HC Deb 24 April 1963 vol 676 cc338-41

Notwithstanding anything in the definition of occupier in subsection (1) of section 379 of the Act of 1947, lands and heritages shall not be deemed for the purposes of section 243 of that Act (which relates to unoccupied subjects) to be occupied as respects the year 1963–64 or any subsequent year by reason only that they are subject to a tenancy or sub-tenancy; and the said section 243 shall have effect as respects any such year as if the word "unlet", wherever it occurs in the said section, were omitted.—[Mr. Leburn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Leburn

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This Clause is intended to secure that unoccupied property is not denied rating relief under Section 243 of the Local Government Act, 1947, simply because it is the subject of a tenancy or a subtenancy. A recent judicial decision has laid it down that as a result of the definition of "occupier" in Section 379 of the Act, property is regarded as occupied if it is subject to a tenancy, irrespective of whether any use is being made of it or not. The court pointed out that if any remedy was wanted to this situation it must be sought by amending the Statute, and that is what we propose here.

Under the Clause, Section 243 will now enable exemption from rates to be given to a property which is unoccupied and unfurnished. The fact that the property may be let will not, of itself, disqualify it from rating relief, although the existence of a lease may be a material factor in determining whether it is occupied.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

Some people are doubtful about the operation of the Clause. Up to now the tradition has been that farm land and property are dealt with as a unum quid—the farm land, the farmhouse and the farm cottages. Because, up to now, the cottages have been in the name of the farmer they have all been rated in one. Under the new law, however, these cottages will be separately assessed, although they will still be in the name of the farmer.

If a cottage happens to be empty, for one reason or another—perhaps because of a reduction of load on the farm—I believe that it will still be regarded as occupied by the farmer and charged for rates. Does the Clause cover that point?

Mr. Leburn

In general, it does. In fact, that is one of its purposes. But I want to make it clear that while, under the old provisions, rating relief could not be given to a property if it was let, because it was held that the tenancy itself gave of occupation, rating relief can now be given if the house is empty, but it will not necessarily be given automatically. It could be that a house, although empty, was still of rateable occupation—I believe that that is the right expression—and I would not like my hon. Friend to feel that this is an automatic provision. The case that he puts to me is, however, covered generally by the Clause.

Mr. T. Fraser

Can the Under-Secretary explain the matter a little further? Why should a rates concession be given in respect of a house such as was described by his hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan)—a house which is empty but which none the less is the subject of a tenancy or sub-tenancy agreement? Presumably the house is not available for use by anyone else. In those circumstances, why should the owner not be made liable for the rates that would normally be paid in respect of it?

We are going too far in making these concessions. We are always being told about council tenants and other people who now have motor cars. If a council tenant has a garage in an industrial area a valuation of about £9 a year will be put upon it, and if he dies—and I know of an actual case of this kind—and his poor widow has no need for a motor car, and sells it, there is no suggestion that she should stop paying rates on that garage, although it is no longer occupied and although she may be living on a greatly reduced income. If the garage is a brick-built structure she cannot very well sell it unless she sells the house at the same time.

We seem to be making far too many concessions to people who are already over-privileged. Why has the Under-Secretary introduced a new Clause which will give a rating concession in respect of a farm worker's house which is for the moment unoccupied but which is none the less the subject of tenancy or subtenancy agreement?

Mr. Leburn

I shall try to explain to the hon. Member. I understand his difficulty in this matter. There could be a long debate whether we ought to have this system or not, but in Scotland up to now occupation has been the qualification as to whether someone has or has not to pay rates. Up to now rate remission can be given if the property is unlet, unoccupied and unfurnished.

I use the example of a farm because my hon. Friend has mentioned it, but this can apply to other properties. Where an owner-occupier has a cottage which is unlet, unoccupied and unfurnished, he does not have to pay rates on it, whereas a tenant farmer who has an empty house which is unoccupied and unfurnished may not get rating relief. That is because up to now it has been held that the very fact that he is a tenant as opposed to being a landlord means that the cottage in question cannot be unlet by reason of the fact that he has the tenancy and that cottage is let to him, although it is not occupied by him or furnished by him. In an effort to put this anomaly right, we are introducing this new Clause.

Mr. Fraser

I do not want to continue this discussion for very much longer, but I think that what the Under-Secretary is doing by this Clause is aggravating a great mistake which was made in 1956. He dealt with this question on the basis of a house on a farm, but he could have taken the example of unlet tenement houses or flats in the City of Glasgow, where far too many property owners are being almost encouraged to keep reasonably good accommodation unoccupied waiting for very high prices while thousands of our fellow citizens are living in the most miserable slums. We made a great mistake in 1956, and all that the Under-Secretary is doing now is making a further aggravation of the wrong which was then done.

Sir J. Duncan

I do not know anything about tenements in Glasgow, but I will give a personal example. I have a farm and if I have an empty cottage on that farm I get exemption. I also let a farm to a tenant, but if he has a cottage which is empty he cannot get rate relief. Is that fair on my tenant? I am getting an advantage which my tenant is not getting.

Mr. Fraser

The hon. Member is merely underlining what I have said. In 1956, when his lands were taken off the valuation roll altogether, there was no question of paying rates on them. It is a great pity that we made provision that if one of his cottages was empty he would not be given every possible encouragement to get it occupied by being obliged to pay rates on it while it was empty. In many cases the farmer keeps a cottage empty waiting for a fancy price to be paid by someone who wants a house in the country.

Sir J. Duncan


Mr. Fraser

Of course that is true. All that the hon. Member has done has been to underline what I have said. He has a concession in respect of a cottage which is vacant on his farm of which he is the owner-occupier.

The hon. Gentleman enjoys a privilege at present over most other ratepayers of Scotland. He now says, "Inasmuch as I have another farm which I have let to a tenant, this tenant farmer should have the same privilege which I, as an owner-occupier, enjoy". I say that it was a mistake to give the hon. Gentleman this concession in the first place. For the most part the ratepayers of Scotland, who are much less able to pay their rates than he is, have no concession at all.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.