Community Charge in Scotland

Part of Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 16th December 1991.

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Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow 5:30 pm, 16th December 1991

We have just listened to the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), who is something of an institution in Scotland. It is not for me to criticise him, because I seek his support on other matters, particularly to preserve a famous historic building which is tottering. I do not say that the hon. and learned Gentleman totters; he has kindly agreed to support my campaign to preserve that fine building.

I shall not join the attacks on the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas)—or the hon. Member for Nowhere, as he was described by the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, when I faced the crisis of the collapse of the Scott Lithgow shipyard, he gave me much help.

I wish to ask the Under-Secretary about the position of Scottish and English merchant seamen. Under the poll tax, Scottish merchant seamen have been discriminated against compared with their English colleagues. The evidence demonstrates that English merchant seamen have been able to argue more easily before tribunals the case for removing them from poll tax registers than have their Scottish counterparts. Even when Scottish and English merchant seamen have served on the same ship, Scottish seamen have had to pay the poll tax, whereas English seamen have been given discounts. Will that discrimination continue with the council tax?

My sympathy lies with Scottish merchant seamen who have been discriminated against, but I also have much sympathy for the people on abysmally low incomes who cannot afford to pay the poll tax and who face the indignity of warrant sales. As has been said, poinding is an humiliating experience. The Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 reduced the harshness of warrant sales, but they are still a squalid form of debt collection. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) served on the Standing Committee on the Bill which lessened the hardship caused, but poinding remains a humiliating experience.

People close to me have gone through poinding and tell me that it is distressing when sheriff officers come into their homes. Even with the Debtors (Scotland) Act, it is a miserable affair for those in Scotland who are pursued for debt. Many of my constituents on low incomes listened too eagerly, perhaps naively and certainly unwisely, to the non-payment campaigners and now find themselves in deep trouble because they followed those sleekit hypocrites. Those campaigners cannot help them now. In that regard, my constituents are lost and will have to face the intrusion into their homes of sheriff officers. Where do we find the non-payment campaigners? They are not opening their cheque books to help constituents who supported their campaign.

The poll tax and the attendant problems caused for ordinary people feature largely at my surgeries, and I believe that the same happens at the surgeries of most of my hon. Friends and other Scottish Members of Parliament. Constituents raise the subject of the poll tax much more than their problems with the Department of Social Security, and that is important, given that about one third of the people I represent are in direct or indirect receipt of social security payments—a dreadful statistic.

To a considerable extent, the Government's handling of the poll tax in Scotland—which was introduced with the enthusiastic support of the present Secretary of State—has brought about the demise of the Conservative party in Scotland. We are facing the likelihood of a major constitutional crisis in Scotland, chiefly because of the Conservative party's insensitive and uncaring governance of the nation. Scottish Conservative representation in the House of Commons is down to single figures; following the next election, it will be even lower, no matter what happens to the overall position of the two major parties in the next election.

Even during the Prime Minister's so-called honeymoon period, I have been convinced that the number of Conservative seats will fall below 326. I genuinely believe that the Government will lose the next election. They certainly deserve to do so in Scotland because of their actions. Although the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross and the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) have just survived, they too may become Members for Nowhere after the next election.