§ Mrs. Fyfe
That was a commendably brief answer. Will the Minister nevertheless explain to the women of Scotland why they will have to pay the same amount of poll tax as men when, on average, their earnings are only three quarters as much? How does the Minister justify the joint and several liability provision in the legislation, whereby if a marriage breaks up and the man leaves the home—as commonly happens—the poll tax officers will demand the unpaid poll tax from the woman, regardless of how low her income may be? How does he justify all the other injustices perpetrated on Scottish women by the poll tax?
§ Mr. Lang
The income of a man or woman becomes relevant in the context of an application for a rebate. The vast majority of specific groups such as single pensioners, most of whom are women, or single parent families, most of whom are led by women, will benefit from the community charge.
Joint and several liability provisions have been inserted to protect the woman in a marriage or other partnership who, in many cases has no income, and might otherwise be unable to pay the charge if her partner declined to do so.
§ Mr. Sillars
Will the Minister return to the point that he has just made and answer the question that the Secretary of State for Defence so conspicuously failed to answer on 289 the BBC's "Scottish Question Time"? What happens to a woman whose husband has been responsible for her poll tax, because she has no income, when he leaves her and cannot be found, and she is left with the legal responsibility of joint and several liability?
§ Mr. Nicholas Bennett
Has my hon. Friend read the reported comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) about the community charge in the Communist paper the Morning Star on 17 September last year? She said that if voting did not get people what they wanted they must resist the Government by any means available to them. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not a democratic way of opposing Government policy?
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
I am sure that the women of Scotland will take note of the acid comments of the Minister who is supposed to be responsible for the poll tax in Scotland and for ensuring fairness and justice. It might serve the Conservative party better if he tried to deal honestly with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe).
Women are generally exploited and less well off, and it does not help the Minister to be supported by comments such as those of his hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) on such a serious issue. Women are looking for a response from the Government, but all they are told is that they may not be responsible. What is the Minister doing to help women, who generally do not earn as much as men, to offset the damage inflicted on them by the poll tax?
§ Mr. Lang
As I have said, there is a rebate scheme from which more than 1 million people in Scotland should be eligible to benefit. That is about 30 per cent, of Scotland's adult population. I have cited specific groups in which women predominate and will benefit. In so far as women's interests are a specific feature of the impact of the community charge, we have tried to make provisions for them. For instance, there is provision for women's refuges, and women are entitled to register anonymously if they are in fear of physical violence.
§ Sir Nicholas Fairbairn
Does my hon. Friend understand my confusion that women should suddenly be resurrected by the Socialist party as an identifiable group? I understood that, under all the legislation introduced by the Labour Government, we were supposed to regard each other as persons and that women were not identifiable as a group. As the Lord Provost of Glasgow is a woman, what on earth are we talking about?
§ Mr. Dewar
I fear that we now have evidence that the Minister of State lives in an unreal world.
290 Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, because of longevity, Alzheimer's disease is a particular hazard for women and that many Members have sad family and constituency experience of that disease? Does he recognise that those struggling to help people suffering from Alzheimer's disease will be appalled by the insensitivity of the Government's response? Does he also accept that we are genuinely astonished by the continued exclusion of those suffering from Alzheimer's disease and from other degenerative brain disorders and even more astonished that the ground given is that the disease fluctuates? Will he call for a report on that aspect of the matter and the medical situation from his new chief medical officer, Mr. Kenneth Caiman, and publish that report so that the House can see the basis on which the Government have acted in a mean and mistaken way?
§ Mr. Lang
These matters were fully debated when the Abolition of Domestic Rates etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Local Government Act 1988 went through Parliament.
I readily acknowledge, as I did in my earlier answers, that the subject of degenerative diseases is a sensitive and difficult issue, but, on the best medical advice available to us, we decided that to seek to establish a specific exemption would create more anomalies than leaving the situation as it is, where, in the vast majority of cases, people will either be on rebate, and thus be eligible for a small proportion of the community charge, or in long-stay homes or hospitals.