HC Deb 07 February 1949 vol 461 cc35-8

3.40 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Woodburn)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 10, to leave out from "Act," to end of the Clause, and to insert: the total amount which would, apart from the provisions of this Section, fall to be de-frayed by a local authority out of rates levied by them on owners in the year commencing on the appointed day in respect of expenditure incurred in the provision of a supply of water is less than the total amount which fell to be so defrayed in the year immediately preceding that day, then, in the year commencing on that day and in each of the four succeeding years, the total amount to be levied by that authority on owners liable in payment of the county rate or the burgh rate, as the case may be, shall be increased, and the total amount to be levied on occupiers liable in payment of the domestic water rate shall be decreased, by an amount equal to the difference between the amounts aforesaid, and the county rate or the burgh rate and the domestic water rate shall, in each of those five years, be adjusted and levied accordingly. The Clause as it stands provides that where the Bill transfers the liability for water rates from the owner to the occupier, the occupier may obtain, by paying one shilling, a certificate saying how much has been transferred. The occupier, after having gone to the trouble of buying a certificate, may find that the amount of the difference is less than 10s., in which case he gets no benefit. If the amount is over 10s., he may then recover the amount from the landlord. Some points about the complexity of this Clause were raised in the Standing Committee, and as a result I have given the matter further thought.

It seems to me that the procedure originally proposed has serious defects. First, the tenant might never know that he had the right of recovery under the Clause. I had to consider whether there was any way of making it known to him. That involved serious administrative difficulties. If he did know and he bought a certificate, after paying the shilling he might be irritated to discover that he could recover nothing. In addition to this, the whole procedure involved a considerable amount of what in my opinion was unnecessarily complicated administration. First, the person pays the amount, then he obtains the certificate to enable him to recover it. It seemed that the more simple way was to short-circuit that procedure by allowing him to avoid paying it in the first instance.

Therefore, I took the opportunity of raising the whole question at a meeting I had with the associations of local authorities. They also were alarmed at the amount of administrative work involved which would require a considerable increase in staff at certain times of the year. Finally, they agreed that a sub-committee should meet with my officials and at that meeting the local authorities put forward the proposal embodied in this Amendment. That proposal is that instead of providing for an adjustment to be made between individual owners and individual occupiers, the Clause should provide for the adjustment to be made over a period of five years between owners as a class and occupiers as a class.

3.45 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

Do I understand from the right hon. Gentleman that the real effect of this Amendment is that for a period of five years the owners will not gain relief under this Bill?

Mr. Woodburn indicated assent.

Commander Galbraith

The owner will be in the same position as he is now. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if there is to be recovery then it should be automatic and it should be the same for everyone. That is what the Amendment does. But, beyond that, it is perhaps unfortunate that at this time we should not be giving even this minimum of relief to owners of property. I say that in the interests of the tenants, really, because the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the great difficulties at present of maintaining properties in repair; and even this small adjustment at least would have encouraged owners to go ahead even though they were paying the money from their own pockets, apart from the rents they were receiving. From that point of view, I regret the provision. On the other hand, I agree that, should there be recovery, it should be automatic and not left to the whim of an individual.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having brought forward this Amendment. As he rightly pointed out, there was some concise discussion on Clause 7 in the Standing Committee. The point mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) was discussed at some length by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot). The Minister on that occasion seemed to turn down the plea made by my right hon. and gallant Friend, and he seemed to do it somewhat brusquely. Very little attention was paid to the excellent argument which was put forward. At all events, the Minister has shown that his mind is not altogether closed. He has given us an illustration that even he sometimes sees on reflection that second thoughts may be best. I congratulate him on having taken advantage of the considerable period of time that has elapsed since the conclusion of the Committee stage before Christmas to have these consultations.

Throughout the Committee stage we complained that local authorities and other parties interested in this Bill had not been consulted by the right hon. Gentleman and those responsible at the Scottish Office for drafting the Bill in the way we thought they ought to have been. Now the Minister has shown that the pleas we made at all points during the Committee stage have at last sunk in, and he has had these conversations. I congratulate him on having gone half way to meet us. But of course the right hon. Gentleman, by not having gone as we think far enough in the direction of the owner, has shown—and I say this without any real political bias—that so far as the owners are concerned he still has a somewhat hard heart. I have been in this House long enough now to realise that sometimes one can overdo a case by harping too much on a certain point, and I profit by the long experience I have had in that direction. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot go all the way to satisfy me and my right hon. Friends, at all events I am grateful for this crumb of comfort. Perhaps that is not paying the right hon. Gentleman a sufficient compliment. I congratulate him on having gone a considerable way along the road to meet us. I think that this Amendment will give general satisfaction to those parties in Scotland, and there are many of them, who are watching the progress of this Bill with considerable attention.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Bill reported, with Amendment; as amended, (in the Standing Committee and on re-committal) considered.