§ Mr. Hendry
I beg to move Amendment No. 46, in page 18, line 10, to leave out "heritages" and insert "heritage".
713 The purpose of this Amendment is to alter the interpretation Clause in such a way as to make it meaningful. The word "hereditament" is completely and utterly unknown to the law of Scotland. The Government have recognised that and have put an interpretation of that word in the Bill where it applies to Scotland. The wisdom of that is arguable. There is something to be said for importing this word into the law of Scotland. Also, there are arguments against it.
But what is inexcusable is to perpetrate in this or any other Bill what I can only describe as a grammatical monstrosity. The interpretation Clause interprets the singular word "hereditament" by "lands and heritages". It may be that a hereditament is a heritage, but one hereditament cannot be "heritages". That does not necessarily apply to "lands", because in Scotland that word is used in a singular sense. The purpose of the Amendment is to correct what I have called this grammatical monstrosity.
§ Dr. Dickson Mabon
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) and I entertained, I hope, the Committee in the debate on this matter, which is, nevertheless, quite serious. I agreed to look into it again and to take what legal advice was open to me to see whether I could meet some of the points which he raised. I wrote him a letter—I hope an acceptable letter—making a number of the points which I will have to repeat in support of my attitude on behalf of the Government in saying that the Amendment should be resisted.
The hon. Gentleman is very fair in making the point that the grammar is not right. That is absolutely true. If a Scottish term which is plural is substituted for an English term which is singular, there will clearly, on reading, be an error. The advice given to me is that the translation of "hereditament" as it has appeared in all the Scottish Valuation and Rating Acts, the Local Government Act, 1948, and the Rent Act, 1965, is consistently the same. To create a new term could be alleged to be a creation of a new legal concept.
The hon. Gentleman suggested to me that I might amend the Bill in certain respects. He wrote to me and said that he agreed that the iterated translation 714 throughout the Bill would be tedious. It would not be an iterated translation, but a reiterated translation 35 times. That would make a mess of the Bill.
I have consulted the draftsmen, and we cannot find a better way of dealing with the matter than is presently proposed in the Bill. I am strongly advised that it would be unwise—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees—to create a new phrase, "lands and heritage" which, if it appeared in the Bill as such, could be argued as being some form of entity or that it did not exist as such, not being "lands and heritages" in the common usage. I am simply retailing the very formidable legal advice which I have received from lawyers and draftsmen whose admiration for the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West has grown considerably. Nevertheless, they feel sure that he will see that it is too difficult to make the Amendment which he suggests, and I counsel the House not to accept it.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The Under-Secretary of State said very fairly that he was retailing the advice given to him by the draftsmen. This is a matter on which the House is entitled to legal advice. We know that there is not a Scottish Law Officer, but by fortunate chance the Solicitor-General is present on the Government Front Bench. No doubt he would be prepared to advise us on what appears to be a serious and difficult point of law. We are very grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for being here. We appreciate that as there are no Scottish Law Officers we shall have to do with an English one. No doubt the Solicitor-General will be prepared to help us.
§ Dr. Mabon
Before the Solicitor-General compromises the position of the Lord Advocate, although we in Scotland would much admire an English opinion on a Scottish matter—I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West and I, although we may differ on many other points, agree about that—it is not just the opinion of the draftsmen I am retailing but that of the Lord Advocate. I saw him last night and we spoke about this matter. He has advised me to advise the House in the way that I have indicated. I am sure that it will not be very long before the Lord Advocate joins us in the House.
§ Mr. G. Campbell
I am sorry that the Government cannot accept this Amendment, because they have been able to accept such a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) has put forward. I was glad to hear the tribute which the Under-Secretary of State paid to my hon. Friend's legal knowledge. I am sorry that this Amendment cannot be adopted, because the assiduity and knowledge of the law which has gone into helping the Scottish part of the Bill in this Report stage must, as the Under-Secretary of State would agree, have been very helpful to the Government.
§ Mr. Hendry
I could have expected many things from the Government, but I did not think that their ineptitude was such that they could not correct a grammatical mistake. Let this grammatical mistake be their monument.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ Mr. MacColl
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Before dealing with more general points, I should like to deal with a matter of interpretation which was raised by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) and which it was not possible to deal with on Report. During the Committee proceedings, the hon. Member raised the question of a person who was widowed just before the start of the rebate period. The question was asked whether persons in that position would be handicapped by the income of their late husbands preventing them from obtaining a rebate.
The answer which is given at column 225 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, which was given off the cuff, was wrong. A widow would not be prejudiced by that tragic occurrence and would be able immediately to claim as a widow and to get full advantage as a widow. I am grateful to the hon. Member for drawing our attention to the point. I have written to him about it, but I am glad to get it on the record and make the position clear.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not being present when he began his speech, and I thank him for his explanation of the point which I raised in Committee.
§ Mr. MacColl
We come now to the final consideration of the Bill. It does a great deal to make rates a more tolerable tax than they have been in the past. It does this in two ways. One is by making it obligatory on local authorities to have an instalment scheme. As was explained at earlier stages, such an instalment scheme is not mandatory, in the sense that if an authority already operates a perfectly good scheme with which people are content, there is no need to alter it merely for the sake of alteration. When, however, ratepayers are not satisfied with an existing scheme, the Bill gives them power to demand a statutory scheme on the lines which it sets forth. In dealing with rebates, the Bill attempts again to deal with the problem, which has defied the efforts of previous Parliaments, of making adequate provision for people who cannot pay rates.
Going back long years into history, I remember very well when London had no method of giving any kind of rebate to people except after proceedings in court, because London had a different system of rating from the provinces. Later, London obtained a comparable scheme with the provinces and this difficulty was removed. The provisions for relief on grounds of poverty, however, have never really worked. As has been said during our discussions, very little use has been made of this power and it has been treated much too narrowly. The last attempt to deal with the problem was almost the last act of the last Government, who introduced a Measure which also failed to be effective. It was not used to any great extent. It was operated by only a few authorities.
The Bill, therefore, is another attempt, and a more sensible and practical one, to deal with the problem not only by establishing provisions for people of a fairly reasonable income to be able to get a rebate of, in the case of a married couple, up to £10 a week, and more in the case of a family with children, which will be helped to an even greater extent, but also by providing a scheme which does not suddenly stop and which has a tapering scale so that an income which is above the maximum does not fail completely to qualify for rebate.
What the Rent Act did for the Milner Holland Report in making its recommendations effective, this Bill does for 717 the Alen Report. The Bill is quick action on the Allen Report and has shown that the Government are anxious to do what they can to help. On what is, perhaps, the last occasion when it will be relevant to say so, I should like to express my appreciation to Professor Allen and his colleagues for the work of their Report. It was a fact-finding Report. It was not a policy Report but was one of the most valuable statistical mines of information that one could have.
To reminisce once again, I well remember that in the days when I was paid to write things about local government there was no statistical evidence about the incidence of rates later than the late 1930s. Mr. and Mrs. Hicks completed a study which was based upon pre-war figures. Until the publication of the Allen Report, no up-to-date information was available.
We on this side do not, of course, take credit for setting up the Allen Committee—I readily acknowledge that that was done by the previous Government—but if the Allen Report had been published even earlier, we might have been able to act more quickly. When the Report eventually came, we acted quickly to put its recommendations into effect.
The Bill has been very much helped in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who is an old-fashioned democrat, has the idea that it is a good thing that where there is general agreement about a Bill, attention should be paid to the proceedings in Committee and that it is foolish for a Government not to want to improve a Bill when improvements can be effected. We have approached this matter, as we approached the Rent Bill, very much in that spirit.
We have had some helpful interventions and Amendments, and some which were not so helpful. A Government can classify the Amendments to a Bill in three categories. There are those which are good and improve the Bill and which should be adopted. There are those which are negative in the sense that they make the Bill no worse; they are probably not necessary but for the sake of harmony the Government, if they are wise, endeavour to meet the points that are made. Finally, there are the Amendments which are extremely bad, either 718 because of drafting or because the principle behind them is bad, and which should not be accepted. We have had some of those, but, as the Report stage showed, we have gone a long way to make the Bill better and to make the Committee proceedings worthwhile, because we had a very useful and constructive Committee stage.
Finally, I want to thank the members of the Committee who worked so hard on the Bill. They did a helpful job. As always, those very patient people who prepare the briefs which the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) so envies, have been of invaluable help in the kindness with which they have dealt with points that have arisen. Then, I know that my right hon. Friend would want me to say how much we owe to the draftsmen and officials of the Department who have done so much to make the Bill a valuable contribution to the history of rating reform.
§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The Bill is certainly benevolent in intention and, to some extent, in effect. As the Parliamentary Secretary has generously admitted—
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Very well, if he prefers it. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the discussions at the earlier stages have been with a genuine desire to improve it, and even the most impatient Minister could not suggest that it had been unduly delayed or prolonged. The proceedings earlier today, in which, as it seemed, Mr. Speaker was the hardest worked member present, have shown the results and fruits of the discussions during the seven sittings of the Standing Committee.
I must congratulate particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) on the improvements which, according to the Parliamentary Secretary, they have made in the Bill. There were moments when it seemed that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West was acting as the missing Scottish Law Officer, and I am sure that any Administration that had his services as such would be singularly well served.
719 It is therefore the fact that we have done our best to improve the Bill, and there have been a great many Amendments made to it. But I am afraid that it still remains a great deal less good than it could and should have been. As the Parliamentary Secretary says, it follows on the Report of the Allen Committee, and I join with the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to Professor Allen and his colleagues, whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) appointed and who reported to the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister. The Report gave to the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity to come forward with broader and perhaps more long lasting proposals than would have been possible before its receipt.
The Parliamentary Secretary skated with great skill round the outer perimeter of the rules of order on Third Reading when he referred to the earlier Measure of 1964. Lacking his skill, I shall not proceed far on that, save to comment that it was produced as a holding Measure in advance of the Allen Report to deal with the immediate short-term problems arising from revaluation.
Now I come to the Bill, the last stages of which we are discussing. As I said to the House, it seems to me and my hon. Friends that it could have been a great deal better and a great deal more helpful. Two defects remain. First of all, it is far too blunt an instrument for the purpose. It will give some help in directions where help is not particularly needed, and I am thinking, for example, of households with a number of earning members. It will give far too little help or none at all in directions in which help is really needed, in the direction particularly of single people living to a large extent on the various social and benevolent payments which we discussed during the Report stage debates on new Clauses 3 to 6.
It could have been a less blunt and more discriminating instrument, and a much more effective application of the substantial sums of public money involved. Therefore, while it is not my intention, nor would it be sensible, to dispute that it would bring some measure of help in many directions in which it is needed, the money could have been applied better, the instrument could have 720 been less blunt, and the disposition of help could have been more discriminating and, therefore, more effective. We regret that.
Its other great defect is its financial basis. The local authority associations and outside opinion have been as near as may be unanimous that when national standards of relief of this kind were being enacted by Parliament, they feel that the full cost should have been shouldered by the national Exchequer. As it is, even at this stage, we must not overlook the fact that under the provisions of the Bill, according to the right hon. Gentleman's estimate, some £7 million a year will be added to the burdens carried by other ratepayers by way of provision of rebate, and probably some £3 million more will be added to those burdens by way of the extra administrative costs.
Those figures may not loom very large against the general background of rates, but it must be remembered that they will be additional burdens imposed at a time and in a year when, in any event, the rate level will rise sharply. They will be additions to a rising burden, and no opportunity has been taken in the enactment of this Measure to discharge the pledge of right hon. Gentlemen opposite to give early relief to ratepayers in general.
It was the right hon. Gentleman's estimate that it will give relief to one ratepayer in ten. Not only will it give no relief to the other nine. It will add positively to their burdens at a time when, in any event, despite the expectations aroused by the right hon. Gentleman's promises, we know that within a few weeks most of the citizens of this country will receive disagreeable surprises on learning how much their rates have been increased.
In a considerable measure, the Bill is a lost opportunity both to redeem pledges and to give help much more widely and, as I have said in my earlier observations, to give it much more efficiently and effectively.
Being conscious of the importance of the problem and the seriousness of the burden of rates upon our fellow citizens, we on this side will do nothing and have done nothing to obstruct the Bill. But we wish to make clear how limited is the good that it will do and how limited that good is in contrast with what it might have been.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
The Bill has had a qualified welcome in the House at every stage, and it would be churlish to say anything too disparaging of it now. Nevertheless, there are two qualifications which still need to be emphasised at this final stage. The first is the qualification already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in the debate on the Report stage, that it is a Bill which will need amending in the next Parliament. She was even prepared to wager £20 on it, and I hope that the Minister will be so unwise as to take her bet.
The second qualification which must be in the minds of us all, at any rate on this side of the House, is that, as my right hon. Friend said, although the Bill will give much-needed relief to some ratepayers, it will do so in the main at the expense of all the other ratepayers. My right hon. Friend, quoting from the Financial Memorandum to the Bill, suggested the kind of figures which indicate the scale of the burden likely to fall on the other ratepayers. He referred to a figure of £7 million, which is deduced by deducting £22 million Exchequer grant from the £29 million estimate made by the Minister himself of the total burden.
My right hon. Friend added to that a figure of £3 million for administrative costs, but I think it is right also to admit to ourselves that there is bound to be another figure to add, which it is impossible to assess at this stage, a figure to take account of the fact that an unknown and incalculable number of people who at present are on National Assistance may prefer to take advantage of the provisions of the Bill to receive rate rebates instead. It is impossible to calculate how many may do so, and, therefore, how much additional burden there will be on the other ratepayers, but there will certainly be some.
At an earlier stage of the Bill I referred to the fact that although the National Assistance Board is mentioned in the Financial Memorandum there is no mention of it in the body of the Bill. It seems to me likely that this will lead to requests for information from the local authorities, which will again be a tiresome additional burden on officials who are bound to be overworked as a result of the Bill.
722 For those reasons, although none of us on this side of the House is minded to oppose a Measure which will give relief to some of our constituents, even though it be at the expense of the rest of them, we give the Bill no more than a qualified welcome, with the thought certainly not far from the back of our minds that more work will have to be done on it in a subsequent Parliament.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Hall-Davis
In opening the Third Reading debate the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made some complimentary remarks about the efforts of hon. Members on these benches and in Committee, and some not so complimentary remarks. I hope he will appreciate that if I do not spend time this evening making complimentary comments about the Bill it is because I want to concentrate on making constructive criticisms. I do so because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse), my response to the Bill is one of qualified approval, and I am certain that its provisions will not be in their present form in two year's time.
The Bill will bring welcome relief to many, but in its principal provisions it shows some marked signs of hasty preparation, and this is surprising in view of the length of time which the right hon. Gentleman took to produce it. Its provisions also show signs that it has become artificially detached from a wider and more comprehensive Measure, and I suspect that it was artificially detached in some haste by the right hon. Gentleman because the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not prepared at this juncture to raise through the Exchequer additional taxation necessary to support more comprehensive rate reforms. I believe that this fact of isolation and this lack of relation to other taxation provisions which affect the same type of person, and persons in the same ranges of income, are definite weaknesses of the Bill.
In the Ministry's Press hand-out of 26th November it was said of the Bill:This is a tax reform, and it is not aimed at the relief of hardship as such.As we consider the Bill Clause by Clause as it is now before the House, it seems to me obvious that the very reverse is the case, and I put this forward as a serious comment and criticism of the Bill. 723 for while it will bring relief from hardship to a greater or lesser degree for many people, it cannot in any way be claimed to be a Measure of tax reform, certainly not tax reform related to the general taxation system. This was the claim which was made for it when it was first published.
As the Bill stands, there is no phasing in of its income limits for relief with personal allowances and the bands of income charged at the lower tax rates for Income Tax of 4s. and 6s., and it is significant that no statistical tables have been made available to show how the Bill will work in conjunction with the Income Tax provisions. I think that one would find these extremely illuminating.
As a result of this failure of co-ordination with the Income Tax provisions, if we consider the effect of the Bill as it stands, we see that once a ratepayer's income starts to rise above £520 for a married couple, and £416 for a single person, the effect on earnings of the provisions of the Bill, combined with the operation of Income Tax and P.A.Y.E., will in certain cases be fiercely regressive—and I stress that I mean fiercely regressive—in a way which applies in no other bracket of our taxation of income.
That is ironical when one remembers that it was the regressive nature of rates which was one of the strongest reasons for making them one of the most disliked—I was going to say most detested—sectors of our taxation, and yet in our attempts to improve the position we have in some way created new "lows" in regressive taxation.
I want to give two examples to illustrate my argument, drawn from the operation of the provisions of the Bill. Let us first consider the case of the widow with one child below the age of 11. I had better qualify my comments by saying that anyone who rushes into a detailed discussion of taxation does so subject to the letters which are printed at the bottom of Private Bills—E. & O. E. As I calculate the position, however, the widow's allowances will be, for Income Tax, £375—a personal allowance of £220 and a child's allowance of £115, and I believe that she is entitled to the special type of housekeeper's allowance of £40. She will be drawing £312 per annum in National Insurance benefits. If she is 724 working, going out to maintain her independence to supplement her National Insurance benefits, when her income rises to £494, the rating relief basic figure—that is, £416 and the £78 in child allowances—she will be paying tax at the 4s. rate, and she will have paid it on £79 of that £100 in the 4s. bracket, and on the next £28 of her earnings her Income Tax and the loss of rate relief that will come from her going to work and increasing her earnings will be 8s. in the £ of those earnings, net.
If her earnings are more than £210 per annum she takes herself into the 6s. in the £ Income Tax bracket, and if her rates are £40 she will pay a tax of 9s. 8d. in the £ on her next £59 of earnings until her entitlement to rate relief is exhausted at the comparatively low income figure of £581. This would be equivalent to a standard rate of tax, on that last £59 of earnings, of 12s. 5d. if it were dealt with subject to earned income relief, in the way that the standard rate of Income Tax is dealt with.
She is getting rate relief, but she will soon start not to look at the rate relief but at the disincentive effect of the operation of that rate relief in combination with Income Tax. In case the Parliamentary Secretary finds this example somewhat involved, and in case I have done my sums wrongly, I will give him a briefer example which he can check from the Budget Financial Statement. This is the example of a single woman with her income all earned. When her income rises to the £416 basic figure she is paying £21 Income Tax on it. She has just exhausted the 4s. bracket for Income Tax. Therefore, for the next £66 of her earnings, if she is a ratepayer at the rate of £30 a year, up to the modest figure of earnings of £482 she will pay at the rate of 9s. 8d. I am quoting these figures because they are appropriate to this type of person. It is by no means unlikely that cases of this sort will exist.
She pays local tax and national tax at 9s. 8d. in the £. If we consider her loss of rate relief in the form of deductions from her earnings—and that is how people will regard it—it is equivalent to her paying at the standard rate of 12s. 5d. before earned income relief. These examples illustrate some of the serious defects in the Bill.
Where is the Bill wrong? As we have considered the Bill during its various 725 stages, I have felt that there must be a flaw or a weakness somewhere which has accentuated the regressive effect to which I have just referred. I believe it is to be found in Clause 5(6), under which the Minister has taken insufficiently wide powers to make variations. In that subsection the Minister has power, with the approval of the Treasury, to vary either the limit of income specified in subsection (4)—that is, the £260 for six months or £520 for a year for a married person, or £208 for six months or £416 for a year for a single person—and also to vary the £78 in respect of each child. But this power to vary does not relate to Clause 3(1, b) which contains another significant figure in the operation of the Bill. This is the reduction of 5s. in the rate relief for each additional £ of earnings over the basic figure for qualification for relief. The Parliamentary Secretary drew attention to the fact that this is a tapering scheme. One of the basic weaknesses of the Bill is that the tapering takes place too quickly. If the Minister had the power under the Bill to vary the 5s. figure as well as the other limits for which he has taken powers, experience would show that this was a much more valuable provision.
He would then be able, for instance by reducing the figure to 2s. 6d. in the £ instead of 5s., to do what many of us would like—assist those in the income bands above those which the Bill covers. He could also mitigate the regressive effect of the Bill very substantially on earnings in the type of cases to which I have referred.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)
Having attended many long sittings of Committees and maintained a dutiful silence for that period, I am provoked this evening to speak for perhaps five minutes in view of one or two remarks made during the debate. I should like immediately to refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) and, as an old friend of his, I think that he will take my remarks as being in the best of taste.
He was a little unfair to say that a more comprehensive rate reform Measure was needed, which would necessarily involve considerably more Exchequer help. If we are to try to make this kind of point, which has been made considerably 726 during the afternoon and evening, we must look at the matter in perspective. This Measure will cost the nation, as ratepayers or taxpayers, a total of about £29 million a year, £22 million of which will come from the Exchequer. There will be 2 million beneficiaries.
When we compare this reform with the parsimonious and cheese-paring legislation passed by the previous Government, which cost the Exchequer £50,000 a year and not £22 million—in addition, of course, to the £5 million which was admittedly paid as a once and for all measure for local authorities for a large number of elderly people—we see that this Bill is a Measure of considerable generosity.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) made the maximum possible political advantage out of the minimum possible point when he talked about the Bill resulting in an expenditure which will be a burden on other ratepayers. Of course, although it is true that the Bill will result in a burden on the non-beneficiary ratepayers of approximately a penny rate—this is the 25 per cent. contribution from the local authorities—I should be much more impressed by that point if not for the fact that the Measure passed by the previous Government resulted in a 33⅓ per cent. contribution from the local ratepayers, which was much more parsimonious.
The fact that the Bill lays down a national standard is not an impressive point to counteract this argument. It is true that there are weaknesses in the Bill: this was admitted when the Bill was presented to the House. It is precisely because of its simplicity and the desire not to complicate the Bill—it was described by the Minister as a "rough and ready" Measure—that there have inevitably been references in the debate to anomalies under the Bill.
The alternative, however, would have been to create a Bill which was so complicated and which placed such an enormous burden on the shoulders of municipal treasurers throughout the country that it would have resulted in bitterness, hostility and difficulty of implementation and would still not have seen the light of day and Third Reading in this House. This, of course, is why the Minister and the Government have opposed this wide-ranging conception of disregards.
727 The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), with her customary courtesy, insulted all before her and marched out without waiting to listen to the reply. Since she has returned to the Chamber I will remind her that in her constituency and mine there is a considerable number of elderly people who will benefit enormously from the £29 million a year of the rest of the public's money which is being given to them to relieve them of their rate burden.
The hon. Lady will know that in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne there has been a steadily rising rate burden during the last ten years. This has fallen particularly heavily on domestic ratepayers, particularly the elderly, and what is not fully known is the extent to which this Bill will help them. As I go round my constituency—and I am sure that this applies to the hon. Lady—I realise that it is not sufficiently widely known how much per week in reduced council house rents to those who qualify and reduced rate contributions for those who are owner-occupiers this Measure will mean to the elderly.
When it comes to arguing the purely party point—and I do not believe that any Government spokesman on this matter has dwelt on that aspect; I do so because I consider it necessary at this point—one need only compare the parsimonious contribution of £50,000 a year to individual ratepayers in need by the previous Government with the £29 million a year being paid to ratepayers in need by this Government.
It is not widely enough appreciated in the country—and I hope that it will become so appreciated quickly—that the Bill applies to a very wide range of people. It is not even sufficiently realised that it applies to tenants equally as to owner-occupiers, and the sooner the public knows what a wide-ranging Measure this is and what it really means to the ordinary people in terms of £ s.d. the sooner it will become widely welcomed indeed.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, in stressing the fact that other ratepayers will foot part of the bill is trying to get away with the kind of political argument that the real reason for rate increases this year is because of this Bill. A number of Conservative 728 propagandists, particularly on Tyneside, are saying that it is the Government's Rating Bill that is placing an extra burden on the shoulders of ratepayers. This is not true. If local authorities were compelled to raise rates by 1s. or 1s. 6d. in the £ in the current year, 1d. or perhaps 1½ d. might be due to this Measure. It is well known to those who are honest and sincere about this that the major reason for the increasing cost of local government services in the current year is the substantial salary awards given to members of the teaching profession—and as a former teacher I do not object to that—and other employees of local authorities.
Those who argue, "Although the Bill will help some, it does not go very far towards helping other categories of people who do not qualify under the Bill and, therefore, for them the Labour Party has not yet fulfilled its promise to give early relief to ratepayers" should not be impatient. They must await further announcements and I am sure that they will be made before long.
As a member of the Labour Party, I regard it as a great compliment to my party that we are being attacked in the country by Conservatives for not having achieved in 13 months what they failed to achieve in 13 years. This Measure will go a very long way towards solving the problems of particularly the elderly ratepayers, as well as those who are living on low incomes. The further measures which will come along will go towards helping those towns and cities which have very heavy rate burdens and costly redevelopment schemes, such as Newcastle.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) said that Conservative revaluation legislation had been of some help to domestic ratepayers because during that period there was a redistribution of the rate burden as between different categories of people. That may have been true on average—I would not know—but, from the point of view of Newcastle, as a result of those Conservative Measures the proportion of the total rateable value of that city borne by domestic ratepayers rose by 10 per cent., and it was precisely because of that that this Bill was so necessary.
§ Mr. Allason
I was referring to the 1956 revaluation and the fact that, as a 729 result of that, average rates in England and Wales came down from about 26s. to about 17s. If that did not occur in Newcastle, something peculiar must have happened.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I am referring to the revaluation carried out in the city of Newcastle as a result of legislation passed by the hon. Gentleman's own Government. If he wishes, he can check the facts, but I can tell him that the result of that revaluation of property and of other measures taken by his Government during that period, was that the proportion of rateable value there which fell on the domestic ratepayers increased by 10 per cent.
I merely make the point that it was precisely because of that, and because of the number of heavily-rated properties occupied largely by elderly people, that I welcome this Measure—
§ Mr. Allason
Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he is referring to the 1963 or the 1956 valuation? I was referring to the 1956 revaluation, but it is fairly obvious from the hon. Gentleman's later remarks that he is referring to the 1963 revaluation, which is quite different.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I was referring to the total effect of the revaluation of property in the city of Newcastle between 1956 and 1963. I was not referring to any particular time, but saying that the overall—the hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but he can check the fact if he wishes—the overall effect of Conservative rating legislation in the city of Newcastle was to increase the proportion of total rateable value falling on the domestic ratepayers by 10 per cent.—
§ Mr. Rhodes
There is really no need for me to repeat the point, but as a result of the previous Government's revaluation legislation, along with other measures affecting the valuation of industrial and commercial properties—and this is the third time I have said it—the proportion of the rate burden in the city of Newcastle which fell on the domestic ratepayers increased. I do not say that it is true of the whole country; I refer to a particular city. It was the anomalous effect of that legislation on different classes of rate-payers 730 that made further legislation necessary.
I have taken longer than the five minutes I mentioned, but in view of the long period of waiting it seemed to me that, particularly after the speech of the hon. Member for Tynemouth, someone else from the Tyneside who is very much concerned with this problem should put a fair and accurate picture.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)
I am glad that we have the provisions contained in this Bill, which we hope will soon become an Act. Let us pay tribute to what is in it, even though we may think that it should contain more. I say that in courtesy and respect to the Government for what they have done.
When a Bill marks a new departure or sets a new pattern there are two reasons why amending legislation may be necessary in the following three, four or five years. We believe that there will be an amending Measure in this case—we trust by a Conservative Government—in the course of the next three or four years, or perhaps earlier, because the more we amend it the more we hope to make it less rough justice and more impacting on those on whom it is intended to impact as a rating relief Bill.
The first reason why amending legislation becomes necessary is the light that experience throws on the working of the initial Measure. The other reason is that certain things did not find their place in the first Measure, however much we pressed for them during the proceedings. On the first count about experience I acquit the present Government or my own Government, or any other Government, because we cannot always see through the crystal ball to the next four or five years or perhaps even to the next 12 months.
I cannot acquit any Government, my own or in this case the present Government, in refusing to put in some measures—I shall not specify them or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order—which by general consent of hon. Members on both sides of the House we ought to see in a Bill of this kind. That second criticism has nothing to do with experience, but with judgment at the time such a Bill is passed into law.
731 I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said. Since this Bill is in many ways for the relief of poverty of the people at large which—I take the expression used by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East, is a national standard—I still fail to see why any part of the cost of the Bill, whether one-fifth or so much more allowing for administration costs, should fall on the funds of local authorities. This should be an assisting Bill passed by the Government giving authority to local authorities to make rate rebates. There are precedents in other walks of life for the bill to be sent to the Government and to be paid by the taxpayers as a whole.
To put one fifth, or more because of the administration costs, of the cost on to local authorities is cheeseparing and dodging the issue by the Government. We do not put the cost of National Assistance and other benefits which come from the State on to local authorities. Why should we do so for rate rebates? In Committee and on Report time and again the words "local taxes" have been used. If that is the present definition of the impost made through local authorities, why should the relief not be treated as a national tax and paid by the general body of taxpayers who are in a much better position to bear it than the average ratepayer?
Why have we got this Bill which, so far as it goes, we all welcome and will be pleased to give a Third Reading?
§ Mr. Cole
Despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, we must look at the causation of the Bill for two reasons. First it is necessary because still, in the latter part of the 20th century, we have a high degree of poverty among a number of the people. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] I do not need endorsement for I am repeating what we all know. We have been told that about 2 million people will be affected by the Bill. Presumably they are adults. The adult population of the country is 35 million approximately, so this refers to 7 per cent. of the adult population. It is a national problem, not a local problem 732 Nevertheless, it is to be dealt with through local authorities.
Another reason for the Bill is the general impost, the size and impact of rates. For these two reasons, which have appeared so intractable that they have not been cured by any Government and we look forward to the day when they will be cured, we have this Bill. We have to do something much more than this Bill if we are to clear this kind of poverty and other kinds of poverty in the country. We have to do much more than the palliative of this Bill to solve the rate problem, and much more than the right hon. Gentleman the Minister has recently proposed regarding rates. If we are not to have a Bill of this kind every year or so for the next 25 or 30 years to deal with the question of poverty, which we hope will be solved in the next few years by various suggestions made from both sides of the House, we shall have to take action on this great problem of rates.
Unless we are to have this kind of Bill regularly for the next 25 or 30 years, eroding but not solving the rates problem, someone—perhaps this Government, but I doubt it very much—must evolve a new rate pattern so that the ratepayers shall be relieved of the actual burden of rates which grows increasingly each year.
It is not only because of the financial burden, but because of what my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) called dislike of rate impost. I have no hesitation in saying, that even though there has been a rate system of one kind or another in this country for the last three centuries, and in its present form for the last 70 or 80 years, there has never been a time, not only because of the amount of money but because of the very fact of rates and all that goes with it, when the rates have been an object of such great detestation by the average ratepayer as is the case today. Some Government must solve this problem, not by palliatives or reliefs, but by taking the whole problem in one and finding a solution that will make this necessary local tax more amenable to ratepayers' pockets and to their viewpoints.
§ 8.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
We have just been told that the reason for the Bill is that there is a high 733 degree of poverty amongst a high proportion of our people. But this was not said yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition. He spoke of an affluent society with small islands of poverty. The Opposition should reconcile the two points of view put forward. The reason why we have this Bill is that we have a Labour Government who recognised the need and brought in a Measure to meet that need. Certainly no one on the Opposition side would deny there is a need and this Bill will go some way towards meeting it
I do not share the optimism of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) that the next Government will be a Conservative Government. I have my own version of that. I only hope that the decision comes very soon. I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) "broke his fast" and joined in this debate. I do not know how my hon. Friend, who is P.P.S. to a Minister for whom he has such high regard, was able to keep silent for so long on a subject in which he is so deeply involved. It is not without significance that parts of Newcastle-on-Tyne are now called "Rhodesia".
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) said there was a serious defect in the Bill. In fact, he admitted quite freely that he deliberately set out to look for a flaw and he found it. All 630 Members of this House could find defects in any Bill that came before us.
§ Mr. Cole
My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis), whom I cannot see here at the moment, did not say that. I listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend said. My hon. Friend said that he had tried to find a reason why certain items of people's finances were to be treated in a particular way. He said that he had found the answer in Clause 5.
§ Mr. Ogden
I will accept what the hon. Gentleman said, but the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale said that he had looked for flaws and had found one. We can all criticise any Bill, and if a time comes when there is no criticism of a Bill from the Floor of the House we can all go home. The millenium 734 will have arrived and we shall not need Governments, Parliaments or anybody else.
This is an extremely good Bill, but there are people outside who do not yet know the benefits which will be derived from it. It is assumed that it is primarily for owner-occupiers and, secondly, for the tenants of private houses. But it is not sufficiently widely known that it applies also to the tenants of corporation houses. I know that in my constituency this point is not well enough known, and it must be hammered home. I do not yet know how it will affect differential rent schemes or rent rebate schemes, but I understand that, under the terms of the Bill as amended and now before us, there is no reason why corporation tenants should not apply for these benefits as for anything else which is open to them. When the Bill finally receives the Royal Assent, there will have to be explanatory leaflets or booklets of information to bring these matters to the notice of everyone.
It is a good Bill. We should congratulate the Government on bringing it in at this time, and a share of congratulation should go to right hon. and hon. Members opposite for having given it a reasonably speedy passage. They welcome it now, and their conversion is welcomed. Let us get the Bill through and let the benefits come along as soon as they possibly can.
§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)
On Second Reading both sides of the House welcomed the Bill as giving relief to ratepayers with low incomes, but it was pointed out then that, from the point of view of hon. Members on this side, it had a fundamental flaw in the method whereby relief was to be given. A considerable part of the cost of giving relief was to fall upon other ratepayers. When the Money Resolution came before the House, I pointed out that its terms were likely to prevent any suitable Amendment being made to improve the form of the Bill in this respect, and I regret to say that that prophecy has come true. The form of the Bill is still such that the cost of providing relief will fall very considerably on ratepayers with incomes above the limits set in it, quite apart from the cost of financing the administration of the 735 Bill which itself may be not inconsiderable.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) tended to talk in terms of the overall picture for the country as a whole, but it should be made clear once again that the flaw to which I have just referred means that in areas which are very hard hit by rising rates, as my constituency is, although relief will be given to a good number of people, there will be a considerably increased burden falling on the remainder of ratepayers. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that the earlier Measure introduced by the Conservatives was parsimonious. In fact, my constituency received about £82,000 under Part I of that Act in the first year and considerable further relief as well. For my constituency, therefore, which is one of the worst hit, this Bill is not a satisfactory Measure from that point of view.
The Bill, it is true, gives relief to ratepayers with low incomes, but this covers two groups: on the one hand, those who are low income wage earners and, on the other hand, those who are living on low fixed incomes. But these two groups are, in fact, separate and, as inflation takes place, the low wage earners will be likely to have some increase in their wages, although those wages are low, while those on fixed incomes will be unlikely to have any increase. For this reason, I was very sorry that we were unable to defeat the Government on the new Clauses debated earlier today.
As I have said, the consequence of the Bill will be that quite a large percentage of the cost is borne by ratepayers, even though it was suggested in the present Government's election manifesto that they would transfer the burden of public local expenditure from the ratepayers to the Exchequer. Clearly, in preparing the Bill, the Minister was not prepared to put the whole burden on the Exchequer. In an earlier debate, to which I referred in a supplementary question to the Prime Minister last week, I pointed out that the Minister had told the House that he was unable to transfer more of the cost of public expenditure from the rates to the Exchequer because of the economic situation. I would be most interested to hear, because that point recurs in the principle underlying the Bill 736 and in the form that it takes, how it is that the right hon. Gentleman believes that such a transfer from the ratepayer to the taxpayer is impossible because of the economic situation.
This is more than a matter of passing interest because it seems possible that, owing to the pressure that we on this side have been bringing to bear, such a transfer may eventually take place, even though the economic situation has not significantly improved. If that is so, we need an explanation of the statement by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
While one welcomes the relief to be given to ratepayers with small incomes, it seems to me that the Bill was originally misconceived. But because of the Money Resolution it has been impossible to amend it satisfactorily. The Bill's objective is to be applauded, but the principle on which it is to be financed is to be deplored.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Hendry
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) described this as a very good Bill. I hope that the Minister heard him and has chalked up a good mark to him. If the hon. Member thinks that this is a very good Bill then his standard must be pretty low. I would rather describe it as a mixed Bill, rather like the curate's egg—good in parts and very bad in other parts. It is like an egg that cracks in hot water so that all the goodness goes into the water.
§ Mr. Hendry
That is a matter of taste.
One part of the Bill provides for the payment of rates by instalments and the other gives certain rebates for persons in need. Particularly in the first part, the Bill, as has been said, is a lost opportunity.
The Bill is very imperfect as far as Scotland is concerned and it could have been very much better with a little thought. For Scotland, the Bill produces a hotch-potch, based on the English model, providing for the first half of the rates to be paid in instalments—which bears some relation to reality—but, in relation to the second half of the year. 737 bearing no relation to reality at all because of an Amendment providing for review. It is an extremely unsatisfactory Bill in that respect and I hope sincerely that this Government or the next will amend the Bill for Scotland and bring in something really sensible.
I am glad to say that, in our consideration of the Bill, it has been greatly improved even for Scotland, and I am grateful to the Government for small mercies in accepting Amendments from this side which have done a great deal to improve what, for Scotland, is a very mediocre Bill.
Part II, dealing with rebates, is desirable and I am glad of it, but it could have been a great deal better. However, we have discussed that and it would be improper for me to go into detail. My hopes for the Bill have been, to a large extent, dashed.
What has the Bill done? This is not a matter of the Government in their magnanimity undertaking some of the rate burden now resting on the poor. They have put a large part of that burden on other ratepayers. In other words, those ratepayers who are not being relieved, many people who are owner-occupiers and who have saved up and bought properties with high rateable values, will have to bear a burden which should have been borne by national funds. The relief of poverty should not be the concern of local authorities and ratepayers. That is fairly and squarely the Government's responsibility. It is a national problem which the Government have failed to shoulder, and which they have foisted on local authorities which are finding that the rate burden has not been relieved so much as simply transferred from one set of ratepayers to another. In that respect the Bill is very disappointing. I hope that the Government will overcome their ineptitude and produce a better Bill, or, better still, that the Government are cast out and that we get a Government who will deal with this problem in a proper and sensible manner.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Dame Irene Ward
I am sorry to intervene again and I apologise to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) for not being able to come into the Chamber until the middle of his speech. I do not think that he was here 738 when I explained that I should be unable to remain to hear the answer of the right hon. Gentleman. I apologised about that, although I did not feel that I wanted to hear much from the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.
I say at once that whatever my faults may be and however much newcomers may battle with problems—and the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East has been here only a very short time and has not battled with this problem for the long number of years that I have fought for those on small fixed incomes—and whether people like my methods and what I have to say or not, I have always assumed that even the Labour Party would appreciate my welcome for any step to relieve those on small fixed incomes of some of their rate burdens. I have tried to be honourable, sincere and genuine, and I have never had those aspects of my character questioned.
I made my position very plain at the last General Election when I said that a reasonable proportion of the education costs should be borne by the Exchequer and not by the ratepayers. I did not know whether my party agreed with me, but that did not worry me, because I knew that I agreed. Needless to say, I was severely criticised by my political opponent, who did not seem to be interested in the problems of the rate burdens of those living on small fixed incomes. I am always delighted at any stage when the Government or my own party come to the rescue of those living on small fixed incomes.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East, who is very much a newcomer to the House, is a very good debater. He makes a lot of speeches and he gets a lot of headlines. He does a good deal of stirring the pot.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Roderic Bowen)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not mentioned in the Bill which is now having its Third Reading.
§ Dame Irene Ward
The pot gets stirred whether we are having a Third Reading or not. However, I leave it there having got my reference to his stirring the pot on the record.
One of the problems of this Bill is that although relief is given to the small fixed income group and the lower income 739 group, there is no provision for what I would call the marginal people. This is a real problem as I tried to explain in Committee. In part of my constituency there is an above-average number of retired people. Last Saturady I had a long conversation about how this Bill would affect Whitley Bay. The problem is that the marginal people, who are just not in the income group for relief, will at the same time have to pay the increased burden. I do not think that from a humane point of view the Government have really seen the whole picture.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East talked most eloquently about Newcastle. I know that the Minister and the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East are busy trying to put the enormous rate burden that has been accumulating in Newcastle on to the rest of Tyneside, but we are not having it. It is not surprising that the hon. Gentleman should talk so eloquently about Newcastle's problems. The whole of Tyneside is well aware of what is going to happen to the rates. It may be that even those who have relief are going to find themselves overburdened unless we win our battle. I think that we are going to do this. We are going to squash the right hon. Gentleman and his plans.
The hon. Gentleman has made a case over the problems of Newcastle. We know about these and we are getting ready to build an entrenchment against Newcastle. The other parts of Tyneside, the North and the South Bank—
§ Dame Irene Ward
I really have very little to say about the Bill [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I hope Mr. Speaker that you will remember that we in the North were great fighters—
§ Mr. Speaker
May I remind the hon. Lady that I come from the North myself, but on the Third Reading of a Bill even Northcountry people must speak to what is in the Bill.
§ Dame Irene Ward
As I say there is a facade surrounding the Bill so far as Tyneside is concerned. It is difficult to talk about it within the rules of order, but nevertheless the facade is there. All 740 I want to say is that we are very delighted that at least some action has been taken to relieve those living on small fixed incomes and on low incomes. However much the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East may attack me, I have been consistent in fighting for those living on small fixed incomes—indeed I think we have something in common there. I am naturally pleased that some action has been taken, but a great deal more is needed. I noticed in tonight's paper—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. There may be a great deal more that has to be done, but it is not in this Bill and it cannot be discussed in this debate.
§ Dame Irene Ward
I will not detain the House any longer except to say "Thank you" for the parts of the Bill that I like and for the parts of it which my constituents seem to like. I do not give any thanks on behalf of the marginal people. I have already been told that the administrative costs will be pretty high. We have already had in Whitley Bay to upgrade some of our staff to deal with these problems. The problem of dealing with the people who will get the rebate is far more complicated than the problem of the people for whom we wanted to get certain extra reliefs which was turned down partly because of the administrative difficulty. The administrative difficulty is nothing compared with what will have to be done by the very fine administrative staff we have. But we must have extra staff.
I cannot help feeling that, although I welcome the Bill, it would have been a much better way of dealing with this problem if we had been able to take a substantial portion of the education rate off the ratepayers and put it on to the Treasury.
§ Dame Irene Ward
That may well be so, but everybody else has been right outside the Bill. I am a very keen listener and I have heard many people make these points. It did not seem to me that I could be out of order—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Lady is usually very fair. Even if other hon. Members were out of order, that is no justification for her being out of order.
§ Dame Irene Ward
I fully accept that, Mr. Speaker, but sometimes there is a terrible temptation to be led, especially when so many people were fortunate in getting away with it.
I know that the Bill will be passed. It will bring great satisfaction and a great deal of happiness to many people who will be relieved of fear. For quite a long time there has been a tremendous build-up of fear among those who are worried about the extent of the increases in their rate burden. The rates have gone up by leaps and bounds since the Government came to power. A frightfully dangerous fear complex was being built up. As I, like all hon. Members, like my constituents to be happy and to have confidence in the future, I think that the Bill will relieve part of their anxiety, and for that I am extremely grateful.
But I do not like being challenged on my views on the Bill as though I had never tried to do anything for those living on small fixed incomes. I do not want to see the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East, returned, but had he been here a little longer he would perhaps have known that this is one of my pet and special subjects. When he takes pleasure, as he will, in making tremendous speeches on Tyneside about the Bill, I ask him to remember that the people know that for very many years, perhaps even before he was born, I have been arguing the case for those living on small fixed incomes.
Therefore, I thank the Government for the small mercies in the Bill, and I hope that I shall live to fight another day.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)
May I bring the debate from the battle of Newcastle to Birmingham. The citizens of Birmingham will be wholly grateful for the Bill, without any reservation. The authority in Birmingham had a rate rebate scheme before the Bill was introduced which it was financing entirely out of the rates. It felt that the need to deal with this problem for the ratepayer was so acute that it should be dealt with even if the whole burden were borne by the rates.
Ratepayers are, therefore, wholly grateful for the Bill, which introduces a scheme of rebates different in some respects from the Birmingham scheme, but, none the 742 less, a very good scheme of rebates, which will be financed to the extent of three-quarters by the Exchequer. For this, not only the poorer citizens of Birmingham but all its citizens will be grateful for the Bill, which is a very good Bill indeed.
It has been said that the Bill is rather like the curate's egg—good in parts. I wonder whether the taste which hon. Members opposite are tasting is the taste of an egg or of sour grapes. I wonder what terms of praise they would have used for the Bill had they introduced it themselves. The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) has talked about her battle for the small fixed income group, but she had to wait for a Labour Government—
§ Mr. Silverman
—before she could get this scheme. The hon. Lady said that she had been battling for a long time, but it did not get her anywhere—
§ Mr. Silverman
—until we had a Labour Government to do it.
The Bill transfers from the ratepayer to the Exchequer the sum of £22 million a year in hard cash, and that is a considerable contribution towards the relief of the ratepayer. It is true that it is not a relief to all ratepayers. It is a relief to those ratepayers who need it most. This means that £22 million is going to the ratepayers who need this relief most.
Wherever we draw the line, there must always be some people immediately above it who do not come off too well. That is inevitable, but, unfortunately, a line has to be drawn somewhere. It may be that at a later stage the line may be extended—I hope that it will be when the country's finances allow it—but at present the Bill deals with those who are most in poverty. I say without reservation that this is a good Bill, even though it may be improved upon in future. All the citizens of the country should welcome it, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on what he has done.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Mr. MacColl
This time, I ought to ask for the permission of the House to wind up the debate. I do not always bask in the approval of my hon. Friend 743 the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman) and rarely do I bask in the approval of the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). It has been a happy end to our proceedings. Hon. Members have been united in saying that this is a good and valuable Bill which will do something effective and constructive to help people with low incomes. That is precisely the intention of the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said that the Bill was too blunt an instrument for its purpose. What it has done is to steer its way between two dangers. On the one hand, it has avoided the trap of getting involved in an extremely complicated welfare operation with extremely sensitive, difficult and complicated instruments by which so much time would have been taken in assessing people's needs, but nothing would have happened for a long time.
To get the Bill through and operating quickly and worked by local authorities, the ideas underlying it had to be not too complicated. On the other hand, it must not duck the issue, as the 1964 Act did, by simply producing something which was completely ineffective. The Bill is a workable middle way between those two extremes.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames picked out two points on which he thought that the Bill was unfair. One was the question of earning members of households. The right hon. Gentleman's comments were interesting in showing that, even after all our consideration of the Bill and our debate both in Committee and today, he still hankers after the household means test. I still do not think that he understands how effective to check the abatement of recoverable rates is. If a householder has two lodgers, he can only recover rebate on half the rates. That is an effective instrument, yet it is one which avoids all the problems which presented difficulties in the working of the last Act by trying to go into the means of people, who were not members of the family.
The other criticism that he made was that it did too little for single people. There are two respects in which the Bill is aware of the special difficulties of single people. The first is that the income 744 minimum is proportionately higher for single people than it is for married couples. It is £208 for a single person, compared with £260 for a married couple, and that was done precisely because the Allen Report suggested that it was among single people that the most hardship was to be found. The other point is the power that there is to change the income levels if it is found that they are not working fairly.
The final point that the right hon. Gentleman criticised was the financial basis, and that has been a theme through most of the comments made about the Bill. Listening to the debate, one would get the impression without studying the Bill that it was an attempt to force local authorities to spend money without any grant at all. But the rebate scheme does not increase the amount to be met by local authorities. What it does is redistribute it.
The financial assistance is substantial both in this country and in Scotland. In Scotland, compared with £1 million spread over two years, which is what the 1964 Act offered, the Bill is giving £3 million every year to the Scottish local authorities. So it is an effective contribution, and I should have thought that local authorities would welcome the opportunity that it gives to make their rating system a more human and well-balanced instrument than it could be before. After all, I remember reading that back in history there was a political slogan, "Ninepence for fourpence". This is very much the same kind of thing, because, in return for an expenditure of £7 million, it is possible for the local authorities to have £29 million which they can use for redistributing and meeting the needs of the poorest ratepayers. That is a very substantial help from the Exchequer. It is not a question of extra expenditure. It is a grant towards a fairer redistribution of the rate burden, which I should have thought was something that could have been welcomed.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
When the Parliamentary Secretary says that it is a grant which the local authorities can use towards redistributing the rate burden, would it not be more accurate to say that it is something which they are bound to use to redistribute it in accordance with the provisions imposed by the Government?
§ Mr. MacColl
Yes, because in 1964 the then Administration left it entirely to them to work. It did not work, and nothing was done. It is essential, if the right hon. Gentleman is to be able to look the hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth in the face in the Division Lobby, that she must be able to know that the money is going to the people with small incomes.
§ Mr. MacColl
It will not be lost. The effectiveness of the Bill rests in the fact that it gives a clear and decisive lead to local authorities to make their system of rates more effective; yet, at the same time, it puts the large majority of the cost on Exchequer funds.
I do not think that I need go into a detailed analysis of the other points which have been made, because I think that they have all turned on substantially the same argument. To suggest that because rates are going up and because they are a burden that is a reason for not introducing the Bill, which is what one hon. Gentleman opposite said, seems a most extraordinary argument. It is because rates are going up, because they are such a burden, that the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) said that they were the most disliked sector of the taxation system. He did not go on to say that they had been so disliked for so many years without anything being done about them. At last something is going to be done. Some help is going to be given to people who most need the help, and therefore I think the House should welcome the Bill in a most warm and cordial way.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.