HC Deb 20 December 1966 vol 738 cc1355-61

Lords Amendments considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Privilege is involved in Amendments Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 26, 28 and 29.


Lords Amendment: In page 14, line 9, at end, insert: () In determining the value of any office premises which are to be rated by virtue of subsection (1) of this section, any part of the premises which is not used as an office or for office purposes, or for purposes ancillary to the use of the premises as an office or for office purposes, shall be disregarded. () The assessor for the area in which office premises occupied by an authority to which this section applies are situated or the occupier of those premises may apply to the appropriate Minister for a determination of the question whether the premises are situated on operational land of the authority, and if the Minister determines that the premises are not so situated the occupier thereof shall be liable to be rated in respect of the premises from the date of that determination. () For the purposes of the last foregoing subsection the appropriate Minister in relation to premises occupied by—

  1. (a) the British Railways Board or the British Waterways Board, is the Minister of Transport;
  2. (b) the Gas Council or any area board constituted for an area in Scotland under the Gas Act 1948, is the Minister of Power; and
  3. (c) any other board, is the Secretary of State."

11.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This agreeable Amendment, which was put forward in the other place, concerns the general administrative offices of the nationalised industries. This is part of the undertaking which I gave on Report, that we would discuss this matter further in the light of the comments which had been made to us. The Amendment meets our undertaking, and I hope that it proves acceptable to the House.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I have one question. In the first part of the Amendment it suggests that when we are dealing with office premises of a nationalised industry which require to be rated, any part of the premises not used for an office or for office purposes will be disregarded. Does this mean that under the rating law there will be one set of rules for private office premises which are rated and another set of rules for those of nationalised industries which are to be rated? The principle should be one of equality of treatment. It seems that we are to have a separate rule for offices of nationalised industries.

I appreciate that this is a new provision and that these premises were not rated previously—they were included in the global figure which the nationalised industries paid—but it would be unfortunate, and a rather unusual precedent, if we were to treat the offices of nationalised industries for rating purposes under a completely different set of rules, because if there is an appeal it will put the valuation appeal courts in a very difficult position.

This will be specially so when the offices of a nationalised industry are being used for the purpose of comparison in appealing in respect of an office rated under the normal rating provisions. Can the Under-Secretary say why he thinks that this is a good provision, if it has a precedent, and what will be the consequences when occupiers of private office premises use the offices of a nationalised industry for the purposes of comparison in appeals before the Lands Valuation Appeal Court?

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) was good enough to acknowledge that this is a new provision. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome it. But it has raised a number of difficult problems. The basic problem is that we have offices which are on operational land—which he will see defined in Clause 18(3)—and offices which are not. The proposal in the Amendment would mean that if there were a case of dispute between an assessor and a nationalised industry, the nationalised board and the assessor would each be given the right to apply for determination to the appropriate Minister in each case—the Minister of Transport in the case of railways, the Secretary of State for Scotland in the case of the Scottish Electricity Board, and so on. If a decision is unacceptable there are at least two agents in this matter of appeal.

On the question whether or not offices on operational land are treated quite differently from offices which are for general or administrative purposes, that is to say, not on operational ground, the first subsection exempts rooms which are not offices in office blocks used for administrative purposes, that is to say, not on operational land, and the second subsection deals with the problem of those offices which are on operational land. This is the purpose of the Amendment.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Does the Minister accept that in the case of private office premises run by a commercial organisation, if some part of that building is not used for offices it is included in the total rateable value in the normal way, whereas here, in the first subsection, we provide that where an office is occupied by a nationalised industry—admittedly not on operational land—this part will be disregarded, so that if British Railways or the Central Electricity Authority moved out and a private occupier moved into those premises there would have to be a rate charge on that part of the premises which, when used by the nationalised industry, were not used for office purposes?

This would appear to have the most appalling consequences for the consideration of appeals, because it means that instead of having a fixed value for property there will be possibly one value if the occupier is a nationalised industry and a slightly higher value if it is a private concern.

Can we be told whether this means that the question of the occupier will determine the amount of the rating assessment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That was a rather long intervention.

Dr. Mabon

In reply to the hon. Member's "brief" intervention, may I say that the attempt in the second and third subsections is to deal with those offices that are not comparable with commercial undertakings because they are on operational land. The intention of the first subsection is to make it clear that general administrative offices are not so treated. They will be treated in the usual way. The others will be treated in this exceptional way.

We are borrowing this separation of definition about operational land from the town and country planning law. I agree that it is not free from difficulty, but obviously, we have to take something. I am sure that in his anxiety to make sure that certain premises of the nationalised industries are treated like other commercial premises, the hon. Member would not wish that the operational parts of the premises should be treated unfairly: that is to say, they should be treated according to their exceptional circumstance. If there is a dispute, the matter can be taken up by either the assessor or the nationalised board, whichever party feels aggrieved, and the Minister responsible would then be concerned.

We should let this definition go and see how it turns out. I cannot see any better rule which could be adopted at this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: In page 14, line 22, leave out from "undertaking" to "not" in line 23.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It might be convenient, if the Minister agrees, to take, at the same time, Lords Amendments Nos. 3 and 4.

Dr. Mabon

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am happy to do that.

These are drafting Amendments. As I said earlier, the definition of operational land previously referred to land used for the carrying on of the nationalised undertaking and land in which the undertaking held an interest for that purpose. This was correct in planning law, from which the definition was borrowed, but is inappropriate in the case of rating, where the only consideration should be whether the land is, in fact, used for the carrying on of the undertaking.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 and 3, which stand together, are drafting Amendments. Lords Amendment No. 4 prevents the definition of office purposes from going too far, that is to say, by including telephone and telegraph exchanges and computer installations, which are, in the work of the nationalised industries, more operational than administrative.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.


Lords Amendment: In page 16, line 33, after "25", insert "and section 27(2)".

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I suggest that if convenient to the House we take, at the same time, Lords Amendment No. 6.

Dr. Mabon

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Lords Amendment No. 5 is consequential upon the Amendment to Clause 27(2) concerning the penalty for failure to notify empty houses. In that sense it is a drafting Amendment.

Lords Amendment No. 6 is an Amendment of substance. Its effect is that if empty property were reoccupied for three weeks, as has been proposed by the other House, instead of six weeks, which was the position when the Bill left this House, the period of three months' grace would start afresh. We discussed this matter in Committee. The question was whether six weeks was long enough to prevent a landlord escaping the rating of empty property by putting in an employee, for example, as a tenant for a token period of a day or two.

On reflection, after the proceedings elsewhere, we thought that three weeks was still long enough to prevent actions of this sort. At the same time, it meets the position of people in holiday areas who were concerned about the original provision. In a sense, therefore, this is a compromise between the two points of view and is, I think, acceptable.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

From our point of view, the second of the two Lords Amendments is an improvement. The matter arose not in Committee, but on Report, because these new proposals came to us at fairly short notice just before Report. It was suggested from this side that six weeks was, unfortunately, too long for somebody who was away and who would be coming back from holiday or from abroad and would then be going abroad again. Three weeks is certainly an improvement.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.


Lords Amendment: In page 18, line 13, at end, insert: In paragraph (a) of this subsection the reference to a legal prohibition does not include a prohibition which arises from the failure of the owner to apply for a certificate under section 9 of the Building (Scotland) Act 1959".

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

The Amendment is designed to prevent an owner escaping the empty property rate by refraining from applying for a building certificate. Under Clause 25 (3,a) the empty property rate may not be levied at any time when the owner is prohibited by law from occupying it. This was intended to apply to cases of bankruptcy or statutory incapacity to manage his own affairs. But under the Building (Scotland) Act, 1959, the occupation of property is prohibited until a building certificate has been obtained, and as the Bill stood an owner of new property awaiting a tenant—and often standing empty for long periods; particularly in respect of speculative building, such as offices and so on—could escape the empty property rate by deliberately refraining from applying for a building certificate until there was a tenant in view. Under the building legislation this is quite acceptable, but it was not intended that an owner should be able to escape rating by this means.

The Amendment therefore provides that failure to apply for a building certificate does not constitute, for rating purposes, a statutory prohibition on occupying the building. If however, an owner applied for a certificate but was refused one, he would be protected from being rated.

Question put and agreed to.