HC Deb 27 November 1952 vol 508 cc942-50

8.12 a.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 12, after "order," to insert: being not later than the year nineteen hundred and fifty-four in the case of valuations other than valuations of dwelling houses under the provisions of Part IV of the said Act, and not later than the year nineteen hundred and fifty-five in the case of valuations of dwelling houses under the provisions of Part IV of the said Act. This Amendment seeks to place a time limit upon the powers of the Minister in postponing further the delivery of the new valuation lists. Clause I proposes to give the Minister unlimited power of postponement over the delivery of the new valuation lists. The Act of 1948 prescribed 1952 as the year during which the new lists should be delivered, but there was provision there for postponement for a year until 1953 if the Minister made an order to that effect.

Under the New Valuation Lists (Postponement) Order of 1951, the date for delivery was postponed until 1953. This Clause seeks to give the Minister power further to postpone that delivery. No, final date is fixed. The Minister could postpone delivery until doomsday. The Minister has not come to the Committee to set the people free: he has come to ask the Committee to set him free—to set him free from the discipline of the 1948 Act and to give him unlimited powers of postponement for the future.

The Amendment seeks to limit the power. But it does something more than that. It distinguishes between one kind of property and another, and proposes a final date of not later than 1954 for valuations other than valuations of dwelling-houses under the provisions of Part IV of the 1948 Act. It prescribes a year later, 1955, as the final year for the delivery of the new lists for dwelling houses under the provisions of Part IV. The reason for distinguishing between dwelling-houses and business premises is that the work which has been going on in the valuation offices over the last two years has distinguished between the two.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) made an order instructing the valuation officers to suspend all new valuations of dwelling-houses to concentrate on the new valuations for business premises. For the last 12 months there has been concentration on business and miscellaneous premises. How far has this work gone, and how much remains to be done? If valuation officers put their time to good advantage—as I am sure they have—work on the new valuation lists for business premises must be well advanced. If so, there is no reason why new valuation lists for business premises should not be delivered and come into effect before those for dwelling-houses.

It is more important that the business premises valuations should not be unduly delayed, because it is there that the difference between old and new valuations will be most substantial. Under existing valuations, business premises generally are getting off very lightly. The new valuation lists will correct the obvious inadequacy of many of the assessments prevailing on business premises. It is in that field that local authorities will look for higher rateable value and a greater yield in the rates themselves.

The Minister scarcely gave the House enough information on how he was going to complete the job. He said he was hoping to get it done in 1955 or 1956 at the latest, but he said little to support his estimate. Now that the Minister is adopting, as I am certain he is, a different basis of valuation for private dwelling-houses, he should enlist into the Inland Revenue staff officers experienced in rating and valuation, who have had long experience of tracking down the fugitive person known as "the hypothetical tenant," to get on with the new valuation lists on the chosen basis. Anyhow, now the Minister has abandoned the 1948 basis of valuation he will find it much easier than it would otherwise have been.

I hope the Minister will be able to accept this Amendment, which is only a reasonable curb upon otherwise unlimited freedom to postpone the delivery of new valuation lists for ever without check by this House. The date I mentioned seems reasonable in the circumstances; I see no administrative inconvenience, or any other for that matter, in introducing one part of the valuation list before the other, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will regard the Amendment as a constructive effort to assist him in his task.

Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)

This is no time at which to discuss at any length the principles of rating and valuation, and I think it would be in the interests of the House if we could get an answer as quickly as possible from the Minister. I hope he will "come clean" and tell us what plans and ideas are running through the mind of his right hon. Friend in regard to the new system of valuation which we think he may be going to introduce in due course. It would help us to judge these matters fairly if we could know what was in his mind.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

My right hon. Friend wishes me to express his thanks to the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) for giving him advance notice of some points he wished to make.

In answer to the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Shackleton), may I say that, since the Second Reading of the Bill, it has become increasingly clear that the present system of valuation is totally unworkable, and my right hon. Friend has not yet made up his mind what new system he should ask the House to approve in its place. One thing is clear—when he makes up his mind, he will have to come to the House and ask for fresh legislation. If he does not know what system of valuation will be adopted, he can hardly be asked what time he will complete his plans.

Mr. Houghton

But the Minister himself put a date to his own expectations in the matter, and I am only trying to assist him.

Mr. Marples

Whereas the Minister is asking for an Order for another year, the Amendment has the effect of making him come to the House for fresh legislation, and I am sure that the hon. Member will agree that in no circumstances could the Minister accept the Amendment on that particular issue.

The second thing which the Amendment does is to alter the assessment dates and impose them on the public in two stages. Part of the new assessments will be levied 12 months earlier than normal under the Amendment which the hon. Gentleman has moved. Let us look at the background. This Act was passed in 1948 and some assessments come in in 1955 and some in 1954. There is an advantage of one year, but the disadvantages are extremely great.

First, we get inequality between one ratepayer and another, which causes discontent. If the new rate were higher, the person on whom the burden would fall would say, "Why should I pay this, when the other chap's figure is lower?" and, the other way round, some people would ask, "Why did the other chap get the advantage of 12 months before I did?" The hon. Gentleman is an expert in tax matters. Does he think that, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer wished to alter the basis of assessment for Income Tax, it would be right and proper to impose it on one section of the community 12 months earlier than on any other?

Mr. Houghton

If that section of the community had been inadequately taxed for years, as business premises have been. I should say that he would be fully justified in bringing the level of taxation into line in both cases.

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to impose additional rates on something, which he says he does, he must bring forward another Amendment.

The second reason my right hon. Friend cannot accept this Amendment is that it would have great inequality between one local authority and another—greater than now exists—in regard to the Exchequer equalisation grants, and would alter the total rate collected and the total rateable value, which would mean an increasing muddle with the Exchequer equalisation grant. Therefore,, if it were done in this manner it would cause great unfairness and discontent all round.

The Government recognise that the rating system is in a muddle, and they would like to put it right at the earliest possible moment; but they would like to do it as fairly and uniformly as possible. The Government consider it would be wrong to do it in a piecemeal fashion, as that would be inefficient and would result in inequalities and unfairness. Therefore, we ask the House not to accept this Amendment.

I would also point out to the hon. Member for Sowerby that the uncertainties in the Bill of 1948 were scarcely of the present Government's making. The previous Administration had four years in which to try to make it work, and it is hardly reasonable to pin my right hon. Friend down to a specific date for a method of assessment on which he has not yet made up his mind and on which the House has not yet agreed to legislate.

Mr. Hugh Dalton (Bishop Auckland)

We find this rather disappointing. We had hoped that in the light of the friendly discussions that took place on Second Reading, the right hon. Gentleman would think it was best on balance to separate the dwelling-houses from the other hereditaments with regard to the speed with which the new valuation was carried out, since we understood the difficulties he has spoken about had arisen principally, if not wholly, with regard to the dwelling-houses. We thought, therefore, that a considerable advance towards fairness would be made if the new valuation basis, which we understood was not to be substantially changed for the hereditaments other than houses, could at once be put into effect.

The Parliamentary Secretary has resisted this Amendment on behalf of his right hon. Friend, and of course it is true that this is only a postponing Bill and that there will be an opportunity at a later date to reconsider the whole matter. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the rating system was in a muddle, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who is a great historical authority on these matters, whispered to me that it has been in a muddle ever since the year 1601. That may be true—

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

It is true.

Mr. Dalton

I was not trying to detract from the historical researches of my right hon. Friend.

We shall have an opportunity to consider this again, and even though this Amendment is not accepted now by the Government, I hope they will not unduly delay bringing before the House their considered proposals on this matter. That being so, I would advise my hon. Friend not to press his Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Houghton

I beg to move, in page 2, line 4, to leave out from "be," to the end of the Clause, and to add: of no effect unless and until it has been approved by a resolution passed by each House of Parliament. This is a simple Amendment. It seeks merely to convert one form of procedure into another. The form of procedure I propose in the Amendment is, I understand, known as the affirmative Resolution procedure; that is to say, the Minister must go to each House of Parliament for an affirmative Resolution to his Order before it becomes effective. In view of the fact, as I mentioned a moment ago, that the Minister has limited powers of postponement, it would seem desirable if he is making Orders for postponement, that he should report to the House before they become effective, and obtain approval of them.

8.30 a.m.

Mr. Marples

I regret that it is not a very profitable morning for the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend cannot accept this Amendment either, because it seeks to make any Order that postpones re-valuation subject to affirmative Resolution by both Houses. But the Order must depend on how far the Inland Revenue are advanced with their work, and this is a matter of fact and not of policy. The Order postponing the re-valuation will have to be made as soon as the Bill receives the Royal Assent—probably the following day—and to discuss the date of the first postponement immediately thereafter, and with the affirmative procedure, would be pointless.

The point of policy will arise on any future Order that may become necessary. Although Clause 1 (4) is based on Section 142 of the Local Government Act, which says any power to make orders conferred by this Act shall be exercisable by statutory instrument it does not need even an Order to be laid or debated. If the Order was annulled by the negative procedure—and that could not happen until after 31st December—the effect would be that there would be no valuation lists until after April, 1953. No rates could then be collected, which would create great difficulties in local government.

Mr. Ede

I feel very disappointed at that answer, because the last thing anyone would wish is that this matter should be buried after today and forgotten. After all, no matter when the rating system got into a muddle, it has been in a muddle for a long time, as anyone who has served on an assessment committee knows. There ought to be some way in which Parliament will be reminded from time to time of the progress the Minister is making in his researches.

I know the right hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the work of local government, and I think he would desire that this matter should be kept in front of the public. I hope that in another place some opportunity may be found for inserting something which will ensure that the matter shall not be lost sight of, and that through either the negative procedure, or, as I prefer, the affirmative procedure, it would be possible from time to time to find out how the matter has got on. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider this between now and the time the Bill reaches another place.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. John Edwards (Brighouse and Spenborough)

It is common knowledge that the staffs of valuation panels have been reduced, and the effect of this Bill may be to reduce further these panels. The Committee should be assured that compensation on full ordinary terms will be available to any staffs declared redundant as a direct consequence of the passing of this Measure.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

A considerable number of local government staff were transferred for this work, and I have heard of one case, an officer from an authority near Newcastle, who considers that his services will be dispensed with, and he will go back to a minor post in local government. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not give a light answer on this, but will give an assurance that where members of the staff are transferred in good faith from local government to this new branch, their cases will be looked at from the point of view of their terms of service being disadvantaged by legislation. There is a great deal of unrest among the staff, and the hon. Gentleman might look at some special cases which have been brought to the attention of hon. Gentlemen.

Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford, North)

There stands on the Order Paper in my name a new Clause—"Compensation to officers"—but it may be that when we reach that new Clause you, Sir Charles, will consider that it is not in order.

The Chairman

I can tell the hon. and learned Gentleman now that it is not in order, for several reasons.

Sir G. Hutchinson

I anticipated that you might take that view, but in the circumstances I would express the hope that my right hon. Friend will give consideration to the point which has just been put to him. It is the case that a certain number—not a very large number but a certain number—of officers employed upon valuation panels may be affected by the postponement of the coming into force of the new valuation lists, and in those circumstances it would seem likely that these officers should be treated in the customary way, and that any loss of office or any diminution of emoluments should be the subject of compensation. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give consideration at some later stage to the position of the officers who will be affected in the way described.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I have a little difficulty in dealing precisely with this matter for the same reason that would have led you, Sir Charles, to rule my hon. and learned Friend's new Clause out of order, because if we accepted it in that form it would throw, or might have thrown, a charge on the Exchequer.

Mr. Dalton

Have another Financial Resolution.

Mr. Macmillan

Another Financial Resolution would keep us a little longer than I anticipated on this Bill.

In the past there has been an arrangement for compensation when there is a complete change of machinery, when one whole function came to an end, but merely the reduction of the staff required is not in itself normally a reason for compensation. Therefore, I am sure hon. Members opposite will realise that we cannot introduce a principle which, if it were pressed to other cases, might become a very serious charge, not in this case but in parallel cases. We shall, of course, look sympathetically at this matter, and I will bring it to the notice of my colleagues directly responsible for this Department. We shall try to do everything we can to avoid hardship in individual cases that may be brought to our notice. I hope the Committee will realise that we could not really properly go further than that in a matter of this kind.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.