Orders of the Day — Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:10 am on 13th July 1987.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin , Glasgow Springburn 3:10 am, 13th July 1987

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the poll tax once again. I deliberately call the tax a poll tax, in spite of the Government calling it a community charge, because that is how it is known north of the border. The more it is debated in England and Wales, the more well known it is as a poll tax. In fact, the Prime Minister gave it that description not so long ago.

I clearly recall the debate on Second Reading on 9 December 1986 when there was no shortage of Tory Members who supported the poll tax. In fact, Michael Ancram delivered the winding-up speech. He steered the legislation through Committee. He was supported by Michael Hirst, who represented Strathkelvin and Bearsden, Alex Fletcher from Edinburgh, Central, Barry Henderson. Gerald Malone, John MacKay, Albert McQuarrie, Alexander Pollock, John Corrie, and Peter Fraser. All those former Members welcomed the tax. They said that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread and that the people of Scotland would queue up to vote for the Government. Two reasons why those people no longer represent constituencies are the destruction of our industrial base in traditional industries in Scotland and the high level of unemployment, particularly among the young, that is hitting the people of Scotland. Another reason must be the poll tax. In places such as Edinburgh and Strathkelvin and Bearsden, people realised just what the Tories were going to foist on them. The guinea pig was to be not the whole of the United Kingdom, but Scotland. Voters were queueing up to vote for Labour candidates.

Even some present Conservative Members did not do too well. They all sang the praises of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), who is not here to defend the poll tax for which he campaigned before other Tories in Scotland even thought about it. He did not do too well either. At the 1983 election, he had a 5,000 majority, but that fell to 900 at the last election. The Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), did not do too well. A few more votes for Labour and he would have been out. The only thing that saved him was the fact that, for many years, he has played the role of the perfect gentleman. Certainly, the poll tax did not help him. Even the Secretary of State for Scotland did not do too well. The arrogance that the Government displayed throughout Second Reading and in Committee was such that the people of Scotland considered that the legislation was the final blow to them. It was a final attack on their standards of living. I am surprised by that.

The reason why I am here at this time of the morning is to put on record that we are now getting English Conservative Members of Parliament saying that there will be a revolt of Tory Back Benchers against the poll tax. I note that the Whip is nodding his head and saying that that is not true, but the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and a former Cabinet Minister are on record as saying that they do not like the poll tax. In fact, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) stated that on two occasions within Cabinet and argued against such a tax. Even the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) got into the act.

I am glad to see that there are converts to the argument that the Opposition have been putting forward, but it is a pity that some of the former Members I mentioned went through the Division Lobby in support of the Scottish Tories to impose the tax in Scotland. Their credibility and standing in the community would have been far better had they been prepared to say at that time that they were not interested in seeing the tax imposed in any part of the United Kingdom.

It is shameful that the Tories who are against the tax should say, "Why don't we let it be tried in Scotland?". I take exception to the community that I represent and the people of Scotland being used as guinea pigs. If the Government are putting forward the argument that the tax is much better than rates, it should be implemented throughout the United Kingdom at the same time

The hardship it will cause is such that people in local government, who arc not elected to take part in our political arguments here, are now coming out and saying that this will cause hardship in Scotland, and in England and Wales, if it is implemented in England and Wales.

The director of finance for the Glasgow district council, Mr. William English, who is respected in local government circles throughout the country, has said about the rating crisis in Glasgow that if the poll tax were introduced tomorrow it would mean that every person over the age of 18 would have to find £292. Many households in my constituency contain at least five adults and they would each have to pay £292, which means that one household would be required to pay £1,460 a year, not including any rates rises imposed. That would impose a great deal of hardship on many families.

This will apply in housing estates, where the people are among the poorest, but I know that the Minister will say that housing estates are the responsibility of the authority. I do not want him marking any part of my constituency, because the part of Glasgow in which I was brought up as a boy was mentioned as a deprived area so often that the place got a bad name. I have no intention of giving any place a bad name. I mean no disrespect to the people of Possilpark in my constituency, but the area was built in the period between the wars. The people were taken out of the worst slums in Glasgow. They were so poor that the old Glasgow corporation had to give them furniture. They did not have beds, tables or chairs. Those problems of generations ago still exist in Possilpark. When I was in that area during the election, I found that, although there was a good community spirit, the people were the first to admit that there were many problems. The poorest people in Scotland reside in that community, yet the Minister is expecting some families to pay £1,460 in poll tax. That is neither right nor fair. There are not many hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. However, I hope that when hon. Members read Hansard they will recognise that hardship will be imposed on many families.

The Minister will no doubt say that the Government will take care of low-income families and that provision will be made for those on supplementary benefit. However, we have not heard the full story of what will happen to those on low incomes—those in the catering, retail and garment industries, where the Government have abolished the wages councils that protected the workers. Some people are working in sweated conditions and are being exploited day by day. More and more the story is coming out that people are hired one day and sacked the next. They are on very low incomes; some are lucky to earn £70 a week gross. The Government keep repeating the magical figure of 20 per cent. as being all that they will have to pay. The Government are distorting the picture because it is a minimum of 20 per cent. Some people on low incomes will be required to pay up to 95 per cent. of the poll tax because of the sliding scale. I want to put on record that the 20 per cent. that the Government keep mentioning is not the full picture.

As I have often mentioned in the House, my area used to have a booming railway industry. It was once the finest railway engineering construction site in the country, and it was famous throughout the world for its expertise. Many people were pensioned off from that industry, and I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are familiar with such pensioners. They were labourers in the workshops and did not earn big money, but they got a bit of a pension. That was compulsory. They retired with two pensions, and they live with dignity and respect because of that extra income. Under the poll tax, they will not pay the minimum of 20 per cent. That bit of extra pension will be taken into consideration and some of them will be required to pay more than the 20 per cent. that the Government quote. There will be difficulties in communities throughout the land. I hope that the Minister will consider these matters seriously, as they were not properly debated in Committee. It will be the downfall of the Tories in Scotland.

The effect on local government is devastating. The Government say that high-spending local authorities will have the most to complain about and that those that are prudent and behave themselves have nothing to fear from the poll tax. That is nonsense. As I have said, Mr. William English, who is highly regarded as Glasgow's director of finance, has put the facts and figures to CoSLA, to various local authorities throughout the country and to Ministers, and, as I understand it, his figures have not been contradicted. I should explain that Mr. English is extremely worried.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, in his first speech in the House after the general election, congratulated Glasgow on the good work that it was doing. In his position of Secretary of State he took credit for what had taken place. He cannot say that irresponsible local authorities have the most to worry about and then congratulate Glasgow when he knows that Glasgow is complaining about the tax. However, he has congratulated the city on its housing initiatives, its garden festival and other projects. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about irresponsible authorities, but he is on record as saying that Glasgow is not irresponsible.

The bureaucracy in my native city of Glasgow will be a nightmare. The rates system, with all its faults, was a property tax that was relatively simple to collect. A tax was imposed on every building or house. Glasgow officials now have to start worrying about second homes, for example, because they will attract a different tax from that levied on first homes. If hon. Members are fortunate enough to have accommodation in London and a second home in Glasgow, difficulties will be created for local government officials. There are not many hon. Members in that position, but the issue of first and second homes will worry officials.

In Glasgow, 560,000 people will be required to pay the poll tax. Only half that number are paying rates. The population in a city such as Glasgow is constantly on the move, and that is also the situation in Dundee. In Aberdeen, with the oil industry, the movement must cause an even greater headache for local government officials. The poll tax will be easily avoidable, and there will be those who are on the move who will avoid it. There will be those who forget to register and others who move and forget to register at their new home, for example. There will be those who avoid the tax deliberately and others who overlook registration. It is calculated that in our major cities about 20 per cent. of the tax will not be collected as a result of unemployment and associated difficulties.

About 80 per cent. of local government expenditure will come under the control of central Government. The rate support grant, which is one of the main sources of income for local authorities, and all other grants will be controlled by the Government. That will mean that the remaining 20 per cent. will be the only area in which local authorities will be entitled to implement a rise.

Critics of the Labour party will say that local authorities should have thought about increases, but time and again the Secretary of State has said that he will make allowances for inflation. However, this year, with the manual workers' pay increase and the teachers' pay award, we are aware that the allowances made by the Secretary of State have resulted in a shortfall in local government finance. Once the poll tax has been introduced, the increased demands on local government finance will be put on the domestic rate. The local authorities will not be allowed to put the increase—an increase caused through no fault of the authorities—on to the non-domestic rate. The poll tax will place an unfair burden on local authorities.

I envisage that families will be split up because of the poll tax. Those who want to stay together—most do—will face intolerable pressure. That pressure will result from the fact that, as a result of the poll tax, each boy or girl over the age of 18 will be expected to fork out about £300. There will be terrible pressure on parents to ask their sons or daughters to leave home.

The poll tax will bring back the days of the depression. I have no memory of those days, but my parents have bitter memories. I clearly recall my mother and father telling me stories about old communities where, because people's means-test money was being cut, young boys and girls were asked of leave home so that some extra money from the parish could be allowed into the house.

Because families will face a charge of £300 per person, young boys and girls will be asked to move out. Some responsible young people, who will say that they do not want their parents to be burdened with their problems, will leave home. That already occurs because of unemployment, and the Government are putting more pressure on the poorer families.

In Committee we heard talk of summary warrants. Such warrants will be discussed again and again as more and more people do not and cannot pay up. Because of the problems in our society we have witnessed the welcome sight of lawyers moving their offices from the city centres to the main streets of housing estates. However, in Glasgow and other cities we have seen the establishment of offices for people who are messengers-at-arms and sheriff officers. I have no desire to see sheriff officers moving into premises in a housing estate. However, the poll tax will encourage that development.

I can also envisage that some local authorities, which support the Government at the moment, will offer rewards to neighbours to tell on those neighbours whose sons and daughters are staying at home and who are, therefore, not paying enough poll tax. At the moment we have detector vans going round to find out whether people are watching television without a licence. Will we see detector vans going round our cities and rural areas finding out if there are more people living in a house than there are paying the poll tax?

The Minister should go hack to his boss, the Secretary of State, and tell him that the people of Scotland have rejected the policies of the Tory party, including the poll tax, and that this legislation should be taken away, forgotten about and buried, along with the Tory candidates who lost their seats at the recent election.