HC Deb 26 April 1961 vol 639 cc546-52
Mr. Soames

I beg to move, in page 5, line 34, after "to", to insert "demand or".

Mr. Speaker

It is obviously convenient with this Amendment to discuss that in page 5, line 35, to leave out "payable" and to insert "thereof".

Mr. Soames

These Amendments arise out of an assurance which I gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Mahon (Mr. Turton) in Standing Committee. This is on the de minimus point. As drafted, the Bill provided that a river board need not enforce payment if the sum was so small as not to warrant the bother. My right hon. Friend said that that did not go far enough and imposed an unnecessary duty upon the board, and he asked whether the Bill could not provide that there was no need for the property to be assessed if it were too small.

The board has to assess the property in order to know whether it is too small, and it would be taking the matter too far not to assess the property. But I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is not going far enough merely to say that the river board need not enforce payment. It need not even demand it, and that is what has been left out.

The Amendments will improve the Bill and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing the matter to my attention. We have provided that a river board need neither demand nor enforce payment in those circumstances.

Mr. Turton

I thank my right hon. Friend for meeting my point so completely. This will give great relief to many small farmers in many parts of the country.

Mr. Peart

We are very glad that the argument put forward by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) in Committee has been accepted. The Amendments make a considerable improvement to the Bill and will help many small farmers, and we are grateful to the Minister for them.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 5, line 35, leave out "payable" and insert "thereof".—[Mr. Soames.]

Mr. Peart

I beg to move, in page 5, line 36, at the end to insert: (8) A river board may reduce or remit payment of a drainage charge on account of the poverty of any person liable to the payment thereof. I do not think that I need go into an elaborate explanation of the purpose of this Amendment. If it is felt that a person is unable to make a payment we think that this subsection (8) would help matters. It is obvious that there might be cases of hardship which would be covered. This would enable a board to reduce or remit the payment of a drainage charge on account of the poverty of a person. The Minister may have reasons for not accepting the Amendment, but we should like to hear his views on it.

Mr. Soames

I fully appreciate what lies behind this Amendment, but I think that, on reflection, the House would not accept it.

What the hon. Member for Working-ton (Mr. Peart) is suggesting is that the river board should be the judge as to whether someone's financial situation is such that it would be all right to take a drainage charge from him or not. I think that the House will agree that river boards are not fitted to be judges in this respect. It is for the boards to arrange the charge and to say that it must be and will be paid. There are well-known ways in which people can have recourse, if they have no money to meet these payments, to the National Assistance Board and the like in the case of rent. That is the body where poverty should be judged, not the river board. I perfectly see the point the hon. Member has made, that he does not want someone in very severe financial straits to contribute, but that is the way in which that should be met, not by the river board.

Mr. Jeger

I cannot agree with the Minister that the river boards should not exercise judgment in cases of this kind. We have just seen the acceptance of a proviso that a river board shall decide whether the amount of drainage rate is worth collecting, because of the possible cost of making the collection. Surely if the river board is allowed to exercise its opinion in the case where it is balancing possible revenue against known expenditure on cost of collection, it can exercise its judgment about the poverty of the person against whom the rate is levied.

I see that the Minister is laughing, but this is done by every local authority which is a rate levying authority. Those authorities assess for rates and finance committees decide to remit the rates either totally or in part in such cases. They take into account the financial position of the ratepayer and accept or reject recommendations of their principal rating officers in each particular case on its merits. It seems that the river board should do exactly the same. The board would know the state of affairs of the person on whom the special drainage rate was being levied. If it came to the conclusion that there was poverty, why should it not be empowered to remit either part or the whole of the rate? I hope that the Minister will take a more humane view of this sort of thing and give the river board the power which an ordinary local authority already has in respect of ordinary rates.

Mr. Turton

I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger). I am certain that farmers who are concerned about this would not want to disclose their means to the clerk to the river board. As the Minister said, these matters are far better handled through the good offices of the National Assistance Board, which has a great deal of tact. I should not applaud bringing in a sort of means test to the business of new drainage boards. I am sure that would be a great mistake. If hon. Members of the party opposite think the matter over quietly they will see that they would be doing something which their constituents would not want at all.

Mr. Willey

I do not think the right hon. Member is right in suggesting that this is a party matter. I cross swords with him on one point. We should not assume that the only people who will be paying drainage rates are farmers, for railwaymen, farm workers and others are concerned. That is something we should consider in the context of the Amendment.

I am impressed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger) said. When listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), I felt sure that there was a precedent for this and the right hon. Gentleman has not challenged it. If there is a precedent about rates generally, I should have thought it desirable that the drainage authority should be in the same position as the local authority. I see no reason to differentiate. I see the difference between this Amendment and previous Amendments we discussed, about whether it is worth the cost of recovering a rate because the amount is too small. That is a matter which a drainage authority can very easily decide in the light of its own knowledge, but this also is something which it should be able to consider for this is a matter in which discretion is allowed to authorities which raise general rates.

I can see a very good purpose in having such discretion as this. That is why I do not complain about the word "poverty". There are cases in which the rates may be rather larger—

Mr. Turton

The hon. Member is talking about rates, but this provision does not deal with a drainage rate. It deals with a drainage charge levied wholly on agricultural hereditaments and lands. Therefore, all his talk about railwaymen is completely off the point.

Mr. Willey

I accept what the right hon. Member says, but I do not accept the difference between rates and charges. A rating authority raising rates is in a very similar position. If it has discretion, discretion ought also to be allowed in this case.

Quite apart from the question with which the right hon. Gentleman dealt in his previous Amendment, I can see a good argument for a further extension by which the "poverty"—to use the word in the Amendment—of the person upon whom the charge is imposed should be considered. I can conceive of cases where it would be impolitic, because of the condition of the person concerned, to pursue the matter further.

The right hon. Gentleman advanced an argument that I do not like at all, and the sooner we get away from it the better. That argument is, "All this does not really matter, because you can go to the Assistance Board." That is quite intolerable. Are we now providing for an army of bureaucrats at the Assistance Board? Far better to allow ordinary, reasonable discretion here to decide, in view of the circumstances of the person upon whom the charge is imposed it would be a hardship upon him to enforce this, or, alternatively, if we tried to enforce it we would be in an invidious position. Far better to allow discretion to a body than to say, "Well, there will not be any hardship because, after all, he can go to the Assistance Board."

The House should not encourage people to meet charges unfairly and unnecessarily imposed on them by using that argument. I therefore hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not rely on that ground, but will say that discretion analogous to that allowed in similar cases should be allowed here.

Sir R. Nugent

I do not disagree with the last point made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), that there should be discretion where it can be used, but I disagree with the hon. Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger), because I do not believe that his is a true analogy. A local authority has fairly close personal contact with the people who live in its area. It has contact through housing committees—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Proceedings on the Land Drainage Bill exempted, at this day's Sitting, from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House).—[Mr. Soames.]

Question again proposed, That those words foe there inserted in the Bill.

Sir R. Nugent

A local authority has contact through a number of personal services. A local authority area is relatively small, so the council knows a good deal about the people living in its area, and can properly, and with reasonable accuracy, assess whether or not there is a case of poverty.

A river board is in quite a different position. Its area may stretch over several counties and over dozens and dozens of local authority areas, and its knowledge of the individual circumstances of any farmer or farm holding in its area would be very slight, indeed. It would find it quite impossible to collect the information necessary to judge whether any individual occupier was in financial difficulty. It would be in the dilemma that it would either need a very much bigger staff than it has at present, or would be judging a case on very incomplete information.

I suggest that, although the object of the Amendment is one with which I sympathise, the hon. Gentleman's analogy is not sound; that we would not get a reliable result, and that the only person who would be likely to benefit would be the one who pleaded poverty, knowing that the board had no means of checking his circumstances. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press an Amendment which river boards would find extremely difficult to operate.

Amendment negatived.