13. In this Order—
allotted day" means any day (other than a Friday) on which the Bill is put down as first Government Order of the Day provided that a Motion for allotting time to the proceedings on the Bill to be taken on that day either has
been agreed on a previous day or is set down for consideration on that day;
the Bill" means the Local Government Finance Bill; "Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee as agreed to by the Standing Committee;
Resolution of the Business Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Committee as agreed to by the House.
The House will be well aware of the importance of the Local Government Finance Bill to which this motion seeks to apply a timetable. The objectives of the Bill are well known. They are, first, to abolish the injustices of the present domestic rating system; secondly, to make local authorities more accountable and responsive to their electors; and, thirdly, to provide much needed protection for business ratepayers. The Bill will achieve these objectives through the replacement of domestic rates by the fairer community charge, the introduction of a simpler and more stable system of paying revenue support grants to local authorities, and the establishment of a uniform national business rate.
This is not the time or the occasion to go into the details of this measure, but I will make some general comments. The present system of local government finance, where 20 million of the 35 million electorate make no direct contribution to the cost of local services, is not an equitable one, and can lead to irresponsible local authorities of the type that we have so regrettably seen in many of the areas controlled by the Labour party. Moreover, half of local revenue is raised from businesses which are defenceless against exploitation by these same authorities.
Our proposed community charge will introduce the accountability which is currently lacking. All electors, not just a minority, in a local authority's area will have a close personal and financial interest in their council's performance, and will therefore be more concerned that necessary services are provided efficiently. Local democracy should be much strengthened by the Bill.
Mr. Simon Huges (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Will the Leader of the House say how businesses will have a greater say after the legislation, given that they will have absolutely no influence on their local rate? Their only influence will be on the Government, and Governments can be just as arbitrary and unlistening as local government.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Local businesses have no vote and no great influence— [Interruption.] In some areas they may do, and in some areas they do not. We believe that businesses will have more influence through a uniform rate applied throughout the country, which will bring much needed relief to some parts.
Even the Labour party admits that local democracy—
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
The Leader of the House does not seem to understand what the Bill is doing. At present, every local authority has a statutory obligation to discuss the implications of its local budget with the local business community. That obligation is wholly removed by the legislation and there will be no requirement on local authorities to discuss matters with the local business community.
§ Mr. Wakeham
If some local authorities had exercised their statutory responsibilities and consulted and listened, 29 we might not have got into the difficulty in which we now are. The hon. Gentleman goes right to the heart of the problem. The Labour party admits that local government democracy will be strengthened by the Bill. I quote from the Labour pamphlet, "Labour Councils in the Cold", issued by the Labour Co-ordinating Committee. It states that one of the effects of the community charge would be thatwhen the local council wants to carry out a programme of service expansion, local people will no longer be cushioned by increased business rates and rate support grant. They will want to know that increased expenditure is well spent".They will indeed. It is such a pity that the Labour party seems to regard that as a drawback.
Our proposals for replacing domestic rates have long been public knowledge. More than two years ago, the Green Paper "Paying for Local Government", published in January 1986, set out the broad policy now embodied in the Bill. There was widespread consultation on the Green Paper and more than 1,200 responses were received during the 10 months that followed. Separate documents were subsequently published on the community charge, non-domestic rating, the new grant system and the mechanism for appeals.
Moreover, we put our proposals explicitly to the country. Our manifesto for the 1987 general election stated:we will legislate in the first Session of the new Parliament to abolish the unfair domestic rating system and replace rates with a fairer community charge.That commitment was the culmination of a long search for a replacement for domestic rates and was subsequently endorsed in resounding fashion by the electorate. This undertaking was renewed in the Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament, and the proposals were approved by the House when it gave the Bill a Second Reading by 340 votes to 253.
The House had the opportunity on Second Reading to discuss the principle of the Bill at considerable length, for about 12 hours in all. Since then, more than 72 hours have been spent in Committee in detailed consideration of the community charge alone. So far the Committee has discussed 16 clauses and one schedule, plus five new clauses and a new schedule. More than nine hours were spent debating the 21 non-Government amendments to clause 1, which runs to only five lines. Sixty-seven non-Government amendments were tabled dealing with exemptions from the community charge, set out in clause 2, with 15 hours of debate.
I do not deny that the Bill deserves careful consideration, but so far only 21 clauses, in 72 hours, have received such careful attention.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Can the Leader of the House tell us why it was more than 100 hours before the guillotine was introduced on the Scottish legislation in the last Parliament, and longer before it was introduced on the Rates Bill, of which only six clauses had been debated before the guillotine was introduced? Why is this the earliest guillotine introduced for a local government finance measure, after less time for consideration? Is it because the Government cannot bear to listen to the arguments?
§ Mr. Wakeham
That is the substance of my speech. Bringing forward the guillotine earlier will ensure that the Bill in total is better discussed in Committee, which is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir 30 P. Emery), my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), my predecessor as Leader of the House, and other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen want.
§ Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
How many Government amendments have we discussed in Committee? I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge the Government's inefficiency in drafting the Bill.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I have no doubt that there were plenty of Government amendments. I have no doubt that they were wise amendments, based on having listened to the debate and having taken notice of it. That shows a proper consideration of the Bill in Committee, which is something that we all want. I hope that I shall set a timetable that will allow further Government amendments, should they be necessary, and time for Opposition amendments, which may not be quite as helpful.
I fear that we do not have available the 400 hours in Committee that would be necessary at the pace that we ale going to deal with the remaining 116 clauses and 11 schedules to the Bill. I do not believe that such time would be necessary even if it were available—first, because the essence of our proposals is in part I of the Bill and has already been the subject of wide-ranging debates, and secondly, because I am not wholly convinced that the best possible use has been made of the hours spent in Committee debate. I would not be alone in the House in questioning the worth of discussing eight amendments from the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) which sought merely to amend the name of the community charge, particularly when the hon. Gentleman admitted that their acceptance would not alter his attitude to the Bill.
We have to ensure that there is opportunity for due and structured consideration of all the provisions in the later parts of the Bill. They deal with complex and important issues, such as the revenue support grant and non-domestic rates, which are an integral part of the reform of local government finance. I am concerned today, as I was in bringing forward a timetable motion for the Education Reform Bill, to provide sufficient time for all the issues in the Bill to be properly discussed by this House before it goes to another place. That is the intention of the timetable motion.
The motion would require the Committee to complete its consideration by 10 pm on 24 March. If the Committee continues to sit on the same basis as it has been doing at present, there would be time for more than 80 hours further consideration in Committee. As is customary, it would be for the Business Sub-Committee, which has the important task of allocating the amount of time for discussion of each part of the Bill within the total days available, to decide whether the present pattern of sittings should be maintained or might sensibly be increased. In this context, the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and other distinguished hon. Members, although not selected, will be a helpful reminder to the Business Sub-Committee of what is expected of it.
In addition to the Standing Committee's consideration, a further four days on the Floor of the House have been allocated to the Bill's remaining stages. The Business Committee would provide for this time to be used 31 appropriately to allow discussion of all the most important issues. No Leader of the House can consistently introduce timetable motions, each of which is the most generous for 20 years. However, I hope that hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton, who are concerned to see proper discussion of all a Bill's provisions in this House, will agree that the generous amount of time provided and the stage at which it is brought forward put this motion in the same class as the one that the House approved three weeks ago for the Education Reform Bill.
This is nota timetable which ends real debate, with backbench independence stifled" —to quote a leader last week in a newspaper that has recently proved its devotion to the alliance by splitting itself in half. This is not the old-fashioned guillotine intended abruptly to cut debate, such as we saw 16 times in fewer than three years when the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) was Leader of the House. It is, rather, a carefully planned timetable motion and I am moving it early enough in the Committee stage to ensure that all parts of the Bill receive parliamentary scrutiny. I am sure that the House would not wish another place to be able to complain that this had not been done.
In this case, there is another reason for bringing forward arrangements expediting and structuring discussion of the Bill. It is the task that faces local authorities in implementing it. In little more than 12 months, local authorities will be preparing to canvass their communities for the community charges register and will be getting their registration, billing and collection systems in place. To do this effectively, they need sufficient time for planning.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
As the Bill is apparently the flagship of this Administration, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why his right hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and his immediate predecessor as Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), are vigorously opposed to the poll tax? As those are just a few of the many Conservative Members who are opposed in principle to the poll tax, how on earth can the country be convinced that this measure is right? Is it surprising that the latest opinion poll shows that over 60 per cent. of people are opposed to the poll tax?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I noticed that the hon. Gentleman just picked a few names out of a hat in any old fashion. These proposals were very much part of our election manifesto and have been endorsed in the House by a substantial majority. I do not see present any of my right hon. Friends that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. [Interruption.] I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) is present. The vote will show that many hon. Members are in favour of the timetable motion.
We are doing what we can to disseminate information to local authorities, as early as possible, but they cannot implement the charge without the certainty that comes from the legislation and regulations made under it. Many details remain to be prescribed in regulations, and we cannot do that until the legislation has passed through the parliamentary processes. The longer this is delayed, the 32 more difficult we make the task of the local authority practitioners who have the responsibility to their community of making the system work. If time were lost needlessly in Parliament, the local authorities' task would be made unnecessarily onerous.
I commend the motion to the House, in the belief that it provides for measured consideration of the Local Government Finance Bill in the context of the timing constraints within the parliamentary framework, and those outside which I have just outlined. If I may borrow a phrase from the Labour Members:the country is crying out for change".Local electors and local businesses are crying out for a change from an unfair system of local revenue raising, to a more equitable one that will increase local government accountability and strengthen local democracy. The Bill will give them such a change, and the motion will ensure that the remaining clauses of the Bill will he adequately considered and that the community charge can be implemented, as planned, in two years' time.
§ 4 pm
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
The House could be forgiven for acknowledging that there is a certain predictability about timetable debates. The Leader of the House explains exactly why debate on a crucial issue should be restricted. It is the Opposition's job to explain exactly why debate should go on for considerably longer. It is my job to explain why there should be far more consideration of the Bill, although the House might understand why some Opposition Members adopt a certain ambivalent attitude when we consider what the public at large think about the poll tax.
The Times on 21 January this year stated:
Tories alarmed at growing opposition to the poll tax".
The figures show that well over two thirds of the electorate are concerned about the effect of a poll tax. Even better, last week, The Independent mentioned
Strong opposition to poll tax from voters in marginals.
I have to declare an interest. I have a long-standing personal interest in the activities of voters in key marginals. I am delighted to see that, according to the poll in the Local Government Chronicle, a substantial majority of voters in key marginals are wholly opposed to the poll tax, identifying it as an unfair tax. Indeed, many Conservative Members fully appreciate the unfairness of that tax.
§ The Secretary of State for The Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to one of the conclusions of that particular poll, which stated:The Conservatives still hold a clear lead in these key areas.
§ Mr. Grocott
It refers to Conservative-held marginals. As the Secretary of State will appreciate, 4 per cent. of the electorate were willing to change their vote. It may not be many to him, but it is extremely important to some hon. Members.
I could not have put it better than the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) who said on Second Reading—this is what we shall be telling the country in the months and years ahead—Responsibility for the poll tax will now be targeted precisely and unavoidably at the Government who introduced that tax. That tax will be known as a Tory tax."—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1141.]33 We shall make sure that no one remains in any doubt about that.
It might be in the interest of the Labour party to give the Government some assistance. When the poll tax proposals slip through people's doors, that will be good news for us. However, not for the first time, I ask my hon. Friends to put the public interest before the party's interest and ensure that the Bill is thoroughly scrutinised. If that means some delay, so be it.
There is no doubt about what will be that impact of the poll tax when it happens, whether or not we accept the guillotine motion. There has not been sufficient time to debate the Bill. As has already been explained, only 16 clauses have been debated and we have reached only the first schedule to the Bill.
It should be remembered that there is no precedent for such a Bill in England and Wales, although one exists in Scotland. I am sure that if some of the Conservative Members form Scotland who voted for the guillotine on the Scottish Bill just over a year ago were present today, they would advise their hon. Friends whether there should be another guillotine.
The tax is unique in its scale. Never before has a new tax been introduced which will directly affect 30 million of our fellow citizens. Never before has there been on such a scale a new tax that is unrelated to people's ability to pay or to the quality of services that they receive. Never before has a tax been introduced which is redistributive not in the way that most 20th-century economists understand the term, but in a notion unique to the Tories under Thatcherism—not through a tax system which helps the poor, but through a tax system which redistributes the burden from those best able to pay to those least able to pay. That is a novel concept. Never before has a tax been introduced which will cost twice as much to collect as the system which it replaces.
The poll tax is unique and requires unique parliamentary consideration. It is also unique in the unanimity of opposition to it. It would not be a bad parliamentary principle if the consideration that the House gives to legislation was at least related to the degree of opposition to it in the country. The opposition to the poll tax is unanimous.
Only last Wednesday, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) asked the Secretary of State for the Environmenthow many letters he has received from members of the public (a) in support of the community charge and (b) opposed to the community charge.I should have thought that that was a fairly simple question which might have a fairly simple answer. However, the Secretary of State replied:A summary of 1,271 responses received … was placed in the Library … Since then my Department has received a large number of letters commenting on specific aspects of our proposals and requesting further information." —[Official Report, 17 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 960.]I bet that he has received further comments and proposals, but he did not give a straight answer to a straight question. The Secretary of State has had an expensive education—I was going to say "a good education". I am sure that he is capable of giving a straight answer to a straight question, but we have not heard how many people are against the poll tax, in terms of the representations received, and how many people are in favour of it.
Everyone is against the poll tax. On a free and secret ballot, I am sure that many Conservative Members would 34 vote against it. All the professionals in local government are against it. In repeated survey of local government finance since the war the poll tax has had hardly a mention as a serious way of financing local government. It appears by a fluke at this very late stage.
Again I quote the right hon. Member for Henley, who on Second Reading said:by the time that consultation period on the Green Paper was over, the idea of a poll tax had no friends. It was dismissed by the Cabinet with hardly a backward glance. I wish that I could come to the House and say that I won the argument, but in truth there was no argument."—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 1432, c. 1138–39.]That sums up the view of the right hon. Gentleman, which is shared by many Tories.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that followed the Layfield commission, which is broadly accepted by both sides of the House as the most definitive analysis of local government finance which did not find it worth considering?
§ Mr. Grocott
The hon. Gentleman knows that repeatedly, from the Allen committee in the 1960s through the Layfield report, the Green Paper and the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, that proposal has not received any serious consideration. Least of all has it received serious consideration from those at the sharp end—those who will implement it. In my area of The Wrekin, the district council officers have prepared a report on the costs and problems of the implementation of the poll tax, which says:On the assumption that 97,000 adults will be liable to pay poll tax, then an additional 760,000 payments could be received, an increase of 370 per cent. It is envisaged that the increase in workload, due to increases in volume and likely problems with collection, will be massive.That is one district council's assessment of what will be involved.
§ Mr. Winnick
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the Select Committee on the Environment, on which the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and I sit, when there was a clear Tory majority in 1981, there was no vote in favour of a poll tax? Does my hon. Friend agree that if there were a free vote in the Cabinet, only two would be in favour of the poll tax — that fanatic, the Prime Minister, and the Secretary of State?
§ Mr. Grocott
Strange things happen in Cabinets where Prime Ministers are surrounded by sycophants, and that is one of the problems that we face.
No one, particularly those at the sharp end who will have to deliver the system, is in favour of the poll tax. The opposition to it is near unanimous, and the Bill requires parliamentary scrutiny in view of that fact.
§ Mr. Grocott
No, I will not.
There is another reason why it is essential that we debate this proposition more than we would any normal legislative proposal. This measure, rightly called a poll tax, is a threat to our democratic process. That is not true of most taxes. I do not like VAT, but I do not think for a moment that it is a threat to democracy. Can anyone seriously doubt that the imposition of the poll tax will be a serious disincentive to many of our citizens from registering their right to vote in the normal way? We already know that electoral registers are used for many 35 strange purposes. They get sold to finance companies, discount agencies, insurance companies and the rest. Who can doubt that the poll tax man will get his hands on the electoral register? It is inevitable.
I am delighted that the public are in no doubt about what kind of tax this is. In the opinion poll to which I referred earlier, carried out by NOP Market Research Ltd.— a reputable firm — and published in the Local Government Chronicle, 77 per cent. of those questioned referred to the tax as a poll tax. Only 2 per cent.—they must have been brainwashed by the Tories in some way — called it a community charge. Overwhelmingly, the public understand it for what it is. It is a tax on the right to vote. It will be forever known as the poll tax, however much the Leader of the House may resent the fact that we tabled amendments about a change to that name.
So far, no Government spokesman has explained the difference between a tax and a charge. Why do they persist in calling it a community charge? Is it just the doctrine that one expects from a Ministry of Truth trying to pretend that a tax is not a tax? By any definition, this is a tax. I dread the Tory propaganda at the next general election. It may say that since the Government have replaced rates with a community charge, there has been a substantial reduction in taxation.
If the Government are honest about calling taxes charges, why do they not introduce a "pay-as-you-earn income charge" or a "value added charge" as a way to pretend that tax does not exist? We should beware if the Government persist in playing with words in this way. The Prime Minister told us in the general election campaign that the Government would not introduce VAT on children's clothes or on food. I know that some of my hon. Friends do not believe that, but even if we take the Prime Minister's words at face value, she did not say anything about the imposition of a value added charge. Perhaps we can look forward to that.
Such a proposal could come only from a Government composed of a Prime Minister surrounded by sycophants who do not even dare to tell her when all of them know that what is being proposed is absurd. This proposal is the product of a Government who think that they can walk on water, but who deserve to sink without trace. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will insist that the poll tax should get the full parliamentary treatment that it deserves, and that is why I hope they will vote against the guillotine motion.
§ Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)
These occasions always have a casual and friendly character about them, and this afternoon is no departure from that tradition. Although the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) made a speech of some length, and eventually worked himself up to the enthusiasm appropriate for a Second Reading debate, he did not identify the guillotine as the most onerous and most undemocratic imposition upon the House as it deals with one of the most unacceptable Bills that has ever confronted it.
I was pleased that the hon. Member approached the matter in that spirit, because we already know that political hotheads north of the Tweed are talking about non-payment of this tax. Therefore, we are entitled to hear from the Opposition Front Bench right away that such 36 action will have their condemnation, and if they are not prepared to do it formally, the mild and civilised way in which that speech was delivered was a clear sign that they will distance themselves from the activists in Scotland who are proposing to boycott the tax.
I am pleased to have had the chance to sign the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and I appreciate the order in which the debate will proceed. I hope that on some future occasion we can so arrange our affairs that the amendment, which is in order and has been so adjudged, may be part of our debate in more tangible terms than merely being a matter for discussion.
I shall comment on the terms of the guillotine motion in general. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on bringing in this guillotine earlier, and on providing rather more time, than has traditionally been the case. This is a welcome evolution, and I hope that it will point to a final conclusion and to the end being sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. That will be to the advantage of the House when dealing with these matters.
In particular, we require all the time that has been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, because the time already spent has been devoted substantially to the form of the community charge. It has not yet resulted in any major alteration, and that is an oversight which the House must remedy. As ever, in these matters, I travel with some hope, because my right hon. Friend prayed in aid as the precedent for his action today what had been done in respect of the Education Reform Bill. The House will know that, within the last few days, amendments to that Bill have been tabled—amendments of the most far-reaching character, which will have a substantial consequence on the provision for universities.
That is an encouragement to those on both sides of the House who believe that if one decides—it is a decision which I endorsed and voted for on Second Reading—that it is better, in local authority revenue matters, to have a tax on persons than a tax on property, how one elaborates that judgment, that choice and that decision is a matter which belongs properly to Parliament. It is a sector in which the Executive should never be afraid or unwilling to make major adjustments. We have the clear and reasonable example of the Education Reform Bill to inspire us. I say that in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who can speak with far more authority than I about the content of the Local Government Finance Bill. Our debate is not so much about the content of the legislation as about the modalities within which the content can be debated.
There is no doubt that many people—I am among them—believe that the idea of a graduated community charge based on Inland Revenue records has more equity and practicability than the proposal before the House. Of course the hon. Member for The Wrekin was right to dwell for a moment on the effects of taxation on the political processes. It was valid for him to claim that certain taxes have become part and parcel of a controversy which has run over time. That tax issue exemplified social and economic judgments that were identified with the political participants. I dare say that that fate will await this tax. It will be several years before its final implication and execution are perceived by the public.
When considering these issues, we are not trying to deal with a short-term battle of consequences in the first half 37 of a parliamentary Session. I remember the great part that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who now sit on the Treasury Bench, played in the campaign against the selective employment tax. That campaign was conducted with great skill and eventually that tax foundered in derision and resentment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment may believe that he is the captain on the bridge of the flagship, but that ship may turn out to be the Titanic.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
The earlier part of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) almost led us to believe that he was supporting the Government's action. He spoke in such a persuasive and emollient manner that, for a moment, even one or two of his former colleagues on the Government Front Bench were deceived. However, those of us who know the right hon. Member, know him better than that.
I can summarise the right hon. Gentleman's speech even more abruptly than he summarised it himself. He was trying to tell the Government Front Bench that only a bunch of blithering idiots could have assembled on a Thursday morning and pushed through such a measure as this in the hope that they could carry it on to the statute book. Nothing so demeaning to the House of Commons or so insulting to the electorate would ever have occurred while the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North was a member of that Cabinet. The sooner they put it right the better. That is roughly what the right hon. Gentleman was saying, although he did not use exactly those words.
§ Mr. Ridley
The right hon. Gentleman does my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) a disservice. He was a member of that Cabinet.
§ Mr. Foot
When was the decision taken to carry through the poll tax? No doubt the Secretary of State listened to the discussion, although we have been told that there was hardly any discussion about it in Cabinet. If the Secretary of State will reveal secrets about what happened, I dare say that the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North will be eager to respond to protect his reputation. Indeed, no doubt many other dissenting members of that Cabinet would want the right to put their points of view. If the Secretary of State is so eager to jump to the Dispatch Box to claim that the decision was unanimous, the full truth should he revealed, instead of the partial truth that we have come to expect from the Secretary of State, particularly when he is defending a very weak case, as he is now.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North will not leave the Chamber, because I am about to refer to that part of his speech that appeared to support the Government. The right hon. Gentleman began with some quietening references to the whole question of procedure. He commended the procedure motion on the grounds that it did something much earlier than is normally the case with guillotine motions. He is quite right about the timetable arrangements under which these proposals are normally brought forward.
It is the case that this motion, like the previous guillotine motion that the Leader of the House introduced a fortnight ago, is being introduced earlier than usual in the Session. That is one of the reasons why I am opposed 38 to the motion. The hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) has long advocated making the procedure of these discussions cut and dried. He has advocated timetable motions from the beginning of the proceedings on every Bill. He believes that this is the proper way in which these matters should proceed. I am sorry to see that the hon. Member for Honiton appears to have the support of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North today. He also had the right hon. Gentleman's support a fortnight ago. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North carries great influence in the House, and I am sorry to see him joining in this campaign.
I signed the hon. Member for Honiton's motion, not because I am in favour of the general proposition, but because I believe that anything is better than anything that this Government ever propose. Therefore, when they propose such a timetable motion, naturally an amendment of this type would limit it and would have some value if it were carried by the House. I am sorry that we will not have the opportunity to vote on the amendment. It would at least have helped to ensure that proper time was allocated to these different subjects under the normal procedure.
I do not believe that it would be good for the House or for the scrutiny of Bills if there were timetable motions on every Bill. I was opposed to the motion when the Chairman brought it from the Select Committee on Procedure and I strongly supported my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) on that occasion. Although I have been known to favour guillotine motions—I shall deal with that in a moment as it has been referred to, just as I shall deal with the Leader of the House's attitude—I am strongly opposed to this motion.
I have participated in more guillotine debates than has any other hon. Member. Indeed, I have participated in these debates since 1945. Sometimes I have been in favour of them, and sometimes not. but there has never been a guillotine motion that could be justified in the way that the Leader of the House is trying to justify this one.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow West)
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that when he introduced five guillotine motions in one day he used almost exactly the same form or words as those used by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall saying:it is a particular illustration of the malice, folly and absurdity into which right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition side have got themselves that when we exercise those ancient rights it is cheating and when they exercise them it is freedom."? — [Official Report, 20 July 1976; Vol. 915, c.1543.]
§ Mr. Foot
What I said then was extraordinarily apposite. I would not dream of withdrawing a word. If the hon. Gentleman looks back into history he will see that, as usual, I was stating the case with the utmost moderation. I was trying to restrain my language, while putting my opponents in their place.
Of course I was going to refer to the day when I introduced five guillotine motions. I would not dream of apologising for that. I would be willing to give way to the Leader of the House in a moment. Indeed, I will give way to him now, as he appears eager to speak.
It is 22 February today, and the previous guillotine motion was introduced, I believe, on 1 February. There is a great difference between introducing such motions on 1 39 February, 10 February or 11 February and introducing them when I introduced mine. If the Leader of the House knows so much about this, perhaps he will tell the House when I introduced those motions. When was it? He is shaking his head. He rebuked me last week and said that I did not know what I was talking about. Before doing that he should have looked up the date.
Those five guillotine motions were introduced on 20 July. That is quite late in the Session. If we had not had the guillotine motions, all those five measures would have been destroyed. There is not the slightest doubt about that. They were five good measures and, as I have said, if it had not been for the guillotine motions, those measures would never have reached the statute book.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I was taught that fine words butter no parsnips. When the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the House, he was responsible for 16 guillotine motions in three years. I shall not go into detail, because he can do that. However, in none of those motions did he allow the four days for Report and Third Reading that are contained in this timetable motion. Also, none of them had more than 10 days for the completion of the Standing Committee proceedings, and there are 20 in this motion.
§ Mr. Foot
I must introduce the Leader of the House to some of these matters. He must try to grasp the point. If one introduces a guillotine motion in July, it is very different from introducing it in January or February.
If one starts to introduce timetable motions in January or February, one is moving towards the principle, advocated by the hon. Member for Honiton, of saying, "Let us timetable all measures almost from the beginning." Therefore, by subterfuge, the Leader of the House is effectively saying that we will have timetable motions on every Bill but that it will not be done by putting to the House a general motion that upholds the doctrine of the hon. Member for Honiton. They are trying to sneak it through and are attempting to distract attention by spreading great misconceptions about what happened on 20 July 1976, even though they did not have the foggiest notion of the date.
§ Mr. Wakeham
When the right hon. Gentleman was treating the House to a confidential recollection of those days, I thought that he might have told the House that for quite a number of weeks before that date the then Labour Government did not have a majority and were waiting for a couple of by-election results. Therefore, I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman's arguments are as convincing as he makes out.
§ Mr. Foot
I can tell the Leader of the House that I recollect the time much better than he does. I had much better reason for ensuring that the calculations were correct. Some people have said that arithmetic is not always my strongest point. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I can count the numbers in the House. There were some quite big commotions before that time.
The critical issue is that Governments have the right, in certain circumstances, to introduce timetable motions. It was right in 1976, and I justified the motions at the time. We had a narrow majority, but that was part of the argument. If we had not introduced those timetable 40 motions, all those measures would have fallen. I would be happy to discuss with the House what wonderful measures they were, although I am not sure that that would be in order.
One of those measures was the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, the purpose of which was to protect jobs. One concerned the dock labour scheme, which again was to protect jobs. Another was an excellent Education Bill, which was supported by a potential member of the Social Democratic party. There was another excellent measure to abolish the tied house for the first time in our history. So good was it that not even this Government have dared to seek to repeal it. I hesitate to mention it, because when they see what wonderful measures are still on the statute book, thanks to the then Labour Government and the guillotine motions, they might be tempted to come forward with measures to remove them.
The problem of the tied house was solved by that Bill. It was a problem that had given rise to great injustices over many generations. It was solved partly because we were determined that the Bill would not be wrecked by opposition in the House or by opposition in the House of Lords. However, I do not want to say anything against the House of Lords now, because it might have a convenient role to play on this squalid measure that the Government are trying to push through by this even more squalid motion.
I hope that the Leader of the House will not come forward again quoting that famous day of 20 July. If he does, I hope that he will get his facts right. I know what a forceful figure he is in the Cabinet and how he bangs on the table and says, "We will not have that." I hope that at the next Cabinet meeting he will say, "No more timetable motions before 20 July." If the right hon. Gentleman will do that, he will do a service to the House as well as change the reputation that he may have about how he tells the Government to deal with the business.
One of the real troubles in the House today is that the Leader of the House has had great experience in the House, but in another capacity. Once a boy scout, always a boy scout, and once a Chief Whip, always a Chief Whip. Chief Whips should be elevated, but only with circumspection. Look what happened to a former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). He got into trouble when he got out of his depth. That should be taken to heart by the Leader of the House, and he should be careful before he moves on to higher altitudes. He should be a little more careful in future and he should read up on history.
The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewksbury (Mr. Ridley) must have a smattering of history from the public school that he attended. I should have thought that at least one of the Ministers would have said. "You cannot have a poll tax. We cannot introduce a measure that brought about the peasants' revolt." Do Government Members not know about the peasants' revolt? Most of them are well-heeled landlords, so they should know what happened. In that revolt, the Government were defeated. They thought that they could get away with a poll tax. The history is all on the record. If there had been any properly educated members of the Cabinet, that history should have been read out when the measure was first introduced.
An excellent pamphlet on this subject was published. A famous poet laureate wrote a book about it. He said: 41It is not to be wondered that this poll tax should contribute to heighten the discontents of the common people, seeing the heavy taxes … had been an intolerable burden on them, not lying so much on the nobility and the gentry as on their copyholders and tenants, who repined at these exactions, as impositions upon them without their own consent.The poll tax was withdrawn and defeated, and the same will happen to this one. The Prime Minister should look at that example. Not even Richard II was fool enough to say that the poll tax was his flagship, which he wished to protect and sail into port. Everyone should know that what happened to him was partly a result of the poll tax that he introduced.
This is a serious matter. One part of the country —Scotland—has had a better chance than the others of discussing the poll tax. It has had a better chance partly because of the way in which the Bill affecting Scotland was introduced. I am not quite sure why the system should be tried out on the Scots in that way. I am not sure which member of the Cabinet said, "Let us see how they take it north of the border. We can try it on them, and if it works we will try it on the others." I cannot understand why they decided to try it on the Scots; nor can the Scots themselves understand why.
As even the Leader of the House should know, at the last general election the poll tax was repudiated throughout the country, as was the Conservative party in Scotland. If the Government proceed to force the poll tax down the throats of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom they will do great injury to the unity of the United Kingdom. There is great hostility to the tax in Scotland. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman goes up there, but I can assure him that were he to do so he would get a hot reception. The preservation of the unity of the United Kingdom should be a predominant interest and, on that ground alone, the tax should be withdrawn.
The poll tax will eventually lead to the defeat of the Government. Whether it leads to their defeat before or after an election rests with them, but if a sufficient number of intelligent Members oppose the tax and exercise their vote tonight, even if we do not win, if the majority is cut to 10 or 15, the effect in the other place will be considerable. That includes the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North, whose advice on the matter, as on so many others, was no doubt unwisely rejected by the Cabinet. The poll tax should be defeated before it is brought to the country. By doing its duty tonight, and achieving that result, the House would be doing a service to the nation.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) or, as I always remember him, for Ebbw Vale. He was in Ebbw Valean form in his speech. It was delightful in its charm and historical references, but in many ways it was entirely out of touch with what is happening in the country and with what will happen in the future when the Bill is enacted.
I do not wish to do as some other speakers have done and conduct a Second Reading debate yet again on the community charge. We are dealing with a timetable motion. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he said that sufficient time would be provided for due and structural consideration of 42 all parts of the Bill. That is part of my contention and what the Procedure Committee has been pressing on the House for many years.
The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was doing me a disservice when he suggested that I had always advocated a timetable motion since the introduction of the legislation. I did not suggest that, nor did the Procedure Committee, and it would be wrong for the House to have that impression.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), as a member of the Procedure Committee, does not wish to advocate that, but that is precisely what we have had on the Bill. Proceedings in Committee were a great pleasure because of the free-going debate between both sides, instead of Conservative Members sitting like stuffed ducks on the Back Benches. The debate has been good-natured from the start. In the early stages of the proceedings, it was rumoured that there would be a guillotine. As a result, hon. Members felt encouraged to participate in a debate which otherwise would not take place in Committee.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am delighted to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) about the pleasures of serving on the Committee. However, nine amendments were tabled in respect of the title of the Bill, so that scarcely seems to represent free-ranging and massive debate about the Bill and associated procedures. We have spent 72 hours on the bill and debated only 21 clauses. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, if that pace of jovial exchange continues, we shall need up to 400 hours. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is right, but I see no reason to contradict him.
§ Mr. Leigh
Our debates in Committee have not always been so jovial. On one occasion, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) spoke for one hour and 40 minutes on one amendment and repeated himself frequently. I sympathise with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). Does he agree that, if the motion is passed and 150 hours of debate are granted, the Bill will have been more thoroughly debated than virtually any other Bill before Parliament?
§ Sir Peter Emery
The Bill will certainly have as long as almost any other Bill before Parliament, but I am not certain whether it will be as adequately debated as I should have wished.
The Procedure Committee is not suggesting that, rather than have the present type of timetable motion — the standard motion, with dates and times altered, but otherwise exactly the same as other such motions for a number of years — we should introduce a massive controlling element with all items in the Bill guillotined from the start. The Committee made a helpful suggestion which played very much into the House's way of dealing with legislation.
The only new aspect was that a Business Sub-Committee should be set up, consisting of the members of the Standing Committee, when the Standing Committee was appointed. After 12½ hours of debate, that Standing Committee, presumably with two Whips as members, should consider whether reasonable and proper progress 43 was being made. If so, that would be the end of the matter. However, if one or other side believed that that was not so, the matter should be decided when the date for the Bill to be reported to the House was known. When that date was known, the Bill should be pushed through with help from the usual channels.
The recommendation of the Procedure Committee clearly states:The Business Sub-committee of the Standing Committee shall allocate the time so as to ensure that all parts of the Bill can be adequately scrutinised and every substantive proposal of the Bill considered.Those are the same words as are in the amendment that has not been selected. That does not necessarily mean that the Committee would debate every clause or amendment, but the major and substantive matters would be debated in Committee.
If, after 25 hours, the usual channels were unable to use their influence to obtain proper progress, the business sub-committee will act, as it will in respect of this timetable motion, to set times for debate of the different parts of the Bill in Committee and in the House. We would not, therefore, have to waste another half-day on another timetable motion.
We have already wasted half a day on a timetable motion on the Education Reform Bill, and there is a great possibility that there will be other timetable motions before the end of the Session. Time on the Floor of the House should be spent on matters which are far more important than a rerun of Second Reading, which is basically what we have had today so far. Time could be much better spent debating major issues which hon. Members want debated and for which the Leader of the House can never find time.
When I first came to the House in the 1960s, a timetable motion created great political divisions. Both sides of the House were full, normal relations between the usual channels were all but broken and we debated the motion for a whole day. It was a matter of high dudgeon. All that has passed. The past 20 years have altered everything, and today we have a rather anodyne debate which gets us nowhere and allows the Government to do what we ought to be able to arrange to do through Standing Orders, as suggested by the Procedure Committee. We could then save time on the Floor of the House and ensure that every contentious issue and important aspect of the Bill was properly debated. That is what the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent wants. Indeed, it appears to be what every right hon. and hon. Member wants.
We ought, towards the end of the 20th century, to begin to have a reasonable command of how we use our time on the Floor of the House and in Committee. The sooner we do that, the better it will be for legislation and the more likely it is that the public will know that every aspect of a Bill has been debated properly.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hopes that all the issues will be debated properly, but there is no assurance that that will happen. I am sorry that we cannot vote on the amendment which I have tabled. With such an assurance, the Committee might have to sit on Wednesdays and Fridays. The House owes it to the people who have to put up with legislation to ensure that every 44 clause is debated before a Bill comes back to the House on Report. I believe that, sooner or later, we shall have to adopt that view.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I agree with the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and support his amendment, which has been endorsed by two former Leaders of the House — the right hon. Members for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has signed the amendment, and my colleagues and I believe that it would be the right way in which to proceed. Because, however, there will not be ordered debate of the Bill and because of the Bill's nature, I strongly oppose the motion.
Nobody has yet mentioned the salient fact that the Bill has 131 clauses and 12 schedules and that we have spent just over 72 hours in Committee spread over 16 sittings. In an intervention, I asked the Leader of the House to make two obvious comparisons. The first was the equivalent Bill for Scotland, for which the guillotine motion was brought in after 101 hours of debate and after 20 of the 35 clauses had been considered. The second was with the Rates Act 1984, which was guillotined after 18 hours of debate when six of the 19 clauses had been debated.
The Leader of the House said that this time the motion is being introduced earlier so that things can be ordered earlier and all the arguments and issues can be considered properly. Observers of the Committee do not leave feeling that the Government have considered either the arguments or the issues. One of the most amazing statements of all was made on Second Reading, when the Under-Secretary of State said:My right hon. Friend made it clear early in the debate that the Committee will be delighted to look at any alternative proposals. I am sure that all alternative proposals will be totally unacceptable." — [Official Report. 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1184.]If that is not an example of closing the mind before hearing the arguments, I do not know what is.
§ Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of the 72 hours have been spent by his hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who I notice is absent, in what I would call a perambulation around the course and that, at times, he has gone virtually backwards?
§ Mr. Hughes
I am glad to put on record what my colleagues have achieved. The hon. Gentleman's assertion is untrue, because the one concession that the Government have made has been in response to an amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] I can provide the column number of the report. It was the only explicit concession that the Minister made, and concerned discretionary rather than compulsory punishment of defaulters by imprisonment. The event was well publicised.
We should consider which parties have moved amendments. Plaid Cymru has moved four, the Liberals have moved 15, Labour has moved 47 and the Government have moved no fewer than 49. It is the Government, whose Bill this is, who have taken up most of the Committee's time and effort. They did not get the Bill drafted properly in the first place, so they are having 45 to change definitions and introduce amendments and schedules to put the Bill in some presentable shape. If the Government had presented the Committee with a properly drafted Bill, they might have had a better case for asking for a timetable motion to be passed.
§ Mr. Hughes
Quite a lot, because they were consequential. A Bill which is properly prepared, however, should not have to be amended by the Government in the first few sittings. Exactly the same can be said about other Bills. On the Committee presently considering the Housing Bill, the Minister concedes that not even all the ideas have been thought through, let alone the clauses.
We are presented with a fundamental change in the financing of local government. The Bill is long, but the Government are curbing debate much earlier than has been true of other comparable measures. The Government are rewriting the Bill as they go along, and they are not listening to the Opposition's arguments. Indeed, they are not even listening to their own Back Benchers.
When discussing the Government's failure to accept any amendments, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North used a wonderful phrase—he said that it must be an oversight. It is not an oversight. The Government have clearly determined to accept no substantive amendments. The true motive of the Secretary of State has been revealed in Committee:We do not want one group of people making no contribution while others have to pay for everything. We want everybody to feel that they are making their contribution, however small. That is a move away from a two-class society of payers and takers, to a society where we all pay a little according to our means.If we all paid according to our means, that might be all right. But, although the means of the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues, for instance, are somewhat greater than the means of others, it is Cabinet members who are among those who on all the evidence will benefit the most.
I wonder whether the use of the word "takers" does not tell us something as well. Is it perhaps not true that the Secretary of State views pensioners who rely on the social services to stay alive as "takers", irrespective of the fact that in the past they may have given their all? Does that not apply to any other local services that are of a redistributive nature? The clear implication of the phrase is that the Bill will redistribute resources to the wealthy from the poor. That is why the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North warned the Government that this might be their Titanic.
It is also clearly a party political measure, and the guillotine is a party political proposal. The Leader of the House said that the Bill was intended to deal with the fact that people vote for the wrong party — he actually mentioned the Labour party — because voters do not have to pay. People often vote for the Labour party, or for my party, in areas of the country where they cannot pay. They do so because they know that we are the only people likely to be able to defend them against a Government who seem to think that they and their views and their circumstances do not matter.
It is not as if the Government had been putting forward intellectually wonderful and convincing arguments to detain the Committee, either. On 26 January, the Secretary of State put the following pearl before the Opposition, 46 whom he possibly regarded as swine, and certainly regards as an unnecessary inconvenience. I get the impression that he regards Parliament as an inconvenience in general, and would like to be able to legislate by decree. Happily, however, after only three Thatcher terms, we are not there yet. The Secretary of State said:The Opposition also seem to equate the ability to pay with the concept of fairness, as if it were automatic. I do not believe that it is automatic. No one has said that it is unfair that everyone should pay the same vehicle excise duty or the same television licence fee because they are not related to the ability to pay.The right hon. Gentleman may not have realised that people have a choice as to whether they have a car or a television. They do not have to have those items. But no one has a choice about whether to pay the poll tax. People will have to pay it even if they do not have a home, or do not have an income. Under clause 2, which defines a main or principal residence, the Government have said that it is not even necessary to have a house. Dossers, tramps, vagrants and travellers have no incomes and no homes, but, say the Government, "We shall make them pay." People have not been deceived by the present Administration, and this is their crowning glory.
I accept that, in comparison with the time allowed for other Bills, four days for Report and Third Reading is generous, and to be welcomed. My objection, and that of my colleagues, is the Government seeking to limit so early, and so substantially, the time given for proper consideration of such a momentous Bill. We had considerably more time to consider the Bill that abolished six metropolitan county councils and the Greater London council, although it did not affect nearly so many people.
§ Mr. Leigh
The hon. Gentleman said that he would deal with this point, but I do not think that he has done so. If the timetable motion is passed, we shall have debated the Bill for 150 hours in Committee. I am not aware of many Bills that have been debated in Committee for that long. By passing the motion at this early stage, we shall ensure that all the clauses are properly debated.
§ Mr. Hughes
I think that I have answered that point, but I shall repeat my answer. I accept that a Bill should be debated in such a way that all parts of it are debated reasonably. My quibble is not with that notion, but with the total length of time provided. For a Bill of this importance, length and complexity, we are not being allowed enough time. I cart draw all the comparisons that are available in the record of parliamentary debate on the subject.
The Secretary of State, on 26 January—obviously, it was a fateful day—also said:Support for the present rating system is practically zero." —[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 26 January 1988; c. 96–98.]According to Public Service and Local Government of October 1987, an opinion poll revealed that 26 per cent. of respondents supported the current system of rates, while only 14 per cent. supported the community charge. If support for the present rating system is "practically zero", support for the community charge is considerably less.
The Local Government Chronicle of 29 January had figures to similar effect:Of all those questioned, 45 per cent. would choose to continue with the present rates system and only 21 per cent. would prefer poll tax … The only section of the population which favours poll tax over rates is the better off in social class AB, who will in general gain from a flat rate tax.47 Guess which social class the members of the Cabinet, to a person, belong to!
Despite the Government amendments, the Bill still contains anomalies. Prisoners on remand will be liable for the tax; convicted prisoners will not. Students will receive 80 per cent. relief as of right; student nurses will not. The Bill will legislate against those who care most for the most vulnerable in the community. Already, people are not registering to vote. Today's edition of The Times reports that the electoral register in Kensington and Chelsea contains nearly 5,500 fewer names, and the paper says:officials estimate that 3,500 of these have been deterred from registering because they believe the electoral roll will be used to enforce the poll tax.In Glasgow, where preparations for the poll tax are already advanced, 11,000 names have this year disappeared from the register, against an annual drop in previous years of 3,000 to 5,000.
The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was right to refer to the only other experience that we have had in England of a poll tax. A book by someone called Marie Louise Bruce tells us:By 1381 the peasants had a ready-made bonfire of discontents that only awaited a spark to ignite and this came in the form of a new poll-tax … it was impossibly onerous. Nevertheless revolt did not follow at once, the peasants tried a more peaceful means of evasion … They lied about the number of adults in their families".They revolted all right, but first they tried to escape an unfair charge.
§ Mr. Hughes
No, there were not. But, even without communication or a proper Opposition, they saw through the system of an autocratic Government.
§ Mr. Hughes
No; I want to reach the end of my speech. The fact that the poll tax is not connected to people's ability to pay—except in the case of the very poorest—makes it not just a tax on people's votes, but a tax on their very lives. That is objectionable, but entirely consistent with the views of a Government who value property above people. They are willing to tax people who have little or nothing, but leave untaxed the property of those who have something or much.
Unlike many campaigns of opposition from politicians, the growing opposition to the poll tax will eventually win the day. Unusually, there is already an all-party fleet preparing to set sail to defeat the so-called flagship of the third Thatcher attack — "Flagship Futility", as The Guardian has called it. "Flagship Folly" would be a better title. The Opposition's job—and in the coming year no political job will be more nationally important in Scotland, England or Wales—is to ensure that as many members as possible of all parties and of none who, unlike the present Government, believe in the community and understand the unfairness of the charge, are the vanguard of the great people's rebellion to axe this new poll tax as they axed the last.
Any Government can ignore the community to an extent. But if they limit discussion and steamroller a Bill through the House without listening to the Opposition or 48 conceding to any better arguments from either side, they risk the realisation in the other place that this legislation is a foolish way to proceed and the determination of the public outside to make their views abundantly clear.
The Leader of the House began his speech by saying that the country is crying out for change. If the Government are determined not to change this legislation, they will certainly pay for the consequences.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) can take this as a compliment if he wishes, but I am sure that the Committee would not have made the progress that it has made if he had been deliberating with us.
There is an element of ritual about these debates, as has been said. As far as I can see, the speeches are kept on word processors and remain the same as the parties change. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House might usefully have deleted the standard sentence, "The country is crying out for change," when he spoke about this piece of legislation, because all the evidence that I have seen shows that the more the country learns about the Bill, the less it is crying out for the change.
Having voted against the Second Reading of the Bill, I do not propose to accelerate its passage by voting for the guillotine. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) have said, the House does not yet have the right procedure for deliberating the Committee stages of a Bill, and I do not propose to vote against the guillotine. Four days on Report seem a generous Government move, and it is only right to put that on the record.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey asked why the Bill was being guillotined at an earlier stage than the equivalent Scottish legislation. I can only assume that the English get round the course slightly more quickly than the Scots. It takes quite a long time to debate a Bill with 139 clauses and 12 schedules and with 44 Members on the Standing Committee. I can accept the mathematical inexorability of the fact that if we continued with our present rate of progress we would be forced at the end of July either to give up our summer recess or to proceed with the legislation.
The more I listen in Standing Committee, the more I think that the Government were right four years ago to dismiss the poll tax. This does not seem a sensible place at which to pitch one's tent and resist, in that this is a procedural motion to enable the Government to have the discussion completed within a reasonable time. It seems sensible on Report, when there are four days for debate, for one to reopen some of the important debates in Committee which have not been satisfactorily resolved.
I do not believe that there has been any filibustering. The more contentious parts of the legislation have been debated in the first two months and, although one hon. Member may have spoken for an hour and 20 minutes, he spoke only once, or perhaps twice, and that should not necessarily he held against him.
§ Sir George Young
It may have been twice, but, if one adds the various contributions, one speech of an hour and 20 minutes may be less than several interventions. One or 49 two of the interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) from a sedentary position cost the Government no few minutes.
Within the rather harsh constraints of policy, Ministers have been as helpful and as patient as they can be in dealing with the debates. That they are not able to give way on the fundamental inequity of the Bill is not entirely surprising. It is important in the remaining days to discuss clause 18, to which I think we shall come later this week, which deals with the system of rebates. If the Government are to criticise alternative methods of raising local government finance in some detail, it is necessary for them to be more explicit about the details of their scheme as they may affect the poor.
So far there has been substantial progress in Standing Committee. Two of my hon. Friends—one of whom is in his place — who voted for Second Reading have several times spoken against some of the Bill's important principles and on occasions voted against or abstained. The Government have stopped referring to the Bill as a community charge and now refer to it fairly often as a tax. At the heart of the argument against the Bill is the claim that it is not a charge, but a tax. I think that five times last Thursday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State called it a tax. The moment it is defined as a tax, the question of how it is financed produces some very different answers compared with when one talks about a charge.
The debate in Committee has been basically between equity and accountability. Accountability has become slightly blurred at the edges. The impact of the rate support grant on the community charge will be important. If that is not right, community charge payers can legitimately point to the Government as being responsible for the high charge in their area. Within weeks, the Government changed their perception of how much the local authority in my borough of Ealing should spend. Rate capping now reduces the rates by 25 per cent. rather than 42 per cent. If those are the shifts in the Government's perception of what a local authority should spend, they will have a big impact on the community charge. How will the Government be able to argue that the level of community charge reflects local extravagance when there can he such a variation in rate support grant?
Accountability has also become blurred in the debates about households in which the husband and the wife are out of work. The husband will get the benefit, which includes his wife's contribution, and will have to pay on behalf of both. The Government have argued, without success, that many more people will be brought into the community charge net but, in practice, because of the way in which household finances are constructed, there will be little impact.
Some people have been written out of the script. The little widow and the four wage earners who live next door to her have not appeared for many episodes. There is widespread concern about what has happened to them. I suspect that they are not appearing any more because it emerged in another part of our debate that the community charge was not that important a factor because the bulk of local government would continue to be funded through the rate support grant, which was funded by progressive taxation, and the better off would therefore pay far more than the less well-off. Of course, that argument applied directly to the four wage earners who, it transpired, were paying far more than the little old lady next door and, as a result, all five have been written out of the script.
50 If the little old lady and the four wage earners have been written out of the script, a new character has emerged—the gardener from Selly Oak. He is almost sitting there in the Committee with us. The gardener from Selly Oak, in some pithy and rather earthy comments, asked why he should pay as much as the visibly prosperous Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). In a nutshell, those earthy comments, by the gardener from either Selly Oak or Solihull, summarised public perception of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
If my hon. Friend is referring, not only to the procedure, but to some of the substance of the debate, I imagine that it is in order to ask him a question. In my constituency, in what is locally called millionaires' row, the equivalent of the local tax would fall by two thirds for the average householder, whereas in the poorest road, where people would not be subject to a rebate system, charges for an average household would increase fourfold. Is that a new system that we can commend with enthusiasm to the waiting public?
§ Sir George Young
The opinion polls give my hon. Friend the answer that he seeks from me. I am grateful to him for his support for the fundamental argument that the community charge is unfair and should be related to ability to pay. In the remaining stages of the Committee 1 hope that the Government will explain why revaluation is unthinkable for domestic taxpayers, causing widespread turbulence, but is perfectly all right for the non-domestic sector, which has just woken up to the impact of the policy on it and is writing at some length to the Standing Committee.
A procedural motion is not the best time to pitch one's tent and do battle. More, or less, time in Standing Committee will not determine the measure's future. That will be determined by votes on the Floor of the House, by debate in the country as a whole and by the debates in another place. The guillotine motion injects a note of certainty about the dates and timing, and I welcome that and reserve my fire for the battle next month.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I wish to speak against the timetable motion.
When the Leader of the House was making the business statement last week, he should have said not that the Bill was to be made the subject of a guillotine but that it was to be axed and that it was being rejected altogether. If he had taken note and cognisance of the clear public opposition to the Bill, he would have had second thoughts. He should remember that there is considerable opposition within the Conservative party to this proposal. Those Conservative Members recognise the implications of the Bill and have serious doubts about the direction in which we shall be moving if this legislation is enacted.
On Second Reading there were many abstentions, with some Conservative Back Benchers voting against the Bill. That rebellion would have been far greater but for the fact that those holding office within the Government and those hoping to hold office did not dare to show their true feelings.
The Government claim, as did the Leader of the House, that this measure had the support of the public at the general election in June. It would be true to say that the 51 Tory party gave the poll tax legislation a very low profile. The Government did not make a major election issue out of it. Much of the public were not fully aware of the intentions of this legislation. However, opinion polls have shown that the more they become aware of it the more they oppose it. It must be remembered that if the votes in England and Wales for those parties who clearly opposed this legislation at the last election had been added together it would have shown that there were more people opposed to the poll tax than were in favour of it.
With regard to Scotland, which is at a more advanced stage in this legislation, the message of the voters was very clear and the Conservative party lost many seats. We have often talked about losers and gainers as a result of this legislation, and it is important that we should have done so. To some degree, this point ties in with the intervention of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). The plain fact of the matter is that the majority of losers will be those who can least afford to lose. That must be a serious criticism of the legislation. A large number of the gainers will be those who least need to gain.
The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) said that changes should be made to the Bill as it is debated to improve its principle, and, to some degree, to rectify the problems that I have already mentioned. I know that it is of serious concern to him that the Bill does not take into account the ability to pay. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and other Conservative Members.
I fear that the Government will not take cognisance of those matters during the remainder of the Committee stage. There has been no sign that they accept that problems should be rectified. I believe that the Secretary of State is 100 per cent. committed to the legislation, although former Secretaries of State have opposed it. It has been said that, prior to 1983, the Environment Select Committee expressed opposition to a community charge. It has also been said that the Layfield committee opposed this proposal. Many people who are experienced in the financing of local government have said that it is not the way to rectify the problems with local government finance.
I accept that there are faults and anomalies in the present rating system, and that criticisms can be made of it, but to introduce a system that is worse and less fair is not the way to solve the problems involved. The Government should recognise that fact and axe the Bill.
We should have more time to debate the important, fundamental matters involved in this legislation. Many Government amendments have been tabled, which shows that the Bill was badly drafted. It was said earlier that many of those amendments were moved formally, but it must be remembered that clause 3 has been almost completely rewritten. From being a very short clause in the Bill, it is now a very long one. In addition, an extremely long new clause 4 has been introduced by the Government. The Government have made very important changes to the Bill.
We are aware that the Government originally intended to incorporate provisions in the Bill to enable prison sentences to be passed on those who do not pay the poll tax. Such a measure was not included in the Bill when it was first produced, and at present it is not included. However, when the Minister replied to a debate last week, he made it clear that on Report the Government intended 52 to introduce an amendment enabling a prison sentence to be passed on those who do not pay their poll tax. He made it clear that, unlike other people in prison, they will not avoid their liability to evade the poll tax just because they have been sent to prison for not paying.
By proposing those amendments, the Government have shown that they recognise the complications and difficulties that will exist in collecting the poll tax. It will be difficult to collect and there will be difficulties in compiling the register. The register will change every day, so it will need a mass of workers in town halls throughout the country to keep it up to date as people move from one constituency to another.
The Minister said that registration officers will be able to check with other local authority departments on people who have applied for library cards or grants or who are receiving housing benefit, and check against the electoral register. The Government say that it is not a tax on votes, and I accept that, but the wording that they use makes it clear that if one registers to vote one will become immediately liable to pay the poll tax. However, one does not have to vote to become liable for the tax, because the registration officer will use the electoral roll to ensure that the names shown on it are on the community charge register.
We have debated not only many Government amendments but, at length, two very important principles. The first was the ability to pay; we shall return to that issue during debates on later clauses. I have no doubt that many Conservative Members want to debate that subject at length because there is clear concern about the ability to pay. The other matter that we attempted to deal with was exemptions; we shall want to debate that issue again later in Committee. They are both extremely important issues, and if the ability to pay is not taken into account one must try to give, in a wider way, exemptions to those who cannot afford to pay, if we are to put any sense into this proposal.
As yet, we have not debated the uniform business rate. It is clear that the CBI holds a different view from the Government on this part of the Bill. The National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses Ltd. has written to hon. Members expressing its concern and worries about the implications of the UBR on small businesses if the Bill is not amended.
Many issues must be debated at length. I fail to see that the Bill, even if it is amended, will be good. Although the Secretary of State is committed to the Bill, the Minister, with his legal background, is like a barrister who must defend a case in which he knows that the accused man or woman is guilty of murder, but he deals effectively with his brief, hopes to do well with it, and hopes for better things to come. He will be remembered as the Minister who forced iniquitous and unfair taxation on the people of this country.
If Conservative Members believe that the legislation is wrong and want to see it amended or defeated, I hope that they will support the Opposition and vote against the motion. It is important that the Bill is debated for as long as possible in Committee to try to ensure that, if the Government are determined to use their majority to force it through, regardless of the implications and the fact that it may cost them the next general election, we secure as many amendments as possible to make it work in the best way to minimise damage. We are talking about minimising the damage to society, business and the people who cannot 53 afford to pay taxation. That is why we need more time to debate the Bill and why it is important that the motion is defeated.
§ Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)
I am grateful for the chance to make a brief contribution to the debate. I hope that the Leader of the House will now consider whether we should have a debate about the procedures of the House, particularly to have a close look at the way in which we handle these timetable motions.
Along with most of my hon. Friends on the Committee, I have sat relatively quietly listening to the arguments by Opposition Members. From the outset it has been clear that Opposition Members are impaled on the horns of a somewhat uncomfortable dilemma. Indeed, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) made that point clear when he opened for the Opposition today. Opposition Members are by no means clear whether to shoot the fox or merely graze it as it passes on its way.
If the Bill really is the great Satan, as some Opposition Members tell us, if it is the Achilles heel of the Conservative party, no doubt, in their hearts, Opposition Members wish it good fortune as an important and welcome landmark for a longed-for return to Government Benches, and would not wish to detain the Bill overlong in Committee. That is why we have heard some weasel words today on the guillotine motion. That is also why I would not seek to accuse the Opposition of filibustering in Committee.
It is true that we have spent a considerable time—perhaps over-long — in Committee discussing the position in respect of the names of dead people on the register. In addition, great time was taken in discussing the name of the Bill — time that could perhaps have been spent on more important issues. After all, by any other name, a rose is still a rose. We have gone in detail—often too much detail—through all the key matters that have so far been reached.
We have had lengthy discussions about exemptions. We should restrict the number of exemptions to the bare minimum. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been able to say that, in the case of bona fide religious orders in which vows of poverty have been taken — where monks and nuns are outside the system of state support—the community charge will not apply. That is a good example of the reasonableness and flexibility of my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
What does the hon. Gentleman say about those who have not taken vows of poverty, but, by the circumstances in which they live, have had poverty thrust upon them? Would they not be in similar circumstances to those of nuns and monks, who rightly should be considered?
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Gentleman has almost answered his own point. Such people are covered by rebates. Monks and nuns, who are outside the state support system, have taken vows of poverty and do not receive benefit. They are clearly exceptions to the normal rules.
The principal reason why I support this generous timetable motion is that time will now be specifically allocated to ensure the scrutiny of all parts of the Bill. It 54 may not be widely appreciated outside the House that discussion of clauses relating specifically to the community charge will not really be subject to any guillotine. Only one last substantive issue—rebates—remains to be discussed in Committee, so on the key issue that the Opposition have identified as the most objectionable part of the measure, there will effectively be no guillotine at all.
In spite of the usual head of steam that traditionally accompanies debates of this nature, but which has been markedly absent this afternoon, the Government deserve to secure their business within a reasonable time scale. The Committee has been proceeding somewhat more slowly than its counterpart Committee examining the Education Reform Bill. After all, that Committee reached clause 43 in 88 hours. We have been proceeding at less than half that speed.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Member asks what that means. One of the major points that came out of the guillotine debate on the Education Reform Bill—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. The House will stick to one Bill at a time. The hon. Member should confine his remarks to the Local Government Finance Bill.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I apologise for allowing myself to be led up the garden path by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). It tends to happen a great deal in Committee.
We must ensure that the measure proceeds in an orderly, structured, and rapid way. Those of us who were previously involved in inner-city areas, who saw the way in which businesses were treated by Left-wing authorities in respect of rates, and who saw the consequent loss of jobs and employment opportunities as businesses moved elsewhere or simply folded up, must ensure that time is balanced to allow discussion of all the important clauses, including those dealing with the future of the business rating system.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why it is that the whole range of the business community, from the CBI, representing big business, to small traders, would rather keep the present system than have the system that the Government are introducing?
§ Mr. Mitchell
That is untrue. Most would readily agree that what we propose is an improvement on what exists. It depends whether they perceive themselves as gainers or losers. In inner-city areas of the type that I was talking about, one would have great difficulty finding any major business man who does not welcome the proposed changes in the system.
§ The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Michael Howard)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the CBI has specifically said that, although it has reservations about our proposals, it regards them as a considerable improvement on the present system, and that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has totally misrepresented the position?
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
The CBI has made representations. As long as it does not have to pay so much, it prefers the proposed system. The hon. Gentleman and the Minister know that the business community is opposed to the Bill going ahead unamended. That applies in inner cities just as much as it applies elsewhere.
§ Mr. Mitchell
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister made the key point in response to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) — that the proposals are widely welcomed as a major improvement on what we have at the moment.
§ Dr. Cunningham
How can the hon. Gentleman say that the proposals are widely welcomed? They are opposed by the Institute of Directors, the National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses Ltd., and chambers of commerce, including the London chamber of commerce, the biggest one in the country. The Confederation of British Industry has major reservations about the proposals. How can the hon. Gentleman construe that as a wide welcome?
§ Mr. Mitchell
With respect, the hon. Gentleman sows the seeds of his argument on fallow ground. He talked about chambers of commerce. Is he aware that, for example, the Nottingham chamber of commerce, one of the largest of these bodies in the country, is in favour of the terms of the proposals? The list that the hon. Gentleman trotted out will not stand up. My experience in Islington strongly supports the view that, over the years, local businesses were driven out. More generally, business men welcome the changes that are now coming to pass. The stance of Opposition Members would be easier to understand if they were propounding or supporting some alternative structure or formula for financing local government. They are not doing so.
These matters have now been discussed for years. They formed a key part of our election manifesto. The timetable measure strikes the right balance between useful and welcome scrutiny on the one hand, and unnecessary delays on the other. We should now get on with it.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) has just displayed the originality with which he makes his contributions to the Committee by saying that a rose by any other name is still a rose. The subject that we are debating is a gross injustice and remains a gross injustice even when it is dressed up in words such as "community charge". That is why the people of Britain are calling it by the more realistic name of the poll tax and the Government have managed to persuade only a tiny number to use their phrase.
The Government are trying to shorten debate in Committee because they are suffering acute embarrassment. Every day that the Committee meets, more of the absurdities, anomalies, rank injustices and sheer in-coherence of the Bill are exposed. All that they can do is repeat what a good thing it is for the classes which it is intended to benefit.
Recently, the Secretary of State for the Environment, in one of his infrequent contributions to the Committee, claimed that the community charge would be an excellent thing for just about everyone. I asked him whether he would come to Maryhill and tell the people what a wonderful thing it was. He riposted, "The hon. Lady should come to the Cotswolds." I accepted his invitation immediately, but did he accept the invitation to Maryhill? Not on your life. He dodged it and allowed the Committee Chairman to propose the next business of the Committee.
Not content to leave matters there, I wrote to the Secretary of State accepting his invitation to the 56 Cotswolds, asking him when and where he wished to arrange a meeting, and asking him whether, in return, he would visit Maryhill. Today, I received a letter from the Secretary of State which I criticise in the same way as we criticise the contents of the Bill. He said:I doubt if you would be very welcome in the Cotswolds if you were to speak against my constituents getting relief from their excessive rate burdens!"Excessive rate burdens" in the Cotswolds? Who is he kidding? I know what I am doing by seeking an invitation to visit the Cotswolds. I know that I will find there rich, greedy people who are looking forward to benefiting from the poll tax, but I also know that I will find rich, unselfish people who do not wish to impose such a burden on their poorer friends and neighbours. Even in the Cotswolds there will be people whom the legislation will not benefit — but they will hear nothing about that from the Secretary of State. Someone must go there, and I am willing to do so any time he wants.
The Secretary of State went on to say in his letter:I would not impose such an unpleasant experience on you. I am far too fond of you!I am not at all fond of the right hon. Gentleman. Nor are the constituents of Maryhill, which is why, at the general election, Maryhill returned a Labour Member with a majority of 19,500. The Secretary of State is afraid to come to places such as Maryhill to put over his views, because he knows the sort of response he would be likely to get.
The letter continues:So shall we call it all off?My response is no, certainly not. My invitation stands, and I want to visit the Cotswolds. The final sentence states:The place for us to debate is in Committee Room 10.That is exactly what we want to do. He is the one who is calling off the debate by imposing a guillotine on it, yet he says the place for us to debate is Committee Room 10. Well, I shall have to do that, since he will not come to Maryhill. I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's cowardice in this respect. I thought that the man who came to Clydeside to close our shipyards would not be afraid to come to Maryhill and tell us about the poll tax.
I make a bargain with the Secretary of State. I forewarn him about the points that I shall make if someone invites me to visit the Cotswolds. I shall ask people whether they think it sensible that prisoners on remand will pay poll tax if found not guilty, but will be exempted if they are found guilty. I shall appeal to their common sense.
I shall ask the women in the Cotswolds whether it is fair that they will have to pay the same poll tax as their husbands even if they earn nothing or a half or three quarters of what their husbands earn. I shall ask the women whether they think it fair that a wife will be jointly and severally liable for her husband's poll tax, as he is for hers, regardless of her ability to pay. Indeed, some women will have to ask their husbands to hand over the money so that her poll tax can be paid. Talk about a return to Victorian values!
I shall ask the cost-conscious people—the ones who wish to save money on local government — if it is sensible to introduce a system that will cost twice as much to collect as the present system. I shall ask the people who own second homes whether they think it sensible that they must pay the same standard poll tax whether their little holiday retreat is a country mansion or a small home with an outside toilet.
Above all, I shall ask the people of the Cotswolds whether it is right that the well-off farmer should pay the 57 same poll tax as his labourer. I shall ask the City fat cats who travel to London every morning whether it is right that they should pay the same poll tax as the milkman, the postman and the man who sells them their tickets at the railway station.
I shall have a great deal to say when I visit the Cotswolds — if anyone asks me — and I shall be interested to hear whether the Secretary of State intends to visit Maryhill.
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
I support the timetable motion. For the past 15 years, during which I have been involved in politics, debate has centred on the fact that the current rating system is unfair and must be replaced. That replacement is almost on the statute book, and it is time that we allowed the opportunity for a full debate on it.
The community charge is necessary because many people will benefit from it, including about 2 million single old-age pensioners. It was a surprise to me to hear the Opposition members of the Committee wishing to deny the benefits to those 2 million old-age pensioners.
We have seen much literature suggesting that the community charge is unpopular. But that has been false literature produced by Labour councils, often at public expense, or by local Labour parties.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Why is the Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils completely opposed to the poll tax?
§ Mr. Shaw
I am fully aware that many organisations, Conservative and otherwise, have reservations about some aspects of the community charge. But whether others oppose it or not, it is certainly true that the current system is unfair and does not treat people properly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) said, it is unfair to the old-age pensioner living in a house next door to four wage earners. During my four years on a council, I observed the number of households that did not pay fair rates because they had four wage earners in the family.
The Labour party has stirred up opposition to the community charge, and my constituents have written to me quoting Opposition literature. In reply, I have pointed out that, if the community charge is introduced on this year's figures, it is likely to he £151 in Dover compared with £600 or £700 in Labour-controlled areas, such as Brent, Camden and Islington.
§ Mr. Shaw
In a moment.
The key point that I make to my constituents is that it is better to have a well-run borough council and gain the benefit from it than a badly run borough council and suffer the disbenefit. In the Bill we are introducing a system whereby efficient local authorities which care about ratepayers' and taxpayers' money can demonstrate that fact to the benefit of their locality, unlike councils which could not care less.
§ Mr. Shaw
I do not accept that. In Committee we have frequently given the Opposition the facts, statistics and 58 exemplifications from the Department of the Environment which show the large numbers of people who will gain. We have also seen anomalies, but these are less than under the present system of rates.
The Opposition have frequently said that the community charge will be unfair. The Secretary of State in his generosity has given the Opposition the opportunity to suggest alternative proposals, but they have failed at every stage. That is why we have to debate this timetable motion: we cannot get sensible alternatives from the Opposition, yet they spend a great deal of time arguing that these proposals are unfair.
§ Mr. Dykes
I agree with my hon. Friend that the principal Opposition have not put forward any meaningful ideas so that debates are taking place within the Conservative party and, to a lesser extent, among alliance Members. How does my hon. Friend deal with the awkward point raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) in this debate and in Committee — that it is all very well constructing a theoretical idea that one can make a direct measurement between the extravagant and the non-extravagant authorities—presumably Tory-controlled authorities are the latter and Labour-controlled authorities the former—with this new system, but as it is most likely, because we live in a wicked world, that the central Government resource allocation input system, now to be called revenue support rather than RSG, will be manipulated by the Department of the Environment through its incomprehensible computer system just as it has been in the past, the whole system will become wholly otiose?
§ Mr. Shaw
I, too, have severe reservations about the rate support grant system and the way it has operated in the past, but all that we and the Government can do is try over a period to move to a fairer, better system under which the people who pay more will be those who are foolish enough to elect a local council which wastes money. Surely what lies behind amendments to the rate support grant system in recent years is the attempt to penalise the extravagant and to benefit those with good husbandry.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will concede publicly that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who represents Plaid Cymru, and my two hon. Friends who represent the Liberal party on the Committee have throughout clearly stated our view that a local income tax is a fairer and more acceptable alternative. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government should support that, even if the proposition must come from our parties because the Labour party has not yet decided on its alternative?
§ Mr. Shaw
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, but if he had the benefit of serving on the Committee —I realise that he is employed elsewhere—he would have learned that under a local income tax system, a nurse living in Camden would have to pay 26p in the pound. That is a phenomenal sum. Even if my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer manages to reduce income tax substantially in the Budget, it would take her rate of taxation above 50p in the pound. Local income tax is not a fair or reasonable alternative to the community charge. Time and again it has become clear in Committee that the Opposition have no alternative to the community charge.
59 The motion is about making progress on the Bill and I hope that some of my remarks have shown that it is necessary to do so. Not only is this the only Bill before the Committee but it is the best Bill that the Committee could have. The Opposition have been taking far too long to make their points. Speeches lasting 20 minutes or more are common and 15-minute speeches are the rule. I would not object to that if it were not for the great amount of repetition.
Countless times I have heard the Opposition suggest that people will evade the tax. It shocks me that they can suggest that so many people are keen on tax evasion. [Laughter.] It is staggering. What is even more amazing is the number of Scottish Opposition Members who comment on that. Scottish Members seem to spend most of their time trying to make out that the people of Scotland are utterly dishonest. Indeed, if I were not married to a Scottish lady, I should have severe doubts about what the people north of the border get up to. In time, the Scottish version of the community charge will be seen to benefit Scotland as it will help to control local authority expenditure.
One message comes across in Committee. Not only do the Opposition not want to hear of the benefits from the community charge, but when they appear to listen they do not seem to want to understand. That is a critical reason why we are debating this motion.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The hon. Gentleman says that we do not listen to the benefits of the poll tax. Can he explain to the 94 per cent. of my constituents who will lose what those benefits are likely to be?
§ Mr. Shaw
If the hon. Gentleman will arrange for me to visit his constituency, I shall be delighted to explain to his constituents the benefits of the community charge.
It is important to consider the quality of the debates in Committee, particularly some of the statements about the costs of the community charge. We have had wild and extreme estimates, and references to hundreds of millions of pounds of computer costs. The House will be pleased to know that I have managed to obtain more accurate figures which I hope to bring to the Committee's attention in the next few weeks. The Opposition's figures have not been based on fact, nor have they been checked or audited. One often wonders whether the statements are solely for the purpose of playing to the gallery. They are certainly not to further the debate. The timetable motion will mean that the Opposition talk more sense and less nonsense.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke earlier of Government amendments taking time in Committee. There have been many Government amendments to the Bill, but they were sensible, necessary and useful in assisting the administration of the community charge. They were speedily dealt with.
I cannot avoid one aspect of our discussions in Committee. Occasionally, and regrettably, we have heard some intemperate language from the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Perhaps that was because he was tired of listening to speakers on his own side. I say that because Conservative Members have taken up little time. Our speeches have been brief and to the point.
60 I believe the Government want to give the Bill a fair chance of being discussed, which is why they have brought in the timetable motion. The House should support it.
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I want to discuss some of the arguments deployed by the Leader of the House when introducing the timetable motion. First, he argued that an excessive number of amendments had been tabled in Committee, especially on the first clause, which is only five lines long. Clause 1 deals with some of the basic principles of the Bill and categorises three different forms of poll tax or community charge that can be levied. So the amendments to clause 1 provided an opportunity to debate the wider implications of the whole measure, and the debate, at that stage, was worth while.
It has also been argued that the time spent on changing the name from the community charge to the poll tax was excessive—but to call the tax a community charge is a fraud. The name "poll tax" is clearly understood and honest, and it allows us to discuss the Bill's general principles. As such, it is well worth full discussion. I am a person who likes discussing words, ideas and principles and I see nothing wrong with that.
It might be well worth while for the Government to consider exactly what the Bill is about. It does two things. It switches wealth from one sector of society to another, in line with principles shared by most Conservative Members, who believe that investment emerges in that way. We disagree with that. Other elements in the Bill concern the excessive powers being given to central Government, carrying on from other legislation that dealt with rate capping and other matters of local government. The Bill is a further extension of provisions that give considerable authority to central Government.
Many of the Conservative Members in Committee need to reflect on whether they are really happy about so much authority being passed into the hands of central Government, and about local government beginning to disappear as an effective force and becoming a mere cypher, acting on decisions that have already been made centrally. Is that healthy for democracy and the dissemination of different views and interests? Is it good for concessions and compromises in society?
The Leader of the House also used the answerability argument, about which we used to hear a great deal in Committee. We used to hear how, as all voters paid the poll tax, their involvement made them and local councils responsible, accountable and answerable. Strangely, some of those arguments have now started to disappear. We had a debate in Committee about joint and several liability. It blew away once and for all the idea that the Bill is in some way about answerability. If, for example, a husband deserted his wife—did a runner, as they say—she would be jointly and severally responsible for payment of the outstanding poll tax moneys.
There is no essential link in the legislation between the payment of the poll tax and the exercise of the vote, and it would be nonsense if there were. Often, the head of the household might pay out the money for the whole household, and presumably, under a system of accountability, he would have to exercise a right to vote several times in line with the moneys he had paid out. Thus, the notion of accountability has begun to disappear; so has the notion that democracy is somehow enhanced by the operation of the poll tax.
61 It has already been mentioned that the poll tax discourages electoral registration. The Bill may provide for the electoral registrar getting hold of registers that are being compiled and reinstating people on them, but there will certainly be a desire to hide from payment. That will have an adverse effect on the universal franchise. As one of the Ministers has rightly said, this Bill will have a major effect on the franchise—the greatest since the early years of the century, and probably since the 19th century. It is the first move that we have had away from the universal franchise, rather than towards its extension.
Worse, the Bill attempts to fix the results of elections. Pressure will be applied such that Conservative councils will be the only option for election — not merely Conservative councils, but Conservative councils of a particular political flavour, which will keep poll tax levels down. If Labour or alternative parties try to operate, they will be allowed to do so only to the extent that they function in accordance with those same principles. How is that Hobson's choice a democracy? Surely a democracy should allow people to choose between alternatives and offer an avenue through which the poorer members of society can seek redress of some of the imbalances within it, so that money is paid by the wealthy to those who are poor. The Bill tries to exclude from the system an option in the democratic process.
The Leader of the House also used the argument that the poll tax was in the Tory election manifesto, so the Government could go ahead with it. That is one of the most pathetic arguments that could be used. There is no mandate for the poll tax: a mandate requires a full and frank up-front discussion during an election, which did not happen in England and Wales. That is perhaps, to some extent, the fault of the Labour party for not drawing attention to the tax as a major issue, as it should have done. If it had done so, some of the consequences in Scotland would have occurred here, too. The only area in the nation in which the tax has been considered fully and frankly is Scotland, where it was firmly rejected by the electorate. The Labour party was glad to have the opportunity to use the issue to fight an effective campaign there, and I hope we shall soon be doing the same in this country.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
The hon. Gentleman said that the only place in the country in which the poll tax was mentioned in the last election was Scotland, but I mentioned the community charge many times in my election campaign in June last year, and was returned with a majority of almost 20,000.
§ Mr. Barnes
It is a matter of degree; the issue was certainly mentioned in the election, and there was some publicity about it in the media, but I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman was the only element that determined the result in his constituency. We all know that elections here are much more presidential than that, depending a great deal on the party platforms that are argued across the country.
Such argument failed to take place in England and Wales on that occasion. Many of us tried to raise the issue in our constituencies but it was swamped by other issues that the Goverment sought to raise during the election. They staged propaganda campaigns about "reds" and raised "white surrender" scares. They were the major items considered during the campaign. It is only in those areas 62 that the Government could possibly claim to have a mandate, but they do not have a mandate for this detailed bit of legislation or for many of the other measures that are passing through the House.
§ Mrs. Fyfe
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why the campaign against the poll tax was so effective in Scotland was that it was coming into force there a year earlier than in England? That concentrated the minds of Scottish people. Likewise, recent opinion polls in England and Wales have shown that people there are becoming more and more opposed to the poll tax.
§ Mr. Barnes
I agree with my hon. Friend. The immediacy of the issue concentrates people's minds upon it and brings it to the front of their minds, causing them to discuss their own circumstances and the problems that they will face.
There should not be a timetable motion. We need more time to discuss the issue in Committee so that the reality of the poll tax can begin to dawn on some of the Conservative Members. They need to be able to draw together the strands of their alternative position and decide upon the extent to which they will support Opposition amendments. The hon. Member for Acton (Sir G. Young) is seen as the major Conservative rebel, but in some ways he needs to get his act together and decide where he stands on various issues. He supports the idea of excluding student nurses in the same way as university students would be excluded and proposed amendment No. 72 in relation to that. That fell because a Government new clause was introduced.
In the vote on an amendment by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), which was a substitute for amendment No. 72, the hon. Member for Acton is recorded in the Committee Hansard as voting against. On another occasion an amendment was brought forward under clause 11 by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and there is no record of a vote by the hon. Member for Acton. He either recorded a no vote or was absent when the vote took place. I confront him with those matters, but if I have got them wrong I shall apologise to him. He has faced three ways on one issue and needs to be much more solid.
The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has expressed reservations in the House and is in many ways a pale shadow of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton in terms of his opposition. Presumably he is adopting a Fabian attitude, and his strategy may be to bide his time until the opportunity is exactly right. Then he will strike and vote with the Opposition on specific amendments. I hope that that is the case.
The hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) is seeking a small poll tax, and his amendment, which is to be discussed later, will move money towards the central Exchequer. If that happens, it will aid the process by which central Government have control and authority over what takes place at local level. It will get over the problem of imbalance and injustice and some of the unfairness of this measure. However, it will not tackle the issue of considerable centralised control. I hope that the hon. Member for Kensington will think of some fallback position to try to get the best that he can out of his own ideas and values. I have said that in Committee.
The answerability argument has gone out of the window and hon. Members using it in Committee have 63 lowered it considerably. It has yet to dawn on Conservative Members that central Government are operating massive powers. Some Conservative Members are strong advocates of free enterprise and competitiveness and are worried about monopoly control and development. For that reason, they should be worried about the development of centralised control.
The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is not in the Chamber and is seldom seen in Committee. She adopts a very anti-state stance and is worried about centralised control. The House Magazine reports that she has on her House of Commons writing paper the legend:The state is the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.If the hon. Lady thinks that the state is such a fiction and a corrupting centralised organisation, why is she willing regularly to vote for advancing the powers of the Secretary of State? In this measure the Secretary of State and in other measures other Secretaries of State are given enormous enabling powers. The Secretary of State will be something of a municipal Mussolini, but perhaps without the charisma that Mussolini had.
Conservative Members in the Committee need time to think the measure through and time to talk about their ideas before having them discussed in Committee. Labour has embarked on a listening campaign, and I was pleased to listen to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) because those were the first words that I heard from him. The hon. Member for Gedling made, as it were his maiden speech on the poll tax, and his views must be considered.
My final point is on a matter that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). It has been said in Committee that a measure is to be brought forward on Report to introduce imprisonment as a fallback for those who do not pay the poll tax. That measure should be brought forward and fully considered in Committee and afterwards on the Floor of the House. I ask hon. Members to vote against the timetable motion.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)
As a new Member, I am continually surprised in this place, and this debate is no exception. This is the first guillotine motion debate that I have sat through. I had assumed, apparently wrongly, that I would be confronted by row upon row of indignant Opposition Members shrieking about censorship and the lack of time to deal with the Bill. Instead I see row upon row of total contentment, because I have always found that when people do not turn up it means that they are entirely happy about what is being done. I can only assume that the contentment on the Conservative side is mirrored by contentment on the Opposition side.
One other matter that surprised me is that I seem to be sitting through a Second Reading debate. We have heard all the reasons why the community charge is good or bad, why it should be introduced and the reasons for holding it up. However, we have not had much discussion about the guillotine motion. That is why I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) who said that perhaps the Leader of the House might find it useful to look at procedures. We ought to be discussing how we can have a sensible debate during the rest of the time that the Bill is in Committee. I have sat through most of the 72 hours so far and I did not recognize 64 much of a sensible debate. It has been fairly repetitive and nit-picking. I welcome this chance to help impose some sort of structure on the rest of the debate, because some fundamental issues have still to be discussed.
Much has been said about the business rate but not much has been said about the change in the grant system. Eleven years in local government have taught me that the current grant system is understood by hardly anybody. When one does discover a bit about it, one sees that it is something of an absurdity. We must spend a sensible amount of time getting the grant system right. I hope that we shall also put some structure into the Committee from now on and will be spared further ramblings about the rating aspects of grand prix racing tracks and about when full-time cohabitation becomes part-time cohabitation. If we are spared more of that sort of debate, I shall be grateful.
The issues that seem to have occupied most hon. Members do not have much to do with the guillotine motion. The first argument that sticks in my mind is that, because there is no precedent for this legislation, it should be given extra time. But I have heard hour upon hour of discussion about what happens in Scotland. I have heard for hour upon hour from hon. Members representing Scotland. I keep being told that there is a precedent.
We have also been told that we should delay it because everybody is against it. My mailbag, my supporters and my council do not suggest that. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) causes some excitement only by saying that the ADC is against it. The hon. Gentleman knows better than to go beyond that.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I was making the point that every representative body of local government of whatever party is completely opposed to the proposals. The hon. Gentleman's own council may be in favour of it, but no letter has yet appeared in the Library showing that any council is wholeheartedly in favour of it. The hon. Gentleman must accept that no representative group of local government, north or south of the border, supports the measure, and it has been opposed by local government throughout the country.
§ Mr. Wilshire
In view of the time, I shall not rise to that. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my comments in Committee, which are well reported.
The last argument to which I shall refer is that we have not been listening. I have listened to the best part of 72 hours, I have listened until my ears ache, and I have yet to hear anything to make me change my mind. The measure is a good one, and the sooner it reaches the statute book the better.
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
All hon. Members who have spoken have agreed that the Bill, because of its importance, needs thorough and proper scrutiny. As several hon. Members have said, we are not talking only about a personal poll tax. We are talking about a Bill that will introduce a national business tax, under ministerial control. We are talking about a new grant system for the allocation of about £13 billion of public money each year. We are talking about proposals that will give Ministers budgetary control and poll tax-capping powers covering every local authority in England and Wales. We are talking about the future—it is not clear from the Bill 65 whether there is a future—of discretionary expenditure under what is at present section 137, the 2p rate, which is used by local authorities of all political persuasions for local matters such as economic development and the support of voluntary organisations and charities in their communities.
A large number of important issues still have to be considered by the Committee. It has always been, and remains, the intention of the Opposition that such matters should be thoroughly and adequately debated. That is why we have not sought to waste time. In spite of one or two comments to the contrary, it is generally recognised that there has been no deliberate time wasting in Committee by the Opposition.
Conservative Members who have been supporting the timetable motion have not recognised that there has been no White Paper about the proposals. The Government have not published the responses to the Green Paper on the proposals. The Government have consistently hidden that evidence from Parliament and from the Committee. Had that information been published, it might have saved the House and the Committee some time during their consideration of these issues. The Government gain nothing by being secretive. It is precisely for that reason, and for similar related reasons, such as the late publication, or availability in the Committee, of the Government's intentions on students that the Opposition have had to force debates and table amendments to seek clarification from the Government. We make no apology for that. After all, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that the Government have tabled as many amendments to the Bill as anyone else.
It is also the case that the longest single speech made in Committee was made by the Minister for Local Government, who spoke for almost two hours in response to a very important group of amendments. I do not criticise him for that. I did not criticise him at the time. He tried, within the limitations of the principles embodied in the Bill, to respond to questions put to him in Committee, and he was right to do so. I am not complaining about that. It may be necessary for the Minister or for the Secretary of State to reply at length in future. If it is necessary, it is a proper and legitimate function in the Committee's consideration of such measures. It was a measure of 131 clauses and 12 schedules when it was published. Now, several new clauses have been tabled by the Government, in addition to all the amendments.
The measure is dubbed the Government's flagship, and as such I should have thought that everyone, including Conservative Members, would welcome a most painstaking scrutiny of it. After all, they would not want to spoil their flagship for want of a little paint and a ha'p'orth of tar. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) likened it to the Titanic. I suggest that perhaps it is more likely to end up like the Mary Rose. It may not get through its launch or its maiden voyage. It may capsize under the weight of its own inadequate design.
As I understand the motion, which the Leader of the House commends us to accept, we shall have approximately 70 hours more to discuss the issue. On the face of it, that seems generous. Several Conservative Members have made the point that we shall now have some structured debate and the timetable will guarantee the proper scrutiny of every aspect of the Bill. It will do no such thing. At each stage within the timetable, the 66 guillotine will fall, whether or not there has been proper scrutiny of each clause in that section of the timetable. The timetable brings no such guarantee.
Indeed, 70 hours, when there are still more than 100 clauses and several schedules to be discussed, does not guarantee on average—although I accept that averages are not always meaningful—one hour of consideration in Committee per clause. It is not nearly as generous as the Leader of the House seemed to imply. The procedures of the House simply are not adequate to deal with measures of such a size, nature, complexity, and on which there is a dispute between parties. That seems to have been self-evident for many years.
Several hon. Members who are new to the House have said that this is the first time that they have taken part in a debate on a guillotine motion. I have taken part in a debate on a guillotine motion. I have taken part in several such debates from both sides of the argument, from the point of view of the Government, and from the point of view of the Opposition. I have to confess straight away that political head-standing is rather difficult for politicians, who generally do not make very good gymnasts. I think that it has something to do with the fact that the centre of gravity of most politicians is higher above the waist than it should be for them to perform good balancing feats. In some hon. Members it is too far above the shoulders.
The procedures of the House are not adequate, whatever the Government may say. The hon. Members for Crawley (Mr. Soames) is laughing about centres of gravity. He is the last hon. Member who should be laughing, although I have to concede that his centre of gravity is well down, if I can put it delicately. Perhaps he will be rather better than some of his colleagues at this kind of balancing act. I have no doubt that the Government planned the presentation of this timetable to the House when they were planning the whole of their parliamentary year. Notwithstanding that, the Government have tabled, and will continue to table, a large number of amendments.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) made an entertaining speech, but he could have taken a much earlier historical analogy. If I have learnt nothing else today, I have learnt that I can gain access to the Bible for reference by asking the Clerk of the House for the key and opening the Dispatch Box—something that I have never yet done. Since historical analogies seem to be in order in giving dire warnings to the Government—I hazard a guess that a right hon. Member with an address like "The Old Rectory" knows this already—I can give a much older analogy than the peasants' revolt. Here is a quote from St. Luke, chapter 2:And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.We have been along this road a lot earlier than the peasants' revolt, and the outcome has always been the same. Those proposing such taxes have ended up on the losing side. We have seen that most recently in Scotland, and I have no doubt that we shall see it again.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I thought that I had heard Conservative Members say that this debate was about the 67 timetable and not about the merits of the Bill. I am not speaking about the merits of the Bill, but I would be more than happy to do so when we return to Committee tomorrow morning, as long as the hon. Member will promise me that his attendance will be at least as good as mine when we are discussing these matters—something that he has signally failed to do so far.
I say, most kindly, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent is a traditionalist in these matters and his views depart slightly from mine. Having said that, I believe that the proceedings of the House are inadequate, and are regularly demonstrated to be inadequate, and I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). It would be in the interests of the House if time were found to debate the second report of the Procedure Committee in the 1985–86 Session, which sought to bring the attention of the House to these matters. The problem is, and remains, one of inherent conflict between the views and the objectives of the Government and the views and objectives of the Opposition. It will be in the long-term interest of the House to make a serious attempt to resolve these matters, although I do not necessarily agree with everything that the report says.
Hon. Members may be asking themselves why I shall vote against the guillotine motion. It is because, in the end, like all its predecessors, it is being imposed arbitrarily by an Executive which already has too much power over Parliament in these matters—a power that is long overdue for redress.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
The debate has been so relaxed and friendly that there has been time for some merriment. We have had added to the "gardener chappy" in Selly Oak, the municipal Mussolini, from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes).
We had the delightful speech of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), and that of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), who commented on my education, saying that it has been a good education. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent had a good education himself. He went to Leighton Park school and then on to Wadham, where presumably he learned a little history. He might get it right. When the poll tax was introduced, King Richard II was 14, so we cannot blame him.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) thought that the Bill might turn out to be the Titanic, but at least it could not be as bad as the efforts of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, who lost four out of his flotilla of five Bills that he guillotined in that one famous afternoon in July, which all turned out to be Titanics.
§ Mr. Leigh
Is my right hon. Friend aware that on that famous occasion when the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) attempted to poleaxe consideration of five Bills, one young Labour Member said:I have not yet had the advantage of being in opposition and I do not intend to be in that position. 'Winner takes all' is an ugly phrase, but that is how the system works. If a party wins a General Election, it is the winner who takes all until the people are again consulted within five years … We are 68 considering whether the Government are entitled to see that they carry out what they are mandated to do. That is what a guillotine motion is all about."—[Official Report, 20 July 1976; Vol. 915, c. 1654–55.]The hon. Member who said that was then the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth, but is now the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), who led for the Opposition today. Surely people in legislative glasshouses should not throw stones.
§ Mr. Ridley
That is typical of how these guillotine debates go, but it is not for me in the few minutes that remain to say what will be the right way for the House to debate these matters in the future.
Having spent 72½ hours considering 21 clauses, including five new ones, and two schedules, including one new schedule, we must make a little more progress. The Bill contains another 115 clauses and 11 schedules, which means that, on the basis of progress so far, we would be sitting until the end of July.
There has been a marked lack of urgency on the part of the Opposition. We have perhaps been too accommodating. The start of the Committee was delayed from 19 January to 21 January because the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) was out of the country. We helped him further with an early finish on 28 January to enable the Opposition to attend a local government conference, at which they continued their fruitless search for a policy on local government finance. Perhaps we should give them another afternoon to pursue that, because they have not yet found one. On Thursday last, 18 February, they asked for the whole of the afternoon session, which once again we gave them. By these means, we lost 13 hours of debate—nor did we receive much progress in return when we did sit.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
Will the Secretary of State admit that, to facilitate that granting of time, we did not debate the sittings motion?
§ Mr. Ridley
I am going back to the point that we have not had the progress that we need.
From time to time, when the Committee has been sitting, little progress has been made. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), perhaps one of those who has spoken for longest, could be described—in the words of one of his friends, the former hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan in the Committee which dealt with the Scottish legislation — as suffering from natural verbosity. Then there was the speech made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), which took so long and was so incoherent that the Committee became inquorate and hon. Members had to take refuge in the Corridor outside.
Apart from such long-winded contributions from Opposition Members, the discussion has been amiable and has ambled along, but slowly. The atmosphere has been congenial and the debate has been generally constructive. In response to arguments advanced by various Opposition Members, the Government have willingly taken away a number of points for further consideration covering joint and several liability, register entries concerning deceased persons and remission from payment by the courts on the grounds of poverty.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that only one such undertaking had been given and that that had been given to one of the Liberal Members on the Committee. However, that is not 69 right. Three or more undertakings were given. Indeed, I must tell the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that I cannot tell the difference between a Liberal, Welsh nationalist, or Socialist opposition in Committee. There is no difference at all between them.
§ Mr. Ridley
I will not give way.
All the concessions that we offered are important. They are intended to improve the system that we have proposed and I am grateful for that. However, none of the arguments advanced by Opposition Members has in any way dented the principle of our proposals. Indeed, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), whom we welcome to the debate, at times seemed to hope that the timetable motion would be introduced soon, as it was the only thing that would concentrate the minds of his colleagues. Twice in Committee—on 28 January and 2 February—he predicted hopefully and wishfully that the timetable motion would he introduced on 11 February. He was clearly hoping and longing for it and wanted it as soon as he could get it. He will be delighted that it has been introduced now.
§ Mr. Ridley
Yes, the hon. Gentleman would rather have had it earlier. As the debate has borne out, very few hon. Members have been present, and at one point I thought that there was a danger that we might have run out of hon. Members wishing to speak. The opposition to this motion has been as weak, wobbly and wishy-washy as it was in Committee.
§ Sir Peter Emery
When the timetable motion on the Education Reform Bill was before the House, My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that he would try to ensure that all parts of the Bill would be adequately scrutinised and that every tentative proposal would be examined. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment give the House the same assurance about the local Government Finance Bill?
§ Mr. Ridley
Indeed I will. However, principally the Opposition must decide how much time they want to give to each section of the Bill. Their judgment must prevail. They must decide how to divide the time that remains. It is my ambition to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery).
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey drew a comparison with the progress of the legislation to introduce the community charge in Scotland. A timetable motion was introduced for that Bill after 101 hours of debate on 20 clauses which provided for a further six sittings to deal with the remaining 14 clauses. The point is that the timetable motion before the House now will allow a further 19 sittings and 83 hours of debate on the remainder of the Bill. By introducing the motion at this stage it is possible to ensure that fuller debate is given to all aspects of the Bill than was possible for the Scottish Bill. We have supplemented that, as has been much appreciated by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because we have recommended four days for Report and Third Reading.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will the Secretary of State accept that the argument that other hon. Members and I have advanced is that for a Bill of this importance we need to ensure that, if possible, every important matter should be debated and if the Committee believes that it has not unduly delayed matters, it should be allowed to run its natural course?
§ Mr. Ridley
That will be the case. If we do not waste time, there will be time for all matters to be considered.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin drew attention to the National Opinion Poll carried out last week. I found its conclusions very comforting. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not set much store by these polls. It concluded:The Conservatives still hold a clear lead in these key areas.All those hopes, that the charge would lose the Conservatives political support and would rescue the Labour party, seem to have been dashed. Indeed, in a typically generous passage in his speech, the hon. Member for The Wrekin said that he wanted to put public interest before party interest and he would therefore not hold up the Bill because it was in his party's interests that it should get through as the Conservative party would lose votes. Only a week ago there was a vital county council by-election in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Campaigning under the community charge, the Conservatives, in the form of Warren Hawksley, won a seat from Labour.
§ It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put the Question necessary to dispose of them, pursuant to Standing Order No. 81 (Allocation or time to Bills).
§ The House divided: Ayes 317, Noes 223.74
|Division No. 190]||[6.45 pm|
|Alexander, Richard||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick|
|Amess, David||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Amos, Alan||Burt, Alistair|
|Arbuthnot, James||Butcher, John|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Butler, Chris|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Butterfill, John|
|Ashby, David||Carlisle, John, (Luton N)|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Atkins, Robert||Carrington, Matthew|
|Atkinson, David||Carttiss, Michael|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)||Cash, William|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda|
|Baldry, Tony||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Batiste, Spencer||Chapman, Sydney|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Chope, Christopher|
|Bellingham, Henry||Churchill, Mr|
|Bendall, Vivian||Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Colvin, Michael|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Conway, Derek|
|Boswell, Tim||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)|
|Bottomley, Peter||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)||Cope, John|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Couchman, James|
|Bowis, John||Cran, James|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Curry, David|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)|
|Brazier, Julian||Davis, David (Boothfeny)|
|Bright, Graham||Day, Stephen|
|Brittan, Rt Hon Leon||Devlin, Tim|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Dicks, Terry||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Key, Robert|
|Dover, Den||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Dunn, Bob||King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)|
|Durant, Tony||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Dykes, Hugh||Knapman, Roger|
|Eggar, Tim||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Knox, David|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Fallon, Michael||Lang, Ian|
|Farr, Sir John||Latham, Michael|
|Favell, Tony||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Forman, Nigel||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lightbown, David|
|Forth, Eric||Lilley, Peter|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Franks, Cecil||Lord, Michael|
|Freeman, Roger||Luce, Rt Hon Richard|
|French, Douglas||Lyell, Sir Nicholas|
|Fry, Peter||McCrindle, Robert|
|Gale, Roger||Macfarlane, Sir Neil|
|Gardiner, George||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Gill, Christopher||MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Maclean, David|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Gorst, John||McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)|
|Gow, Ian||McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Madel, David|
|Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)||Major, Rt Hon John|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Malins, Humfrey|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Mans, Keith|
|Gregory, Conal||Marland, Paul|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Grist, Ian||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Ground, Patrick||Mates, Michael|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Mellor, David|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Miller, Hal|
|Hannam, John||Mills, Iain|
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Harris, David||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Moore, Rt Hon John|
|Hayes, Jerry||Morris, M (N'hampton S)|
|Hayward, Robert||Morrison, Hon P (Chester)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Moss, Malcolm|
|Heddle, John||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Mudd, David|
|Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)||Neale, Gerrard|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Needham, Richard|
|Hill, James||Neubert, Michael|
|Hind, Kenneth||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Holt, Richard||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Howard, Michael||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Paice, James|
|Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil|
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)||Patnick, Irvine|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Patten, Chris (Bath)|
|Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Patten, John (Oxford W)|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Irvine, Michael||Pawsey, James|
|Irving, Charles||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Jack, Michael||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Jackson, Robert||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Janman, Tim||Portillo, Michael|
|Jessel, Toby||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Price, Sir David|
|Raffan, Keith||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Rathbone, Tim||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Redwood, John||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Riddick, Graham||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Thorne, Neil|
|Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Rost, Peter||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Rumbold, Mrs Angela||Tracey, Richard|
|Ryder, Richard||Tredinnick, David|
|Sackville, Hon Tom||Trotter, Neville|
|Sainsbury, Hon Tim||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Viggers, Peter|
|Scott, Nicholas||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Walden, George|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Waller, Gary|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Walters, Dennis|
|Shersby, Michael||Ward, John|
|Sims, Roger||Wardle, Charles (Bexhiil)|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Warren, Kenneth|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Watts, John|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Wheeler, John|
|Speed, Keith||Whitney, Ray|
|Speller, Tony||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Wilshire, David|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Steen, Anthony||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Stern, Michael||Wolfson, Mark|
|Stevens, Lewis||Wood, Timothy|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Woodcock, Mike|
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)||Yeo, Tim|
|Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Stradling Thomas, Sir John||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Sumberg, David||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Summerson, Hugo||Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)|
|Allen, Graham||Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)|
|Alton, David||Campbell-Savours, D. N.|
|Anderson, Donald||Canavan, Dennis|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Cartwright, John|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Clark, Dr David (S Shields)|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)|
|Ashton, Joe||Clay, Bob|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Clelland, David|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Coleman, Donald|
|Battle, John||Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Beckett, Margaret||Cook, Robin (Livingston)|
|Bell, Stuart||Corbett, Robin|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Cousins, Jim|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Cox, Tom|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Crowther, Stan|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Cryer, Bob|
|Blair, Tony||Cummings, John|
|Blunkett, David||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Boateng, Paul||Cunningham, Dr John|
|Boyes, Roland||Dalyell, Tam|
|Bradley, Keith||Darling, Alistair|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Dewar, Donald|
|Buchan, Norman||Dixon, Don|
|Buckley, George J.||Doran, Frank|
|Caborn, Richard||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Callaghan, Jim||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth|
|Eadie, Alexander||Madden, Max|
|Eastham, Ken||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Marek, Dr John|
|Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Fatchett, Derek||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Faulds, Andrew||Martlew, Eric|
|Fearn, Ronald||Maxton, John|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Meacher, Michael|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Meale, Alan|
|Fisher, Mark||Michael, Alun|
|Flannery, Martin||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Flynn, Paul||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Foster, Derek||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Foulkes, George||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Fraser, John||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Fyfe, Maria||Morley, Elliott|
|Galbraith, Sam||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Garrett, John (Norwich South)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|George, Bruce||Mullin, Chris|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Murphy, Paul|
|Gordon, Mildred||Nellist, Dave|
|Gould, Bryan||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Graham, Thomas||O'Brien, William|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||O'Neill, Martin|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Parry, Robert|
|Grocott, Bruce||Patchett, Terry|
|Hardy, Peter||Pendry, Tom|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Pike, Peter L.|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Henderson, Doug||Prescott, John|
|Hinchliffe, David||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Home Robertson, John||Radice, Giles|
|Hood, Jimmy||Randall, Stuart|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)||Reid, Dr John|
|Howells, Geraint||Richardson, Jo|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Robertson, George|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Rooker, Jeff|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Illsley, Eric||Rowlands, Ted|
|Ingram, Adam||Ruddock, Joan|
|Janner, Greville||Salmond, Alex|
|John, Brynmor||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)||Short, Clare|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Kennedy, Charles||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil||Snape, Peter|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Soley, Clive|
|Lambie, David||Spearing, Nigel|
|Lamond, James||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Leighton, Ron||Stott, Roger|
|Lestor, Joan (Eccles)||Strang, Gavin|
|Lewis, Terry||Straw, Jack|
|Litherland, Robert||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Livingstone, Ken||Turner, Dennis|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Vaz, Keith|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Wall, Pat|
|McAllion, John||Wallace, James|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Walley, Joan|
|McCartney, Ian||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Macdonald, Calum A.||Wareing, Robert N.|
|McFall, John||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|McKelvey, William||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|McLeish, Henry||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Maclennan, Robert||Winnick, David|
|McNamara, Kevin||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|McTaggart, Bob||Worthington, Tony|
|McWilliam, John||Wray, Jimmy|
|Young, David (Bolton SE)||Mr. Frank Haynes and|
|Mrs. Llin Golding.|
|Tellers for the Noes:|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the following provisions shall apply to the remaining proceedings on the Bill: