, nor, I am advised, in outcome, between this Bill and the Scottish Bill as far as the meaning of "solely or mainly resident" or "sole or main residence" is concerned.

The noble Lord is inconsistent in his approach. He wants consistency with the Scottish Act, yet he wants us to elaborate on what is meant by "sole or main residence". He will recall that there is no such elaboration in the Scottish Act.

These amendments attempt to provide a specific definition of "sole or main residence" for the purposes of the personal community charge. We have considered very carefully over a long period how liability for the charge should be determined and what is the best way of providing for that in the Bill. We do not believe that the test proposed would be satisfactory; indeed, it could produce some extremely odd results.

It may be helpful if I begin by setting out the basis of the community charge liability. Each adult, other than those who are exempt, will be subject to the personal community charge in the area where they have their sole or main residence. In the vast majority of cases it will be obvious where that will be: most people will have only one home. They will be subject to the personal charge there; if they move house, they will become subject to the charge at their new address.

A few people have two or more homes. In their case it will be necessary to decide which is their main residence—the place at which they will pay the personal charge. That decision will be one for the registration officer, though obviously the individual concerned will have the right to express his view. There will also be a right of appeal. Registration officers will take account of the facts of the case.

The Government's policy on this has been clear for a considerable time. In December 1986, for example, the Department of the Environment published a booklet which said: The registration officer will look at the individual's particular circumstances and will be able to consider such evidence as where the person is employed and where children go to school, as well as the length of time spent at each address". That brings me on to Amendment No. 4. In some ways that offers an enticing prospect: a simple test in the legislation based on the period spent at an address. I fear, however, that because it is so simple it inevitably fails to take account of other factors that will be relevant. I must emphasise that the individuals concerned will frequently want factors other than simply time spent in an area to be relevant.

Let me take an example which is relevant to your Lordships' House. Many of your Lordships necessarily keep two homes one in London for use when the House is sitting, and one elsewhere which we generally regard as home and which is likely to be where our families and most of our possessions are. It is possible that in a year we might spend more days in London than we do elsewhere. This amendment would mean that our London addresses became our main residences for these purposes. Many of your Lordships would not be happy with that outcome.

I have a number of other concerns about these amendments—fears, for example, that they would oblige everyone to keep a time sheet of where they were on every day of the year. But the only point I want to dwell on is the retrospective nature of the test proposed and the results that would produce.

Amendment No. 4 requires sole or main residence to be determined on the basis of the number of days spent at an address in the preceding 12 months. That would mean that after you had moved house you would continue to pay the personal community charge at your previous address for six months and a day after moving. That seems to me to be a nonsense and one that would be resented, especially by those moving from an area where the community charge was high to one where it was low.

I hope that what I have said has clarified the Government's intentions. We believe flexibility is needed to take account of factors other than length of time spent at each address. The noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, said that we must set standards. Of course we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities to minimise variations in interpretation and the rights of appeal will obviously be important also in securing consistency. But the amendment proposed is simply too restrictive and would produce results that were undesirable and sometimes plain odd.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, the noble Earl has read his brief very well and I congratulate him on it, but it does not answer the point. The words in Section 8 of the Scottish Act, with which I presume the noble Earl has been provided, are: any person … who is solely or mainly resident in the area of a local authority in any financial year". That uses the verb "is resident". It is quite easy to find out: either you live solely in Glasgow, Edinburgh or wherever for the whole of the year or you are mainly resident there and go away for short periods.

In the Bill we are considering, a person is subject to the personal community charge in the area in which he has his "sole or main residence". There a noun is used—"residence". I should have thought that in normal use "residence" means a building, but it can mean anything, including a residential boat according to Amendment No. 22. As far as one can see from subsection (3), it could be a park bench. However, we are dealing with a different concept. The whole build-up of the Bill is that you are liable for the day because you are resident on that day. When it comes to the question of joint and several liability, it is taken to extend from the day after a person is married and not the day on which he gets married. That demonstrates the difficulty.

The noble Earl in answering did not seem to appreciate that some people with two houses had them in different registration areas. The example we were talking about of Huntingdon and Camden would involve different registration officers. The point we discussed in Committee, and to which the Government have not come up with an answer, is what would happen if the two registration officers both decide that the gentleman concerned is mainly resident in both Huntingdon and Camden. Where do they go? How do they prove it? On what standard do they work it out? Those questions are what our amendment seeks to address.

One of the difficulties I have is that the noble Earl seemed to suggest that if one of your Lordships had his home in, for example, Edinburgh and had a small flat here in London in which he spent three or four nights a week, he would not want to make the flat his main residence. He appeared to think that there was a financial advantage. In fact the financial advantage would come from making the small flat the residential home because in the centre of London the poll tax will be higher. One only pays for one person, but if one keeps it as a second home one may have to pay twice the poll tax under the standard community charge arrangements. The home where the wife and family are does not become a second home because there is someone normally resident in it.

It seems that on that issue the noble Earl has perhaps not understood the Bill very well. In the circumstances I do not wish to take this amendment to a vote but I assure him that there is a serious problem here. I ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 16, leave out from ("than") to ("is") in line 17 and insert ("an individual for the time being exempt)").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, with this I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 6, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18 and 128. These amendments give effect to a commitment which I gave to your Lordships at an earlier stage when I announced that the Government would exempt from the community charge all those individuals who were detained in legal custody, with the exception of those committed for non-payment of fines and of the community charge and residual domestic rates.

As currently drafted, paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 exempts convicted prisoners detained in penal institutions in pursuance of their sentences. An exemption for that group is clearly justified on the grounds that local accountability cannot be said to operate and they have no means of earning money with which to pay the charge. Initially the Government were not convinced that the same arguments applied to other people who were detained in custody such as remand prisoners. Their situation is rather different since they are typically held in custody for shorter periods than convicted prisoners. However, as your Lordships may recall, considerable concern was expressed in another place that anomalies might arise if this distinction were maintained, between convicted prisoners and non-convicted prisoners. In particular it was seen as unfair that a remand prisoner who was convicted and had his sentence backdated would be exempt, whereas a remand prisoner who was found to be innocent would not be exempt. Concern was also expressed about people detained under the Mental Health Act.

In the light of these concerns expressed both in another place and in your Lordships' House, the Government have reconsidered the position. We have concluded that an exemption is justified for all persons detained in legal custody with only these exceptions: those committed for non-payment of community charges, residual domestic rates or fines. An exemption for these individuals could not be justified because it would give a clear and most undesirable signal that non-payment of the community charge, residual domestic rates or a fine was a sure route to avoiding the community charge.

Your Lordships may wonder why it is necessary to produce such involved amendments in order to exempt persons held in legal custody. The answer is that there is no simple generic description of such people. It is necessary to refer to all of the statutory provisions under which a person may be detained as well as to the places in which he may be detained. This is the approach adopted in these amendments.

The people covered by the amendments include persons detained in a prison, a hospital or any other place by virtue of' an order made by a court in the United Kingdom or a standing civilian court established under the Armed Forces Act 1976. This applies to convicted and remand prisoners alike.

Exemption is also conferred upon those detained under the Immigration Act 1971, the Mental Health Act 1973 and the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984; and the exemption also applies to those who are released from prison for a few days on compassionate grounds, for example, to attend a funeral. However, as I have indicated, it does not apply to those detained under paragraph 7 of Schedule 4 for non-payment of the community charge, under paragraph 3 of Schedule 12 for non-payment of residual domestic rates or under the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 or the Criminal Justice Act 1982 for default in payment of a fine.

The amendments also empower the Secretary of State to provide by order that people detained under armed forces' legislation should also be exempt. This order-making power will be used to make parallel provision for service personnel to that made for civilian prisoners. I believe that these amendments are yet another example of the Government's willingness to listen to your Lordships and to respond positively to arguments put forward both here and in another place. I therefore commend these amendments to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is the second occasion this afternoon—I promise that I shall keep a tally—on which I rise to thank the Minister for the concessions he has made which are in line with the undertaking he gave at an earlier stage and also in line with the discussions which we had at Committee stage. Amendments of this complexity we would find very difficult to draft and we are grateful that they have been so comprehensive and that they cover so fully the points made. The only caveat we enter concerns not exempting those imprisoned for non-payment of the community charge. As the noble Earl knows, we do not feel that anyone should be imprisoned for non-payment of the community charge. Having failed to convince the Committee of that, we shall be seeking tomorrow afternoon to convince the House that there should be as few cases as possible of people imprisoned, certainly by magistrates' courts and without consideration of alternatives to prison, for the non-payment of the community charge. With that very minor caveat we welcome the amendments and support them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Personal community charge: exemption]:

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 6: Page 92, leave out lines 4 to 7 and insert—

("Persons in detention.

1.—(1) A person is an exempt individual on a particular day if at any time on the day—

  1. (a) he is detained in a prison, a hospital or any other place by virtue of an order of a court to which sub-paragraph (2) below applies,
  2. (b) he is detained under paragraph 2 of Schedule 3 to the Immigration Act 1971 (deportation),
  3. (c) he is detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (detention in place of safety), or
  4. (d) he is detained under a warrant issued under the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984.

(2) This sub-paragraph applies to the following courts—

  1. (a) a court in the United Kingdom, and
  2. (b) a Standing Civilian Court established under the Armed Forces Act 1976.

(3) If a person is temporarily discharged under section 28 of the Prison Act 1952, or temporarily released under rules under section 47(5) of that Act, for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1) above he shall be treated as detained.

(4) Sub-paragraph (1) above does not apply where the person is detained under regulations made under—

  1. (a) paragraph 7 of Schedule 4 below, or
  2. (b) paragraph 3 of Schedule 12 below.

(5) Sub-paragraph (1) above does not apply where the person is detained under section 76 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, or section 9 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982, for default in payment of a fine.

(6) In sub-paragraph (1) above "order" includes a sentence, direction, warrant or other means of giving effect to the decision of the court concerned.

(7) The Secretary of State may by order provide that a person is an exempt individual on a particular day if—

  1. (a) at any time on the day he is imprisoned, detained or in custody under the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 or the Naval Discipline Act 1957, and
  2. (b) such conditions as may be prescribed are fulfilled.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 7: Page 92, line 26, leave out from beginning to end of line 38 and insert—

("The severely mentally impaired.

4.—(1) A person is an exempt individual on a particular day if—

  1. (a) as regards the day he fulfils one or more of the conditions mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) below,
  2. (b) at any time on the day he is severely mentally impaired, and
  3. (c) he is stated to be severely mentally impaired at that time in a certificate of a registered medical practitioner.

(2) The conditions are that—

  1. (a) he is entitled for the day to an invalidity pension under section 15 of the Social Security Act 1975;
  2. (b) he is entitled for the day to a severe disablement allowance under section 36 of that Act;
  3. (c) he is on the day of pensionable age within the meaning given by section 27 of that Act.

(3) A person is severely mentally impaired if he is suffering from—

  1. (a) a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind which involves severe impairment of intelligence and social functioning, or
  2. (b) an injury to the brain causing severe impairment of intelligence and social functioning which appears to be permanent.

(4) The Secretary of State may by order amend sub-paragraph (2) above as it has effect for the time being (whether by adding, deleting or amending conditions, or by any combination of those methods).

(5) The Secretary of State may by order substitute another definition for the definition of severe mental impairment for the time being effective for the purposes of this paragraph.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to listen to what the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, might have to say (unless I convince him otherwise) as regards Amendment No. 8 before responding to his amendment to my amendment. I am confident that this government amendment will also be welcomed by your Lordships since it gives effect to a commitment that I gave at an earlier stage and exempts from the community charge a further group of people who are severely mentally impaired and who were not exempt under the Bill as it stands.

The group of people in question are those who become severely mentally impaired as a result of an injury to the brain in adulthood. As your Lordships will appreciate, this is in addition to those already exempted; namely, those who are severely impaired as a result of congenital handicap or accidents in childhood.

It may be helpful to your Lordships if I run briefly through the terms of the amendment. Subparagraph (1) provides that a person is exempt from the community charge if he is severely mentally impaired, if he has a certificate from a doctor stating that he is severely mentally impaired and if he fulfils one or more of three conditions.

The three conditions are set out in subparagraph (2). They are designed to act as a filter, to ensure that before a person seeks to claim the exemption he must already have passed a preliminary test. Your Lordships will know that under the Bill as it stands there is a single preliminary test; namely, entitlement to a severe disablement allowance. That single test is no longer appropriate on its own in the light of the new, extended definition of severe mental impairment, because not all the people concerned will qualify for SDA. We have therefore added a second. alternative test; namely, entitlement to an invalidity pension. Many people who become mentally impaired in adulthood will be in receipt of this benefit rather than SDA.

The reason for the third condition is that there will be a relatively small group of people who, despite being severely mentally impaired, are not in receipt of SDA or of an invalidity pension. Since this group will all be above pensionable age, the third preliminary test is that a person must be of pensionable age.

Subparagraph (3) of the new provision gives the new, extended definition of severe mental impairment. It includes, as I have already said, those who suffer brain injury in adulthood as well as those impaired congenitally or in childhood.

Finally, subparagraphs (4) and (5) give the Secretary of State the power to vary the definition of severe mental impairment and the qualifying conditions. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that this is a sensible reserve power, since it will enable us to review the exemption in the light of changing circumstances without the need for primary legislation. It might, for example, become necessary to refer in subparagraph (2) to a new benefit because of changes in social security arrangements. This power would enable us to make that change. I am confident that the amendment will be welcomed on all sides of the House. I beg to move.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Renton)

My Lords, I now call, as an amendment to Amendment No. 7, Amendment No. 8.

6 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 7, Amendment No. 8: Leave out paragraph 4(1)(c) and insert ("(c) he is assessed as having severe mental impairment by a panel, the membership and functioning of which shall be specified by the Secretary of State by regulation.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, although, as I explained in Committee, I should have preferred the severely mentally impaired to have been dealt with in quite a different way, I am grateful for the changes that have been made in this paragraph, including in particular the decision no longer to limit its provisions to those who suffer from congenital handicap. However, the one point that disturbs me is the provision in paragraph 4(1)(c) which rests on a certificate from a doctor.

The word "certificate", of itself, conjures up undesirable memories of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. It is not like issuing a certificate of vaccination. Nor indeed in practice is it just about getting exemption from the poll tax. In effect, what is involved is a step marking out an individual as incapable and as someone to be set aside from the rest of society. It is bound to be a traumatic experience for the individual and for his family.

The noble Earl was good enough to write to me and explain that he thought that the procedure set out in his amendment had the merit of being straightforward and involving a minimum of formality even if the doctor concerned, who would normally be the individual's GP, was no expert in mental handicap. The fact is that assessment of severe mental impairment can be a complex and difficult task. For the most part, the ordinary GP—I attach no blame to him for this—does not have the necessary experience and qualification.

There are perhaps 175,000 severely mentally handicapped people in the country, something like three or four per 100,000 of the population, so that no one GP would have more than a tiny number on his list. We have had the experience at Mencap conferences of GPs explaining that they had little relevant training or education, that they had little experience of the special problems involved and that they even had little knowledge of how to communicate with these individuals. To leave this decision to the GP in isolation when all he has to guide him as a definition of severe mental impairment are the words of subparagraph (3)(a) is a prime recipe for inconsistent decisions up and down the country.

The Government's draft does not even specify that the doctor must have some relevant qualification, which I should have thought was the absolute minimum. The Government have not accepted the suggestion made in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that two doctors should be involved. As regards my suggestion at that stage that there should be a right of appeal, the Minister wrote to me to say that if one doctor turned down the individual he could always go to another, a suggestion which, to put it as kindly as I can, seems a somewhat informal approach towards what is such a momentous decision for the person concerned. I know that the department is extremely expert on matters such as waste disposal and the green belt, but I wonder whether it really understands the likely impact on individuals of what is being proposed here. So far as I know the department has not consulted those outside the Government who have some practical experience.

I suggest that we should get away from certification and go instead for assessment. I suggest that the assessment should be the responsibility of a multi-disciplinary panel, based perhaps on the existing community mental handicap teams which consist of experts from the various interested professions—consultants in mental handicap, clinical psychologists, and so on. My understanding is that there are 350 of these teams covering some 70 per cent. of the country. The precise way in which it would all be managed is best left to regulation but it is essential to do something about the provision in the amendment resting on the registered medical practitioner.

There are many things to be sorry about in regard to this legislation. One is that the Bill has brought us round to the need to identify in some way people who suffer severe mental impairment. I urge the Government to think again about the arrangements for decisions which will so profoundly affect the lives of thousands of unfortunate people and their families. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I hope that the Minister is in a receptive frame of mind. I begin, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, began, by acknowledging that the government amendment is sensible and is an improvement. We hear that those who will be deeply involved in the implementation of the nexus within the Bill are saying to the Government that it can be improved on the margin. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said in simple terms that there is an argument between certification and assessment in establishing the bona fides of those who can legitimately be exempt from the charge. It is miserable for the individual and for his family and friends to be involved at all in having to plead a case in this way.

Noble Lords may be wondering about the lapel badge I am wearing. We are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the National Health Service. The Royal College of Nursing has a small reception downstairs and the people down there very much hope that the Minister will say something helpful about the amendment so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale.

In this case there are people from outside 2 Marsham Street who seek advice from the department. They are better qualified than the advisers to the Minister on how to deal with an important point. The Minister can demonstrate his willingness to get it absolutely right by acknowledging these difficulties. The Bill will receive Royal Assent in the not too distant future. Once that is done many good people and many sad people will live with it for a long time to come. The Minister has had a good record this afternoon of acknowledging where, on the margin, people in special difficulties have had those difficulties taken into account. Of all the groups in our society which deserve not just fair treatment, but extraordinarily fair treatment, it is those who suffer from an impairment to their mental health. Therefore I very much hope that the Minister can be kind this afternoon.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I believe that what the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is proposing seems most sensible, and I hope therefore that my noble friend will be able to give it the right kind of reception. I should like especially to thank my noble friend for the letters he wrote to me and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship recently covering this amendment and others.

I should also like to say that I have discussed the amendments with the NSF and how much we welcome this amendment, Amendment No. 6—which sadly I missed—and Amendments Nos. 14, 19 and 22. They all seem to be a great advance. Perhaps I may thank noble Lords who spoke in Committee, when I was not able to be here, on this subject. I think that my noble friend has gone a long way to achieve the kind of refinements that we want to see in this area, and I thank him for that.

Lord Hunter of Newington

My Lords, I should like to speak strongly in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has said from a great depth of experience. However, I should like to approach this from the point of view of the Government's Amendment No. 7, paragraph 4(1)(c); and also from the point of view of the family. First, heading (c) in the amendment states: a certificate of a registered medical practitioner". That can mean anyone who is medically qualified; he might be a surgeon, an anaesthetist, or a general practitioner. I think that against the background—which has been so eloquently described—of this tragedy in the family, every step must be taken to ensure that what is done is seen to be done. Therefore I hope that the Government will at least be prepared to amend heading (c) of the amendment to make it clear that it applies to a physchiatrically qualified medical practitioner. In common parlance, the words, "registered medical practitioner" mean either anyone or a general practitioner, and therefore the wording must be changed. I should have thought that in response to what has been said here, this could be the minimum we could hope for from the Government.

There is a great deal to support assessment by a panel which would then have a record of the views about this person, which is available if the circumstances change—which they might do, say, in six months time. Therefore when they want to review the situation again, they can look at the record and check the progress. So I think that there is a great deal to be said for this part of the amendment and I urge the government to be sympathetic in their response.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment moved with characteristic clarity and authority by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who, as the House knows, is the distinguished president of MENCAP. Therefore there is little that I as a very undistinguished vice president of that organisation can, or should, seek to add. In the circumstances I am in the happy position to which Metellus Cimber in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar could only aspire: Is there no voice more worthy than my own, To sound more sweetly in great Caesar's ear". It is, I suppose, by a happy coincidence that the noble Lord sitting on the Woolsack is the distinguished chairman of MENCAP—

A Noble Lord

A previous president!

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, yes; a previous president. I take it that the noble Lord was not going to query my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, because I am sure he would warmly associate himself with it.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I associate myself with the tribute; but we always like to get things accurate in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, having served as chairman and then as president, is now a past president of the society.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, I make my brief intervention only because I have in that capacity received representations and it is perhaps appropriate that I record my support for the amendment. I am not at all critical of Ministers in making these submissions. I fully acknowledge their good intentions and, as—I hope—a good friend, I seek only to help them avoid the proverbial dangers and destinations of good intentions.

The Bill recognises that severe mental impairment should be a ground for exemption from the collective community charge. That is obviously very proper and, in principle, would meet with general assent. The difficulty arises in terms of a definition. Amendment No. 7—tabled in the name of the Minister—makes the criterion at paragraph 4(1)(c) of Schedule 1 of: a certificate of a registered medical practitioner which, as has already been pointed out, really means a general practitioner in the ordinary usage of language.

Amendment No. 8 seeks to broaden the definition and increase the expertise in making the assessment. A single medical practitioner, unversed in the complexities of mental health and acting in isolation, may well not be equipped to make an informed and accurate assessment. That the complexities in these matters are great I well recall, as will the noble Lord sitting on the Woolsack who played such a distinguished part in the proceedings during the long days of the passage of the Mental Health Act 1959. The amendment would give a more expert assessment.

In an ideal world I think that the composition of the panels would be prescribed in the primary legislation; but in a practical world, it has to be left to regulations. Fortunately, however, that need present no difficulty. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, there are already existing community mental-handicap teams from which the necessary expertise can be drawn. Therefore I hope that Ministers will accept the principle and make provision for expert assessment leading to more reliable certification. If they do that and they accept the principle, they can be sure—the speeches made today have testified to this—that they will have goodwill and support in the carriage and implementation of those regulations.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I do not know how the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, feels about being cast in the role of the great Caesar. However, from these Benches I hope that he will, so to speak, lend his ear to the arguments which have been proffered in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale.

It seems to me that the implications of the finding are much greater than are confined to the Bill. But looking at the original amendment, and the proposed amendment to it, I suppose ideally that there is something to be said for having a medical practitioner who is well-versed in the expertise required. Indeed I think that there is an overwhelming argument in favour of that. I should have thought that that was an unarguable point. However, what I think is arguable from the Government's point of view—if they accept Lord Allen's amendment in principle, they might then consider this—is whether the doctor concerned should be drawn from the panel. That depends on the actual implications of the certification. Is it to be wider than the Bill? If one has certification for the purposes of Clause 4(1), its implications are likely to apply in a wider sphere. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, may have had that in mind when he drafted this amendment to the amendment in wider terms than would appear to be necessary from the Government's drafting.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I am bothered about this matter. In our attempt to do what all in the House thought was right—to ensure that severely mentally handicapped people do not have to pay the charge—we are having to ask that something be said about someone which we would much prefer did not have to be said. On reflection, I do not think that it would have made any difference if the House had gone the way the noble Lord, Lord Allen, would have preferred which, if I recollect it correctly, would be to have a 100 per cent. rebate rather than exemption. However, there would be a problem defining who was to receive it.

Perhaps my noble friend can tell me whether there is any way of having a form which merely says that a person falls into one of several categories that are exempt. We should not then have the problem of saying to the family that all these matters apply to a person. I do not know whether my noble friend has considered that point. It is unfortunate to have to arrive at a provision which is wholly good by facing up to something which neither the noble Lord, Lord Allen, nor anyone else thinks is right. It may be unavoidable. I do not know whether the noble Lord has thought about that point. Perhaps we could have a simpler statement which covers a number of exemptions and not just the one we are discussing, with someone qualified to sign the form saying that a person is exempt because they meet one of the following categories, or something like that. That would be much more imaginative if it were possible.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I have listened carefully to what your Lordships have said about the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. He raised a subject to which we have given a good deal of thought and upon which I recently wrote to him, as he reminded your Lordships a moment ago. It may be helpful therefore if I explain precisely why we have adopted the approach to the issuing of certificates which is enshrined in the Government's amendment.

One of our principal concerns in devising the procedure for claiming the exemption was that the procedure should be straightforward, involving the minimum of formality and inconvenience to the applicant and his or her relatives.

We believe that an over-formal approach could cause distress and deter some people from applying for the exemption for which they are entitled. We took the view that we could best meet that concern by providing for certificates to be issued by a registered medical practitioner who, in the vast majority of cases, is the applicant's GP. I of course accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunter of Newington, which I should like to look at between now and another stage of the Bill. He raised the valid point about someone being qualified and putting the word "qualified" in front of "registered medical practitioner" in Clause 4(1)(c). Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to look at that point between now and another stage.

Our approach has the advantage that the applicant will be dealing with a doctor with whom he is familiar and with whom he feels comfortable. It also has the advantage that in most cases the doctor will be familiar with the applicant's condition and case history. He will, for example, have access to any expert opinion on the person's mental condition which has previously been obtained. In the minority of cases where the medical practitioner is not sufficiently familiar with the applicant—for example, where the applicant has recently changed GP—he will be able to make inquiries of professional colleagues who have more detailed knowledge of the applicant's condition and greater expertise in assessing mental conditions.

I also point out that in subsection (2) we have provided that before qualifying for the exemption a person must be in receipt of a severe disability allowance or an invalidity pension if he is below pensionable age. As your Lordships will be aware, the procedures for claiming those benefits already involve, where appropriate, examination by medical experts. We believe that much of the concern felt by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is met by the sieve through which that procedure takes place.

The noble Lord said that the word "certificate" had undesirable connotations. I am not sure that I agree. The word "certified" is unfavourable, which is why the amendment removes that word which is used in the Bill as it stands. I am sure that the noble Lord has read Clause 28 where he will also find the word "certificate" used in relation to students. I cannot agree with him that there is any question of the mentally impaired being singled out or stigmatised by the use of the word.

The noble Lord also said that expertise was needed. He suggested that GPs would be unable to take the necessary decisions. I do not believe that that is necessarily so. Of course I am not the expert. I have naturally consulted the experts on this matter in the DHSS. I can assure your Lordships that they are satisfied with the proposed approach. I must emphasise that in using the individual's GP he is likely to be aware of the history. There may well have been a specialist view involved earlier about which the GP will know.

I can tell my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour that there is no existing category of severely mentally impaired people to which we can refer. That is why we have proposed a new definition and procedure which is rather long and perhaps complicated. I can assure her that it is the only suitable way to sort out the problem.

I am grateful for what my noble friend Lord Mottistone said. I am pleased that he realises that the Government have gone a long way towards meeting his concern and that of a number of other people.

On balance, we feel that our approach—certification by a medical practitioner—is fair and satisfactory. We do not believe that the approach advocated by the noble Lord would be an improvement because it would add an extra layer of formality, bureaucracy and cost. It might even deter some people from applying for an exemption to which they are entitled. I am sure that that is the last thing that the noble Lord or I want.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I must confess that I am disappointed by that reply given the support for my suggestion tendered from all sides of the House, including those Members of the House sitting behind the Minister. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, I should have preferred to go down the road of rebate, but I regarded that as a dead duck following our discussions in Committee. The Minister has, in effect, confirmed that there has been no consultation with experts outside the government machine, which I find disappointing.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with respect, I do not believe that I said that. I think that the noble Lord has misinterpreted what I said. I said that we have consulted the DHSS and I am sure that the DHSS, as experts in the matter, have consulted widely outside.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, it has not consulted MENCAP, which does know something about these matters. Of course, the reply does not go to the root of the matter. The Minister does not seem to understand, any more than his officials seem to understand, what an important decision this is in the life of the individuals concerned, not only for the individuals but for the family. They will need reassurance when they see their son or daughter subject to a certificate which marks him or her out as someone detached from the whole of the rest of the community.

I am sorry that my eloquence has been inadequate to put over that thought to the Government. What I am not very clear about is whether the Minister is prepared to consider doing anything about the use of the word "certificate". I gather not. Also, there is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Hunter, and I made about having some qualifying words to make sure that the medical practitioner has some qualifications. If the Minister is not prepared to meet that, I should certainly be prepared to try something on those lines at Third Reading. Perhaps the noble Earl could explain that point before I decide whether to test the feeling of the House.

6.30 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hunter of Newington: that that was a point which I wanted to discuss with my right honourable friend. It is a point which I certainly wanted to look into—putting "qualified" before "registered medical practitioner".

However, I am concerned about something which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has just said: that MENCAP had not been consulted on our proposals. If that is the case, I should certainly want to look into that as well.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am very reluctant to decide the fate of these poor people by calling a vote which is settled by people who have not heard the argument. On the basis of the assurances given by the Minister and the possibility of returning to some of these points on Third Reading, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to Amendment No. 7, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Amendment No. 7 agreed to.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 9: Page 93, line 9, leave out ("religious").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 9. I understand that it is for the convenience of the House that I speak also to Amendments Nos. 10 and 11.

In Schedule 1 we have the treatment of religious communities; that is, the exemption from the financial obligations for members of religious communities. These three amendments are perfectly straightforward. We have no objection on this side of the House to looking at the nexus in which communities decide to operate as a community.

However, we fail to see the special significance of excluding religious communities. We are seeking here the deletion of the word "religious". Of course the exemption is aimed not just at religious communities hut, by further definition, religious communities which have no income or capital of their own and which depend on the communities concerned for their material needs.

The principal occupation of the religious community must be prayer, contemplation, the relief of suffering, education or any prescribed occupation. From the way in which these matters are defined, two of those criteria will be sufficient to warrant exemption. Communities which are not religious will not qualify for the exemption, even though their principal occupation may be contemplation, the relief of suffering or education. Their members may have no income or capital of their own and may be dependent on the community for their material needs. We find it difficult to understand how the Government could be precise and say that there are two kinds of communities, one which is religious and one which is not, which meet all the criteria, yet one would be relieved of financial responsibility and the other would have to pay. That is the purpose of these amendments. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has just said and of the comments made in Committee, it may be helpful if I explain in a little detail the Government's thinking in providing the exemption for religious communities in the way that they have.

The exemption is deliberately intended to be narrow and it was introduced following representations from the Churches and representatives of other religions. Many of your Lordships have expressed concern that it might extend further than we intended. In fact, the tests we have established for the exemption are extremely difficult to meet. The purposes of the community are closely defined. The members have to divest themselves of all income and capital. They will not be eligible for any social security benefits. If they have a job—and there are of course monks and nuns who go into the community and receive a salary—then they will not be exempt, even if they covenant their salary to their order, as is almost universally done. The salary will have to be covenanted net of the community charge.

The Government take the view that it is unrealistic to suppose that large numbers of people will be prepared to give up everything and genuinely to engage in certain narrowly defined activities simply in order to avoid the community charge. The decision whether or not particular communities qualify for the exemption will be for community charge registration officers in the first place. There should be no difficulties for them in deciding that members of well-established monasteries and convents are entitled to the exemption. If they have any doubts about a particular group then it will be open to them to decide that its members are not exempt. Any such decision will be subject to appeal. If it is eventually decided that the group in question is genuinely engaged in the defined activities and that its members meet the income and capital tests then I would submit that it would be quite proper for them to benefit from the exemption.

The noble Lord's amendments, by removing the word "religious", would, however, introduce a good deal of uncertainty about the scope of the exemption. The Government make no apology for the fact that the exemption depends first and foremost on a community being a religious community. Other types of community may well be engaged in similar activities. But it was the particular effects of the community charge on Churches and religious orders, and the social security status of their members, which led the Government to accept that there should be special treatment for them. I believe that this is the right approach and that the noble Lord's amendments would leave considerable doubt about Parliament's intentions. This could lead to a much wider use of the exemption than I believe the majority of your Lordships would consider appropriate.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend in resisting these amendments. However, when I saw what is now paragraph 7 of the schedule at Committee stage, I and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter both found ourselves moved to comment that the whole paragraph is probably too loosely worded already. I submit to my noble friend and to the House that any reasonably conscientious member of an ordinary congregation qualifies personally under paragraph 7(1)(a). His congregation meets the requirements of subparagraph (2)(a). Any congregation engaged in normal evangelistic and missionary activity easily meets that requirement. For those who are bent on abusing this paragraph, it would not be too difficult to find a financial adviser who could arrange for those forming themselves into a bogus community to meet paragraph 7(1)(b).

My anxiety is that in the course of trying to meet the very proper concern of genuine monks and nuns, my noble friend has introduced a paragraph which before very long—maybe a year or two—will be so open to abuse that we shall have another scandal to deal with as bad as that which is already associated with the Moonies, who have managed to get themselves registered as a charity. I ask my noble friend to look at this again and see whether he can tighten it up a little.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I failed to say in my opening remarks that of course we acknowledge that the Government took on board the anxieties that were expressed in another place and here that one needed to take account of making provisions for religious orders. The nexus of the nuns and the monks was taken into account. The Minister may think I am pursuing a bad abbot here! But I am not. I am trying to understand what is meant in Schedule 1(7)(2)(a), which contains a list of occupations the existence of which establish the existence of a relevant religious community.

The Minister said that the Government always considered that the first and foremost occupation of such a community was prayer. Yet if one looks at Schedule 1(7)(2)(b), one sees that the Government consider that the principal occupation of such a community, consists of two or more of the occupations mentioned in paragraph (a), one occupation of which is prayer or contemplation or the relief of suffering.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, is absolutely right. The more one looks at the drafting here, the more one fears it is possible for abuse to take place. I hope that the Minister will accept that we have not remotely sought to abuse the looseness of this provision in trying to extend the benefits of the schedule. I understand that the Minister and his colleagues have responded to a legitimate query. Having seen the wording, we are saying that we can see some other groups of people who might benefit from it. However, I am satisfied that the Minister will not go any further with this matter this evening. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 not moved.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 12: Page 93, line 22, at end insert ("where such income falls below a figure set out in regulations issued by the Secretary of State").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are still on the same subject of religious communities, but we are talking about one exemption to which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, did not refer when he criticised the looseness of the drafting of this part of the Bill. The criterion laid down for members of a community is that the people concerned have no income or capital of their own. We can all understand and agree on that. Those people sell all they have and give it to the poor or to the community, as the case may be.

But income by way of a pension from a former employment will be ignored. Nobody would wish to deter those who have retired on a pension from joining a community, religious or otherwise, or from devoting their life to good works in all kinds of ways. But it could be argued, and indeed I am arguing—one gets caught in circumlocutions of this kind—that those who have substantial pensions would not feel that their object in joining a religious community was significantly impaired by the fact that out of those pensions provision should be made for the community charge. None of this implies approval of the community charge as a whole. But exemption from community charges as opposed to the rebate system does progressively, as it extends, detract from the accountability argument which the Government use all the time.

The more exemptions there are, the more those who are left without exemptions have to pay for their personal community charges. Although we have argued for exemptions where they seem to be most appropriate and where the argument for accountability clearly diminishes to the point of nonexistence, we should prefer, generally speaking, the exceptions to the community charge to be in the form of rebates which take account of income. This is a very good case of that. Here we have people who, by regulation set by the Secretary of State, would be deemed to have substantial pension income. Those who do not choose to go into a religious community have to pay the charge. Those who do go into a religious community should, we suggest, have the community charge deducted from that which they are forgoing in order to enter the community.

It is a difficult case to argue. All of these cases are difficult to argue because they are always at the margin of accountability and at the margin of ability to pay. But I think that there is a sufficient case here for the Government to listen to, and for the Government to accept that it accords with the other principles they have of ensuring that as wide a group of people as possible recognise the obligations of the community charge and its effect on accountability. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, before I respond to the amendment in detail, this gives me an opportunity to say to my noble friend Lord Sandford, who raised a point after I had sat down after replying to the previous amendment, that I looked at the whole of the wording of this part of the Bill between the Committee stage, when concern was raised, and now. But I must say that we could not come up with tighter wording. We went back and discussed it with some of the members of the Churches Main Committee. It is sad that some of the right reverend Prelates involved on that committee are not here today to take part in what would be a helpful debate on this matter. We looked at the matter but found that the wording was sufficiently tight. Therefore my noble friend need not have quite the concerns that I know he has.

Returning to the amendment, as the noble Lord has explained, it would entail my right honourable friend setting a limit on the amount of a pension which is to be ignored for the purposes of determining whether or not a member of a religious community has an income. This would be an unnecessary piece of bureaucracy. Any member of a religious community who has a pension and who keeps that pension for himself or herself will not be exempt from the community charge because of the capital rule. By keeping a pension it becomes part of a person's capital, and anyone with capital will not be exempt. All pension income will therefore have to be given up and this will usually be done by covenanting it to the order.

The Government decided that pension income should be disregarded because many monks and nuns would have a small pension in respect of previous employment which they gave up in order to take up their monastic life. It will often be insufficient to meet the community charge. In this respect pension income differs from earned income, which will usually be sufficient to cover the charge before the member has covenanted it to his or her order.

I accept that there will also be cases where the pension may be somewhat larger and may be sufficient to pay the charge. But a limit would inevitably be arbitrary. It would lead to income trap effects and it would add to the administrative burdens of registration officers. I do not believe that the small numbers of people involved warrant setting up the necessary machinery. In view of this and what I said about the capital rule which prevents members of religious communities from either keeping their pension or spending it on personal possessions, I hope that the House will not accept the amendment that the noble Lord has moved, should he desire to press it.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree with me—perhaps it is more accurate to say that he does agree with me—that this provision is loosely worded? He has looked at it again, but so far he has not found any way of making it any tighter. I do not think that he has convinced himself or me that it is satisfactory as it stands.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I see that the noble Earl has resumed his seat definitively, and he is not responding to that. I find some parts of the Minister's argument somewhat difficult to follow. If the argument of an income trap is valid, surely it is valid for a very much larger group of people than those who choose to enter religious communities. If the noble Earl had responded more positively to the amendments we put forward in Committee on the taper, perhaps he would not find himself in the difficulty of an income trap which he now appears to detect. However, I do not think that this is a matter on which it would be appropriate to divide the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendments Nos. 13 and 14:

Page 93, line 25, leave out from ("day") to end of line and insert ("one or more of the following paragraphs applies to him—

  1. (a) he is a patient who has his sole or main residence in a hospital;
  2. (b) he is detained under Part II of the Mental Health Act 1983 in a hospital;
  3. (c) he is detained under section 46, 47 or 48 of that Act in a hospital.").

Page 93, line 33, leave out from ("day") to end of line 36 and insert ("one or each of the following paragraphs applies to him—

  1. (a) he has his sole or main residence in a residential care home, nursing home, mental nursing home or hostel, and he is receiving care or treatment (or both) in the home or hostel;
  2. (b) he is detained under Part 11 of the Mental Health Act 1983 in a mental nursing home.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 15: Page 93, line 36, at end insert and ("(c) and he is in receipt of income of less than £15,000 per annum.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 15 relates to the paragraph in Schedule I which is entitled "Patients in homes". In order to set the scene, perhaps it will be helpful if I read a part of that paragraph. Paragraph 9(1) provides that: A person is an exempt individual on a particular day if at any time on that day—

  1. (a) he has his sole or main residence in a residential care home, nursing home or hostel, and
  2. (b) he is receiving care or treatment (or both) there".
We seek to add a further head which would read: (c) and he is in receipt of income of less than £15,000 per annum".

The reason for the amendment is patently clear. There are individuals whose incomes are miserable compared to the sum of £15,000 per annum. By and large, the Government have not been prepared to make exceptions other than for special groups. The intention is to bring accountability to our local government and local taxation nexus. As a consequence, people may well be pursued for very small sums of money.

In considering the situation we believe that there are a number of people—the Government have not been concerned with numbers up to now—who should be taken into account. At col. 827 of the Official Report of 24th May 1988, during our Committee stage on this Bill, the Minister said: The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has seized on what he believes is an anomaly in the Bill, which is that a few relatively well-off people who are being cared for in nursing homes and similar institutions will nevertheless not he subject to the personal community charge".

We are not referring to actual numbers. We must confess, as the Minister does from time to time, to an absence of precise information as to numbers. Many people enter such homes for good medical reasons. However, others are there for quiet, comfort, convalescence and a range of other reasons. Nursing homes are not cheap. The Minister is entitled to say that much of the cost of a nursing home may be borne by the state either directly or indirectly. However, there are many private nursing homes where residents are not receiving state assistance and the charges are paid for by the individual.

I shall repeat an illustration which I used at Committee stage. It is possible to find in a place such as Enfield nursing homes where the cost of being looked after is anything from £200 to £300 a week. That is a modest cost for a nursing home these days. I define "private home" as one which is not run by the municipality or the council. I ask the Minister whether he is prepared to find a bureaucratic device in order to reach our objective. I believe that his argument will rest on the difficulty of finding, monitoring, recording and administering such a system. However, in equity and justice, I believe that someone who is in receipt of an income in excess of £15,000 should pay the personal community charge.

The Minister may raise the question of whether that sum should be gross or net. However, the principle is that there should be some measuring rod or bar below which a person is legitimately entitled to the protection of Schedule 1 and above which a person will be taken out of the protection of that schedule. The Government have not been averse to setting limits within which people may be caught. I believe that they should look at this matter as well. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

My Lords, as I said at Committee stage, I am sympathetic to the general thrust of what the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord McIntosh, are trying to achieve. It is obviously indefensible that a millionaire, a millionairess, or even someone who can be described simply as rich who is living in a nursing home or a residential care home and who is of sound mind and able to vote in general and local elections and benefit from at least some of the services provided by local government, should be completely exempt from the community charge.

The question is where the dividing line should be drawn. What constitutes being rich? I suggest that everything hinges on whether the noble Lord means £15,000 gross or £15,000 net. For a single person, £15,000 gross nets down to £11,901 per annum after tax. That works out at just under £229 per week. Unfortunately, a great many nursing homes and residential care facilities have charges which work out at more than £230 per week. Indeed, there are many doctors who warn their patients against going into homes costing less than, say, £210 per week on the ground that the standard of care probably will not be very good. I am speaking in this context of private homes.

If the noble Lord, Lord Graham, means £15,000 net of tax, which equates to £19,133 gross for a single person, that is another matter. Even in that case one notices that no provision has been made for indexation in the amendment. That being so, one wonders whether the noble Lord might consider it better to come back at the next stage with an income figure revised to, let us say, £20,000 gross, which represents a capital sum of about £½ million—that is the sum which is required to produce a gross income of £20,000—with, shall we say, built-in protection against inflation: in other words, with a further provision that that should be linked to the retail price index.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, will recall the reply that I gave to a precisely similar amendment that he moved at an earlier stage. The position has not changed. The principle behind granting an exemption for patients in a home is that accountability could not reasonably be said to operate for many of those individuals. The ability of people in homes to participate in the process of local accountability would in many cases be severely limited and perhaps more limited than the noble Lord, Lord Monson, believes.

I remind your Lordships that the exemption was granted in acknowledgement of strong representations made during debates on the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act in your Lordships' House. The result is that a relatively small number of comparatively well-off individuals will benefit from the exemption. That does not in the Government's view undermine in any way the good reasons for granting the exemption in the first place.

Leaving aside the concerns of principle for a moment, I must draw attention to the practical consequences of the amendment. It would require registration officers to undertake detailed investigations into the incomes of every patient in every nursing home or residential care home simply with the aim of establishing that a small minority should be denied an exemption. That would not be a practical undertaking and as a result it is not one that the Government are prepared to ask registration officers to undertake.

I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, that he must choose between a general exemption for patients in homes or no exemption at all. His proposal at the moment is not acceptable to the Government for reasons of both principle and practicality.

7 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister has given the same reply. I take heart from the words of the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I shall think very carefully about what he has said and no doubt shall be in touch with him about a better amendment. However, I am disappointed because the Minister is arguing not just on the basis of the practicalities but on the principle.

It is very surprising. Amendments which were moved earlier concerned a community in which all the members have given up their worldly goods. They cannot be exempted from the charge, yet here we are considering the case of individuals who will hang on to their worldly goods—which may perhaps amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds—and will be exempted from the charge. That is not just an anomaly; it makes a nonsense of the application of the charge. I am disappointed with the Minister.

When one considers the impact of the provision, there will be many people who keep relatives at home in order to avoid a range of social disruptions. They will have to pay the poll tax and the individual himself will have to pay the poll tax; yet those who can afford to go into a residential home and are able to satisfy the very flimsy criteria about their status and condition will be able to avoid the charge by virtue of the provisions of the schedule. It is unfair and unjust. That is the epitaph of the whole of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, I propose to call Amendments Nos. 16 to 18 en bloc if the House agrees because those amendments have been discussed with Amendment No. 5.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendments Nos. 16 to 18:

Page 93, line 47, leave out from second ("Act") to end of line 48.

Page 94, line 3, at end insert— ("(4A) A mental nursing home is anything which is a mental nursing home within the meaning of the Registered Homes Act 1984.").

Page 94, line 5, leave out ("or nursing home") and insert (", nursing home or mental nursing home").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I suggest that this would be a suitable moment to break for dinner and that we return at 8 o'clock. I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.