Orders of the Day — Community Charges (Substitute Setting) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 3rd December 1990.

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Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury 9:40 pm, 3rd December 1990

I do not know whether to be grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Brightside said that he was afraid that I would run out of notes. With interventions of that length, there is no danger of my doing that. I shall refer to the hon. Gentleman's point about Lambeth in one moment.

One of the interesting things that has happened in recent weeks is that I have met several delegations from local authorities who have complained about several points, such as their standard spending assessments and the indicators that are used to make them up. It has become clear to me that, as local authorities have come to recognise the way in which the system works, they have become very much more sophisticated in their criticism of the indicators and have come to present their worries and fears to the Government. That is all part of the system. That is what it is about. That is what the consultation exercise has been about.

On Lambeth in particular, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) talked about the problem of the collection of rates under the old rating system. Let me give the House some examples of rate arrears now outstanding for 1988–89, the latest year for which figures are available. The hon. Gentleman referred to Bath in particular. The figure for Bath is 0·8 per cent. outstanding, for Westminster it is 2·6 per cent. outstanding, and for Wandsworth it is 8·1 per cent. outstanding. The hon. Gentleman should contrast those efficient Conservative-controlled authorities with Lambeth's 20 per cent. outstanding and the 12·7 per cent. for Liverpool. I sometimes wonder about Lambeth, as do my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn).

Not the Government, but the council's senior official, said that the financial difficulties in Lambeth were near catastrophic, and he criticised the corruptness of its administrative system. He said that the final accounts for Lambeth had not been prepared for any year since 1985 and that, with less than half the poll tax collected, its financial position was dire.

According to the Local Government Chronicle, the council's report said that Lambeth's poll tax register was out of date, listing properties that had been demolished, some of which lie outside the borough boundaries. It warned that, the local council must issue more than 40,000 poll tax bills that have yet to be sent out and urged the borough to take tough action with defaulters to stave off a financial crisis. Furthermore, the senior officer said that the introduction and the handling of the poll tax had been woefully inadequate, with officers having to force members into taking decisions. That is not something of which any council should be proud, whatever its political colour.

I was sorry that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti), who is not in his place, thought it necessary to parade a lot of problems affecting Eastbourne when he did not take the trouble to bring a delegation to see me, along with many other councils from all sides of the political spectrum. Therefore, we do not know the substance of the hon. Gentleman's problem.

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) made it clear that he saw the Bill's purpose as being to make the poll tax cap fit even tighter". Much of his speech was based on that assertion. Even with the wildest imagination, I cannot see how the hon. Gentleman can conclude that the purpose of the Bill is to tighten the fit of a cap. The Bill does not affect the existing powers to cap local authorities. Nor does it affect the way in which we should approach the exercise of our capping powers. It does not even mean a change in the way in which a capped authority should approach reducing its budget to conform with the cap set for it. Therefore, the cap is neither tighter nor looser. The Bill simply ensures that, once a capped authority has received its budget and revised it, it must pass on to its charge payers the full benefit of those budget reductions.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the quotation from the Leader of the Opposition that we have often heard recently. His right hon. Friend referred to the "most unjust" of all taxes, the local rates, which take the most from those who can afford least. Many right hon. and hon Members of all parties have stated that it is impossible to achieve a 100 per cent. level of collection. Perhaps that is the case, but the objective of every council should be to try to achieve 100 per cent. It is preposterous to justify non-collection on the grounds that it is not possible to achieve 100 per cent.

One of the more interesting contributions was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), who talked about the cost of collection to local people. I was pleased to note that a report from the Audit Commission a couple of months ago gave a lot of useful advice to local authorities. The cost of collection varies astonishingly from one local authority to another—from about £5 per head to about £20 a head—and that has nothing to do with the political colour of the controlling party in the local authority. It has a great deal to do with the efficiency of collection and with the interest taken by the authority in carrying out that collection.