HC Deb 01 February 1989 vol 146 cc282-6
5. Mr. McTaggart

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had from organisations on behalf of disabled persons concerning exemptions from the community charge.

Mr. Lang

My right hon. and learned Friend has received representations from a number of organisations which act on behalf of people with various forms of disability.

Mr. McTaggart

Given the tremendous depth of feeling that exists on this issue, may I ask the Minister to agree that it is an absolute disgrace to differentiate between the severely mentally handicapped, the mentally handicapped and the handicapped to establish who should be exempt from this tax? It is also a disgrace that many of his well-heeled, greedy friends should gain enormously financially from the poll tax. Even at this late stage, will he abolish the tax or at least exempt this disadvantaged group?

Mr. Lang

No. The distinctions have been made on the basis of medical advice and I believe that they are right. A great many of the physically handicapped would resent the implication that they were somehow incapable of playing their full part in public life, including participation in local government matters.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Will the Minister note that under the previous rating system none of the categories mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McTaggart) was exempt and that our system is infinitely more humane than the Labour Government's callous attitude ever was?

Mr. Lang

My hon. and learned Friend is right. We are now spending about £7.3 billion in help for the long-term sick and disabled. That represents a 90 per cent. increase over what was being spent in 1979.

Mr. Andrew Welsh

Will the Minister agree that warrant sales are a barbaric and inhuman procedure? Will he commend Angus district council for issuing a standing instruction banning their use? Given that one poll tax registration officer tried to pursue a warrant sale against an 82-year-old pensioner, will the Minister issue an instruction banning their use against the disabled, the handicapped and anyone else?

Mr. Lang

Nobody welcomes the excessive use of warrant sales, but everyone acknowledges that a need for them exists. I believe that the modification that has taken place as a result of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1988 has improved the situation considerably. I commend Angus district council for its support for the implementation of the community charge.

Mr. Maxton

Will the Minister tell the House which medical advisers have told him that Alzheimer's disease is a fluctuating condition? Is it not morally repugnant that this tax is being imposed on those who are suffering from that disease, those who are mildly mentally handicapped and those who are severely physically handicapped, bed-ridden and in wheelchairs, while at the same time, on 1 April, the Minister and all his friends will receive a large fat increase in the money that they have, because their tax bills will be cut?

Mr. Lang

Many degenerative diseases fluctuate considerably, with periods of lucidity. Alzheimer's disease involves the problem that I described earlier—the difficulty of deciding exactly when it would be appropriate to exempt a particular individual from the provisions of the legislation. The vast majority of the disabled, if on rebate, would be eligible for a considerably enhanced entitlement to rebate in consideration of the disability premiums and allowances to which they are entitled.

6. Mr. Buchanan-Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received regarding the impact of the standard community charge on the tourist industry in rural areas and on agriculture; and if he will make a statement.

8. Mr. Macdonald

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received concerning the effects of the poll tax in rural areas.

Mr. Rifkind

I have received a number of such representations. In response to these, my hon. Friend the Minister of State has today issued a consultation paper proposing that empty farm cottages should remain in rating and hence not become subject to the standard community charge. I am confident that this will be widely welcomed. Copies of the paper have been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

While I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for responding to the representations that I and others have made, and without being in any way ungrateful—I believe that he has done the right thing— may I ask him to extend that sensitivity to houses which are let for holiday purposes? In parts of my constituency, certainly the community charge would hit the development of the tourist trade.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my right hon. Friend for the earlier part of his question. With regard to holiday homes, part of the problem has been caused because most local authorities have insisted on a multiplier of two, when the Act freely enables them to have a multiplier of one. If those authorities were to allow a multiplier of one, as they have a discretion to do, the consequential tax would be halved.

Mr. Macdonald

Will the Secretary of State go one step further and restore the rating concession for crofters? Will he give an update on his 1986 estimate that the loss of the rating concession would cost crofters £500,000? Does he agree that this kind of financial blow to the crofting counties is senseless at a time when of the biggest economic problems facing Britain is the imbalance between regions.

Mr. Rifkind

We gave careful consideration to the position of crofters. The hon. Gentleman, who is an honest man, will be the first to appreciate that it is difficult to suggest that a crofter should be given an advantage over another member of the public who might have the same income. A crofter on low income—[Interruption.] It is not only crofters who sometimes suffer deficiencies in services. A crofter on low income will be entitled to rebate. There is no reason in equity why a crofter with a specific income should be in a different position from any member of the public with the same income.

Mr. Bill Walker

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his helpful reply about empty farm cottages, but will he continue to bear in mind that in areas of Scotland where tourism is a vital and essential part of the local economy it is important that cottages, chalets, and so on, that are let on an ad hoc basis should be recognised as being part of a business and treated in the same way?

Mr. Rifkind

It was for precisely that reason that we gave local authorities the discretion to determine the multiplier to be used. With the exception of Western Isles district council, I believe that all other local authorities have chosen the higher multiplier. If authorities are concerned about the tourist implications in their area, it is open to them to halve the tax liability by using the discretion that Parliament has given to them.

Mr. Canavan

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is blatantly unjust to impose a £50 fine for failure to register on an old-age pensioner suffering from senility, whether that person lives in a rural or urban area, and then to threaten such a person with a warrant sale for failing to pay that fine? Is it not absolutely draconian that sheriff officers——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question is about tourist cottages.

Mr. Canavan

—that sheriff officers in urban or rural areas are allowed to use Tory Government legislation to subject old-age pensioners to such Gestapo-type harassment?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that no old-age pensioner living in a rural or urban area is liable to face any fine through failure to register through genuine confusion, misunderstanding or anything other than deliberate intent.

Mr. Wilson

Will the Minister confirm his views on what I regard as his astonishingly dishonest comment on the second home multiplier?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Not "dishonest" in respect of the Minister.

Mr. Wilson

I will withdraw that word. Will he comment on his astonishingly flexible use of the truth in relation to second homes?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the Scottish Office's calculations of poll tax for each area were based on the assumption of a multiplier of two? Will he confirm that the absurdity of that aspect of the poll tax is highlighted by the fact that the consequence of introducing a multiplier of one on local authorities would have been even more massive savings for those who own the most expensive and palatial second homes in a given area? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that it is now possible for a traveller from Muckle Flugga to Machrihanish to pass through Scotland without encountering one single inch of Scottish territory held by a Tory Member of Parliament? Will he name one local authority in the Scottish rural areas, of any political persuasion, which regards the poll tax as anything but a further disincentive to live in rural areas and a further blow to fragile communities?

Mr. Rifkind

I am bound to say that the hon. Gentleman is getting into a lather with little substance. If rural local authorities believe that the community charge is an imposition on their local communities it is rather surprising that, in almost every case, they are proposing to increase their expenditure substantially and, as a consequence, are fixing community charges that are considerably higher than they would otherwise need to be.

Mr. Maclennan

Does the Secretary of State realise that many people in rural areas with cottages let them for a few weeks in the year? They include not only farmers, who might be covered by the review that he has in mind, but others who will be unable to let their cottages. Such people are having to seek expensive change of use approvals to take the cottages out of taxation. That is a disincentive to tourism and a positive burden on people who, in many cases, are on a low income. Will he extend his consideration of this problem beyond farmers to cover such people?

Mr. Rifkind

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but in the shorter term his best course would be to make representations to the Highland regional council, as it is within its power to reduce substantially the level of tax on such properties. I shall, however, consider what the hon. Gentleman said about the wider issues.

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