Housing and Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 25th January 1990.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 6:35 pm, 25th January 1990

These debates can turn into flights of fancy about obscure statistics and heaven knows what else, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) and a number of my hon. Friends have said, we are talking about the conditions in which people in Scotland have to live. In far too many cases, their circumstances are well-nigh intolerable.

The House would do well to remember that today's proceedings set the scene for poll tax levels and the quality of service in every district and region in Scotland for the coming year. We now know that every one of my constituents, including the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who will reply to the debate, will have to pay £407 a head in poll tax—whether it be the Parliamentary Under-Secretary with his means or people living just above the poverty line and income support level. That is the kind of arbitrary, unfair tax which this Government have imposed and local authorities are having to try to implement to fund hopelessly overstrained and overstretched local services. As hon. Members have said, tenants also face higher rents.

The poll tax system in Scotland today is a monstrosity for which the House must accept full responsibility. It was not just Douglas Mason who dreamed up the poll tax before he lost his seat on Kirkcaldy district council. It was not just Michael Ancram who dreamed it up or tried to force it through the House before he lost his seat in Edinburgh to my excellent learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths). The House forced through that tax and imposed it on the people of Scotland. It is small comfort to my constituents to see hon. Members representing English constituencies, who voted for the poll tax in Scotland, suddenly discovering that they do not like it after all when it is imposed on their constituencies.

This is a viciously unfair tax which applies to everyone, whether or not they can afford it. It is also an administrative nightmare, as those of us representing Scottish constituencies can confirm. I can think of many anomalies. For example, a nurse in my constituency is employed by a boarding school which requires her to live in for part of the time. She is a single person on low pay and she had to pay not only her personal poll tax because of her accommodation at work, but a double standard poll tax for her own flat. The tax is an administrative nightmare and grossly unfair.

When calculating the eligibility of local authorities For revenue support grant, the Government assume that all these debts will be paid; but they will not be paid, because it is such an inefficient tax. The trouble with the minority administration in the Scottish Office is that it exercises power without responsibility. That seems to have been the prerogative of the Tory party in Scotland during the past 10 years.

The Tories have no serious aspiration of winning political support in Scotland. They are content to rely on English Lobby fodder to see through their legislation in the House. They have the power to impose any kind of dog's breakfast on the people of Scotland—and that is what the poll tax is. Once the Conservatives have done their mischief, the elected local authorities and their officials have to try to maintain local services in schools and elsewhere which our people so desperately need.

Tonight's business sets the scene for local services in the coming year. When the Secretary of State opened the debate, he suggested that Lothian regional council should cut its budget—do away with pensioners' free bus passes, I suppose. But the local Labour authorities are elected to do a job in Scotland and, unlike the Minister, they have a right and duty to implement the policies on which they were elected.

In my last couple of minutes I shall concentrate on housing. I can certainly confirm what local authorities and Shelter have said about the housing crisis which people in Scotland are experiencing. The housing capital allocations are insufficient to meet the well-known need for investment in repairs and improvements, let alone build the new houses needed to meet the growing needs of people on waiting lists in every part of Scotland. It is intolerable that people have to live in cold, damp housing with windows that require replacement and, sometimes, unsafe wiring, because local authorities are not allowed to spend the money required to bring the houses up to standard.

East Lothian district council's borrowing allocation is £1·221 million on top of its projected receipts from council house sales. That is fully £5 million short of what the council requires to spend on its improvement and repair programme in the coming year. It is better than the position last year, when it had a negative capital allocation, but it is still not good enough.

We must not lose sight of the housing shortage. The Government do not seem to care how many people do not have houses so long as those who have them own them. If ever there was a case of warped principles, that must be it. In my constituency, 5,700 people are stuck on the district council's housing waiting list. Hon. Members hear about such cases in their surgeries. We must deal with young people just married having to live in their in-laws' overcrowded accommodation. What sort of way is that to begin a marriage?

The Conservatives, who claim to be the party of the family, govern Scotland. Local authorities cannot meet those needs. The present state of affairs is a scandal. Tonight in East Lothian, 20 families will be living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation because the local authority does not have homes to let to those people who urgently need them. It is a tragedy and a scandal, and the Government are responsible for it.