§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Crossman)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is the first jab of a two-pronged attack on some of the inequalities and iniquities of the rating system. Let me admit it frankly—rates is another subject which I approach with a strong initial prejudice. Indeed, my lack of cautious impartiality in this respect reminds me of a famous anecdote about Calvin Coolidge, the most cautious and noncommittal of all American Presidents. So cautious was he that, questioned on leaving church one Sunday morning about the topic of the sermon, he replied laconically "sin". And when his interrogator went on to ask about the view of the preacher, Coolidge replied "he was agin it".
Well, that is my view of rates: I am "agin" them, and that is why the two local government finance Bills that we are putting forward this Session should be regarded not as measures designed to make rating a good tax—that, of course, is quite impossible—but as interim devices designed to shore up this ancient monument which should not have been allowed to survive from the reign of Elizabeth I into that of Elizabeth II but which must now be prevented from collapsing altogether until we have had time to organise a planned operation for first demolishing rates and then replacing the system with a new local tax, fair, intelligible and capable of being administered reasonably efficiently—three conditions on which rates lamentably fail.
If there were any chance that either the introduction of rate rebates by this Bill or the partial shifting of the burden from rates to taxes which is the purpose of our second Bill—if I thought either proposal was likely to prolong the life of the rating system, I should be a disappointed man. It is only against this background that I ask the House to judge these interim relief proposals.
Before I leave the topic of rates in general, I want to call attention to the 40 two main defects in rates which not only demand instant relief but which are having a disastrous effect on local government and local democracy. First, the method of arriving at rateable value was always pretty difficult and it began to get detached from reality when rent control was introduced in the First World War. It is now rendered more and more incomprehensible and remote from reality as the number of privately rented houses declines—the only houses where rating has a direct relevance as a tax. The more we move towards owner-occupation on the one side and council house tenancies on the other, the more mythological becomes the rateable value which forms the foundation of this eccentric local tax.
I noticed in the Press that I am being blamed for the abandonment of the quinquennial valuation due in 1968. Let me first say that, when we took office, it was already clear that, owing to a shortage of valuers, revaluation would have to be postponed. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) will agree that this was the case.
Since then, postponement has been transformed into abandonment by the demands of the betterment levy which, whatever right hon. and hon. Members opposite think about the Land Commission, is now a tax which both sides agree must be introduced as soon as possible. But there can be no betterment levy without land valuation and there can be no prospect of getting the valuers to do the necessary work in the foreseeable future except by abandoning the revaluation for rating for a whole five-year period.
If I had considered it possible to improve rating and make it a tolerable tax, I might have fought harder against abandonment, but it is my view that the intrinsic iniquities and, in particular, the built-in regressive character of rating are so vicious that they cannot be removed by revaluation. Revaluation may get rid of some superficial blemishes in the rating system by bringing the relativities up to date. In so doing, however, it leaves its unintelligibility and its inherently regressive nature untouched.
It is now clear that these inherent defects are undermining the strength of 41 local government and enforcing a slow but nevertheless ominous take-over by the central Government of more and more control over the services administered by the local authorities. The more we are forced to shift the burden from the shoulders of the ratepayers to the shoulders of the taxpayers, the more we strengthen Whitehall against the town hall and the Cabinet and the House of Commons against the locally elected councillors and aldermen.
The reason for this is clear. Under the commitments we inherited from our predecessors, the cost of the social services, particularly education, is bound to rise prodigiously during the next 10 years. If the proportion of cost borne by the taxpayer and by the ratepayer respectively is to remain constant, then rates are bound to increase by at least 10 per cent. a year even if no extra social service expenditure is added by this Government to that implicit in the plans of the last Government.
The trouble about a regressive tax like rates is that, while it is tolerable so long as it is scarcely noticeable—so long as it takes each year a minor proportion of one's income—it becomes rapidly intolerable when the rising commitments of the social services turn a small if unjust local tax into a monstrous local burden which falls each year with ever greater injustice on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.
So long as rating survives as a tax, we can only make it tolerable by two processes. The first process is to redistribute the burden among ratepayers so that the better off pay more and more in order to enable those near the poverty line to pay rather less. That is rate distribution within the rating system. The second method is redistribution by shifting the burden from rates to taxes, but this cannot be achieved without increasing the hold of central Government and thereby weakening the vitality of local democracy.
Of these two processes, our two Bills provide an excellent example. Rate rebates, as some hon. Members opposite have been quick to point out, involve some element of redistribution not merely between ratepayers and taxpayers but between ratepayers themselves. Although 75 per cent. is borne by the Exchequer, 42 thus transferring the burden from local to central Government, 25 per cent. is borne locally and this will mean that, to an average extent of a 1d. rate, the better-off ratepayers will be mulcted in order to pay a quarter of the relief. Hence the cries of agony from Tory spokesmen over the weekend.
§ Mr. A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)
The right hon. Gentleman is simply talking in terms of the amount of rating—that is to say, the difference in terms between £22 million and £29 million. He is not taking into account any extra cost of staff on the local authorities. The average increased rate will be about 3d.
§ Mr. Crossman
I shall deal with this point, which the treasurers raised with me, later on. The extra administrative costs are difficult to calculate in terms of rate poundage because they will qualify for rate deficiency grant and will be partially borne by grants. Hon Members have complained bitterly about a 1d. rate being put on the wealthier ratepayers in order to pay for the rebates. But if we did not do this the transfer to the central Government which we shall find such a dominant feature of our second Bill would have been even more marked in this first instalment.
In principle, it is wrong in almost every field for supply to be entirely divorced from control. If the central Government pays, there should be some control by the central Government. To have control by an authority which paid not a penny would seem extremely undesirable, and I was surprised to hear these complaints from Tory spokesmen.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
But although the Government have not had complete control of teachers' salaries, they have managed to dictate them in the past. What will be the difference if the central Government are to pay a higher proportion?
§ Mr. Crossman
The hon. Gentleman is emphasising the problem I am stating. He may be right in saying that there is so little local democracy left already that it is not worth preserving. But I do not agree. I think that a lot is left but that we shall not preserve it long if we solve the problem merely by transferring the burden from rates to taxes. That is something that we must do in the short run, 43 but in my view, while we are doing it, we had better make a more radical reform by getting rid of this inherently regressive system, which is causing us to weaken local democracy, and replacing it by a local tax.
This Bill will help some 2 million families whose rate bill weighs on them unduly harshly. We shall undoubtedly blunt the effect of rates where they fall most unjustly but we shall not be making rates a good tax. We shall not be making even a social service to help poverty, because we shall find that often, where two people are perhaps equally poor, one will get a rebate and the other will not. We shall be doing a rough and ready job of relieving pressure where rates hurt most. We shall merely be able to make rates less intolerable.
So, too, our reform of the general grant, although it will ease the pressure on the ratepayers, will actually aggravate the danger to local democracy if it is allowed to become a permanent part of the system. That danger can be eliminated not by measures designed to blunt the harshness and injustice of rates but only by their elimination and substitution by the kind of local tax which will enable local authorities justly and fairly to raise money for themselves and so resist the growth of central power through the spread of central grants.
§ Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)
When will the right hon. Gentleman let us know what his new sources of local taxation will be?
§ Mr. Crossman
I was trying to explain the background against which I see this problem. We are not here introducing a reform of rating on the ground that we think the system something to be preserved. We are giving a short-term relief from this unpleasant tax while we make our plans to abolish it. That is the central point. Without a radical reform of local taxation, including the abolition of rates, I see no future for local democracy and its slow sapping through an insidious take-over by central Government.
I want to turn from that, which puts our reform in its proportion, to the Bill itself. As the House knows, it contains two reforms for the hard-pressed domestic ratepayer. First, it makes payments by instalments mandatory when- 44 ever a ratepayer wants it, and, secondly, it imposes on local authorities responsibility for paying the rate rebates laid down by the Government to anybody who applies for them and who is entitled to get them.
On both these proposals the Allen Committee, which reported last February, provided a firm foundation of fact on which it has been possible to build sensible and practicable proposals. I should like to thank my predecessor for having established the Allen Committee. The more I have looked at its work, the more reliable I have found its statements. In so far as it has been possible to make a decent practicable Measure, we owe as much to the Allen Committee in this respect as in the case of the Rent Act we owed to the Milner Holland Committee.
On the collection of rates, the Allen Committee pointed out in paragraph 245 that whereas the majority of people who pay rents pay their rates along with the rent, owner-occupiers have to pay rates for a year or a half-year in lump sums and many of them find this an embarrassment, particularly if they have previously paid their rates with the rent. In paragraph 246, the Allen Committee said:We believe that a good deal of the resentment against rates as a tax stems from the failure of the system to keep in step with present day practices. Under the P.A.Y.E. system income tax is deducted from weekly or monthly pay by employers. Houses are bought, furnished and equipped on easy payments. But the tax on house occupation (i.e. rates) is still generally demanded at six-monthly or even yearly intervals.There will be widespread agreement that the Allen Committee was right to say that, and Clause 1 sets out the Government's proposals for payment by instalments, to which I will come in more detail later.
The other area on which the Allen Committee concentrated was finding out who was hardest hit by rates. On the regressive character of rates generally, in paragraph 361 it found… for all households in England and Wales, the regressive nature of rates is most clearly brought out by the fall in rates as a percentage of income, from about 8 per cent. for the lowest incomes (under £312 a year) to less than 2 per cent. for high incomes (over £1,560 a year).The selection from the Report of the Allen Committee is sufficient to clinch the argument that rate rebates should not 45 be applied generally to all ratepayers, or even to all domestic ratepayers. If we want to use the limited amount of money available to the best advantage, we must concentrate rebates where rates fall most harshly and in particular to bring succour to three classes. These are, first, the half a million who, the Allen Committee calculated, are entitled by their poverty to National Assistance, but who are too proud to go to the National Assistance Board; secondly, to another one and a half million families who are just above the National Assistance line; thirdly, to a group whose size we do not know and who for one reason or another are just not eligible for National Assistance but are clearly entitled to rate rebate.
Rate rebates are therefore a tax reform designed to help those three classes and I emphasise the words "tax reform" because this is a rough and ready method which must not be confused with a social service such as that administered by the National Assistance Board. Nor must it be treated as a first instalment of the income guarantee which my right hon. Friend was hoping to put on the Statute Book in this Session, but which, unfortunately, has had to be postponed. National Assistance and the income guarantee are social services designed to relieve hardship and poverty wherever they are found. This is something which rate rebates cannot do. Indeed, if it is not to cause acute disappointment, it is important to realise the Bill's limitations.
Let us take the example of two houses side by side. In house A there is a son, earning an average wage, who is the ratepayer and a grandfather who has nothing but his old-age pension and who is sharing the home. In this household there are no children and earnings are average and rate rebates will not be payable. Next door the grandfather is the ratepayer and the married son is sharing the home because he cannot get a house. Because our rebates are a tax concession and not a social service, they are payable in the second house to the ratepayer but not in the first house, although the hardship involved may be identical.
I have chosen the harshest example which I could find—and I do not know that there are many like it—because I want to emphasise that rate rebates will not replace National Assistance, or in any 46 way be the beginning of any future income guarantee. They are designed exclusively to help families whose rates bill subjects them to exceptional hardship. Within these limits, I believe that the Bill will do a great deal of good, and it was all the more important to introduce rate rebates once we knew that the income guarantee had had to be postponed from this year and to make the rebates payable after 1st April, next year.
Having set out those two objects, I will now explain how the Bill gives effect to them. Payment by instalments is dealt with in Clauses 1 and 2—Clause 2 applies to Scotland. Those entitled to pay rates by instalments are virtually all occupiers of dwelling houses and mixed premises used mainly for domestic purposes. Only those, in council houses, for instance, are excluded who, because they pay rates anyway as part of their rent, are already in fact paying them by instalments. Apart from them, people who wish to begin paying by instalments will simply have to give notice to the local authority before the end of next April and the local authority will then tell them how much they have to pay and the dates on which payments should be made. I know that many local authorities already accept the payment of rates by instalments and some at more frequent intervals than the 10 months in the year which we have laid down. Nothing in the Bill in any way limits their capacity to offer facilities which are more generous than those in the Bill.
Many ratepayers would have preferred a scheme in which they had the right to pay weekly. I sympathise with them, but I have to recognise that accepting payment by instalments costs money and, therefore, higher rates and makes a good deal of work for the treasurers. We have had to strike a balance between the convenience of frequent payments to the ratepayers and the inconvenience of having to pay extra for it, and I think that a scheme for 10 monthly payments in the year is probably a fair compromise. The rest of the Bill deals mainly with rate rebates. There are many ways in which we could have designed a rebate scheme, but throughout I have had foremost in mind the findings of the Allen Committee. Since the aim is to reduce the proportion of income taken in rates, it 47 follows that those domestic occupiers whose rate bills are high should receive more assistance than those occupiers with similar incomes whose rate bills are low. The scheme is designed to produce this result by providing that the first £7 10s. of rates, the threshold, shall be disregarded and that the amount of the rebate shall be two-thirds of the rates beyond the threshold. The average householder in this country pays about £36 a year in rates. That being so, it is obvious that those whose rate bills are of the order of £7 10s. do not stand in any great need of assistance. That is why we do not extend the scheme right down the scale.
The category of those who may qualify for rebate is wider than the category of those who are to be entitled to pay rates by instalments. Only those who pay twice a year—the pukka ratepayers in the sense that they live in separately rated accommodation and receive a rate demand—are now called upon to pay substantial sums. However, there are many people who, while not technically ratepayers, make a concealed contribution to the rates through their rents. That is why the Bill gets complicated when it provides that not merely the occupier of a house may qualify for rebate, but also any tenant of the occupier. Where a rating unit of accommodation is divided among two or more families, a proportion of the rates is to be treated as being paid by each and each will be treated as if he were a ratepayer paying that amount of rates direct. So much for the division of the rates.
I now come to the income levels. Here, again, the Allen Committee survey showed that rates bore particularly harshly on households with less than £10 a week, and I have taken that as our starting point. I ought to explain to the House the relationship between £10 for the married couple and £8 for the single person, the figures which we have laid down and which some regard as being somewhat bunched together. The reason is to be found in tables 200 and 229 of the Allen Report which show that a retired single person household—and more than three-quarters of the households in the single person group are retired people—pays proportionately much more in rates than any other house- 48 hold in that income range. For this reason, because of the special hardship of the widower or widow as distinct from the married couple, we have made a relatively small gap between the two figures.
The effect of these income levels is not altogether to cut off people exceeding those levels, but to provide limits above which the rebate tapers off. This is effected by Clause 3(1,b) under which for every £ of extra income above the limit, 5s. are deducted from the rebates otherwise due.
To take an example, a single person will get the full rebate of two-thirds of the year's rates over £7 10s. if his income is not over £8 a week, or £416 a year. How big the rebate is will depend on the size of the rates. For example, suppose a year's rates were £20, one must first take the £7 10s. for the threshold, from the £20, and then one gets a rebate of two-thirds on what is left, which comes to £8. In the same way, for rates of £40 when one has deducted the threshold and taken away the one-third the rebate works out at £22. For rates of £60, it is about £35 and so on.
If his income is above £8 a week then a single person has his rate rebate reduced by 5s. a week for each £. For instance, in the last example of full rebate which came to about £35, a person would still get some rebate up to an income of just under £11 a week. A married couple will get full rebate up to a joint income of £10; £8 for rates of £20, £22 for rates of £40 and £35 for rates of £60. These are substantial rebates. When the couple's joint income is over £10 a week the amount of the rebate is reduced by 5s. for each £. This again means that for a couple with an annual rate bill of £60, some rebates will still be payable up to nearly £13 a week.
Lastly, there are married couples with families. The Allen Committee found that such people were among the hardest hit group of all and I am very glad that help is given for them. Clause 5 provides for an income limit of £10 a week to be increased by 30s., so that a married couple with one child will get full rebate up to £11 10s. and some reduced amount beyond that.
To take the extreme, a married couple with five children can get full rebate up 49 to £17 10s. If this family have rates of £60 a year, and this is not impossible in London, it will get some reduced amount on the rebates up to a joint income of just under £21 a week. I have given that figure because it is extremely important to my mind, to look at the extreme to make sure that it is not too large. I think that it is a reasonable thing for a family of five living in a house in London with a very high rateable value.
§ Mr. Cooper
In assessing incomes in this particular capacity with a family of five children, is account being taken of family allowances as part of the family income?
§ Mr. Crossman
This is assessed as part of the income. These, of course, are children who are below school leaving age. Income of adult children would count separately.
So far I have assumed the simple case, where all the rates are eligible for rebate. The complexities come again in Clause 4. Suppose that the applicant does not use the whole house but lets part as a flat. The council will then have to apportion the rates on the whole house, and the main householder's reckonable rates will be based on the portion he lives in, and the tenant will be able to make application on the portion in which he lives.
The second complexity involves household income which concerns the older children. The income of husband and wife is taken as their joint income, but the Government rejected any suggestion of an inquiry into the means of other members of the household in favour of Clause 4(4). There is to be no household means test. Clause 4 provides that where the adult, and this includes earning children, other than the ratepayer and his wife, live in the house, a proportion of the rate bill shall be disregarded for rebate and paid in full. This rough and ready method should provide a reasonably fair solution to a difficult problem without demanding too much inquiry into family incomes.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
Can the Minister explain whether he has in mind that the borough treasurer's department should be responsible for this inquiry, or whether he has considered the possibility of using the experience of the National Assistance 50 Board, even for families not normally within the scope of the Board?
§ Mr. Crossman
I have considered this and discussed the matter with the treasurers. It is extremely important to realise that this is not part of National Assistance. This is a tax rebate administered by the local authority.
Just as a local authority would not go to the National Assistance Board when discussing its rent rebate scheme, it will not go to it for tax matters. It may go to the Board for advice, as it is entitled to do. Nobody can say that the local authority should not discuss this with the National Assistance Board. What we are discussing is whether the treasurers should hand the people over to the National Assistance Board. I do not intend to do this. We are leaving the treasurers with the job of administering this with as free a hand as possible.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
The right hon. Gentleman may be right about that, but the fact is that the National Assistance Board is covering a very large number of the cases mentioned in this Bill. Has there been consultation with the Chairman of the National Assistance Board so that the Board will continue to pay the rates for all those persons, thereby avoiding an enormous amount of administrative inefficiency, which will otherwise result in a dual inquiry in respect of these matters?
§ Mr. Crossman
I was going to deal with this point later, but I will deal with it now.
The decision we made was that all those at present drawing National Assistance and having their rent and rates covered by National Assistance will continue to do so. Secondly, there will be no compulsion on anyone who is entitled to National Assistance by poverty, but not drawing it, to go to the National Assistance Board. They will be entitled to go to the treasurers. Thirdly, I have had long talks with the treasurers about this and they will, if they think it right, say to a person, "Look you are entitled to National Assistance and you would do far better on National Assistance than by applying for the rate rebate." But having told them that, the treasurers must leave it to the person to decide 51 whether he prefers to deal with the National Assistance Board or else apply for the rate rebate because he does not like going to the Board.
This is clearly understood between the Chairman of the National Assistance Board and ourselves, and we want collaboration between the treasurers and the Board in this matter. I am hopeful that a considerable percentage of those not drawing National Assistance will, in this way, be tactfully persuaded to take what is their right, rather than to burden the treasurers with the special rebate. We certainly want people to do this and they will be encouraged to do so. I am still consulting with the National Assistance Board about whether we may not need a new Clause statutorily laying down certain points, which I am sure will have caught the attention of the Front Bench opposite. They are delicate points and I think that the less said, in one sense, the better. We know they are there, and we are trying to work out a proper method so that there is no risk of double payment.
I hope that the other mechanics of the scheme will prove relatively easy for the applicants. Rebates will be applied for and fixed every six months. The first rebate period begins on 1st April and applications should be made as soon as the Bill becomes law. For the first rebate period it will be necessary for the applicants, by virtue of Clause 5, to disclose their income in the six months ending 1st December, 1965, or the corresponding period for Scotland. Because the full rates on which rebate is calculated are reduced if there are other adults in the household, the applicants will not have to declare as income any payment by a lodger or member of the household, because the rebates will be automatically adjusted for that.
The general scope of the word "income" in the Bill is a very wide one. It is not specifically defined, and apart from excluding the contributions of other adults in the family, and minor matters like receipts which amount to a tenant's rates for passing on to the rating authority, it covers everything which comes in. Capital counts only to the extent that it produces income. We are doing this as a tax reform and not as part of the social services.
52 How does the applicant get the rebate? The general principle is that the rebate must come direct from the rating authority. It would have been simpler, if the tenant could have got it from the landlord, but we thought there would be possibilities of a quarrel about this so we decided that, although in the case of council landlords the tenant will get it automatically as a deduction of rents, in cases where rates are payable to a landlord as part of the rent the rebate should be payable direct to the tenant at the end of the rebate period.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Would the Minister say what happens in the case of local authorities which have rent rebate schemes? Is the rebate deemed to come entirely off the rent and are people then free to obtain the rate rebate from the local authority to which they are paying a combined amount for rent and rates?
§ Mr. Crossman
Part of the rent rebate will be reckoned towards the rate rebate. The treasurer will have to calculate this out between the two accounts. This is possible. I do not see anything intrinsically difficult in it.
I want to say something special about the treasurers. I am enormously aware that we are putting a very great burden on the financial departments of local authorities. I know that the success of the Bill depends on the treasurers and their staff and on the committees. In talking to the treasurers in my visits to local authorities throughout the country, I have become aware of how much thought treasurers have given to the problem with which the Bill tries to deal. I should like to thank once again the committee of the local authority associations which has been consulting us throughout. It has not by any means always agreed with us, but it has always been willing to give its advice, even though we could not do all that it wanted, including getting the Government to pay the whole bill.
We can look to the treasurers to make arrangements for getting the instalment and rebate schemes rapidly and smoothly into operation, despite the shortage of skilled staff. We shall owe them a great debt of thanks for what will be for them a rather unrewarding job. I hope that they will not try to do the impossible by perfecting and refining this scheme. The 53 rebate scheme is a rough and ready scheme which I do not believe will last long, for the reasons which I have given. It will do rough justice; it will not do more. If they try to run it with the care and skill and fine distinctions and legal theology which may go into a tax system proper, the scheme will not work.
I am pleased to see that the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants has set up a working party to examine the implications of the changes in administration which will be introduced by the Bill. This working party is to advise the Institute's members on administrative procedure and other matters to ensure that the new arrangements work as smoothly as possible. I am all for that, and I hope that the Institute will join me in taking a broad view of the way in which the provisions of the Bill should operate as a rough and ready tax reform and not as a social service.
The final thing which I had to discuss was the one point of controversy between ourselves and the Opposition, that is, who pays? We propose, as the House knows, that 75 per cent. should be paid by the central Government and 25 per cent. by the local authorities. I should have said that a percentage had to be paid whatever happened, for the reasons which I have given, but I do not think that those who supply the money should ever altogether give up the control. We cannot separate and divorce the two concepts. Nevertheless, it is true to say that we have to consider the state of the Exchequer.
I was interested to see in the Sunday newspapers some vigorous attacks on us for the impositions which we were making on the ratepayers. One Front Bench Opposition spokesman on financial affairs said of me:I wonder that he has the cheek to come to the Commons next week to present his Rating Bill that will further increase the rates for nine out of 10 taxpayers.
§ Mr. Crossman
Any more cheers? Let us wait for the vote at the end of the debate.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude)—I am glad that he is here to sustain his view—said, according to The Times today: 54A minority of ratepayers are to be subsidised, and a quarter of the subsidy will be borne by all the rest of the ratepayers".I am curious to hear from the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen whether these powerful attacks on the Bill represent the official Opposition view of rate rebates. May I say this in all seriousness to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon? If we are to keep rates longer than I want, there will have to be a much more drastic redistribution among ratepayers than this little Bill suggests, for as we increase the burden of the rates—and they are bound to increase unless we shift them all over to taxes—the accumulative weight on poor people becomes intolerable.
To say that any attempt to redistribute the burden as between the better off ratepayer and the less well off ratepayer is subsidising a minority is simply to blind oneself to the problems of a viciously regressive tax. If we have a viciously regressive tax, we either let it be viciously regressive—that is, make poor people pay more than their share—or we seek to redistribute the burden. If the Opposition say that there should be no redistribution among ratepayers, let them say so by going into the Lobby against the Bill.
The second thing which we have to consider is the split between taxes and rates. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon is such a bad democrat that he wants 100 per cent. payment and control by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He must be a good enough democrat not to want that. Therefore, he is against too big a shift being made from rates to taxes, and any redistribution between ratepayers because he thinks that that is unfair. He wants the rates to remain exactly as they were over the last 12 years when the Tories were in power.
I can appreciate that, but I would say to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon that, while his party was in power, it did at least attempt to introduce a little reform of its own. We have almost forgotten the little Bill which right hon. and hon. Members opposite produced just before the election to relieve the pressure of the rates. Why have we forgotten it?—because it was totally and completely ineffective. It was a Bill which did not do the faintest good to anybody. So little good did it do that the amount of money 55 taken up, except in one of two constituencies, was virtually negligible.
I suggest to hon. Members opposite that, before they criticise us for the distribution which we make, they should take a look at how their miserable Measure was paid for. The Exchequer grant was only 66⅔ per cent. The rest had to be paid for by redistribution among existing ratepayers in exactly the way which our Bill proposes, which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon attacks. Therefore, the blame which he puts on this Measure, which really does a job of work, is exactly the same as the blame which he should have put on his own party's Measure, with the addition that it did not do anything.
§ Mr. Crossman
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Does he deny that under the Tories' rate relief Measure only 66⅔ per cent. of the cost was paid for by grant as against 75 per cent. which we propose and the rest from rates? If he denies that, he had better look at the facts. What do the two Front Bench Opposition spokesmen mean by attacking the Bill for dividing the responsibility for rate relief fairly between ratepayers and taxpayers? This only shows the kind of chaos and disorganisation into which the Tories have fallen after a year in opposition.
I recommend the Bill to the House in the confident anticipation that, having made the usual kind of insulting noise, right hon. and hon. Members opposite will not have the guts to vote against it.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
Despite the characteristically agreeable tone of the Minister's concluding observations, the House is none the less grateful, as it always is to him, for the characteristic clarity with which he has expounded the provisions of a highly complicated Measure.
The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, however, that either he or, it may be, his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is treating the House with very little consideration indeed in our consideration of this Measure. The Bill was published on Friday, 26th November, and hon. Members have, therefore, had 56 only one working week for consideration of its highly complex terms. This is a Bill which, as the Minister has said, if it is to work, depends upon the co-operation of local authorities and their officers. It is, therefore, pre-eminently the sort of Measure which hon. Members, on both sides, would wish, before making up their minds about many of its provisions, to have the opportunity of discussing with those who speak for the local authorities.
In those circumstances, it is quite wrong to try to rush the Bill in the way in which the Minister and the Lord President of the Council have sought to do. Indeed, the Lord President, when challenged on this following the Business statement on 25th November, which was before hon. Members outside the Government had even seen the Bill, referred to it as a Bill of seven or eight Clauses and suggested that it was a simple Measure. Whether the Lord President knew it or not, it is a Measure of 11 Clauses and, as hon. Members now know, highly complicated with at least three of its Clauses running over three pages of print in the printed edition.
The matter does not stop there, because on Thursday last the Lord President of the Council seemed to suggest that 10 days was a sufficient time between Second Reading and Committee notwithstanding the shortage of time between publication and Second Reading. I understand—I said as much on 25th November—why the Minister is in a hurry to get forward with a Measure of this sort. I suggest to him, however, that if he is in such a hurry, the right thing to do is to stir up his own Department and get the Bill presented promptly rather than to save time at the expense of the convenience of the House of Commons and, more than the convenience, the efficiency of the House in doing its job in the discussion of legislation of this sort. The right hon. Gentleman will find that if he treats the House a little better in this way in future, the House may be more inclined to treat him and his legislation with similar generosity.
The Minister, in his opening passages and again when he came to his second or third peroration, seemed to be opening a debate on a totally different Bill. His speech would have been appropriate and effective on a Bill for the complete abolition of the rating system. For all the 57 adjectives which, from his well-stored vocabulary, the Minister lavished on the system which it is his duty to administer, can he pretend that any alternative to the rating system is in his mind for legislation in any foreseeable future? If he does, he is certainly contradicting what his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the debate on the Address, when he said:It may be that more intensive examination of problems of local government finance will throw up alternative methods to rates as the main source of alternative revenue. We all hope that someone will stumble"—that is perhaps not a very courteous reference to the Minister—on the secret some day, but I cannot say that a satisfactory alternative source has yet been discovered."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th November. 1965; Vol. 720, c. 46.]That was the Prime Minister.
I am not sure that it is very helpful to those throughout the country who have to administer the system of rates, who have to collect the rates and operate the rating system, to have the Minister responsible at the centre making observations of this kind about a system which, he knows perfectly well, he has not the faintest idea how to alter.
It is fie Minister's duty to work that system as best he can and it does not lie in his mouth to criticise it when, as he himself told the House, he has taken the step, by cancelling the 1968 revaluation, of preventing its being made more fair and equitable in its working, and when he told the House that he had taken away the valuer's from this necessary duty of improving the rating system in order to prop up the preposterous Land Commission which his right hon. Friend the Minister of Land and Natural Resources has said he will introduce.
I very much endorse the right hon. Gentleman's proper tribute to the Allen Committee, which, as he said, was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) and which did a splendid job in the production of its massive clear and cogent report.
As to the Bill itself however the objects are plainly respectable and I think accepted on both sides. Our criticism of it is that its methods are ham-handed and complicated, that its operation will 58 be unfair, and that it is inadequate in scope.
The Minister had a great deal of fun in referring to certain observations by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) and one or two other hon. Members, and worked himself up into a splendid tizzy on the suggestion that we should vote against the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman's tongue was, to those who know him, well lodged in his cheek when he made that observation, because he knows as well as any hon. Member, from the speeches, for example, that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) made at our Brighton conference, that the object of this Measure—the giving of relief to those most hit by rates—is one which is held just as strongly on this side of the House as on the other side, and that for that reason we want to see a Measure go forward which will do just that.
I should like, however, to pick up the right hon. Gentleman's challenge. He said, quite rightly, that some of my hon. Friends had attacked the Bill because of the 25 per cent. imposition on the local authorities, about which I shall have something to say presently. Can the Minister assure the House that no procedural obstacle will be put in the way of hon. Members on voting on this issue, which, as he has rightly said, is the main issue of controversy in the Bill? Can the right hon. Gentleman give any such assurance? He pointedly does not do so. That blows away his bluff in saying. "Why not vote against the Bill?" If the right hon. Gentleman wants a vote, let him have it on the 25 per cent. provision, although I am not sure that many of his hon. Friends behind him would necessarily be in his company in the Lobby were he to do so. He knows it perfectly well. [Interruption.] I hope that those hon. Members who suggest that they would be with him are explaining their attitudes to their own local authorities.
On the text of the Bill, Clauses 1 and 2 deal with the object of permitting payment of rates by instalments. The 1964–65 survey by the Institute of Municipal Treasurers brought out the interesting fact, as the result of considering about one-half of the local authorities in England and Wales, that within that large 59 sample some 44 per cent. of local authorities allowed instalments to be paid. When the Minister ceases being briefed—if I may say so, very wisely—by his Parliamentary Secretary, I should like to ask him what is to happen to those local authorities which already operate instalment schemes of their own. They represent—I do not know whether the Minister heard what I said a moment ago—as the report of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers made clear, a fairly widespread section of the country.
I have a case, which I must put to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman, which has been drawn to my attention in respect of my own constituency. The Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames operates a scheme by which rates can be paid by 12 instalments, more instalments than the number provided by the Bill. The borough has worked out a very simple system under which, on the back of the rate demand, the choice of method of payment is clearly stated, and provision is made in respect of those ratepayers who have a bank account for payment by banker's order. Where a perfectly satisfactory system, cheap, economical and efficient as this one is, is operating, when the Bill becomes law will it have to be abolished and will local authorities have to change over to the infinitely more complicated and administratively difficult scheme which is laid down in the Bill?
I make the suggestion, which was made to me on behalf of the local authority in question, that the Minister should follow an example which will be almost as familiar to him as it is to me—that of the National Insurance Act, 1959—and should provide that where a satisfactory scheme of instalments is already in operation and it secures, as it would have to do, the approval of the Minister of the day, that scheme should be allowed to continue in lieu of that embodied in Clause 1 of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to consider this.
§ Mr. Crossman
I think that I gave the assurance in my speech that anything which is better than what we suggest would be accepted. I hope that I made this clear.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If by that the Minister means that Clause 1 would not operate in respect of such authorities, that would be satisfactory. I do not, however, think that he went so far as to say that. This is a matter that we had better probe further in Committee.
§ Mr. Lubbock
We should like to get this absolutely clear. I think the Minister misunderstood the right hon. Gentleman. Clause 1 says that the persons must submit a notice to the local authority if he wishes to pay his rates by instalments. The right hon. Gentleman has just said that in his borough ratepayers can do this without any form of submission of notice and by merely taking advantage of the alternative on the back of the rating form. What he was asking the Minister was whether that could continue under Clause 1.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for acting as my interpreter to the Minister. It was a most agreeable and kindly object. The point I have in mind, and the hon. Member described the scheme very accurately, is whether Clause 1 may be excluded in such cases—I think that this will call for some Amendment of the Bill—where there is already a scheme, which, I think, must be a scheme of which the Minister approves—I do not think it should be left entirely to the local authority—satisfactory in achieving the objects of the Bill, and that the local authority will be able to go on with that cheaper and more efficient scheme to which, after all, its ratepayers are in fact now accustomed.
Now I come to the main body of the Bill, the rebate and relief scheme. As a means of dealing with the problem of the incidence of rates, the Bill, as the Minister has himself made clear he felt, is very small indeed in scope and very limited. The means of this being paid for gives rise at least to a matter of considerable controversy. This leads me again to the famous 25 per cent. to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and to which I referred a moment ago. The cost of the provision is estimated in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill as £29 million. It follows that the cost, if 25 per cent. is to stand, falling directly on the local authorities is slightly in excess of 61 £7 million a year. On top of that is the cost of administration, which certainly some of the local authorities and those concerned with them estimate at a further £2½ million a year. The right hon. Gentleman sought to give some consolation on the latter point—that is, administration—by saying that those costs would rank for rate deficiency grant. I doubt whether there is very much comfort to be found by the local authorities in that, because the last part of the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum reads as follows:The amount of any increase in grant from these causes cannot be estimated, but is not likely to be very substantial.It does not appear, therefore, that there is very much joy to be found there.
§ Mr. Crossman
I do not want to leave any misunderstanding. That meant where the costs would not be very heavy, but if they really proved very heavy the amount would be correspondingly higher.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
This again is a point which I think we shall wish to probe further in Committee. The local authority associations estimate that the cost would be some £2½ million, which is a substantial figure and a substantial increase in costs.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that the whole thing was the product of a 1d. rate averaged out throughout the country. Of course, it will not be averaged out throughout the country, and this is part of the fallacy of averages in this context. Probably it will involve very little charge to the local authorities in some of the wealthier areas, in the wealthier towns of the Midlands, perhaps—I do not know—the City of Westminster; but it will fall proportionately heavily on areas where large numbers of retired people live, the sea coast towns, for example, which are precisely the areas most hit as a result of the last revaluation. Therefore, I think it is misleading comfort to suggest that this is only the product of a 1d. rate for the areas most sensitive already to the pressure of rates, with those very people in them. They are just the areas in which the burden will be substantially more. I would accept what my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. W. R. Rees-Davie) said in an intervention in respect of the area he represents.
I do not quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman on the general proposition that 62 if a local authority administers a service it should as a matter of general principle have a financial stake in that service, but even for that purpose 25 per cent, is a very substantial figure. And here we come, of course, to the very real distinction between this Measure and the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. In that Measure the local authorities had a considerable measure of discretion. They had to decide, for example, the infinitely difficult problem of what is hardship. In this Measure, as I read it, they have no discretion at all. This is a nation-wide system with nation-wide standards laid down by the Government of the day and it would not seem that here there was any need for the kind of financial discipline to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
As I understand it, this is indeed, in the right hon. Gentleman's words, a simple question of a mathematical calculation based on the means of the people concerned. The fact that it is a complicated mathematical calculation in some cases I do not think affects the argument, and, therefore, in this case it does not really seem that even a smaller percentage, a grant so as to preserve the principle, could really be justified, and it is perfectly clear that 25 per cent. is a very heavy imposition indeed.
This is the view of the County Councils Association. I received from that body this morning, as, no doubt, many other hon. Members did, a letter setting out the Association's position, and I would read from it a short passage:Prior to the Bill's publication the Association informed the Ministry of Housing and Local Government that in their view the relief of hardship was a national responsibility and that consequently the whole cost of any rebate scheme, including administration and loss of rent income, should be borne by the Exchequer.The Association went on to make the very pertinent point thatthe effect upon local authorities of having the responsibility of providing the remaining part (25 per cent.) must inevitably cause the rate in the £ to be increased for the remaining ratepayers not receiving relief.That, I am afraid, is a completely unanswerable criticism. The consequence, therefore, of this Measure will be that, though it will give some relief to what the Minister estimates—he may well be 63 right—as some 2 million ratepayers, it will provide an increase in rates for all the rest, and by this means will add—I shall come back to this in a few moments—very seriously to the problem of increasing rates about which in general the Minister has, so far, done nothing at all.
I want to ask the Minister—or the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who is, I understand, to reply to the debate—a number of practical questions, and the first, in fact, relates to Scotland. As I understand it, local authorities in Scotland, unlike English and Welsh local authorities, have power to give some rate rebates on grounds of hardship. Indeed, in 1964 my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Scotland increased their grant by about £1 million in connection with rebates of that sort. Is that power to remain? Or does this Bill replace it? Will Scottish local authorities retain the provision which it is my experience—which, of course, in this respect is much less than that of the Under-Secretary of State—has in fact worked very well?
Secondly, we come to the point which the right hon. Gentleman himself referred to today, which is also referred to in the hand-out made when he announced the terms of the Bill.Because full rates"—says the hand-out, and the right hon. Gentleman said very much the same thing this afternoon—are reduced if there are non-dependants in the household, the applicant will not have to declare as income any payment by a lodger or a member of the household.I appreciate the point which the right hon. Gentleman was referring to there—indeed, he explained in his speech—that the reckonable rate is reduced proportionately in respect of earning adults in the house. But does it follow, and it seems to me that it does, and I would welcome clarification of this, that if we have a mother and her highly earning son living together in the same house, the mother only—shall we say?—in receipt of a retirement pension, that that household, of which the mother is the householder, will receive a reduction in their rates by one-third, as opposed to two-thirds, in excess of £7 10s.? Does that follow? Does it equally follow that if the householder were the son, simply putting up his mother as a lodger or 64 tenant, no relief would be payable by this means? That surely is an example of an indefensible anomaly. Does it not also give rise to the real possibility of abuse by means of a transfer of tenancies? It seems to have a real defect, and it is no good the right hon. Gentleman saying that it does not matter because it is a rough and ready thing which will only last for a few years. Rien dure comme la provisoire, as is so often said. I translate for the benefit of members of the Liberal Party, "there is still an odd Liberal about the House."
It is not good enough, if this be a change in taxation, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, to create in the Measure so patent an anomaly and so powerful an incentive to abuse by arranging affairs so as to take advantage of the provision. This is a matter which I am quite certain we must probe.
The hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger), raised a point with which I should also like to deal. This is work which is unfamiliar to many local authorities, though not perhaps to those which operate rent rebate schemes. It will involve some extra staff. The right hon. Gentleman said something in reply to his hon. Friend about bringing in the help of the National Assistance Board on a matter in which it has an incomparable record of skill and experience. I hope that we shall find out further whether local authorities are to be compelled to set up something parallel to the local office of the National Assistance Board or whether, though the responsibility will remain with the local authorities, much of the work will be done by the National Assistance Board.
Let me say at once that I share the right hon. Gentleman's hope that it may have the effect of causing some people who are entitled to assistance and are not yet claiming it, to exercise their rights as citizens. If it does, there will be something good out of the confusion.
I come then to the case of the local authority tenant. Is it really going to be necessary where a rent rebate scheme is operated for a tenant to inform the local authority of his means for the assessment of his rent, and then for a separate computation to be made for the assessment of the rates which are paid with that 65 rent? Would it not be possible to absorb the provisions of the Bill in respect of rates into rent rebate schemes and give relief by way of the rent?
§ Mr. Crossman
The answer is, yes. There is every hope that there will be a single payment, and again I think that I said it in my speech. In the case of council houses the rebate will be paid simply through a reduction of what is called the rent, which is the rent combined with the rates. It will be done in one single operation.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If I may press the right hon. Gentleman further, I hope that the calculation will be made at the same time in respect of the rates and in respect of the rent rebates where the local authority operates a rent rebate scheme. Obviously it would be as well that the payment is made through one payment, but there is the question of the two calculations, and the real risk of unnecessary administration.
§ Mr. Crossman
It is something that we have been discussing with the Treasury. Each authority has its own rent rebate scheme with a system of "disregards", and there would have to be a separate calculation in certain authorities because the method of assessment would be different in the two cases. With that one proviso, I can say that every effort will be made to make it a single operation.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman.
I come next to the relationship with National Assistance, about which the right hon. Gentleman also said something. The right hon. Lady the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance answered a Question of mine on Friday to the effect that she did not think that there would be any appreciable effect on the numbers receiving assistance in respect of rent or rates as a result of the present Measure. That means that people who are within the National Assistance scale of rates but who are not in fact drawing National Assistance will have the option of whether to go for assistance or for a rebate.
I do not criticise that choice as such, but the fact that they have it underlines the wrongness of the 25 per cent. of 66 the local contribution, because it will depend upon the decision of the individual concerned whether the expenditure is wholly financed by the Exchequer, as National Assistance is, or is 25 per cent. financed by the local authority. It brings out the fact that it is simply an alternative to a form of National Assistance and that it should be, as the County Councils' Association rightly says, an expenditure borne by the Central Government.
§ Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)
Would the right hon. Gentleman go further? If he is developing that argument, would he insist that the local authorities which are to operate the scheme should require persons to make application to the National Assistance Board before they will be considered under the present scheme?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
No, I would not. That would be an unjustifiable interference with the decision of the individual. I am saying that the fact that the choice is given—a choice which has certain financial consequences—shows how wrong and unfair it is to put 25 per cent. of the rebate scheme on to the local authorities. It underlines the fact that it is a national scheme operated on a national basis.
I turn next to another aspect of the matter to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in his speech. He will recall that on 5th May, 1965, when we last debated the general subject of rates, he said:The second point is that we are pledged to introduce an income guarantee, and we shall do so. The income guarantee is special assistance for old people and for widows. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and others are working out plans. We shall be presenting to Parliament a plan for this special assistance—[HON. MEMBERS: 'When?'] It was in the Queen's Speech and they are getting the Bill ready. It will be ready before our Rates Bill. They will do it"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1965; Vol. 711, c. 1494.]We have not seen that Bill. We know from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it has disappeared into limbo. Are we to take it that the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is introducing this Bill means that it is the last that we shall hear of the M.I.G. scheme? The right hon. Gentleman is aware that it is the effect of the increased burden of rates on the great majority of ratepayers which is the reason 67 why his Bill has had so unenthusiastic a reception? The seriousness of it was underlined in what the right hon. Gentleman himself said on 26th November, as reported in a handout that his own Department has issued:Our new rate rebates will bring really substantial benefit to many of the two million families hardest hit by the vicious and regressive system of local taxation under which we are suffering. As a result of the system which we inherited the average burden of the rates will automatically go up by about 10 per cent. next spring, even when no new services have been added since the change of Government.That 10 per cent. may well be optimistic in view of the way that local authority costs are rising, as well as the rates of interest which local authorities have to pay on their borrowings. But, even taking the right hon. Gentleman's figure, on top of the 14 per cent. rise last year that will mean that the first two years of Labour Government have seen an increase of 24 per cent. in rates in the country. It is quite untrue to say that "the vicious system", as the right hon. Gentleman described it, "automatically" caused that rise. Operating the existing system, the right hon. Gentleman could perfectly well have increased the general grant. He could have done it in the Orders that he has laid before Parliament on a scale sufficient to obviate that rise. He could have introduced legislation instead of this Bill to relieve local authorities of certain services, and the right hon. Gentleman must not seek to shrug off responsbility for the rise in rates last year and the rise that he foreshadows this year merely by saying that it follows the system that the present Administration inherited.
§ Mr. Crossman
I said that we had a two pronged attack. The first part, the Bill, was dealing with specially hard-hit cases, and the second part would deal with the balance between rates and taxes. We are intending to deal with the latter in a Bill next February. It is a more complicated job, and the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait a few months before we can get it ready.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
It goes a little further than that. In the same hand-out, the right hon. Gentleman said:This will be a very big reform and we cannot hope to bring it into force before April, 1967.68 He is saying, therefore, that by this Bill he is increasing what will already be a very substantial increase in the rates this year as opposed to last year and that—
§ Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)
Before the right hon. Gentleman pursues that point, when he indicates the further rate increase that will ensue, is he mindful of the fact that very many local authorities already give rate relief to ratepayers who make application? Would he not need to deduct that cost to local authorities from the total for last year and so amend the figure which he is assuming will be the increase for this year?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring exclusively to Scotland because his right hon. Friend made much of the fact that very little such relief is being paid in England and Wales. I take it, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman is referring solely to Scotland.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Either his right hon. Friend is right or the hon. Gentleman is right. I must leave them to argue it out, perhaps in some other place. The fact remains that only a minority have had these reliefs and that the total increased burden—I have mentioned the figure as being between 24 per cent. and 25 per cent.—will fall on the great majority of ratepayers. This is based on average figures published by the Departments concerned and represents an extremely serious matter indeed.
§ Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)
There is something in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but not very much, because if he pursues this argument to its logical conclusion he must say upon whom the extra burden is falling in respect of rates. He must be aware that farm land and hereditaments are derated and are completely relieved of all rating liability. That money must be paid by someone and it does not all go in equalisation grant.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise the question of Agricultural de-rating, I can only point out that his right hon. Friend has been very cautious not to interfere with that. However, if it is the policy of the Government to re-rate agriculture, I wish they 69 would tell us so. That does not bring us away from this position—that the right hon. Gentleman is now doing nothing to prevent a rise in rates this year. Indeed, he is adding to that rise. He is doing nothing to help the payment of rates by the great majority of young married couples who are already hit by high mortgage interest payments and who believed the Labour Party's pledge about rates. Let me remind the House of that pledge, for hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite said:While the reform of the rate system and investigation of alternative forms of local government finance may take some time to accomplish, we shall seek to give early relief to ratepayers by transferring a larger part of the burden of public expenditure from the local authorities to the Exchequer.That pledge, perhaps more than most things, resulted in the party opposite being elected to office. We now find ourselves faced with rising rates, with a Measure which, for the great majority, will raise these further, and with nothing promised more than the possibility of something taking effect the year after next.
The right hon. Gentleman seeks to do something good by this Measure, but he seems utterly insensitive to the breach of the pledge which his party made on the wider issue. If I may be permitted to use a metaphor which may not be unfamiliar to the right hon. Gentleman, he rather recalls to mind the habit of the great speculators and operators of the turn of the century who sought to palliate or, perhaps, conceal their failure to pay what they owed by doing some ostentatious, if minor, good work.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)
It is with a mixture of extreme pleasure and deep sadness that I make my maiden speech today. It is a matter of extreme pleasure because almost 23 years ago to this very day I enlisted as a boy seaman in the Royal Navy—and this is another significant day for me because I am now enlisting in a new endeavour which will, I hope, enable me to play a small part in the affairs of the nation.
It is also a sad occasion because I come to the House as the successor to a very eminent hon. Member, the late Norman Dodds, whose passing caused great dis- 70 tress in my constituency as well as in the House. He sat in the House for 20 years, 10 of them as the hon. Member for the Dartford Division and 10 as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, after the redistribution in 1955. He was truly loved and revered in his constituency and I can only hope that, as time passes, I may go some way towards being a worthy successor to him.
I am told that it is customary when making one's maiden speech to make reference to one's constituency, and I had better be traditional straight away. Compared with some of the constituencies which hon. Members represent, my constituency is very compact. It is comprised of the twin communities of Erith and Crayford, it contains many factories and, of course, a great deal of its rateable value is made up of the rates from industrial premises.
The products made in my constituency are household names and I doubt if hon. Members could go to any part of the world where they would not come across a manufacture which originated in my part of the world. I am certain that hon. Members could not visit any industrial area in this country without finding a craftsman who did not learn his skill and craft in an engineering factory somewhere in Erith and Crayford. The whole area is teeming with millwrights, shipwrights, vertical borers, lathe operators and many other skilled men who make up our industrial strength. Although I am proud to represent an engineering constituency, I hope that the House will never have cause to think of me as a vertical borer.
It will be appreciated, from what I have said, that the Bill is of vital interest to my constituency. I suppose that I have the distinction of being the newest hon. Member and, therefore, the hon. Member most recently in contact with the electors via the husting. I assure the House that it was on the question of rates that more interest was shown in my constituency, than on any other matter.
I am certain that although my ratepayers will be paying 25 per cent. of the increase in respect of the rebate, they will do this willingly because they are no different from the majority of people who are anxious and willing to pay some contribution towards bringing about some form of justice to those poorer members 71 of the community who are finding the payment of rates an intolerable burden.
In my area we have had the advantage, both in the set-up which existed before the reorganisation and since the London Government Act, of having a system for the payment of rates by instalments. In that respect, the Bill will only confirm an advantage which my constituency has enjoyed for a very long time indeed. It was stated in the Press last weekend that, in respect of the payment of rates by instalments, the Bill will result in large increases in expenditure for local authorities. This has not been the experience in my constituency, which has operated such a scheme for a long time.
I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to the need to ensure that the details of the provision for payment by instalments are printed on the rate demand itself. While the Bill is before the House, and when it comes into operation at the beginning of the new financial year, the Measure will receive a great deal of interest and publicity. However, things soon leave the front pages of the newspapers and sink out of people's minds, and some local authorities may not be as eager as others to make certain that their ratepayers know about this provision. I hope that the Minister will give consideration to so amending the Bill as to ensure that this provision is printed on the rate demand, so that at all times all ratepayers know that they can exercise this option.
The Minister described the rebates as a rough-and-ready tax relief, but it is not a rough-and-ready operation for the rating authority. Subsection (5) of Clause 3 states:It shall be the duty of the rating authority to consider any application made to them under this section and, if satisfied that the application has been duly made by a person qualified to make it, the authority shall grant the rebate …I hope that the House will excuse me if I concentrate primarily on the administrative effects of this provision. I accept without reservation the whole principle of the Bill, and it is only at the local treasurers' administrative level that I have any fears at all.
If the rating authorities have laid upon them the duty to satisfy themselves that 72 a person is qualified to receive a rebate, they should have power to call for necessary documents and, perhaps, to inspect premises. I am not aware that such powers exist for this purpose, but if they should be required they ought to be part of the Bill. The regulations that the Minister will make as to the form of application will be of great interest to treasurers. Rating authorities will be most anxious—I am quite certain that my own rating authority will—to know what is to be considered right and proper for them to inquire into in order to satisfy themselves that those applying for the rebate are qualified to receive it.
Clause 4(2,a) deals with the apportionment of rates. The Minister has said that councils will have to apportion rates in houses in multiple occupation. That will be an impossible task unless a rating authority is given power to inspect premises, ascertain numbers and verify the situation. How else can it apportion rates? At present, the rating authority has not even the power to see the workings of the valuation officer in the compilation of the valuation lists. These are all very small points of detail, but I hope that the Minister will consider them.
I welcome the Bill. I think that it is a great step forward. It meets a most urgent need that I encountered very much before I entered this House. As I think the Minister recognises quite clearly, it will be on the staff of the rating authority, and particularly on the staff in the treasurer's department, that the duty will fall of getting this thing going. It will depend on the loyalty, the integrity and the enthusiasm of local government staffs, and particularly the staffs in the Greater London Council area who, in the last 18 months, have gone through a most difficult period, consequential on reorganisation. This will mean extra work and strain on them, and we should recognise it. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it will be given the support it so richly deserves.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)
It is always a pleasure and a privilege to follow an hon. Member who has just made his maiden speech. I only wish that when I made my maiden speech 18 years ago I had had the same confidence that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) showed 73 in his delivery today. It was obvious to all that he knew his subject very well, and I hope that we shall have the pleasure of hearing him often in years to come.
I should like also to take this opportunity too of paying a tribute to his predecessor, Mr. Norman Dodds, whose sad death caused a marked shock to all hon. Members. As the hon. Member says, Mr. Dodds was very well liked, and much admired because of the obviously tremendous amount of hard work he put in on behalf of his constituent. I considered him a personal friend. Moreover, on a lighter note, he was the one hon. Member with whom I paired more than with any other, so that it is with some very special regard, if I may say so, that I speak of him. I am sure that the hon. Member will enjoy the same satisfying representation in this House that Norman Dodds did.
After a long apprenticeship in local government I have naturally, throughout my Parliamentary life, taken a very close interest in rating matters. As I have said before, rating is a hot potato. I have tried to play my own part in getting things done, not only in regard to this ever-frightening and ever-increasing rate burden, but in specifically fighting for the abolition of the then out-dated and out-modal anomaly of industrial de-rating. In conjunction with hon. Members from the other side, we did it also by means of a Private Member's Bill. We eventually succeeded in abolishing industrial de-rating, but it needed two bites at the cherry. I am now trying my hardest to ensure that nationalised industries also pay their full rates. This is a very touchy subject in Croydon. As things are, because the nationalised industries occupy a large number of new office buildings it regrettably means an extra 2d. on Croydon's rates.
I awaited with very keen interest the rating legislation announced in the Queen's speech. I realised that this particular Bill would be rather limited in scope and based virtually on urgency; and that any real rating reform must come in the second Bill. Nevertheless. I am very disappointed with this present Bill. Like all hon. Members interested in this subject, I went through the Allen Report in considerable detail. That Report pointed to many ways of rating reform, 74 and now I, too, am anxiously awaiting the Report of the Working Party of officials set up by the Minister. A few days ago I asked the Leader of the House what was happening to this Report. He told me that it was not a formal Report, but that after the Minister had had further consultations with the associations in the light of the Working Party's discussions, the Government would make known their conclusions, presumably by reporting to the House, and, again presumably, in a White Paper. Is that the intention? And when is the White Paper expected to be available?
I trust that this second Bill when enacted will not only provide the real rating reform referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) but will also set right many of the anomalies we all know exist in rating today, such as making the nationalised industries pay their full share. I join in welcoming any proposal that eases the rating burden on those hardest hit. I am the first to recognises that this Bill provides relief for some 2 million pensioners and lower-paid workers with large families.
It will also undoubtedly help those who for one reason or another regrettably will not apply to National Assistance for rating aid. Many of our constituents will not do that, but for the great mass of ratepayers—that of course must be by far the largest number of our constituents—this unhappily will mean extra expense added to their rate bill because the Government have unfairly decided to pay only 75 per cent. of the rebates from the Exchequer. While the Minister was arguing this point, I was reminded that some of us waited a little longer for the Bill to be published than expected. We waited longer than we thought we would have to wait. I wondered if it was because the Minister had himself advocated more from the Exchequer than the Chancellor would meet of this expenditure. There were detailed reports in the newspapers suggesting that the Chancellor had rather "sat on" the Minister and decided that 25 per cent. would have to be paid by local ratepayers. That seemed so unfair that I was about to interrupt the Minister during his speech, but I realised that many other hon. Members wanted to get into the debate and I did not want to cause delay.
75 I say to the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, why not be frank with us and say what was the percentage which the Minister himself advocated? As we now know, the local authorities will have to find the remaining 25 per cent. This is extraordinarily unfair. Such rebates should be a national responsibility. As such they should attract a 100 per cent. grant. It is absolutely wrong to make other ratepayers pay a part of this bill and have a burden imposed on them which, on anyone's guess, will mean an increase of ld., 2d. or 3d. in the £. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Cooper) suggested in an intervention that the amount would be 3d. Throughout the country the average might be claimed to be 1d. but none of us knows because there has not been time to work this out in our own areas. Undoubtedly it could be as much as 3d. in the £.
Unfortunately, it also does not end there. The instalments plan and the rebate system are embodied in the Bill. As such they must throw a heavy administrative burden on local authorities. They will be very expensive to operate. I consider that the administrative cost at least in regard to the rebate scheme should be reimbursed by the central Government.
As is generally known by hon. Members, I was very strongly opposed and I still am to the original setting up of the Greater London Authority. The effects of that I envisage will be ever more expensive for Croydon ratepayers. When the first precepts were sent to us at the beginning of the year we in Croydon in effect had to pay double for the same services which we had been financing ourselves a year before. The change put up the cost to ratepayers by about £½ million and put at least 7d. on the Croydon rate bill. I view with great distress the almost scandalous spending which is going in the Greater London Authority at present—especially in the employment of expensive staff. I foresee very high additional precepts being sent in the future to London boroughs of which Croydon is only one. On top of this we have to face the inflationary spiral of increasing salaries and wages, additional numbers of staff so that the bill will add more in all directions to the total extra cost.
This year rates in Croydon went up by some 18 per cent. Suggestions have been 76 bandied about by the Minister today of a possible general 10 per cent. next year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames said, this may be a considerable understatement. I should be surprised if rates in Croydon did not go up by something nearer 20 per cent. This is a very serious matter. This was meant to be a short Bill but I find it hard-going. My reaction when I saw it was that the rate collectors of the future will certainly need to be good mathematicians and also lawyers too to implement some of the provisions of this Statute.
As to payments by instalments, while one welcomes the general facilities, I find not the slightest difficulty in getting the Croydon authority to meet any specific case of hardship. On the general basis, much additional work must be involved. Think also of the vast number of applications which may be made for these rebates from people who will not be entitled to them. There will be many misunderstandings and a tremendous amount of additional work will be put on staff all to no avail. All this must also mean additional expenditure.
It will affect local authority borrowing as it will not be financed as freely as it was previously. That means that more interest will have to be paid by the ratepayer. Once again, we shall have a vicious circle. If the facility had to be provided why could it not be on a quarterly basis which, in general, would be quite sufficient?
As to the rate rebates, I understand that only the income of the applicant will be taken into account, not his capital resources nor the income of a family living with a ratepayer. To give an example, two-thirds of rating relief after the first £7 10s. could be claimed by a ratepayer owning a house no matter what the value of the house and possibly if he also had £5,000 in Post Office savings. An old-age pensioner without other income would also be entitled to relief even if he had his son living with him and the son had a substantial income. This has been referred to in the opening speeches and it seems to me very rough justice.
I do not know if my impressions are correct, but regrettably not much time has been given for discussing matters with the local authorities and officials concerned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames made this 77 point. I thought that the Leader of the House threw it off lightly the other day. It is not fair to give hon. Members only a week to try to ascertain the facts on calculations as complicated as these. The Bill, of course, gives some relief, but the main body of ratepayers will unfortunately have to meet a vicious rates spiral which will continue to go up faster and faster.
In the past—I say this advisedly—we had virtually the subterfuge of revaluation. There was the thought that rates had come down while actually ratepayers paid more. Memories become very short and one forgets the comparison in actual cash rates. The fact that the Minister saw—although he expressed it rather differently, but I nevertheless agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames on this—that there was no alternative to the present rating system than that of adding to the burden of ratepayers, seemed to be a confession of failure. The present Bill seems blatantly a clear manœuvre in accountancy. It certainly is nothing like a rating reform. I can only sincerely trust that there will be a very different picture when the second Bill is produced.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. John Robertson (Paisley)
I thought that I should be able to begin by saying that the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris) agreed with me on the need for the Bill. I thought that I heard him say at the outset that he was in favour of rate relief and that he was in favour of the Government taking the burden of rate relief. The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said so, although one cannot always be sure about hon. Members opposite. I regret that I was not present in the years when the Conservative Party were the Administration and when, obviously, they advocated this from the Front Bench. I regret that I had not then the opportunity of following them into the Division Lobby. In fact, their enthusiasm is belated. They had so long to do it and they did nothing.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris
My advocacy against the rate burden has gone on ever since I have been in the House, as is well known to hon. Members.
§ Mr. Robertson
Perhaps that is so, but I have not had the opportunity of hearing the hon. Member speak about this matter, and this afternoon my complaint is that I am not sure whether he is for or against rating relief.
I think that everyone, in fact, agrees with the purpose of the Bill and that the need for rate relief for people with lower incomes is not in dispute, as was pointed out by the Allen Committee. Not that I agree with everything said by the Allen Committee. There may well have been a time when the house in which a man lived was a measure of his substance, but that is in the long-distant past, and it has certainly not been the case for many years. It is no longer even remotely true since the advent of publicly-owned housing. In effect, rates are now a housing tax, and that is how they are seen.
The proposals in the Bill take us a long step in the right direction and go a long way to meet many of the anomalies in the rating system. But while I agree in principle with what the Bill contains, I have many complaints to make about its details. I have spoken on previous Bills which contained largely English and Welsh legislation with bits of Scottish legislation tacked on, and I still think that this is a very untidy and slovenly way in which to do the job. I know that this is a matter of convenience to get both through together, but can the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland explain Clause 2? It relates only to Scotland but its terminology relates only to England. It requires another explanatory Clause—Clause 9—in order to bring it into line with Scottish legal and local authority terms. This is not good enough.
Clearly, we want the Bill through for Scotland as quickly as possible, and it may be argued that this method will save time, but if it is necessary to include a Scottish Measure within an English Measure, as it were, let us do it neatly and in a way which is understandable. I should like the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to give me an assurance that he is entirely satisfied that the provisions of Clause 2 mean exactly the same as the provisions of Clause 1. We need such an assurance before Committee stage. Is he sure that Clause 6(11) will affect the Scottish situation in the same way as it affects the English situation? I 79 am not too sure about it. Perhaps in Committee we shall have an opportunity of considering these matters.
The Bill is created in terms of English law and the usages of English local authorities and yet, by subsections in the interpretation Clause, it attempts to translate this into Scottish terms and does not do it very well. I accept that we want the Bill in a hurry, and that the Government's intention is to apply the same provisions to Scotland as to England and Wales. But does the Bill do this? I am entitled to assume that it is the Government's intention that the effect of the Bill on local authorities in Scotland and in England and Wales should be broadly equivalent, but as the Bill stands it does not do this. Even if the words in the Bill are the same, their effect on Scotland will be completely different from their effect on England and Wales, and it is the effect which is important, not the words.
I will give only one example. It is fairly obvious—one need not do much investigation into the point—that the proportion of the total number of ratepayers who will be relieved of rates will be much larger in Scotland than in the rest of the country. That is self-evident. The family expenditure survey, the Allen Report, the Ministry of Labour statistics and Inland Revenue statistics all point to this fact. On the other hand, as the domestic rates in Scotland are very much higher than the domestic rates in England, then the amount of rebated rate will be very much larger in Scotland than in England and Wales. I often wonder whether English Members realise what is the rate burden in Scotland when they complain about the great burden on the rates in England. The effect will be that the Government, in paying 75 per cent. of the rebate, will have to pay a great deal more, proportionately, to Scotland than to England. But by the same token the Scottish ratepayers who do not receive relief will have to bear a very much larger burden than the English ratepayers who do not receive relief.
§ Mr. Manuel
This is an interesting point. Does my hon. Friend agree that another cause of the increased burden in Scotland is the fact that industry is 80 still de-rated 50 per cent. while it is rated 100 per cent. in England and Wales?
§ Mr. Robertson
There is more than one reason. De-rating is one and I will try to deal with another. One of our problems in this discussion is the absence of definite information about the number of people who will receive rate relief. It is difficult to calculate the effect on local authorities, but if I may make an intelligent guess I suggest that in the United Kingdom about 8 per cent. of ratepayers will receive rebates whereas in Scotland the figure will be about 15 per cent. This is an intelligent guess based on the Allen Committee and on figures of personal incomes provided by the Inland Revenue Commissioners. But if 15 per cent. of ratepayers in Scotland are to receive relief, this means that the remainder of the ratepayers will find a significant increase in rates. One can assume that the relief in rates will not go to the many retired people in the seaside towns, because many of these, in places like Bournemouth and Brighton, receive substantial pensions. I should think that the rating relief in England and Wales, and particularly in England, will go to the industrial North where wages are lower than they are in Birmingham, Coventry, London and the South-East. If one relies on the Allen Report for information one would expect that the bulk of rate relief would go to the industrial North and the south-west of England.
§ Mr. Crossman
It is clear that my hon. Friend refers to the lower wage earners, particularly those with large families. They are one group who will receive the rate relief, but two-thirds will go to retired people, who are not to be found particularly in the North or the South. If they are concentrated at all they are concentrated in the South-West and the South-East. Therefore, the spread of the Bill will be rather more nation-wide than my hon. Friend suggests.
§ Mr. Robertson
I do not disagree with that point, but my right hon. Friend must remember that the people with the larger families and younger families are in the north of England and in Scotland. These are the people who will probably receive the most rating relief, but Clause 8 will 81 do something to help the local authorities because the rate deficiency grant will in itself assist the local authorities who have to give an excess amount over and above the average for authorities in England and Wales. It will help to cushion the effect on other ratepayers. There may be consequential increases in the equalisation grant in Scotland but if rate rebates in the English local authority areas will attract rate deficiency grant, this is not necessarily the effect in Scotland, because any increase in equalisation grant which results in a rate deficiency grant will bear no direct relationship to the amount of rebate given by any local authority in Scotland.
One of the major injustices in the whole matter of local authority finance is the method by which the rate deficiency and equalisation grants are dealt with. The Bill makes no provision to deal with the distribution of equalisation grants. The formula for the rate deficiency grant in England and Wales not only generates the total amount of grants but, by measuring local authority resources and arriving at an average 1d. rate product against which local authority resources are measured, this formula also determines the distribution of rate deficiency grant. The poorer local authorities therefore get the grants, but when it comes to calculating the proportion of equalisation grant due to an increase in the rate deficiency grant arising from rate rebates we have to start with a total of rate deficiency grant.
Basically, we work on the Goschen formula, with modifications, but the resources of the Scottish local authorities are not measured against the resources of local authorities anywhere else in the country. Any hon. Member who has read the Allen Report must have been amazed to find that the average 1d. rate product of Scottish local authorities is about 19d. and of English local authorities 42d. per head of population. But a local authority with an average 1d. rate product of, say, 17d. per head of population in England would receive a grant which would make resources up to the 42d. standard.
Scotland again will come badly out of this. Let us assume that we have an increase in equalisation grant because the rate deficiency grant has been increased, not because of any rate rebate that has 82 been given but because when the rate deficiency grant in England is increased the equalisation grant is automatically increased. There is no provision for the method of distribution of the increase in the equalisation grant and therefore there is almost a certainty that Scottish local authorities which will be required to give rate rebates will not receive any part of the equalisation grant.
One can think, for example, of Motherwell, where because there are still works and other industries the local authority at the moment receives no equalisation grant. I can imagine that in Motherwell many rate rebates will have to be given, but the Motherwell local authority will receive no compensation by way of equalisation grant whereas a nearby local authority giving no rate rebate may receive an equalisation grant. This is why my right hon. Friend must evolve some method whereby we can find a measure of equity in all this. I am not blaming my right hon. Friend for this mess. It has existed for a long time. I do not expect my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to clear it up overnight but surely we can do a little to make sure that the purposes of the Bill are carried out and that broadly it has the same effect in Scotland as in England and Wales.
It has been said that the reason for the high rates in Scotland is the very low rents. This is simply not true, and it is time that this was pinned to the wall. If the rate contribution to local authority houses was deducted from the rates bill, Scottish rates would still be very much higher than those applying in England and Wales. In considering this point we must compare like with like, but the proper measure is to compare the kind of accommodation one is renting and paying rates for in the two countries. Deducting the rates for local authority houses, the Scot still pays more in rent and rates per room occupied than does the English local authority tenant. I have worked this out and I know that I am right because I have had it checked. If there were equity in this matter, on the basis of per room occupied the Scot would require a deduction on the average of £6 a year in his rates. Seeing that we are going this distance to secure a measure of equity among the "haves" and "have-nots" in the matter of rates, 83 a little effort might be taken to ensure that Scotland, at least this once, has a fair crack of the whip.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Mr. A. G. F. Hall-Davis (Morecambe and Lonsdale)
In May, when we discussed rates in Committee of Supply, I was fortunate enough to catch the eye of the Chair at five minutes to nine and so, of necessity, was able to make only a short contribution to the discussion. However, as the Bill now before us follows very closely the principles which I then commended to the right hon. Gentleman, I am encouraged to develop my argument somewhat further—on this occasion, also, with brevity, I trust—in the hope that I can persuade him to recognise the desirability of moving further along the lines set out in the Bill and not to be diverted to an unnecessary extent into a more complex, expensive and less well directed reform.
In the comparatively short time I have been a Member, I have not heard a good Bill commended to the House with so little satisfaction and enthusiasm by the Minister in charge. The right hon. Gentleman seems to regard this as an ugly duckling of a Bill and can hardly wait to wring its neck as part of his action to bring the whole rating system as now operated to an end. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether he ought to give it a little time to develop. It might then grow into a much more swan-like creature and accomplish a good deal more than, evidently, he is prepared to let it at present.
Before returning to that theme, I have to offer some criticisms of the Bill. I recognise that it will bring great and most welcome relief to a considerable number of people. It will assist materially many of those whose needs are greatest; but there will still be very many, a broad section of ratepayers, whose incomes are just above the limits set in the Bill to whom it will bring no relief whatever. As has been said, the Bill will increase their rate burden by the 25 per cent. share of the rebates given which they will have to carry.
In constituencies such as the one I have the honour to represent, where there is a considerable number of people who will benefit from the relief, there are 84 also—this applies in many other places as well—a great many people just above the relief limit. The two things go together. Therefore, the 25 per cent. will fall on people who themselves are already heavily oppressed by rates.
If the right hon. Gentleman were presenting a Bill now to give a measure of general relief from rates, it might be arguable that he could justify 25 per cent. of the individual rebates being borne by the other ratepayers, but, until such time as he does this, he cannot, I suggest, sustain his argument, and I express the hope that he will take steps, at least until he introduces a wider relief Measure, to see that the 25 per cent. is not thrust upon the other ratepayers.
I come now to what I regard as a rather mean provision in the Bill. I do not believe that any of us associate the right hon. Gentleman with a mean attitude in his normal outlook, but, if it is not a mean provision, it certainly reveals a lack of human understanding. I refer to the provision that, while a married couple with children will receive full rebate if their income is below £520 a year, increased by £78 for each child, a widow with children receives a rebate calculated on the same basic figure as for a single person, namely, £416, plus the increase for each child. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about why the gap is rather narrow between the £416 and the £520, but, if I may say so, far from reducing the force of my argument, the fact that he has considered this strengthens, if anything, the point which I put to him.
Considering the circumstances of a widow bringing up a family of her own—I am referring only to widows with children to support—there is every reason why she should be given relief no less generous than that accorded to the married couple. If a widow with children goes out to work, she has to meet some expense in ensuring that they are properly looked after while she is away, or she has to limit her choice of employment to work in which either the hours or the proximity is such that she can come back to look after her family. This limits her earnings accordingly. Furthermore, unlike the single person or the widow without children, the widow with dependent children is almost certainly unable to 85 arrange to share her house or let accommodation in order to reduce her rate burden.
To return to the Minister's intentions for the future, in the debate on 5th May to which I referred, the right hon. Gentleman discussed his long-term plans in the context of the early introduction of an incomes guarantee. He went so far as to say that the incomes guarantee Bill would be ready before the rates Bill. I am not sure which rates Bill he was referring to—this one or the major Measure next year—but, in any case, several things have become clear since May.
First, for reasons which I shall not discuss in detail but which reflect no credit upon the Government, it is impossible to set a date for the introduction of the Incomes Guarantee Bill. Second—this is something on which the right hon. Gentleman will come increasingly to agree with me—the Chancellor of the Exchequer will now welcome even less than he would have done last May any substantial transfer from rates to taxation, because he is already discussing the possibility o: yet a third major increase in taxation quite apart from anything which the Minister of Housing and Local Government may heap upon him.
Third—this is a more controversial observation, controversial on both sides of the House, I know—it is now more widely appreciated, if not accepted, that, if the rate of growth of the amount levied through the rates were held down so that it did not exceed the growth rate of the national income, the present position would be supportable by a wide range of taxpayers. This is where I part company with the right hon. Gentleman and his great dislike of rates. Rates raise £1,000 million, a lot of it from industry and a lot of it, as the Allen Report shows, from people in the higher income brackets to whom it represents only 2 per cent. of income. I think that one must accept, therefore, that for many people the rate burden is supportable. It is the rocketing growth which causes so much concern. The Minister must take action to halt this rocketing increase in the amount levied through rates. We all agree about that. Some rearrangement of local government finance is necessary.
Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will not be tempted to try to introduce 86 a revolutionary measure of the complexity of the 1965 Finance Bill, and I hope that he will not feel bound to try to secure a general reduction of the rate burden. I go so far as to say this because I am desperately anxious that people who need relief should have it at the earliest possible moment. The right hon. Gentleman would be well advised and wise to combine steps to contain the general rate of growth with further selective measures like this Bill to relieve those on whom the rates are pressing most heavily.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will pay particular attention to the position of families with children too young to be earning. I am sorry to note that, although, sometimes, the right hon. Gentleman and I seem to come very close together and share many of the same views, he will occasionally suddenly disappear, shying away from the logical conclusion of what he says, making one regret his errors all the more. He mentioned that it was on families with young children that the burden of rates pressed most heavily, and this particular group was, in fact, one mentioned in the Report.
We are all concerned with certain unsatisfactory aspects of teenage behaviour, but may it not be that, as a society, we do not take sufficient steps to see that parents with young children have sufficient money to spend on their children and, what is more—I believe this to be very important—sufficient money to spend sufficient time with their children in ways which, perhaps, can be pursued sometimes only through some expenditure? This applies particularly to mothers. Even when the Bill is passed, there will still be a marked contrast between the position of the man earning £20 a week with three children over 11 still dependent on him—that is the most expensive age—and the man earning £20 a week with no children—so far as Income Tax payments and rates payments are concerned. The man with no children will pay £130 in Income Tax. The man with three children will be relieved of all tax payments. But both men will pay exactly the same rates.
The rebate system has intrinsic merits which the Minister, because of his dislike of the rating system, fails to recognise. I hope that he will not hesitate to think 87 in his major Measure of a further extension along the lines in this Bill in combination with any other step. I particularly hope that he will not close his mind to this, rather than plunge into more adventurous but, I feel, much less promising and much less rewarding changes.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris) was the first person to mention an omission not merely from the Bill but from all the speeches so far delivered, from the Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill and from the Allen Committee Report. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that instalment paying of rates has a cost. Why is this cost not mentioned in the Financial Memorandum?
The history of these Financial Memoranda goes back a long way, starting with a Select Committee in 1918. We used to have White Papers. In 1927 they turned into these memoranda which are now attached to Bills. There is a series of rules applying to these memoranda. One might think that they applied only to charges on the Exchequer, but one rule is thatwhere a service to be provided by a Bill involves a charge upon rates as well as an increased charge on the Exchequer, an estimate of the charge upon rates … should be included in the Financial Memorandum.These are not rules of procedure of the House. They are rules of Her Majesty's Government, but they are derived from assurances given to the House on several occasions.
But there is a cost here which has not previously been mentioned except by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West. It arises from the fact that at present local authorities collect their rates in a lump sum before the year has ended. Since money has a value in relation to time, the value to them is greater (if they collect earlier or half-way through the year) than if they simply collect their rates in 12 instalments. There is, in effect, an interest element which is being lost to the local authorities by virtue of instalment payments.
We would all agree that the principle of extending instalment payments—which is at present adopted by some authorities 88 —to all authorities is a good one, but I do not see why we should thereby be precluded by the Bill and perhaps—I should like the Minister to comment on this—by the Money Resolution, which governs what we can discuss at a later stage of the Bill, from saying that the instalment payments should be measured not by the original rate but by the rate plus such interest element as is involved.
This cost is considerable. It is not a mere rebate to some owner-occupiers. Every owner-occupier can claim to pay his rates by instalments, irrespective of means. If every owner-occupier waited to the very last day of the year to pay, my point would not arise, but it does arise very much. In my experience, some small businesses may be short of cash and may not be able to pay early. They may be sufficiently businesslike to realise the implications but not have the cash to be able to pay quickly. Big businesses pay promptly, and the majority of owner-occupiers pay fairly early in the year.
Furthermore, the point is growing more important. In the past, much of the procedure—the sending out of the initial demand and the final demand, leading eventually in a few cases to a summons—tended to take a considerable time because every rate demand was written out by hand. As most authorities, and certainly the bigger authorities with the greater populations, are mechanising their procedures, the rate demands are going out earlier every year.
I regard it as somewhat improper that the extra cost which will be incurred as a result of the Bill has not been mentioned in the Financial Memorandum. The reason probably is, as the Minister mentioned, that the Bill follows very closely the Allen Report, and the relevant pages, 99–101, of the Report also fail to mention this. The Minister said that the Allen Report is very true and accurate in what is says, but it does not follow that what it has left out is not also true and accurate.
I pass to the larger issues involved in the Bill. As I said, I think that most hon. Members would regard the extension of instalment payments to all authorities as a good idea. It is possible to question whether rebate schemes should be similarly treated. As a temporary measure to relieve the difficulties outlined by my 89 right hon. Friend and outlined in extensive detail in the Allen Report, we could surely agree upon it, but—with apologies to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)—I hardly think that what one might describe as a Powellist philosophy is the desirable end that we wish to achieve in the long term. We can grant rebates for rates, differential rents or rent rebates for housing schemes. We can have innumerable sets of these. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West would like to have them in the National Health Service and elsewhere, we understand. If that happens we shall end up with a series of administrations all designed to investigate individuals' incomes separately for each separate purpose for which we give a rebate.
As a temporary measure the Bill is desirable. Looking at it as a permanent measure, it seems to me that to have whole hosts of rebates on every single commodity or service available to the public would be inappropriate. I hope, therefore, that this part of the Bill—although I accept its necessity and desirability now—will eventually be swept away when my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Minister of Pensions introduce a scheme whereby we can extend the Income Tax form to everybody and take taxation from some and give grants to the lower-paid members of the community for what they require. It is better that this sort of thing should be done as soon as possible as one measure by the community than that it should be done as a series of separate little schemes all eating up clerical labour and administrative time and cost.
Another matter which has been mentioned, particularly by the Opposition, has been the erosion of the tax base. I begin to wonder if they heard what my right hon. Friend said originally, that he intended to erode not only the tax base but the whole tax. This is a logical argument. I would agree with every hon. Member opposite who has spoken if my right hon. Friend had not started off by saying that his intention was not merely to tinker with the rating system. He made a speech rather like a small fire starting on the edge of an ancient forest of rather dry timber. In my view, the sooner the Minister burns down a large 90 part of the forest the better. But he did say this. He did not say that he would merely chip away at the tax base.
§ Mr. Hall-Davis
What would the hon. Member recommend planting in place of the forest burnt down in order to yield more revenue timber?
§ Mr. English
I will take up that point in a moment. It has often been said in the past that we should chip a little away for this, that or the other reason. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) mentioned the enormous cost of the subsidy we give by way of derating to agriculture. No one even knows what it amounts to. I am sure that we could not restore rating of agriculture immediately because, of course, it would need such a vast amount of valuation. But it is a far larger sum than we are talking about here.
The local authority I used to serve on once calculated for me the value of the sum involved in rebates on churches and similar properties. I do not think that anyone would say that such rebates should not be given but we learnt that, in that locality, communicants who represented 20 per cent. of the community, received 80 per cent. of the rebate because they happened to have bigger and better buildings. The situation becomes rather ludicrous and this tax has been so far eroded that just one small point more will not make much difference, provided this is accepted, as my right hon. Friend put it, as an earnest of an intention to get rid of an iniquitous tax.
Where I part company with my right hon. Friend is that I would not say that this tax is necessarily as iniquitous for corporations and businesses as it is for private householders. My right hon. Friend based his argument on the Allen Report but that only relates to the impact of rates upon the private householders. No doubt he has more information but, if so, he did not mention it.
Rates in other respects are not necessarily a bad tax. I ask him to consider what would happen if he abolished them completely from business premises. Most office premises, because of the general revaluation of dwellings and business premises a few years ago, underwent 91 a reduction in the actual amount they paid. What happened was that the rents of these offices merely rose to fill the gap. In practical terms, the landlord of such properties simply increases rents to counterbalance the reduction in rates.
That, of course, cannot happen for most householders because of my right hon. Friend's Rent Act, but it can happen to business premises and I stress the undesirability of not considering this aspect. If we took from local authorities the rates on business premises we should simply give the same sum of money to the landlords of the premises. Businessmen would not benefit, the local authorities would lose money and we would have to think of another tax.
I am not sure how far it is in order to answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) but I believe that we should consider in this context the possibility and desirability of a local payroll tax. It was right hon. Gentlemen opposite who advocated a national payroll tax. I believe that a local payroll tax would have the advantages of a national payroll tax plus the advantage that it would tax people who commuted into the urban areas but who paid their rates in areas outside. However, I would be straying from the subject if I discussed that in detail.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing this Bill purely as a temporary Measure. Perhaps he might consider inserting a provision to that effect. We do not want to think of it as a permanent addition to our decayed timber. But as a temporary Measure, as an earnest of his good will in relation to a large number of citizens and as a direct benefit to citizens in dire need, we must all welcome the Bill.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)
The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) suggested that better answers are in the pipeline, as it were. I would say that, at least for pensioners, better answers can only be found when supply and demand get into better balance and we get real stability in prices.
The objectives of the Bill are admirable. Indeed, this is something that I 92 have been pressing to achieve for some considerable time. It is the means of carrying out this Measure that I wish to criticise. As far back as March, 1961, I drew attention in a Private Member's Motion to the difficulties of the householder with a small fixed income. I drew attention to the great increase in local government spending and discussed new sources of local government finance.
Now that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to them, I recommend him, if he has not already done so, to read my speech on that occasion. Particularly, I ask him when he proposes to announce to the House some of the Measures which he spoke about. Or perhaps this will be like that national minimum income guarantee—swept under the carpel like so many broken promises of the party opposite.
In the debate in March, 1961, I pointed out that many of these increases had increased parallel with the national income and that the total Bill for rates was no larger in proportion to what it was in 1939 but that the domestic householder on a small fixed income only knew that he had to pay a lot more money. I pointed out that this situation was becoming not so much one of anger but one of despair, especially for the elderly ratepayer on a small fixed income.
Following this debate and other pressure in the House and elsewhere, the Conservative Government of the day brought in the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964, and appointed the Allen Committee. I was not surprised that the Committee found clear evidence of hardship in many cases and concluded that 200,000 to 250,000 householders had had an increase in rates which was too heavy for them. Some of these, it was pointed out, were spending a quarter of their income on rates and housing costs while a smaller proportion were spending more than half on housing costs.
I echo what must be the words which will come from very many retired householders—"For this relief, much thanks." Clearly, something had to be done. The question now is whether the Bill is the right way of doing it. I have not been one of those who thought that the Rating (Interim Relief) Act was a bad one. Indeed, I have been surprised at the Minister's vehemence against it.
93 With the experience I have had in my constituency, which covers many retired people in north-east Essex, I would say that the Act had not failed. I believe, however, that it did not go far enough. I am sure that it could have been extended so as to include householders in need of help. In Clacton Urban District Council area, in my constituency, out of a total of 31,000 people, 545 have already benefited while 200 are in the "pipeline" for further help. It was administered most efficiently and confidentially. In spite of criticism of a means test, confidence about incomes and means was kept. Why do the Government not extend and amend that Act? To do so would undoubtedly save a Treat deal of administrative costs. Has the Minister considered the difficulty of taking on new staff at this time? Has he considered the difficulty of keeping incomes and means confidential, particularly when new staff are brought in? I hope that we will hear no more of that—and I use the word advisedly—damned hypocritical nonsense which was used such a lot at the time when the Act was going through, especially when we were accused of bringing in a means test.
§ Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that in an authority of 176,000 population only two families could be discovered to be eligible under the previous Act because of the very high ceiling? It was not hypocritical nonsense when it was a shocking Bill designed purely to attract votes.
§ Mr. Ridsdale
I was referring to the hypocritical nonsense when we were accused of introducing a means test with that Act. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he comes to my constituency, which is in the South-East, where, as the Minister has said, the Bill will have particular effect, he will find that there is hardship and that that interim relief legislation brought a great deal of help to a number of very sorely pressed people.
The Bill seems to lack the experience of rating administration. It is a pity that the only accountant in this Administration is in the Treasury, because if he had been in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, we would not have had such a complicated Bill as this. It will undoubtedly place additional expense on local rates. I realise that 75 per cent. of the rebate is to be borne by the Exchequer, but 25 per cent. of the re- 94 maining cost, plus administrative costs, will be borne by the greater proportion of the ratepayers and I can assure the Minister that in a town like Clacton-on-Sea many retired people will find that this is a considerable burden.
§ Mr. Crossman
Can the hon. Gentleman say what proportion of the cost under that Act was borne by the ratepayer and what by the taxpayer?
§ Mr. Ridsdale
It was 60 to 40 per cent. in that case, but I said that it would have been possible to extend and amend that Act.
§ Mr. Crossman
So long as we can have it quite clear that the hon. Gentleman admits that in our Bill the ratepayer is made to pay a smaller proportion of the total rebate than under the Tory Act.
§ Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) rose—
§ Mr. Ridsdale
I note the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, but it does not get away from my point that too big a proportion of the cost of the Bill will fall on the ratepayer.
§ Mr. Higgins
Would not my hon. Friend agree that the point which the Minister is making is invalid? There were two Sections in the Rating (Interim Relief) Act and the total percentage increase came nowhere near the cost of the corresponding Clauses in the Bill.
§ Mr. Ridsdale
It will be extremely difficult to meet the rising cost of living and rates and that is why, whatever happened with the previous legislation, I am dealing with facts as they are now and as facts are now these proposals will put a further burden on the retired.
What a pity that the Minister has not been somewhat bolder. Why does he not transfer the cost of certain social services from the county rates to the Exchequer, as was promised at the last election? If there is to be relief for the retired householder with less than 95 £500 a year, why should there not be relief further up the scale as well? Let us make no mistake—it is the retired more than anyone else who has had to pay for the cost of inflation. Is the Minister to transfer the cost of certain social services from the local exchequers to the national Exchequer and, if so, when is this to be done? The Bill means 1½ per cent. to 2 per cent. increase in rates in the main town in my constituency. This is in addition to the 10 per cent. to 14 per cent. increase which it will probably have to face again this year.
I hope that any changes which the Minister has in mind for transferring burdens, such as education or education salaries, from the local to the national Exchequer will be made before the 1966–67 rate is fixed, especially in view of the extra burden being placed on the ratepayer. I am bound to say that it is not just to shift this rate burden from the retired who definitely cannot pay to the retired who can hardly pay, but that is what the Minister is doing.
It is impossible to discuss the Bill unless one sees it against the background of the finances of retirement. For 12 years I have been the Member of Parliament for a constituency which covers north-east Essex where there are many retired people, of whom a large proportion have incomes of less than £1,000 a year. I have known people to retire on small incomes which appeared to be inadequate but which in a few years, because of rising costs, have been found to be harshly inadequate. This process has been hurried on far more quickly in the last year under a Socialist Government.
I welcome any action, like the Bill, which helps the retired, but let the Minister and the Government face the reality of the problem. Let us mend the hole in the dam by all means, but let us see that the water does not spread over the dam again in a spiral of ever-increasing prices. What matters most to the retired and elderly is stability in prices. It is against that background in the end that the Bill and the Government will be judged.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
The Measure now before 96 the House has been described by the Press in my constituency as a rating Bill which many ratepayers will welcome. It is, of course, but a first step towards making our system of local government finance into one which will be accepted as fair by all ratepayers. And I know that my right hon. Friend will do everything he can to add increasing bite to the wind of change now blowing from his Ministry. In the view of many of us on this side of the House there is a strong case for getting rid of rating altogether, such are the inequities and other defects of the present system of raising local government finance.
What are the principal benefits of this first step towards a more orderly and fairer system? There is widespread pleasure that by means of the rent rebate scheme the Government will now afford further help to widows, the elderly, the permanently disabled and the temporarily sick who are not in receipt of National Assistance. It is, however, a mistaken view of the scheme to see it as extending help only to those who are no longer able to work. There will be countless thousands of beneficiaries among people who have to work extremely hard for their living and whose modest incomes are sharply reduced by the present incidence of rates. Many of these beneficiaries will be single people struggling to maintain their independence and family men whose low earnings and family responsibilities, taken together, will entitle them to the maximum rebate under the scheme, that is, two-thirds of the reckonable rates of the properties in which they live.
Few people who are tenants make any distinction between rent and rates. They pay both to the rent collector and usually refer to the combined weekly payment as rent. The rebates which will now accrue to so many tenants will be warmly welcomed as the first reduction in "rent" which even the most elderly of them will have known. One complaint about the facile comparisons which are often made between combined rent and rate levels in the areas of different local authorities is that they are utterly meaningless unless accompanied by comparisons of weekly earnings in the same areas. With respect, I think it could be shown that, because of wage drift and other factors, average earnings in my right hon. Friend's constituency are rather higher than in my 97 own. It is, therefore, very much to his credit that he has selected a rate rebate scheme which will afford most help to wage earners in areas where incomes are lower than the national average. This will help to redress the balance in living standards in different parts of the country.
§ Mr. Martin Maddan (Hove)
Could the hon. Gentleman explain how this Bill will help to redress the changing balance in the living standards in an area like my own constituency of Hove where retired people are particularly hard hit?
§ Mr. Morris
My point was that it is useless to compare combined rent and rate levels in one area with another, unless one is prepared to compare earnings in the same areas. Moreover, I am emphasising that the benefits of the Bill increase in areas where incomes are lower than the national average. There are very many retired people, widows and disabled people, as well as people who are temporarily sick, who will benefit from the rate rebate scheme.
To resume at the point I had reached before the hon. Gentleman's intervention, it is also to my right hon. Friend's credit that he is showing concern, in another Bill shortly to come before the House, for ratepayers who have been faced with an unreasonably heavy rate burden as a consequence of the huge problems of slum clearance in the areas of their local authorities.
This Rating Bill will also be widely welcomed by owner-occupiers for the provision, in Clause 1(1), for domestic rates to be payable as of right by instalments, instead of in one or two forbiddingly large lump sum payments each year. I doubt if any hon. Member during the lifetime of the present Parliament has made more representations than I have on the need for this reform. I have cause to know that frequent representations were also made to my right hon. Friend's predecessors over many years. Thus it is only fair to congratulate him for acting where his predecessors refused to act. From conversations I have had with owner-occupiers in my constituency, I can assure my right hon. Friend that this long-overdue reform is greatly appreciated and is taken as a mark of the sincerity of the Government's drive to humanise the rating system as a whole.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that a number of local authorities have already arranged to give rating instalments? My own authority at Folkestone has done that for many years, on better terms than this.
§ Mr. Morris
The existence of local schemes has been frequently mentioned during the debate. Everyone knows that there are local authorities which have already introduced the monthly instalment system, but the owner-occupier has never been entitled by Statute and as of right, as he will be now, to move away from what I have called these forbiddingly large lump sum payments once or twice a year. When this Bill passes into law, I hope the local authorities will help all they can to make the provisions of Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill work as smoothly as possible. In particular, I hope that a simplified procedure will be found and adopted to enable owner-occupiers to serve the notice, required by Clause 1(2) of the Bill, of their option to pay their rates by monthly instalments.
As I have said, and as my right hon. Friend indicated in opening the debate, this Bill is only a first step towards making our system of local government finance fairer and more orderly. For my part, I trust that there will be a due sense of urgency in taking the further steps now required and that they will much reduce the share of local government spending which has to be met out of the rates. Some months ago my right hon. Friend spoke of the need for radical solutions if we were to avoid a real possibility of the rating system breaking down. He said that under the system inherited by the present Government, rates were bound to go up by at least a shilling a year by natural increase, even if nothing extra was spent on anything. He described this as a most ingenious system—with constant pressure on the rates, the Conservative Party assumed, the public would not like the social services so much. Notwithstanding all that was said earlier in the debate by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), I know that my right hon. Friend has been actively considering many different methods of reducing the share of local spending borne by the ratepayers and I hope that he will carefully try to ensure, 99 in whatever methods he selects, that increased financial aid does not erode the independence of our local authorities. To mention one such method, I very much liked the proposal made by the Association of Municipal Corporations that we should increase to 65 per cent. the amount of local government spending met from the Exchequer. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider this proposal sympathetically and that we shall have in due course a further Bill, transferring more of the costs of local government to the Exchequer, which will be seen as fair and sensible by ratepayers as a whole. Meanwhile, I welcome this Bill as an important step along the road to a much improved system of local government finance.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Maddan (Hove)
I would like to take up the point raised, when the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) was good enough to give way to me, about people who had not only retired but who were living in an area where there are many retired people, because that is the sort of area where they like to retire.
Before doing so I should like to say that while it is fine for the Minister to come here and apologise for the rough-and-ready state of his Bill, to tell us, during his Second Reading speech, that he was already discussing Amendments and new Clauses for Committee and to say that the whole rating system was so bad that it deserves to be abolished anyway, it is not in my view consistent with the idea of planning as I understand it. It is not consistent with any sane view of planning to talk about a plan to pull out the whole structure before there is any evidence of anything workable with which to replace it. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) mentioned—and it is a straw at which the right hon. Gentleman could clutch—the idea of a local payroll tax. But that would not help in areas to which retired people go to live because, by definition, there are not many people on payrolls in such areas.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I have allowed incidental references in all speeches to rating reform in general, but not in detail. 100 We are not debating rating reform; we are debating this Bill.
§ Mr. Maddan
I am obliged, Mr. Speaker. I will continue at the point where I promised that I would take up what the hon. Member for Wythenshawe said.
Retired people go to areas such as my constituency, set up their home there, keep such furniture as they want, undergo the removal expenses of getting there and plan their life on the basis that they want to be able to continue to live there until they are gone. They make prudent provision for increases in the cost of living. But the increases in the rate burden which such people have had to bear have been out of all proportion and all possibility of having been foreseen by these people when they went there. It is not particularly helpful to say that they should move somewhere else, partly because that would involve them in very considerable capital expenditure, but also because when people reach that age and state of life it is not practical politics in human terms to suggest that, having taken themselves to where they can retire and having made what seems to be reasonable provision they should be driven off by a high rate burden which they cannot sustain.
It is perfectly true, and is certainly to be welcomed, that the Bill helps people in the very low income bracket.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
My right hon. Friend the Minister, in his speech, attempted to define the area of greatest need among ratepayers. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that there should be relief for those not in the greatest need?
§ Mr. Maddan
I am arguing precisely that point. The Bill stops too soon.
I want to mention one or two figures which I think are fairly widely known. The point at which full relief stops is £520 a year, and it tapers off, under certain examples which the Minister gave, at about £600 or £700 for a married couple. Average industrial earnings—and there may be more than one earner in the household—are £20 a week, over £1,000 a year. The chapter on household incomes in the Allen Report says that in the south of England the average household income is nearly £1,300. It also tells us the median income, which is just over £1,000.
101 Many of the people between these levels are suffering the worst sort of poverty of all, and that is the erosion in their last years of the standards which they have built up and to which they have become accustomed at a time when it is impossible for them, by effort and by earning more, to do anything to sustain them. It is these people who, through rising prices, rising rates and so on, are cheated of the expectation of the standard of living to which they have been accustomed. Not only does the Bill not help them it actually penalises them. This is the point which I was trying to bring out in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe.
The Minister may apologise by saying that this is a rough-and-ready Measure. It is net good enough to apologise for it being a rough and ready Measure on the ground that it is temporary, that the rating system will be abolished before very long—when we do not know when: there are no ideas yet.
The hon. Member for Wythenshawe referred to his local newspaper. The Borough Treasurer of Hove is quoted in the Brighton and Hove Gazette of last Friday as saying:I think you will find that there are quite a number of peope in Hove entited to rebates and this alone will lead to a rate increase. It also means more staff.For both those reasons, therefore, to say nothing of the loss of interest on money to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, West referred, people in this intermediate bracket—we might say the forgotten bracket—will undergo greater hardship and suffering as a result of the Bill. While we must support Measures of help to some, the method by which that help is given in the Bill fills us with deep misgiving.
The Minister said that for various reasons he would not go through with the revaluation which is due in 1968. I hope that it will be in order if I say something very briefly about that as it affects the purposes of the Bill. The hardship which has been caused to retired people suddenly came about when up-to-date valuations were brought in two and a half years ago. Unless there is a speedy replacement of the rating system with something else, it will not be many years before there is another drastic revaluation 102 causing more drastic hardship—drastic because it will have been postponed and left too long. People are hoping, particularly in seaside towns such as Hove, that the revaluation in 1968 will pay some attention to capital values as well as rental values of property such as flats in particular. The people in this forgotten bracket will now be cheated of that hope and relief.
I very much hope that the Minister and his hon. Friend will regard this not only as a rough-and-ready Measure, and as a Measure which must be followed by the second prong of the attack—that is, the relief of rating generally by the grant of more Exchequer help—but as a Measure which itself contains many actual injustices which must be remedied as soon as possible. I hope that the terms of the Money Resolution will enable us to address ourselves to these points in Committee.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)
This has been an excellent debate. I have heard two of the best speeches to which I have listened since I became a Member—those of my right hon. Friend the Minister and of the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I compliment my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman—for different reasons, of course. I confess that I sometimes feel that, in view of the lucidity which we associate with the Minister, it is almost a shame to be critical of some of the arguments which he puts forward. Before I come to my right hon. Friend, however, I should like to deal with one or two of the points which have been made.
This debate seems to be taking a traditional form. We have had three contributions from the back benches opposite and tears have almost been brought to my eyes. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris) reminded me of Mrs. Mopp in "I.T.M.A." He was so cheery about it all. We still do not know whether he supports or opposes the Bill. It was quite surprising to listen to the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) talking about the erosion of small pensions because of rising costs. He had, however, the political acumen to add that this trend had been increased during the past year. It made me wonder 103 just where his concern and sympathy for this section of the community had been in the past 13 years.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Is the hon. Member aware that during the 13 years of Conservative Government the real value of the National Insurance pension was increased by 50 per cent.?
§ Mr. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman should convince his hon. Friend the Member for Harwich of what his party did, because he did not seem to be greatly enamoured of the record of the Conservative Government.
I should like to hear hon. Members opposite being a little more forthcoming, and perhaps when the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) replies to the debate for the Opposition she will deal with this point. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) argued the case of retired people. From the Conservative benches, it is always the poor old widow or the poor old retired person for whom so much sympathy is generated. It may be due simply to political tactics and a subjective approach. I concede that we all may be guilty of it.
§ Mr. Maddan
I sat in this House for nine years as the Member for a constituency which was predominantly industrial—Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire. I then was adopted and ran for Hove. I can tell the hon. Member that the poverty of old people there, the retired middle-class included, came to me as a real shock and I determined to try to do something about it.
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Member proves my point that we can all be guilty of subjective influences in our constituencies. There is nothing very original about that. I concede that there is poverty and a problem.
The hon. Member should go a wee bit further. Everyone is quoting from the Allen Report, and so I want to be in the fashion. I wonder whether hon. Members opposite will address themselves to the point in the Allen Report that people, presumably' in that range, who have capital resources tied up in property such as their house should have their resources taken into account in assessing need. The Allen Committee goes further 104 and says that when those people give up or sell their house, or on death, compensation could be paid to the authority, whether local or national, which has helped them during their lifetime to stay in a house which it is obviously beyond their means to pay for. I wonder whether hon. Members opposite will address themselves to this point, which is fundamental to our approach in being fair to all sections of the community but at least to make some kind of contribution to the section of the community which is hardest hit.
We must bear in mind the natural attitude of local authorities—including Glasgow—that if they can get out of paying anything, they will do so. It is interesting when we hear this talk about the rising burden of rates. On occasion, this is a good whipping boy for every politician, whether local or national.
In Glasgow we are sick and tired of a feeble progressive—with a small "p"—opposition which always uses the argument that rents should be higher and that if they were higher they would reduce rates. At the same time, we have the argument, which has been reflected here this afternoon, that rates are constantly rising. This is usually attributed, at least in our part of the world, to Socialist inefficiency in administration.
In Glasgow, in the 10 years from 1954 to 1964 when the Conservative Government were in power, the increases in rateborne expenditure that Glasgow citizens were called upon to pay were just under 100 per cent. The complaints always attribute this to Socialist inefficiency. In the rest of Scotland, however, the increase in rateborne expenditure during the comparable period was something like 116 per cent. and not merely a figure in the nineties. But for Glasgow the average would be higher. Therefore, this has nothing to do with administration. It seems to be a natural fact of life that if we are to expand the social services or if employees in local government are to expect their share in a rising standard of living, rates must obviously go up.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member should now leave Glasgow and the rating system in general and come to the Bill.
§ Mr. Brown
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker; I thought that I had been dealing with it. My point is that in this period of rising rates—we have established that there has been a constant rise in rates, and there will probably continue to be a constant rise in them—the greatest need is to relieve the rates upon those who are on the lowest level of small fixed income. That is precisely what the Bill will do.
We have been given some interesting figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) developed a point concerning a different application in Scotland because of lower average earnings. What my hon. Friend said is quite true and it is something about which I am not happy. Again, this is something which might be unduly hard upon local authorities in areas where the average earnings are much lower.
Reference has been made to the fact that many local authorities operate relief on grounds of poverty and hardship. Certainly that is the case in Scotland. If I use Glasgow for purposes of comparison I am not being parochial but am bringing out a principle. Glasgow represents a fair slice of Scotland and, therefore, it is an important place. If we consider the application of the rent rebate scheme and the rates relief scheme on grounds of poverty, the cost at present to Glasgow, with all its reputation for generosity—and in saying this I might be conceding a point to hon. Members opposite—amounts to something like one-third of a penny which is given by way of relief for rates. We hand out only about £26,000. I must admit that I never felt very happy about the level of the scales that we operated in this scheme, but I have no reason to assume that Glasgow has been any less generous than any other local authority. The point which I am making is that under the proposed scheme, the contribution that will be required to be made by the local authority will cost Glasgow 1½d. to 2d. instead. This is quite substantial.
I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by my right hon. Friend, because he did not give any good argument as to why it should be 25 per cent. Why not 50 per cent.? Why not 5 per cent, or 10 per cent.? If it is to be argued that it is to preserve local democracy, then I think he must produce a better argument 106 than that, because surely, in this Bill he is laying down even scales and he is not leaving any opportunity for interpretation or for a more sympathetic interpretation by one authority as against another. So, therefore, he is merely using the local authorities in a most limited fashion for the implementation of a national scheme. Of course, I am a believer in local democracy. I think we want to strengthen it, but I do not think this was a good argument to be used for keeping this 25 per cent. Therefore, I should like to hear my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State address himself to that point when he replies to the debate.
I am not objecting to the Bill. I think it an excellent Bill, and I think it is one we should all support, even in Committee, but there are certain details in it which I think should be examined. I am glad we have had the assurance, on the question of instalments, that local authorities operating a scheme, subject to the approval of the Minister will be allowed to continue to operate that scheme. I do not want again to boast about Glasgow: we have got a good scheme there already. Therefore, while the desire, while the aim to help this section of the community is a most important one and one which I think we are tackling successfully, nevertheless there are minor points, particularly in relation to the National Assistance Board cases, which I think we should go into in greater depth.
No hon. Member opposite—I must admit that the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames did not fall for this one—has mentioned it, but if it is good enough for local authorities or for Government-sponsored agencies, such as the Scottish Special Housing Association, that one applying for a rebate is obliged to go to the National Assistance Board before being entertained for help, and only at that level is one enabled to qualify, then I cannot see any reason for running away from that in this Bill. I do not accept the odium which far too many Members on both sides of the House are constantly placing upon National Assistance—that people are too proud to go to the National Assistance Board. It is a lot of rubbish. It may be so in some areas, but one always seems to have the impression created that the 107 better person does not go near the Assistance Board. I think Members of both parties have to accept some measure of responsibility for having created an attitude which is wrong—and then having to run away from it when we are trying to bring in sensible legislation, such as we have here.
I may appear to be critical, perhaps, of the Bill, but I welcome the principle of it. I think it is long overdue, particularly because of the substantial increase in the last 10 years in the cost of rates, and I think that if we are honest with ourselves it should remind us that, even in this so-called affluent, never had it so good society, we have failed lamentably to meet the real needs of people who have been too long forgotten.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
When I heard the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) begin his speech I thought that we had made a mistake in that the Bill had not been published in Gaelic, and that, consequently, he had not read it or paid very much attention to it, but as he came to the latter part of his speech I certainly thought I had done him an injustice, because I think that, in fact, he has given fairly considerable thought to some of the more important aspects of it.
One of them, of course, is this. The Labour Party in the General Election made is quite clear that it intended to transfer part of the burden of the rates from local authorities to the general Exchequer, thereby carrying the trend of centralisation still further. So far as I recollect, the Labour Party said nothing about a rent rebate scheme. The Tory Party, on the other hand, made it very plain indeed—and many us, including myself, electioneered considerably on the subject—that we were promising to put forward an extension of the rent rebate scheme for the benefit particularly of the elderly and those living on fixed incomes. It was a main plank in our platform, and I may say that every one of those who sit behind me at this moment on these benches was certainly committed to it, and they represent most of the seaside resorts, and one or two major inland towns as well.
Having said that, of course one has to consider very carefully whether one could 108 have an extension of the Rating (Interim Relief) Act. The Minister is quite wrong to have attacked that Act. It was, it is quite true, a small Act. It was small, but it has been immensely valuable to us in the country, and, apart from what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) said about it, in the case of Margate it gave us £30,000 last year and at Ramsgate some £25,000. By virtue of grants under that Act for age relief, older members of the community, being in large numbers in those two towns, had no increase in their rates. Consequently it was most valuable at the election for some of us. I was very closely associated with the representations to the then Minister, with my hon. Friend for Harwich and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), and a number of us went and saw the Minister and pressed for that Act.
The Bill for it was introduced quite deliberately to assist communities mainly by the seaside. What is said is that if, in fact, we are to retain some local autonomy—and it is quite right—then, of course, we should give, perhaps through the extension of the previous Act, a measure of decision to the local authority to decide in cases of hardship whether or not it will give this benefit to the ratepayer. As to ways of doing it, I should have liked our Act to have been expanded and to have placed a fair and clear duty upon the local authority to extend the cases of hardship and to give that relief.
That has not been followed. What this Government have done is to introduce a scheme which lays down that people within specific income limits shall be entitled to apply for rebate. That has been done notwithstanding that the effect is that there is no discretion whatever to the local authority. It must do nothing more or less than apply the standards in accordance with criteria laid down by the Government. In my view, that is a wrong approach. I think that if they want to do this the Government should pay the whole bill. If they do not want to do it, they must put a duty fairly and squarely upon the local authority, and that is an argument of principle.
The second is this. It is quite unnecessary to lay down this very long series Jf provisions in the first two or three Clauses 109 as to how we shall pay by instalments, when a number of local authorities have already got perfectly good schemes. We on this side of the House when in Committee will, I am sure, table Amendments to seek to ensure that schemes in existence can be treated as proper schemes, rather than as laid down by the Government. I should like, as I say, to reserve this point for the Committee stage. I am not satisfied that the Government should lay down any scheme at all, they should merely impose fairly and squarely upon the local authorities a duty of preparing schemes best suited to their needs and to ensure that instalments monthly or otherwise can operate. The Government are apt to think that they have got to lay down everything in great administrative detail, but local authorities are well able to run their own administration and their own schemes themselves, and are able to decide what sort of schemes would best suit their people and how they should treat them.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)
Does the hon. Gentleman mean, when he argues this, that in the details of these schemes there is to be no national standard of the amount that is to be disregarded, or does he mean the level at which full rebate is to be achieved, the gradation scale, or anything like that?
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
No. All I dealt with was the payment by instalments. Under that, I do not believe that the long rigmarole contained in the Bill is needed at all. I could shorten it to three or four lines imposing specific duties on the local authority which they would implement in accordance with schemes. Alternatively, they might be allowed to use whatever schemes they liked, providing that they allowed for monthly or quarterly instalment payments.
I turn now to what is a major point. The Bill provides for a rebate which is biannual—broadly speaking, two parts of the year, winter and summer. What has been completely overlooked is that in seaside resorts many people earn not a penny in the winter and earn extremely well in the summer. Under the scheme at the moment, those people will merely see that a ey do not have to pay in respect of the period in the winter and will be only too happy to pay their rates in 110 respect of the summer period. I will not go into the niceties of the matter in assuring the House that that is the fact and that it will have to be looked at very carefully in Committee, because it is not a satisfactory scheme at all.
It comes down to this. By taking away the entire discretion from the local authorities as a result of not having adequate and proper consultation with them before the Bill was published and not giving hon. Members sufficient time to consult with the local authorities and other people before the debate took place, we have what is a rushed, makeshift Bill. That is understandable, because the right hon. Gentleman has indicated that he does not really like rates or the rating system at all.
The estimate of what may be spent is £29 million, of which about £7 million would be found by the local authorities, and £2 to £2½ million would be for administration. That is a relatively high cost of administration, if it turns out to be correct. But I do not think that those figures are viable, and I will say why.
I do not share the view that there are a large number of people who do not take National Assistance where it is available to them. I share the view of the hon. Member for Provan that they do take it and properly take it. We have gone to great lengths to see, through the various old-age pension and other associations, that they are properly informed. I do not accept that there will be anything like 2 million people who will be entitled to the grants. I understand that in my constituency there are more on National Assistance relief than in any other constituency in the United Kingdom. They are largely elderly people on the relief because of their incomes, which are at the level of £500 a year or thereabouts for a married couple. In my constituency they receive extremely able treatment from the local office. But the position is that they will continue to get the complete rate relief that they receive at the moment.
Furthermore, there are the sick. Under the scheme, a person applies for rebate only if he knows that he is going to have a weekly income of £10 or thereabouts. If he is temporarily sick, he has lost the opportunity later. He will apply for relief only in respect of earlier months, and he cannot know in advance if he will 111 be temporarily sick or unemployed. Therefore, it will not assist either the temporarily sick or the unemployed. It will not assist those on National Assistance, and really I cannot accept that any borough treasurer worth his salt will not say to a person on National Assistance, "Look, you are on National Assistance. Go and get your money from the National Assistance Board. Do not take it from the local ratepayers when the Government are going to pay for it."
The only people who will be materially assisted are these. I will take my own area, and hon. Members can check it against their own. First of all, the average rateable value in Margate borough is £80. The rate is 12s. 5d., and the average rate payment per household is £50. I am told that the national average is £35, but it is £50 in my area. A married couple with an income of £520 a year, or £10 a week, are entitled to claim relief and, out of £50, they will get £21 13s. 4d. A married couple with £632 a year, which is still a fairly low income of about £12 10s. a week, will get only 6s. 8d. relief. The band for a married couple is between £10 and £12 a week. There are quite a number, but there are very few who are in the lower band getting full Income Tax relief on £520, and there are only a small number of those people who will receive the relief and who are not getting assistance of any kind from the National Assistance Board. However, it is valuable.
On the other hand, in the case of a married man with two children, the level of income at which he receives £21 relief on a total rate payment of £50 is £767 per annum, but a married person with two children receives only 6s. 8d. relief on £755.
It would have been better to have looked more carefully at whether the relief might not have been designed predominantly to assist the elderly and those living on fixed incomes. There is a case for those with large families which can be fairly argued as well.
I would have preferred an extension of the Act that we brought into effect last year. I believe that it would have been better to have given a discretionary power to local authorities to make a certain grant at certain figures.
112 The Government ought to carry the whole bill rather than 75 per cent., and certainly I hope that in Committee they will look carefully at the rules that they have laid down, particularly with regard to the two rebate periods of six months to see that we do not get a number of smart alecs trying to blow up their incomes for the summer in order to secrete their earnings for the winter. Some of these matters are not easy, and I hope very much that they will be carefully analysed in Committee.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)
I welcome the Bill very warmly and I say that unequivocally. I have heard a number of hon. Gentlemen opposite welcome the Bill and, having welcomed it, then proceed to attack it. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris), having welcomed it, ended his speech by calling it a blatant manœuvre in accountancy. If that is how he regards it, surely he does not welcome it.
To come to the terms of the Bill itself, it deals with hardship. It deals with those members of the community—and the figure has been given of 2 million—who are just about at National Assistance level, or who are entitled to National Assistance but do not receive it, or who have low earnings and large families and nevertheless have struggled to buy their own homes. It provides such people with urgently needed relief. The Bill is therefore a useful, a timely and a practical one.
Do hon. Members realise what it must be like to be a pensioner or a person with a low income when the half-yearly rate demand comes in? It must be faced with dread, because it means that two and sometimes three weeks' income must be expended at one go. That is the kind of person whom we are trying to help by the Bill.
I said that it was a practical Bill. A lot of the debate, Mr. Speaker, when it slipped out of your very able guidance, has attempted to range over the question of alternatives to rates. Poll taxes, a local income tax and so on, have been mentioned. However, this is a practical Measure which deals with the existing rating system and makes it possible for relief to be given to the needy now. It does not deal with fiscal theories about 113 local rates. It is a practical Measure which will work quickly.
I said that it was a timely Bill. Perhaps a more correct adjective is "overdue", because it is certainly an overdue Measure. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have said that for years they pressed the needs of those who could not carry the rate burden. I welcome what they have done, but they must realise that they were pressing their Administration to no avail. In 1957, when revaluation took place, they had an admirable opportunity at least to look into this matter and to give this kind of relief. Instead, they set up the Allen Committee. While I do not wish to detract from the value of that Committee's Report—it was most valuable in our consideration of this subject—it surely did not need the Allen Committee to tell hon. Gentlemen opposite or my right hon. Friend that rates are a hardship, particularly on the poorer section of the community, especially on those living on fixed incomes, and notably on pensioners. In 1957 or later a Measure of this sort could have been introduced. Indeed, the Act of 1964 clearly goes nowhere near achieving what this Bill will achieve when one considers the amount and range of relief which this Measure will give to so many people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved)—and I say this without wishing to sound presumptuous, having been here for only a few months longer than he—in a most admirable and knowledgeable speech, and the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) dealt with the effects of the Bill on local authority finance departments. It is important that we consider this because there should be the maximum co-operation between Parliament and the staffs of treasurers' departments which will have to administer the Bill, and quickly. The Measure will be in operation in April, 1966, which is only five months away, and while my right hon. Friend said that there had been consultations, there are many ways in which we can assist local authorities in implementing a Measure of this sort.
One means of assisting local authorities would be to give the Bill a speedy passage, because it is essential that it should receive the Royal Assent well before the beginning of the next financial 114 year. Only if that happens will borough treasurers, chairmen of finance committees and heads of establishment committees be able to satisfy themselves that they can implement its provisions. As we know, there is a great shortage of staff in treasurers' departments, particularly in the north of England, where I come from. There is tremendous competition between local authorities for staff, particularly accountancy staff, and between local authorities and the world of commerce. It is essential, therefore, that these local authority departments should have the position clear in their minds well before the beginning of April so that they can get the necessary staff, accounting equipment, office facilities, and so on, to administer the Bill. That is one way—the speedy passage of the Bill—in which we can materially assist local authorities.
The provision of statistical help to local authorities by the National Assistance Board has been mentioned. While that might help, I should have thought that the Department of Inland Revenue would have all the necessary figures. If liaison existed between local treasurers' departments and the Department of Inland Revenue a great deal of time could be saved because local treasurers' staffs would find it easier to check the details of application forms. If this form of help is not given, local authority treasurers' offices will be inundated by applications. All those pieces of paper will have to be checked, each one individually, with local employers. This will not be welcomed by employers, who will have an ocean of work to do. It will be completely unremunerative because it will merely involve them in supplying facts and figures to local authorities to satisfy local treasurers that applications are just and proper.
The Inland Revenue, on the other hand, has all these figures to hand and if, on the rebate form, an authority were signed by the applicant to the effect that the Inland Revenue could produce figures of the applicant's income in confidence to the treasurer of the local authority, an immense saving in time, money and office routine would be effected.
The third way to help local authorities would be to give them advice and information now. Many authorities have had 115 no experience of administering a rebate scheme. Some have rent rebate schemes for council houses while others have never dealt with a rebate scheme before. It is essential that the Ministry gives the necessary guidance and information to such authorities now on how such schemes are administered.
It is to be hoped that the Bill reaches the Statute Book within a very short while—since it comes into operation in five months' time—because when it becomes law there will be a flood of applications from those entitled to rebates as well as many who are not but whose applications will have to be considered and refused. I welcome the Bill and hope that we will appreciate the problems which local authorities will face in administering it. It is no good asking local authorities for co-operation unless we are prepared to consider their problems and give them practical help on the lines I have suggested.
There are various points in the Bill which we can consider in Committee, not least that raised by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) about seaside resorts. We should indeed look at their problems, particularly in view of the large number of retired people who live in such areas. I suggest, however, that the hon. Gentleman did not make a case for saying that the Government should pay 100 per cent. of the bill. The points he raised can be considered in Committee, along with others; for example, the question of a form of appeal against the refusal of a local authority to grant a rebate. I do not like the idea of local authorities having the ultimate power to refuse, with no form of tribunal or authority to which an applicant who has been refused can go. These are, of course, Committee points concerning a Bill which brings to the rating system some measure of justice, equity and humanity. It is to be welcomed for that purpose.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) described the Bill as useful, timely and practical. There was a certain amount of force in the arguments he adduced in support of that contention and I agree that the Bill is very much to be welcomed. Although I shall have some criticisms to 116 make of it—and I agree that primarily they will be points which we can discuss at length in Committee—that does not detract from the support which my party is willing and ready to give to the speedy passage of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman said that speedy passage of the Bill would materially assist local authorities, but in any case it cannot come into operation before 1st April next. The only assistance local authorities would get by such speedy passage would be that people would have longer in which to serve notices under Clause 1. In the first year in which people become entitled to serve the notices, they can do so within 28 days of their first becoming qualified, but, under Clause 1(2), in any subsequent year they can serve notices at any time between 1st February and 30th April. Therefore, if we can get the Bill through before 1st February people will have as long to submit notices in the first year as in subsequent years. That is an important consideration.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's statement that figures available in the Inland Revenue Department can be of assistance to local authorities in working out whether people are below or above the limits set in the Bill. I hope to be corrected if I am wrong, but I think that most of the people who will benefit from this Measure will not be paying Income Tax, and will therefore not have submitted returns. We must face the fact that local authorities will have a great deal of work in looking at the notices submitted to them, and deciding whether or not a person is qualified to receive a rebate.
The main feature of the Bill that I endorse is that we shall now have a uniform basis of assessing hardship. My noble Friend Lord Wade criticised the then Rating (Interim Relief) Bill in this House in December, 1963, on the ground that it left the determination of hardship to local authorities, and that, as a result, the benefit varied considerably from one part of the country to another. When hon. Members on this side of the Chamber try to take credit for what they did in that Bill, they should remember that fact. This Measure is a great improvement in that respect.
I welcome the idea that people should have a statutory right to pay rates by 117 instalments. That was one of our demands in the Liberal rating reform campaign earlier this year, and it has been our policy for a number of years. I should like the Under-Secretary of State to deal with a point made by several hon. Members about schemes already in existence. Clause 1 says quite plainly that in order to get the benefit a person must submit a notice in writing to the local authorities, and it lays down by what time that notice must be received by the local authority. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, most local authorities which have instalment schemes deal with this as part of the rate demand, and the person concerned does not have to fill in and submit an extra piece of paper in order to get the benefit. I therefore think that the Bill will have to be amended in order to conform with the Minister's undertaking given today that a local authority which already has such a scheme will be allowed to continue it in its present form.
I have one or two criticisms to make of this Bill. The first is, perhaps, minor, and it relates to phraseology. Hon. Members will remember that when we were considering the Rent Bill, the Minister apologised for its phraseology. He said that he very much disliked legislation by reference, and that he particularly disliked complicated terminology that people might find difficult to understand in a Bill that affected many millions of people.
That criticism applies with equal force to this Measure. Clause 4(3) is complete double-dutch. I had thought of reading out this subsection, but hon. Members will realise that to do so would take me about five minutes, and I am afraid that if I were to read it out, Mr. Speaker, I would incur your displeasure. It one reads it about five times one appreciates that it means that if a person lives in part of a house, the council will decide what proportion of the rebate that person is entitled to as opposed to the occupier. That provision could have been expressed much more clearly. Clause 4 is by no means the only Clause to which that criticism applies. Subsection (6) of Clause 3 is almost as incomprehensible. It may be difficult to do anything about it just at present, but it is a pity that a Bill that will be applicable to about two million people could not have been made rather more readily understood.
118 A second minor criticism—and it is not minor, or course, to those affected—is that the 250,000 of our citizens who live in caravans are not entitled to any benefit at all. From Clause 3(3,c), it is clear that only… a person who, not being the occupier of such a hereditament … is the tenant of … a part of any such hereditament …is entitled to the benefit. People who live in caravans are not tenants, but licensees. Therefore, however small may be their income in relation to the amount they are paying indirectly in rates, they will not be entitled to any benefit, because the rates of the caravan site are paid by the site operator at the moment, although there is a court case that may alter that position subsequently. For the time being, no one living in a caravan will be entitled to benefit under the Bill.
§ Mr. J. T. Price
This is an interesting point, and I am glad that the hon. Member has raised it. Although commercially-developed sites are assessed and rated, there may be many cases in which caravan people pay heavy rentals when the land on which their caravans rest is agricultural land, which is derated. These are the sort of questions that may be presented to the Minister one day, because they need to be dealt with far more fundamentally than they are being dealt with now.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I agree with the hon. Member. If a site operator has a licence to put caravans on land, he pays rates to the local authority and recovers the cost in the plot rents, as it were, he charges persons stationing their caravans there. In that way the caravan occupants are indirectly contributing to the rates, but do not get this benefit. That is a valid criticism of the Bill.
My next point is very much in line with what has been said by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I do not see why local authorities should have to pay out of their own resources one-quarter of the rebate. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) asked why it should be 25 per cent., and not 50 per cent. or 5 per cent. The only logic I can see in it is that from the local authorities' point of view, the percentage had to be better than the 33⅓ per cent. they had 119 to pay under the Rating (Interim Relief) Act so that hon. Members opposite could say, "At least it is an improvement on what the Conservatives did". At the same time, the Government did not want it to be so much better that it would place an enormous burden on the Exchequer. So they fixed on 25 per cent., which is slightly lower than the 33⅓ per sent. in the Tory Act.
The cost of a rebate scheme which is designed to alleviate hardship should fall entirely on the Exchequer. That is the view, not only of the County Councils Association but also of the Association of County Councils in Scotland and the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accounants. They have pointed out that the amount falling on local authorities as a result of this provision is equivalent to a 1d. rate nationally, though much more than that, of course, in some parts of the country.
A very powerful argument has been advanced concerning the National Assistance Board if one is offering to the citizens these two alternatives: "You can either go to the National Assistance Board, if you are entitled to benefit from that source, or ask the local authority for a rate rebate." While the treasurer may point out, "You might be able to recover more from the N.A.B.," he will not be able to refuse if the person insists that he does not want to go to the N.A.B. but prefers to get back the money in the form of rate rebate. It seems that these two payments are equivalent to one another. The whole of the expenses of the N.A.B. are paid through the Exchequer the same should apply to the rebates conferred on people with low incomes. I do not say that this applies to the instalment payment scheme for that is in a different category altogether. That applies to people who are not by any means in the category of hardship. It is a universal right we are conferring on ratepayers and it is reasonable that that part of the rate bill should fall on the local authority.
The next major criticism I make of the Bill is that it does nothing towards a fundamental reform of the rating system. It is a more generous version of the Rating (Interim Relief) Act. It is more generous and an improvement in a number of res- 120 pects, but does not do anything to shift the burden from the ratepayer to the taxpayer. I am disappointed that we have to wait until next year before the further Measure will be introduced and that we could not deal with the whole problem at one time. If we could have done that there would have been a saving of Parliamentary time. I should like it to be explained why the Government found it necessary to have two separate Bills.
The Bill does nothing to bring other ratepayers into the network of the rating system and thus to decrease the burden on those already paying rates. I pointed out in a previous debate on rating that we were losing about £25 million through failing to collect rates on vacant properties. I have brought the figures up to date since then and find that the rate collection leakage figure published by the L.C.C. for 1953–54 shows that that authority lost £4 million in rates that year. Pro rata over the country as a whole the loss would be about £34½ million. One can project that to the year 1965–66 in which the amount would come to about £42 million. That is an enormous amount to be lost to rating authorities, and hence to ratepayers who are making a contribution.
The Minister has said that he accepts in principle that vacant properties ought to be rated. I ask why it has not been found possible to introduce such legislation at the same time as the Bill which is now under consideration. A much more radical reform of the rating system is necessary. I hope that it will not be long before we not only get the second measure which has been promised but before we get a complete re-vamping of the whole system. When the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames speaks about this he should be a little careful. He should have added quorum pars magna fui because for many years the Liberal Party has preached reform of the rating system and so long as the Conservatives were in power, that fell on deaf ears. All credit to the Government for having undertaken an intensive examination of the problem. I hope that it will shortly produce results.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Trevor Park (Derbyshire, South-East)
I trust that the hon. Member for 121 Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) will forgive me if I do not take up many of the interesting points he made. I wish to return to the first principles of this Bill. It is clear—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said it himself—that the Bill owes much to the deliberations and the Report of the Allen Committee. That was the Report which gave for the first time a mass of statistical material, previously unavailable, to support the case of those of us who maintained that the rates system was a basically regressive form of taxation, a form of taxation whose heaviest impact had always fallen on those with the lowest incomes while at the same time those in the highest income brackets paid less than their fair share.
My right hon. Friend in opening the debate pointed out that the percentage of income paid in rates by the lower income group was as high as 8 per cent. while for those in the higher income group it was as low as 2 per cent. He could have added—this also is in the Report of the Allen Committee—that total housing costs as a percentage of income are as high as 27 per cent. for those in the lower income groups and as low as 6 per cent. for those in the higher groups and rates are a very important element in these costs.
It is clear that the basis of assessment of this form of local government taxation is inequitable and that it is time the whole principle was reviewed. What the Bill does is to attempt to put right the most blatant injustices which the system causes. My right hon. Friend claimed no more for it than that when he introduced the Bill. He said—and again the evidence is contained in the Report of the Allen Committee—that those who suffer most are those on the National Assistance eligibility line who do not claim such assistance, or those who are just above the National Assistance level. They, in the main, are two categories of people. There are old retired people living in one- or two-person households who feel particularly heavily the burden of increasing rate payments when they are totally dependent upon their pensions. The second category is of young couples, people living on low incomes having to pay high rents and possibly also having heavy family responsibilities. These are the people whom the Bill is intended to 122 benefit. It is a rescue operation on their behalf.
The other part of the Bill which deals with payment of rates by instalments will benefit all ratepayers quite independently of the size of their income. One of the reasons why people pay taxes in sorrow but rates in anger is the heavy burden which lump sum payments once or twice a year puts on their finances. National taxation such as P.A.Y.E. is automatically deducted from income. Not only that, but it is deducted regularly each week or month. Because of regular automatic deductions for Income Tax the burden is often not felt so heavily, but when the time for rate payments comes only twice a year and people are faced with the need to pay considerable sums, often at inconvenient times, the burden is felt very heavily. By making it possible for people to pay on a monthly instalment system, the Bill will be of benefit to large numbers of ratepayers irrespective of and in addition to those covered by the rebate provisions.
I would have wished it would have been possible to have gone even further. The Bill proposes to allow monthly payments of rates on an instalment plan. This will be of the greatest benefit to the salary earner who receives his income each month. I should have preferred, had that been possible, to institute a system of weekly instalment payments for those very large numbers who are still paid on a weekly basis. I hope that local authorities will do all they can to encourage some form of weekly instalment system for ratepayers.
I understand that some authorities have already instituted a system whereby a stamp machine is installed in the council offices and people are able to obtain half-crown or five-shilling stamps each week and when the time comes for them to pay their rates they return to the authorities a completed stamp book. As far as I know, where such schemes are in existence their benefits are greatly appreciated by the ratepayers and the administrative costs are not high. I hope that more of such schemes will be introduced as quickly as possible and that those authorities which already have monthly schemes will take the opportunity to consider going even further in the way that I have suggested.
123 I welcome the Bill, but only as a rescue operation and not as a permanent solution to the problem because the injustice does not lie simply in the incidence of the rate burden on particular sections of the community; the injustice lies rather with the entire rating system. As long as the rating system remains the major source of local government revenue we shall have from time to time to launch rescue operations such as this. As an immediate method of helping those who are hardest hit we have no alternative at the moment but to renovate and repair an edifice which ought to be demolished. If we have to continue indefinitely with such renovations and repairs, the cost of shoring up an inefficient and outdated rating system will rapidly begin to rise.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the fact that 25 per cent. of the cost of the rebate scheme will have to be obtained by local authorities from their rate funds. It is true that we are lifting the burden from the backs of those least capable of paying it and imposing a heavier burden on others, and in the case of those who are just outside the rebate limit, the additional burden to which they will be subjected in future will come as a heavy strain. Where I differ from hon. Members opposite is in attributing the cause of that strain. I do not believe that the basic cause of any additional strain to local authority finances is the provisions of the Bill. The basic cause of the strain is the rating system, and it is only when we tackle the central point of the system itself that we shall be able to deal with the difficulties.
The Bill deals with an immediate, urgent and pressing problem, but it does not present a final answer, because it is clear that the local rate burden will continue to grow as rapidly as it has grown in the pastand as long as it does, the injustice and unfairness will remain. In 1955–56, £401 million was paid by the ratepayers of this country. By 1964–65 the amount had increased to over £1,000 million. Inevitably as the community demands higher and higher standards in local government, in education, in transport, in health and in welfare, the rate burden will continue to increase. This problem arises basically because the entire system as we know it today is related not to the ability to pay but to property. What is at fault is the 124 fact that we have never taken a new look, as we should have done many years ago, at a system of taxation which dates back to three-and-a-half centuries ago.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government referred to his intention early next year to introduce another Measure which will transfer certain charges now borne by local authorities from the rates to the national Exchequer. This will be of assistance in alleviating the rating problem and in helping to meet the difficulties of people whom this Bill is intended to benefit. In doing so it will make it easier for us to consider the reform of the whole system which is needed.
I should be out of order if I referred to the possibility of a local Income Tax system as a much more equitable method of proceeding than the present rating system. I should be out of order if I referred to the possibility of a compromise in the form of a differential rating system, whereby the rates which people paid were linked to their Income Tax position. In other words, Surtax payers would pay 100 per cent. of their assessment, those paying the standard rate of Income Tax would pay a lower proportion, those paying Income Tax at a lower rate would pay less still and the smallest proportion would be paid by those who are not liable to income tax at all.
I fear that I should be straying too far from the Bill if I went into such details or into the proposal of the Royal Institute of Public Administration to give local authorities power to levy a local Income Tax of 3d. in the £. Nevertheless, this is the kind of proposal which we ought to be examining if we are to deal with the problems which the Allen Committee have revealed. For as long as we accept such a system as rating, which bears no relationship to ability to pay, and as long as we accept a system which flies in the face of all modern taxation principles, either of equity or of effectiveness, there can be no final answer. We do not cure the disease by treating the symptoms. We do not eradicate the source of injustice by dealing simply with its results. I welcome the Bill as a rescue operation, but let us resolve that no future rescue operations will be necessary.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Mr. C. M. Woodhouse (Oxford)
The Minister will certainly be in no doubt 125 that any hon. Member will vote against the Second Reading of a Bill which provides rate relief for any of his consituents, however few they may be. Some of us may have had second thoughts if we had had a more exact indication from the Minister of how the effect of the Bill was likely to be distributed geographically about the country. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I have been reliably informed that the part of the country likely to benefit most substantially from the Bill may be Scotland. If that is so, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is to wind up the debate, will explain why. But it is regrettable that we were not told so by the Minister when he opened the debate. In any case, we could not let the Bill pass without some criticism and explanation.
There are two criticisms which I think will have occurred to many hon. Members. The first is that the Bill does nothing to improve the rating system as such. This criticism has been partly answered by the Minister with his promise of a more radical Measure to abolish the rating system altogether. So far so good, but I recollect that when I was a university student the present Minister of Housing was my tutor and from that day to this I have never been quite sure whether he meant exactly what he said. It caused me some surprise to see that the right hon. Gentleman had no answer at all to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who challenged him on this very point, on what form of legislation and what kind of new system he was proposing to introduce in place of the rating system. I also noticed that right hon. Gentlemen apparently smiling encouragement at my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) who urged him not to abolish the rating system at all.
The point is that if the right hon. Gentleman has no such intention the present Bill will lay up a considerable package of trouble for the future, and even if he is going to abolish the rating system there is the point which must be borne in mind that any relief measure which tends by mitigating and improving a system to consolidate and entrench it may well have consequences which the Minister has not foreseen. It may well create expectations of continuing and per- 126 manent relief, which presumably will be wiped out as soon as legislation comes forward repealing this Bill and the 1964 Act.
In this way it will create future grievances among the immediate beneficiaries of this Bill when they see how local authority expenditure has to continue to be raised and paid for in the future. We do not know what sort of new ideas the Minister has in mind, but I am glad to learn that he has ideas and I hope that he will bear in mind that the fundamental defect of the rating system is not so much that it is highly regressive. That is true but it is secondary.
The primary defect is that considered as a system for raising local revenue to pay for local services, there is increasingly less and less relation between what anybody pays and the scale and type of services which the ratepayer receives and enjoys in return. In future there will be even less relation between what the ratepayer pays and receives in return, both for those who get rebates under the Bill and still more, for those who do not.
This leads me to the second fundamental criticism that although the Bill will relieve many cases of hardship it will do so by increasing hardship on others who are only marginally more capable of paying. I will not elaborate this point, which has been made by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I wonder whether the Minister has calculated accurately the cumulative effect of all the increments to rates which he is bringing about by making statutory provision for payment by instalment, by the 25 per cent. of the rebate which falls on local authorities, and by what I think to be the quite sizeable increase of this last 25 per cent. if the large number of people who are at present on National Assistance decide to apply for rebates instead.
The Minister said that he hopes to persuade them not to apply for the rebates and that he hones to use this Measure even to persuade more people to turn to National Assistance. I heartily agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) that the odium in which National Assistance is held is most unfortunate and is something which hon. Members should do 127 everything they can to try to overcome. Unfortunately, however, it is a fact, and at any rate in the first stages of the operation of this Bill there may be a tendency to switch from National Assistance to the rebate scheme rather than the other way round.
I should like to know on what basis the Minister has calculated the number of people who are likely to be involved in the scheme which has led to his figure of £29 million a year. The City Treasurer of Oxford has said that in Oxford it is extremely difficult to arrive at any calculation at all. There is also the cost of the extra staff, which has already been referred to, and this will be increased if the Minister rushes the Bill through the House as he evidently intends to do to bring it into operation before the end of the financial year.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)
The Minister's assumptions and the basis of many of his arguments are to be found in the figures published in the Allen Report.
§ >Mr. Woodhouse
I am grateful for that explanation. I am aware that there are abundant figures in the Allen Report but some local finance officers, including the Oxford City Treasurer, are by no means certain whether it is possible at this stage to make a reliable calculation of the impact of these measures.
Then there is the question of the non-effect of the Bill on the rate deficiency grant. At first sight there appears to be a contradiction between what is said in the Financial Memorandum on this subject and what is laid down in Clause 8, but no doubt that will be explained at a later stage. It seems to me that all these things will add to the rate burden, and in a local authority area where it is thought that the numbers entitled to rebate may be relatively high the impact of the Bill on everyone else will be proportionately less high. This consideration makes it all the more intolerable that the Minister has done nothing to ensure that everyone, no matter what relief may be given, should be assessed in the first instance on 100 per cent. of rateable value as long as we have a rating system at all.
128 This raises the vexed question, of considerable importance in my constituency, of the rate relief for colleges of the university. I hope that the Minister will take care of this in his other plans but it is relevant in the context of this Bill to mention that this new Measure, like the problem of college rates in Oxford and Cambridge to which I have often alluded in the House in the past, is another example of a bad deviation from the principle of fairness and common sense that when a Government wish to give relief in a statutory form to ratepayers they should do so not at the expense of other ratepayers but at the expense of the Exchequer. This is a fundamental point which we should emphasise again and again.
I hope that the remarks I have made on the Bill will serve to underline the fact that local government finance is a large subject which cannot be dealt with piecemeal and in isolation. There will be many other points to raise in Committee of which I will give brief notice of just two, namely, how the provisions of Clause 3(3,c) will be applied to undergraduates in lodgings in university towns and, secondly, why the Minister has chosen in Clause 3(8) to make relief fraudulently obtained recoverable as a civil debt instead of by the ordinary rate recovery procedure.
I think that I have said enough to show that in my view this is an imperfect Bill, both in principle and in detail. It is slightly better than nothing in so far as it gives help to the neediest, though in a cumbersome way, but I cannot imagine that it will have more than a lukewarm response from local authorities or the general body of ratepayers once they see its full implications.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
After listening to the speeches of 15 hon. and right hon. Members in the debate and hearing all their suggestions, I find it rather hard to put forward an original idea on this subject. The Allen Report makes clear that the present rating system is responsible for the hardship which exists, and I am very glad that, by this Bill, the Government are finding ways to alleviate the problem confronting many thousands of people today. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) said that the limit of relief under the Bill 129 should be raised. According to some figures issued by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, 66 per cent. of properties in Hove have a rateable value over £100. In Brighton, another seaside resort, the proportion is only 40 per cent., and in Margate—I was glad to hear the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) speak about this—the proportion of properties of over £100 rateable value is only 27 per cent.
It is evident that any relief which accrues must got to places like Margate or Brighton and some of the poorer seaside resorts where there is a large proportion of ratepayers with very low incomes living in properties of low rateable value. This relief will apply to the very large number of such people living in properties yielding a lower rate. The inequalities of our rating system are partly responsible for this, as the Allen Report conclusively confirms.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said that it was the inequalities of our rating system which had created these conditions. The problem has been with us for the past 10 years and more, getting worse year by year. What did right hon. and hon. Members opposite do about it? Granted, a certain amount of relief was given to some seaside resorts, but retired people living in the large conurbations, in London, Glasgow and the big cities, had practically no relief at all from the present Opposition when they were in power.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
The hon. Gentleman is forgetting the industrial re-rating brought in during the past 13 years which gave the ordinary industrial town an enormous advantage.
§ Mr. Perry
I am coming to that. That alleviation was given but for only a very short time. When industrial re-rating took place in the London area and industrial hereditaments were fully rated, there was relief for domestic ratepayers, but for only one year. As a ratepayer in London myself, I experienced a reduction in rates for one year, but, when the full revaluation came along, domestic ratepayers paid more in proportion than commercial and industrial ratepayers. Year after year, the proportion has been moving against ordinary domestic ratepayers as compared with ratepayers in industrial and commercial hereditaments. 130 This is one of the problems today. The ordinary householder on a fixed income has no means of passing on his rates for Income Tax purposes, whereas commercial and industrial undertakings can pass on any increase in rates and secure Income Tax relief. This is another defect of the system.
It is a fact that the revaluation brought in two and a half years ago aggravated the hardship of the many people whom we are trying to help now. I am very glad that the Government intend to introduce a Measure to reform our rating system. The question in our minds is whether there should be a local tax or rate as a levy on property which one owns or as a personal tax levied on people living in a certain town. Among my constituents, there are many cases of husband and wife, retired people, living in a five or six-room house and paying the same amount in rates as someone who is letting off two or three rooms furnished and receiving a substantial income from those rooms.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Roderic Bowen)
Order. The hon. Gentleman will not be in order if he pursues this subject.
§ Mr. Perry
I accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to draw attention to the anomalies and inadequacies in the present system. I am very glad that the Government realise that reform is necessary and that they are bringing in this Bill now to give relief to the people most in need. I do not doubt that there are anomalies in various of its provisions. Points have been raised about the percentage that a local authority should pay, and so on. No matter what Measure is introduced, no matter whether a Bill raises taxation or gives relief, there are always anomalies and there is always abuse. Unfortunately, until we have a perfect society, we shall have to live with these problems. I welcome the fact that the people to benefit from this Bill are those who have retired on fixed incomes, widows and others, the very people who need help in these circumstances.
The system of paying rates by instalments is very important. In the Greater London area, this difficulty has come home to roost. Since the establishment of the Greater London Council and the merging 131 of various London local authorities, different councils have had different schemes. I am sorry to say that some councils do not publicise their arrangements for payment by instalments. In some areas, people are compelled to pay their rates every six months, in others every three months, and in others they are allowed to pay every month. In the old part of the Borough of Wandsworth, known as Battersea, people paid their rates every three months. In the old Borough of Wandsworth area, they paid every six months. But a scheme has been introduced allowing ratepayers to pay their rates in eight instalments. The yearly rate is divided by eight, and people will pay from 1st May to 1st December, having nothing to pay in January, February, March and April. It is thus quite easy to arrange for the payment of rates by banker's order, and many people appreciate this system. Unfortunately, as I have said, such systems are not publicised everywhere. If they received more publicity, many more people would be glad to take advantage of them.
This is a stop-gap Measure until the whole rating system is reformed. In my opinion, until rating becomes more of a personal tax than a tax upon property, we shall not find a satisfactory answer to the problem as it exists today.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) accused a number of hon. Members on the Opposition benches of welcoming the Bill and then going on to criticise it. That is the difficulty which anybody is in when he welcomes the objectives but does not necessarily welcome the Bill itself. The fact that we welcome the objectives of the Bill should not prevent our looking at what we are doing tonight. We are adding, as every Parliament seems to do to all fields of our legal system, a further anomaly and a further differentiation between one set of people and another.
I do not take the rather sanguine view put forward by the Minister that soon we shall have the end of rating as such and that some new system for the collection of taxation for local government will be found. I suspect that this has echoed through every rating debate during this 132 century, and for those who are at present Members of the House of Commons it may well be a perennial debate for many years. I think that rates are with us and are likely to stay with us for a considerable length of time.
If that is the position, the Bill must be looked at in a very different light from that put forward by the Minister. Undoubtedly the Bill arises from the anger—I do not think that is too strong a word—occasioned by the revaluation early in the 'sixties. That revaluation was not unfair in itself. It became unfair only because it had been delayed for so long and people had become used to the rates, and when they were changed the unfairness brought about large differences and there were tremendous increases in the rates paid as between one area and another.
This was particularly so in a number of seaside towns, such as Blackpool and Brighton, and other retirement towns. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) queried why a number of my hon. Friends have raised in particular the plight of those living in seaside towns. The truth is that rates bear most hardly upon the retired and those who are either incapable of earning a large sum of money or have a very small income, a stratum of society often looked after by National Assistance. To the person in steady work able to improve his earnings year by year, rates are not an insuperable problem, or at any rate no greater than the problem of many of the other rises in costs which occur. So we have a particular problem, and those of us who represent such areas must recognise that there is a particular problem in relation to retirement. Not only are rates likely to be a continuing factor in our life. Inflation is also likely to be a continuing factor, regardless of what any party may say. Where such conditions exist, those who retire on a retirement pension or other fixed income and may live for 20 or 30 years will be particularly hard hit.
If that is the position, what are we doing tonight? We are adding an anomaly. I will not go into the details of the Bill, but we are asking, in part at least, those who may well not have a great deal more than those we seek to help to bear 25 per cent. of the burden through helping the others. Undoubtedly 133 the Bill and its intention can be commended, but I find very great difficulty in seeing why, when the whole object is to help those who need assistance because their income is too small, the Government should point to this aspect of our national life and say, "We will help with the rates." Why the rates? This is no different from the necessity to help in many different fields. I should have thought—I echo the view expressed on both sides of the House—that the time had now come when we ought to deal with the whole problem of rebates, which Governments are giving to people in all fields, not just rating, and do so by means of a universal system applied to people who need rebates whether for rates or some other service. It should be applied universally.
I do not want to go into the considerable difficulties that the Bill is likely to present to local authority treasurers. It is not the small Bill we thought it would be. It is highly complex. It will create a considerable amount of work in local authority treasurers' offices. How will local authority treasurers satisfy themselves that people qualify for the rebates? One has only to think of the difficulties that them may be in collection. People may insist upon paying their rates month by month. This will inevitably place an extra burden on the local authority staff, and the extra costs will fall on other ratepayers.
All those matters have been dealt with, and so I content myself with the fundamental point that this is simply another patching operation. A number of hon. Members have suggested that this is to be the end of it all and that very soon there will be a change and we shall be able to get rid of the rates and have another system in place of the present one. Why people always think that new systems will be much better I do not know. The money that is required will have to be paid, and it will cost just as much. I think it likely that we shall be stuck with the rating system for many years.
Although the House will undoubtedly let the Bill go through without a Division tonight, it would be wrong for us not to recognise what we are doing, once again patching and adding anomalies when we ought really to be looking not to the patching up of our various pieces of 134 legislation, trying to shore them up here and there, not to ways in which we can give rebates to persons in difficulty, but to devising a universal system of rebates to meet the need in respect of not just rates but many other spheres of life. Certainly no one will oppose the Bill, but it would be wrong to say that I welcome it.
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Hobden (Brighton, Kemptown)
I welcome the Bill, as will anyone who comes from an area like Brighton, which has been hard hit by the rating revaluation. Many of us realise that it might be a long time before we see a solution to this vexed problem and I confess that I have spent many moments of impatience, as my right hon. Friend will testify, wondering when the Government would get down to the problem of solving the iniquitous system of rating.
I have received more letters on this subject from my constituents than on any other matter. I have been under constant pressure from them. But today we begin to see the end of the road, although I realise that at this stage we are dealing with the subject only in part because of the particular urgency of this single aspect.
As has been said many times, rating is a regressive system and while it may be true that it does not on average take a higher proportion of our income than it did, it is clear that certain categories suffer tremendous hardship. We are forcibly reminded of this by the Allen Report, which draws attention to the fact that the poor are worst hit. Its example shows that a person receiving £30 a week pays 2 per cent. of his income in rates while the person receiving £6 a week pays an average of 8 per cent. in rates. That has been pointed out before but it needs much repetition for the impact to be felt to the full. It is an indication of the problem. On 29th November, The Guardian stated that… the rate rebate scheme is the first stage in the Minister's campaign to make our system of local government finance fairer and more orderly.I speak with some feeling on this matter. As an owner-occupier and, before October, 1964, as an average salary earner, I experienced the drastic effect of the revaluation. My rates increased by 135 over 50 per cent. per annum. Nevertheless, despite what this meant to me personally, I could not but remember time and again how much more those on small fixed incomes must be suffering—the pensioners of all types or those in humble jobs forced to buy their homes because rented accommodation was not available or children were not allowed.
It is not right that elderly people should have such worries, and many of them have been to see me at my "surgery". I am sure that all other hon. Members have had the same experience. These people have come almost demented with worry wondering how they could meet the financial burden thrust upon them every year. When the rates are due to be fixed each year they wait for the outcome with trepidation, wondering how much bigger the new burden will be.
There is also in Brighton a special category. These people are known as "self builders". There are many in my constituency. These are people who have taken two or three years literally building their own homes in their spare time under professional guidance. They are not wealthy people. They belong to low income groups. They have despaired of being able to buy their own homes. Some of them have been living in council houses and thus make room on the council waiting list by moving into their self-built houses.
What has been their reward? After years of back-breaking work building their own homes, after trying to assess the family income and taking on the responsibility of a mortgage, they have found a disproportionate rate burden on top of their self-accepted mortgage commitments. I find that those involved in the most recently completed "self-build" scheme face a rate bill of £2 a week, which represents, to people in their income group, a disaster to the family budget. It is scandalous.
It is too soon to know the precise way in which the Bill will assist all those in the categories that I have mentioned. But I hope, if all of them are not entitled to assistance at this stage, that I will be in order in saying that all will benefit under the Measure to be brought forward in February. On 27th November, The Times was of the opinion that the rebates would fall on the target area and that the Bill 136 embodies a fair and necessary principle. I want to deal with some criticisms while at the same time making some comments of my own. For instance, it may be true, as the Financial Times indicated recently, that the Bill is a tax concession and that a rebate may by no means be in proportion to hardship. It is difficult, however, to square that view with the comment in The Times that the Bill avoids the hitherto baffling course of defining hardship and then identifying cases of it. As I have said, The Times is of opinion that the rebates will fall in the target area.
I have read some criticism of the fact that 25 per cent. of the cost of the new scheme will have to come from already overstrained rates. There are two answers to this, but they are not entirely convincing. First, it need not be an addition to the existing rate burdens which, as nobody will deny, are heavy, for pending the overall revision of the local rating system local authorities should trim their sails to make provision for this burden. On 27th November, The Times said:Councils may feel aggrieved at having to raise one-quarter of the total required to match what are mandatory rebates but it is prudent to give them an interest in the scheme's economical administration.Nevertheless, I believe that the Minister ought to reconsider this proportion of 75 per cent. to 25 per cent. for reasons to which I shall come later. He should bear in mind that, just as revaluation hit hardest those areas with a high proportion of old people, so will this Measure place additional burdens on the ratepayer at large in those towns like Brighton with a high proportion of elderly people. Quite clearly, grants to local authorities for the elderly should take that into consideration. It seems odd, to say the least, that those who have been helped through National Assistance from national funds are now to be assisted from the local rates, a procedure from which we surely want to get away.
I have also seen some criticism that those just outside the income limit will be hardest hit. This is a ridiculous proposition, although there may be some fact in it, for with any Measure which attempts to deal out rough justice on a matter of such magnitude there will always be someone left out wherever the line is drawn, and if there were good objections 137 on those grounds we would never do anything.
I have also seen the criticism, the most banal of the lot, that by extending the principle of paying rates by instalments more town hall staff will be needed and therefore more rates will have to be gathered. This is a defeatist argument. I he principle of paying rates by instalments ought to have been a right years ago and ratepayers for too long have been the victims of local councils who think nothing of squandering thousands of pounds on crackpot schemes, yet begrudge the money to initiate a just system of collection of the very money which they require. This surely is a wrong sense of priorities which is now to be put right.
There is one other point with which I want to deal and which it may be possible to iron out in Committee. Clause 3(2,b) appears to mean that if some poor old lady does not become aware that she can claim a rebate after 30th April, she must automatically be denied a proportion of the amount which would otherwise he due to her for that period. Indeed, if the thought does not occur to her until September, she will get no rebate for the half year. Why should a local authority be forced to deny a rebate in those circumstances? That would be iniquitous.
At the same time, the period of one month after the beginning of the rate period is far too short. It is quite possible that many people will not apply for a rebate until after getting their rate demands and in many cases this will not happen until well into April, as in some towns the issue of accounts is spread over a number of weeks to avoid getting out a flood at the rate office at any one time. As the Clause is drafted, a number of deserving people may not get rebates which the Government intend they should have.
Those are my few observations on a Bill which I welcome. I hope that they will not be considered to be carping criticisms, because, whatever else one may say of the Bill, it is immeasurably superior to the miserable and irrelevant Rating (Interim Relief) Act introduced by the Conservative Party when in office.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I was pleased to see the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) 138 present during the Minister's speech and, from time to time, during the debate. One of the first political meetings I ever attended was addressed by the right hon. Gentleman, when he described the iniquities of the means test. At that time, some 18 years ago, he was at the height of his oratorical powers and before very long he had reduced the audience to a soggy mass.
This afternoon the Minister has introduced a Bill which contains the most widespread, sweeping and rigid means test that we are likely to see for many a year. I do not want to salute him for introducing it, but I do want to salute him for passing one mild step in the long history of taxation stretching back, as it does, to the days of the Babylonians. He says that £29 million in rents is not going to be acquired by local authorities. According to the Association of Municipal Corporations, which has expert knowledge in this field, not acquiring this amount is going to cost an extra £3 million which is surely an astonishing state of affairs. This is borne out by what I am able to gather from the experts in my own borough of Bromley, on the effect of the Bill there.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)
Whether the hon. Gentleman is right or wrong about the sum of £3 million, he is presumably including the cost of collection under the instalment scheme, which has nothing whatever to do with the rate rebates.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Clauses 1 and 2, as I understand it, deal with this. That is included in the estimate.
§ Mr. Crossman
I think the hon. Member may be wrong. I do not know whether he has made a careful estimate of the relative cost of the instalment plan and the rebates, but the instalment plan, as I frankly admit, is by no means cheap. It is something which we have to cost up. I did not think that he was going to oppose that as well.
§ Mr. Goodhart
May I give the local figures which I acquired? Bromley already runs an instalment scheme for the payment of rates. It is not as good as that proposed in that it does not allow as many instalment payments. According to the estimates I received from the borough treasurer, the new 139 instalment scheme is likely to result in increased charges, and its cost is about £5,000 a year, whereas the collection or rather the non-collection of the rebates is going to cost much more. Certainly it is going to mean an extra staff of 12 to 15 people in the salary range of £1,000 to £1,500 a year to run the scheme.
§ Mr. Crossman
What the hon. Member is now telling us is interesting. It is that in a borough which already has an instalment scheme it will cost relatively little to expand it into an efficient one of the standard we require. But since the borough has no rebate scheme, it will cost it a great deal more to introduce one. This seems to be true. There might be another borough, such as Birmingham, which is already operating a very good rebate scheme, which will find that the cost will be much less to introduce both instalment and rebate schemes. This is quite right. What is the hon. Member trying to argue? That we should not make the system, or that we should?
§ Mr. Goodhart
I am arguing that the Minister's scheme will be extremely expensive and that in the Borough of Bromley 12 to 15 extra staff in the salary range £1,000 to £1,500 will be needed, and it will be difficult to acquire them in view of the reorganisation problems which we have had in Greater London.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman rose—
§ Mr. Goodhart
I should get on because one or two other hon. Members wish to speak before we have the wind up speeches.
Not only do these 12 to 15 people have to be recruited and paid; they have to be accommodated, heated, equipped and, no doubt, offered secretarial assistance. Overall, the cost of the administration in Bromley is likely to be at least £30,000, or a halfpenny rate.
In Committee the burden which will be put on the administrative staff and the administrative side of the scheme must be tightened. It seems to me that it is extraordinarily loose. As a very large number of people will apply for relief under the scheme—and I would estimate that, locally, of 90,000 ratepayers at least 8,000 will apply—there will be a considerable amount of dispute 140 about the merits of many cases. As far as I can make out, there is no form of appeal machinery proposed for dealing with disputes about the facts. In fact, a considerable degree of judgment will be required.
Clause 5(7) provides:For the purposes of this section, an applicant shall be treated as living with his spouse at any time unless at that time either—I am absolutely astonished that officials of the borough treasurer, who presumably under the Bill are "competent" people, should be asked to judge whether a person should get a rebate according to the matrimonial state of the ratepayers of Bromley. This sort of thing must be tightened up in Committee.
- (a) they are separated under an order of a court of competent jurisdiction or by deed of separation; or
- (b) they are in fact separated in such circumstances that the separation is likely to be permanent."
The Bill will be of considerable benefit to thousands of ratepayers in the Borough of Bromley. But it will confuse and perplex several thousands of other ratepayers because of the complexity of its wording and the mathematical computations which will have to be made. In addition, it will put an increased burden on about 80,000 ratepayers in Bromley whose incomes are only just larger than the incomes of people who will get the relief under the Bill. I do not think that this is what the electorate thought would come when the Labour Party said at the last election that there would be an early transfer of taxation from local rates to the central Exchequer.
This scheme will add 2d. to the local rates. In addition, the increased loan charges enforced by the central Government since the beginning of the year will add another 2d. to the local rates. To that can be added the extra 10 per cent. about which the Minister has been talking so airily this afternoon. Within two years therefore, we are faced with a rate increase of no less than 24 per cent. That is a pretty rough record. It is a pretty rough prospect and, as the Minister himself said about his own Bill, it is a pretty rough Measure.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
This will be a very truncated version of what might have been one of 141 the best speeches ever delivered in the House of Commons. I do not say "would have been", but simply that it might have been.
I should like to think that I have some little responsibility in the business which is today before the House. Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed early clay Motion No. 17, signed by a number of my hon. Friends and myself. For the benefit of those who have not seen it, I quote from it:That this House welcomes the undertaking by Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation in this Session to establish a new system of Exchequer subsidies for local authority housing, to provide means to lesson the injustices of the rating system and to limit the burden of rates …Within one week of the appearance of that Motion on the Order Paper, we had the publication of the Bill. Within two weeks of its appearance, we have Second Reading. I should like to hope that any future Motion which I and my hon. Friends put down will receive similar consideration from the Government.
In a moving peroration, the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) urged my right hon. Friend the Minister "to face reality". He then asked "that we should mend tie hole in the dam before the water overflows in the spiral of rising prices". I did not quite follow that one. One reality which the hon. Member did riot mention is that from October, when the Parliamentary Session begins and the House reassembles, to January and February, when rate levies are fixed by the local authorities, and to April, when the rates are levied, we have a period of only five months, little time enough to introduce major legislation, to carry it through and to bring it into operation.
How much better it would have been for local authorities if the General Election of October, 1964, had been held in June, 1964, when we would have had 10 months to introduce legislation and to make it effective in the following April. My policy is to make the best of what we have before us.
I should like to put one or two questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Perhaps he will take a note of them so that he can, perhaps, give us written replies. [Laughter.] Obviously, he cannot take them all tonight. My first question concerns the allowance for 142 schoolchildren or children under school age. Does this include also those at university or college? Are these, in fact, non-earning children. What is the position of unemployed children? Can they be taken into account? If so, for what length of time have they to be unemployed?
My next question relates to the position of lodgers or paying guests. It depends what part of the country one comes from whether one has a lodger or a paying guest. One Press report which I have read stated that the income from a lodger or paying guest will not be taken into account. The next Press report, however, said that it would be taken into account.
§ Mr. Ogden
My landlady will be most pleased.
Thirdly, looking ahead a little, how does my right hon. Friend intend to publicise the Bill when it becomes an Act? Are we to follow the example of many other Ministries which publish booklets or other papers? People in need have the right to know what help is available.
The point has been made from the other side of the House in connection with the Bill that there has been no time to consult local authorities. There has been time enough.
We had some information already from the reports before us. The Municipal Review of April, 1965, gave the point of view of the Association of Municipal Corporations. I shall not endeavour at this time to read extracts from that. I have consulted some of the borough treasurers in the areas near where I live and they are concerned about the cost of investigation of applications and they estimate that the cost of the instalment system will work out at a 1d. rate, and then there is the cost and difficulty of getting additional staff.
This has been emphasised by my own local authority which was good enough to let me have its point of view, and this I will quote:You will understand that at this juncture it is extremely difficult to forecast the cost of rate rebates since we have little reliable information about the levels of incomes of our ratepayers. The best estimate I have been able to formulate so far is that the cost will be between 143 £500,000 and £600,000 per annum, which Exchequer grant of 75 per cent. will reduce to £150,000. Even after taking into account rate deficiency grant this would still involve a rate of about 1d. in the £ What concerns"—the treasurer—even more than the cost of the rebates themselves is the amount of administrative effort which is going to be involved in dealing not only with claims for rate rebate but also the mandatory system of payment by instalments.In the City of Liverpool we estimate we may require an additional staff of up to 50 persons. Then the recruitment of suitable staff has been very difficult for the past year or two and there is doubt about getting all the people they need. Many local authorities, I am informed,are greatly concerned about this problem and some have been heard to say that the additional staff required will offset, or even wipe out, the economies made in recent years by mechanisation of rating work…. You will understand that the cost of additional staff required here is not likely to be much less than £50,000 per annum, the equivalent of ½d. rate. … The finding of accommodation for the additional staff will also pose a considerable problem.The writer concludes by saying:I hope that what I have said will be of some interest and assistance to you. Certainly you will be in no doubt that the pending legislation will impose some heavy burdens upon us.The Minister knows Liverpool well, and he will know the special needs and special problems of the area. While we welcome this Bill, which deals with special hardship, it is very doubtful, in present circumstances, whether we can afford this in the City of Liverpool. What we really require is some urgent, massive aid to deal with the whole of the rating burden, and, if possible, before April, 1966.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Eton and Slough)
My remarks will be very brief. I shall not be so rude about the Bill as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden). I shall not even be so rude about it as the right hon. Gentleman himself in presenting it. He presented it with growing distaste which, by the end, amounted almost to nausea. He admitted, I think, that he was putting the cart before the horse. I think he rather got the meal bucket before the cart.
144 What bothers me about the Bill is the impact which it will have on certain local authorities. There are only two local authorities in my constituency, Slough and Eton. Rather surprisingly to those who are only superficially acquainted with them, Slough is the rich one, Eton is the poor one, and Eton people came to me saying that they expected that about 25 per cent. of the ratepayers will be entitled to relief and that this will impose a very heavy burden on the local authority which has extremely few resources with which to meet it.
In passing I may say how surprised I am that the Government have not yet got around to the fact that Eton, like a great many other public schools, is rated as a charity. I hope no one will be surprised that I should sneak on Eton in this way—because they all vote Socialist anyway. The townspeople who vote Tory are the ones who are hit by this particular arrangement.
As a result of the way in which the Bill is framed it means that a heavy burden will be placed on those authorities least able to bear it. It is rather a case of taking away from those that have not and giving to those that have, at any rate as regards local authorities.
I very much regret that the Government have missed an opportunity of moving towards a simpler system of providing relief for the needy and have not taken advantage of the opportunity offered of using the services of the National Assistance Board. I believe that if we had brought the National Assistance Board in on the operation, it would have been of further help in bringing down the psychological barriers which a great many people feel about going to the National Assistance Board for the help which it is their right to ask for.
It is not only a question of bringing down the psychological barriers, because the people who need help most are very often the people who are least aware of where that help may be found. What we seem to be doing in the Bill is creating yet another source of relief for the needy and something else to confuse old people who get muddled between the Citizens' Advice Bureau, the National Assistance Board, the town hall, and local charities, and do not know where to turn for the help which is the one thing 145 that they do know they need. If instead of this very unsatisfactory hotchpotch the Government had used the services of the National Assistance Board, they would not only have saved vast sums in the way of expenditure—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite make indignant noises, but surely all of us in the House want to bring down the idea that there is any kind of disgrace in going to the National Assistance Board. We want to accustom people to the idea that the National Assistance Board is a friendly institution to which they can turn in need. That is why I am glad that my own party came out with proposals to put the onus upon the Board to go out and find cases of distress, because I am sure that that is the right approach.
If we make the National Assistance Board human and a centre to which anyone can turn who has need of any kind, not only will we ensure that the need is met much more satisfactorily, but we shall effect enormous economies in providing for those needs. So I do not pretend to any kind of enthusiasm for the Bill which is in front of us today. Obviously, we are not going to oppose it—
§ Sir A. Meyer
—because everyone admits that it is urgent to bring help to people who are in need. If the Bill is the best that the Government can do after 14 months of cogitating, we are not going to send them back to do their homework again. They have done their homework very badly, but time is getting short, and they had better get on with it as best they can. However, if we can improve the Bill in Committee, we shall do so.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
It is my pleasant privilege to congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on his excellent maiden speech. I do so with special pleasure because his seat was the first one that I fought, and therefore I did my best to prevent his coming to the House. I fought his predecessor in 1950 and 1951, and the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I had the same respect and liking for his predecessor as he showed.
146 Another reason for my special pleasure in congratulating him is that my husband has a factory in Erith, and therefore I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has chosen a debate on rates for his maiden speech. It might be said in one sense that I am wedded to the problems of Erith, and in that capacity I would tell him that the rates on industrial hereditaments are very high. I hope that we will hear often from the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I should inform him that his predecessor made fairly brief speeches, and I noticed that he followed that example.
I come to the Bill. Always in the House when we have a debate on the rating system or on any Measure affecting it, we find that the word "iniquities" is rather over-used. We have had a special lot of iniquities mentioned today and I would, therefore, like to begin by quoting from the Allen Report, extracts which have been conspicuous by their absence in debate today. Paragraph 346, Chapter 15, stated in the summary and findings:Looking at rates as a form of taxation … we find that domestic rates are less now than before the last war, as a proportion of all local authority expenditure, or of all personal incomes, or of total taxes.Listening to the debate today, one would expect that the reverse was the case.
§ Mr. Park
I regret that the hon. Lady did not see fit to quote the whole of that paragraph from the Allen Report, for it goes on to say that while rates are a lower proportion than was the case prewar:The proportion, however, has been rising in recent years. We received evidence that this recent trend, and the prospect that it would continue, is of concern to many ratepayers today.Is that not precisely what we have been discussing?
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I entirely agree. I did not quote the whole of the paragraph because I wished to save the time of the House. In any case, the hon. Gentleman has quoted the remainder of it and he will see that although it has been rising, in particular since 1957 when we had a tremendous education drive, it still has not reached the same proportion of taxed income and personal expenditure as it did in pre-war days. That is significant. 147 It looks as though it is going to, and perhaps this year and next year it will—although we cannot be blamed for that.
Among other statistics, one can see that more than half of local expenditure is already borne by the taxpayer while the other half is only part borne by the ratepayer, for about 50 per cent. of that half is borne by industrial and commercial properties. Thus, of local authority expenditure, only about a quarter, taking the country as a whole, is met by the domestic ratepayer. I have begun by giving these statistics to try to put the problem in perspective because at times I thought that we have been getting the matter a little out of perspective.
I will make a few general observations on the kind of characteristics which one would require for a scheme of domestic rate relief. I suggest that such a scheme should have three characterisics. It should be completely comprehensible to the potential beneficiaries, it should be easy to operate and be administratively inexpensive and local authorities should not be penalised because they happen to have a disproportionately high number of elderly or retired people in their areas who might be expected to benefit under a rate relief scheme. By these tests the Bill does not come out very well. We approve very much the principle of a rate rebate scheme, but, as I say, by these three tests this Measure does not at the moment come out with flying colours.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the question of hardship in connection with National Assistance. I agree with the Minister that in Committee we shall have to insert words which are clearer than the present provisions and which will enable local authorities either to refuse rebates to those who are at present receiving National Assistance or enable them to inquire the source of income, whether it comes from National Assistance, when a person makes application. Otherwise, I can imagine a person going to a local authority and saying, "I have an income of £7 10s. a week. I want a rebate." The local authority will not be able to ask if the income comes from National Assistance and unless we cover this point there will be considerable difficulty about the inter- 148 action between the two. We shall have to take great care also in operating the scheme, remembering that the dislike of this form of National Assistance started not with the National Assistance Scheme but when it had a local element. It started as dislike of a public assistance scheme, and the thing in public assistance that people disliked—
§ Mrs. Thatcher
Yes, and before that the Poor Law—was going to local people whom they knew in order to ask their help. They did not like local people knowing their circumstances, and I put the latter factor rather more highly than I do the first.
In this Bill, therefore, we must be extremely careful that people do not shy away even more from going to a local authority than they would from going to a national authority, which means that it is particularly important that the rules of confidentiality should be adhered to very strictly. I understand that in rent rebate schemes these people have been dealt with by code numbers by the officials of the local authority. This is an excellent method, and one that gives people confidence that their anonymity will be strictly preserved, and that no one will know by name who has applied for the relief.
We have heard a number of hard words about the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, but I notice that this Bill does not repeal that Act. As far as I can make out, there are probably two reasons for that, one of which would have been advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) had he been fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. By Section 1 of that Act, very considerable grants—up to £6 million in all—are given to local authorities which have a higher-than-average proportion of old people. If the Act were repealed that £6 million would go, and those local authorities—and the large number of old people who benefit—would have to find their income from the rates instead of from grants.
The relief to which the Minister referred, which was 50 per cent. and 50 per cent. in the first instance, and 66⅔ per cent. and 33⅓ per cent. in certain 149 exceptions, came under Section 2, but one found that what happened was that the local authority was given a very considerable grant under Section 1, and if it also spent extra money it was given a part-grant under Section 2. As things turned out, the grants under Section 2 were very small, but no one could tell how things would turn out when we debated the Measure. Indeed, going through the debate, I noticed that the present Foreign Secretary thought that as high a proportion as 80 per cent. of the ratepayers in certain areas might have been eligible for relief. As it turned out, they were not, so only about £100,000 was dispersed under Section 2. Nevertheless, that Act was, and is, extremely valuable. There is a definite reason for its not being abolished, and for the Minister to say that it does not matter when some £6 million is involved would, I think, strike fear into the hearts of local authorities.
I turn from that point to the financing of the scheme. I leave Scotland for the time being—the Secretary of State for Scotland is mumbling on the Front Bench—
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
I was merely saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) that the benefit the hon. Lady mentions does not apply to Scotland.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I am glad we still keep some money in England. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman reminds me that an extra £ million for Scotland was mentioned earlier under a separate scheme. However, I leave the Secretary of State to fight that out with my right hon. Friend.
The financing of the provisions of the Bill has already been referred to, and I will not dwell on it for too long. Undoubtedly the defect and I use the word "defect" advisedly—of the scheme is that in order to give relief to some it will impose penalties on others. This, I am afraid, will come particularly harshly on those who just escape relief. It is not that they will not get the relief but that they will have to pay more in rates because of the relief which has been afforded to others.
I entirely agree with the sentiments which most hon. Members have expressed to the effect that the 150 Exchequer should pay for the financing of the scheme. This is quite different from the interim rating relief scheme because in that a considerable discretion was given to local authorities. As it happened, they did not use it, but the local authority's stake in the provisions of that Act was reflected by the discretion given to local authorities to operate the scheme. Here no discretion is given to local authorities. Therefore, one would expect that the whole amount should be met by the Exchequer.
We should not underestimate the problem of finding not only the number of extra staff to operate the rebate scheme but finding the quality of staff which will be required. A large number of people will probably apply for rebate and not all will be entitled to rebate. The method of deciding whether they are entitled or not is very important indeed. For National Assistance every applicant has a personal interview. That is carried out by highly skilled people. It is carried out very sympathetically indeed. It will not be possible to interview every person for a rate rebate scheme. This will mean that the first form will have to be drafted very carefully in order to get the maximum information about income.
After that has been filled up a certain number of people will have to be interviewed. The Bill is mainly to benefit older people. They often have a fear of form-filling. As soon as a form comes through the door they find they are almost incapable of filling it up because they are mesmerised by fear. Their first reaction is, "What do they want to know now?" A great deal of interviewing will have to be done and it will not be easy for local authorities to find the staff to deal with these people in the right way. I do not make too much of this point because it is one which we would have to face in any event if we agree in principle to a rate rebate scheme and also to an instalment system.
Clause 5 of the Bill deals with reckonable income. Income on which entitlement to relief is assessed relates to a period which ends three months before that for which relief is given. One may secure title to a rebate during a period in which one's income happens to be low. That rebate might be granted during a period in which one's income has recovered. This seems very strange indeed. One would 151 have expected that there would be a Clause providing that if there is any material change in income between the base period for assessment of income and the period for which the rebate is granted the applicant should have to notify the authority and the authority could cancel the relief. Otherwise we shall find that when the income is low one will get relief which might operate during a period when one's income is high. It might operate in the opposite way as well.
This would not seem the wisest use of public money nor the best possible system. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) referred to this anomaly in relation to seasonal workers. Many hon. Members from Scottish constituencies will know of difficulties about seasonal workers. It is obvious that if the rate rebate period is divided into two and income is calculated not by reference to a year but to a six-monthly period, those in seasonal work will be able so to arrange affairs that they can claim a rate rebate in alternate periods of six months. It may be that one would have to have a provision for averaging out the income in such cases.
A second point which arises in connection with reckonable income is, what is income? As the Minister said, it is not defined anywhere in the Bill. I take it from what he said that it is not equivalent to taxable income. Would he indicate whether that is so?
§ Mrs. Thatcher
In such cases war pensions would rank as income. They do not rank as taxable income. Sickness benefit and injury benefit are not taxable income, but presumably they rank as income for this purpose. What about income on National Savings Certificates? I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman knows exactly what income is for this purpose.
§ Mr. Crossman
We had better leave the details, but interest on capital, as I made clear, would count as income—but not the capital. The interest on National Savings Certificates will count but not the National Savings Certificates. The hon. Lady is making it rather difficult, but, in fact, it is simple.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is a considerable departure from usual policy if interest on National Savings Certificates is to be counted as income. The right hon. Gentleman said that income in this case meant more than taxable income. Perhaps we can get this sorted out later. I have used it as an example because I should have thought that details such as his would have been worked out beforehand.
So much for reckonable income. I come to reckonable rates—that is, the amount of rates which a person may well be liable to pay and which is calculated by reference to a different period from reckonable income. I refer to Clause 4(4) from which it appears that if a person has another adult living in the house, that affects the reckonable rate. The reckonable rate is calculated not by reference to a period ending several months before the period in which the rate rebate is due. It is calculated by reference to the date of the application for the rebate. Reckonable income is therefore calculated by reference to a different period from reckonable rate.
We come, then, to a third different period, because instalments are calculated by reference to a third period—not a six-month period but an annual period. One may well get difficulties where the rate rebate applies for a six-month period but the instalments have to be calculated over a twelve-month period. Presumably one does not assume, without a Clause in the Bill enabling one to assume, that the rate rebate will continue after the six-month period. If, therefore, a person applies for a rebate and also applies for the residual rate to be paid by instalments, we must calculate the instalments by reference to a rebated period of rates followed by a full period of rates. We shall therefore find that someone is paying more in instalments in the first six months than he needs to pay. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not think that hon. Members opposite have thought this Bill out at all. Let me give an example. This example, and a number of other points, were provided to me by the Institute of Municipal Treasurers whose members, one would have thought, knew what they were talking about.
The Institute says:The instalments provisions are to be calculated by reference to the annual rate period 153 whilst the provisions in regard to rebate are calculated by reference to a period of six months. This could have the result of requiring instalment payments during the first half of the year of such amounts as could make it necessary to effect a repayment during the second half of year, and this is illustrated by the following example.It then goes on to give an example which I think is too long to quote but which I will send to the right hon. Gentleman. It makes the ponit which I have just made.
It seems to me, therefore, that there are several periods in the Bill. There is the reckonable income for one period, the reckonable rate for another. The rate rebate period is yet a third period, and the fourth period is the instalment period. This is quite a system and it certainly is not one that could be understood by the potential beneficiaries.
When we were discussing the Rating (Interim Relief) Act the present Foreign Secretary suggested that the provisions in it might be replaced by algebraic symbols. I should have thought that as there were so many variables in the present Bill they might have been just as well expressed by the integral and differential calculus because one has to make up the sum of so many different things if one wants to find the result.
I turn now to what the Minister said at the beginning of his speech. The key to it was the viewpoint expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) who spoke while the Minister was not present. My hon. Friend said that ever since he had been a pupil of the right hon. Gentleman he had had the one very considerable difficulty that he could never tell whether the right hon. Gentleman meant what he said. We have also experienced the same difficulty because the right hon. Gentleman says different things on different days about the same matter. On 5th May, for example, when we had a debate on rates he said:It is … unlikely that any Government can rapidly switch from rates to a local tax. We have got to face that as something which cannot be done."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1965; Vol. 711, c. 1492.]On 2nd December the right hon. Gentleman was reported as saying that the Governmentwant to get rid of the rates system altogether and replace it with a system of local taxation.I should have thought that to some extent those were mutually contradictory. [HON. 154 MEMBERS: "No."] But there is a better one. [An HON. MEMBER: "From the Central Office?"] I did not have any material at all from the Central Office. I did not ask for it. I had most of the material from the Institute of Municipal Treasurers.
The right hon. Gentleman was speaking about the rate deficiency grant, which we were told in this Bill would be increased to take into account the extra administrative expenses for those areas which are entitled to rate deficiency grant. The right hon. Gentleman made some reference to this in his opening remarks today but also on 5th May he said, talking about the rate deficiency grant,I think that we shall scrap it. It is another of the things which will go, because it is no good."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1965; Vol. 711, c. 1496.]The right hon. Gentleman was then going to scrap it. He is now going to increase it for the administrative costs of this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman is very anxious to abolish—
§ Mr. Crossman
I am always patiently willing to help the hon. Lady as far as I can. I said that as from today the old rate deficiency grant, which is there now, will assist with the burden of administrative costs as long as it is there. As I told her, we are also preparing a second Bill in which we shall revise the grant system and she will find there that the rate deficiency grant is modified in certain particulars to take account of the criticisms I made at that time.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I see. It is not going to be scrapped now, it is going to be modified.
As for my third quotation—I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not quite like quotations from The Times—he is concentrating now on saying that he will abolish something before we are certain what he is to put in its place. It is really inexcusable for a Minister to say that he intends to abolish a particular system before we can judge the relative merit of the system which he will put in its place.
The Financial Times summed up the position very well in a leading article on Saturday, 27th November, headed "Mr. Crossman's Cherry",Assuming that Mr. Crossman is granted time to finish the meal, and that he manages 155 it—he has so far shown a brilliant ability to ask the right questions, but we have yet to judge the quality of his answers …My advice to the right hon. Gentleman, if it is not trying to teach an old dog new tricks, which, of course would be quite impossible, is that until he has something to put in its place it is as well to keep the rating system in order to work extremely well. It is most significant that he is abandoning a revaluation, which is fundamental to keeping the rating system up to date and in order. One of the reasons why he is abandoning it is in order to collect a much smaller tax. Let us keep the system which collects some £1,000 million a year up to date and in order.
§ Mr. Crossman rose—
§ Mrs. Thatcher
The right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will have the Floor in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman called this Bill rough and ready justice. We like the bits which are justice. We do not like the bits which are rough and ready.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)
We all congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on a good speech, made all the better, no doubt, for the absence of Tory Central Office briefing. Her quotation from the Financial Times was a nice conclusion to a delightful speech.
First, I join the hon. Lady in the fine praise which she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on his maiden speech. We all miss Norman Dodds. In the 10 years I have been in the House, I counted Norman as one of my very good friends and I miss him greatly. But we have in my hon. Friend the new Member for Erith and Crayford a worthy successor and one who will pursue in the same tone of public service the welfare of his constituency and, at the same time, the wellbeing and good sense of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend—I envy his name, a most desirable name for a politician—made a very good suggestion in his reference to publicity. This is something which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland as well 156 as the Minister of Housing and Local Government accepts. It raises one comment on the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964, which the last Government passed in a great hurry. They got it through, incidentally, with a speed which makes this Bill look like a tortoise. [Interruption.] A tortoise is a very slow animal, if the Opposition Chief Whip does not know. Perhaps it is my good Scottish pronunciation of an English word which confuses him. I think he has got it now.
The Rating and Valuation Association had some criticisms to make of the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964, and catalogued them very well on page 8 of its memorandum issued in August, just before the election, to show the effect of that Measure and whether or not it had worked. I take the point which my hon. Friend made about publicity, which we regard as most important.
I come now to the points made during the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite if I do not comment on all the questions which have been raised, and I hope they will acquit me of any discourtesy. We shall take up many of the points in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) had several observations to make about the Bill, and I am reminded that the hon. Member for Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), who is not with us at the moment, said that the Bill ought to have been produced in Gaelic. It is very difficult in a United Kingdom Measure dealing with Scottish and English law to decide how the provisions should be written. My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I hope that he will accept that we took the right option in this Bill in producing a combined Measure rather than preparing two separate Measures, which would, of course, take a long time.
We have decided to write the Bill in English legal terms and add an interpretation Clause so that it can be translated into Scottish terms. The alternative would be to write it in Scottish terms and apply a translation into English, but, being generous, the Scots gave way on this and decided that we ought in this British Parliament to write these Acts in English legal terms. But my hon. Friend has a very sound point and one that I am sure 157 that we shall want to take up in Committee, particularly in application of the various English terms in relation to Clause 8.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) made a very good and very commendable speech. We appreciate his praise of the Bill and shall take to heart his criticisms. He mentioned that certain Clauses needed a great deal more elucidation and could be written better. We are a very tolerant Government. On the most recent rent Bill we worked very hard as a Committee, and from the Committee emerged a better Bill than the one first produced by the Government.
§ Dr. Mabon
The right hon. Gentleman played a good part—he must not be uncharitable—in making the Bill better. I am sure that the Government will certainly take into account the representations made in Committee to make the Clauses clearer if that is at all possible without defeating the object of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris), the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Madden), my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) all argued points which were in different ways points of substance. Nevertheless, they were hardly points that we could include in this Bill. The Bill is somewhat limited, and, therefore, it is hardly a vehicle to deal with the apportionment of rates in regard to nationalised industries or the position regarding widows and children in this context. The relationship between the Exchequer equalisation grant and the rate deficiency grant and the average assessment and the apportionment between Scotland and England and Wales—these are valid points to be taken on a major Measure but not on a vehicle like this. Even giving my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley the point that perhaps we might concede something in this regard to answer the begged question in the larger Bill, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would concede that point as a matter of fair argument. The situation is similar with regard to the point about relating relief to universities being Exchequer-borne and not borne by the rate- 158 payers. These are all matters which can be dealt in a major vehicle.
Different views have been expressed particularly by the right hon. Member for Kingston-on-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) on the one side and on the other side mainly hon. Friends of mine about the need for the Bill going to come forward so quickly. The right hon. Gentleman took the view that it was all too hasty, but I think he will be fair and accept the general view that the Bill ought to reach the Statute Book quickly and in time for the next rating year.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
In my speech I said that I understood the desire of the Government to get on with it quickly but that it would have been fairer to the House in those circumstances to have introduced the Bill earlier and enabled hon. Members to have a chance to study it and consult outside bodies, including the local authorities.
§ Dr. Mabon
I think that the right hon. Gentleman has to concede, nevertheless, that if one is to consult the local authorities and get the Bill in order and do as much as one can outside the House as well as before the Government present the Bill in draft—it is complicated, as he has admitted, for he said that it was much more complicated than he expected; in spite of its simple principles, it is a more complicated Bill than was envisaged at the beginning—there has to be some compromise between despatching it to the Statute Book in time for the next rating year and getting things in their proper order. There also has to be some element of inconvenience. The Government appreciate this and are sorry that this is the position. But I am sure that in Committee we shall make every endeavour to have the Bill examined as fully and as expeditiously as we can. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very brief in his arguments, and also very good, and I am sure that his hon. Friends will follow suit and that we shall make good progress on the Bill when we examine it in Committee.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Committee stage and his very courteous admission that we have been greatly hurried over the Second Reading, will 159 he give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that there will be adequate time between this stage and the Committee stage to enable hon. Members on this side who have not so far had the chance of discussing this matter with the local authorities to do so properly and in the detail which his own admission of the complications of the Bill plainly makes necessary?
§ Dr. Mabon
So far as is consistent with the urgent need—which is admitted even by some of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends—to get the Bill on the Statute Book in time to be operative for the next rating year. The hon. Member for Orpington put it nicely in English terms. If we do not get on with the matter and have it settled in Parliament by February, it will be ineffective for the next rating year and the responsibility for that will have to be shared by those who, rightly or wrongly, asked for much longer examination and by the Government if we are tardy in moving on with consideration. This has to be faced. Consistent with that point, I agree that we must give everyone concerned the maximum possible time to think about these matters and to consult—as long as the major objective of having the Bill operative for the next rating year is not sacrificed or endangered.
Quite rightly, the hon. Member for Finchley, at some length defended her party in relation to the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964. The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet, in an intelligent, well-argued speech, gave us to understand that this Bill was actually Conservative Party policy. He said that, at the last election, he and some of his hon. Friends made this a major issue. Knowing the place he represents, I have no doubt that this was a valid and pertinent course for him to take.
But in the Conservative and Unionist Association's manifesto at the election, this was not a specific pledge. It was only in October, 1965, indeed, that the hon. Member for Finchley went on record, at the Conservative Party Conference, with the words which I shall quote. They are useful words and I take them from the Conservative Party's "Notes on Current Politics". I assume, therefore, that the report must be accurate, so that she 160 can hardly complain if we put a great deal of emphasis on some of the words used. The "Notes" report:Mrs. Thatcher, Conservative Front Bench spokesman on this subject, proposed(a) transfer of about £100 million from rates to taxes"—now we know the Conservative attitude to the Bill to be introduced in February—(b) relief of hardship probably through rate rebate schemes, and(c) the right to pay rates by more frequent instalments.This is the first occasion on which, in party terms, we have had a declaration from the Conservatives that they intend to adopt this policy. I give to the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet the point that the 1964 Act, which he pressed and supported and which he talked about tonight and claimed should be the basis of this kind of Bill, was designed to last until 1968. This was because, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), then the Minister of Housing and Local Government, said, the then Government wanted to see what the Allen Committee said before they began to decide what they should do.
It is a fair assumption, in view of tonight's speeches, that the Conservatives, had they been in power now, would not have introduced this Bill. They would have argued that there was no need of it because the 1964 Act had not expired. It is, therefore, worth examining what we are proposing against the position which right hon. Gentlemen opposite left us.
It is true that the relief given to local authorities has been along the major lines the hon. Lady mentioned. Her figures were reasonably accurate and I am willing to put them on record again. Section 1 of the Act, dealing with direct grants in respect of local authorities with a high proportion of old people, has cost the Treasury about £5 million. But pray note that that £5 million is a general grant to all ratepayers, not to the elderly people direct. The important difference between this Bill and the Act is that the Bill deals with individual reliefs. All that has been spent by the Treasury in this respect is some £50,000 annually for the whole country. This is almost the cost of putting a Bill through Parliament. Yet this represents the policy of the Conservative Party, not only in 1964, but, as I 161 understand it from various speeches of hon. Members opposite, the policy which they would have pursued if they had won the last election.
It is interesting to note that hon. Members opposite have argued that the amount should be more than 75 per cent. on the ground that they gave 66⅔ per cent. to local authorities and local authorities had discretion about dealing with the amount. In fact, if they look at the operation of the Act they will see that never at any stage was the 66⅔ per cent. operative. The State has contributed only half, and that half of a very small sum, the round total of £100,000 in any one year. That is a measure—and the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley was wise enough to admit it—of the failure of the Rating (Interim Relief) Act, 1964. Yet the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) and the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet made it a principal bulwark of their resentment, albeit qualified, of the Bill that this help should have been given in a different way.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet thought that the assessing of hardship should be left to local authorities. If he looks at the Report of the Rating and Valuation Association he will see devastating condemnations of local authorities by the authors of that document. I make one small quotation from the end of that Report:As an indication of the meticulous approach by some authorities, in two areas the total relief given was 1s. 9d. and 2s. 1d. respectively.In the summary, the authors of that Report say:The high proportion of authorities receiving less than 10 applications for relief in their areas can generally be explained by the fact that comparatively few ratepayers in these areas came within the rigid definition of a 25 per cent. increased rating prescribed in the Act.There is, therefore, no substance in the argument that we should leave it to local authorities to lay down the level of hardship in the hope that throughout the country we would have a homogeneous system of appreciation of this urgent problem. Different levels of assistance would result and they would overlap with national agencies. The Government have, therefore, rejected that proposal.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames was kind enough to ask 162 about the Scottish provisions for rebates remaining and I am grateful to him for saying that they worked well. Those in Section 244 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, will remain. The criteria are:grounds of poverty or inability to pay.That is different from the position under English legislation where the ground is solely that of poverty. I am certain that we will have to take this into account in trying to assess the position, but essentially the answer to his question is that those criteria will remain. No doubt we shall later discuss the matter in more detail and the relationship of National Assistance to other forms of rate relief.
I paid great attention to the right hon. Gentleman's speech, as I always do, because he is always very careful in his choice of words. I noticed in particular two things about his speech tonight. If he will not regard it as offensive, I should like to say that he very much reminds me of Jimmy Maxton. Tonight he rode two horses very skilfully, but, as Jimmy said, one should not be in the circus unless one can do that. The right hon. Gentleman is a horse rider par excellence.
He said that he did not concede even to his hon. Friends the idea that we should ask, not for a 75 per cent. grant, but a 100 per cent. grant He agreed that there was substance in my right hon. Friend's argument that in giving relief to local rates there should be some element of local contribution. The right hon. Gentleman was very careful about that. At the same time he grumbled about the 25 per cent. and one accepts that he means a figure somewhere between 75 and 100. We are not sure what that figure is and we look with interest to see what public declaration he may make on that score. Another point on which I must congratulate him is that he did not come down on either side on this matter of the National Assistance Board or, for that matter, of rates relief. He was very skilful in his choice of words and he left open to the person seeking relief the choice of whether to go to the rating authority or the National Assistance Board. That is exactly what we have done, and it is a bit hard for him to come and attack us. I cannot say that he did it very forcibly, as did some of his hon. Friends who sought to 163 use him as a battering ram of protest. We were very impressed that he was involved in this and has adopted the same position as ourselves.
The right hon. Gentleman argued a case which I thought was quite extravagant when he said that we in the Labour Party had an opportunity to get early relief by increasing the general grant to cover the whole amount of the rates increase in any one year—in our last year, over 13 per cent. If he looks at that he will see there are two enormous objections to doing so. As a well-experienced former Government Minister in many distinguished offices, including Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he knows the difficulties of government. The first of these objections is that such a scheme would add an enormous amount of money to the General Grant Order; it would be the largest General Grant Order in history, far in excess of anything ever designed under the local government financial reforms. The second objection is that it would be very difficult, in Statute, to try and justify the total amount of money involved. There would be hundreds of millions of £s involved.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman slipped, in which case I would forgive him, as readily as I am sure he would forgive me.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I think that the hon. Gentleman has slipped, because, if he recalls my speech, I adduced this possibility in order to demonstrate how completely invalid and untrue was the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister, that the 10 per cent. increase in rates in this coming year which he foresaw would be an automatic result of the "vicious system"—those were his words—which he said he had inherited. I pointed out that this was not an automatic result and that it lay within his hands, through the machinery of the General Grant Order, to prevent that happening if he wished.
§ Dr. Mabon
The hon. Gentleman is saying "We designed a system, we passed 164 it into law after four years of cogitation and we took one year to implement it; having done that, we will not allow anyone to alter the rules. The only way in which you can fulfil your promise is by altering the General Grant Order." This is a course of action which we reject. His hon. Friends, albeit unsuccessfully, have tried to take this view and isolate it instead of seeing it as a general pattern of reform which we are seeking to achieve.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The Under-Secretary said that we were asking him to accept the system and we need a positive law. Can he say what provision in law there is to prevent him fixing the General Grant Order at any figure he likes, which will obviate this increase in rates? What objection, other than the Chief Secretary to the Treasury sitting next to him?
§ Dr. Mabon
Knowing the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, or for that matter past Chief Secretaries, that is one of the biggest objections there would be. In law and in theory this is true, but the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends never took that as a course of action and they cannot urge upon us a course of action which they rejected.
§ Dr. Mabon
I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. [Laughter.] It is better to win on points than by a knockout.
The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris) asked when we would publish the larger Bill and whether it would be preceded by a White Paper. We hope that this will be the case. The Bill will be before the House for discussion in February. It is in that context that one has to view the present Bill.
As I said earlier, the Conservative Party, from 1954 to 1958, thought a lot about local government reform and the need to change the financial system. We have no doubt that, with the assistance of the Civil Service, it did its very best to find a Conservative solution. The Conservative solution began in 1959, and it has, by common consent, proved unsatisfactory. It has caused immense hardship to many ratepayers—not just old-age pensioners, although they constitute the largest section involved, but many 165 lower paid workers, particularly in the less developed areas.
It is interesting to note that of the 2 million ratepayers whom we estimate from the surveys will benefit by the Bill, 300,000 will be in Scotland. We in Scotland suffer very greatly by the incidence of lower paid workers. An effort must be made to try to relieve the rate burden on these people as quickly as possible. It took the Conservatives years to achieve their reform and it did not work. It landed us in a mess, which means an automatic escalation of about 10 per cent. every year, even if we follow the pattern of general grant Orders which hon. and right hon. Members opposite pursued.
The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Sir A. Meyer) said that he was disappointed by the Bill. I shall be interested to see what propositions are made in Committee to try to improve the Bill along the lines which he suggested. Suffice it to say that my right hon. Friend and all of us associated with the creation of the Bill are very pleased that things have gone so well in designing these Bills, that we have the larger Bill in view and that we have achieved in 14 months what the Conservative Party failed to achieve in 13 years. The money which we obtained for Scotland in exchange for the Rating (Interim Relief) Act in England was obtained by this Government, not by the Conservative Government.
When we see these Bills—not only what has been done in the general grant Orders—we shall see the evolution of local government finance along better lines, leading perhaps to the ultimate solution to which my right hon. Friend referred in his speech which was so much criticised earlier today.
§ Dr. Mabon
Because, being extraordinarily modest men as we are, with very little to be modest about, we are prepared to admit that reforming the local taxation system is an enormously difficult task to undertake. If we were to introduce local Income Tax, it would mean reforming the whole system of Inland Revenue and the Income Tax system along Scandinavian lines—certainly along revolutionary lines. There has been talk about revising the rating 166 system on capital value lines and the Liberal Party has propounded ideas about site valuation. All these are enormously difficult decisions which cannot be taken in 14 months.
The Government are very pleased with the reception which the Bill has had. We look forward to it being placed on the Statute Book and to the co-operation of right and hon. Members opposite in ensuring that that happens.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40(Committal of Bills).