§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.2 a.m.
§ Mr. GEORGE HARVEY
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This is a very short Bill, and I think a very good one, but it comes on a very bad day. There are not many difficulties that we have to face in this little Bill, not so many as will have to be faced today by Liverpool Members in their locality. It consists of a Memorandum, one main Clause, and two necessarily additional Clauses which are only for the purpose of reference. The Memorandum is self-explanatory. In attempting to put the position of London ratepayers on a better footing, we are not attempting to give them any advantage over the local authority in the process. In Clause I we have attempted to set out our case. The Bill is intended to amend the present law in three defined respects. We have taken only three defined respects, because it is obvious that if we attempted to bring in a Bill relating to London generally it would be well outside the scope of a Private Member's Bill. Therefore, in confining the Bill to three points, we are bringing back into operation a disused Clause which appeared in the Local Government Act, 1929.
In thus limiting the Bill to three points, we are not suggesting that there are not other hereditaments in London that deserve equal consideration. I have considerable experience of some of these hereditaments and know the difficulty of being over-rated and of being kept five years before you can get the slightest reconsideration. Although we refer in the Bill to the Act of 1869, we do not suggest but we insist that it inflicts considerable hardship on ratepayers, and that it is entirely out of date. Experience has shown that this ancient Act should be brought into line with the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925. I do not think there is any doubt that was the intention of 1534 the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Minister of Health. I was a member of Standing Committee A, and I remember that Clause 59 of the Bill, which referred to London in the draft, was considerably altered and now appears in the Act, I think, as Section 47. It is a very different Section from the Clause that appeared in the original draft.
I remember the Chancellor of the Exchequer then saying, in his capacity as Minister of Health, that it was his intention to deal with the question of London at a later date. There subsequently appeared the Apportionment Act, 1928, which was followed by the important Local Government Act of 1929. I do not intend to go into the legal details of that Act, and I do not profess to have considered its details to the fullest extent. Under that Act three classes of hereditaments were given special privileges in regard to de-rating and the conditions were temporarily imposed for one year but they have now entirely lapsed. Therefore, we are thrown back again to the antiquated Act of 1869, and the present Bill proposes to re-instate those lapsed conditions. There is not the slightest doubt that the Minister of Health intended that London should eventually come into line with the country.
The Bill does not entirely deal with the interests of the ratepayers. The local authorities can adopt similar action; in fact, it may be described as entirely reciprocal. In London if an hereditament at the beginning of the quinquennial period is not entered as industrial, there is no method of correction during the five years of the quinquennium. If it is properly entered on the list as non-industrial and subsequently becomes industrial the rate change must be made during the rate year or no effective claim can be subsequently made, and the ratepayer, whether by ignorance or want of ability to employ an effective rating surveyor, has to suffer through the entire quinquennium. The position is entirely different outside London. As the Memorandum states, there is no appeal from the decision of the Assessment Committee in London. The Assessment Committee's dictum is final, but in the country at any time an aggrieved ratepayer can appeal 1535 to quarter sessions and get his adjustment effected. I have had a case myself in the country in that respect which it would have been impossible to effect in London.
I do not propose to make any detailed comparison between the Act of 1869 and the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, as it applies now in the country. I have stated our grievance in as few words as I could, in order to open the subject, but it may not be out of place to refer to a remark that was made by the late lamented Member for East Fulham, Sir Kenyon Vaughan Morgan, in Standing Committee A. He said that the Act of 1869 was "hopelessly inadequate to deal with modern conditions and was entirely out of date." With that we all of us are in entire agreement. When the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, was going through its long process in Standing Committee A the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee passed a resolution that the Act should be amended. At first they objected to London being in the Bill as originally drafted, but after the incorporation of what is now Section 47 they passed a Resolution, in July, 1925, pressing for the application of the Rating and Valuation Bill, as it had been amended, to London and urging "that all possible steps be taken to that end." That is nine years ago, and I understand that they are still hopeful!
The crux of the whole matter may be summed up in a short sentence; no practical right of appeal exists in London against the provisional list when it has been issued but in the provinces there is. In London errors cannot be corrected during the quinquennial period; in the country they can. Very often errors are made in the filling up of forms for rating valuation. I have been chairman of one quinquennium, and I have seen mistakes. If they are not corrected at the time, there is no chance of correcting them during the quinquennium. I could cite a number of cases, but I do not think it is necessary, and I do not want to waste the time of the House or my own time unnecessarily. There is one case which is at present sub judice in which I understand an application is being made for a ruling in the House of Lords. I will just quote 1536 one case which emphasises my point. It is the case of a firm with extensive premises in Shoreditch, who are assessed at a net annual rateable value of £7,500, and who, owing to pending litigation concerning similar firms in the borough of Shoreditch, thought that they could make their application when finality was reached. When subsequently their claim was made, they were told by the Shoreditch Assessment Committee that there were no means available to grant the relief to which it was not denied they were entitled, and, therefore, this firm is paying on an assessment of £7,500 instead of a quarter of that amount, and will so pay, owing to the present state of the law, until the quinquennial valuation of 1936. That is a typical case, but it would not go on if it were outside London.
I have received some objections to the Bill, more or less indefinite. One of them is that if the Bill became law the London valuation lists could never be settled. That is rather ridiculous. From my own experience of valuation lists in London, we have always been contented with collecting 95 per cent. of the total demand notes, and from the best calculation I can make in regard to any variation which could be made by this Bill, it will not exceed a rather low decimal point of one per cent. The contention that the valuation lists would be affected and would never be considered final does not in my opinion hold water. The Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee say that they would prefer a comprehensive Bill. So would everybody else. I have received approval of the Bill from a number of prominent traders. The town clerk of Camberwell, who is a member of the Standing Joint Committee, has expressed his approval with certain committee points added; but to that extent I can take it that it has his approval. The Property Owners Association prefer a more comprehensive Bill. As I say, so do we all if we only knew that we should get it. The City of London has passed an unqualified approval, and I remember that in Standing Committee A one of the Members for the City protested against the City of London being left out of the privileges which the 1925 Act, as amended, gave to the provinces, and in reply the Minister said that such a Bill was in contemplation. That is nine years ago. The Metropolitan Boroughs Standing 1537 Joint Committee, through the town clerk of my own borough, have sent me a letter in the following terms:We are mindful of and recognise the difficulties which this Bill seeks to remove, but it; appears to us to be a matter for consideration as to whether it is desirable to proceed with legislation which will only affect a part of the community who are suffering from the difficulties referred to, leaving untouched other ratepayers who are similarly affected. Moreover, we are strongly of opinion that expression should be given to the view that so important a matter as rating and valuation in London ought not in any case to be dealt with in parts, more particularly as it has been understood for some time past that the Minister was proposing to introduce a Government Bill dealing generally with the whole question.I have also a very complimentary letter from the Auctioneers and Estate Agents Association, which has a total membership of 6,700. They express approval. The Chartered Institution of Surveyors have also indicated that the matter should be pressed forward and the Bill passed if possible. I have also a sort of semi-legal approval from the Freedom Association, and last but not least complete and unqualified approval from the London Chamber of Commerce. The practice in London is that after the election of a council the assessment committee and the rating committee are selected from members of the elected council, but no member can serve on both. They are, however, members of the same, council and have the same rating surveyor in charge of both, which seems to indicate that what obtains in one is likely to obtain in the other, and from my experience as a chairman of a rating committee that is so.
I do not profess to have any special knowledge of rating over and above that of others who have been placed in a similar position to myself. My experience is commercial and not legal. The Eating and Valuation Bill of 1925, one of the best gestures that that particular Parliament made towards helping industry, was intended to apply to London in all its aspects. It was left for subsequent consideration. That subsequent consideration matured only to the extent of a temporary Measure which appeared in the Local Government Act of 1929. All that we are trying to do in this little Bill is to get back to what was there intended. Therefore, it is with considerable confidence that I ask that London should be 1538 given a chance of getting to the same position as the provinces. I cannot see that anyone in the House, anyone who has had any experience of business, can object to the passage of such a Bill. We have waited for nine years. The Standing Joint Committee and others are interested in this Measure and approve of it, subject to a larger one not coming forward, and I suggest that there is no such Bill in preparation. On that point, I want to draw out a statement from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. We have already waited nine whole years and we are still under the 1869 Metropolitan Act, which is 65 years old and almost prehistoric. I do not think London ought to be left in that position. Sixty-five years is a long slice of time, and I reckon that the world began afresh after 1914–18. We are a very different country and a very different London to-day from what we were then. I cannot see where the opposition to the Bill can come from, and it is with the utmost confidence that I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 11.29 a.m.
§ Mr. MAITLAND
I beg to second the Motion.
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend who moved the Second Reading on his good fortune in securing the opportunity of presenting this Bill to the House, and upon the knowledge and the moderation which he has shown in describing its purpose. If not quite hopeless, it is almost hopeless for a private Member to introduce a Bill of major importance, even if he has the temerity to try to do so. It would be an exaggeration of language to describe this Bill as unduly ambitious. It cannot be said of the Bill as of other private Member's Bills which I have seen introduced, that it is impracticable or administratively difficult. The procedure which is laid down in the Bill is already in operation in the Provinces. Therefore, both practicability and administration are covered by methods which have already been adopted outside London. The Bill is modest as well as practicable, and to that extent it is a reflection of my hon. Friend who moved the Second Reading.
The Bill is restricted to rating within the Metropolitan area, and the House will agree that it is appropriate that a London Member should introduce it. In 1539 view of the suggestion that traders in London are suffering from many disadvantages compared with traders in the Provinces, I hope it is not inappropriate that a member representing a Provincial constituency should show his sympathy at any rate with the principle underlying the Bill by seconding the Motion for the Second Reading. From my knowledge of many hon. Friends who represent London constituencies, I am certain that if such a state of things existed outside London they would be only too ready and happy to help in seeking to remedy it.
My hon. Friend has given an account of the reasons leading up to the differences in treatment in London compared with the Provinces, and it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. The essential fact is that the differences exist. It may be argued that this is a Measure which deals with only a fraction of a complicated subject. But if the House is satisfied that the case has been made out that a grievance exists and that the grievance can be remedied by the methods proposed in the Bill, I hope the House will support the Bill. Surely it cannot be reasonably maintained that because many grievances exist not one should be remedied. Of course, the general subject of rating and valuation is an important and comprehensive subject. According to the financial statement issued by the Treasury last year, the rates collected by local authorities in 1932–33 amounted to £146,250,000 in England and Wales, and to £17,353,000 in Scotland, or a total of £163,603,000. That sum is equal to four-fifths of the national taxation of pre-War days.
The Bill does not pretend to deal with more than a very minute fraction of the subject, but it is not satisfactory to say that because it deals with only a fraction, because there is an injustice affecting a fraction, that injustice must continue. The subject which the Bill raises is of such importance that it is incumbent upon Parliament from time to time to review the whole question arising from the ever-increasing burden of local taxation; and, in particular, it is essentially important that Parliament should see that the methods adopted to raise the revenue required are the best both from the local and the national point of view.
1540 The general question, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, has been the subject of consideration by Parliament on one or two occasions, and I entirely agree with him that the Acts of 1928 and 1929, in particular, were of benefit to the country. I think that the Local Government Act of 1929 and the Acts leading up to it represent one of the best achievements of the Administration of that time. I do not wish to discourage the present Government, but, although that was one of the best things which the previous Government to which I refer accomplished, I think that Act lost the party to which I belong more votes than any other single Measure. I hope that consideration will not prevent the present Government from introducing a Measure of a comprehensive character dealing with this question during the lifetime of this Parliament. Democracy has its price but even if we were to suffer temporary reverses here and there because of such a Measure I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends will not be deterred. I make no suggestion against hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House in saying that the 1929 Act was responsible for a large number of votes being deflected from the party to which I belong but that fact would not deter me in the slightest degree from expressing the opinion that that Measure itself was sound and did good for the country as a whole.
The main purpose of that Act was to secure greater uniformity of assessments, greater equity as between individual ratepayers and the relief or partial relief of certain branches of industry from rates. The motives which governed the partial exemption of those industries were not of a sectional nature. It was considered that those partial exemptions were for the good of the country, and they were aimed particularly at assisting those industries which employed the most people. The facts, of course are well known to hon. Members, and I only recall them for the express purpose of reminding the House that there is no new principle involved in this Bill, and no new advantage is claimed in it which Parliament in 1928 and 1929 did not decide to be for the good of the country as a whole.
The necessity for the Bill has been explained by my hon. Friend. He has stated admirably the circumstances leading up 1541 to the differences which exist between London and the provinces. I would only add one point which I think perhaps has not been sufficiently emphasised. This Bill is not one-sided. It confers the same rights on the rating authority as it claims for the ratepayers. Hon. Members will observe that my hon. Friend has been able to cite in support of the Measure expressions of opinion from responsible people in various quarters and from leading authorities including the Corporation of the City of London, the London Chamber of Commerce, the Society of Estate Agents and the Chartered Institute of Surveyors. These bodies are representative of people who have practical knowledge of the subject and are dealing with these matters from day to day. From all these organisations there is general commendation of the Measure.
My hon. Friend has explained the Bill so well to the House that I think I shall best serve the purpose of a Seconder by speaking in general terms but before concluding I wish to put one question to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. I do not wish to embarrass him, and, even if I did wish to do so, I am not sure that I should succeed. Embarrassing questions would be easily overcome, I imagine by one of his agile and alert mentality. I will not, however, even attempt to embarrass him, but will merely make this observation. If in the opinion of the Government this is a matter which should be dealt with in a more comprehensive way, and in a way which will remove other injustices which the Government must acknowledge to exist, I would ask him, if he is not able to give an undertaking this morning that a Measure with those objects will be introduced, to assure the House that he will convey to the Minister of Health the strong feeling which exists in the House that such legislation should be introduced with the least possible delay.
§ 11.41 a.m.
§ Mr. JOHN WILMOT
I beg to move, to leave out "now" and, at the of the Question, to add "upon this day six months".
I have listened with great interest to the speeches of the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. G. Harvey) and the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Maitland), 1542 and if I may presume to do so, I would congratulate them upon having made plain a very complicated matter. I claim no special knowledge of this subject. In fact, I have only a very ordinary knowledge of it, and it is as a layman, seeking to understand an admittedly complicated question, that I venture to deal with it. I move the rejection of the Bill for reasons which I believe to be just and sufficient, but, while saying that, I would also say to the Mover and Seconder of the Motion for the Second Beading that on the main grounds on which this Bill has been introduced, there is complete agreement. This is, in no sense, a party matter. It is an attempt, and in some ways a very creditable attempt, to clear away certain grievances and anomalies created by the overlapping of recent and ancient legislation. If I seek to secure the rejection of the Bill, it is not because I or those for whom I speak have any doubt that the grievances exist and cry out for removal.
The question before the House is not whether the grievances exist or whether they ought to be removed. The question is whether this Bill as drafted is the most suitable and effective vehicle for their removal. I submit that it is not. I submit that the Bill will not, in fact, work, and that it is drafted in such a way that it will create new and, in some cases, serious difficulties in the place of the old. The main objection to it is that it is a one-sided Bill, not in the sense that it differentiates between the ratepayers and the rating authority, but in the sense that it differentiates between one comparatively small class of ratepayers and the rest of the ratepayers who all share and are affected by these grievances. I have said that the principle of the Bill is one on which there is general agreement, and I think the hon. Member for Kennington cited the fact that the Central Valuation Office of the Ministry, which, I believe, represents all local authorities, the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee, and the London County Council have had this matter under consideration for a considerable time. They have submitted proposals which are under consideration by the Minister and I will refer to them as the London proposals later on because I wish to say a good deal about the 1543 relation of this Bill to the London proposals to which the hon. Member referred.
Let us look for a moment at the way this Bill would work. Would it remove the grievances, would it smooth away the difficulties, and would it be equitable as between the rating authority and the ratepayers on the one hand, and between the industrial derated ratepayers and the great body of ratepayers who do not share in the benefits of derating on the other? The existing procedure, as I understand it—and I speak subject to correction from those who have longer knowledge than I have—as far as it affects the proposals of the Bill, is that property can be derated only in the year in which the change making it subject to derating has been made. If, therefore, the occupier of the property which has undergone a change by reason of which it would be entitled to claim to be derated fails to make the necessary claim at the proper time, namely, at the quinquennial valuation, or if the change has occurred since the quinquennial valuation in the actual year in which the change was made, then any claim is out of time and cannot be made until the end of the quinquennium.
That disadvantage—and it is admittedly a serious disadvantage—is shared by all ratepayers. It is not a matter which concerns the industrial producing community alone. It is shared by the ordinary private occupier and by the vast trading community which does not get the benefit of derating. The hon. Member will agree that that is so, and that there are far more ratepayers suffering from the admitted grievance of the present procedure who will not be relieved under this Bill than there are who will be relieved. I might go so far as to say that those who will get relief under the Bill are the class of ratepayers who are the least likely to need it. A business firm presumably has some knowledge in advance of what it is going to do with its premises. The occupier of premises which are to be changed from one use to another, the second use being a productive use which will make it subject to derating, will presumably have some knowledge in advance; and, in any case, one is entitled to presume that a business firm will at any rate be in the possession of advice 1544 and facilities no less than the ordinary trader or private occupier. Why then should we introduce a Bill which singles out this special limited class, which is in no worse position than anybody else, for special relief—which, in fact, this Bill does?
§ Mr. G. HARVEY
This Bill seeks to do nothing except to put London into precisely the same position as the country. It does not seek to give benefits to any particular body. This is not a comprehensive Bill; if it were, we would agree that what the hon. Member mentioned is a fault. If the Minister will give us an indication that a comprehensive Bill is likely to be introduced during our lifetime or within a reasonable period, the biggest part of the difficulty will be surmounted. In this little Bill we are dealing with industrial hereditaments chiefly and almost entirely.
§ Mr. WILMOT
I am glad to hear the hon. Member say that, because I am going to plead with the Minister of Health to accelerate the legislation which is so urgently needed, and especially to give us an undertaking that legislation on the lines of the London proposals will be enacted in time to be effective for the next quinquennial valuation.
§ Mr. WILMOT
I have not given up hope, but I believe that the appearance of this Bill might encumber the ground and prevent the on-march of the Minister's proposals, or it might in certain circumstances, which I shall suggest, even accelerate and ginger up the Minister to do what is so long overdue. I was about to say when the hon. Member very properly interrupted that whatever the intention is, the Bill does, in fact, differentiate between different classes of ratepayers, and I think the hon. Member will admit that. It gives an advantage to the industrial producing ratepayer which it does not give to those who are not interested in derating. Let us take the case of an ordinary domestic occupier. There has been a change in the value of his property just prior to the quinquennium and that occupier is proposing to go out of occupation. He is not interested in the assessment which appears in the valuation, for he is leaving the premises and does not bother to go 1545 to the trouble of giving notice of objection. He leaves the premises and a new tenant comes in. The new tenant, an ordinary domestic occupier, is estopped from making any appeal against the assessment in the quinquennial valuation, and he must wait the whole five years before he can get any relief. Why should not the ordinary tenant, the ordinary domestic family man, get the same advantage as the industrial community?
§ Mr. MAITLAND
I think that is common ground between us, but to follow out the argument of the hon. Member it would be necessary to bring in a comprehensive Bill. My hon. Friend who introduced the Bill is omitting that special aspect from the question, because it is not possible in a private Member's Measure to deal with more than a limited subject. We are prepared to accept the argument which the hon. Member is advancing, but it is not possible in a private Member's Bill to deal with such a huge subject.
§ Mr. WILMOT
If it is common ground, I wonder the hon. Member interrupts again on the same point. The point I am trying to make is that it is impossible for a private Member's Bill to do what is necessary to be done, and that to do it in the way which is proposed in this Bill will make things worse than they are. If there is a general grievance affecting a whole community, things are not made better by singling out certain persons and removing their grievances and leaving those of the rest unremedied. I do not think that makes for good law or harmony in the community, and the hon. Member for Kennington is right when he foresaw a forest of Bills growing out of this attempt to do what he thinks to be a good deed. When there is obvious need for general legislation by Government Bill it is surely wrong to attempt to make a patchwork improvement for the benefit of one section, who are the more wealthy section, the better advised section and, usually, the more competent and far-seeing section, by reason of their business equipment, and to do that at the expense of the ordinary domestic ratepayer.
I wish to come to another point which hon. Members will agree is very important. I speak here subject to the correction of such honourable and learned 1546 Members as have a greater knowledge of the interpretation of Acts of Parliament than I have, but, as I read the Bill, so badly is it drafted, that it will inflict a very severe hardship on the local authority itself. In that way it will do something worse than single out the industrial ratepayer for special treatment, because it will single him out for preferential treatment at the expense of the pocket of the ordinary domestic and trading ratepayer.
§ Mr. WILMOT
I think it will be better if I first explain what I mean, and if the hon. Member does not agree with it he may like to say so then. The Bill provides for an alteration by a provisional list, but makes no provision for a corresponding alteration in the supplemental list. The result will be that if the industrial ratepayer gets de-rating on the provisional list it will be impossible to put the alteration into the supplemental list, and the consequence will be that the local authority—say the Borough of Fulham, part of which I have the honour to represent—will lose rates by reason of the de-rating of this industrial property and will have to pay the county rates and the police rate upon the original assessment before the de-rating was permitted. Therefore, for the remainder of that quinquennium the Fulham Borough Council, after having relieved a certain factory of rates, will have to continue to pay—that is, the other ratepayers will—the full assessed rate for county and police purposes, as though no de-rating had been allowed. If I am right in that interpretation, we shall be inflicting a double hardship on the ordinary ratepayers, who make up 99 per cent. of the whole, because not only shall we be giving somebody a preference over them, but we shall be asking them to subscribe to that preference in actual cash.
§ Mr. WILMOT
I think it might work out to be a very considerable sum. That, I feel, is one instance of faulty drafting, which is a conclusive argument why the Bill should not be proceeded with to-day. Then there is another objection. Subsection (2) of Clause I deals with the date of the coming into force of the valuation set out in the provisional list. Here 1547 again, is an admitted grievance shared by all classes of ratepayers. I understand that under present practice the provisional list valuation comes into force from the date of service on the occupier, and this Bill seeks to make it come into force from the commencement of the period of the current rate. In my view, that would be sound practice, and should be adopted, but it should be adopted, not for the benefit of a special privilege class, but for the whole body of ratepayers. The London proposals, to which I referred just now, include the reform as to the change of date, but permit of it in respect of all properties, and not only some specially favoured properties.
A third provision in the Bill allows appeal to quarter sessions against assessment in the provisional list, and the hon. Member explained this complicated and difficult question very clearly. There is, in fact, no effective appeal against these provisional valuations. As no doubt the hon. Member is aware, two very important cases have been determined on this point. One was the case of the London County Council tramways, in which it was held that it was the duty of the local assessment committee to make a provisional list assessment on application, but the value of that judgment was destroyed in the case of the Agricultural Hall, because it was subsequently held by the House of Lords that the assessment committee were entitled, if they thought fit and felt there was no ground for the claim for a provisional list assessment, to strike out the entry in the provisional list, and by thus removing it from the provisional list removing the right of appeal. Here the same objection holds; every ratepayer is suffering the same disadvantage and ought to have the right of appeal, and, when we are legislating for a lacuna in the law, surely it is desirable to legislate on behalf of the whole ratepaying community.
I think enough has been said to show that this Bill is not ideal, is not a fair Bill, will not operate justly between the different sections of the community, and, while altering the fundamental structure of the present rating law, will not remove any but a small fraction of the grievances which exist. There is very great need for enactment by Government Bill of the proposals which I have referred to as the London proposals, 1548 and especially is there need for speed, in view of the approach of the next quinquennium. It will be a tragedy for London if the next quinquennial period passes without any change in the law, and I am altogether with the hon. Members responsible for this Bill in saying that it is vitally necessary that these grievances should be removed and that London should have the facilities and the justice which has been extended to the rest of the country. These proposals were made as far back as 1925. Agreement has practically been reached between all parties, including the Minister, and just as we are expecting some tangible result of all the consultation, exchange of views and conferences which have been going on for the last nine years, the hon. Member for Kennington, in despair at seeing a Government Bill, comes forward with this Private Member's Bill of most excellent intention.
If this Bill is passed, the Ministry will be forced to put aside their work on the London proposals, Parliament's time will be spent in Committee upon it, Government draftsmen—and there is no superabundance of experts upon rating draftsing—will have to turn their attention from putting the finishing touches to the Bill embodying the London proposals and to come down to the many Committee Amendments which will have to be made to the hon. Member's Bill before it will work. I submit that the Bill would not accomplish what it sets out to do and that it will in fact erect barriers between the London ratepayer and the fulfilment of his hopes, the enactment of a Government Bill containing the London proposals. I think we can be a little cheerful. The hon. Member has done a public service in bringing the Bill forward and has demonstrated to the Minister as probably nothing else could have done how widespread is the demand for a reform of the law of London rating. I hope that the excellent speech of the Mover and that of the Seconder have made a suitable impression upon the Minister of Health. If I may presume so far, I would urge those who are responsible for the Bill to withdraw it, and to join with me in an appeal to the Minister to lose no time and to give us an undertaking that the Government Bill will become law before the quinquennium expires.
§ Mr. WILMOT
The hon. Member agrees that if this Bill is withdrawn, the great force and power of the authorities which he has quoted in support of it will be brought to bear in getting the Government Bill enacted. This morning's Parliamentary time will not have been wasted, and the hon. Member will have done London a signal service.
§ 12.9 p.m.
§ Mr. McENTEE
I beg to second the Amendment.
I apologise to the promoter of the Bill that I was not present to hear the very excellent speech which I have no doubt he made in support of it. One or two observations which I wished to make have already been made by the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot). The need for the alterations suggested in the Bill is admitted by everybody who has any acquaintance of the condition of things in the London area. I live just outside the borders of the London County Council area, but I have had considerable experience of the working of rating inside that area and some interest in areas within London boroughs. There is no doubt that everybody within the Metropolitan area is in need of relief, and that nothing but revision will bring about that system of fairness which does not exist at present.
I am not in the confidence of the Ministry of Health, but it is public property that negotiations have been going on for a very long time between the Ministry and those who are interested in rating within the Metropolitan area. It is said that the Ministry are favourably disposed to some revision that will give to London a fairer system. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health replies, he will be able to tell us that that is so, and that the Minister will very soon introduce legislation, believing that there is a definite need for revision and that London is suffering considerable hardship because of the anomalies. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to find time to introduce a Bill and to get it passed quickly through the House of Commons.
My objection to the Bill has already been stated. It acts unfairly between one set of ratepayers and another. There are very great benefits from derating, and 1550 it is now proposed that those who are enjoying those benefits should enjoy still further privileges as compared with the rest of the community. If it was not contemplated that benefits and privileges would be enjoyed, this Bill would not have been introduced. It has been introduced because it was felt by those who are enjoying the privileges of derating that they are still suffering from grievances. With the object of remedying those grievances, they have induced the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. G. Harvey)—I say they have induced him; I mean that they have prevailed upon him, because he believes that there is a need for this legislation—to use the opportunity which the ballot gave him to introduce a Bill extending those privileges.
If I were a merchant but not a manufacturer, I should resent giving such privileges to a special type of ratepayer, who admittedly has a grievance, while I had a similar grievance, and I should naturally want to know why Parliament gave its time to conferring upon a limited set of people a benefit which it was not prepared to confer upon me. Every member of the public has a right to expect from Parliament that grievances will be remedied for all who are suffering from them. This Bill certainly does not propose to remedy those grievances, which are admittedly applying to all the ratepayers in the London area. Consequently, in view of the unfairness of the Bill as a Bill, I feel that I cannot give it support, and I hope that the House will not give support to a Bill which acts so unfairly between two sets of people each admittedly suffering from a number of grievances.
For that reason, principally, I, personally, am opposed to the Bill, which, I think, is seeking to do the right thing in the wrong way. In all probability, when we hear the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, he will be able to tell us so, and I am sure that every London Member, like everybody who desires to see fairness in regard to rating, will support the Minister if he will express himself in favour of a comprehensive Measure. Such a Measure dealing with London rating is necessary. Nobody, I think, in London would deny that, and I feel pretty sure that if this Measure were explained reasonably to the people of London, it would be difficult to 1551 find a majority who would admit the right of Parliament to inflict, or to continue, an injustice upon a number of people in London, and redress that grievance in so far as it applies to a very limited number of them. For those reasons, I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us quite definitely what the Ministry propose to do. Do they propose definitely to introduce a comprehensive Measure; when do they propose to introduce it; and is there a reasonable hope that before the next quinquennial period the Measure will get through Parliament? Further, can we say to the people of London, "The grievance which all of us know you suffer will, by the act of the Government, and not by the act of a private Member, be remedied, and you in London will get in future the same treatment which people in all other parts of the country are able to claim"?
It appears to me to be a very simple matter, and one in which the Government themselves, and not a private Member, ought to act. Unless a Bill like this can get the full support of the Government, it has little chance, if any, of getting through the House, and I should imagine that the Government would not be prepared to give support to a Bill which is admittedly unfair in its drafting, and would operate unfairly between different sections of the community. Consequently, the Government would have something for which to answer to the people of London if they gave support to a private Member's Bill which does not remedy the grievance except in part, and thus sheltered behind that Bill, while admitting that the grievance was general, and that it ought to be generally remedied by a Measure covering the whole of the London area. For those reasons, and for the reasons which have been given already by my hon. Friend, I desire to second the Amendment.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. JANNER
I rise in somewhat hesitating and difficult mood with regard to this matter, because I feel, as every hon. Member feels, that the grievances existing in respect of rating matters in London are of a very widespread nature, and ought to have the full backing of a Government Measure. For my part, I 1552 know that there exists in my own constituency a considerable amount of agitation in respect of people who feel themselves aggrieved by assessments which have been made, and who find it literally impossible to deal with the matter until the next quinquennial assessment. It is a heart-breaking thing for people when they know that they are labouring under a difficulty which is a very serious and hard-pressing one from a financial standpoint and is almost irremediable.
If I may be permitted to illustrate, by a very simple example, what happens in respect of cases which may come within this Bill, or perhaps come within the provisions of an extended Bill which will enable them to be dealt with, I have in mind a case in which a person who is occupying a business premises, which has been held by his firm and its predecessors for something in the nature of 100 years or more. It is not a big business, but one of the old manufacturing businesses, which are the mainstay of the reputation which has been built up in this great county of London and in England as a whole—a manufacturing concern of a small kind, but still one on which the greatness of the country partly depends. The last assessment was made, I am informed, on the ground that the authorities believed that the individual firm had a larger extent of land than it actually occupied. Owing to the misunderstandings which prevailed, the actual appeal against the assessment was somehow delayed, and the result is that to-day the individual concerned is paying on an assessment of £80, where as the people on both sides of him are paying on an assessment of about £50. This individual rightly feels himself particularly aggrieved. It is a typical case. He also feels that, owing to his business, he ought to come within the derating provisions, but there, again, he finds himself unable to do anything, in view of the fact that there has been a lapse of time.
What happens to that man? He gets the rate demand, and his sore is opened every time the demand is made. He consults technical and legal authorities, and is told that there does not appear to be even a loop-hole by which he may be able to get the matter remedied. Some people say that if one effects structural alterations he might be able to get a reassessment, but we do not know 1553 whether the superior landlord will allow him to effect those alterations, and perhaps the alterations will not be such as will entitle him to a reassessment in reduction of the amount, and he might even be asked to pay more, and so on. He does not pay, and he exercises the dubious privilege, to which every citizen of this country is entitled, of appearing before the magistrates. He pours out his soul to the magistrates, and the magistrates, who, after all, are humane people in the main, realise the tragedy of the position. Even though the case I am quoting may in some people's view involve only a comparatively small amount, the fact remains that it does make a very material difference to the people concerned. The magistrates sometimes say to him, "We will adjourn the case so that you may see the local authority and be helped by the rate collector." The rate collector comes along afterwards and slays, "I am very sorry but the law is such as it is, and I am afraid you will have to pay; otherwise you will have to put up with the consequences."
Then the Member of Parliament is approached, land is told, "You are the man who can do things. You must get this attended to at once, and have the matter put right." The Member of Parliament settles down to a deep study of the law of the position as it stands, finds it very confusing, possibly has to consult higher legal authorities, who also find it very confusing, and ultimately has to tell his unfortunate constituent that he is exceedingly sorry, but, much as he would like to help, the law is against the constituent and he will have to wait until the next quinquennial assessment, unless legislation intervenes. Six months later the same story is repeated, the poor ratepayer gets a similar claim, and once again he has the same heart-breaking experience as a respectable citizen—and, in the case I am quoting, a man of considerable character. He refuses to pay without going through the whole procedure again and placing his case before the magistrates once more.
This state of affairs does not prevail in the Provinces. If you happen to be in the fortunate position of being a ratepayer in the Provinces—or it may, of course, be an unfortunate position in places where the rates are very high—you are able from time to time, as occasion 1554 arises, according to the facts, to place your case before a proper authority, to have it heard, to appeal if necessary to quarter sessions, and, if your claim is justified, to have the grievance removed. That seems to me to be a reasonable and sensible way of dealing with the matter. After all, taking the specific instance mentioned by the hon. Member who introduced the Bill, it may be that a case which was thought at one time not to come within the de-rating provisions may be shown later to come within those provisions, by virtue of decisions of the Courts which have been obtained at heavy expense. I would like my hon. Friends above the Gangway to realise, if they are really advocating the cause of poorer people who are entitled to the advantages of de-rating, that these are the people who are not in a position to institute proceedings, who frequently cannot seek the best legal advice, and who, consequently, have to sit still and allow the opportunity of obtaining de-rating relief to slip from them, while someone of better financial standing may have put in his proper notices and have appealed to quarter sessions, paying the fees necessary for instructing solicitors and counsel, and ultimately may have been successful.
If that richer man proves his case in the courts, he obtains relief from a portion of his rates. Then the poorer man reads what has been happening. It may be that the result of a case comes to his notice, either directly or indirectly, within a short time, or it may be after a long time has expired, and he then realises that, if he had been aware of the likely result of that case, he could himself have appealed at the proper time, and would then have been within the law and entitled to be de-rated. It is not an easy matter for anybody to know what the state of the law is. Heaven knows, it is difficult enough for even the most learned of counsel to be able to give an opinion that is definite. Every layman knows very well that, when he consults counsel on some point, he is sometimes informed that counsel thinks there is a very fair chance of winning or otherwise, but that even counsel is not quite sure on the point. How can a poor man take the risk of incurring the expense of carrying the matter to quarter sessions, where the most expensive counsel may be put up against him? Not having been able to 1555 take that risk, he finds himself in a condition of rightful anger at the knowledge that, if he had been able to do so, he would have been in an equal position with the rich man or the rich company, and, consequently, would not have been called upon to pay so much rates.
We are not concerned at present whether the de-rating provisions were right or wrong. That question has gone for the time being. I am not in full agreement with my hon. Friend who had said that they were the salvation of the country. In fact, I could possibly find arguments which would not be quite so helpful to him on that score. One of the hon. Members who spoke from above the Gangway mentioned certain reasons why the de-rating provisions fall in an uneven manner on other people who have to pay rates, but that is beside the point this morning. The point is as to whether an injustice exists in view of the fact that there are people in the country who are not able to get the benefit of de-rating, although they are entitled to it. That is the real trouble. It is not enough to say that we do not agree with de-rating. If that be the case, we must introduce Measures to restore the law as it was before, when we get the opportunity. In view of the fact that de-rating does exist, we must ask ourselves whether there is a set of people who are being treated inequitably in connection with it.
The contention of the promoters of this Bill, as I understand it—at any rate, it would be my contention if I were introducing such a Measure—is that there is an inequity which should be remedied. They have said quite candidly, and I admire them for doing so, that they realise that this is a very small step; but I am not quite sure, in view of the Title of the Bill, that hon. Members above the Gangway and ourselves might not be able to get very much more introduced into the Bill. It is a Rating and Valuation (Metropolis) Amendment Bill. Might it not be possible to get clauses which remove other grievances which arise under the old Act into the Bill in Committee. But what is the purpose of a private Member's Bill? It is to produce some legislation which the Government will not obstruct in such a way that it will be impossible to do anything at all—a measure 1556 which is a small step in the right direction. While I appreciate the fact that the London authorities have prepared a draft of a more comprehensive nature, which has been in the hands of the Ministry I believe for some years, we have not heard about it yet in the House. We want to hear about it and I am sure from the pleasant smile on the face of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health that we shall hear something of it from him to-day. I think the introduction of this Bill, even if it does not pass its Second Reading, is a step which will meet with the approval of everyone because it is bound to show the Ministry that there is this grievance and, even though you have a Measure which deals with only a small portion of it, the principle of that Measure in itself has received the commendation and approval of pretty nearly everyone throughout London.
Let me put one further small example of what might be remedied by this type of Bill. There is a firm which has two premises within a short distance of each other. One they have taken recently and the other they have had for some time. They did not know they could be de-rated until recently. They did not go to the expense of fighting the case. But before they took the new premises they said, "These premises are entitled to be de-rated and, unless you assure us that that will be done, we shall not take them." Everything in respect of the new premises was smoothed out when it was realised that they were entitled to be de-rated, and the result is that the firm has two premises, one in respect of which it is paying full rates, and the other in respect of which it is paying some portion of the rates, and the firm are naturally not happy about the position. It is an anomally which this Bill is endeavouring to rectify and which I believe, if the Bill is passed, it will rectify. Those who are moving the Bill and those who are opposing it both agree on almost every detail of the arguments. The single important argument that has been adduced against the Bill is that it does not go far enough, and it is supported by the old story that those who will not obtain relief will be aggrieved. Every Bill does that. If a Bill is introduced in order to remedy one matter, the people who are suffering from other difficulties are entitled to say, 1557Our matter is more important than the matter that is being dealt with.
§ Mr. JANNER
It is a portion of the same matter. It is a portion of a serious grievance. Here the hon. Member is attempting to remove one corn.
§ Mr. JANNER
No, a whole corn. I should be more satisfied to have the removal of one of those corns and suffer somewhat less because of its removal than continue to suffer in respect of that corn merely because I have other corns which could not be taken away at the same time. I hope it will be remembered that this is not a party matter. It is not a question of not wanting to remove the grievances of other people. It is not a matter which should be used in the country to say that people are supporting the rich capitalists and are not concerned with the difficulties of the poor man. I am not going to allow it to be misunderstood in that direction. I feel the grievance of the poor strongly. If the Government gives an assurance for a comprehensive measure my hon. Friend would be delighted to withdraw this in the knowledge that he will have the matter remedied in a wider measure. Unless they give that assurance, let us drive them, by means of this and further Bills of a similar nature, step by step until they are bound to give way on the whole of the grievances.
§ Mr. WILMOT
The case is not that by removing this you remove part, but not the whole. The case is that by going on this course you prevent the Government going on the fuller course which we all desire.
§ Mr. JANNER
I have heard that type of argument used before, and it is usually brought forward, not by people who are anxious to remove difficulties which the Government is not prepared to remove, but by the Government themselves. That is a type of argument which comes usually from the Government Benches and not from these. I think we can press them by means of a Bill of this description. It shows that some section of the community is moving, though a private Member may not be able to go the whole hog. My suggestion is that it 1558 may be possible, even with this Title, to introduce in Committee many other points that you want to remedy. Anyhow, I hope so. I also hope, as the hon. Member hopes, that the result will be that my hon. Friend will, by a promise from the Ministry, be in a position to withdraw, but, if the Minister will not give that promise, it is not up to us to sit still and say, "Do not let a portion of the remedy be applied straight away." There is one matter in which I differ from both my hon. Friends. Their contention is that they will be satisfied if this is remedied by the time of the next quinquennial assessment. I am not satisfied with that. I think these difficulties ought to be removed at once, and I think the Government Bill should be introduced without any delay at all, because the grievances are continuous and they require immediate attention.
The point was raised whether it was fair that the remedy should be retrospective and go back to the original notice that was given in respect of the complaint against the assessment. If a case, as happens at present in the provinces sometimes, is decided as late as two years after the original notice was given, the person who made the application is entitled to have the remedy applied as from the commencement of the period prior to the date when the notice was given. That, in my view, should apply in London equally with the provinces and I hope the Government will assure us that this will be put right without further delay.
I hope that the House will forgive me for having dealt with this matter at such length, but I most earnestly desire—as I am sure everybody in this House desires—that this ridiculous position which places the burden upon London ratepayers of being compelled, whether their claim is just or unjust, to bear the rating assessment for five years without the right of appeal to anybody and without even being entitled to claim relief from the Councils who imposed the rate should be amended. The Government should give us an assurance that they will deal with the matter immediately and that they realise that the difficulty does not rest with the ratepayers only, but frequently rests with the rating authorities who when any mistake is made and they realise that the claim of the ratepayers is a just 1559 one are still doubtful whether the legal position enables them to put the matter right and are frequently in fear lest the putting of the matter right may place them in difficulties when an audit takes place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will give us the assurance to-day that this difficulty will be removed.
§ 12.47 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Mr. Shakespeare)
We have had a very instructive debate upon a very technical subject, and I congratulate the mover and the seconder of the Bill upon the very able and reasonable way in which they have presented their case. I am glad that the Debate has been held, because it shows that on all sides of the House there is a feeling that an anomaly exists. We had a very interesting point of view put by the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot), and the hon. Gentleman the Member for White-chapel (Mr. Janner) has from his own personal knowledge shown how unfairly London is treated as compared with the provinces.
May I first in a few sentences show how the provinces are treated. In the provinces the rating law rests upon the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, and under Section 37 of that Act either the rating authority or the ratepayer can make "proposals" for an amendment of the valuation list even between the beginning and the end of the quinquennial period, and for any cause whatever. Moreover, if the ratepayer is successful in that proposal, the alteration takes place retrospectively from the beginning of that rating period whether it is the full year or the half year; it takes place retrospectively from the beginning of the rating period during which the proposal was made or that during which the event took place which caused the alteration to be made, whichever is the later. Also there is a right of appeal to quarter sessions. Therefore, in the provinces the aggrieved rating authority, or the aggrieved ratepayer, is amply safeguarded even if the assessment has been wrongly or incorrectly made at the start of the quinquennial period.
I come to London. In London the poor ratepayer enjoyes none of these privileges. 1560 His code, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kennington (Mr. Harvey) pointed out, depends upon the Valuation of Property (Metropolis) Act, 1869. Broadly speaking the effect of that Act is, that unless there has been a material change in the hereditament during the year in question no revision of the assessment can take place during any year within the quinquennial period. If a shop, for instance, were to extend its premises, it could, by the machinery of the provisional list, apply for a revision and probably get it, because there had been a material alteration which would comply with Section 47 of the Act of 1869. But there is no appeal, and no machinery under the Act of 1869 for enabling the ratepayer who has been incorrectly assessed at the beginning of the quinquennial period to get the assessment revised before the end of it. That Act was further altered by the Local Government Act, 1929, which applied the new principle that certain classes of hereditament should have special advantages attached to them. Broadly speaking it provided that the occupier of an industrial or freight transport hereditament should be assessed for rates at a quarter of the net annual value of the hereditament. Section 70 of the Local Government Act laid down the principle that a change of user, that is, a change of use from a non-industrial to an industrial hereditament, or vice versa within the quinquennial period could be counted as an alteration within the meaning of Section 47 of the Act of 1869, so that the machinery of the provisional list could be adopted if an hereditament changed its character within the quinquennial period from a non-industrial to an industrial hereditament or vice versa. It still left the anomaly that, if the hereditament was in fact, and by legal decision within the quinquennial period, shown to be a derateable hereditament but had actually been wrongfully assessed at the start of the quinquennial period, even under the Local Government Act there was no power for revision in that respect. My hon. Friends will remember the case of the Mayor etc., of Stepney v. John Walker, or "Johnny Walker" as he is more popularly called, and there, although it was decided by the Courts that the hereditament was in fact derateable the mere fact that it had not been included as such in the quinquennial valuation list 1561 meant that the respondent had to wait for the preparation of the next quinquennial list before he could make his claim and get the benefit of the derating Act. That is a very hard thing. There is no reason why London should be put into this unfavourable position when the provinces have every safeguard and when the law is up-to-date as regards revision.
The House will remember that the Metropolitan Borough Councils Standing Joint Committee and the Central Valuation Committee have been considering this matter for several years, and that they recently made a report, which is to the effect that the London law should be assimilated to the provincial law. That being so, this Bill, although I agree with it in principle, is only a partial and piecemeal way of dealing with the question. As my hon. Friend said, the Bill only confers the special privilege on the occupiers of a derateable hereditament and only enables them, if in fact there has been a wrong assessment at the commencement of the quinquennial period, to use the machinery of the provisional list in order to have the assessment rectified. It gives a right of appeal and makes the operation of the new assessment retrospective. It is a very proper subject for a private Member's Bill, but I would suggest to my hon. Friend and others who have spoken that if this Bill were to pass it might prejudice the whole position. It is no good taking too many bites at a cherry; it is much more enjoyable to wait a little longer and enjoy the cherry as a whole. We now come to the operative part of my speech, the meat. I cannot possibly pledge that Parliamentary time will inevitably be found for a change of this nature. My hon. Friend was so anxious not to embarrass me that he asked, if I could not give a definite pledge, whether I would inform the Minister of the strong feeling which existed on this matter. I will go further, and, although I cannot give a definite pledge, I will say that it is our earnest intention next year to introduce a Bill, based on the report of the Central Valuation Committee and the standing joint committee of the Metropolitan Borough Councils, to assimilate the London law with the provincial law. I hope we shall introduce it in time for the new provisions to pass into law before the start of the next quinquennial period. That is our sincere hope and our intention, and, that being so, 1562 perhaps if my hon. Friend would withdraw his Bill, he would enable this wider change to the law to take place.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mr. HARVEY
I have tried before to get some sort of undertaking as to the intentions of the Government such as we have had given to us just now. That is an undertaking that we are to have something of the kind put into operation before the next quinquennium. That is the very thing I want, the very thing that the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot) wants, and indeed the very thing we all want. We are in no disagreement whatever as regards the general principle of the Bill. My sole object was to assist business and enterprise and employment to the utmost possible extent, because if you assist initiative and enterprise you are doing some good. I wanted to get an undertaking from the Minister that the introduction of a Bill was not only in contemplation some time during our lifetime but some time in the very near future. I am sorry there are so few hon. Members here to-day on account of some other attraction, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, and I think I have done some good. Having done some good, having expressed our views, and having listened to the undertaking by the Minister, I have great pleasure in saying that we have achieved our object, and that therefore I shall withdraw the Bill.
§ Mr. WILMOT indicated assent.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn; Bill withdrawn.