HC Deb 11 June 1940 vol 361 cc1214-9

Order for Second Reading read.

7.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Horsbrugh)

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

This Bill, for which I now ask a Second reading, is introduced in accordance with a promise given by the late Solicitor-General on 30th April. In the Debate on the Rating and Valuation Postponement Bill, attention was drawn to the greater rigidity of the law in London concerning interim re-valuation and the power of rate remission, compared with the corresponding law in the provinces, and suggestions were then made for amendments of the law to mitigate hardships, particularly those caused by the war, to certain classes of ratepayers. The House will be aware that the Government gave careful consideration to these matters and took first-hand evidence from bodies representing various parties particularly interested in this question and from experienced officials of local authorities. The Bill is designed to amend, for the period during which abnormal conditions may be expected to prevail, the London provisions governing the procedure for the remission of rates and to bring the Metropolitan law on this point into accord with that which has been operating in the provinces since 1925. It, therefore, makes applicable to London the provisions contained in Section 2 (4) of the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, which runs as follows: A rating authority shall have power to reduce or remit the payment of any general rate on account of the poverty of any person liable to the payment thereof. This Bill, therefore, gives the London rating authorities the discretion which is already enjoyed by the provincial authorities and has been enjoyed by them for 15 years without, as far as the Government are aware, any ground for criticism of the way in which they have administered it. It will enable the London ratepayer who, being unable to meet his rate liabilities from circumstances beyond his control and not by wilful refusal or culpable neglect, might expect to obtain remission or reduction from the justices on that account, to put his case before the rating authority. If he satisfies the rating authority, that authority will be empowered to grant a remission or rebate without the ratepayer having to appear in person before the justices. It is hoped that, in this way, a real hardship to certain ratepayers may be mitigated. These ratepayers are not in the class of rate defaulters in normal times, but there are certain circumstances now brought about by the war which apply specially to them. We think it is desirable in this way to give them an advantage already enjoyed in the provinces and to give the London rating authorities that same power which authorities in the provinces have exercised, and have administered well.

7.20 p.m.

Mr. Ammon (Camber well, North)

In welcoming this Bill, I would note, as a matter of melancholy memory, that the promise to introduce it was made on 30th April by the late Sir Terence O'Connor. We are now considering the fulfilment of the promise which he then made. It is also worth pointing out that we are now repealing an Act which has been in existence since 1814. Ever since 1814 the rating law in London as regards non-payment of rates, has been different from the law in the rest of the country. In the Poor Relief Act, 1814, justices of petty sessions were empowered, with the consent of parish officers, to discharge poor persons from the payment of parish rates. As one who has sometimes sat in petty sessions, I feel a good deal of satisfaction in knowing that we are to be relieved of the job which has sometimes fallen to us of having to send to prison some poor wretch who had not the means to pay his rates. All through the years, apparently ever since 1814, there has been a strong consensus of opinion that that condition of affairs ought not to have existed. A number of committees who have considered the question have all pointed out that conditions in London are different from those elsewhere in the country and that there was no reason why that distinction should continue to exist; but things have gone on in the same sweet way. As in the case of many other things it has needed a war to shake us out of the habits of a century. Some of us will be relieved, too, because in administering the law we sometimes went precious near to breaking it, I suppose. It was occasionally conveyed to the justices by the rating authorities themselves that they need not look too closely into things. Still, there were humiliating proceedings. A person had to be summoned, and had to appear before the justices and plead his poverty and prove that he had no means. All those formalities had to be gone through before they were in a position to grant remission of payment. Therefore, I, for one, and I am sure all others who have had anything to do with administering the law, will congratulate the Government and give a hearty welcome to the Bill.

7.23 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Etherton (Stretford)

I want to welcome this little dabble with what is a serious and pressing problem. Progress, however small, is better than no progress at all. It is clearly right that rating authorities in London should have the power, in proper cases, on account of poverty, to reduce or remit payment of rates. Everyone knows that in the rest of England these provisions have been operative since 1925. As recently as March of this year the House spent time on a Rating Bill which specially affected London, and at that time a number of hon. Members pointed out many of the anomalies and inequalities of the rating law in operation in the Metropolis. Why this and, indeed, other pressing problems of London rating were not then included in that Bill passes comprehension. Be that as it may, my right hon. Friend's predecessor seemed rather complacent concerning the various difficulties. As I understood the position, the problems were not thought suitable to be dealt with at that juncture; but there had been many years of peace during which the problems of London rating might have been tackled. I have no desire to discourage the present Minister of Health and I hope that he will press on, even in dabbles. I believe that he has the necessary drive for the job, if he will allow me to say so, but he will find it an uphill task to overcome the complacency on this matter in his Department and it will demand all his vigour. Complacency on this and other problems will not do, and the nation will call complacency to account.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will appreciate, as was pointed out in March, that the London boroughs and their Standing Joint Committee do not represent the people in this matter. They are prejudiced parties. There are three independent interests to be considered in connection with this problem—the Government, the rate-collecting authorities and the citizens who have to pay the rates. There are already indications that the recent Act will not achieve even that which hon. Members had hoped, and whilst in one sense welcoming this Bill, I commend to my right hon. Friend's consideration the many other and pressing problems in London rating, particularly the inequality of the London County Council precept, which is demanded by the County Council from the boroughs on all property whether the boroughs are able to collect the rates on it or not. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ride roughly over past complacency and bring a fresh and vigorous mind to bear on the many and pressing problems of London rating.

7.27 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Taylor (Paddington, South)

Representing a London borough which has been very adversely affected by conditions arising out of the war, I most cordially welcome this Bill, which will be very acceptable to many people in my constituency. The Parliamentary Secretary very rightly pointed out that people affected were not those who did not pay their rates in the ordinary course of events. To submit them to the ordinary peace-time procedure in London was, I think, a great mistake, and I therefore very much welcome the procedure introduced by this Bill. At the same time I should like to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Etherton) has said, that this Measure takes only one step towards the solution of the very many problems affecting rating questions. There are others which are infinitely more difficult than this one. I hope that I shall not be out of order in referring to one which has already been mentioned, but the real crux of the problem in London lies in the precept of the London County Council, a precept which is compiled on the basis of rates levied on properties whether they are occupied or unoccupied.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and gallant Member is going too far away from the subject of this Bill.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

I will not pursue that point, but I would urge upon the Minister that sooner or later he will have to face up to the general problem of rating as it affects boroughs in London. It is a very serious matter, because some of them are heavily in debt, and this Bill does not cover that problem. I congratulate the Minister upon having brought in the Bill, but I hope that he will face up to the real crux of the rating question in London and deal with it in the sympathetic energetic and capable manner which he has displayed in handling other problems.

7.30 p.m.

Sir Robert Tasker (Holborn)

I understand that the Bill will come into operation only from the date on which it is passed, and I see no provision for its being made retrospective. The problem of rates dates almost from the commencement of the war. My hon. and gallant Friend has just referred to his con- stituency; in mine there are hundreds of houses, such as boarding houses and hotels, that are empty. While the rating authority may demand the rates, the owners have no money with which to pay, and the accumulating debts will give rise to much hardship unless the Bill is made retrospective from the beginning of September, 1939. The position of these people is hopeless, but it will not be very much improved by the Bill, except that they will avoid some of the rates when the rating authority has re-assessed them. I should like to have an answer to my interrogation about making the Bill retrospective.

7.32 p.m.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

I would like to impress upon the Minister the point that has just been raised. It would be ungrateful of me if I did not accept the Bill with a certain amount of pleasure; after all, I have had a certain amount to do with it. This Bill will accomplish something, and so far so good; but there will still be the outstanding problem of the people who got into difficulties during the evacuation which took place before and after the declaration of war. Court actions were subsequently taken against some of these people, and that fact, together with the accumulating debts and the decisions of the courts, must be taken into consideration if there is to be retrospective treatment. I would like the Minister or his colleague to throw some light on this matter.

7.33 p.m.

Miss Horsbrugh

Perhaps I might reply at once to the points that have been raised. The Bill applies to arrears of rates, but it cannot apply to decisions already taken before the courts. People in arrears with their rates can now apply to the rating authority. I hope I have made the point clear and that the reply will be satisfactory to hon. Members.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Thursday.—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]