HC Deb 25 November 1926 vol 200 cc576-84

Notwithstanding anything in this Act contained, in the application of this Act to the port and harbours of Greenock the deduction of the percentage set out in the second column of the First Schedule to this Act shall be ten per centum higher than the deduction applicable to the class of lands and heritages referred to in paragraph (8) of the said Schedule.—[Lieut.-Colonel Thom.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Lieut.-Colonel THOM

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I understand that the Lord Advocate will accept it, with an Amendment which he will propose.


This Clause, as the House will observe, relates to the port and harbours of Greenock, and proposes to allow them permanently a reduction under the First Schedule of 10 per cent., in addition to the 20 per cent. which is given to harbours generally. I may say at once that the Government are prepared to accept this Clause if its operation he limited to five years after the Act conies into operation; in other words, if my hon. and gallant Friend is prepared to insert at the beginning of it some such words as, "Until the 15th day of May, 1932." The position, in particular, of the harbour of Greenock has given me and many other Members of the House a great deal of concern. The special trouble in connection with Greenock arises out of what is known as the system of classification, and perhaps the House will bear with me if I try to explain in a few words what it means and what the difficulties are. Under Section 36 of the Poor Law (Scotland) Act, 1845, a parish, as a rating authority—in those days, the old parochial board—was entitled to classify occupiers for the purpose of rating in such a way as they thought to be most equitable. The result was this, that in some parishes in Scotland the parish council said, for instance, "Banks shall pay three times the occupiers' rate, shops shall pay twice"—I are only taking chance illustrations "and the harbour shall pay only once that rate." That is the sort of thing they did. That classification option was adopted origiNally, I think, by some 200 or 300 parishes, and the number has gradually been coming down in the intervening years until it has reached, at the present time, the very small number of eight.

Under the Agricultural Rates Relief Act, 1896, the number who were entitled to classify was limited to those parishes only which could get a certificate from the Secretary for Scotland under that Act, and briefly it was a certificate that the classification would not hurt the agricultural occupier. At that time, I think, there were some 80 or 90 parishes, and now there are only eight, of which Greenock is one, and I hope I say it without offence to Greenock, because I have no doubt they have done it most reasonably, but the effect undoubtedly has been that in the main Greenock harbour has been subsidised at the expense of some of the other ratepayers, as regards the occupiers' rate, for a good many years, and as compared with the methods adopted in other places, and there is no doubt whatever that, that having been a continuous policy, it would be very hard on Greenock if you made the change too sharp by the effect of this Bill. By sweeping away classification, as the Bill pro- poses to do—I think I can give the figures approximately, as they are practically agreed figures, and there has been a great deal of investigation into them—it would mean imposing on the harbour trustees of Greenock a sum of between £1,100 and £1,200 a year. This 10 per cent. proposed in this Clause would remove for the five years for which the Government are prepared to accept it something like 11,000 out of the £1,100 or £1,200. I am advised that the additional £1,100 or £1,200 which the Bill would place on the harbour of Greenock consists to the extent of very nearly £1,000 of the effects of the removal of classification, and, therefore, this 10 per cent. almost exactly represents the effect of classification; that is to say, this 10 per cent., if the House follows me, is really the equivalent of the classification.

OrigiNally, the Government had down a Clause, which is still on the Paper, but which I did not move, proposing that classification, where it already existed, should be continued for five years after the Bill came into operation, but on thinking it over and discussing it with some of the authorities, I think it is undoubted that this is the preferable method of getting at the relief which we are anxious to give. Observe that the relief is not a permanent one, but simply a question of whether it is fair to bring this change so suddenly into operation on an existing state of things which has been accepted by all parties in Greenock up to date, and it is not unknown in legislation at Westminster to find a delay or a little breathing space given to people to rearrange matters when a Bill is going seriously to affect them. We propose to the House that it would be fair in this instance to give a period of five years before this change takes place for Greenock to get their affairs in order, because undoubtedly, at the present moment, the industrial and shipping situation are such as to make it peculiarly difficult for any such change to be accepted readily or not to be felt. It is for these reasons that the Government are prepared to accept this Clause on that limited basis.

It means that it delays the effect of the Act being felt quite so suddenly, but I beg the House to observe that all that we are doing is to continue for this brief period a situation which up to now has been accepted by everyone in Greenock, and as that classification was in the option of the local authorities up to now, and they have never thought of changing it, it is a long standing method of incidence of rating which has been accepted by everybody in Greenock up to date, and, therefore, it seems to us fair that we should give a breathing space for five years to enable the change to be brought about. Classification is a very complicated thing, and one of the advantages of abolishing it is to be found in simplification of rating and uniformity of methods of rating over the country. If we give the relief of 10 per cent. for five years, we are not delaying the abolition of the complicated methods of classification, and we are getting into the simpler methods. It will not stop the Bill coming into operation in that sense, but will merely meal a very simply calculable addition of 10 per cent. to the deduction allowable to this particular ratepayer. As regards the other parishes where classification exists now, and where it is proposed to abolish it, there has been no difficulty, so far as I know, in accepting the immediate coming into operation of classification. For that reason we propose to deal with this particular case in the way I have stated.


The difficulty in arguing about these proposals is, as the House agrees, that they are far more appropriate for the detail of the Committee stage, because it is almost impossible to make ourselves intelligible on a matter of this kind. Some of us on this side of the House have read a statement which has been made by the Greenock dock authorities. A little later in our proceedings we may have an opportunity of discussing briefly the general system of deductions, but this is precisely the kind of difficulty which arises in the system of deductions. As the Lord Advocate pointed out, the problem in Greenock is in part the problem of classification, together with the complete exemption of this harbour from burgh rates, and the question which affects the House is whether, if you put Greenock on the ordinary 20 per cent. basis under the Bill, you would be giving them in deduction a position different from the concession of 35 per cent., which they enjoy for the poor and education rates at the present time. The broad object of the Schedule is, of course, to maintain substantially the present position, but that result is not, in fact, achieved in Greenock at all, and an extra burden of between £1,000 and £1,200 year falls on this harbour.

In these circumstances, speaking quite for myself, I thank the Lord Advocate and the Government for doing something to meet the situation, although most hon. Members will probably ask, quite naturally, what is to happen after the period of five years has expired? All I can say is that the harbour authorities are prepared to take it on this basis, many of us would agree that a solution has been found of tie problem under the schedule which appeared to be very difficult, to meet. It was no reply to Greenock to say that the Government were making it part of a uniform scheme. The Government have gone beyond that, and held out hope to all authorities in Scotland that substantially the status quo will be maintained. In point of fact, it was not maintained in Greenock, and, although I am opposed to the system of deductions altogether, I am glad that this step has been taken, in the peculiar circumstances of this harbour, to give them the broad benefit of what has been called the status quo.


As has been said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. W. Graham), this question has perturbed many of us very much. Some of us who do not reside in Greenock know it very well, and we know the full facts of the difficulties under which the harbour has been labouring. It gives us, therefore, considerable satisfaction that the Lord Advocate has seen his way, not to give the Harbour of Greenock all that they ask for, but, at any rate, to meet us in a fairly reasonable way. In this world we cannot all get all we want, and we are thankful for small mercies. I am quite sure the Lord Advocate has given infinite attention to this matter and exercised the greatest possible patience in listening to the case of Greenock Harbour. As one who knows something of the inner workings of that body, I think we should accept the Amendment, and thank him for the great patience which he has displayed in coming to that conclusion.


I would like a little more information from the Lord Advocate as to how he proposes to put in the limitation of five years. Is he going to move an Amendment later on? I do not notice the five years in the New Clause on the Order Paper.


May I say a word as Member for the Burgh of Greenock? I am deeply grateful to the Lord Advocate for the infinite patience and attention he has given to this subject. The Corporation of Greenock are glad that the second New Clause standing in the name of the Secretary for Scotland has not been moved, and, although they are not enamoured of the Clause we are at present discussing, I think it is a fair compromise, and I am grateful to the Lord Advocate for finding a way out.


May I ask how this concession will affect the average, and to what extent? When this subject was being discussed upstairs, the Lord Advocate then said that it seemed to him that they had no choice but either to abolish classification entirely, and so on. I want to know whether this will affect his average, and, if so, by what amount?


The answer is—immaterial for five years, and nothing afterwards.

Clause read a Second time.

Amendment made: In line 1, at the beginning, insert the words Until the fifteenth day of May, nineteen hundred and thirty-two, and."—[The Lord Advocate.]

Clause, as amended, added to the Bill.

NEW CLAUSE.—(Continuance of present exemptions.)

Except as expressly provided in this Act, nothing contained in this Act shall render liable to assessment any person or property not previously liable to assessment.—[Sir H. Crack.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The last discussion showed how difficult it is at this stage to bring out the points we desire to bring out. I only want to raise the question of the assessment of the universities which was brought up in Committee. In the case of Glasgow University, the valuation is something like £10,000, and the assessment for municipal rates would be £3,000 an enormous amount for that university. Under the Valuation Act of 1854, as I understand, the university was exempt from this taxation, and in Committee, from my recollection of the Debate, we were referred to Clause 26 with regard to this exemption. There it is stated that in the case of lands and heritages …the gross annual value, except that in the ease of lands and heritages with respect to which there is total exemption from all rates the rateable value shall he treated as nil. That would seem to afford us perfect security, but, on the other hand, it is pointed out that the university property has not total exemption. It is quite free from municipal, but not from poor rates, and, therefore, this Clause will give us the security which we desire. Here we are only attempting to give expression to a very intricate and legal question of valuation and of incidence of taxation. The Lord Advocate then said—and with it I thoroughly sympathise—that it was very difficult to discuss these matters when the people concerned were not present, and could not answer. It was then proposed that they should be seen by the Lord Advocate. I understand that they endeavoured over and over again to have an interview with the Board of Health in Edinburgh, but they failed to do so, and were told that the matter was under the consideration of the Lord Advocate.

I cannot put the matter with all the knowledge of local taxation or of a legal interpreter of an Act of Parliament, but I have shown where the difficulty and danger lie, and I have shown how our fears have been aroused. I think it would have been desirable to have had an opportunity for those experts who are really able to expound their case, to put the matter before the Lord Advocate or some officer of the Department. That has not been done, and, therefore, I must now appeal to the Lord Advocate, and ask him if he is quite satisfied that the exemption from taxation, which was given by the Valuation Act of 1854, is to be preserved by the new Bill.


I beg to second the Motion.

I hope that this Clause will be accepted by the Lord Advocate. When the matter was brought up in Committee, the Lord Advocate expressed his approval of the purpose of this Clause, that is to say—if I am wrong he will correct me—his suggestion was that the case was already met in the Bill. The fact still remains that the University authorities have felt apprehensive about the wording of the Bill. In Clauses 14 and 26 there are certain expressions which give rise to some misgiving. I hope the Lord Advocate will make it quite clear that the case of Glasgow University is completely covered by the Bill as it now stands. If there be any dubiety of any kind I trust he will see his way to removing it by accepting this Clause, or inserting some words which will put the matter beyond question. A somewhat similar Clause was enacted in the Act of 1854, and I think it will be agreed that it would be better to have some little redundancy in this Bill than to have any matter of this kind left in dispute.


May I say at once that, in my opinion, this Clause is quite unnecessary, because in no way can the exemption at present enjoyed by the University from certain rates be affected by this Bill. This question was raised during the Committee stage by an hon. and learned Member on what is the important Clause, namely, Clause 12. In Sub-section (8) of Clause 12 there is an express declaration that: Nothing in this Section shall affect the total exemption from any rate of any lands and heritage— From any rate. The suggestion made in Committee was to add some words to that Clause to this effect: "Whether or not they come under the lands and heritages specified in the First Schedule or not." It is true that as Clause 12 stood at that time, and as it stands now, it did not and does not specifically deal with cases that are not under Schedule I, but are pure gross valuation cases, but there is a Government Amendment on the Paper which expressly brings in under Clause 12 all eases of valuation, whether gross or under Schedule I. The result of carrying that Amendment, as I trust it will be carried, will be that Sub-section (8) of Clause 12 will cover every property in the country, whether a gross valuation case or a case that falls under Schedule I. I had hoped that that would make clear beyond doubt the point raised in Committee, which I was only too anxious to meet, and I submit that it does make it clear beyond doubt. When that addition is made to Clause 12, that Clause will deal with all lands and heritages, whether on gross valuation or not, which in my view completely safeguards any risk such as is suggested by my right hon. Friend.


After the assurances of the Lord Advocate, I ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, with-drawn.