HC Deb 19 February 1991 vol 186 cc152-204
Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I understand that a large number of hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. In a half-day debate I have no means of controlling the length of speeches, but if hon. Members were to stick to approximately 10 minutes each I should be able to call most, if not all, of them.

3.39 pm
Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)

I beg to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward legislation to abolish the poll tax. The motion invites the House to support a simple proposition. It requires us only to acknowledge what is now widely apparent—that the game is up. The poll tax is now virtually bereft of supporters. There is nothing for it but to acknowledge that a ghastly mistake has been perpetrated and that a new start must now be made.

So that the House can concentrate on that simple point, we have excluded from our motion anything that might be regarded as contentious. We do not argue that the poll tax has proved itself to be hopelessly unfair, though that is now universally admitted. We do not argue that the poll tax has failed to secure the consent of the people and, as a consequence, is widely resisted, though that is now undeniable. We do not argue that it has proved horribly difficult to administer and collect and that the business of maintaining a register has been a nightmare, costing local authorities up to £130 million, according to the local government information unit, as they grapple with 13.5 million changes to the register that affect 38 per cent. of the register in the current year. We do not argue that local government administration, budgeting and delivery of services are near to chaos as a consequence of the poll tax. We do not even argue that the attempt to impose some order on the whole nightmare has meant a perversion of the original rationale of the poll tax. Intervention by central Government to an unprecedented degree has delivered a mortal blow to local government independence.

We do not make those arguments in our motion because they no longer have to be made. They have been established and admitted not just as a result of the attacks on the poll tax by the Government's political opponents—though we should naturally wish to claim some modest credit for that—nor have they been established and admitted by the horrified complaints of local government or the cries of pain from those who have to pay the bills and suffer the cuts in services, though these, too, have all played their part.

The arguments have in fact been made most eloquently by the actions and statements of Conservative Members of Parliament—those hon. Members who stood for election on manifestos that contained commitments to the poll tax, those hon. Members who have been whipped ferociously to ensure their continued support for the poll tax, those hon. Members who, more than anyone else, must recognise all too clearly the political penalties if the poll tax is seen to fail. Yet the condemnation of the poll tax is all the more convincing because it comes from those who were hitherto committed to supporting it.

It comes, first, in the votes cast against the poll tax by Conservative Members of Parliament. No fewer than 66 hon. Members who sit on the Conservative Benches—one fifth of the parliamentary party, one third of the Back Benchers—have defied a three-line Whip and refused to support the poll tax on one occasion or another. They will have the chance again tonight to confirm that decision and to ensure that this time their votes count.

Conservative Members of Parliament have not limited themselves to voting against the poll tax. They have been remarkably fertile in proposing suggestions as to how it could be reformed, amended and changed out of all recognition. Those who have put forward such suggestions have gone well beyond the ranks of the usual poll tax dissidents. Thus, the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) have backed relief for non-working wives. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) supported relief for those under 21. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) recommended an extension of the rebate scheme, and the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) proposed relief for pensioner wives and mothers of young children. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) wanted to extend the rebate taper. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) sought help for the owners of empty houses. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) suggested charging top-rate poll tax payers more. The list is a long one. I could go on for some time yet. No fewer than 43 separate schemes have been put forward from the Conservative Benches to ameliorate the poll tax.

Nor have those hon. Members contented themselves with simply proposing amendments—

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

The hon. Member has listed a catalogue of Conservative Members who have wanted to see some changes in the community charge. Would he care to give the number of his colleagues who have sought to develop an alternative policy?

Mr. Gould

I am delighted to say, in case the hon. Gentleman is unaware of it, that we are in the happy position of being united in support of the policy that we propose, something that I believe the Secretary of State will be unable to boast this afternoon.

Nor have Conservative Members contented themselves with proposing amendments to the poll tax. They have also—usually in the local press—been remarkably quick to distance themselves from the poll tax even when they have demonstrated loyal support for it in votes here at Westminister. Thus the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) told The Reporter and Southampton Guardian: The poll tax has definitely caught Mrs. Thatcher napping—she cannot talk her way out of this totally new policy. It is too much for people to pay". The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) told The Independent: The figures have got worse every time they are revised. We have been led down the garden path". The hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox), who is or was vice-chairman of the Tory party, said to the Daily Mirror: We are punch drunk over this. Mrs. Thatcher must change her mind. Disenchantment with the poll tax now runs wide and deep in the Tory party. I have limited myself to just a small selection of the comments and actions of Conservative Members, but I could equally well have quoted a large number of critics from Tory local government and from the Tory party's organisation and senior staff.

Perhaps the most famous—or should I say the most notorious?—of the Tory party's dissidents is the man who is now Secretary of State. His record in voting against the poll tax is pretty meagre—just one revolt on the question of banding—but he is the undisputed champion when it comes to ideas for reforming and amending the poll tax and changing it beyond recognition. He has been by far the most prolific source of ideas, from requiring councils to submit themselves to a referendum if they spend more than permitted by central Government to surcharging councils in the same circumstances; from halting the withdrawal of the safety net to calculating transitional relief, not according to assumed figures, he tells us, but according to actual figures; and from improving the rebate scheme to exempting student nurses. The ideas have flowed freely.

The right hon. Gentleman's main problem has been that as each idea has bubbled to the surface it has been promptly pricked by a senior colleague. His every idea has been contradicted by senior Tories and on some occasions by a senior Tory called Michael Heseltine. There can be no doubt where the Secretary of State stands: he stands in a fever of indecision. He is assailed by contradictory advice from all sides. He seems to lack the political will or the political skill to persuade his colleagues that any single one of his many ideas could conceivably work.

We know where the Secretary of State would like to stand: at least, I assume that he would like to stand for the abolition of the poll tax. Where he actually stands is a great deal less comfortable—usually on his head and with alarming frequency. So it is that he opposed capping, for very good reasons, and then presided over a major extension of his own capping powers. So it is that he assured us that poll tax would average £380 this year—already a £100 improvement or increase on the similar figure postulated for this year—then immediately conceded, just two days ago, that, in fact, the average will be at least £400. So it is that he proposed to exempt student nurses but has failed to lift a finger to help them or to help other groups such as non-working wives.

So it is that the right hon. Gentleman accepted that the old transitional relief scheme was flawed because it dealt in invented figures, yet has now introduced a scheme with a different name—the community charge reduction scheme—but which is equally flawed because it, too, deals in invented figures. Attached to the very statement in which the right hon. Gentleman misled the House was a list setting out an assumed community charge for every local authority in the country. The consequence is that many thousands of people who have been led to believe that they will benefit from that scheme will find that they are excluded. As the real figures become apparent—in some cases, they are nearly £100 per head higher than the assumed figures—they will find that they have to pay every penny of that difference themselves. Many more thousands will find that the same exclusions that debarred them from the transitional relief scheme will exclude them from help under the new scheme—if they have moved house or if they live in a household of more than two people.

The Secretary of State has offered little, therefore, by way of immediate relief for poll tax payers whose anger and sense of injustice will be felt even more keenly this time round because of those raised and dashed expectations. Many of them will feel that they have been taken for a ride by the Secretary of State and the Government.

In the long term, too, the Secretary of State falls far short of the decisive action that he promised when he was seeking the Tory party leadership. Instead, he is bogged down in a review whose purpose, timing and outcome remain shrouded in mystery. Even his own Prime Minister seems unsure as to when we can expect the conclusions of this famous review. In advance of a speech to the 1922 Committee, journalists were briefed to the effect that the Prime Minister would undertake that the results of the review would be published before the May elections, but before the speech had even been delivered that briefing had been reversed. All that the Prime Minister will do—he did it again today—is to repeat the fatuous and evident absurdity that of course when the review is completed we will have the results. Perhaps the Secretary of State will clear up that confusion this afternoon.

As to what the review is about, the only clue that we are given is the constant recitation of that curious mantra, "Nothing is ruled in; nothing is ruled out". It would perhaps be more accurate to say that everything has in its time been ruled in but that equally everything has in its time been ruled out. One thing only is clear: any solution that retains the poll tax will surely be unacceptable, not least to dozens and scores of Conservative Members.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that recent surveys have shown that, of all the options that have been advanced by hon. Members on either side of the House and by those outside, the most unpopular of all is the Labour party's proposal, in Scotland, of a roof tax?

Mr. Gould

I am afraid that I must flatly contradict the hon. Gentleman. All the polling evidence that I have seen—and I have seen a great deal—shows that the poll tax is by far the least popular option and that a modernised and fair system of rates is the most popular.

We are told that the Secretary of State is now less enthusiastic about transferring education spending to the central Exchequer as a means of keeping the poll tax down. According to today's edition of The Times, another device has now been suggested. Its main purpose is to serve the demands of those idealogues in the Conservative party who will fight to the death to maintain the principle of the poll tax. That solution is said to be a two-tax system—a new property tax to add to a lower-rate poll tax or head tax. That is a nightmare scenario, with all the transitional costs and confusion of moving to a new tax without alleviating the huge administrative burden of keeping the poll tax in place. The problems of the poll tax under such a scheme would not only be retained; they would be doubled—indeed multiplied many times over.

At what level will the new poll tax or head tax be set? If it is set high enough to cover the cost of collection, it will continue to bear heavily and unfairly on those with no income with which to pay it. But if it is set so low as to be a tolerable burden for those with no income, it will cost more to collect than it could conceivably raise in revenue. It is shot through with anomalies.

Floor space is the crudest of measures and bears little relationship to the ability to pay. The addition of an element of personal taxation is a recipe for family discord. It is two taxes dressed up as one—a twin tax torture. It is a head tax and a floor tax rolled into one—a catch-you-at-both-ends tax and a top-to-toe tax. It counts the number of bedrooms in one's house and then adds the number of people who eat breakfast there—a bed-and-breakfast tax. It is doomed to disappoint all those who hoped for a fair and rational system of local government taxation.

My conclusion is that the Secretary of State needs help. To be fair, he has already sought help. His only escape from his dilemma appears to be his offer to others to share his dilemma. His offer of consultation was not, however, all that it might have been. A genuine offer would have been preceded by some informal contact and accompanied by suggestions about a serious agenda, machinery for consultation and a time table.

We have heard nothing from the Secretary of State along those lines. We simply cannot be drawn into a process, the likely outcome of which is that the Secretary of State will say "Thank you for your interesting ideas; we are delighted to see how closely they accord with our own. We are pleased, therefore, that you will support them when they appear in the Tory manifesto". Alternatively, he will say, "Thank you for your interesting ideas. We have now put them through our computers, had the civil servants crawl all over them, and we are sorry to say that they are hopelessly impractical".

The rather naive Liberal Democrat Members now have good reason to know how fully they fell into that trap. We shall not be drawn into a process, the likely outcome of which may still be to prop up the poll tax. That would be to betray literally millions of people who look to the Labour party, above all, to sweep away the poll tax as soon as it gains office. It is here that the Secretary of State needs help, not from us but from his own party. He lacks the will or skill to prevail on his own. As matters stand, the idealogues will force him to retain the poll tax against his better judgment.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

As the hon. Gentleman believes that our local income tax proposals have been afforded a great deal of scrutiny and consultation, will he now say precisely how the Labour party scheme works so that we may know whether it is a viable alternative?

Mr. Gould

Rather than delay the House, I shall recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he should read the full proposals that we published at the end of July.

Our motion provides the opportunity for all Conservative Members who have openly expressed or secretly harboured hostility to the poll tax to ensure that the Secretary of State's hand is strengthened and that a clear message is sent to the Cabinet to the effect that, whatever else is proposed, the poll tax must go. There will be no prospect of sanity and common sense until it has been abolished, and a vote for our motion tonight could end the misery. It would end the misery of local authorities which are caught up in chaos and confusion, the misery of millions of poll tax payers who are worried sick about how to pay this year's bills, and the misery of the Secretary of State, who cannot escape the insistence of his colleagues that the poll tax should remain; and, most of all for Conservative Members, their votes tonight would end the misery of the Tory party that arrogantly and mistakenly imposed a wicked and unfair tax and now has one last chance to admit its mistake.

If the Secretary of State will have the courage and honesty to say now what he said so eloquently from the Back Benches, we can sit down and consider sensibly what should replace the poll tax. We are ready: we have published our proposals and put them on the table. The question is now a simple one: will Conservative Members have the courage and wisdom to admit their mistake, set about putting it right, and bring the nightmare to an end?

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'welcomes the Government's thorough review of the functions, structure and finance of local government; notes that the Government has provided for a substantial increase in Aggregate External Finance for 1991–92; and welcomes the introduction of the Community Charge Reduction Scheme which will provide £1.7 billion extra help in England for those former rate payers, the elderly and the disabled who have faced the biggest increases in their contributions to the cost of local services.'. Perhaps the House will understand that the first task that fell to me as Secretary of State in conducting the review with which the Prime Minister entrusted me was to look at the issues that could be immediately addressed in the context of the settlement for the next financial year. The House will be all too familiar with the constraints that the need for primary legislation to change the existing framework imposed on any review. There were bound to be specific sectors of concern and I shall say a word or two about a number of them, particularly the liability of service men in the Gulf, in the light of recent legal decisions.

I know that many hon. Members are concerned about the service men and women in the Gulf and their treatment with regard to the community charge. In an earlier debate, I promised to provide further guidance on that subject. It is likely that last Thursday's judgment in the Anderton case, dealing with the sole and main residence of a merchant seaman, has implications for the advice that we gave local authorities last November, and which we would have updated in the further guidance. We have yet to receive the final terms of the High Court judgment, and yet to consider the full implications.

In our view, service personnel and associated civilians posted to the Gulf should not have to pay the personal community charge during the period of their posting. If detailed study of the judgment shows it to be necessary, we shall take appropriate steps to ensure that they do not have to do so, either by legislation or by other means. I am grateful that the Opposition have already made it clear that if we do take such legislation, we shall receive their support.

Mr. Gould

I happily confirm our earlier assurance. Will the Secretary of State make it clear that the dispensation he mentioned will apply to all service men and women, irrespective of where they are based in the Gulf and will extend, particularly, to merchant seamen? Will he also make it clear that the Government will recompense local authorities for any loss of revenue that they suffer as a result?

Mr. Heseltine

The assurances that I have given apply to all those involved in the military endeavours in the Gulf, and I announced on an earlier occasion that it applies to auxiliaries as well as to the professional services. However, it does not apply to those who are engaged in the normal pursuit of their careers as merchant seamen. We are dealing with people who are involved in the Gulf endeavour and I must carefully ring-fence that particular arrangement.

Mr. Gould

It is important that we should try to make this point clear, because many thousands of merchant seamen and their families will want to know the answer to this question. Is the Secretary of State excluding merchant seamen as a category, or does he accept that some merchant seamen will be present in the Gulf in a supporting role to the military effort and they will be included in the scheme?

Mr. Heseltine

Of course, if they have been involved in the Gulf as a consequence of Gulf activities, they will come within the assurances that we have given. In what I said earlier, I was referring specifically to merchant seamen pursuing their normal activities. They would not come within the context of the announcement that I have made.

The second issue about which I am concerned—and this covers a point raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould)—relates to those local authorities where service men represent a significant proportion of their charge payers. Those authorities face a drop in their community charge income when troops are sent to the Gulf. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) has raised that issue with me extremely forcefully and he in particular made representations about the effect on the authority with which he is concerned. We have therefore announced this afternoon a scheme to provide grants for the authorities most affected to compensate them for loss of income. I know that that extra Government help will be warmly welcomed in the areas concerned.

Mr. Gould

I am sorry to bother the Secretary of State again on this point, but it is important that we get it as clear as possible. The phrase that the Secretary of State just used was a little opaque. He referred to grants to cover the authorities most affected. Is he not prepared to make it clear that, as a consequence of this scheme, he will recompense every authority for all loss of revenue suffered?

Mr. Heseltine

I do not believe that my statement was opaque. Some authorities have very limited numbers of service men within their areas and they would not be outwith normal movements that one would expect in normal circumstances. We have introduced a scheme to deal with authorities in which a significant number of local inhabitants have been moved as a result of troop dispositions. I have no doubt that once the details of the scheme have been examined, and in the light of consultation with the authorities concerned, the House will be satisfied that we have dealt with the matter effectively.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the sense of relief felt by service men who are serving in the Gulf and their families and by the electors in places like Rushmoor, which is Aldershot and Farnborough combined, who faced a notional additional charge of £14 a head. My right hon. Friend knows that he is always welcome in Aldershot and never more so than when he comes to speak to the local Tory party in May.

Mr. Heseltine

On that occasion I shall be able to explain to the electors in that constituency that, were it not for the persistent pleas of my hon. Friend, they might not have gained the benefits that I have announced this afternoon.

I announced the details of the community charge reduction scheme some time ago and I am the first to recognise that, as it must take into account the level of the community charge that is set for next year, it is not possible in advance of that to be precise about the exact quantification of benefit that will flow to individual charge payers in each local authority. However, it is possible to identify the indications, and examples can be given in general terms.

In gross terms, about £1.7 billion will go to more than 18 million people in England. When we turn that sum of money into individual cases, it will be clear to anyone who has made the calculations that a couple living in a previously averagely rated house in Lancaster, for example, could see a reduction of nearly £300 in their joint liability next April if their local authority sets its community charge at the same level as this year. We have a very important responsibility to bring home to large numbers of people precisely how much help will be available. I know that all my right hon. and hon. Friends will take it specifically on themselves to spell out locally exactly what that means.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the nightmare of the poll tax has meant that hundreds of thousands of young people—some in my constituency—are refusing to pay? Does he recognise the implications of driving that number of young people into illegality? Should not some special concession be introduced? Are those people to remain in debt for many years to come? They form a sensitive age group.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is fully aware that the provisions in legislation cover the age groups to which he has referred. There is no way in which they can be excluded in the absence of primary legislation to deal with the issue. All over the country, many young people recognise the force of the law and are paying their bills. Those who are not paying are, doubtless, fully aware that some Labour Members are encouraging others not to pay. There is no justification for individual hon. Members to assume that they are above the law of the land.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Heseltine

You have asked us to make progress, Mr. Speaker. This is a short debate and many hon. Members wish to speak.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I support what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Many hon. Members wish to participate. Some of them now seek to intervene. That will not help their chances to make speeches later.

Mr. Heseltine

The community charge reduction scheme does not, as I have said, apply only to many people in general. Specific additional relief has been give to those living in sheltered housing. That is additonal to the scheme that we announced for poll tax payers generally. In addition, we were able to exclude certain people who were living in property that came within the definition of "charitable". The scheme was the first response of the review. It is a comprehensive scheme which will bring significant benefits to many millions of people. It was, perhaps, in advance of the expectations of what we might do in such a short time. Perhaps the indignation of the hon. Member for Dagenham is a sign of his growing awareness of just how many people are likely to benefit from what we have already done.

The hon. Member for Dagenham also questioned meabout the review. It has been under way for only a few weeks and it would have been wholly unrealistic to assume that we would come to conclusions about so complex a matter in so short a time. We have made significant progress in a wide range of detailed examinations into function, structure and finance. We have now reached a point where we are able to begin to decide those options with which we may not wish to proceed. As I said recently to the House, I hoped that by April, I should be able to narrow the focus of attention—[Interruption.] I find it extraordinary that I am urged by the Opposition Front Bench to speed up the review, yet the moment I agree to do so there is a baying of indignation from Labour Members. They are obviously frightened that we might do just that and that they will not be pleased with our conclusions. The Opposition will not deter us from moving on with the expedition that the matter requires.

Anyone who has the slightest doubt about the real views of the Opposition and about the timing involved in such a complex matter may have had the chance to listen to the hon. Member for Dagenham speaking on the "World This Weekend" last Sunday. When asked about the whole question of timing, he answered: what we propose is that we should deal with the problem in stages—that it's futile to think that we can achieve all that is necessary overnight. However, when the hon. Gentleman comes to the House, he assumes that the Government can do precisely what he said could not be done. It is entrancing to note the speed with which the hon. Member for Dagenham has moved his position. I remind him of what he said about a year ago, when he was involved in this review—[Interruption.]

Mr. Campbell-Savours

What did the right hon. Gentleman say, at that time?

Mr. Heseltine

If the hon. Gentleman is not careful, I shall tell the House what Labour Members were saying a year earlier than that. That makes the position even more complicated. When the hon. Member for Dagenham was asked about this complex business, he said: we are making very good progress with the work that we have undertaken to prepare our alternative…We have every confidence that in the coming months we shall reach a conclusion that we shall be able to bring forward with confidence."—[ Official Report, 18 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 438–39.] Two months later he was asked who would pay under Labour's new system, to which he replied: that's the one issue we have yet to decide…We will reach a decision very shortly. He said that on 27 March 1990, but we still have no idea who will pay under Labour's proposals.

Mr. Gould

The Secretary of State cannot be allowed to get away with that complete misstatement. I am disappointed—if it is the case, since the right hon. Gentleman has a reputation for not reading his papers—that, as we published a full statement of our proposals in a document entitled "Fair Rates," which I passed across the Dispatch Box at the end of July, he has not yet read that statement. Not having read it, he will not necessarily have understood our proposals. I recommend him to read the paper because in it he will find the answers he seeks.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is helpful in inviting me to go on giving what he must regard as uncomfortable quotations, for, although he tries to say what he would like us to believe, he gave a much clearer indication about a month after making the statement that I quoted last, when he said—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

What did the right hon. Gentleman say when he was on the Back Benches?

Mr. Heseltine

As the hon. Member for Dagenham interrupted me to say that I had misquoted him, I am surely in order in trying to put the record right. He said that people would be given plenty of information in good time so that they will have some idea of what the relative size of their bill will be. Labour's "Fair Rates" document was published in July 1990. It outlined a range of proposals for a property tax, but it gave no indication of how much anybody would pay.

What I found most revealing about the remarks of the hon. Member for Dagenham this afternoon was that he criticised the Liberal party for being prepared to talk to me, when he was frightened that his proposals would be put through the computer and that the facts might emerge. So now we know that at least the Liberals have a policy in which they have confidence, that the Scottish Nationalists and Welsh Nationalists have policies in which they have confidence, but that the Labour party has a policy in which it has no confidence—[Interruption.]—and that has been revealed all too clearly.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

My right hon. Friend's proposals for relief for those who have been hit by the community charge will be most welcome. Does he agree that the most important question now for the occupants of the Labour Front Bench is whether they will condemn those in the community who are refusing to pay the community charge, in particular Labour Members who are law-breakers?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend is of course—

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall call the hon. Lady to raise a point of order in view of a misunderstanding that occurred earlier.

Ms. Primarolo

During Prime Minister's Question Time, I asked a question—[Interruption.] I urge Conservative Members to listen for a moment. They should calm down. I asked a question about the extension to other deserving cases of the poll tax exemptions. In the baying and braying that goes on during Question Time, the Prime Minister said that I had not paid my poll tax. Unfortunately for the right hon. Gentleman, he was wrong in that statement. For the future, may I urge all right hon. and hon. Members who utter such comments in the Chamber to check their facts?

Mr. Speaker

I allowed the hon. Lady to make that point of order to put the record straight because I believe that most of those in the Chamber at the time took her nod to be a negative, but it was evidently a positive.

Mr. Heseltine

Let me say at once how much I admire the hon. Lady for having complied with the law. Although I am not saying that she feels exactly as indignant as I do about the fact that so many of her right hon. and hon. Friends have not paid their poll tax, I must advise her that the only effect that that can have is that her constituents will be likely to find their costs rising because others do not pay.

I return to what has now been so clearly revealed about the difficulties of the Opposition in this matter. It should not be a great surprise to my hon. Friends because when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) was responsible for the Labour party's local government policies, he described his party's dilemma with admirable clarity when he said: I'm saying to the NEC policy makers, I'm saying 'Hang on a minute, what's our policy on local government?…Putting it at its boldest, we haven't got a policy, that's the actual truth Time has marched on, but the policy making has not.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)


Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman has popped up, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Rooker

The Secretary of State should make it clear that he is quoting from an article in The Independent of September 1987, which was true because our consultation process and policy formulation on local government had been interrupted during the general election. The article then stated—the Secretary of State will not have the guts to read this out—that my party was being the more honest about local government by admitting that we were going back to square one to look for a better way of funding local government.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman has made my point. There is a gap, a ravine, between us, but this process takes time. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we shall reach conclusions that people will understand, but, three years on, the Opposition still have not done so.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. What is the point of order?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to read the motion and the amendment that are on the Order Paper? Will you ensure, as you normally do, that right hon. and hon. Members keep to the motion and the amendment? The Secretary of State is debating a matter that is not on the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

The Secretary of State is addressing himself to the Government amendment.

Mr. Heseltine

By this time, I am sure that the House is beginning to share my acute anxiety for the hon. Member for Dagenham as he finds himself—

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)


Mr. Heseltine


The hon. Member for Dagenham is now facing increasing difficulties defending the position of Labour authorities which consistently overcharge at local level. As the House knows—because I have read it into the record previously—we now have the clearest indication that in all classes of local authority—the London authorities, the metropolitan districts, the shire districts, and in England as a whole—the fact is that, when stripped of the safety net, Labour authorities consistently set higher poll tax charges than all other political parties. The evidence is not only a matter of history—the evidence is there for the coming year. This week's Municipal Journal gives the figures for the counties. Only three of the 22 counties that are controlled outright by the Conservatives or by the Conservatives in conjunction with other parties have set their budgets above their SSA, whereas all but three of the 13 authorities where the Labour party is in charge or in joint control have exceeded the level of their SSA. Again, it is the old, old story—

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)


Mr. Heseltine


The next difficulty for the hon. Member for Dagenham is that, in order to justify his talks, he has to talk in terms of cuts when all hon. Members are fully aware that there are no cuts. The Government have been responsible for injecting an additional £4.25 billion of central support to keep down the level of charges this year. If the Labour party claims to be fit to be the Government of this country, it ought to tell the people just how much above £4.25 billion it believes that a national economy can stand in any one year. But it cannot do that.

The next argument with which we are all too familiar is that all the changes bring about dramatic cuts. There is an annual ritual of claiming that cuts will have to be made. Yet time and again the anticipated cuts that we hear about do not materilise when the budgets are set. Last year we were told that the Government's proposals would have the most serious implications in many authorities; but charges broadly within acceptable levels were introduced and the cuts disappeared. Economies were found without great difficulties.

The hon. Member for Dagenham has now taken to suggesting that the assumptions on which we based the community charge reduction scheme were ill founded. He suggests that we are working on some notional calculation, as opposed to the actual calculations on which the scheme is based. He managed to put out a document which suggested that 26 authorities are in significant excess of the figures that we estimated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) said that if local authorities set their charge in line with the Government's assessment of what they needed to spend, the charge would be £380. The list published by the hon. Member for Dagenham included 26 authorities, 13 of which had set their charges at £380 or, indeed, less. The hon. Gentleman reveals clearly that he has not understood the essence of our announcement.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Secretary of State is speaking, three of his hon. Friends have fallen asleep. Will you ask the Serjeant at Arms to check the ventilation in the House to find out whether it is detrimental to the health of us all?

Mr. Speaker

That is one of the common accusations made in this place. Sometimes when there is some noise, hon. Members lean their head sideways towards the amplifiers.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Member for Dagenham failed to understand that we took as the basis of our assumptions the actual community charges for the current year but that we had to adjust them to take account of the safety net. It is obvious that we would not have established a community charge reduction scheme in which the safety net was included. So we adjusted the figure for the actual charge, net of the safety net. In some cases that meant that we increased the assumption on which the benefits are provided. It is apparent to anyone who examines them that the figures produced by the hon. Gentleman show that our assumptions are largely accurate. The figures for the list of authorities support everything that we have said, even on the hon. Gentleman's calculations.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one fundamental thing which the British public understand is that any fool can spend money but that it takes a lot more ability to spend it well and that that is what local authorities should do? If he takes the opportunity in his busy day to examine Lancashire county council, which is Labour controlled, he will find that the authority commissioned a report from the consultants P and A, who advised it that its social services were expensive and badly delivered and recommended a series of alterations to the service. The authority totally neglected those recommendations and a poor service to the public is continuing as a result. That authority continues to increase its spending well above the rate of inflation. Perhaps not only my right hon. Friend but the voters of Ribble Valley will take note of that.

Mr. Heseltine

I have not the slightest doubt that my hon. Friend is right in saying that well-managed Conservative local government is much more likely to give value for money to its electors and will continue to do so.

The last area of increasing embarrassment is the failure of the hon. Member for Dagenham to take part in the consultation process to which we have invited him. Undoubtedly there was a chance there for the Labour party to measure up to the responsibilities of a national party genuinely interested in a constructive debate. I could not have asked for greater evidence of its reasons for doubt than the speech by the hon. Member for Dagenham who said that he did not take part in consultations because he was frightened that we would put his figures through the computer. That is the greatest giveaway of all time. He will not put his figures through the computer because he does not know the implications of the scheme on which he is campaigning.

The hon. Gentleman blames us for taking our time in a thorough review to get these matters right. We will take what time is necessary for that comprehensive review and will come forward with policies which we believe are right and on which we can secure the support of the British people. We will not fall into the Labour party. trap of producing words without facts to underline them. It is quite apparent that the Opposition are more interested in raising the anxieties of the British people than in contributing to a constructive debate. That is why my right hon. and hon. Friends will vote against the motion.

4.31 pm
Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

Notwithstanding his robust peroration, I hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment will forgive me when I say that he was rather longer on history than on contemporary facts. In a lengthy career in the House, I do not recall a Minister making it clearer that he had been given a distasteful brief, that he was speaking to a case which he found difficult to argue, and that altogether he would have preferred a different job if one had been on offer.

I propose to follow the Secretary of State in not referring to any of the facts of higher national finance, but I shall do so for a rather different reason. I want to tell a simple parish-pump story because the poll tax is about parish pumps. At this time of year, most councils consider their budgets for the forthcoming year. The rate of tax in Sandwell in the west midlands was announced at the end of last week. It will be £459—an increase of £36 over last year.

Colleagues and I who know Sandwell have spoken many times in the House about its problems. By any possible criterion and on any possible perception, it has more than its fair share of problems. It has all the difficulties of an inner city, although an accident of history has meant that it is not an inner city and so has missed much of the help that would otherwise be available. The increase in poll tax will not be warmly welcomed by the people of Sandwell. The blow will not be cushioned when they discover that even that figure has been achieved only by the imposition of further cuts in public services.

I shall offer the Secretary of State a few facts about Sandwell in case he is not as familiar with them in his new job as he may be later. He will not be surprised to learn that the amount available from Government grants and industry taken together, the jargon for which is aggregate external finance, has increased by 8.7 per cent. The gratitude of the people of Sandwell is tempered a little by three reflections. The first is that inflation is running at 10.5 per cent. The second is that that increase did not come from the Government at all. In fact, total Government grants, in absolute terms, have decreased. In the forthcoming year, the figure will be £200,000 less than that for the current year.

The whole increase, plus the deficiency that had to be made up, came from the uniform business rate. Not a day passes when I do not receive correspondence from business men in my area saying that there have never been so many businesses calling in the receiver, that never has unemployment in Sandwell risen in such a way. In December of last year unemployment in the west midlands rose by 8.8 per cent. Business men are saying, "Here we are, having to look at all our overheads in order to be able to stay in business, yet we are making payments for which councils might otherwise have looked to the Government."

For the Secretary of State, the good news—if the absence of bad news can count as good news—is that the poll tax rate that has been set has been achieved because, in the forthcoming year, poll tax payers in Sandwell will not pay a contribution of £26 per head by way of relief for more affluent areas. Over the last 12 months their hardship was aggravated by the fact that they were contributing to the safety net—something that, traditionally, has been regarded as the responsibility of the Government.

The third reflection is that the figure has been increased as a result of provision for people who have not paid. This afternoon we have heard a little from the Government side on that theme. At present the non-collection rate in Sandwell is running at 25 per cent. That does not indicate a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the council to collect; indeed, it is despite a sequence of reminders, final notices, summonses, liability orders, seven-day letters and information requests. Admittedly, some of the people who have not paid are those who are always prepared to take a free ride. Every area has a number of such people. Furthermore, some people are using non-payment as a means of protest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said, the Government have succeeded in turning people who are normally law abiding to the point of conformism into people who are prepared to go outside the law as a means of protest.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Archer

I shall give way in a moment, but, lest the hon. Gentleman forestall the point that I am making, I shall first complete it.

I hold no brief for those who are refusing to pay. I believe that the impact of their protest is felt not by the Government but by their own neighbours in Sandwell.

Mr. Wilshire

Will the hon. Gentleman make it absolutely clear that the free riders whom he denunciates include his hon. Friends who are setting a bad example by breaking the law and thereby indicating that the Labour party believes in law breaking?

Mr. Archer

Of course I am happy to make that absolutely clear. I have already said that I hold no brief for those who do not pay their poll tax. But the hon. Gentleman has failed to notice that I made a distinction between free riders and those who, as a mistaken form of protest, choose not to pay their poll tax. The two categories are not necessarily the same. One of the tragedies is that people in my area who, two or three years ago, would have been horrified at the suggestion that they might go outside the law are now doing exactly that because they think—misguidedly, I believe—that that is a proper form of protest. This is not a record of which any Government ought to be proud.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would wish to include in his perfectly correct denunciation of the non-payment campaigns an interesting movement which is growing in Scotland and which will undoubtedly be seen in the south before very long. I refer to the Tory non-payers—leading figures in the Conservative party, holding office bestowed by the party, who are inciting Tories in Scotland not to pay that portion of the poll tax that they believe to be due to non-collection. In so doing, those people make no attempt to differentiate, as my right hon. and learned Friend rightly does, between wilful non-payment by people who are perfectly able to pay and the vast majority of non-payment, which is endemic in the tax itself. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in condemning the Tory non-payers? I am sure that he would like to hear from the Government Front Bench a denunciation of that form of non-payment.

Mr. Archer

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I could show him letters from my constituents who say that they have always voted Conservative but do not intend to pay the poll tax, and the reply that I send to them is precisely the same as the one I send to everyone else.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that many hundreds of thousands of people who cannot pay and who do not go to court are the very people who should go to court and have someone to speak on their behalf? Of 1,000 cases in Caernarfon last Tuesday, only 40 were present and they were people who refused to pay as a matter of principle and who sought to make their views known in court. Those issues need to be heard in court.

Mr. Archer

The hon. Gentleman has forestalled something that I was about to say.

The majority of those in Sandwell who have not paid do not fall into either category—the free riders or the protesters. They are people who, as the hon. Gentleman said, cannot pay. Hardly a surgery passes when I do not have someone in tears because they have never failed to pay a debt, they have never owed a halfpenny, but they do not know how they will pay their poll tax. Every post brings letters to the same effect.

The council must draw a sensitive line between enforcing payment and adding to the hardships of those who already have too many. It may be because councils are reluctant to enforce the poll tax where they know there is hardship that we do not hear about such cases.

In the coming year Sandwell council will have to make allowance for those who will not pay—

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the appalling situation of some of those in receipt of benefit who see money diverted to the poll tax leaving them on a low level of support after they have paid what is necessary by way of rent, the poll tax and so on? Many who are paying the poll tax find themselves in abject poverty in the process.

Mr. Archer

It is not always those who have not paid their poll tax but those who have who pose the problem. If time permitted, I would have elaborated on that, but Mr. Speaker has enjoined us to be brief.

Many now qualify for some transitional relief, and I hope that some of the ill-thought-out anomalies with which we have lived for the past 12 months are being ironed out. I wrote to the Secretary of State, as he may remember, about a student in my constituency. When that student was at school, his family received child benefit. He finished school on 5 September and began a course at university on 3 October. At that time, he qualified for relief. For all common-sense purposes, he had been in full-time education throughout, but because the poll tax is calculated on a daily basis, during that month neither he nor his family received any relief.

The Secretary of State sent me a kind reply to my letter. I do not know whether it will assist the right hon. Gentleman with his party, but his letter was rather warmer than might have been wise. However, I shall not publish it in detail. But the right hon. Gentleman admitted that that case represented an "administrative untidiness". He said: Should the opportunity occur in the future, we will carefully consider what can be done to simplify this area of legislation. I hope that he and his hon. Friends will do exactly that. But we are not asking for simplicity, although, in any administration, that is devoutly to be wished for. We are asking for justice. Many anomalies need to be ironed out.

In the coming year more will qualify. But, as the criterion adopted by the Government depends on former rate bills and when people last moved, most hon. Members will have a succession of callers at their advice bureaux asking why they are paying more than Mr. So-and-So when there is no real difference in their financial positions. That is the irony of the situation.

Sandwell council calculates that 80 per cent. of families in the area will qualify for some form of transitional relief. That is the ultimate confession of confusion. Any burden imposed by a Government should be flexible and make provision for those who cannot bear it. There will normally be some exceptional cases, but if those exceptional cases amount to 80 per cent. that amounts to the logic of "Alice through the Looking-glass". It is an admission that the general principle is in chaos.

The council has been realistic in recognising that, despite all its effort, it is prudent to make provision for a 10 per cent. non-payment during the current year and next year, and that has added £60 to every poll tax payer's bill. That will cause resentment, which I for one certainly understand. However, I suspect that that resentment may sometimes be directed at the wrong people. If it were directed at the right people, it would be directed at those who introduced the scheme. But it certainly will not make for that harmonious community for which many of us have worked so hard for so many years.

The final fact of which the Government should be aware and with which the residents of Sandwell will have to live is that the figure of £459 has been achieved only by cuts in local services. The Government have attempted to raise unrealistic expectations by referring to an average poll tax of £380. That is a cruel joke because they must have known that for most councils that would have entailed further cuts, and it would have assumed 100 per cent. collection, with no non-payers. Last year the Government indicated expectations in Sandwell which, had they been implemented, would have entailed a 10 per cent. cut in teaching staff, a reduction in street cleaning and lighting, a cut in the warden service for the elderly, the end of catering concessions for senior citizens, the closing of every public convenience in the borough and many other privations.

The council did not encompass so draconian a solution, but it did have to impose substantial cuts last year. A further reduction of £1.8 million will be required this year in the education budget, a 3 per cent. cut in technical services, further job losses by council employees in an area where job losses are already increasing and where there are more than enough, and there will be further complaints that the quality of life in Sandwell has fallen yet further.

I have some sympathy with the position in which the Secretary of State finds himself, and I can well believe that other problems exist which he would prefer to address. But there is only one way to rectify this position—a confession that the whole concept of the poll tax was a ghastly mistake and to listen to what Opposition Members have been saying for the past two years.

4.49 pm
Sir William Shelton (Streatham)

I want the House to hear me on behalf of my constituents who live in Lambeth. This is indeed a cry from the heart. The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) has described the stress that is caused to his constituents. I wish that in Streatham we had the problems that he seems to have in Warley, West.

In my constituency the community charge is capped at £521 per head. The anxiety and the despair of people who are driven to break the law for the first time in their lives can be imagined. Their despair springs from the introduction of the community charge, but by heavens, it is aided and abetted by the incompetence and gross overspending of Lambeth council.

As to incompetence, the low recovery of community charge in Lambeth is not so much due to refusal to pay, although the leader of Lambeth council has announced that she has refused to pay; it is more due to the incompetence of the council. By the end of August, 39,000 bills had not been issued. By the end of November, 13,000 bills had not been issued—let alone reminders. I am talking about the initial bills. The chairman of my Conservative association has still not received a demand; I cannot believe that that is because of political favouritism. By mid December, £32 million out of an expected total of £64 million had been recovered—a recovery rate of 50 per cent., not so much because of refusal to pay but because many people had not received bills. That shows gross incompetence.

I shall give the House two small examples. A constituent wrote to me: Unfortunately the situation has become rather out of hand with payment books arriving on a daily basis. To my knowledge we are now in receipt of at least 18 different booklets, all requesting different amounts.

Mr. Wigley

That is not uncommon.

Sir William Shelton

The hon. Gentleman clearly lives in Lambeth.

There is a block of 10 flats in my constituency with an address of 76 such-and-such road; I will not name the road. One letter arrived from the council, addressed to "The Occupier", with one community charge form in it—another example of inefficiency.

The council is guilty of gross overspending. The spending forecast, as far as I know because it is difficult to find the figures, is £345 million for 1991–92. The capping level is £307 million, so there is a gap of £38 million. That is despite a very generous settlement; total external support from the Government is £268 million, the highest settlement of all inner and outer London boroughs.

In addition, it is calculated that further provision will probably have to be made for such things as bad debts and the ending of the pension fund holiday which the council has been running for some years. The gap will probably be over £50 million which, uncapped, would give a community charge not of £521 but of about £800. Of course, I expect the charge to be capped, but how can one cap a borough and remove £30 million from its expenditure, let alone £50 million, and still give my constituents adequate services? I do not see how the circle can be squared. I support we shall win a compromise. The community charge will be £600, £550 or £650, and once again services will get worse.

Mr. Wilson

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great interest and sympathy. He has been informative about conditions in Lambeth. Will he acknowledge that in other parts of the country it is possible for the poll tax to rise by 30 to 35 per cent. and at the same time for cuts of tens of millions of pounds to be made, not because of incompetence or the non-issue of bills, but because of the mechanism of the poll tax and particularly its gearing effect, which means that everything is piled on to the poll tax because the local authority has no control over any other source of revenue? I am happy to accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. Will he accept what I say?

Sir William Shelton

I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman says. The poll tax is highly geared, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that when my constituents in Lambeth look around, they look to Wandsworth next door, which rides along with a poll tax of £148. The services there are better. I hear that Wandsworth will have a vast explosion in its community charge next year to something like £170. That is the direction in which my constituents look.

I welcome very much my right hon. Friend's community charge reduction scheme. I spoke to the private office of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) which was very helpful. As a result, I issued a press release containing figures which I am sure are right because they were given to me by his office. Two community charge payers living in the same place since March 1990, on average rates, will receive between them £470; that will rise to £730. That is very much to be welcomed, and I am grateful for it. Clearly that cannot be a long-term solution, as the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West said. One cannot go on paying such amounts year after year.

What is to be done? I know that my right hon. Friend is very much enmeshed in the matter. Indeed, I wrote to him in December. The proposition which I put to him was for a minimum community charge plus some form of property tax. However, on reflection, I realise that a minimum community charge would cost the same to raise as the present community charge; I understand that the collection cost runs at 3 per cent. If the community charge was knocked down to an average of £100 or so, the cost of collection would be outrageous.

I read today's report in The Times with great interest. Whether it is true, I do not know. The House knows what is suggested—a property tax by floor area plus a personal premium. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who is no longer in his place, was very rude about it, but I like it. I would certainly support it; indeed I will not conceal from my right hon. Friend that I would support almost anything rather than the community charge. I like that proposal because it still has a measure of accountability and I warmly welcome it, if it is true.

However, neither that proposal nor a local income tax would solve the problem of my constituents due to the incompetence and overspending of Lambeth council. For instance, if we had a property tax with a personal charge, I guess that a one-bedroom or studio apartment in Lambeth would have a tax of £2,000 a year. I do not know what the charge would be, but it would be outrageous.

If I may give my ideas, gained from what I might call the Lambeth experience which I have endured for some years, I would urge on my right hon. Friend—I know he has this in mind—to seek major reductions in local government provision. It is wrong to draw conclusions from a single experience, but my experience has led me to doubt the efficiency of local government. Hon. Members may have very efficient local government in their areas, but that is not the case in Lambeth. Reductions in provision simplify the duties and ask less from local government.

I ask my right hon. Friend to agree with our right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) and to make schools grant maintained, controlled not by Whitehall, but by the schools. Incidentally, there is something in that because there is a rumour in Lambeth that the council intends to raid the budget for other purposes. The SSA for education is £125 million, plus the transitional grant of £6.3 million, making £131 million. I am told that Lambeth is seeking to set an education budget of £111 million and wishes to use the rest perhaps to make the area more nuclear-free, or something like that.

Cannot we reduce the responsibilities placed on these local councillors who have a job to do, most of them in their spare time? Lambeth employs 19,000 people. How can anyone employ 19,000 people in their spare time? What about local government social services? I understand that there are two or three experiments in which a trust has been set up to run the local social services. Perhaps this could be looked at. There are also the police, fire and ambulance services to be considered.

My constituents are genuinely in real need and l feel deeply concerned about it. I seek help for them from my right hon. Friend and from the Government. I ask them to lift from my constituents the burden that they are suffering, placed upon them by Lambeth council.

5.2 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) when he says that almost anything would be better than the present poll tax, but we Liberal Democrats have some sympathy with that view. The only thing I would say to him is that if one were to cut the services that councils are required to provide there is always the risk that one ends up paying for nothing but bureaucracy and inefficiency, and that might be even less popular. One of the ways in which local authorities can be controlled is to make them more democratic and, while I have heard many arguments advanced against electoral reform nationally, based on strong government, I find it hard to believe that it would not help the situation—at least of many local authorities where extremists gain control—if there were a measure of electoral reform.

However, the substance of this debate is opposition to the poll tax and the great unanswered question in this debate so far has been what the alternative should be. That was resonant in everything that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, including the Secretary of State, said. That is the background brief to what they are saying—small changes now in the hope of better things to come, but no decisions on what that means. There is an irony here, because in Committee the Government and the Liberal Democrats both had something to put forward. Now it is only the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party failed to come up with any alternative during those long debates. Again, the Labour party's inability to play the role of an Opposition and to provide an alternative, not simply to oppose, was exposed for all to see. It has shown that in today's debate again—[Interruption]—even though Labour Members may say "nonsense". The fact is that not only did the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) fail to give a single indication of the Opposition's alternative, but the most recent articles that they have published on this, while going into fine detail on the difficulties involved, the lack of information before taking up government, and all sorts of other excuses, failed to give any idea of what people would have to pay under the Labour party's system. Without that it is impossible to believe that the Labour party can claim to be putting forward a credible alternative.

The debate needs answers to two simple questions. First, when will the Government abolish the poll tax? Secondly, what will be put in its place? Dissatisfaction with the poll tax was widespread long before the measure was even passed. It was widespread within the Conservative party as well as outside it, although Conservatives allowed it to go through. Now that people have had a year of paying the tax, the resentment and hatred of this unfair burden goes much deeper than even the Secretary of State realises. He in particular must finally realise what everyone else knew from the beginning—that the poll tax is unworkable, unpopular and must go.

An enormous amount of hardship is caused to low-income groups. Local government finance is in chaos. The tax is everywhere deeply unpopular. The high level of non-payment is undermining respect for the law. Radical change, not just review, must be on the immediate agenda.

I give as an example my own area. We were once told that the Bills could be expected to be around £130 to £140 in Carrick and Restormel councils. Later I published figures showing £170 to £180 per head and was told by Conservatives that I was exaggerating. Next year's figure in Carrick will be £390 and in Restormel £365, if the proposals that are being put forward are accepted. The Government deceived their own party and Members of Parliament into supporting a Bill that should never have been allowed to pass through this House in the first place. While our figures are nevertheless comparatively low, and the Liberal Democrat councillors are to be congratulated on keeping them below average levels, the truth is that, in an area where average wages are among the lowest in the country, poll tax levels are causing hardship for many people.

Only the Conservative Government can be blamed, both because they have cut support to local authorities and because they have introduced a system that is wholly unrelated to ability to pay. Only the Liberal Democrat alternative of local income tax can produce fairness in the financing of local government.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. I have listened intently to his comments suggesting that the community charge in his area would be anything between £130 and £180. He has produced these ghastly figures. Does he agree that there are many local authorities, such as the one in which this Palace is situated, that have brought forward a community charge of £195? Does he also agree that there is a need for two things to be recognised? The first is that there is a silent majority that finds the poll tax acceptable as an alternative to rates? Does he agree that there are many people, some in my constituency, who are now saving over £1,000 a year? Secondly, there is a need for a fundamental review of the efficiency of this tax.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman should have a word with the Secretary of State for the Environment who would undoubtedly put him right about his claim that there is support for the poll tax. I do not believe that many members of the Conservative party believe that; nor does the Secretary of State. That is why he is undertaking a review. I certainly do not believe that the great majority of people in this country believe in the poll tax. The Government are already talking about replacing it.

The Government tell us that we must wait for the conclusions of the review and that it will take until 1993 at the earliest to replace the poll tax. The Liberal Democrats know that it could be replaced sooner than that. It could be replaced within the space of a given financial year, provided that the decision to proceed with its replacement was taken six months before the start of that financial year. That is because the base for our local income tax system is already in place. It could be implemented in a short period because the Inland Revenue already holds the necessary information. There is no need to have any valuation of the tax base, which would be necessary with any new property tax. That is an important reason for supporting such a tax.

If the poll tax is abolished, the great expense that local authorities have suffered in implementing it will have been wasted. We do not want any new scheme to involve similar costs. That argument, if no other, should carry weight with the Treasury which, if newspaper reports are to be believed, has blocked implementation by the Secretary of State of a local income tax scheme. I assume that the necessary legislation could be quickly pushed through the House. There are many precedents for rapid action when things go wrong, as they have done with the poll tax.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

The hon. Gentleman says that information about income tax is available. Is he aware that tax offices tax people according to their place of employment, not according to their place of residence? Therefore, local authorities and the Inland Revenue would not know the tax base upon which to charge a local income tax.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman refers to the present system, but the Inland Revenue knows where people live. That information is already available.

If the reports today in The Times and other newspapers are correct, the Secretary of State must tell the House whether he is prepared to support a system that is not directly related to ability to pay. That is the nub of the matter. For all the sophistry of those who support other schemes, only one scheme is related to ability to pay—a form of local income tax.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain how a local income tax system would redistribute resources from wealthy areas to poorer areas and between areas of high unemployment, where people still need services, and areas of low unemployment where more money would be received in the form of income tax?

Mr. Taylor

Any local government finance system must compensate poorer areas. My area is poor. A roof tax, a rating system or the poll tax have to take that fact into account.

The Layfield committee of inquiry favoured a local income tax. Moreover, according to opinion polls, it is favoured by many people. In fact, in my own area, 20,000 Cornish men and women signed a petition at this time last year in favour of a local income tax in the matter of just a few weeks.

If we examine how the Conservative party is handling its poll tax problems, we find that it is making vague promises for the future. It also makes claims about mitigating factors for the present. The Tories have just published a leaflet for the Ribble Valley by-election. It contains the line: Nigel Evans and Michael Heseltine working together. It would have been better if it had said "undecided together." Both have refused to say whether they are in favour of retaining the poll tax. Both the leaflet and the Government herald the additional transitional relief that has been announced as the answer to people's basic objection to the poll tax, yet the transitional relief scheme is, and always has been, inadequate. It leaves out those in the rented sector, many of whom are old, or young, or poor. The relief does not apply to those who have moved house since the introduction of the poll tax. As Mr. Evans and the Government refuse to say whether they would abolish the poll tax, it might be more appropriate if they campaigned using the slogan "Nigel Evans and the Government confused together."

The Secretary of State has admitted that the Cabinet is split on the abolition of the poll tax. A defeat for the Tories in the Ribble Valley by-election will ensure the end of the poll tax, in just the same way as the defeat in the Eastbourne by-election helped lead to the fall of the Prime Minister who introduced the poll tax.

The Times report today suggests that a property tax, based on the number of people living in a household, is the Secretary of State's favoured option. I hope that he will confirm that today in the House rather than by leak and innuendo in newspapers. At least we should have an indication of the direction in which the Government are heading, although their reported alternative still fails the essential test—its relationship to ability to pay.

Earlier today the BBC gave us the Secretary of State's latest version, so we were led to understand—a floor tax with a personal ceiling for each individual. Since it has a floor and a ceiling, perhaps it ought to be called a room tax. No doubt we shall be given a list of exemptions and rebates that we can call the windows. With Labour's roof tax, we could end up with a house tax, better known as the rates—just what the Tories opposed in the first place.

Labour feels that the problems of the present can be solved only with yesterday's solutions, since it favours some form of property tax. Obviously it has little confidence in its alternative, since it is not even prepared to take part in all-party discussions with the Secretary of State. That was confirmed today when the hon. Member for Dagenham said that the reason that the Labour party would not take part in the discussions was that it was afraid to have the figures analysed. The Liberal Democrats are well aware of the dangers of having figures analysed, so we do it ourselves. Ministers now accept that their earlier figures were not based on our scheme. The Labour party can give neither figures nor ask others to help out. That it the most abject cowardice of all.

The Liberal Democrats have taken a constructive role in the talks. We have a solution in which we believe. We have the honour in this House to be the only party to have argued consistently for a scheme of local government finance against the old rating system. We saw and rejected its unfairness. We were against the poll tax when the Government sought to introduce it. There was an absence of Labour party policy throughout the debates. Now there is an absence of Conservative party policy. We have been proud to stand throughout behind a system that relates local government finance directly to people's ability to pay. We believe that the system, local income tax, commands the support of the country.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's appeal that speeches should not exceed 10 minutes in length.

5.18 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

There does not seem to be much enthusiasm on the Labour Benches for their own Supply day. It will not have gone unnoticed outside the House that few Labour Members are present for the debate. Having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), which was very disappointing, I am hardly surprised. It was one of the most inept and pathetic performances that we have heard for many a long year.

I agree with the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) that the official Opposition have absolutely no alternative to the community charge. They were not prepared to be flushed out by providing the House with a detailed policy. Critics of the community charge in my constituency readily acknowledge, when they complain to me about it, that the Labour party has provided no alternative. The Opposition are just not getting their message across.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

Will. the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I am not prepared to give way. The hon. Gentleman has only just walked in to the Chamber.

The unfairness of the old rating system has been completely forgotten by the Opposition. It caused an immense amount of distress, particularly to single people living alone and to pensioners who had to pay a disproportionate part of their income towards local government services. To return to such an unfair system would be very cruel. I am surprised the Labour party is considering a return to it.

What has impressed me about the objections that I have received to the community charge is that people are prepared to acknowledge that it has certain benefits. 'They acknowledge that payment for the use of services is right. They acknowledge, too, that local government accountability is very important. They like to know how much money is being spent by local authorities on their behalf so that they can reach their decision accordingly at local elections. Furthermore, it has to be acknowledged that the implementation of the community charge leads to unfairness. I should like to bring one or two instances to the attention of the House.

People who have been very badly affected include couples, often pensioners, past working age, who perhaps have some small savings which make them ineligible for rebate on financial grounds but who are far from well off. They have found it a great struggle in many cases to pay the community charge. Another group that concerns me are young couples with young families, where the breadwinner is on a relatively low income but not so low that the couple are eligible for a financial rebate. Because of the age of the children, the non-working spouse is unable to go out to work, even if he or she wanted to, because they are, rightly, looking after their young children. Such couples have suffered greatly.

By and large, these people tend to live in smaller, older properties which were low rated and they have found the increase from the old rating system to the new community charge very great. That is why I warmly welcome the community charge reduction scheme announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) last month, which comes into effect in April at the beginning of the new financial year.

The scheme has addressed two areas of gross unfairness. I felt blasé when I first heard my right hon. Friend's statement; so often one is told by politicians of all parties that new arrangements will be of great benefit to certain sections of the community, but when one goes home one checks out the arrangements, talks to local authorities and others and finds that they will not be quite as good as promised.

Mr. Battle

Like cold weather payments.

Mr. MacKay

I can tell the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), who is interrupting from a sedentary position, that when I returned to Berkshire and spoke to the borough treasurers and the council leaders in Bracknell and in Windsor I found that a large number of my constituents would benefit greatly under this reduction scheme. Many couples in Bracknell will save up to £250 on their community charge next year. That is not an insignificant sum, and these are precisely the sort of people that we need to help. Any couple who were paying less than £596 in rates under the old system will benefit to some degree, and many of them, particularly those paying well below that figure, will benefit by three figures. That is not insignificant.

The other good news for my constituents is that due to worthwile savings by Berkshire county council, by Bracknell Forest borough council and by the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead at the other end of my constituency, there is a real possibility that all charge payers will pay considerably less in 1991–92 than they did last year and that those who are least well off will benefit considerably from the community charge reduction scheme.

There are, however, one or two other areas where it is important that we review the community charge. I do not see much point in charging students. We have acknowledged that they can pay only a very small community charge, so we levy a mere 20 per cent. on them. In most cases, that sum is not worth collecting. Nevertheless, it causes some hardship and certainly some frustration to students, who are not earning money and who cannot see why they should pay any community charge.

Equally, students by and large are not studying where they are going to live permanently, so the accountability in local government is not relevant at all. There seems no benefit, therefore, in continuing to charge students 20 per cent. We should forget all about charging students.

Another area worries me very much. I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), the local government Minister, and I await a reply. No doubt a considered and detailed reply will be forthcoming shortly. The matter concerns constituents of mine living, for instance, on the Broadmoor hospital estate who are staff at Broadmoor. Until the advent of the new system they did not pay rates directly; rates were part of the rent that they paid to the hospital. The houses in the Broadmoor hospital estate were rated as one entity. Although they would have been low-rated houses if they had been rated individually, they were rated in bulk as an estate, so they were not eligible for transitional relief; and we fear that they will also not be eligible for the new community charge reduction scheme.

If that is true, it means that some of the people who can least afford to pay the full community charge and who, if they had been living elsewhere, would have been eligible for the reduction will not be able to obtain it. That cannot be either right or just and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate, not tonight but when he replies to me shortly, will put our minds at rest on that point.

I commend to the House the Government's decision fundamentally to review the workings of the community charge. Contrary to what Opposition Members would like to think, I have found that the public welcome the decision immensely. First, they approve of a Government who are prepared to take a further look at a policy which has not worked as successfully as some of us would have liked and who have acknowledged that in the implementation of it there have been anomalies and unfairnesses.

The public also think that it was right for the Prime Minister to state from the Dispatch Box that nothing would be ruled in and nothing would be ruled out, and they are confident that the review will take into account many of the unfairnesses and many of the criticisms. I do not want tonight to give my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate too many suggestions. There is a lot that is good in the community charge, but there are many unfairnesses. Ability to pay needs to be taken into account, but the old rating system was wildly unfair. It would be extremely helpful if my hon. Friend the local government Minister could use his very real talents and those of the Secretary of State and their advisers to come up with a package of local government finance that would reflect the very best of the old rating system and the very best of the community charge system, while rejecting the anomalies, the unfairnesses and the irrelevance in both systems. That is no easy task. I am not giving my hon. Friend the solutions, but I wish him well when he replies to the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In case hon. Members have not noticed, the digital clock stopped working at 5.17 pm. I hope that hon. Members will look at the clocks at each end of the Chamber to calculate when their 10 minutes are up.

5.30 pm
Mr. Joe Benton (Bootle)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) that in examining the effects of the poll tax one has to take account of local circumstances. I have found that to be very true, and several hon. Members have referred to it.

At my constituency surgery last Saturday I dealt with four cases arising from the effects of the poll tax. I do not want to bore the House and I shall be as brief as possible, but I want hon. Members to cast their minds back to the Government's initial justification for the introduction of the tax, which was that it would be fairer, simpler and less costly. The four cases to which I shall refer give the lie to those claims.

Mrs. Drohan is a lady with a severe handicap—she is deaf and dumb—but is fortunate enough to be working. Indeed, she is the sole breadwinner; her husband is unemployed and gets no benefit, because of her income, even though it is very small, at about £147 a week. Mr. and Mrs. Drohan have two children, both of whom are at school and their poll tax commitments amount to £308.47 for the husband and £383 for the wife. To compound the injustice, Mrs. Drohan has to pay her husband's poll tax.

My constituents have no objection to my mentioning them. The second case involves a man and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Mulhearn, and their four children. The husband suffers from a severe disability and has had to retire from work. Their total income is £179.68 and two of their four children are unemployed. After transitional relief and Government rebate, both parties have to pay £289.79.

The third case is different from the others and very tragic. The poll tax was supposed to be efficient. Mrs. L. Somers is 85 and blind and disabled. She lives in a high-rise development. She has just received a court summons, even though on five or six occasions she has informed the local authority that the cash is available but that, because of her handicap, she requires someone to come and pick it up. So much for the poll tax being efficient.

My final case is that of Mr. J. Lloyd, who has transferred into sheltered accommodation but receives no transitional relief even though, because of the block assessment, there is a link to the housing association. Again, so much for the efficiency of the poll tax.

Those four cases provide an insight into what is really going on in terms of both the management and the injustice of the poll tax. I hope that, having listened to what I have said, Conservative Members will appreciate my point; after all, they claim that they are the Government of the family. It does not take much imagination to see the poverty and travail that lie behind those cases. It is tragic that people should be placed under all those pressures when they are trying to rear a family.

Much reference has been made to law-breaking. The constituents of Bootle have always rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's, although I must say that, even in his wildest moments, Caesar would never have introduced a tax like the poll tax into Great Britain. The Government should try to understand people's dilemma. I would never advocate that anyone should break the law and I would never encourage anyone to do so. I oppose law-breaking and I always say to people, "You should pay your poll tax." I would say that to anyone, right across the board. However, the Government must understand that many people cannot pay their poll tax and Ministers must make a distinction between those who will not pay and people such as those to whom I referred, who face tremendous hardship.

I do not know how many Conservative Members live on £160 or £170 a week and are trying to raise four children. I do not know whether they have the wit or imagination to perceive how difficult it is for people who genuinely want to meet their legal obligations but who cannot do so because they do not have the money. We must differentiate. No one is advocating that people should not pay their poll tax; I have told every one of my constituents that. But the fact is that some of them cannot pay. The Government must be big enough to appreciate their dilemma and to legislate to ease the hardship that those poor people have to endure.

Let me conclude on a simple note. Hon. Members have referred to the Labour party's alternative proposals and also to a local income tax. I understand that legislation introducing such a tax would take three or four years to reach the statute book. I do not know whether that is the case, but I can well believe that it is. What do we do in the meantime about the poll tax and its injustices? Something has to be done. Even if one accepts the principle of a local income tax, we cannot wait three or four years for the abolition of the present unjust and heinous tax. Even though there may be i's to be dotted and the t's to be crossed, any alternative—and the Labour party's is the best—will be better than the poll tax.

5.38 pm
Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

I followed with interest the remarks by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton). I was especially interested in his comment that nobody was advocating that people should not pay. I suggest that he addresses his comment to a number of Labour Members of Parliament—one of them a near neighbour of his on Merseyside—who are doing precisely that.

Not one of the three speeches that we have so far heard from the Labour Benches has described one aspect of the content of the Labour party's proposals.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

They have been published.

Mr. Hayward

The hon. Lady says that they have been published. If the details are so good and so well known, why has not one Labour Member had the courage to refer to any of the contents of the published document? As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has admitted that the Labour party does not want to subject its proposals to detailed scrutiny. That is the key

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley,Vest, and Penistone)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayward

I shall not give way, because Mr. Speaker and M r. Deputy Speaker have appealed for brevity.

Mr. Allen McKay

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) is, probably unwittingly, misleading the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) did not say that; he said that there would be no co-operation between the Front Bench spokesmen until the Government show their willingness to do away with the poll tax.

Mr. Hayward

That was not a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall not reassert my position on the subject. The hon. Member for Truro, who is sitting alongside the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), shakes his head in disbelief, as do many of my hon. Friends.

I have much sympathy with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton), as I am aware of someone who has written three times to Lambeth council in an attempt to pay his poll tax, and has received no response.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

They do not want the hon. Gentleman's money.

Mr. Hayward

It is not my money. I have paid my poll tax in Southwark and Bristol, both of which are charge-capped.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) drew attention to the problem of wives with husbands on low incomes, where the wife is at home looking after the children. For the sake of brevity, I shall not expand on that but I support my hon. Friend's comments. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister of State about another group of people whose position concerns me—families in which the husband or wife stays at home to look after a disabled member of the family, therefore denying himself or herself a second income while easing the burden on the state by staying at home and looking after that relative. Such people should receive more favourable treatment.

Will the Minister of State, when he winds up, clarify the Secretary of State's earlier remarks concerning the relief provided for people in the Gulf'? I think that he used the phrase "associated workers". Would that apply, for example, to the likes of employees of British Aerospace, who are already in the Gulf but are providing support services—not necessarily to the British services but, for example, to the Saudi Royal Air Force? Thousands of families would be affected by that provision.

Much has been made, in this afternoon's debate, of the community charge reduction scheme. It is about time that the benefits of that scheme were clearly identified. The scheme was announced on the day the Gulf war broke out and few people noticed it. The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) referred to the scheme and complained that 80 per cent. of his constituents would benefit from it. That shows clearly the substantial benefit of the scheme and its progressive nature. I encourage the Government and all local authorities to emphasise the scheme's benefits. In my constituency of Kingswood borough, a household that previously paid £400 in rates—a fairly typical amount and assuming that a married couple would have to pay £50 per person more this year—would probably benefit by £100 per household. Most people expect to pay more next year, but do not realise that, in those circumstances, they will pay about £100 less.

Part of my constituency has a combination of two loony councils. Half of my constituents come under Bristol city council, where the problems are enormous, and others come under Avon county council. They were both charge capped last year. According to The Sunday Times, we are faced with perhaps the largest community charge increase of any district authority in the country. The Sunday Times suggested that the increase for this year would be £125, making the total figure in Bristol £550.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Truro about the amount of community charge being paid in areas where earnings are low compared with those in London. Bristol set out not to administer the community charge properly and is now making no effort to publicise the community charge reduction scheme, despite the fact that probably the majority of adults in 31 of the 34 wards in the city will benefit from the scheme. The latest estimate is that some 200,000 adults in Bristol will benefit from it. Bristol and Avon county councils are more interested in imposing ever greater burdens on ordinary community charge payers and on schools in the district. The headmasters and headmistresses to whom I have spoken have complained bitterly. Some of them have gone public about the burden imposed on them by the local education authority. Just before Christmas, they made public an appeal that the local education authority should get off their backs. That is the nature of the two local authorities with which we are dealing. Last week, the Labour lord mayor of the city was deselected because he was too moderate. I beg the Department of the Environment to consider seriously abolishing Avon county council and others as quickly as possible, because we cannot cope with two loony councils.

In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before I allow other hon. Members to speak, may I say that I regret that throughout the debate the Benches of the Labour party, which initiated this debate, have been so poorly filled.

5.47 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I wish to raise issues that affect two local authorities in London—the London boroughs of Newham and Greenwich. Conservative Members will know that the London borough of Newham is one of the most deprived local authorities in the country. At my advice sessions on Friday, an increasing number of people complain that they cannot afford to pay their poll tax. Incidentally, in many cases those people have to pay only 20 per cent. of the poll tax. If the Government are to consider other ways of tinkering with the poll tax to make it more palatable, getting rid of the category that pays 20 per cent. would be of some advantage. I would welcome such a change on behalf of my constituents, although nothing would be better than the abolition of the poll tax. However, we shall have to wait for the advent of a Labour Government before that happens.

Those who cannot afford to pay are taken to court in large numbers. They are not making a political statement. Several hon. Members have mentioned people who refuse to pay the poll tax. If it is an iniquitous tax, people have the right to say that it is so evil that they will not pay it. They must then pay the penalty of refusing to pay. I am concerned not about such people, but about the thousands in Newham who simply cannot afford to pay. Some 50,000 liability orders have been issued by magistrates in Newham and 5,000 cases have been sent to the bailiffs. Those people are law-abiding east enders who have been criminalised by the Government.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Does the non-payment and the wish not to pay of a number of the hon. Gentleman's constituents show that they agree with councillor Steve Timms that Newham is seen as an unsatisfactory place with poor quality services"?

Mr. Banks

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is quoting accurately from Steve Timms, who is the leader of the council. I do not know how much the hon. Gentleman knows about the London borough of Newham. I do not know whether he has simply passed through it or has spent some time there. Perhaps I can take him around the borough when he next visits it and I can then enlighten him about our problems. Some of the services in Newham are poor, but they are being made worse by the fact that the financial penalties imposed on us by central Government make it impossible for us to address the borough's real problems.

It is no great coincidence that Labour-controlled authorities find it so difficult to manage. Labour-controlled authorities rather than Conservative-controlled authorities must face the social and economic problems which in many ways have been imposed on them by central Government policies.

What really annoys me is that, even when we are trying honestly to address our problems, we hear only petty political points from Conservative Members who are not interested in a consensual approach to local government finance or organisation. They are interested only in making cheap petty political points. As someone who worked in local government for many years, I find that response most distasteful. I wish that we could get back to those days when central Government did not interfere in the affairs of local government as they do now. Once we got rid of the Boadicea of Finchley, I hoped that a little more sanity would enter central Government with respect to Government policies towards local authorities. Perhaps we will see that sanity one of these days, but I cannot see it coming from the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities whose reputation is based on his Thatcherite attitudes.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo)

If we were still in those happy days when the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was on the Opposition Front Bench, I have no doubt that he would take a consensual view and want to talk to the Government about local government finance. Is he aware that his colleagues who now sit on the Opposition Front Bench, which he has recently left, refuse to speak to us or to adopt a consensual attitude?

Mr. Banks

I am not surprised that my colleagues refuse to do that. The conditions upon which negotiations are taking place are completely unacceptable. The Minister cannot try to inveigle us into the Government's policy on the poll tax. If the woolly-hatted, Tory lickspittles of the Liberal party want to get involved with the Government, they can do so. They will get no honour or credit from that. The Government created the poll tax mess. We will not help the Government get out of their own mess. The poll tax is one of the major millstones that will drag the Government down to defeat at the next general election. We are not about to assume the weight of that millstone on our backs in order to save the Minister's wretched skin. That is why we are not prepared to deal with the Government.

Mr. Clelland

I can confirm that the Government are in a mess with regard to the poll tax. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Northumbria police authority met this morning and it has had to cut its budget, as a result of the Government's poll tax policy, by £2.5 million which is equivalent to 116 police officers at a time when there is a crying need for more police officers—and that from a Government who claim to be in favour of law and order?

Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend demonstrates the Government's sheer breathtaking hypocrisy. They load more and more responsibilities on local authorities and then deny those authorities the resources to meet those added responsibilities. When—surprise, surprise—those local authorities cannot meet those requirements, the Government accuse them of being inefficient and unable to do their job. If central Government were half as efficient as local authorities—both Tory and Labour—they would be twice as good a Government and that would be an improvement which many of us in Newham and elsewhere would like to see.

Unfortunately, the London borough of Greenwich is not represented by a Labour Member of Parliament at the moment. There is no representative from Greenwich in the Chamber today because the Liberals are too busy collaborating with the Government. Those muesli-eating lickspittles who sit down with the Tory Government cannot be here today to defend the London borough of Greenwich.

Greenwich set its 1990–91 poll tax level at £203 million. Greenwich was forced to use its reserves and to make cuts in services in order to reach the Government's targets. The indicated designation level for 1991–92 is £212 million, which is an increase of only 4.9 per cent. over the 1990–91 limit and the increase for Greenwich of 4.9 per cent. is the lowest in London.

The Government do not seem to understand the great problems facing Greenwich. Why is the gap so large with regard to Greenwich and its standard spending assessment? It is clear that in setting an SSA for Greenwich the Government have failed to recognise the number of children in care and on the at-risk register; the impact of the developing new town of Thamesmead; the level of maintained opened spaces in Greenwich and the areas of population density, the effect of which is diluted in the formula due to the sizeable areas of parkland i a the borough. The Government have failed to take account of daytime tourism inflows into the borough. I noticed that Westminster council received additional money because of tourism, but Greenwich did not receive any additional recognition. No account was taken of the number of one-parent families in the borough.

As a result, Labour-controlled Greenwich borough council must make massive cuts because of the Government's unrealistic SSA. The council is talking about closing a holiday home for the elderly and disabled, four branch libraries, two day nurseries, two council halls, one community centre, public conveniences, two art galleries, one staff day nursery and all council playgroups and adult education centres. That is what is happening in Greenwich, and the experience is being repeated in other Labour and Conservative controlled local authorities. It is evident, for example, from what is happening in Berkshire.

When will the Government face up to their responsibilities? The Government have made a God-awful mess of local authority finance and local authority services. They have reduced those services to the point at which they can hardly sustain themselves. It is about time the Government recognised their responsibilities and, more to the point, it is time that they stood down and Labour took over control of central Government. We will give local authorities the responsibility and resources that they deserve.

5.57 pm
Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part once more in a debate on a subject which is of great concern in my constituency. When I last spoke in a debate on the community charge—when it was about to be introduced—the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) described my speech as brave because I had said that, having listened carefully to previous speeches, I found myself agreeing more with Opposition Members than with my colleagues. I have not done that today.

Three years ago I warned the Government that the introduction of the community charge would be a disaster, not least because no matter how often we repeated that the community charge would be fairer, it would not be perceived to be fairer by people in terraced houses who were paying more while people in detached houses paid less. Had we said that it would be fairer for everyone to pay a contribution to local services, that might have been acceptable, but the bold statement that the community charge is fairer was as unacceptable as it was wrong. Any system of local government finance must be based on the ability to pay.

Speaking against the community charge from the Conservative Benches is now a less lonely affair and I welcome the Government's review and recognition that so many of the things that I predicted earlier have now come to pass. I welcome not just the fact the Government have recognised the problems and the hardship caused to so many thousands of people in constituencies like mine, but the fact that the Government have acted to reduce that hardship. They have acted in a manner that can only be described as generous.

Twelve thousand households in Hyndburn qualified for transitional relief, despite a claim by the Hyndburn Labour party that no one in Hyndburn would benefit. Twenty-nine thousand households—80 per cent. of all households—will qualify for the new community charge reduction scheme and they will benefit to the tune of the £6 million which the Government will pay to reduce community charge bills. Therefore, £6 million will remain in the pockets of the people in Hyndburn to save or to spend as they wish. It will give a welcome boost to the local economy.

If only Labour-controlled Lancashire county council would show equal concern for the hardship caused by the level of charge that it levied on Hyndburn last year, there could be enormous reductions in bills this year. Instead, for those for whom no relief is available, Iancashire county council is likely to increase the charge by double the rate of inflation.

The Government's new scheme gives generous help to the 29,000 households in Hyndburn who qualify. For example, a couple who live in the average terraced house in Hyndburn will have this year's bill reduced by £265. A couple living in a house on which they paid rates of £180—and there are many of those in Hyndburn—paid £630 in community charge last year. Even if the county council's increase is double the rate of inflation—as we expect—that couple will pay only £420, instead of £816. That is £210 less than they paid in the current year and £396 less than they would have had to pay but for the introduction of the community charge reduction scheme.

There are similar reductions in the rest of east Lancashire, not least in Ribble Valley where, on 7 March, the public will have the opportunity to show their support for the Government's efforts to keep down the community charge bills. Based on the £216 average rate in Ribble Valley, a single person will save £38, a couple will save £279 and three people will save £297 as a result of the community charge reduction scheme. That is welcome news for the many people who have found paying the community charge this year a real hardship.

People in east Lancashire are genuine, hardworking, honest folk, so, generally speaking, they have paid up, even though it has not been easy. They very much resent the fact that people who can afford to pay have not paid. They resent especially the fact that the campaign against payment was led by the local Labour Member of the European Parliament for Lancashire, East, Mr. Michael Hindley, by the then chairman and secretary of Hyndburn Labour party, Mr. Ken Slater, and by county councillor Peter Billington. Through their bad example which has encouraged law breaking, they have helped to ensure that people in Hyndburn will have to pay £25 extra next year. That is extremely unfair to many thousands of my constituents who have struggled to pay this year. They are angry and many say that they will not pay the extra £25.

Only this morning I received a letter from Mr. Clark, one of my constituents. He said that his reason for writing could be summed up in one sentence. He wrote: My wife and I have no intention of paying any increase of my poll tax payment next year which can be attributed to non-payment by others. He also said that he had seen a full page of non-payers of the poll tax in the Evening Telegraph with quite a few who are resident in my area who enjoy a much more active social life than my wife and I and the majority have two wages coming in". I also welcome the fact that the community charge reduction scheme offers more help to those who live in sheltered housing, but I regret that the relief available under the scheme is lost when people move house. That will cause enormous problems and, again, it will be claimed that it is unfair.

I have been against the community charge from the beginning. I would welcome its abolition provided that there was clear evidence that whatever replaced it would not be equally bad. Figures were available to show the effect on people in areas such as Hyndburn but, sadly, we have been given no such evidence today. It is easy to mouth slogans such as, "Scrap the poll tax" without explaining how local government would be funded. Whatever the system of local government finance, we shall have to pay more, one way or the other, unless local authorities keep their spending under control.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I agree with much of what he said. Does he agree that if we were to return to a form of property tax or, as the Opposition have suggested in Scotland, to a roof tax, we should have to consider many other categories of people, especially the elderly, who suffered under such property taxes. We must bear such people in mind when seeking a way forward.

Mr. Hargreaves

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the few good points about the community charge is that it attempts to make local councils accountable and, to some extent, it has succeeded. People are now beginning to understand that if their local council spends more, they will pay more. Unfortunately, in areas such as Hyndburn, even if people object—as they do—to large increases in their bills, they can do nothing about it until the next county council elections, which are two years and two further increases away. If the poll tax is to remain, even in an amended form, and if there is to be accountability, there must be annual elections for the county council as well as for the borough councils.

I hope that, as a result of the review being undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it will be decided to abolish the community charge. If that is not possible, I hope that, at the very least, education spending will be funded centrally. That would bring down the community charge to a more acceptable level, but we must recognise that that would probably mean an increase in income tax. There is no easy option, but that is a fairer one.

Some control could be kept on local government spending by increasing its funding each year by the rate of inflation and by allowing it to increase its charges by only that rate. Pensioners have to live within those limits—why not local authorities? For far too long, local councils have, in effect, said, "This is what we are going to spend and you, the charge payers, must find the money to pay for it even if it means hardship." Local authorities should ask how much people can afford and then decide how best to spend that amount.

6.5 pm

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Throughout history, all despotic Governments have needed a scapegoat. We do not have a despotic Government in such a sense, but they advocate central control of a despotic nature. They needed a scapegoat, which turned out to be local government. Since 1979 they have used local government, local government services and local government councillors as scapegoats to cover all their mistakes. They introduced fiscal policies that have changed the nature of taxation so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poll tax is no different.

There are several main considerations in local government finance. The Government are now struggling to find an alternative to the poll tax and to save face rather than admit that they have made a huge mistake. The best thing that they could have done was to admit that they had made a mistake. They would probably have been more popular if they had admitted it. They have thrown money at the customer side but forgotten local government services. They have tried to ease the pain caused by the way in which the poll tax was introduced, but they have forgotten the pain caused by the reduction in local government services. If they do not believe that pain has been caused by a reduction in services, they are not listening to what has been said by local government institutions.

The Government have now introduced the community charge reduction scheme, which is fine. I have complained on behalf of many of my constituents and there is not a shadow of a doubt that some of them will be £100 a year, probably more, better off. However, they will pay for that in other ways. The Government have failed to say that people in receipt of other benefits will not see any of that reduction. They may get the money back in one way, but it is taken off housing benefit. The people who think that they will be £100, £120 or £150 better off a year will get nothing.

Despite all the expectations that have been built up, my constituents will get a surprise when the bills come through the letter box. On the one hand, the Government say, "Look at what we have done for you"; on the other, they say, "We will take it back in another way." Nothing has been said about that today. The scheme has given money back to some people, but those in greatest need will get nothing, or very little. It is time that we were told the truth.

Local government must be paid for and has always had to be paid for. People complained about the rating system and said that it was wrong. For about 25 or 26 years, I and others in local government have looked for an alternative to the rating system, but we have never found one. We have looked at various schemes. Which scheme is easy to collect, does not cost much, is less easy to evade and provides what is wanted? All the schemes that have been considered have had one fault or another. One would have thought that no Government could ever envisage a scheme that had all the faults all the time. The community charge is easy to evade, it is expensive to collect and it does not provide the money for the local government services that are wanted.

The Government talk about control of local government. There is control of local government—it is called the ballot box. The people decided what rates they should pay and how they should be spent. That was always so. However, this Government took away that control and what they came up with is a farce. The Government talk about accountability, but there is none, although the poll tax was supposed to be based on that. They talk about accountability in one tax, yet they introduced a uniform business rate that took accountability away. That tax and other Government grants are providing 75 per cent. of the money. The other 25 per cent. is under Government control. The whole of local government is controlled by central Government.

The poll tax has damaged local government services tremendously and it will take a long time to get back to even stevens. The biggest damage has been done to the education services. My local authority has not built a nursery school for five years. When I asked the education director when the next one would be built, he said, "God knows; I don't." My constituents want nursery education to be provided because they realise the value of education at three.

We have now run out of money for road gritting. What will happen if we have another snowfall like the one that we had recently? Where will the money come from? We are already over budget. Will central Government now recompense local government for the extra costs caused by the bad winter? At one time, local councils could move money from one part of the budget to another to overcome problems, but they can no longer do that because budgeting has been departmentalised. If an authority moves a little bit more money around, it is capped, which makes matters worse.

There have been big cuts in social services. We have closed old people's homes. There has been rationalisation and, on paper, it seems as if we have achieved value for money. However, people forget that the Government have taken away a person's home. That person may have been there for a considerable time, so it is home. Those people have been deliberately and actively uprooted.

Conservative Members talk about the little old lady who came under the rating system. They kept trotting her out and saying that she was paying more rates than she should. What did the Government do when they brought in the rent rebate scheme? They put the boot into that little old lady. They said, "If you are living in too big a house and you don't get out, you won't get a rent rebate." That little old lady was wrong under the rating system, and under the rent system, she was wrong again. The idea of the little old lady is a red herring.

The Government have already extended local government services. Where will the money come from? Spending may be capped. The Government have introduced the Children Act 1989, care in the community and the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which all cost money. Where does it come from? We cannot raise the money from the ratepayer because local government will then be capped. The Government will not provide the money.

The cost of poll tax collection is escalating. In Barnsley, it costs £3 million more than it did to collect the rates. What is the sense of having a system of collecting local government finance that costs £3 million more than it did under the old system?

Some people are non-payers as a matter of principle. That matter will be sorted out anyway. However, some non-payers genuinely cannot afford to pay. The poll tax has been a shock. A household of six poll tax payers who used to pay £296 in rates at one fell swoop had to pay £2,400. Of course they cannot pay that. Where will they get £2,400 when they used to pay £296? That is what is happening to people on low wages who live in low-value areas. There were grants to ease the effects, but they did not work.

The Government have now caused uncertainty. The Secretary of State and his Ministers say that they are carrying out a review and that they will bring out something else. They have not got anything else. For 26 years, we have looked for an alternative and there is none. The Secretary of State comes out with twaddle about how they will find something else. All that he will come out with in April is some scheme to try to ease the situation so that the Conservative will win more seats in the May elections. That is what it is all about. It has nothing to do with the poll tax and it has nothing to do with local government services. The review will probably cause an increase in payments.

Local authorities are also involved with the police, fire and transport services. The police and fire services probably received favourable answers, such as an invitation to break the law. There was an invitation: "We'll tell you that you can have 19 police. You may not be able to pay for them without being capped, but put in for those police anyway." There will be no grumbles about having 19 more policemen. However, although the authority may not be capped, somebody somewhere will pay—the poll tax payer. The same is true of the fire service. The review may cause the Home Office severe problems, but we would be silly not to pay according to the Home Office requirements. If it costs a little more money, so be it.

Mr. Portillo

Did the hon. Gentleman just say that it had been claimed before that his authority would have to get rid of 19 policemen to avoid being capped but that it was now recognised that it would not have to do so because savings could be found elsewhere?

Mr. McKay

I said that we might have an objective of 19 extra policemen according to Home Office standards. I said that it seemed as if we would not be able to get those 19 policemen because we could not afford them. Representations were made. We were told that if we adhered to a careful budget, it might allow the 19 extra policemen. I do not want to mislead the House or to tell the Minister lies. The matter is serious. Many hon. Members do not take the work of local government seriously enough. Another problem, remuneration of councillors, is coming up. Some 50 per cent. of councillors will have to disappear simply because they cannot afford to do the job. However, that is a matter for another debate.

It seems that the Government are considering a poll tax and a property tax. They should forget it because having two taxes will escalate costs. We need to get rid of the poll tax and to replace it with a system that will be sustainable not for the next five, 10 or 15 years, but for the next 100 years. That is worth doing and it is worth taking time to do. The Government should stop shilly-shallying. Let us put the cards on the table and have a proper system. Local government is too important to be a political ball in a political game.

6.18 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

The Opposition motion is a complete farce. The Labour party proposes to abolish a tax, but gives us no word on its replacement. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said that he did not not want to complicate the debate by putting forward an alternative. All we need to know, he told us, is that the Labour party is united behind the undefined alternative. Earlier today, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) told us what the alternative is—fair rates. However, not once did he or any other Labour Member clarify what was meant by that.

Why is the Labour party so against the community charge? Perhaps the reason is not least that it shows up the record of Labour local government. This year, the first year of the community charge in England, has shown a trend that is becoming clear. Efficient Conservative councils charge less for frequently better services than wasteful Labour ones. The average Conservative council—and where there are two councils, as in the shire counties, where they are both Conservative—has charged £27 less than Liberal councils and £51 less than Labour ones. Further, if one strips out the safety net contributions levied on largely Conservative council charge payers to subsidise largely Labour councils, one finds that residents of Conservative districts on average paid no less than £107 less than those in Labour districts and £87 less than Liberal district charge payers. Those figures explain much of Labour's agitation on the subject of the community charge and its determination to lay a thick smoke screen.

Unfortunately for Labour Members, a torrent of figures are now coming out for next year's community charges. They are pouring out of the town halls and make the matter starkly clear. Let us consider the first batch of community charge announcements listed in The Times yesterday. Top of the pack was the city of Bristol where the Labour council plans to pole-axe local people for £500, a 17 per cent. increase on this year's charge. We then have a whole clutch of Labour community charges of over £400—for example, Hackney at £462, Cambridge at £469, a rise of no less than 25 per cent., and Hounslow at £425. What do they have in common? They are all Labour controlled—not the loony left, we are told, just managed by the new style Labour party.

One community charge figure caught my eye, that for the London borough of Merton at £430, an astonishing 54 per cent. up this year. We must remember that that council went Labour at the elections last May. Its record reminded me of the 62 per cent. increase at Waltham Forest in 1987 following its capture the previous year by Labour and, worse still, the 66 per cent. increase in Ealing. That is in line with the long-standing Labour tradition of thanking local electors for their support by kicking them in the teeth, or rather in the pocket. Even in flagship Bradford, Labour has kicked local residents to the tune of another 31 per cent. next year, despite the continuation of Government safety net support at identical levels year on year.

The people of Ealing did not forget. They chucked Labour out at the next opportunity, at the borough elections last year. It is interesting to note that the successor Conservative council there is cutting the community charge by 9 per cent. in the coming year. That is being achieved by going through the council services with a fine-tooth comb and scrapping nonsenses such as the gay and lesbian advisory services and other Bennite extravagances. Of course, we have yet to take note of the charging proposals of the more mainstream loony left Labour councils such as Lambeth, Southwark and Greenwich. No doubt more anguish will be expressed by Labour Members over those.

I have the honour to represent in this place the people of Gravesham. They are served by a well-run Conservative borough council which has levied the low community charge of £293. Through good housekeeping, the council proposes to keep its charge unchanged at £293 in the coming year. I trust that my constituents will ponder deeply on the experience of the residents of Merton, Waltham Forest and Ealing before electing their new council next May. They already have the stark contrast between their own £293 community charge bills and the massive £413 bills across the river imposed on the residents of the Labour-controlled borough of Thurrock.

The vacuum that passes for local government taxation policy on the Opposition Benches has been exposed clearly today, and I am sure that in the vote tonight the House will implode it.

6.26 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity, towards the end of the debate, to make a contribution. The speech that we just heard from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) was the type of contribution that gives tailors' dummies a bad name.

The hon. Gentleman represents a tendency in the Tory party which causes a major problem for the Secretary of State for the Environment, in that there remain some true believers on the Government Benches. We clearly have a Conservative Member who is still reading, if not wearing, last year's briefs. He is busy telling us that everything is all right with the poll tax, and the evidence for that is simply that in thrifty Gravesham it will be only £7 short of £300.

With some of my hon. Friends, I had the dubious privilege and pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee of the Local Government Finance Bill. At that time there were queues of Conservative Members, not unlike the hon. Member for Gravesham, telling us, with greater sincerity and self-belief, that the poll tax levels in their areas would be £100, £150 or perhaps £160 as a result of the wondrous legislation that was being bestowed upon them. So they voted for every jot and tittle of it. Now they tell us, just two years later, that it has been a wonderful success—in Gravesham if nowhere else—because it is only £300.

The speech of the Secretary of State was definitely the effort of a guilty man. The louder he speaks of his honour, the faster we should count the spoons. Rather than his speech being a serious attempt to address the issues, it was another go-as-you-please turn from the aging matinee idol in which he thought that if he kept the laugh lines coming fast enough, with little jibes at the Opposition occurring often enough, we might not notice that there had been no noticeable progress since he became Secretary of State.

There has been a remarkable decline since the brave days of yesteryear when the right hon. Gentleman was on the Conservative Back Benches denouncing the Tory tax in vigorous terms. Indeed, we are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving us the expression "the Tory tax," which is succinct and accurate. He prophesied that the poll tax would become known throughout the land as a Tory tax, and it has. The electorates in many parts of the country pay testimony to that.

We heard nothing from the Secretary of State about what the Government are proposing. The Tory ranks are in utter disarray over the poll tax because while we have the Gravesham tendency—that everything is all right with the poll tax; at least Gravesham is secure—there are many, probably the majority, on the Tory Benches who yearn for a return to the relatively safe haven of a property tax. Then we have those on the far right among Conservative Members who were so over-zealous and extreme in denouncing a property tax that it would now be a gross embarrassment to many of them to have to return to such a tax.

The comments of the present Minister of State, Scottish Office and of the present Secretary of State for Scotland about a property tax were so hysterically over the top—I am glad to see the Secretary of State coming into the Chamber—that should the Tory party adopt a property tax, they would surely have no alternative but to resign.

Today's leak is that the Government intend to go one better than that. Apparently, not only will they adopt a property tax, but they intend to keep the poll tax as well. That should go down a bundle on the doorsteps. Even in Gravesham the Tories may find some difficulty explaining that one away. Although it may seem a manic proposal, it is in line with the dilemma in which the Secretary of State for the Environment finds himself. All the escape hatches that should open to him have been blocked by the previous pronouncements of many of his hon. Friends.

For example, we are told that the Government are no longer in favour of removing education from local financing and giving the responsibility to central Government. I suppose that that is a pity, if only in the sense that we shall not be able to test the assurance of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) that such a move would add 7p to the standard rate of income tax. I would have thought that those words from "Her Majesty" would have been regarded on their own as a singular deterrent, in the run-up to an election.

The gearing effect is the key to much of the discussion. Because there are serious hon. Members present who want to talk seriously about the poll tax, let us strip away the rhetoric about so-called high-spending Labour local authorities, and even about Harrogate, and discuss the mechanics of the poll tax which are endemic to it and are the reason why not only Labour local authorities find that they cannot live with it. It will not be long before every Tory local authority in the land will not be able to live with it.

What is happening can be summed up in the three words, "the gearing effect". That means that not only every piece of discretionary expenditure by a local authority but, much more important, every piece of non-discretionary expenditure by a local authority can be piled on to only one narrow base. I can give the House a vivid example from my constituency and from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie). Our little district council, Cunninghame district council, was unexpectedly and unpredictably faced with a £2 million bill this year for past years' valuation appeals that had succeeded. The council lost £2 million, all of which had to be paid within a year. Under the old system, that £2 million would have been spread across a rating base of commercial and industrial properties, as well as those in the domestic sector. There would have been many complaints and many bleeding hearts, but only a few per cent. would have been added to the rates. However, under the new magical system, no discretion is given to the local authority over its business and industrial rates. Therefore, such extra expenditure can be met only by the poll tax payers. So £2 million piles on to the poll tax in one year, which means an extra £19 on each poll tax bill, which is an increase of over 25 per cent. in the district's share of the poll tax—from just one source, a source which is outwith the control of the local authority. That is the gearing effect in action.

Councils such as Strathclyde and Lothian are cutting tens of millions of pounds worth of services, but are also having to increase their poll taxes by between 30 and 35 per cent. at the same time. Perhaps there was logic in the poll tax, even if it was wrong, cruel and wicked logic, if the Government could say that they would impose on the local authorities the requirement to cut services to keep poll tax bills down, because those local authorities could not go to their electorates with a high poll tax. But there is not even that logic in saying to local authorities, "You cannot provide the services. You must slash the services, but at the same time you must increase your poll tax bills by 30 or 35 per cent." These increases are not in order to improve services, but simply because of the mechanisms built into the poll tax.

That is what has been realised not only in Labour areas, but in Tory areas. That is why the Government cannot live with the poll tax; nor, as I have explained, can they escape from the poll tax, and it is why it will haunt them until the day of the general election.

6.31 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

We have heard a lot of passion from Opposition Members tonight about people who have not been able to afford to pay their poll tax bills. I share that passion when I hear those things, but the reason why so many people cannot afford to pay is that so many Labour authorities have overspent and overcharged. If anybody has a low income and his or her local authority is meeting the target figures, the poll tax payment is met by the benefit system and the taper that is above it—

Mr. Battle

No, it is not.

Mr. Bowis

Yes, it is—but if the spending goes above that level, it is not, and, if a council charges less, such a person will be in pocket.

The debate has been about the three most fearsome words in the English language, "Labour local government". I am amazed that the Labour party has chosen this subject for its Opposition day. Whenever the Labour party raises this issue, my majority and the Conservative majorities in marginal seats across London increase because we know what the Labour party meant to Londoners when it was in charge. It meant that boroughs such as mine in Wandsworth were no different from the neighbouring boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, about which we heard so eloquently from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton). Wandsworth used to be one such borough. It was run-down. It had an uncaring, hopeless, wasteful council. People did not want to live or work there. It had council estates on which no one wanted to live. Now we have a Conservative council and people are queueing up to buy properties on those erstwhile sink estates. People are queueing up so that their children can go to school in those erstwhile sink schools. That is what can happen under sensitive Conservative council management.

If this is any consolation to the Labour Front Bench, I say, "Please go on referring to local government policy because then we shall again have what we had this year in Wandsworth, which is a Conservative majority of one increasing to a majority of 35."

It might be thought, therefore, that I would say that the community charge is fine. If one is thinking only of Wandsworth, one might well say that there should be no change. However, I accept that the cost of the community charge is unacceptable in some parts of the country for a whole variety of reasons. It is partly because of council treasurers accounting for increased spending and paying off debts and building up reserves. It is partly because of pay deals that were reached in the past. It is partly because of the complexities of the SSA formula and it is partly because of the removal of the subsidy from high-rateable-value areas to low-rateable-value areas. However, we must never forget that it is partly the intentional policy of Labour authorities to charge as much as they can get away with". That was the advice that was given to Labour authorities—I have it in writing—and so many of them did just that.

We must look for alternatives and for ways of making the system more acceptable to more people. Although I shall not go into detail because time is against me, there are two ways of doing that. One could either remove the system altogether through central taxation grant, with local leeway in terms of income from sales and fees, or one could seek a balanced mixture, between the home and its occupants. It should be possible to take into account the size of the home and to multiply it by a neighbourhood factor to produce a household charge that would include the first two occupants. There could then be a flat-rate charge with a maximum of, say, £100 for each occupant thereafter.

Whatever the system, we must achieve two things. People who can afford to pay must pay—and that includes Members of this House. We must also continue to look for efficiency improvements that can lead to a charge that people can afford to pay.

My final example relates to the London borough of Ealing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred. That borough went Conservative this year. It has made efficiency savings throughout and the beneficiaries are the residents of Ealing. I suggest that any hon. Member who wishes to speak to such a resident seeks out. Mrs. G. Kinnock and her spouse who are better off to the tune of £100—not as a result of good fortune, but as a result of good Conservative management in Ealing.

6.36 pm
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

Before I turn to the thrust of the debate, I should like the Minister to answer a number of questions about the Secretary of State's announcement relating to the exemption from poll tax for troops in the Gulf. Although we welcome any such move and, as we have said, wish to see every possible support from Opposition Members for it, we are, to say the least, unhappy about this afternoon's announcement.

It appears that only a small number of people will benefit. What is meant by "the authorities most affected"? What is meant by "significant numbers"? When can discretion be used? Can it be used from today, or does the 61-day rule for single people and the six-month rule for a married man or woman in the Gulf who has a spouse living at home still apply? Such questions are important in terms of the number of people who can claim an exemption, as is the area of the country in which they live. Without reimbursement, local authorities are not in a position automatically to grant an exemption to such people when they cannot grant exemptions to other deserving cases.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the first £10 of a war pension was discounted? In Strathclyde, the Department of Social Security has now instructed Strathclyde regional council that that £10 must now be included. Is he also aware that the husband of one of my constituents is a war hero who lost half his brain in the last war and that, although he is exempt, his war pension must now be included as part of his wife's income for poll tax purposes? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is appalling?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it is. It illustrates a point made by Labour Members when we were told a few moments ago that those who were badly off were cared for and looked after. We all know that they are not. What is given with one hand is so often taken away with the other, and that will be so while the poll tax exists. That is why our motion is simple and clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said. It asks the Government to introduce legislation to abolish the tax. Why will not Conservative Members do so? It is because they are in disarray and are divided. There are still some—we have heard them today—who defend the poll tax and there are, of course, those who wish immediately to abolish it.

On Sunday the Secretary of State said in his interview on the "World This Weekend": You do not parade your disagreements in public. I understand that. The Labour party used to do it and it did us no good. But that does not hide the fact that disagreements exist. The solutions being considered by the Conservative party would in many cases result in a worse mess than the one that we have already. Let us take the announcement mentioned earlier which appears to have been leaked to The Times today about the two-tax solution—the floor tax and the poll tax. It is what my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham referred to as the bed-and-breakfast tax. That will be hidden as, not a poll tax at a lower flat rate but a method of charging everyone something, whatever their income.

But, as has already been said, such a solution leads us to ask whether people would be entitled to a rebate on the flat rate poll tax. What would be the administrative costs of collecting it? How would the register be maintained in terms of eligibility for the tax? The confusion and administrative nightmare that would face local authorities in chasing people has already been described.

Of course, we do not need the words of Labour Members to describe the position if taxation had two elements. We have the Home Secretary's words. In the Daily Mail on 19 September 1989, referring to what he described as the two-tax nightmare of the Labour party, he said: Only Labour would want to replace the unfair rating system with two taxes … They will hit millions of homeowners very hard…It is a socialist double tax. It seems to me that if it is a socialist double tax, it must he a Tory double tax. There can be only one thing worse than the Tory poll tax and that is a Tory poll tax plus a Tory floor tax. The floor tax would charge people more for living in a rambling, decrepit terraced house than someone living in a penthouse suite with Lady Porter. In other words, the poorer one is and the more one struggles, the more one pays. Those are the nonsensical ideas coming out of the Conservative party.

The Secretary of State said this afternoon that the focus would be narrowed. When talking about the present consideration of the options, he said that his intention was to narrow the focus by April.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about the floor tax. Can he explain whether the roof tax, as proposed for Scotland, is still official Labour policy?

Mr. Blunkett

Labour party policy, which the hon. Gentleman can read in our "Fair Rates", is clear and will involve the modern property tax adjusted according to the ability to pay. It is simple, straightforward and extremely quick to implement, unlike any other option before us. Of course, Conservative Members know that. The simple solution would be to adopt our proposals. That is what is before us today—no floor tax, no roof tax, but a fair tax. That is what we propose.

We must examine what the Secretary of State described on Sunday as "refining the options", which is Toryspeak for "We haven't got a clue." What are the options? A sales tax is clearly out. The Government have ruled out local income tax. They have ruled out our proposals. They will not go straight back to the rating system. So what are they left with? The flat-rate poll tax and floor tax appear to be the only runner, other than removing items from local government. The solution of the Conservative party is, "If you can't beat it, take it." Who in his right mind would want to hand over education to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—the Rasputin of Rushcliffe, as he is rapidly becoming known in the classroom? Who would want to hand over the future of their children and the development of the potential of our loved ones to the tender mercies of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe? I have three children in school, and I certainly would not.

It is bad enough in an authority such as mine, struggling to maintain the existing budgets and the high-quality service, accredited as one of the top half dozen in Britain by Her Majesty's inspectorate. It is hard enough to keep that service going spending millions of pounds above the standard spending assessment laid down by the Government. If authorities across the country had to reduce their education spending to the SSAs laid down by the Government, there would be enormous cuts in every part of Britain. Those will be cuts brought about by the poll tax. It has also caused misery because of the sums that people have to pay.

Adult education is to be wiped out in Surrey. I had a letter from a lady yesterday appealing to me to put across the message of those who have limited or no Labour representation that their services are being decimated. Those cuts hit people. They are cuts which the former Secretary of State described as a parade of bleeding stumps. The present Secretary of State put it slightly more mildly. In his interview on Sunday, when he talked about likely cuts, he said that there was an element of ritual about them. There is not an element of ritual but there is an element of elderly people not receiving home helps. There is an element of not having books in classrooms that are not fit to use. There is an element of cutting back on teachers and closing schools which everyone knows should be kept open on educational grounds. There is an element of large cuts in Tory authorities—£7 million in Warwickshire and £11 million in Berkshire. There are massive cuts in Surrey. I hope that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) will bear in mind that the removal of services to keep his poll tax below £300 hits those who cannot go into the marketplace to buy alternative provision. That is what it is all about.

Far from bringing relief to those in greatest need through extending the rebate system, far from ensuring that we fund services and prevent cuts, the community charge reduction scheme is a simple mechanism to bribe the electorate and to try to save Tory seats such as Ribble Valley.—[Interruption.] The Minister says that that is right. It is right. It is an attempt to bribe the electorate into voting Conservative. It is a temporary scheme which will disappear the moment the general election is over. It is a scheme to manipulate and massage bills when the Government know that the real problem is the poll tax.

The community charge reduction scheme compares what with what? It compares the poll tax with the old rating system. The despised rates are now the benchmark by which people are being bribed into believing that the poll tax is not so bad after all. The Government are putting £1.7 billion of our money into a Conservative scheme to help the Conservative party. To cap it all, at a time of recession, unemployment is being accelerated by the cuts. The downturn in investment in infrastructure and capital investment is being accelerated.

We must be absolutely clear. The debate is between those who have a solution which can be implemented immediately and those who wish to buy time, as the Secretary of State clearly showed that he does, in an effort to dig themselves out of a mess of their own making. The mess which the Conservative party has got itself into was not inherited; it was invented by it. It is responsible for the scheme before us today, and it must take the blame in the general election.

The mess in which the Government find themselves is entirely of their own making and they must carry the can. Our simple message is that tinkering is not an option. We say to the Government, "Fiddle with the tax at your peril." We offer the electorate a way out because we offer the British people the only solution, the real choice, and it will be voted on in the by-election and the general election. The British people will have a chance to get rid of the Conservative muddle and confusion and the extra costs and cuts. I ask those people to vote Labour, because we will abolish the poll tax.

6.50 pm
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo)

It was quite extraordinary to hear the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) talk about an alternative when, throughout the debate, all Labour Members have refused to talk about any alternative to the community charge. The point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold). Opposition Members have been taking their cue from their leader who recently had a marvellous opportunity to address the Labour party conference on local government. A review of his speech in the Municipal Journal said: Mr. Kinnock only made a passing reference to Labour's 'modern rates' scheme. That will be Labour's tone in the coming general election campaign—when the party will put more effort on exploiting voters' discontent with Government policies like the community charge, rather than promoting enthusiasm for its own. That is a despicable and disgraceful way for the Opposition to carry on.

The hon. Member for Brightside derided the Government for allegedly having a two-tax policy. We have made no announcements whatever. Not only has his party officially espoused two-tax policies in the past, but apparently it has such a policy now. At the same local government conference, who should rise up and strike down Labour policy than that demon of the supper club the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). In a speech to a fringe meeting the hon. Gentleman revealed that there should be a regional tax for the new regional assemblies which will also receive Government grant. It appears that, after all, two taxes are now proposed by the Labour party.

The Government have set out on a review of the community charge. Anyone looking for an example of why we should not make announcements until we are ready will find it in the Labour party which has produced a series of half-baked proposals at regular intervals every few months. In our review we shall consult widely and deeply. I am consulting my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said that the Conservative party had promoted 43 schemes. My only explanation for his comment is that he cannot count beyond 43. Many more schemes have been proposed by my hon. Friends and I am giving them serious consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) is right when he says that the principle that everybody should pay is widely accepted. If the Opposition had listened to the Nick Ross phone-in this morning they would have heard that principle advocated time and again. Labour is in great peril if it gives up the principle that everybody should make a contribution to the cost of local government, because that principle is widely accepted.

It is already clear in this round of community charge setting that once again Conservative local authorities will set the lowest charges and provide the most efficient government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) illustrated so well. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) said that he is left with two layers of loony authorities imposing desperately high charges on the people of Kingswood and Bristol.

Labour authorities such as Ipswich are budgeting to spend £65 a head over their standard spending assessment and that extra money will have to be paid by ordinary people. By contrast, the Conservative authority in Runnymede will spend £47 a head below its SSA. The Conservative authority of Medina in the Isle of Wight is cutting its community charge in half for the coming year. Labour authorities have exhibited the most staggering cynicism because they have increased their charges for the coming year to what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea described as the highest level that they can get away with, to the very level at which they know they would be capped if they went a pound over. Cumbria is budgeting only £1,000 below its cap level. It is cynically getting every penny that it can out of the community charge payer.

Mr. Graham

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Portillo

No. The hon. Gentleman did not speak in the debate.

I am pleased to say that the community charge reduction scheme will provide some help for community charge payers.

I can tell the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) that his community charge payers living in a half average rateable value property will be better off by £429 per couple. That is the sort of help that we shall provide. My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) said that his constituents would be up to £250 better off. Even in the constituency of Bootle in the local authority of Sefton the reduction for people on half average rateable value will be £352 per couple.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Portillo

No, because the hon. Gentleman did not speak in the debate.

Those are enormous decreases in the community charge to be set next year.

The Ribble Valley by-election has been mentioned in the debate. I remind the House that a couple living in that constituency in a property of half average rateable value will have £415 taken off their community charge.

Mr. Grocott

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Portillo

No, because the hon. Gentleman was not here and did not take part in the debate.

That is real help for the people who need it and will go to those who suffered most from the introduction of the community charge because they had low rateable values.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Portillo

I am sorry, I am not giving way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This has been a good-natured debate. Let us have the last four minutes of it in good order.

Mr. Portillo

I now come to non-payment, a subject of great interest to the general public. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) spoke eloquently about the inefficiency of the borough of Lambeth in collecting the community charge. He reminded us that 39,000 bills had not been sent out in August and that 13,000 had not been sent out in November. The leader of that council refuses to pay the community charge and, apparently, the Leader of the Opposition now thinks that the borough of Lambeth needs to be sorted out. Is it any surprise that the charge has not been collected and that other people are being asked to pay the difference?

The Opposition have paid lip service to the concept that people should pay their community charge. If they are in favour of that, why is it that 28 Labour Members and thousands of Labour councillors do not pay and advocate non-payment? My hon. Friends have noticed how the Opposition are prepared to deal ruthlessly with those who step out of line on the Gulf. People have been sacked in droves from the Opposition Front Bench and relegated to the Back Benches. When it comes to non-payment of the community charge and people breaking the law and urging others to do so, what does the Labour party do? How many Labour Members have had the Whip withdrawn or any sanctions imposed? The answer is that the Opposition are not concerned about that.

Since the introduction of the community charge, Labour has shown an astonishing degree of insincerity. Labour Members have spoken about unfairness and about the difficulties that some people have in paying, but in practice Labour authorities have heaped up the charge upon people. As I have said, they have set the charge at the level that they can get away with. Again this year they are increasing the charge to the very limit over which they would be capped.

The Opposition have derided the community charge reduction scheme and have refused point blank to join in the review of local government finance being conducted by the Government. They have failed to set out a clear alternative. Indeed, they have struggled hard to come up with an alternative so obscure that it cannot be analysed or pinned upon them. Their entire struggle has been to find something too obscure for the British public to understand.

The Opposition have not only failed to live up to what we have a right to expect of an Opposition, but have shown clearly that they lack the political maturity ever to form a Government. For that reason, I call on my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the amendment.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 229, Noes 325.

Division No. 69] [7 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Dobson, Frank
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Paisley, N.) Doran, Frank
Allen, Graham Douglas, Dick
Anderson, Donald Duffy, A. E. P.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dunnachie, Jimmy
Armstrong, Hilary Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Eadie, Alexander
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ashton, Joe Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Fatchett, Derek
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Faulds, Andrew
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Fearn, Ronald
Barron, Kevin Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Battle, John Fisher, Mark
Beckett, Margaret Flynn, Paul
Beith, A. J. Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Bell, Stuart Foster, Derek
Bellotti, David Foulkes, George
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Fraser, John
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Fyfe, Maria
Benton, Joseph Galbraith, Sam
Bermingham, Gerald Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Bidwell, Sydney Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Blair, Tony George, Bruce
Blunkett, David Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Boateng, Paul Golding, Mrs Llin
Boyes, Roland Gordon, Mildred
Bradley, Keith Gould, Bryan
Bray, Dr Jeremy Graham, Thomas
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Grocott, Bruce
Buckley, George J. Hardy, Peter
Caborn, Richard Harman, Ms Harriet
Callaghan, Jim Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Canavan, Dennis Hinchliffe, David
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)
Cartwright, John Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Home Robertson, John
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hood, Jimmy
Clay, Bob Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Clelland, David Howells, Geraint
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Cohen, Harry Hoyle, Doug
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Corbett, Robin Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Cousins, Jim Illsley, Eric
Cox, Tom Ingram, Adam
Crowther, Stan Janner, Greville
Cryer, Bob Johnston, Sir Russell
Cummings, John Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Darling, Alistair Kennedy, Charles
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Kilfedder, James
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I) Kirkwood, Archy
Dewar, Donald Lambie, David
Dixon, Don Lamond, James
Leadbitter, Ted Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Leighton, Ron Reid, Dr John
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Richardson, Jo
Lewis, Terry Robertson, George
Litherland, Robert Rogers, Allan
Livingstone, Ken Rooker, Jeff
Livsey, Richard Rooney, Terence
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Rowlands, Ted
Loyden, Eddie Ruddock, Joan
McAllion, John Salmond, Alex
McAvoy, Thomas Sedgemore, Brian
McCartney, Ian Sheerman, Barry
Macdonald, Calum A. Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McFall, John Shore, Rt Hon Peter
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Short, Clare
McKelvey, William Sillars, Jim
McLeish, Henry Skinner, Dennis
McMaster, Gordon Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
McNamara, Kevin Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
McWilliam, John Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Madden, Max Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Marek, Dr John Snape, Peter
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Soley, Clive
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Spearing, Nigel
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Martlew, Eric Steinberg, Gerry
Meacher, Michael Strang, Gavin
Meale, Alan Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Michael, Alun Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Thomas, Dr Dafydd Elis
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute) Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Trimble, David
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Turner, Dennis
Moonie, Dr Lewis Vaz, Keith
Morgan, Rhodri Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Wallace, James
Mullin, Chris Wareing, Robert N.
Murphy, Paul Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Nellist, Dave Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Wigley, Dafydd
O'Brien, William Williams, Rt Hon Alan
O'Hara, Edward Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
O'Neill, Martin Wilson, Brian
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Winnick, David
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Wise, Mrs Audrey
Patchett, Terry Worthington, Tony
Pendry, Tom Wray, Jimmy
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Primarolo, Dawn Tellers for the Ayes:
Quin, Ms Joyce Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Ken Eastham.
Radice, Giles
Randall, Stuart
Aitken, Jonathan Biffen, Rt Hon John
Alexander, Richard Blackburn, Dr John G.
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Allason, Rupert Body, Sir Richard
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Amess, David Boscawen, Hon Robert
Amos, Alan Boswell, Tim
Arbuthnot, James Bottomley, Peter
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Arnold, Sir Thomas Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Ashby, David Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Aspinwall, Jack Bowis, John
Atkins, Robert Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Atkinson, David Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Brandon-Bravo, Martin
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Brazier, Julian
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Bright, Graham
Batiste, Spencer Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Bellingham, Henry Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Bendall, Vivian Buck, Sir Antony
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Budgen, Nicholas
Benyon, W. Burns, Simon
Bevan, David Gilroy Butler, Chris
Butterfill, John Haselhurst, Alan
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Hawkins, Christopher
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hayes, Jerry
Carrington, Matthew Hayward, Robert
Cash, William Heath, Rt Hon Edward
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Heathcoat-Amory, David
Chapman, Sydney Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Chope, Christopher Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Churchill, Mr Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth) Hill, James
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hind, Kenneth
Clark, Rt Hon Sir William Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Holt, Richard
Colvin, Michael Hordern, Sir Peter
Conway, Derek Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Cope, Rt Hon John Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Couchman, James Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Cran, James Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Critchley, Julian Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Hunter, Andrew
Curry, David Irvine, Michael
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Irving, Sir Charles
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jack, Michael
Day, Stephen Janman, Tim
Devlin, Tim Jessel, Toby
Dickens, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Dicks, Terry Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dorrell, Stephen Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Dover, Den Key, Robert
Dunn, Bob King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Durant, Sir Anthony King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Eggar, Tim Kirkhope, Timothy
Emery, Sir Peter Knapman, Roger
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Evennett, David Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Knowles, Michael
Fallon, Michael Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Favell, Tony Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fenner, Dame Peggy Latham, Michael
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lawrence, Ivan
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Fishburn, John Dudley Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fookes, Dame Janet Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Forman, Nigel Lilley, Peter
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Forth, Eric Lord, Michael
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard
Fox, Sir Marcus Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Franks, Cecil Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Freeman, Roger MacGregor, Rt Hon John
French, Douglas MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Fry, Peter Maclean, David
Gale, Roger McLoughlin, Patrick
Gardiner, Sir George McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Garel-Jones, Tristan McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gill, Christopher Madel, David
Glyn, Dr Sir Alan Malins, Humfrey
Goodhart, Sir Philip Mans, Keith
Goodlad, Alastair Maples, John
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Marland, Paul
Gorst, John Marlow, Tony
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Greenway, Harry (Eating N) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gregory, Conal Mates, Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Maude, Hon Francis
Grist, Ian Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Ground, Patrick Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Grylls, Michael Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Mellor, Rt Hon David
Hague, William Meyer, Sir Anthony
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Mitchell, Sir David
Hampson, Dr Keith Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hannam, John Moore, Rt Hon John
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Harris, David Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Moss, Malcolm Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Moynihan, Hon Colin Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Neale, Sir Gerrard Shersby, Michael
Needham, Richard Sims, Roger
Nelson, Anthony Skeet, Sir Trevor
Neubert, Sir Michael Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Nicholls, Patrick Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Speed, Keith
Norris, Steve Speller, Tony
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Oppenheim, Phillip Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Page, Richard Squire, Robin
Paice, James Stanbrook, Ivor
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Patnick, Irvine Steen, Anthony
Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath) Stern, Michael
Patten, Rt Hon John Stevens, Lewis
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Pawsey, James Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Stewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)
Porter, David (Waveney) Stokes, Sir John
Portillo, Michael Sumberg, David
Powell, William (Corby) Summerson, Hugo
Price, Sir David Tapsell, Sir Peter
Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Rathbone, Tim Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Redwood, John Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Temple-Morris, Peter
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, Sir Wyn (Conwy) Thurnham, Peter
Rossi, Sir Hugh Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rost, Peter Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Rowe, Andrew Tracey, Richard
Rumbold, Rt Hon Mrs Angela Tredinnick, David
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Trippier, David
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Trotter, Neville
Sayeed, Jonathan Twinn, Dr Ian
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Shaw, David (Dover) Viggers, Peter
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shelton, Sir William Walden, George
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester) Wilshire, David
Walters, Sir Dennis Winterton, Mrs Ann
Ward, John Winterton, Nicholas
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill) Wolfson, Mark
Warren, Kenneth Wood, Timothy
Watts, John Yeo, Tim
Wells, Bowen Young, Sir George (Acton)
Wheeler, Sir John Younger, Rt Hon George
Whitney, Ray
Widdecombe, Ann Tellers for the Noes:
Wiggin, Jerry Mr. John M. Taylor and Mr. Tom Sackville.
Wilkinson, John

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Speaker

forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the Government's thorough review of the functions, structure and finance of local government; notes that the Government has provided for a substantial increase in Aggregate External Finance for 1991–92; and welcomes the introduction of the Community Charge Reduction Scheme which will provide £1.7 billion extra help in England for those former rate payers, the elderly and the disabled who have faced the biggest increases in their contributions to the cost of local services.

7.14 pm
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is clear that, since the Prime Minister answered questions this afternoon, an important rift has developed between the position of the United States and Britain towards the Soviet peace initiative and that of a number of other major members of the coalition. As it is hardly possible to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation, may I ask the Government through you, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement later this evening?

Mr. Speaker

That is not my responsibility, but I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments.