HC Deb 25 March 1965 vol 709 cc841-65

8.27 p.m.

Mr. C. M. Woodhouse (Oxford)

The subject to which I wish to turn the House's attention is not unconnected with that which it has just debated. This is only natural, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge(Sir H. Kerr), I represent a constituency in which there are a considerable number of well known educational institutions. I reopen the question of the rate relief of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges in a spirit of inquiry, not acrimony. I seek merely to learn what the Government's policy is on this problem, having so far succeeded only in learning what it is not.

When I spoke on this subject for the first time on 30th November, 1960, during the Second Reading of the Rating and Valuation Bill, I had a good deal of support from hon. Members opposite, as I did in Committee. I do not think it unfair to say that at later stages I enjoyed the sympathy, to some extent, at any rate, of the hon. Member for Widnes(Mr. MacColl), who I see is to reply to the debate, and of the right hon. Member for Fulham(Mr. M. Stewart), now the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I may add that I gave notice to the Foreign Secretary that I should be referring to him this evening, although I understand that more important matters keep him elsewhere.

If this subject were a recondite one, I should willingly have taken a place later in the queue, as you know, Mr. Speaker, but on offering to do so I found it impossible except at the risk of forfeiting my chance of raising the subject at all if today's plus tomorrow's sitting proved to be protracted. Having no means of knowing how long we might sit, and having no wish to add to any risk which there might be to the admirable Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) tomorrow, I had to retain my privilege of catching your eye at an early stage, Mr. Speaker. I can only apologise to other hon. Members who will have to await their turn to raise other matters.

This story is a long one, but fortunately I can cut it down to its bare essentials because undoubtedly it is very well known to the hon. Member the Minister who is to reply to the debate. It begins effectively with the Rating and Valuation Act, 1955, Section 8 of which had the effect of "freezing" the existing position of charities for rating purposes for three years, and had for the first time the effect of converting what used to be a discretionary relief into mandatory relief given in terms of a specific percentage.

The effect on Oxford was to render mandatory a level of rate relief for the university and colleges which, without going into arithmetic, imposed a fairly heavy burden on the City of Oxford, especially when one bears in mind that the university owns more than 5 per cent. of rateable property in the city and the colleges collectively own more than 9 per cent.

Section 8 of the Act was intended to be only temporary and before three years ran out new legislation was intended. That legislation was based on the Report of the Committee on the Rating of Charities and Kindred Bodies(Cmd. 831/1959), usually called the Pritchard Report. That Report recommended, in brief, that charities should have mandatory relief, that university institutions should be included with other charities in this relief and that relief should be at the standard rate of 50 per cent. Clearly, the Pritchard Committee regarded all university institutions as inseparable and never even contemplated discrimination between university and colleges at either Oxford or Cambridge. I regard the Pritchard recommendation as wrong in substance, but at least it was formally right and consistent in applying the same considerations to both the university and the colleges. Therefore, I hoped that the Government would reverse the Pritchard Committee's recommendations on both points.

Unfortunately, the previous Government dissented only in part from the Pritchard Committee—and in parenthesis I should add that, although I was at one time a member of the previous Government, I was not a member when this error was committed; and though I subsequently became a member I am sure that it will be no secret, certainly to the Minister who has had access to the files, that I continued to dissent from the point and press for a change.

The mistake of separating the university and colleges and treating them in distinct and inconsistent ways was embodied in the 1961 Act in this form: that the university, like all others in the United Kingdom, should be deprived of rating relief but compensated for the extra cost by special grants from the University Grants Committee, whereas the colleges should receive 50 per cent. mandatory relief as recommended by the Pritchard Committee. In other words, the Pritchard recommendation was accepted for the colleges but rejected for the university; and all the subsequent trouble arose from that unfortunate discrimination. The formal embodiment of that discrimination is to be found in the First Schedule of the 1961 Act coupled with Section 11 of that Act. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are included in that Schedule. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are excluded from it. That Schedule contains a list of those charities which are to be denied mandatory rate relief under Section 11 of the 1961 Act.

The one comment I will make out of the many I could make on the situation thus created is that there is no real difference of interest in this matter between town and gown in Oxford, and I am sure that the same is true in Cambridge. There is some ill feeling arising from the form of the rate relief but no general disposition among citizens of Oxford to penalise the colleges nor among the colleges to exploit their position to the disadvantage of general ratepayers. Everyone in Oxford who has carefully studied the problem—and I emphasise that qualifying phrase—whether town or gown, and whether Right or Left in politics, is in broad agreement that the present situation is anomalous, that the position of the colleges is unique and that whatever solution is to be found should not be found at the expense of Oxford ratepayers.

I could say a great deal about the anomalies which have been created, but I want to mention only one, which I know will strike a chord with the hon. Member for Widnes. This is that the grievance was accidentally compounded and reinforced by an event which fortuitously coincided with the sitting of the Pritchard Committee. While the Pritchard Committee was sitting, there was also in progress a number of appeals to the lands tribunal against the basis of valuation of the colleges and universities for rating purposes.

Valuation is quite a separate matter, and no Government can be held responsible for the outcome, but what matters so far as the present argument is concerned is that those Oxford colleges which were parties to the test cases were successful in their appeal. The result was that one of the factors in ascertaining their rateable value, namely, their rate of interest, was fixed at a new and lower figure, namely, 2½ per cent. instead of the 5 per cent. which is normally applied in the so-called "contractor's test", and this was done in part at least because these bodies were charities, which was also the reason why the colleges were to be given rate relief under the 1961 Act.

These points about valuation are distinct from arguments about rate relief, but they reinforce a natural sense of grievance, a sense of grievance moreover which has been recognised as legitimate outside Oxford and Cambridge, as well as in those two cities. It was recognised, for instance, by leading articles in both The Times and the Financial Times of 31st January, 1963. It has been freely recognised by representatives of the colleges themselves.

The hon. Member for Widnes argued on 19th December, 1963, that the colleges were in fact getting double relief because, they were first, having their valuations cut, and, secondly, getting 50 per cent. off the assessment based on that reduced valuation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East(Sir K. Joseph), who was then the Minister of Housing and Local Government, rebuked the hon. Gentleman on that occasion for speaking of "double relief", and he was technically right, but a valid point underlay the argument of the hon. Member for Widnes, and it was very skilfully restated in the same debate by his right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, now the Foreign Secretary, and then the shadow Minister of Housing and Local Government. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks will be found in column 1591 of HANSARD for 19th December, 1963. I will not read them out. I will only say that I wholly endorse them. As a Minister, I was unable to take part in that debate, but I listened to it with interest because I was not only still hoping to persuade my right hon. Friend to change the Government's policy, but I was wishing to pick up clues as to what a Labour Government would do in the same situation.

The debate on that occasion was on a Prayer moved by the hon. Member for Widnes on Statutory Instruments No.1361 of 1963, which had the effect of deleting from, and adding to, the First Schedule of the 1961 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge was also present on that occasion, and I recall him telling me that he had asked Mr. Speaker whether it would be in order to raise the question of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges which were not specified in the Order. He was told that it would not be in order. Hon. Gentlemen opposite, then the Opposition, made no such inquiry, and therefore while my hon. Friend felt obliged by Mr. Speaker's Ruling to abstain from the debate, hon. Gentlemen opposite successfully evaded the Ruling, and for some reason got away with it. I do not blame them. I am glad they did so, because what they said needed saying, and this leads me to ask what they are going to do now that they have the power to do what they thought needed saying 18 months ago?

I want to clarify a little further what we were led to expect at that time or at any rate what we in Oxford thought that we were led to expect at that time, apparently wrongly, about the Labour Party's policy. After the debate on 19th December I persuaded my right hon. Friend the Minister to come to Oxford and explain his policy and subject himself to questions, which he courageously agreed to do. At the same time, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge was drafting a Private Member's Bill which would have had the effect that we intended by the simple method of adding the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker(Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. We cannot discuss legislation in the course of this debate.

Mr. Woodhouse

I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I shall make no further reference to the Bill in any case, as it was my hon. Friend's and not my own To return to the meeting to be addressed by my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Housing—it was fixed for 1st February, 1964. No doubt by a coincidence, on 31st January, the day before the meeting, a report appeared prominently in the Oxford Mail which, as it is quite brief, I will read out, because it consisted in part of a letter which appeared to be a statement of policy on behalf of the Labour Party. It said: Recently a delegation from Oxford City Labour Party met Mr. Michael Stewart, M.P., the Labour spokesman on housing and local government, to press for relief for Oxford ratepayers. Mr. Williams, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, then wrote a letter the text of which is given in the report. It said: The situation arising from the unduly low valuations and the operation of Section 11(of the Rating and Valuation Act, 1961), is clearly anomalous and unreasonable in its effects upon the general rate revenues of Oxford. In our view it is desirable that early discussions should take place between the Treasury, the University Grants Committee and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government upon the possibility of special grants being made to Oxford and Cambridge colleges through the U.G.C. in lieu of rates. The only other step required would be the making of an order under Section 11(3) of the 1961 Act adding the names of those colleges to the list of excluded institutions in the First Schedule. Such action would give hope of an early easement of the burden thrown so suddenly upon the other ratepayers of Oxford and Cambridge"—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present—

8.49 p.m..

Mr. Woodhouse

I will continue reading the quotation, which has a few lines to run: The only other step required would be the making of an order under Section 11(3) of the 1961 Act adding the names of those colleges to the list of excluded institutions in the First Schedule. Such action would give hope of an early easement of the burden thrown so suddenly upon the other ratepayers of Oxford and Cambridge. The effects of the new provisions for the rating of charities would be considered as part of the general review of rating we propose. That is the end of Mr. Williams's letter.

Now I do the Oxford Labour Party the credit of refusing to believe that the object of publishing this letter at that moment was simply to embarrass me. I say that because I hold the persons concerned in respect, and I know that they are just as concerned as I am to get this matter amicably settled. I say it also because the publication of Mr. Williams's letter did not embarrass me. On the contrary, it appeared to state as Labour Party policy what had been my own policy for four years.

I am glad to see on the Government Front Bench the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who will, I am sure, recall the debate in which I first put forward these views in 1960. This letter helped my campaign by making it imperative that the then Minister, my right hon. Friend, should do something new and constructive about this problem, if I were to remain a Member of the Government, as for some gratifying but unaccountable reason, my colleagues seemed to wish me to do. What the Minister then did was to state at the meeting on 1st February, according to a report from the Oxford Mail: If the Colleges and the City Council came to an acceptable way out of the difficulty, he would certainly consider it. Under judicious persuasion, my right hon. Friend later went further and, on 23rd April, he wrote a letter to the Town Clerk of Oxford, which I shall not read, because the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be familiar with it, in which the essential points were that he would sympathetically consider any jointly agreed scheme, provided that it did not impose any additional burden on the Exchequer; secondly that he would convene a meeting to discuss such a scheme, and thirdly that he would include Cambridge—both town and gown—in the invitation.

He wrote me a later letter—which I have not hitherto made public—on 17th June, 1964, in which he said that he saw no prima facie reason why, if such a scheme were put forward, eventual legislation should not eliminate Section 11 relief for the colleges. That represented, and still represents, the official attitude of the Conservative Party to this problem. The scheme which is referred to as a hypothetical one in the then Minister's letter was being actively discussed at the time with the chairman of the college bursars and the city treasury. Those discussions were not complete at the time of the General Election, but they were continuing in a friendly atmosphere. They are still continuing and I am informed that they are likely to reach fruition within the next few weeks.

The principle on which those discussions were taking place was novel. Without going into elaborate detail, the principle is that rates for the colleges should be assessed not on the value of their property, but on the number of the resident occupants of the property, so I shall refer to it as the "capitation scheme", which is the name by which it is generally known in Oxford. These discussions naturally took a long time for a variety of reasons. I think, without in any way imputing dishonourable motives to anyone, that one of the reasons that they took a long time was, in part, that the Labour councillors on the Oxford City Council naturally supposed, on the basis of Mr. Williams' letter which I have read out, that they had only to wait for a Labour Government in order to get what would be a preferable solution from the city's point of view—namely, the solution of an Exchequer subsidy for the college rates—instead of the less preferable, but not necessarily unacceptable, solution of the capitation scheme.

It was their belief—I shared it, but I wanted to make sure—that Mr. Williams's letter could be interpreted only as an undertaking in that sense. I sought to confirm it in two ways. First of all, I arranged, through the chairman of my association, that a letter should be published in the Oxford Mail asking whether Mr. Williams's letter constituted a firm commitment. The answer came very shortly from the agent of the Oxford City Labour Party—again, I need not read it out—saying, I think beyond any doubt, that the next Labour Government had been committed to initiate early discussions between the parties mentioned in Mr. Williams's letter on the scheme mentioned in Mr. Williams's letter.

I also took one other step to confirm my interpretation of what Mr. Williams's letter meant. The House will remember that the Oxford Mail report of 31st January referred to the right hon. Member for Fulham, as having been approached by the Oxford City Labour Party. I therefore approached him myself to ask whether Mr. William's letter could be rightly interpreted as a statement of Labour Party policy if a Labour Government came to office. He replied, "Yes".

At this distance of time I cannot guarantee the fullest verbal accuracy in quoting his words, but I have no doubt about their sense. He said, additionally, "We do not consider that any question of academic freedom is involved." Everyone who is familiar with the problem will appreciate that those words can be interpreted only as referring to what I have called the subsidy scheme. So this reply of the right hon. Gentleman was perfectly satisfactory to me and I was highly optimistic over the next few months. I sought to avoid discussion of the matter during the General Election for fear of upsetting the delicate and highly technical negotiations so much in the interests of everyone in Oxford. I felt confident that there was a good chance that we should get either the Exchequer subsidy solution under a Labour Government or the capitation solution under a Conservative Government.

That was the position up to October. Then came the General Election. For some weeks after that I simply assumed that discussions were going on between the parties mentioned in Mr. Williams's letter. I heard nothing about them, nor did the Chairman of Bursars of the Oxford Colleges, nor the Town Clerk. I began to put down Parliamentary Questions to find out how things were going. It would be tedious to recite how those Questions were treated. Questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer were transferred to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, whose replies referred me to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and so on. Two things became clear. One was that no discussions of the kind we thought that we had been promised had begun at all. The other was that the new Minister of Housing and Local Government did not regard himself as committed to any particular course at all, least of all to the course to which we had sincerely thought his party was committed.

The hon. Gentleman will agree that this became clear from the Answers to two Parliamentary Questions which I put down to the Minister on 2nd February. I therefore began to feel that the Labour Party in Oxford must be as disturbed as I was about what was happening, since this is a matter of constituency and not of party interest. So I drew local attention to the matter in a letter to the Oxford Mail, expecting to receive the warmest support of the local Labour Party. Again, it would be tedious to go through the ensuing correspondence letter by letter. The upshot was that the Labour representatives in Oxford repudiated the idea that there had ever been any commitment, in the sense which appeared to have been indicated by the crucial phrase about early discussion between the Treasury, the University Grants Committee and the Minister of Housing and Local Government, on the possibility of a special grant being made to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges through the U.G.C. in lieu of rates.

This rebuttal of what I thought had been a clear undertaking, and what I think the right hon. Member for Fulham—the present Foreign Secretary—and the Labour Party agent in Oxford also thought had been a clear undertaking caused me great surprise. I regret to say that the rebuttal was accompanied by personal sneers and insinuations directed at myself by the Labour candidate at the last General Election and one of the Labour candidates at the forthcoming municipal elections. I pass over these sneers, I do not think that serious argument is advanced by bad manners, and this is a serious argument. The rebuttal of what I thought had been a clear and unequivocal promise I am obliged to accept, though doing so with great surprise because, as I have said, I hold members of the Labour Party in Oxford in respect as men of their word.

The question is, what is to be done next? That is a question which only the Minister can finally answer. There are various possibilities in front of him. The fi,rst is to do nothing at all, but I think it is clear, from the answers which the right hon. Gentleman has given to my questions, that that at least is not what he intends to do. The second possibility is to adopt what I have called the Exchequer subsidy scheme which I have always advocated. It is true that I have now accepted, though with surprise, that the Labour Party never intended to commit itself to this solution or even to the discussion of it. But that does not preclude the Minister from now adopting it if, on mature consideration, he wishes to, as I hope he will.

The third possibility is to adopt the capitation scheme if and when it is submitted to him by the colleges and the city jointly, as I am confident that it is likely to be in due course, perhaps before long. On that scheme the Minister has so far shown himself more cautious than his predecessor, who said that he would consider it sympathetically provided that there was no additional burden on the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Housing and Local Government said on 2nd February: I will, of course, take account of any proposals that are put to me."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 870. Taking account is a good deal less forthcoming than considering sympathetically.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

Is it?

Mr. Woodhouse

It sounds like that to me. I should like the Minister at least to go so far as to restore on this point the position which was taken by his predecessor, a position from which he seems to have retreated.

The fourth and final possibility is that there is some alternative, a new solution of the Minister's own. If he has that in mind I hope that he may now take the opportunity of disclosing something about it. I am sure that he will have understood the points of the questions which I have put to him in a most abbreviated form. I might have elaborated upon them at greater length, but I assume that he knows all about the matter and I also have in mind the fact that other hon. Members will probably wish to speak on the subject.

I am sure that, in replying to these questions, the Minister will do so with the seriousness they deserve and will not treat the matter in the way it has recently been treated by a small but unfortunately not insignificant minority of the Labour Party in Oxford.

8.58 p.m.

Sir Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)

I want briefly, on behalf of the City of Cambridge, to reinforce the points so admirably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) and, in so doing, I shall try to maintain the tone he set which was in a spirit of inquiry and not of acrimony. I will not repeat the points so clearly made on the events leading up to the present discussion. I will only remind hon. Members that in February of last year, pursuing the initiative taken by my hon. Friend, I introduced a Private Member's Bill, the purpose of which was to include the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in the First Schedule of the 1961 Act.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss legislation during this debate.

Sir H. Kerr

I wished only to mention that in passing. Unfortunately, the Bill was dropped. Friday after Friday there were cries of "Object", "Object". I withdrew the Bill on the understanding that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East(Sir K. Joseph), the Minister at the time, would initiate discussions between the college bursars and the respective city authorities of Oxford and Cambridge. When that was done I, like my hon. Friend, was overwhelmed with acrimonious abuse. I was told that my reputation was soiled, that I had sold out the city, and at one point I almost felt that I was going to be burned before the eyes of the city council in the market place before the Guildhall.

Five months have passed in which we were promised action, and we anxiously await a decision by the Minister. Will he accept a decision, firstly reached in conversation between the college bursars and the city authorities, or will he be willing to impose a new solution on his own? I must warn the Minister that when he comes to Cambridge very shortly to talk to the city council he will face a certain feeling from the colleges. An article he wrote in January of last year on "Oxbridge" in which he described both of these places as producing an atmosphere of arrogance, mediocrity and exclusiveness, caused great annoyance in the University, likewise his remark that the autonomy of the colleges was no longer justified. Many of us feel that at both of these great centres of learning, the autonomy of the colleges makes one of the distinctive successes of the educational system.

If I may say so as a former member of Balliol, many of us former members have recently dug deep into our bank accounts to find£1 million for the reconstruction scheme. A college is a unit of loyalty and makes an appeal which a far greater and amorphous mass could never produce. Therefore, the Minister might well consider whether his own college, New College, of which he is a distinguished member could maintain its great tradition of saintly men and scholars if it were merged, and lost its identity.

It is vitally important in these two great centres of learning that a good feeling should exist between town and gown. Fortunately, the days have long passed when violent riots took place, when the streets sounded with pattering feet and scuffles that resulted in cracked heads. But the question of college rating does maintain bad feeling. Surely, both university and city are dependent on each other as inseparably as Siamese twins. The university is the greatest employer in Cambridge—it has been calculated that, together with the teaching faculty and adding the college servants and others, about 10,000 people are involved. In turn, the city provides the university with extra accommodation and supplies. It is tragic, at a time when education is expanding rapidly, that any links with had feeling should be retained.

I therefore appeal to the Minister. I myself am not standing at the next election. I would be grateful if he could find a right and just solution to make a happy atmosphere in our two greatest centres of learning. If he can produce a just and equitable answer we, on this side, will be more than satisfied but, if he cannot, I must warn him that we shall feel absolutely obliged by every means at our disposal, by Parliamentary Questions and by Private Members' Bills, to try to get a just solution, and to keep this problem before hon. Members.

9.3 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Gregory (Stockport, North)

I listened with very great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford(Mr. Woodhouse). It has only been on the rare occasion that I have heard him speak on these matters—I know that this is because I came to the House only in October—but I know that he has a very long-standing reputation as an advocate for his constituency and the university town. I think that the same goes for the hon. Member for Cambridge(Sir H. Kerr). He, too, represents a university town, and a great one.

Sir H. Kerr

A city.

Mr. Arnold Gregory

I am sorry—a university constituency. I also recall that he once had connections with Lancashire, which is not so far from where I lived, or from the constituency I now represent.

I noticed also that there was a standing front opposite during the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford—indeed, the entire occupation of the benches opposite was shared between Oxford and Cambridge. I recall the speech made by the hon. Member for Cambridge on 25th February, 1964, when he made extremely strong advocacy for his hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, saying that his hon. Friend should have been introducing the Bill he was seeking to introduce that day. He said that: Equipped with the ingenuity obtained as a leader of the Greek guerillas in the last war, and fortified with the reputation of a double first, he would have deployed a most formidable argument."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1964; Vol. 690, c. 241.] It was extremely kind of the hon. Gentleman to speak so highly of his hon. Friend's ability to put the case before the House.

I did not go to Oxford or Cambridge. My background is one of Manchester and Salford Schools, with later connections with the redbrick university in Manchester. What is perfectly clear is that many of my colleagues who went to Manchester University to struggle through to academic achievements in very difficult days would complain today that the welcome enlargement of the university in the centre of the city on the most valuable land imposes a great burden upon its own citizens.

Mr. Woodhouse

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am sure that he and the Minister will agree that in the case of Manchester University, for which I have the greatest respect, as well as of all the other universities in the United Kingdom, of two of which I have the honour to be a member of the governing body, there is this essential difference. In the case of all these other universities, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, a full rate is paid on behalf of the whole complex of the university institution. They are compensated by the University Grants Committee for the excessive rate demand on them. The citizens of Manchester lose nothing in rateable value as a result of the University being in their midst. The citizens of Oxford and Cambridge lose rateable value as a result, not of the universities being in their midst, but of the colleges being in their midst. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate this distinction.

Mr. Gregory

Indeed I do. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Even the weakness of my case rather strengthens the backing I give him with regard to Oxford and Cambridge.

Mr. Woodhouse

I am grateful.

Mr. Gregory

My point was that the enlargement and development of Manchester's own university facilities are at the expense of land previously occupied by higher rateably valued property. This trend will grow. This is a matter of concern in Manchester, as it must be in any city which provides the facility of higher education to the rest of the people.

My major point is that in a city such as Oxford or Cambridge there is a tremendous burden by virtue of a great amount of its facilities being directed towards university education. The whole nation stands in awe and admiration of what has happened at Oxford and Cambridge and the great contribution they make to our life. We are obliged to take away some of the burden by granting higher relief or concessions in some way, sometimes at the expense of the citizens of the city.

This point is made on page 20 of the Pritchard Report, to which the hon. Member for Oxford referred. I refer the House to this passage: Part III. Recommendations for the future. The general case for and against assistance by local authorities. The rating system today provides a practical basis for local taxation. It has evolved, in over three hundred and fifty years, from something akin to an income tax levied to relieve the poor into a tax on the occupation of land levied to pay for a wide range of social and environmental services other than the relief of the poor. Today these local authorities are struggling with this great job of providing the type of services which we regard as essential in the twentieth century. These great university cities are making great contributions to culture, science and art. The residents of these cities provide a tremendous amount of money for the conduct of these affairs. Those residents see visitors from Stockport, Manchester and many other parts of the country going to Oxford and Cambridge as students and taking full advantage of the social services provided, at the expense of the local residents.

It is true to say, and I have noticed this in the general comments of officers of the city of Oxford, that the complaint is that the citizens of Oxford carry a tremendous burden in providing these facilities by way of the upkeep of roads and buildings and services for visitors to the city, however welcome those may be and however great the contribution of the university to the arts, science and literature. The whole point is that the burden is at the expense of the ratepayers and that it is the outcome of a tremendously firm tradition.

The hon. Member for Cambridge is a far greater expert than I am on that great city, but I understand that the coming of the university to Cambridge was an accident in the first place. It was not a matter of calculation by the citizens of Cambridge. It came upon them and emerged with the development of our country, and though on this side of the House some of us might quibble about the people who from the beginning were able to take advantage of the facilities provided there, it is a fact that the colleges are now expanding and embracing more and more of the young people of this country to equip them with the knowledge of science and the arts which is so essential to the progress of our country in a modern age.

I looked up the handbook of the City of Cambridge. I always find the official handbooks of cities extremely valuable. They can be used for pleading for better roads and railways and—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The Minister has no responsibility for official handbooks.

Mr. Gregory

I was going to quote from the handbook because it was relevant to the point which I was about to make. It reinforces my argument in the case of Cambridge that the university was imposed upon the city and that today the burden is carried by the citizens. There was a mound known as Castle Hill in Cambridge at the time of the Norman Conquest where William placed his keep when he made Cambridge the base for his campaign.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. This has nothing to do with administration policy based on the Supply being discussed today.

Mr. Gregory

I am sorry, but I was trying to make the point that it was not until 200 years later that, after the burgesses had been established in the running of the town and providing essential services for the people, the university was established in Cam- bridge. This bears witness to the case put by the people of Cambridge that today they are bearing this tremendous burden. I am sure that those who visit Cambridge and use the facilities there would concede that these have been provided at the expense of the residents of the town. It should also be taken into consideration that in the matter of planning there is evidence of irreconcilability between the position of the university authorities who are most anxious to make use of modern structural techniques to build the colleges and the question of at the same time dovetailing this kind of development with what goes on in the city. These things are intertwined in a gradual developing process, seeing that we have a university town providing the facilities we want while at the same time not leaving the cities themselves behind in their social services.

The case which both Oxford and Cambridge make today has been strongly reinforced by the hon. Member for Oxford and the correspondence and communication he told us about, which took place before the election, during the election and since. Although the hon. Gentleman complains about a rift in relationships, I am sure that all hon. Members will back the efforts of the hon. Gentleman and of the Oxford Labour Party in realising their common aims. I appeal to the Minister so to arrange the rating system as to ease the burden on the ratepayer while, at the same time, making it possible for us to achieve the great ideals we have in science, literature and modern studies.

9.12 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I express the great regret of my right hon. Friend the Minister that he cannot be here. As the hon. Member for Oxford(Mr. Woodhouse) knows, the time-table has gone a little askew and my right hon. Friend's arrangements were such that it became difficult for him to be present, although he would have liked to have done so because of the points which have been made involving him and what he said in question and answer on this subject.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is not able to be here. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that he and my right hon. Friend had discussions last Session about this problem, and on one occasion my right hon. Friend made a speech about it. I was present at the discussions between representatives of the Oxford Labour Party and my right hon. Friend and I think that I know what happened then.

Mr. Woodhouse

For the sake of the record, the hon. Gentleman will agree that he was not present at the discussions between the present Foreign Secretary and myself. I have endeavoured to give the gist of what was then said but, of course, I take sole responsibility for that myself.

Mr. MacColl

My fairly long associations with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary have always been a source of great inspiration and joy to me, and I am only sorry that on that occasion I missed the great experience which he had of discussing these interesting matters with the hon. Gentleman. I was not present and, for that reason, did not know what happened, but, in general, I have no doubt at all about the views on this matter of both my right hon. Friends, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Foreign Secretary.

As the hon. Gentleman said, my own views were expressed in the debate on the Prayer. I did not know whether the hon. Gentleman was rebuking me or admiring me for having made a satisfactory speech.

Mr. Woodhouse


Mr. MacColl

When the hon. Gentleman has been in Opposition for as long as I was, he will learn about these little "wrinkles" for getting round Prayers. I do not know that I am satisfied now with all the things I took that opportunity to put on the record, but I do not run away at all from what I said about this problem and the difficulties which it raises.

Again, I do not want to rub in a party political point but this is a case where a very difficult situation has been inherited. The hon. Member for Oxford was quite clear in saying that both within and without the last Government he did his best to avoid this situation arising. Unfortunately, it did arise and therefore we must find a way of getting round it—a way that will not create as many difficulties as it may solve. That is the problem which faces us.

The hon. Member rather gave the impression that the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East(Sir K. Joseph) was on the verge of coming to a solution of the problem when an unkind electorate interrupted his tenure of office. I think that was to overstate the case. I understood from what he said that the right hon. Gentleman had stated that he would approve any just scheme which was worked out by the local authority and the colleges, provided that it did not impose any burden on the Exchequer. Of course, that was a very big proviso.

Mr. Woodhouse

For the accuracy of the record of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East(Sir K. Joseph) said, I should quote his letter, which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt find in his own files. It stated that …the Minister…would consider sympathetically any jointly agreed scheme which the Colleges and City put forward as an alternative basis of assessment, provided of course that any such scheme did not increase either directly or indirectly the present share of the cost of College rates borne by the Exchequer. I would only add that the scheme now under discussion between the Chairman of the College Bursars and the City Treasurer does, in my understanding fulfil that condition. It has not, of course, yet reached a state of final agreement between the two parties concerned in Oxford, but I understand that there is a good chance of an agreement which will not impose any additional burden on the Exchequer. The commitment by my right hon. Friend was sympathetically to consider any such scheme if it were eventually put before him.

Mr. MacColl

I do not have the correspondence because, as the hon. Member for Oxford is no doubt aware, the files of an old Administration which reach a new Administration are somewhat drastically edited.

Mr. Woodhouse

Surely the hon. Gentleman knows some wrinkles for getting round that.

Mr. MacColl

I have found that it is child's play to get round the orders of the House of Commons compared with getting round the inscrutable rules of the Civil Service. I have not succeeded in doing that. But, of course, I accept the hon. Gentleman's interpretation and I am sure that my right hon. Friend, when these proposals are put to him, will consider them with very great sympathy and do all he can to reach a result.

Perhaps I may describe some of the difficulties about this. I said that my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary had stated that we were anxious to reach any solution which would result in the colleges paying a higher share of the rates but that we both took the view that we were not in favour of taxing higher education and, therefore, not in favour of a solution which would merely take the form of removing the 50 per cent. mandatory relief from the rates. We said that all along.

Then there was the question of whether or not it was possible to have an Exchequer grant or to merge the colleges into the U.G.C. grant so that they would automatically have the same advantages as the university and the same advantages as, for example, the University of Manchester has. That is the first particular difficulty which has to be overcome.

The second difficulty is the question of possible repercussions on other educational bodies. If, for example, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were to have part of their rates paid by the Exchequer, this would not go down very well with those local authorities who now suffer from the fact that such diverse educational institutions as the public schools and the local authority approved schools pay low rates.

Mr. Woodhouse

1 am sorry to interrupt again, but these are important matters. As the hon. Gentleman has not had access to the past files, he is probably not aware that this is a point on which there has already been a good deal of argument with his right hon. Friend's predecessor and at one stage I put this question to him. In the case of public schools or other educational charities which the hon. Gentleman has in mind, to what institution already listed in the First Schedule to the 1961 Act do any of these educational authorities bear the same inextricable financial relationship which the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge bear to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge? I think that the answer must be none.

Mr. MacColl

I should correct myself. What I meant if I said that they were derated was that they would get the mandatory 50 per cent. rating.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman and I do not want to make the case too strong. However, there is the point that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are not directly subject to Government grant. They enjoy endowments, as do the public schools. I do not think that there are many endowments attached to local authority approved schools; but in their general administration and in reliance on fees and endowments, public schools are similar to the colleges. I do not want to make that too strong a case, because I do not want to put ideas into the heads of people who may take up these points in the negotiation. But they clearly exist. This is therefore something which must be approached fairly delicately and it would not be desirable to get involved in acrimonious disputes which might prevent schemes from going through, or from going through amicably.

The other point which I want to make before dealing with what can be done is a matter of fact. This is not a fact to which I attach too much importance, but the amount involved is not very great. Although Cambridge does not get a rate deficiency grant, the city is partly protected by the rate-deficiency grant payable to the county, and the amount lost by the city of Cambridge is very small, less than ld. rate—I believe that it is about a ¾d. rate. The figure for Oxford is about 2d. Therefore, I do not want the hon. Gentleman to overstate the case by implying that this is a crippling burden, but I agree that it is an irritating burden and that, quite understandably, the local authorities of Oxford and Cambridge do not like it.

I want to say something about my right hon. Friend. I was a little sorry that the hon. Gentleman implied that he had gone back on what had been said. I want to remind the House of what my right hon. Friend said on 2nd February. It was It is complex and I cannot give a date for announcing a decision. which any Minister who has not been long in office could repeat about many things. My right hon. Friend went on: I will, of course, take account of any proposals that are put to me, but cannot commit myself at this stage to any particular line of approach As we know that proposals are likely to be put to my right hon. Friend, that was not an unreasonable attitude to adopt. Then the hon. Gentleman, referring to the remarks made by the general secretary of the Oxford Labour Party, said: May I ask how long a delay he"— that is, my right hon. Friend— considers compatible with the term "early'?". My right hon. Friend said: I think that I gave an assurance 30 years ago, when leading the Labour councillors on the Oxford City Council, that this grievous burden should be considered. The longer we wait the more difficult it becomes. All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well how delicate is this matter. He does. Consultations are taking place. If I may say so, I have, in memory, some sympathy with the ratepayers, but we have to face facts.

Mr. Woodhouse

Could the hon. Gentleman say between whom the consultations are taking place? I have tabled quite a number of Questions naming the parties. The letter from the national agent of the Labour Party appeared to indicate that consultations would take place. If the consultations are taking place between just those parties, it puzzles me that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister has never said so in so many words.

Mr. MacColl

I do not quite follow what the hon. Gentleman is adding to what he has said. The undertaking was—and here I am quoting from the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question which summarised what the general secretary of the Oxford Labour Party said—that under a Labour Government there would be early discussions with a view to finding a solution to the problem on precisely the lines set out in question No. 8?".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 870.] Question No. 8 referred to the possibility of special grants being made to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges through the U.G.C. in lieu of rates.

I should have thought that it was abundantly clear from that that my right hon. Friend had left nothing obscure. The consultations were taking place about the possibility of special grants and I should have thought that it was plain that my right hon. Friend was consulting the people responsible for any decision which would enable grants to be made. I should have thought that that included the Treasury, the U.G.C. and probably the Department of Education and Science.

Mr. Woodhouse

Those were the parties named in the letter from the national agent of the Labour Party. I am only puzzled that we have not been told that these are the parties between whom consultations have been taking place. I am gratified that they have been taking place.

Mr. MacColl

That I think is a reasonable interpretation of what my right hon. Friend said. I am zealous in defending my right hon. Friend's reputation. He is not normally accused of not being forthright in his views and I think he made them reasonably clear in his Answer.

The position is not subject to great obscurity or confusion. As I say, this is a difficult problem because it involves other possible repercussions of any step forward in this way. Clearly, it involves discussions with the Treasury about whether it is prepared, and in what circumstances it would be prepared, to agree to a grant of this sort being made. The hon. Gentleman, having wrestled with this problem in connection with his own college, does not need to be told how difficult it is to reach agreement on these matters.

My hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has been kind enough to be here throughout the debate. He has listened to all that has been said. I am very glad that he has been here because it means that he will have heard the strength of opinion expressed about this matter. My right hon. Friend the Minister made it quite clear that he would like to do something about this. As someone with very long and honourable connections with Oxford, both the city and the university, it is something in which he is particularly interested; and in my own humble and ineffective way I am anxious to do anything I can. I do not want to go back on anything I said about this before the General Election. It is not a question of an embarrassing pledge which we want to forget. It is something of which we are aware and on which we want to do all we can. But we have to be honest with the House and say we are not yet in a position to produce a satisfactory solution of the complex difficulties that we have inherited from the 1961 Act and its implications.