HC Deb 05 May 1920 vol 128 cc2121-5

I beg to move at the end of the Clause to add the words: This Act shall also apply in the case of a house of an assessable rental exceeding twenty-one pounds where in virtue of the duration of the let the owner is responsible for any portion of the occupiers' rates. There is so much agreement on this Bill that it is quite unnecessary to occupy more than a minute or two in explaining this Amendment, which stands on the Paper in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Fife (Mr. Adamson) and myself. The Bill provides for the recovery of the excess of assessment paid by the owners of small houses in Scotland from the assessing authority where, by reason of any change in the occupancy of the dwelling, the house owners are unable to recover such assessment from the tenant. On that and the other Clauses of the Bill, there is no disagreement at all among Scottish Members, and personally I am more than grateful to my right hon. Friend opposite for having met us in substance on the two other points which were presented by way of Amendment in Committee. Attention was then directed to a class of house proprietors in Scotland whose interests appeared to us to be not quite fully protected by this Bill. A difficulty arose from the joint operation of the House Letting Act of 1911 and the much more recent Rents Restriction Acts. Clearly, as the text of the Bill indicates, its provisions apply only to houses which are within the limits of the House Letting Act of 1911. It may be argued that in Scotland very few houses of a rental of £21 or upwards have been let for periods of less than one year, and hence no proprietors would be in the position of being liable for the occupiers' rates. Representations, however, have been made to us, not merely by small householders in Scotland, but also by a number of representative organisations and bodies, to the effect that, partly because of War conditions, and partly because of conditions preceding the War, an increasing number of houses in Scotland of a rental of £21 and upwards, have been let for periods of less than one year, and that, under the terms of Section 345 of the Borough Police (Scotland) Act of 1892, the owners become liable for the occupiers' assessment. I am obliged to confess that there are obvious lines of reply, which I may venture to anticipate, on the part of the Government. They may suggest, first of all, that these proprietors of houses of a rental of £21 per annum and upwards are well able to take care of themselves, and that, if they fail to make a stipulation which, clearly protects their interests, they have only themselves to blame. It may be argued also, that probably, in the light of decisions in the Courts, Section 345 of the Act of 1892 has not the force which some of us would attribute to it. Within the past day or two I hare read the Section again. It consists of only about three lines, but there is not the slightest doubt that there is no optional element within it; it is a compulsory Section, saying that the owners of premises and houses let for periods of less than one year are liable for the occupiers' assessment.

This Amendment is designed to meet a real grievance, and to give to the owners of such houses, who are, many of them, quite small people belonging to the industrial classes in Scotland, exactly the rights which are accorded to proprietors of houses up to the £21 limit. It has been strongly urged that, in a matter of this kind, where the recovery of an excess assessment is concerned, there can be no real reason for drawing any distinction between proprietors up to £21 and proprietors above that sum, who, for the reasons which I have just quoted, happen to have let their property for a period of less than one year. I venture to suggest, also, that this Amendment is one which is quite democratic in character, and which may worthily come from these Benches. My fear is that many small proprietors, unaware of this Clause in the 1892 Act, may come silently under its burden, and it is particularly that class of small proprietor which I have in mind in proposing this Amendment.

Captain W. BENN

I beg to second the Amendment.


I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend for the reasonable way in which up till now he has met the Government with regard to this Bill. It is quite true, as he has stated, that, on two of the points which he raised in Committee, we were able to meet him, and to do so, I think, to his complete satisfaction. He then raised this third point, and when he did so, I undertook to look into it before the Report stage, and to see whether it was possible to meet him upon this point also. I am afraid that I cannot do so, and I hope my hon. Friend, on reflection, will see his way not to press this Amendment further. He has said that it is a democratic Amendment. I do not think that observation was addressed, perhaps, so much to the Government as to some of his own friends in the House and, perhaps, outside. It may be quite democratic, and I am not going to assail it on the ground that it is not; there are certain other objections to it, and I hope that on reflection my hon. Friend—who has dealt with an obscure legal topic with remarkable skill—will agree that they do not permit of its acceptance in its present or in any similar form. In the first place, as the House knows, or at any rate as the Scottish Members in the House know, this is to a large extent an agreed measure. It has been agreed upon between the assessing authorities in Scotland and the owners of small houses in Scotland, represented by their association. It would, therefore, be difficult, at this late stage of the Bill, after complete agreement has been reached—not without, as I can assure my hon. Friend, a good deal of conference and difficulty—it would be difficult at this stage to bring within the scope of the Bill, houses of quite a different class from those which have been considered and discussed between the interested parties so far. That, I think, is a considerable difficulty at the outset, but it does not exhaust the matter. My hon. Friend anticipated one of the arguments which I propose to lay before the House, but I do not think he met it. The houses with which his Amendment deals, and which would be brought within the scope of this Bill, were his Amendment to receive effect, are those which are covered by Section 345 of the Burgh Police Act. That Section, which has my hon. Friend said, is quite short, is as. follows: Owners who shall let for rent or for hire lands or premises for less than a year shall themselves be responsible for the said assessments"— that is to say, the burgh general assessments— and the sum may be recovered from such owners. In the case of the houses to which the Bill already refers, there can be no doubt that the owner, and the owner alone, is responsible to the assessing authority for the occupier's assessment. Sub-section (2) of Section 7 of the House Letting Act of 1911 so provides. That, however, cannot be said to be the effect of Section 345 of the Act of 1892. It has been held— not in the Supreme Court, but in the Sheriff Court—that that Section confers an option upon the assessing authority to recover from either owner or occupier as they may think fit. That is the interpretation deliberately put upon that Section by a Judge in the Sheriff Court. It would seem to follow from that, that the owner, if he pays, has a right of relief against the occupier, and I see no reason myself, and I am advised that there is no reason, to doubt the soundness of that view. If that be so, then I think it is wholly unnecessary to bring these houses within the scope of the present measure. More than that, if my hon. Friend's Amendment were passed in the form in which it stands, I am advised that the effect would be to enable the owner to recover, in addition to the rent which he has imposed, any increase in the occupier's assessment, whether he himself had paid it, or whether the assessing authority had recovered it from the occupier already. Obviously, if that is the true interpretation of my hon. Friend's Amendment, it would be impossible to accept it in its present form, or, indeed, in any form resembling it. It is a purely legal question, but I am advised that that, if not the intention, is at any rate the effect of the Amendment which my hon. Friend has moved. For these reasons, namely, because, in the first place, it would be exceedingly difficult to bring within the scope of this agreed Bill, at this late stage, a new set of houses which have not been discussed with the parties interested, and seeing that it is a Bill which ought to go through at the earliest possible moment, in order to administer the relief which my hon. Friend will agree is urgently required; secondly, because these houses with which Section 345 of the 1892 Act deals are of an entirely different character from those now within the scope of the measure, and really do not require its protection; and, in the third place, because this Amendment, in its present form, would lead to the inequitable consequence which I have stated—it would be quite impossible to accept the Amendment. I hope, therefore, that, as we have done our best to meet my hon. Friend upon the two important questions which were discussed upstairs, he will not press the Government to meet him upon this third matter, especially as I think the protection which he seeks to afford is both unnecessary and impossible.

Amendment negatived.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.