Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — amendment of the law
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
Not at the moment.
On council tax, let me quickly mention a case involving a constituent of mine, as I find the way he has been treated by Mendip district council extraordinary. This chap is being pursued for a council tax debt that was occasioned not by him, but by a former flatmate whom he had no reason to suppose had not paid and to whom he was not related. They defaulted and cannot now be found, and as a consequence my constituent has an attachment of earnings against his very limited income: £3.30 a week for a chap who is on £40 a week, for a debt he did not incur and for which he should have no responsibility, from a council that can afford to waive it. That is outrageous and immoral, and I hope we can change the way such cases are handled.
Council tax impacts on pensioners in particular, and I am worried that we still have not got the earnings link for the basic state pension. After all these years of promising, it is still something for tomorrow-although at present I do not want it to come tomorrow, because I want it to be introduced when earnings are rising significantly so that pensions also rise significantly. It is time that we restored that link, however. It is also disgraceful that the state earnings-related pension scheme-SERPS-and additional pensions have been frozen this year. We should be doing much more to provide fairness for pensioners.
It also worries me that one of the effects of this recession is to produce a cohort of young people who leave school and university with very limited prospects of finding employment. They will be overtaken by their successors unless we are prepared to do something about that. I applaud what the Chancellor had to say about extending the guarantee scheme, but I wish he would reduce the time requirement for trying to find training and employment from six to three months, as some of us have advocated, because six months is a long time in a young person's life.
I hear what is said about extra university places, but I look at the figures and they do not seem to add up. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the figures seem to account for only about half the cost of those university places, so I do not know how they will be afforded. However, I do not honestly think that university places are necessarily where the investment should be made anyway. Further education is where we are seeing a starvation of funds and a lack of the right sort of skills training, which will be essential in producing the tradesmen and artisans of the future-the people we desperately need to run the economy.
I want to touch on two or three issues that affect my constituency directly. The first is the hike in fuel duty. It has been staged, but it is still there. We will still have a 1p rise, then another, and then another again, with an extra 3p on fuel duty by the end of the year. For people living in rural areas-we cannot say this often enough, can we?-having personal transport, in the form or a car, is not a luxury; it is a necessity, because they cannot go to work, go to the shops or live their lives without one. I always mention the fact that my village has one bus a week. How could anyone live their life in that village if they did not have access to private transport? Yet every time the petrol bill goes up, those who rely on their cars become one penny poorer. We need to address the issue and find alternative ways of raising revenue without continually using fuel duty.