Local Government Finance

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Edinburgh Leith 12:00 am, 6th June 1991

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many people are currently imprisoned for non-payment of the poll tax; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Prison service central records do not show this information on a daily basis and may, therefore, be incomplete. But we are aware of three people currently in prison as a result of refusal to pay after a means inquiry established that they were able to pay their community charge.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) asked me to make a statement. My only statement can be that people who can pay, should pay.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Edinburgh Leith

Whatever the numbers, clearly those people are political prisoners—[Laughter.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Every hon. Member must put his question in his own way.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Edinburgh Leith

As I said, this is a political issue because yesterday at Margate, Mrs. Ruby Haddow was imprisoned, along with her husband, simply because she had not paid her poll tax. If that had happened in South Africa or eastern Europe there would have been a public outcry. It is disgraceful that there is no public outcry. More important, let us remember that that would not happen in Scotland because the law is different. It is a north-south issue. If we are talking about the Government being even-handed, why can people in England and Wales be gaoled when people in Scotland cannot? Surely it is now time for an amnesty for everyone who has not paid the poll tax, particularly for those in gaol.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Those who can pay, should pay, and that applies as much north of the border as south of the border. The hon. Gentleman might spend his time more profitably trying to persuade his local authority, Lothian regional council, which has a disgraceful record on collecting community charge payments, to do as well as Labour-controlled Fife region. South of the border, the hon. Gentleman might speak to a few Labour authorities, such as Lambeth, Newham and Islington, which failed to collect their community charge payments in exactly the same way as they failed to collect their rates.

Photo of Mr Richard Tracey Mr Richard Tracey , Surbiton

The figure that my right hon. Friend has given will be read with some interest. It is viewed with interest by me, because I drove past Wandsworth prison last weekend and saw a crowd of people protesting against such imprisonment. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there is and will be no question of an amnesty for those people who have not paid, because such failure to pay is viewed with disgust by all right-thinking members of society?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), whose question I welcome, that under a Conservative Government there is no possibility whatever of any amnesty ever being declared for anyone who breaks the law. Rather than people waving banners outside Wandsworth prison, perhaps one day we shall see outside magistrates courts ordinary decent people who pay their community charge waving banners that say, "Those who can pay, should pay."

Photo of Mr Dave Nellist Mr Dave Nellist , Coventry South East

Is the Minister aware that there are five such people in prison and that the sixth person was Mrs. Ruby Haddow of Ramsgate? She was the first woman to be gaoled for failure to pay and she is in Holloway. She has three daughters. Her only income is child benefit. Her husband came out of prison on Friday. He is an electrician and was made redundant in October last year. They have no income to pay the poll tax, yet she is serving 14 days and is being punished for her poverty. As not even I believe that this Government seriously contemplate gaoling the 16 million people who have not paid all of last year's poll tax, why do they not follow the logic of abolishing the poll tax and abolish the enforcement procedures that are putting people in prison for poverty?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

No, certainly not. For people who do not pay their community charge bills, there is an exhaustive procedure which magistrates courts must follow and it includes a means inquiry. Courts alone decide who goes to gaol, not Ministers.