Local Government Finance

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:44 pm on 25th April 1990.

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Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon , Halifax 7:44 pm, 25th April 1990

I was a little disturbed when the debate began with the noisy and hysterical reaction from Conservative Members, which seemed to strike a panicky note. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) made an excellent speech in the face of all that unruly panic. He rightly referred to the undemocratic nature of the poll tax and to the considerable falling off in the numbers of those on the register—15,000 in Strathclyde alone.

The poll tax is not only unfair, it is anti-democratic and it lacks any democratic legitimacy. It is nonsense to say that the British people voted for it. The Tory manifesto for the last election, the most detailed in post-war history at about 25,000 words, contained 82 on the poll tax. The Government smuggled it past the electorate and then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, they rammed it through the House.

My local authority, Calderdale, was 34th from the bottom of the league, with a very low poll tax of £297—yet it is to be poll tax-capped. Over the past 10 years, Calderdale has struggled to maintain and improve essential services while the Government have taken away more and more of its grant. Now we are told that we are profligate and not fit to set a budget. That is highly insulting to the hard-working, decent councillors who give up many hours of unpaid time because they are dedicated to the people of Halifax and Calderdale.

Why was our standard spending assessment set at 5 per cent. above inflation when the average for metropolitan authorities was 11 per cent.? It is sheer irresponsibility to poll tax-cap an authority such as ours and the Minister must know that his actions will force Calderdale to make millions of pounds' worth of cuts in services, which will hurt our area. We cannot make such cuts without seriously damaging services. We cannot get away with fringe cuts—there is no fat to cut. We are a small, moderate district authority, built up from a very low rate base, and our spending goes on real services. I defy the Minister to come and show me where there is waste.

The voluntary sector in Calderdale is worried. The citizens advice bureaux and many bodies like them which receive grants are extremely anxious. Of course, their grants have increased over the years because they have had to expand their services, given the great problems that the Government have created. The massive growth in poverty over which the Government have presided, the housing crisis, the huge build-up of personal debt and he cuts in benefit and in the NHS have inevitably led to a growth in the budget of a caring local authority. One voluntary sector body that comes to mind about which I feel strongly is the Crossroads scheme, an excellent scheme in Calderdale. Many letters in the local press have supported it, yet it is worried about cuts in its grant that might result from capping. Crossroads is a cheap but valuable service that relieves carers who look after frail people in the community. Both it and the home help service are worried, as are people who work in old people's homes.

The Secretary of State visited Halifax yesterday. As I said when raising an earlier point of order, he crept in like a thief in the night without telling anybody that he was going there. The first I knew of his visit was when I saw a letter on the notice board saying that he was to visit Halifax yesterday. That was discourteous, which was why I challenged him about it.

The right hon. Gentleman told the press yesterday that he was protecting the people of Calderdale by capping the poll tax. He visited the richest area in Halifax, Savile park. He went there to support local Tories who were launching their local government election campaign. Those local Tories said that people in Halifax were not concerned about the poll tax and that dog dirt was more of a problem. So on the day when my council was in court applying for judicial review to protect valuable services such as Crossroads, the Minister was making dog dirt his priority. I am concerned about dogs fouling the pavements, but such action on the part of the Secretary of State is beyond the pale.

In his cheap, knockabout speech, the Minister did not tell the House about the teachers who lobbied him yesterday and who told him that if he went ahead with his cuts they would put education back 15 years in Halifax. We still do not have a comprehensive education system in Halifax and to set the clock back another 15 years is unthinkable.

The Secretary of State recently accepted a system for local financial management of schools. He said that it was a good system, but is he now about to tell teachers and administrators to cut their budgets? How will he justify that? Will he tell us how many teachers and ancillary workers will be lost from the schools in which £5·6 million of cuts have to be made? The National Association of Head Teachers is considering challenging the Government in court, and no hon. Member can tell me that that association represents the loony left.

Calderdale is a large geographical area with a small population and our services are expensive to provide. That is common sense. We kept our poll tax down and, as I said, we were 34th from the bottom of the list. The poll tax is nothing more than an act of violence perpetrated by the rich and powerful against those who have very little. I do not enjoy seeing pensioners crying in my surgery and saying that they have to take sleeping pills at night because they are anxious and do not know how they will find an extra £3 or £4 a week. To someone on a low income, such a sum can be a devastating blow to a budget.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) I am taking a non-payment stand. I see from The Guardian last week that three Anglican bishops, a Roman Catholic bishop and five non-conformist leaders think that it is a good act of conscience on behalf of the poor. I support my people who cannot pay and I throw down a challenge to the Minister and to Conservative Members. They have been vocal in asking about our plans. What do they intend to do about the people who cannot pay? At what level of poverty are they prepared to come in and help such people? I know what I shall do.

The rich can always avoid taxes that they do not like, and I am quite sure that many hon. Members have lawyers and accountants to help them to avoid such taxes. The poor do not have that option, and in the face of a Government who simply refuse to listen I am proud to take a non-payment stand. With poll tax capping, the Secretary of State has acted in the best traditions of Mussolini. He is a town-hall Mussolini. It grieves me to say it, but I would not be disappointed if he ended up meeting the same fate.