HC Deb 20 May 1965 vol 712 cc1725-37
Mr. Temple

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, in page 4, line 22, to leave out "watering".

The Temporary Chairman

I think that it would be for the convenience of the Committee to take, at the same time, Amendment No. 23, in page 4, line 24, at end insert: not used primarily for passenger conveyance". Amendment No. 24, in line 24, at end insert:

  1. (k) local authority cesspool emptiers;
  2. (l) local authority refuse disposal vehicles;
  3. (m) local authority street sweeping vehicles.
and Amendment No. 114, in line 24, at end insert: (k) mobile rate collection offices.

Mr. Temple

Yes, Mr. Hynd.

It seems to be my good fortune to be once again on my feet and I hope very much that I shall bring off a "double". The object of the Amendment is not quite as simple as the object of the last one and I should, therefore, explain it carefully to the Committee.

The object of the Amendment is to leave out the word "watering" and, therefore, to give a wide exemption from vehicle duty to all local authority vehicles which are not used primarily for the conveyance of passengers. Without doubt, the Bill will place a heavy extra burden upon local authorities. I thought, and I think that the electorate thought, in October last year that one of the objects of the Labour Party, if returned to power, was to bring in a swift relief for ratepayers.

As far as I can see, the effect of all the legislation which has been going through the House of Commons has been to place increasing burdens upon ratepayers. Here we have yet another chance for the Government to redeem some of the promises which they gave at the time of the General Election. I am surprised to find Clause 6 in a Bill of this length and complexity. We must, however, be grateful that in the Clause the Government have widened the scope of Section 6 of the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1962. That Section refers to specialist vehicles which are employed by local authorities for special purposes.

It is not surprising that the Government have sought to introduce special exemptions for watering vehicles. On the occasion of the debate in June, 1961, to which I have referred, the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister—I will not say got mixed up between watering vehicles and showmen's vehicles—tried to deal with showmen's vehicles and watering vehicles at one and the same time. Shortly afterwards the Chair sorted the matter out and the Amendments were taken separately.

I make the point only to indicate that the Prime Minister was obviously extremely attached to the idea that there was a special case for the exemption of watering vehicles. I can, therefore, understand that the Treasury was under some pressure to bring in a special relief in respect of watering vehicles. The Treasury, however, has gone a little further in the Clause and has introduced a special exemption for tower wagons. Those are the wagons which have a small cage attached to them and which are used for raising a man into the air to clean or repair street lamps.

In addition, in the Clause the Government has introduced a special exemption for farm vehicles which are used as snow ploughs. The Government, therefore, have accepted the principle that there is a case for widening the exemption for specialist local authority vehicles.

I promised the Committee that I would explain the Amendment in some detail because it is extraordinarily important and it affects ratepayers. I now refer to Section 6 of the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1962, the Section on which these exemptions are based. That Section lists local authority fire engines, vehicles kept on the road for the purposes of a fire brigade, ambulances, road rollers, vehicles constructed or adapted to deal with frost, ice, and snow, vehicles for cleaning snow from the public roads and vehicles which are used in conjunction with civil defence. To those categories we are endeavouring to add the three other specialist types of vehicles to which I have referred. It can, therefore, be accepted at this juncture that there is a considerable miscellany of local authority vehicles which are already exempted altogether from duty.

The logical case would be to accept my first Amendment. That would bring in all these specialist vehicles and all the vehicles of local authorities which are not used primarily for the conveyance of passengers. I have had consultations on this matter with the Association of Municipal Corporations, the County Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association. All these local authority associations are fully behind all the Amendments I am discussing at present.

6.30 p.m.

The Government have not to my knowledge had discussions with the local authority associations on this matter since 1962. Before bringing in this Clause they would have been wise to have had consultations with the associations because so much time has moved on since then. The Rural District Councils Association mentioned to me that its members cannot understand why the Government have adopted this particular definition in respect of watering vehicles. I quote from the Clause: local authority's watering vehicle' means a goods vehicle … used for the purpose of cleansing or watering roads or cleansing gulleys". I should have thought that its purpose or use should have included use as a vehicle which can bring water to any part of the countryside for human consumption when there is a shortage. If we accept that watering is left in with the definition in this Clause and if that vehicle were used for the purpose I have described—in drought conditions of going round a rural district delivering water for human consumption—it would be subject to duty. That in itself is an error. I should like to have the reply of the Minister on this rather narrow aspect of the problem.

There is brought into the Clause gulley emptiers, but strangely enough—I do not know whether it is intended to be included in the cleansing by watering vehicles—vehicles for sweeping streets are not included. There are special street sweeping vehicles which are used by local authorities. I think that they should be designated separately. If we are to include gulley emptiers, why do we not include cesspool emptiers? I am speaking here entirely of specialist vehicles used by local authorities. Although this Section of the Vehicle (Excise) Act, 1962, is being extended, we are getting more and more anomalies because the Government are seeking to extend that Act.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the Committee what conversations have taken place between his Department and the local authority associations since 1962. In 1962, when I understand those conversations were broken off, the Association of Municipal Corporations, with the support of the County Councils Association, was discussing the exemption of purpose-designed vehicles used for road maintenance work. This is a matter which should interest the Parliamentary Secretary very much. It is a matter of more and more importance. Those discussions were broken off and have not been resumed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell the Committee whether he did or did not have further discussions with the local authority associations before this Clause was introduced.

I now turn to the specific references mentioned in Amendments Nos. 24 and 114. I have endeavoured to pick out what I regard as highly specialist vehicles, because I can well imagine that the Government may reply that they will not accept my rather wide Amendment. There should be no difficulty in excepting the rather specialist vehicles to which I shall now draw attention. In Amendment No. 24 I mention cesspool emptiers, refuse disposal vehicles and street sweeping vehicles.

Throughout the country today there is a recognition that clean water and clean rivers are extraordinarily important. I had the privilege of introducing the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Bill, 1961. It was enacted that year and made it imperative that effluents discharged from any hereditament, whether a farm or a private dwelling, must be treated before being put into a river or stream. This has necessitated the construction of cesspools on a wide scale. Those of us who know something about purification of water know that, due to the action of certain detergents, the normal action of cesspools is vitiated. It is, therefore, necessary for rural district councils to have specialist vehicles to work as cesspool emptiers.

I remind the Minister that at present in any rural district all hereditaments are charged a general sewerage charge whether they have cesspools or main sewers. There is a special charge, certainly in my own rural district, for the operation of the cesspool emptier. It is extremely important, if the cleanliness of these cesspools is to be encouraged and costs kept low, that the special position of cesspool emptiers should be recognised and they should be added to vehicles mentioned in the Schedule to the 1962 Act.

It will be within the knowledge of the Committee that in recent years more and more specialist vehicles have been used for refuse disposal. I do not think that a refuse disposal vehicle could be used for any other purpose. That is why I have singled it out for special treatment. The Committee will also know that there is widespread concern about the dumping of rubbish in the countryside. We want to encourage the use of larger refuse disposal vehicles. It would be wise for the Government to accept that these vehicles are in a special class and, therefore, to exempt them from the duty.

I have spoken about street sweeping vehicles. They are highly specialist vehicles which could not be used for any other purpose. To the best of my knowledge they are used only by highways authorities and, therefore, they come into the specialist category. I have mentioned the effect of these additional duties on the ratepayers. It is interesting to learn that the Hawarden Rural District Council, in North Wales, is the first in this country to have adopted a mobile rate collection office. Details of it were given to me by the Rural District Councils Association. I gather that that vehicle is a specialist vehicle which cannot be used for any other purpose. I therefore advocate, in Amendment No. 114, that mobile rate collection offices should be exempted from duty.

I believe it is the policy of the present Minister of Housing and Local Government to encourage weekly collection, or at least short-term collection of rates. What better way of doing that could there be than through a mobile rate collection office? I think that I have made an overwhelming case for the addition of certain specialist vehicles and a powerful case for the exemption of all local authority vehicles other than those used for passenger transport. I hope very much that the Government will look with favour on my wider Amendment. If they cannot do that, I sincerely trust that they will examine most closely the particular specialist vehicles to which I have drawn attention.

There is at present a grave dichotomy in the Cabinet. The Minister of Housing and Local Government is constantly expressing the view that there should be relief for ratepayers. The First Secretary of State does not seem to come into the House very often now. But up and down the country he is constantly advocating keeping prices steady. What will be the effect of this Clause and the proposals of the Government with regard to vehicle duties? The effect of it will clearly be a substantial increase in rate burden to every rating authority in the country. I am offering the Government and the Treasury a chance tonight. I am sorry that a Treasury Minister is not here. It is very regrettable that there is not one representative on the Government Front Bench either from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, on a matter which affects vitally the interests of ratepayers, or from the Treasury. This is a matter which vitally affects the price structure of the country.

What we must know is, do the Government really mean to redeem their pledges to ratepayers? I gave them an opportunity on the occasion of the General Grant Order and I am giving them another opportunity tonight. I think that we shall conclude tonight, if there is not a favourable reply from the Government, that the promises which were made in October were pie-crust promises. Today, we have on the one side the First Secretary of State waving big banners around the country and saying that he is for a prices and incomes policy. On the other hand, the Treasury is going round the country putting up the cost of more or less everything that the consumer is using.

This is a classic example of where the Government can, by a comparatively small concession, give encouragement to the local authorities and the ratepayers of this country. This is a test of the sincerity of the Labour Party and I hope very much that we shall get another concession from the Government tonight.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

May I ask my hon. Friend about the inclusion of mobile libraries? I was disappointed not to hear them mentioned in an otherwise brilliant speech.

Mr. Temple

I had considered the position of mobile libraries, but I did not think that I could make out quite such a powerful case as I have done for those essential special vehicles. But there may be a chance on the Report stage of including those vehicles.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) on his excellent speech on a matter in which many of us are considerably interested and for the outstanding way in which he has deployed his case. Many of us know that he has taken a strong interest in this question for a very long time. I also join with him in agreeing that there was no unexpected outcome to the fact that the watering vehicles were exempted. I anticipated that this would be so myself. I join with him on any move that can be made to ease the burden of ratepayers generally.

At present, all of us are under fire from ratepayers throughout the country because of the tremendous burden of rates that they are paying. In my constituency the Croydon authority has a large fleet of such vehicles of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider this concession on the wider basis, if not on the more specific issue. I cannot really see the purpose of the Government putting additional burdens by way of additional tax on local authorities when they have to go through all these difficulties and, in some way, attempt to get additional grants out of the Treasury to ease the burden. It is a vicious circle from which there is no escape.

In Croydon, ratepayers generally have just gone through the unfortunate experience of having to find an additional 20 per cent. on their rate burden—a fantastic increase. Regrettably, 7 per cent. of that was because of services taken from us and passed to the Greater London Council then charged back to us by way of precepts at exactly double what they cost before. This is the kind of thing that Croydon ratepayers have had to contend with. Now they are to have this additional burden placed on them and the money has to be found in some way.

6.45 p.m.

It seems that the request that my hon. Friend has made for exemption should be granted in every case except where the vehicles are used for passenger conveyance. This is a sound approach to the problem. I trust that I was rightly encouraged by the concession, as I understood that it was to be, that the Financial Secretary mentioned on the previous Amendment. I also hope that I am encouraged by the remarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, when he started on this very long Finance Bill and made the point that concessions would be granted as the Bill proceeded.

We have to call this a concession. It almost is not, but it is something that we should be able to expect that the Government will be able to respond to, and in so doing it will ease many of the additional burdens placed on the local authorities. Following a most detailed argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester I strongly support his views and trust that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport will be able to assure the Committee that this concession can be given.

Mr. Swingler

I am sorry that the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) does not think that I am capable of dealing with the matter. Treasury Ministers put in a tremendous stint on a Finance Bill and are occasionally entitled to a bit of relief from attendance in the Chamber. Also, they do occasionally have other affairs with which to deal. The hon. Gentleman has just been given a favourable reply, I think he admitted, from my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and then he followed it by attacking him for taking a certain amount of relief from the Committee's proceedings.

Perhaps if I explained the position on Clause 6 it would enable us to come fairly rapidly to grips with the matter. Hon. Members have been emphasising the onerous nature of the vehicle duty and of the increase in the duty. The Clause deals with exemptions. It follows that if the vehicle duty is regarded as very onerous the concession of exempting certain people totally from it is a very substantial concession. We ought, therefore, in fairness to those who have to pay the tax, to be very careful about the principles on which concessions and exemptions are granted.

There is no new principle in this Clause, in spite of what has been said. The Clause is merely an extension of the principle on which previous exemptions have been granted. The previous total exemptions that have been granted have been of three kinds and quite clearly based on three principles. First, is the exemption of vehicles on the road for humanitarian purposes, such vehicles as ambulances, fire-engines and others of that kind, including invalid vehicles. Second, there are those vehicles of very limited use. These are vehicles which are not using the roads for more than 6 miles per week and are mainly for the purposes of farmers who may have severed farms, and so on.

The third category is vehicles which are connected with road building, road maintenance, or the lighting of roads. The additions in subsection (1) were embodied in the 1962 Act in the categorisation of vehicles connected with road building, road maintenance and road lighting.

I can offer one comfort to the hon. Member for the City of Chester. The definition of a vehicle in page 4, line 36, for the purpose of cleansing and watering roads or cleansing gulleys", includes the item which he has put into Amendment No. 24, (m) local authority street sweeping vehicles. I am advised that the definition in the Clause is intended to cover those vehicles.

It is our view, which is the view expressed in the Clause and the reason why we resist the Amendments, that total exemptions from duties should be confined to those vehicles that come into the three categories I have mentioned. I am sure that there will be widespread sympathy for the points hon. Gentlemen have made about the need to give relief from the rate burden and to give assistance to local authorities. It is our view that that should not be done by making additional categories of vehicles exempt from tax. It should be the principle that vehicle duty should be imposed as fairly as possible upon all road users, who should be treated equally, so far as possible. If it is clear that it is the Chancellor's purpose to search for a certain amount of revenue by the imposition of taxation upon vehicles, it follows that the more exemptions which are given the more heavily the tax must fall upon other road users. In our view, that would not be fair or equitable.

The three principles I have mentioned are clear: first, those vehicles which are on the road for humane purposes, such as ambulances; second, those vehicles which are on the road only for short periods and for less than 6 miles a week; and, third, those vehicles which are directly connected with, and purpose-built for, the construction of roads, the maintenance of roads, or the lighting of roads. We have added the two categories in subsection (1) for that purpose. The acceptance of any of the Amendments would extend the categories far beyond those principles and would ineviably lead to the demand that other vehicles which are on the road for socially desirable purposes should be granted some form of exemption or relief. That would immediately introduce a gross inequity between one kind of road use and another.

I therefore hope that the Committee will agree to stick to the principles, which, as I say, have not been extended by the Clause, which underlay the original exemptions which were put into the Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1962. This is merely an addition to the definitions of those vehicles. It includes local authority street sweeping vehicles. We should do this in fairness to all other road users who have to bear the burden of taxations put upon vehicles. I hope that the Committee will reject the Amendments.

Mr. Frederic Harris

Does the Minister know how much additional taxation is being asked of local authorities because of these vehicles?

Mr. Swingler

I am sorry, but I have not got that figure with me. I will endeavour to obtain it.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I thought that this was supposed to be a revolutionary Finance Bill in which every principle of taxation to which we had hitherto adhered was being swept aside. But the Parliamentary Secretary has told us that he cannot accept the Amendment because it infringes some rules which had been laid down by a Tory Government in the past. This is the lamest reason for refusing an Amendment which I have ever heard given on any Finance Bill.

Cesspool emptiers could be held to come within the categories mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary. We need cesspools only because main drainage is not taken to houses on certain roads. If the money had been spent on the roads, there would have been no need for cesspool emptiers. Reasoning along those lines, the Parliamentary Secretary might well say that cesspool emptiers should qualify for relief under the third category he mentioned.

A very strong case can be made out in favour of the Amendment. If the Parliamentary Secretary believes that we should stick to rules for determining which vehicles should qualify for exemption, he can simply add another rule to the three that he has given. He can add a rule to the effect that vehicles used by local authorities—indeed, I go further; I would say vehicles used by local authorities and any public body for purposes other than the conveyance of passengers—should be granted relief from the vehicle licence duties. This would make sense, because, after all, the position is not as the Parliamentary Secretary described it that a burden would be thrown on to other users.

The money collected in vehicle licence duties from local authorities is partly returned to them in the form of the general grant. It is true that somebody has to pay. It is a question of where the burden falls. In this case very strong grounds exist for exempting these vehicles from the vehicle licence duties. The Parliamentary Secretary should think again about this. If he did so, he would come to the conclusion that this is a very reasonable Amendment which deserves to be supported.

Mr. Temple

I must express extreme disappointment with the Parliamentary Secretary's reply. I would not like him to conclude, as I gather he did from what he said at the beginning of his speech, that anything I said was meant to be derogatory of himself. I merely drew attention to the fact that there were not any Treasury Ministers present, nor was there a representative from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. That was in no way an implied criticism of himself. I hope that he will accept this explanation in the spirit in which it is offered.

I cannot say that I am in the least satisfied by the Parliamentary Secretary's reply. He categorised the various specialist vehicles. As far as I could make out, at least two of the specialist vehicles which I mentioned fell into these categories. He mentioned one category of limited use. Although he accepts that a gulley emptier has limited use, he does not appear to accept that a cesspool is in a similar category. I will not go on with that argument. It is entirely unacceptable to myself and, I would think, unacceptable to the Committee.

What I found very much more difficulty about was the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary did not reply in any way to the question which I put to him directly; namely, what conversations had he had with the local authority associations. I can only conclude that, before bringing forward this highly specialised Clause, there have been no recent conversations with the local authority associations.

I stress the importance of road maintenance, as did the Parliamentary Secretary himself. In moving the Amendment I made special reference to specialist and purpose-built road maintenance vehicles. I believe that this matter should be looked at again before Report. As those vehicles fall directly into the category mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary—[Interruption.] I beg to differ. I am supported in my view by the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations. On Report, we shall have to test who is right, whether the Parliamentary Secretary is correct, or whether my contentions are correct.

I very much regret that the Government have missed this tremendous opportunity of assisting ratepayers. We must now conclude that the promises made at the time of the General Election were, as I have already said, piecrust promises. Every time I have asked for a concession on behalf of ratepayers, I have been refused by Treasury Ministers, by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and now by the Ministry of Transport. It will be clear that although the Government say that they have sympathy, they have not the slightest intention of helping ratepayers in a practical direction. For that reason, I have not the slightest intention of withdrawing the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: In page 4, line 32, leave out from "a" to "used" in line 33 and insert "vehicle".—[Mr. Swingler.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.