HC Deb 09 November 1966 vol 735 cc1423-33

8.30 p.m.

Mr. G. Campbell

I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 13, line 25, after 'months' to insert: 'and unless the owner of the property can establish that the vacant state of the property is caused by the carrying out of modifications or improvement of the said property'. This is another of the points raised in Committee which the hon. Gentleman said he would put his mind to, to see if there was any way in which he could meet us. I observe that there is a later Amendment, No. 68, and I would say to the hon. Gentleman that if that is intended to meet our point, we do not think it does; we think it meets another point which is a good one, but not the one we are making here.

I think that hon. Gentlemen on both sides of this House are in favour of properties being improved—of bathrooms being put in, and so on—and of modifications and improvements which bring houses and flats up to date and make them more habitable. I do not think there is any argument about that. The question is whether an owner of property should be charged what looks like being, if another Amendment goes through, three-quarters of the rates if, through no fault of his own, he is held up and cannot get done within the three months the improvements which need to be done to his house and at the same time cannot occupy the property—or it would be very inconvenient to occupy it.

We believe that this should be one of the exceptions to be allowed, and included in the Bill. There are other exceptions included in Clause 21. They are reasonable ones, and we believe that this is also a very reasonable case—where a person can show that it is not his fault that the property is empty. It may be that he has done all that he possibly could to get the job started at the right time, but we all know of cases where unfortunately the builders do not come, or cannot come, at the time when those who are employing them wish them to come. We believe there should be an exception in this case.

Amendment No. 68, which we shall come to, deals with the situation where there are structural alterations taking place and the house or flat disappears as a result—three houses get converted into two. That is an entirely different situation. Clearly, it is one which it is reasonable to meet, but that does not meet the point which we are making here, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can tell us that he is sympathetic to this Amendment and that, if he cannot do something about it tonight, he will be able to make an Amendment in another place in due course.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

With reference to the last point the hon. Gentleman made, I think that if he looks further at the Notice Paper—he probably has—he will see that we have taken this point in relation to the point of conversions——

Mr. G. Campbell

That is exactly the point. I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's Amendment No. 68, and saying that I have seen that, and recognise that it is a good point, but that it is a different one from this.

Dr. Mabon

I accept that. What I was going to say, in commenting on the hon. Gentleman's last point in relation to the Amendment later on, and which we shall discuss, was that we have given great consideration to this point, and have gone into this thoroughly, but the more one studies this the more the fear I expressed in Committee becomes even greater, that if it were written into the Bill that there should be exemption while modifications are being carried on, that would drive too large a loophole into the new provision for the rating of empty property.

We have looked to see how we could tighten this up, but I am still of the same view that it is better to leave it to the local authority to exercise discretion in each individual case. It is very difficult to try to describe a general circumstance which we make mandatory on local authorities. In fact, the more one attempts to describe it, the more one gets into difficulties.

Therefore, one must fall back, I believe, on the discretion of local authorities not to levy rates in cases where alterations are genuinely being carried out. I do not think local authorities will misuse the discretion.

I do not see that we can make mandatory a provision giving exemption on the basis of modifications, however slight, being carried out. We have struggled quite a lot with this and have even looked into various cases, but it defeats us. I think it is better to leave it to the local authorities to take each individual case. After all, they are obliged to exercise a discretion, even after registration and the rest, because the local authority must still decide in each case whether or not the case is unreasonable in its eyes.

That being so, public debate is the best safeguard that the individual concerned will not be unfairly treated but, on the other hand, that the existence of this will not be misused by the landlord to defeat the provisions of the Clause.

Mr. Wylie

The Under-Secretary of State has put his finger on the difficulty which inevitably flows from the wording of the whole Clause. It was something which was argued at length in Committee upstairs. What we have said all along is that, if we remove the criterion of reasonableness that stood in Section 17 of the 1956 Act which is being repealed by the Clause, it is very difficulty to spell out the circumstances in which Clause 20 will not apply. The hon. Gentleman has described this difficulty very well. His concern about Section 17 of the 1956 Act is and always has been that it was unworkable because the onus was on the local authority to prove that the premises were being left vacant without reasonable cause.

At an earlier stage, we sought to accept a shifting of the onus to put it on the occupier to show that the premises were being left vacant with reasonable cause, and an Amendment of that kind would have solved all the problems to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention.

I am not happy about the wording of this Amendment, for the reasons which

I have suggested. It is not satisfactory to have to spell out the detailed circumstances in which the provisions of the Section will not apply. But, unless something along those lines is done, the result may well be a great deal of hardship on an occupier who has to leave a property vacant for those reasons.

What the Secretary of State is saying is, "We will rely on the local authorities to use their discretion in the matter, and they will not act unreasonably." In 1956, Parliament thought fit to incorporate a criterion on this matter, but the Government had departed from that criterion, and that is their difficulty.

Even at this late stage, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the Amendment again and possibly consider whether it might be better to put in some general criterion of reasonableness which would probably solve the whole difficulty.

Mr. G. Campbell

The reply which the hon. Gentleman has given us is not satisfactory. We believe that Parliament should guide local authorities in these matters, leaving it to their discretion to deal with individual cases. For that reason, we propose to press the Amendment.

Mr. James Davidson

To prove our consistency in this matter I support the Government view on this, because I do not believe that the Amendment is well worded, and it will force a hole into the Clause. I have made the point emphatically enough already that we on the Liberal bench are opposed to the conception of the derating of unoccupied property, and the Clause goes some way towards the rating of unoccupied property.

Question put, That those words be there inserted in the Bill:—

The House divided: Ayes 105, Noes 192.

Division No. 198.] AYES [8.39 p.m.
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Bullus, Sir Eric Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.)
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Burden, F. A. Deedes, Rt. Hn. w. F. (Ashford)
Atkins, Humphrey (M't'n & M'd'n) Campbell, Gordon Dodds-Parker, Douglas
Baker, W. H. K. Cary, Sir Robert Doughty, Charles
Batsford, Brian Chichester-Clarke, R. Eden, Sir John
Biffen, John Corfield, F. V. Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton)
Blaker, Peter Costain, A. P. Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.)
Brinton, Sir Tatton Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Eyre, Reginald
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Currie, G. B. H. Fletcher-Cooke, Charles
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N&M) Dance, James Fortescue, Tim
Galbraith, Hn. T. G. Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Russell, Sir Ronald
Gibson-Watt, David MacArthur, Ian Scott, Nicholas
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Maginnis, John E. Sharples, Richard
Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.) Maude, Angus Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Gower, Raymond Mawby, Ray Sinclair, Sir George
Grant, Anthony Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Stodart, Anthony
Cresham Cooke, R. Mills, Peter (Torrington) Summers, Sir Spencer
Gurden, Harold Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Talbot, John E.
Hall, John (Wycombe) Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Taylor, Edward M. (G'gow, Cathcart)
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Monro, Hector Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N. W.) Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Temple, John M.
Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere Nabarro, Sir Gerald Tilney, John
Hawkins, Paul Onslow, Cranley Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Osborn, John (Hallam) Walker, Peter (Worcester)
Heseltine, Michael Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth) Weatherill, Bernard
Hiley, Joseph Page, Graham (Crosby) Webster, David
Hobson, Rt. Hn. Sir John Page, John (Harrow, W.) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Holland, Philip Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe) Whitelaw, William
Howell, David (Guildford) Percival, Ian Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Hunt, John Pink, R. Bonner Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Hutchison, Michael Clark Pounder, Rafton Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Jennings, J. C. (Burton) Prior, J. M. L. Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
Jopling, Michael Pym, Francis Wylie, N. R.
Kirk, Peter Ridsdale, Julian
Kitson, Timothy Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Knight, Mrs. Jill Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Mr. Jasper More and
Mr. George Younger.
Albu, Austen Ellis, John McCann, John
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) English, Michael MacColl, James
Archer, Peter Ensor, David Macdonald, A. H.
Armstrong, Ernest Fernyhough, E. Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.) Finch, Harold Mackie, John
Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.) Mackintosh, John P.
Baxter, William Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Maclennan, Robert
Bence, Cyril Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)
Bennett, James (G'gow, Bridgeton) Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) McNamara, J. Kevin
Bishop, E. S. Forrester, John MacPherson, Malcoim
Blackburn, F. Fraser, Rt. Hn. Tom (Hamilton) Mahon, Simon (Bootle)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Galpern, Sir Myer Manuel, Archie
Boardman, H. Cardner, Tony Mapp, Charles
Booth, Albert Garrett, W. E. Mendelson, J. J.
Boston, Terence Garrow, Alex Millan, Bruce
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Ginsburg, David Miller, Dr. M. S.
Brooks, Edwin Courlay, Harry Milne, Edward (Blyth)
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)
Buchan, Norman Gregory, Arnold Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Cant, R. B. Grey, Charles (Durham) Moyle, Roland
Carter-Jones, Lewis Griffiths, Rt. Hn. James (Lianelly) Newens, Stan
Chapman, Donald Hale, Leslie (Oldham, W.) Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)
Coe, Denis Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Norwood, Christopher
Coleman, Donald Harming, William Oakes, Gordon
Concarmon, J. D. Hannan, William O'Malley, Brian
Conlan, Bernard Haseldine, Norman Orme, Stanley
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Hazell, Bert Oswald, Thomas
Crawshaw, Richard Heffer, Eric S. Owen, Will (Morpeth)
Cronin, John Henig, Stanley Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony Hooson, Emlyn Paget, R. T.
Cullen, Mrs. Alice Howarth, Harry (Wellingborough) Palmer, Arthur
Dalyell, Tam Howie, W. Pardoe, John
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Hughes, Roy (Newport) Park, Trevor
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Hunter, Adam Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)
Davies, Ednyfed Hudson (Conway) Hynd, John Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)
Davies, Iford (Gower) Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh) Pentland, Norman
Davies, Robert (Cambridge) Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak) Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
de Freitas, Sir Geoffrey Jeger, George (Goole) Price, Thomas (Westhoughton)
Dell, Edmund Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Probert, Arthur
Dempsey, James Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Pursey, Cmdr. Harry
Dewar, Donald Jones, Dan (Burnley) Rankin, John
Dickens, James Kelley, Richard Redhead, Edward
Dobson, Ray Kenyon, Clifford Rhodes, Geoffrey
Doig, Peter Kerr, Dr. David (W'worth, Central) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Donnelly, Desmond Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Robinson, W. O. J. (Walth'stow, E.)
Driberg, Tom Lawson, George Rodgers, William (Stockton)
Dunn, James A. Lestor, Miss Joan Rose, Paul
Durnnett, Jack Lomas, Kenneth Ross, Rt. Hn. William
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter) Loughlin, Charles Rowlands, E. (Cardiff, N.)
Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e) Luard, Evan Sheldon, Robert
Eadie, Alex Lubbock, Eric Shore, Peter (Stepney)
Edwards, Rt. Hn. Ness (Caerphilly) Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Short, Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne)
Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.)
Edwards, William (Merioneth) McBride, Neil Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Silverman, Julius (Aston) Tinn, James Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Silverman, Sydney (Nelson) Tomney, Frank Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Slater, Joseph Varley, Eric G. Williams, Mrs. Shirley (Hitchin)
Small, William Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley) Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)
Spriggs, Leslie Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley) Winterbottom, R. E.
Steel, David (Roxburgh) Wallace, George Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Steele, Thomas (Dunbartonshire, W.) Watkins, David (Consett) Woof, Robert
Stewart, Rt Hn. Michael Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor) Zilliacus, K.
Summerskill, Hn. Dr. Shirley Whitlock, William
Thomas, George (Cardiff, W.) Wilkins, W. A. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Thornton, Ernest Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.) Mr. Ioan L. Evans and
Mr. Walter Harrison.
Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 28, in page 13, line 33, after 'Act', to insert: 'the amount of any rates payable by an owner in respect of a dwelling-house by virtue of this section shall be three-quarters of the amount which would be payable if he were in occupation of the dwelling-house, and'. I suggest, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that we should take, with this Amendment, Amendment No. 29, in page 13, line 34, after 'of', insert 'other'.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that it would be convenient to take that Amendment at the same time.

Dr. Mabon

Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

We have to some extent, in our discussion of new Clauses 3 and 4, anticipated the argument here, but hon. Members who were on the Committee will recollect that the Government were urged by many of my hon. Friends to raise the 50 per cent. in respect of empty property under this Clause to 100 per cent. For various reasons, we have decided that it would be fair and reasonable in the circumstances that the charge leviable on owners of empty houses shall be three-quarters of the normal rates, while remaining at 50 per cent. of the normal rates in respect of other types of property.

As I said in our earlier debates, we are satisfied that keeping houses empty without good cause is such a social evil that it must be made plain that it will attract a higher penalty. I hope that, with the rephrasing of Section 17 of the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1956, now Clause 20 of this Act, with the two new Clauses which we incorporated into the Bill earlier and with this Amendment, we have reached a reasonable stage in trying to make this part of the law workable and, we hope, salutary in its effects on this social evil.

Mr. G. Campbell

We do not see any reason why the Government should suddenly have decided to "bump up" this rate from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent., but, as we have made clear tonight, we are more concerned with possible injustice to citizens who may not know about the notification procedure and with people who have perfectly good reason for exemption, if their house is empty because of reasons outwith their control. These are important points. We see no particular reason for the change.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 29, in page 13, line 34, after 'of', insert 'other'.—[Mr. Ross.]

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 30, in page 14, line 3, to leave out from 'part' to 'and' in line 4.

This Amendment modifies the definition of the lands and heritages on which the empty property rate can be charged. In the present Bill, these lands and buildings are stated to include all machinery and plant in or on the building. This is misleading in the case of industrial buildings where there is a corpus of statute and case law—of which I reminded the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) earlier—determining which types of machinery and plant are rateable. It is not desired to disturb this. Therefore, the Amendment proposes to omit the reference to machinery and plant.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move, Amendment No. 31, in page 14, line 12 to leave out subsection (5) and to insert: (5) Where lands and heritages which are unoccupied become occupied on any day and become unoccupied again on the expiration of a period of less than six weeks beginning with that day, then, for the purpose of ascertaining any period of three months during which the lands and heritages have been continuously unoccupied and any relevant period of vacancy in respect of the lands and heritages, they shall be deemed to have remained unoccupied on that day and during that period. This is a drafting Amendment, which simplifies and shortens the subsection.

Mr. G. Campbell

This seemed to me to be a consequential Amendment following from new Clauses 3 and 4 and I thought that it meant that if, during two months or the full three months, there were a token occupation and therefore an abuse—if the owner came back for one day or a tenant occupied the house for one day and therefore technically terminated the period of the house being empty—this would deal with it. Why has the period been made six weeks? This seems a long time.

I mentioned earlier the case of Service men or others who might have to move away because of their work, who let to a tenant who left, and who were then unable to relet, and left the house unoccupied. If they came back for a holiday, I said, it was likely to be for less than six weeks. Why has six weeks been chosen? It was presumably only a token occupation with which the Amendment was meant to deal.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The effect of the Amendment is to leave the position exactly as it was in the Bill. I thought that this was agreeable. The broad effect of both the previous position and this is that if empty property is reoccupied for periods of under six weeks, this does not count and the 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. rate can still be levied three months after the building first became unoccupied. I thought that we had clarified the reason for having a period of six weeks. It is virtually half of the appropriate period. I do not think that a day or anything like that would be at all appropriate. It has to be a term of weeks. It was thought best that it should be six weeks.

Amendment agreed to.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 32, in page 14, line 34, after 'for' to insert: ', or for any part of the three months beginning with the day following the end of,'.

This Amendment ensures that when property which is exempt from the empty property rate for one of the reasons set out in subsection (23) loses its exemption because of a change in circumstances, it will still have the usual three months' grace. For example, the empty property rate cannot be levied on a building which is subject to a building preservation order, and if the order is rescinded the rate cannot be levied until three months later.

Amendment agreed to.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 33, in page 14, line 37, to leave out paragraph (b) and to insert: (b) the lands and heritages are kept vacant by reason of action taken by or on behalf of the Crown or any local or public authority with a view to prohibiting the occupation of the land and heritages or to acquiring them. This is a drafting Amendment, which simplifies the provision about the exemption from empty property rating of lands which are vacant as a result of action taken by the central or local authorities to acquire them or to prohibit their occupation.

Amendment agreed to.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move, Amendment No. 34, in page 15, line 2, to leave out 'or'.

May I suggest that we should discuss, at the same time, Amendments Nos. 35 and 36?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the House agrees we can discuss Amendments Nos. 34, 35, 36 together.

Dr. Mabon

Amendments Nos. 34 and 36 taken together exempt manses and other clergymen's houses from empty property rating. There was a statutory exemption agreed in the proceedings on the English Bill. One of the Churches in Scotland asked for this exemption. Naturally we looked at the matter. While we thought that local authorities could be trusted not to levy rates on empty manses, we felt it not unreasonable to incorporate this provision in the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Amendment No. 35 exempts from empty property rating buildings which are the subject of an interim preservation notice under the Ancient Monuments Act as well as those that are the subject of a final preservation order. I would stress there is no connection between ancient monuments and manses. We felt that we ought to make these Amendments.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

We quite understand the reasons why the hon. Member has moved this Amendment and we well understand that, particularly among professions which are scarce, there might well be serious difficulties. That is probably why Amendment No. 36 has been put down.

On the other hand, in view of what he said, will the hon. Member give an indication why he thinks this should be limited to this category of person employed in the community? We are all aware of the valuable contribution made by clergymen to our community, but it seems strange that this category alone has been singled out. Were applications received from other categories of person in the community? If so, why were these refused?

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The great danger of making a valid and agreed concession, one which is well endorsed by every hon. Member, is that other people also want concessions. We have to take these matters each in turn. My own Church, the Church of Scotland, asked for this exemption. It was considered fair that it should apply to all Churches, and since the English had made a similar alteration in their Bill and we want to make one in our Bill, I thought it reasonable to make it at this stage. Other people have asked for a concession, but we do not think that we should necessarily proceed from this alteration to give all others who ask the same exemption.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: No. 35, in page 15, line 4, after 'order', insert 'or an interim preservation notice'.

No. 36, in line 6, at end insert: '; or (e) the lands and heritages are being held available to provide a residence from which a full-time clergyman or minister of any religious denomination may perform the duties of his office'.—[Dr. Dickson Mabon.]