§ 12. Mr. Strang
To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received from the principal Churches in Scotland on the poll tax.
§ Mr. Lang
My right hon. and learned Friend has received a number of such representations. In particular, representations have been made on the impact of non-domestic sewerage charges on churches, church halls, charities and other organisations. I share the concern expressed and I am glad to be able to announce to the House today that we are changing the arrangements so that such bodies which already obtain some relief from non-domestic rates and from water rates will also obtain some relief from non-domestic sewerage rates. I shall be bringing forward proposals shortly. Consultations with COSLA will be put in hand at once.
§ Mr. Strang
Although we welcome that concession, we hope that it will amount to complete exemption for church buildings in the payment of sewerage rates. Will the hon. Gentleman take on board the need to match the 50 per cent. reduction on domestic rates payable on accommodation provided for Church of Scotland ministers and priests with a comparable concession in the poll tax? Surely the hon. Gentleman understands the dramatic effect of the changes on the finances of the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.
§ Mr. Lang
The community charge is, of course, a different system, being a charge for personal services rather than a property tax, and it would not be appropriate to have special arrangements for ministers. However, we have extended the mandatory relief on certain church property from 50 per cent. to 80 per cent., which may help to some extent.
We propose to introduce legislation to reduce to between 50 per cent. and 25 per cent. of net annual value the proportion of rateable value against which the sewerage rate is levied. That arrangement applies at the moment in the context of water rates.
§ Mr. Steel
Is it not a little difficult to know how warmly to welcome this concession until we know—[Interruption.] Will the Minister please listen to me? It is difficult to know how warmly to welcome the concession until we know its exact relation to the charges made before the poll tax was introduced. Can the Minister tell us how much the concession will be worth?
§ Mr. Lang
I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have said "benvenuto". I hope that he will welcome the arrangement. A church in the Lothian region, for 223 example, with a rateable value of £7,000 would currently have sewerage charges of £280, but they might be reduced to £70 under the concession.
§ Mr. Lang
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the inherently greater fairness of the community charge compared with the domestic rating system is self-evident. I am sure that ministers of the Church will come to appreciate that and to agree that it is far more appropriate that personal services provided by local authorities should be paid for by individuals rather than simply on the basis of property.
§ Mr. Canavan
Will the Government consider scrapping the poll tax, which had been described by various Church representatives as an immoral tax, as well as being expensive to administer and difficult to collect? In the light of recent estimates by Scottish local authorities that more than 30 per cent. of people on the poll tax register—well over 1 million people—have failed to pay their first instalment, will the Minister tell us his views on what level of non-payment would be required to force the Government to think again about abolishing this iniquitous tax?
§ Mr. Lang
It is clear from figures provided by local authorities that the level of payment is such as to render the hon. Gentleman's question irrelevant. I am sure that anyone assessing the community charge and taking account of the rebate system—which takes particular account of the needs and circumstances of the low paid, for which more than 1 million applications have been received—would recognise that a broader-based tax, such as the community charge, is a fairer and more appropriate way to pay for local authority services than the rating system that fell on only four out of every 10 adults.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Unlike the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Is he aware that it will be warmly welcomed, not only by the Churches, but by the many community associations that run halls and voluntary organisations? Is he further aware that in my constituency some local halls were faced with an increase in rates of as much as 1,000 per cent., and in some cases a potential increase of 5,000 per cent.? That is the extent of the concession announced by my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on it.
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I believe that my announcement will be widely welcomed throughout Scotland and will be of particular advantage to the Churches, bodies and organisations to which my right hon. Friend referred. The sum involved of £3 million is equivalent to about 2 per cent. of total sewerage charges.
§ Mr. Dewar
I shall refrain from commenting on my hon. Friend's remark.
Does the Minister accept, in general terms, the right of the Churches to speak out against a tax that they believe 224 to be socially divisive and unjust? If so, will he distance himself from the petulant and rather undignified complaints of the chairman of the Scottish Conservative party and the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science about those Churchmen who expressed their concerns about the impact of the poll tax? Is it not right that anyone whose conscience is troubled should protest against a tax that was described by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) as placing on an equal footing in the eyes of the tax collectorthe rich and the poor, the slum dweller and the landed aristocrat, the elderly pensioners living on their limited savings and the most succesful of today's entrepreneurs."—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1141.]
§ Mr. Lang
I certainly agree that it is appropriate for the Church and for members of Churches to express views on a wide range of issues, and no doubt the community charge comes under that category. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's description of the community charge, which clearly takes no account of the extensive rebate system, for which we estimate that some 30 per cent. of the adult population of Scotland may be eligible. It is the rebate system that makes the fairness and generosity of the community charge, taken overall, acceptable. It provides a better and fairer way of paying for the cost of local authorities.