HC Deb 07 March 1940 vol 358 cc705-18

Amendment proposed: In page 1, line 15, at the end, to insert: (2) While the said valuation lists remain in force, any increase or reduction in value attributable directly or indirectly to the present emergency if and in so far as it:

  1. (a) is peculiar to a particular hereditament; or
  2. (b) affects a particular hereditament and also other hereditaments of a comparable character in the rating area in question, but does not affect all classes, or substantially all classes, of hereditaments in that area,
shall, in relation to that hereditament, be deemed to be an alteration in the matters stated in the valuation list within the meaning of paragraph (1) of Section forty-six of the said Act (which relates to supplemental lists) and to be such an increase or reduction in value as is referred to in Section forty-seven of the said Act (which relates to provisional lists). This Subsection shall apply in relation to any such increase or reduction as aforesaid whether it occurred before or after the passing of this Act, and any such increase or reduction
  1. (i) shall be taken into account for the purposes of the said Section forty-seven notwithstanding that it occurred otherwise than in the course of the year; and
  2. (ii) shall, if a provisional list or a requisition for a provisional list has been made in the preceding twelve months be taken into account for the purposes of any revision under the said Section forty-six, notwithstanding that the increase or reduction occurred otherwise than during those twelve months."—[Sir H. Webbe.]

Question again proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

10.46 p.m.

Sir Harold Webbe (Westminster, Abbey)

An Amendment which has been put down by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health expresses more precisely in one important particular, I think, the purpose which I had in mind in moving the Amendment which is now before the Committee and I will therefore ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.47 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Elliot)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 15, at the end, to insert: (2) While the said valuation lists remain in force, any increase or reduction in value attributable directly or indirectly to the present emergency, to the extent that the increase or reduction—

  1. (a) is peculiar to a particular hereditament; or
  2. (b) affects a particular hereditament and also other hereditaments of a comparable character in the rating area in question but does not represent a general alteration in the values of all classes, or substantially all classes, of hereditaments in that area,
shall, in relation to that hereditament, be deemed to be an alteration in the matters stated in the valuation list within the meaning of paragraph (1) of Section forty-six of the said Act (which relates to supplemental lists) and to be such an increase or reduction in value as is referred to in Section forty-seven of the said Act (which relates to provisional lists). This Sub-section shall apply in relation to any such increase or reduction as aforesaid whether it occurred before or after the passing of this Act, and any such increase or reduction—
  1. (i) shall be taken into account for the purposes of the said Section forty-seven notwithstanding that it occurred before the beginning of the year; and
  2. (ii) shall, if a provisional list or a requisition for a provisional list has been made in the preceding twelve months in respect of the hereditament, be taken into account for the purposes of any revision under the said Section forty-six, notwithstanding that the increase or reduction occurred before the beginning of those twelve months."
We have already had a discussion on this matter, on which it became evident that the Committee was not then desirous of coming to a decision and so we reported Progress. The time gained has been useful to all of us and I think the Committee now desires to decide on this matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe) said, he felt that the responsibility for an Amendment of this kind might properly be accepted by the Government, and as he also said, the Amendment which I move covers much of the ground which his Amendment covered.

The Committee will observe that the Government Amendment differs in certain respects from that of the hon. Member, but I do not want to go into them in detail unless the Committee so desire. The main objectives are (1) to make it clear that any circumstances arising out of the war which is alleged to have peculiarly affected a particular hereditament, or class of hereditament—I hope the Committee will note that—and to have affected it in a manner and to an extent different from that in which other hereditaments in the rating area have been affected shall be admitted as a ground for interim revision of the assessment; and (2) to remove certain limitations as to the time within which an application for such revision must be made.

I may say that the wording of the Government Amendment has been carefully examined in consultation with counsel. Counsel is of opinion that the language used does give effect to our intention namely that a ratepayer's right to claim revision would not be impaired because other hereditaments of a comparable character are affected in the same degree as his own. The occupiers of those hereditaments would be in the same position to claim revision as he is. But both he and they could only claim such reduction of assessment as could be justified by a decline in value in excess of the decline in value (attributable to the emergency) experienced by the generality of hereditaments of all kinds in the borough.

It is, I think, well known that the practice of London rating authorities has not been uniform in applying the principles laid down by the Courts when interpreting the relevant provisions of the Valuation (Metropolis) Act, 1869. It is not surprising that some authorities should have taken a narrower view than others—perhaps an unduly narrow view, more particularly when applied to war conditions; and it would probably command general assent to say that it is desirable to take a reasonably broad view of the relevant statutory provisions in present circumstances.

The Amendment is admittedly in the nature of a clarification and restatement of the law, as interpreted by Court decisions, in its appplication to war conditions. It is hoped, in addition, that such clarification will help the various rating and assessment authorities in London to adopt a uniform practice, and any advice tendered to them by any representative body in the light of this Amendment and the discussions on it should be of the greatest assistance to that end and would, it is hoped, be accepted in principle and followed in practice by the several authorities.

I recommend the Amendment to the Committee as a reasonable compromise between the desire to assimilate the London and the provincial law in all respects—which would open the flood gates and might result in something like a general revaluation, thereby nullifying the Bill and stultifying the object we have in view—as a reasonable compromise between that view and the general desire which we all have to improve the conditions of the London ratepayers who are particularly affected by the war.

10.50 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Taylor (South Paddington)

I recognise that it is very difficult for the Minister to frame an Amendment so as not to go too far, but the narrow limits of this Amendment leave me unsatisfied. I am grateful for the assurance of the Minister that people specially affected will now be able to state their case for re-assessment but there will be a considerable number of people who will not benefit at all under this Amendment. There is a very great difference between the private householder and the man whose property is used solely for business purposes. In the one case the diminution in the value of the property may not be really of any material consequence, but the other man is in a very different category and is more deserving of consideration. I think the real test of the value of this Amendment will be found in the administration of the Act when it is passed. I do not know how it will be possible for a local authority to assess what is the general levelling down in London and then assess what is the additional lowering in value due to some particular cause relating to some particular hereditatment. It will be a matter of guesswork if there is no revaluation and no two local authorities will guess the same. There will be a tremendous responsibility upon the local authorities to do justice in these cases, and I base the whole of my fight to help these people who have been so badly hit on justice. Nothing would be worse than to have these people go before the borough authorities and not have justice meted out to them. People can stand a great deal in war but one thing they will not stand is injustice. It would create an extremely bad feeling in London and therefore I hope that what the Minister has said will prove to be the case and that the borough authorities will carry out this Amendment both in the letter and the spirit and in a broad-minded manner. If that is not done there will be a feeling of injustice and it will be an exceedingly bad thing to create such a feeling. I am very glad that this Amendment has been moved by the Minister. The Bill could not have gone through as it was drafted, leaving everything in the same position with no possibility of any improvement. This Amendment only touches the fringe of the many problems in London. There are many other factors which will have to be tackled by the Government and, as I said before, time is all important. These people—many of them endeavouring to pay their rent and rates, some of them already driven to the moneylender, which is very much to be deprecated—cannot hold on indefinitely. Therefore, I hope the Government will lose no time in coming to a decision as to what further legislation shall be brought to this House in order to meet the specially hard cases and other cases which have arisen as a direct result of the war and which particularly apply under this Bill to London.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Etherton (Stretford)

This Amendment is a great disappointment. When the Committee previously considered this Clause and the other Amendment my right hon. Friend spoke not only of improvement but of enlargement of existing provisions. This Amendment still leaves the law unchanged. It was hoped, I thought, to alleviate the injustice which this Clause creates. It has been suggested by the Minister that to make "general cause" applicable to London, as indeed it is to the rest of the country, would open the flood gates to a rush of applicants for equity and for justice. There are many areas where the position is the same as it is in London, so far as necessity for revaluation by reason of the drop in values since the beginning of the war is concerned. There are other evacuation areas besides London, such as Manchester, Hull and all the East Coast towns. There has been no rush of applicants for a revaluation in those areas.

The Amendment is one of expediency, and the price is to be justice and equity. Expediency can be bought at too high a price. Artificial and unequal assessments are to be made and continued in London until two years after the end of the war. Reductions in values due to evacuation, to black-out and to other such general causes are to have no consideration. I want shortly to draw attention to the effects of this Amendment and this Clause, and to illustrate the wrongs which will be created. We have heard that the London boroughs and local authorities have been consulted, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) pointed out when this matter was previously under discussion by this Committee, there are three parties, There are not only the Government and the local authorities, but there are the ratepayers, the persons who have to find the money. Take the position of the London boroughs. They do not need very much sympathy. They are the collectors of the rates. They want these high artificial assessments to remain, but their heads are buried in the sand, like the ostrich. They will moan presently because of the London County Council precept. [An Hon. Member: "Why?"] Because they will complain that the precept is on properties which are empty as well as those which are occupied. The boroughs will find that they are collecting less and less, but that the precept remains the same, and that it is on an increasing number of empty properties.

Take the case of the person who is entitled to consideration in this matter: that is, the occupier, the person who has to pay the money. A convenient illustration is the case of an office in the City. In such a case, where, possibly, the assessment was £1,000 and the rent £1,200, suppose that that office has become vacant and that the landlord, in order to let it again, has to accept a rent of, let us say, £600 or £700. The prospective tenant inquires what is the assessment? The assessment is still £1,000, and there is no method, under this Amendment or under this Clause, by which that can be changed. The result is that the office remains empty, not because too high a rent is being demanded, but because the assessment cannot be changed. The same applies to flats. A flat becomes vacant, and a new tenant cannot be found, not because the rent is too high, but because the assessment cannot be changed, as it could in any other part of the country. The position in regard to private houses is exactly the same. My hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) was interested in the position of utility companies. They, also, will not benefit under the Amendment, in its present form.

This is patchwork legislation; it is legislation of expediency, at the price of justice and equity. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider whether he might not give the Committee an assurance that he will, in the near future, introduce legislation to deal with this matter in a comprehensive manner. After all, equity of burden has been the basis for assessment and for rates in England since the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and this Amendment and this Clause magnify the inequality of the position in London. The Amendment creates new injustices. I urge my right hon. Friend to give an assurance this evening that he will introduce legislation to deal comprehensively with the whole problem.

11.3 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)

As an act of faith, I am going to support the Minister's Amendment. If anybody will read the Amendment, read the Act of 1869, and read the Bill, he will, if he is honest, admit that he is in some doubt as to what the net result will be. I have consulted a number of experts, and I have heard a number of conflicting views. Some tell me that this Amendment will do the trick, in the sense that anybody with a legitimate grievance will be able to get a satisfactory re-assessment, and that, on the other hand, it will close the floodgates against what could not be accomplished at the moment—a complete re-assessment of London's hereditaments. I hope that they are right. It is a problem of great gravity. We read the other day that the London County Council are to reduce their rate by three pence. Some of my constituents, who know that their rates will be increased substantially— although no announcement has yet been made—cannot understand why that should be the case when the L.C.C. can reduce their rate by three pence.

The London County Council does not collect rates; it only makes rates based on a paper valuation of London on the assumption that everybody is at home. The Croydon Borough Council has the misfortune of making rates on the assumption that a lot of my constituents have left Croydon under the inspiration of the Minister of Health. How he did it I do not know. I have always disagreed with the policy. It is a fact that a substantial number of my constituents had more faith in him than in me, and so they left my constituency and left behind those who believed in me to pay the debts of those who did not believe in me.

Where the London County Council made their rate they made it on the assumption that nobody had left and they assumed that all the constituents of my hon. and gallant Friend have remained in the boarding houses and hotels of Paddington. They say to Paddington, "On the assumption that you are all at home, please pay us the produce of 7s., or whatever the figure is. "Paddington are not asked to collect the London County Council rate as stated by County Hall; they are asked to collect so many hundreds of thousands of pounds on the assumption that everybody is at home. Those who are at home will have to pay for those who have left home, whereas in Croydon on the other hand the rate made is based on the assumption that there are 5,000 houses empty, the London County Council rate is based on the assumption that there are no empty houses. Therefore we have this dreadful situation.

I rejoice very much indeed that I made, I think, the first speech on the Second Reading of this Bill which raised this issue of the very grave situation of London assessments. On that occasion we had a general debate, and later on, on the first day of the Committee stage my hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe) took one view while I, who am one of his constituents, took another view. Mine brought in more people than his did. He thought if mine was passed everybody would be brought in and there would be chaos, while I thought if his was passed not enough people would be brought in. Then the Minister got busy and produced his Amendment, which I am told is all right. I hope it is, but if it is not all right I agree with my hon. Friend that if, when the lawyers get busy on it, it shows that injustice will remain, then without the slightest hesitation we shall have to press the Minister to bring in amending legislation. I am a small ratepayer in one part of the county represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) and I have always paid my rates properly, but the other day I got a demand note showing an increase of 60 per cent. which was rather a shock. I read the document with some care and found that apparently the sum I was now asked to pay had no relation whatever to this year but was part of the money they had not collected last year. Therefore I become doubtful about all these questions of rating and valuation. There is not a great deal of conscience on the part of people when they get on municipal bodies. They think the municipal bodies are the things that matter. But they are only the servants of the people. That is what concerns me. If anybody gets on a municipal body he is not there for his own glorification, but to render service to the community. Members of town councils and district councils and county councils think they are an entity in themselves, but they are not. They are not of the faintest importance as an entity in themselves. They are only there representing the burgesses and the general mass of the population.

The trouble is that when these issues are on the Ministry goes and consults the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Joint Standing Committee of London Borough Councils as if they represented the people, but their election has gone by a long time before they were elected. They have become borough council conscious. They have ceased to be democrats and have become autocrats. Therefore I say the Minister should bear in mind that when you go and consult the great panjandrums on the L.C.C., they very often only represent themselves and not the people of London. I sincerely hope this Amendment which I am confident we shall carry to-night will turn out to be the right thing to protect the great masses of citizens of London who are having the most dreadful time to-day. But if it is not, I hope that without hesitation the Minister will come to Parliament and ask for an amendment of the 1869 Act.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Herbert Morrison (Hackney, South)

I will not attempt to follow the hon. Gentleman in his rather wandering and not particularly well-informed observations. This Amendment and the other proposals which have been made by hon. Members opposite raise a matter of some importance. There have been certain exemptions from rating, and this is an Amendment to provide for applications being made for partial exemption in the sense of a reduction in rate able value. We have the de-rating provisions of the legislation of 1929, which fill me with increasing doubt as to whether this is now right or not. We have had proposals for the de-rating of this class of property and the other, including hospitals, and we have had a clamour that there should be a very widespread remission of ratable value, and therefore of the payment of rates. I would beg the Committee to keep in mind that, in so far as people are forgiven the payment of rates and classes of property are exempt, rateable values are decreased in relation to particular members of the community, other ratepayers have to make up the money which is not paid. That really seems to be forgotten. I fully appreciate that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South Paddington(Vice-Admiral Taylor) knows of hard and pathetic cases, and I do not complain that he should put them before the Committee, but there seems to be a setting aside of the consideration that, in so far as some people will not pay rates at all, or the payment of their rates is reduced, it must follow that that payment which is not made by them must be made by someone else.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

I have not omitted to realise that fact at all that there will be a tremendous gap between the rates received and the rates which should be paid as precept to the London County Council. I entirely disagree with the suggestion that additional rates should be levied upon those people who to-day cannot pay the rates as they are. If that is the solution of the problem, the vicious circle will only become greater, and more and more houses will become empty, and another additional rate will be put on. Surely the right hon. Gentleman can understand that. The more empty houses there are, the higher must be the rate.

Mr. Morrison

The hon. and gallant Gentleman says surely I understand what he is saying. I have not followed it in the least but that may be my fault. The only point I am on is that the Committee is right that Parliament should consider cases of evident injustice where they are well established. But I want to impress on the Committee that, in so far as burdens are relieved out of the contributions that must be made for the maintenance of local government, someone else must make up that burden. When we have come to the House to relieve this very class of ratepayers to which hon. Members are referring, to broaden the basis of municipal taxation by the rating of land values for example, or by the partial rating of empty property, hon. Members who are now talking about the grievances and burdens of certain ratepayers have not given us any sympathy. On the contrary, they have stood for the rigid maintenance of the existing system. I admit freely that there are, owing to the war and to other circumstances, individual hard cases. There are always individual hard cases of people who find it difficult to pay their rates, and justices have to come to decisions on their applications on the ground of hardship or poverty.

The local authorities of London admit that that is the case. The Metropolitan Borough Councils, as the rating authority, have considered this matter at very great length, and they have approached the London County Council, and we have jointly considered it. The Metropolitan Borough Standing Joint Committee, which I can assure the Committee represents the people of London, considered this very carefully, and naturally they have considered these hard cases and their reprecussions. They have made a report on the recommendations of the constituent councils and by administrative methods, without changing the law, they believe they have met the really hard cases, with an elasticity and a breadth which would be impossible under the Amendment of the Minister. That Amendment is a specific alteration of the law whereas the proposal of the Metropolitan Standing Joint Committee was, as I say, devised on a basis of administrative elasticity. The committee took that view after consideration and so did the London County Council, and therefore I wish to make it plain that the London local authorities do not desire this Amendment and do not desire to have a change made in the law. They think that considerable administrative problems will arise even after the passage of this Amendment. Our position is that we do not wish the law to be changed. The borough councils were willing, by administration, to do everything they possibly could to meet the hard cases.

We would have preferred the actual context of the law to have been maintained. It must be clear that the Amendment of the Minister will not meet all the cases of hardship. I do not suggest that it should—it is properly restricted in its operations—but I wish to warn the Committee that there will be a certain number of cases. There are a lot of lawyers looking out for just the kind of argument that this Amendment will give them the opportunity of making, and, apart from lawyers, there are a lot of rating surveyors and so-called rating experts who will be well on the job and ready to appear before valuation and assessment committees, making hay while the sun shines. I believe there will be some difficulties arising under the administration of the Amendment as between case and case, particularly as between cases that come within the Amendment and cases of individual hardship which fall outside the Amendment.

I have told the Committee that if ratepayer "A" is relieved then ratepayer "B" and the other ratepayers must shoulder the rest of the burden, and the tendency will be for it to rise. There is another point of principle to which I wish to draw attention. The problem of evacuation and hardship, which is damaging the rateable values of certain metropolitan boroughs, is in the main damaging the valuations of the richer boroughs in the western half of London. The City of Westminster, Paddington, Kensington, St. Marylebone and the City of London are the areas which are mainly affected. In the last war their rateable values went up, and I am bound to say that I did not hear any complaint about it.

They were doing very well, but it is a case that richer boroughs are suffering and rateable values are inclined to fall. The hon. Member for the Abbey Division of Westminster (Sir H. Webbe) is walking about the House as if he was a "distressed area" like the county of Durham, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South Paddington is feeling just the same. Perhaps they are beginning to feel a kinship with some of my hon. Friends from Durham and South Wales. I think they are exaggerating their problems just a bit. But if it be the case that the richer boroughs of London are to be encouraged, and concessions on rateable value are granted, let the Committee follow what will happen. If under this Amendment—and it would have been more serious under the Amendment of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Etherton)—the rateable values of the city of Westminster, Paddington, Marylebone and Kensington markedly fall, the police and county rates must go up. Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, Lewisham and, possibly, Wandsworth will have to pay more to the central authority in order to make up for the deficiencies in the boroughs I have named. Therefore the Committee must be careful, having regard to the special circumstances of London rating. It is different from that of any county borough in the country. If there is a fall in rateable values in the well-to-do boroughs, the difference will have to be made up by the poorer boroughs of London, and if that happens, there will be a new and vigorous demand for the further equalization of rates. The richer boroughs will be faced with that demand and so will the Minister.

In view of the equalisation already achieved, and the difficulty of stretching it further, if the demand should arise I wish the Minister luck, but he is going to have an exciting and difficult time. That is what the local authorities of London think. I agree I do not speak for all of them in some of the things I have said but I want to be fair; I am trying to speak for the people, not interests. Having intimated the difficulties that are likely to arise, I am, nevertheless, authorised by the borough councils and the London County Council's appropriate committee to say that although we did not seek amendment of the law, and would much rather it did not occur in view of the difficulties we think will arise, we do not propose to challenge a Division, or resist the Amendment being made.

11.25 p.m.

Sir Henry Fildes (Dumfries)

May I appeal to the Patronage Secretary, who looks very warm, to say whether, if a decision is taken upon this Amendment he could see his way, in view of the relative unimportance of what is to come afterwards, to close down now?

The Chairman

The hon. Member has managed to get out what he has said before I was able to call him to Order.

Sir H. Fildes

I have met a constituent of the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) and a constituent of the hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington (Vice-Admiral Taylor). I asked the Croydon man "How are you doing?" He said, "It is very hard to keep the wolf from the door." The Paddington man said, "The beast has got inside and is eating up the hearthrug." Is it in order to discuss the evacuation measures which have led to these difficulties?

The Chairman

I must wait until I have heard how the hon. Member proposes to do it. I have my doubts.

Sir H. Fildes

As the Patronage Secretary has not been able to give me a favourable reply, I will sit down.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with an Amendment, as amended, Considered; read the Third time, and passed.