HC Deb 20 October 1966 vol 734 cc507-17
Mr. Murton

I beg to move Amendment No. 23, in page 12, line 36, to leave out 'seventy-three' and to insert: 'seventy or such later year, not being later than the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three, as the Minister may by order approved by resolutions of both Houses of Parliament appoint'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir EricFletcher)

I think that it will be for the convenience of the House for this Amendment to be discussed at the same time as Amendment No. 24, in page 12, line 38, at end insert: Provided that the Minister may by order approved by resolutions of both Houses of Parliament substitute some earlier year for the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three, and upon such an order being so approved this section and the said section 34 shall have effect accordingly.

Mr. Murton

The Government's proposal embodied in the Bill to postpone revaluation until 1973 is based on the general shortage of valuers in the Valuation Department of the Board of Inland Revenue. Ever since responsibility for valuation for rating was transferred by the Local Government Act, 1948, from local authorities to the Inland Revenue there have admittedly been delays and postponements of each valuation. Under the Local Government Act, 1948, the first new valuation list was to come into force on 1st April, 1952, with power for the Minister by Order to postpone the date until 1st April, 1953. In fact, the new list came into force on 1st April, 1956.

The second list was supposed to come into force on 1st April, 1961. That date had to be changed to 1st April, 1963. The postponement on that occasion was half the previous one so there was a hope that the position was improving and that the new list, due in 1968, would be ready on time, but now we are faced in this Bill with a proposal for a new postponement, not for two years as in 1961, not even for four years as in 1962, but for five years. What should be a quinquennial revaluation is thus now becoming a decennial one. I dread to think what might happen in future if things were to go on like that.

In 1952, there were very valid reasons for postponement. First, the Valuation Department had not got into its stride with the new task which had been given to it. Secondly, that task was of formidable proportions seeing that there had been no revaluation since the mid-19308. The reason for that is well known to all of us in the House: 1939 was considered to be the latest date at which a free market value in houses existed.

The third reason was that the Department was being called upon to work on the basis of a formula which proved impracticable and had to be radically changed. In 1961, there was the valid reason that the appeals against the 1956 lists had taken longer than had been expected in being brought to a final decision.

This time the reasons given for postponement are the general shortage of valuers and the need of the Department to clear up appeals against the 1963 lists. One would accept that, but there is a final reason and I consider it to be the main reason. It might not be altogether palatable to the Minister. It is not admitted by the Government, but we believe that it is their preoccupation with the valuation commitments which arise out of their legislation which is the main cause of this postponement.

I do not wish to get out of order, but I mention in passing the Capital Gains Tax legislation and the even more notorious Land Commission Bill, which is at present going through its final stages. These have undoubtedly added to an already grave shortage of qualified valuers. I do not deny that there is this shortage. There is a heavy backlog of work to cope with, but an immediate postponement for five years is, in our opinion, a failure on the part of the Government from the very start.

I suggest that every effort should be made to get the work done quickly. Whether Ministers like or dislike the rating system as a means of raising revenue, it is the only means at present available to local authorities which is under their own control. The rating system has been described as a blunt instrument, but the longer the valuation lists on which it is based are allowed to become out of date the more unfair it will become to ratepayers and to local authorities which are forced to rely on it for the major part of their local revenues. Particularly is it unfair to ratepayers.

I know about the problems which have arisen in my own constituency in the past because of a postponement of revaluation. I know what difficulties arose after the last revaluation. One appreciates that there are grave anomalies between the rating of various types of flats. I know that there are inequalities in rating as between new flats and older flats and as between flats and bungalows, on the one hand, and two-storey houses, on the other. All this makes me realise that as time passes this will become a very much more serious problem.

If we are to be faced with a virtual 10-year standstill when revaluation eventually takes place, there will be considerable hardship on all sides. We are concerned about the ratepayers. One Measure that might have been attempted—and one would commend it to the right hon. Gentleman—is to employ private valuers on a contract basis in an attempt to overcome this problem. That should afford some relief. No doubt the Minister has thought of this, and possibly his Department have done something about it, or I sincerely hope that it has.

It might be that this pessimistic approach underlying the Clause is fully justified and that, if the postponement were not for the full five years, nothing could be done. However, it might just be possible for the lists to be completed quicker, and the Amendment gives an opportunity for that to be done. It provides for an initial postponement of two years—a period which proved sufficient on the last occasion; but, in case it finally turns out that it is insufficient, power is reserved for the Minister, with the approval of Parliament, to postpone the date for a further period of one, two or three years.

We on this side of the House feel that that Government are adopting a defeatist attitude. The valuation department of the Inland Revenue may well lose the sense of urgency which it needs to maintain if the present difficulties are to be overcome. To this extent, public spirited though those officers will be, they will be protected by the Clause and lulled into a sense of security. Let the Government take up the challenge of accepting this Amendment. They owe it to the hard-pressed ratepayers whom I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have as our first concern, as also have the Government, I am sure.

8.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, who has left us for a short while, admitted in Committee that the postponement was forced upon the Government by the situation. The Government have undoubtedly caused that situation and they owe it to the ratepayers and local authorities to make every effort to mitigate the serious effects of a revaluation which will be ten years overdue if the Government do not accept the Amendment.

Mr. Arthur Jones

I support the Amendment but, at the same time, I recognise the difficulties with which the Government are faced. They are taking not the easy way out, but one which is at the end of the line. It is the most unimaginative way out. It will give valuation officers very little prospect of keeping their departments together. When there is a postponement of revaluation of this sort and a rundown of the potential work which keeps these departments busy the departments will not hold the best men. There will be a general rundown.

The Government should have made every effort to try to see how this difficulty could be overcome. A number of suggestions were made in Committee, where it was suggested that we should try to concentrate on a certain type of hereditament, that we should have a rolling revaluation. The Parliamentary Secretary was not in the least sympathetic, because he said that if this was done in a particular order it would lead to hardship to one type of ratepayer or another. I do not accept that view. It must be possible, and a way must be found, to provide for the revaluation that is absolutely necessary if the whole basis of rates as a means of income for local authorities is to be assured.

Mr. Greenwood

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) and the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) have deployed their case with such reason and persuasiveness that I should like nothing more than to be able to oblige them. The case had a certain superficial attractiveness and if we were looking for the easy way out we would accept the Amendment and wait for the pigeons to come home to roost in three or four years. But that would not be the honest and open way of dealing with the problem.

As I understand the Amendments, they seek to avoid the postponement to 1973 of the next general revaluation for rating. Amendment No. 23 would advance the revaluation to 1970 unless it has previously been postponed by order of the Minister to a later year, not being later than 1973. Amendment No. 24 accepts 1973 as the year which is prima facie appropriate for revaluation, but would confer on me the power to order that it should take place in an earlier year.

There is a superficial attraction in leaving open the final decision on whether the revaluation need be postponed for as long as the period proposed, that is, until 1973.

There would be many attractions in adopting that suggestion. But it is only right to tell the House that we have consulted the Inland Revenue about this, and the Department is absolutely positive that, having regard to its work commitments and its staffing position, it is out of the question to contemplate that the revaluation could take place before 1973.

To leave the date open, as hon. Members opposite propose, would only raise false hopes which, unquestionably, are incapable of fulfilment. I should mislead the House and the public if I said anything else.

The hon. Member for Poole very fairly referred to the difficulties of the Valuation Office, and I emphasise how short that department is already in meeting its staffing needs. During the current year, recruitment of valuers has just kept pace with losses through resignation or retirement. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we might consider recruiting valuers from outside the public service, but there is already a serious shortage of valuers outside the Valuation Office as well as inside, and I am informed that the profession as a whole will be hard put to it to meet the demands already placed upon it. If we were to add to the burden, it would, I think, be likely to produce a collapse of the valuation service.

In view of the references which we have made to the profession, it is only right to remind the House of the answer which the Chief Secretary gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) on 14th December last. He said that the Inland Revenue would continue to recruit suitable trainees. The primary object of introducing this grade is to recruit school leavers at the age of 18 who have at least two G.C.E. A level passes. They are given a four-year training course, after which they can qualify as valuers. During the whole of this course, they will serve in one of the local offices and receive practical training under valuers in the office. In the first open competition, which was held in April, 51 candidates were declared successful, which is considered to be a promising start. In addition, the new grade provides an opportunity for clerical staff in the Valuation Office to receive professional training. Existing clerical trainees have been assimilated in the cadet valuer grade, whose total strength is now 127.

There is no doubt that everything possible has been done to increase the supply of qualified valuers, but the work which is now being done will not be sufficient to make up the full requirement which would be necessary if we were to accept the Amendments.

I must, therefore, ask the House to resist this Amendment.

Mr. Temple

A few minutes ago, I gave the Minister a very warm welcome, which I genuinely meant, and, when he moved an Amendment formally, we took the opportunity to congratulate him, but I cannot offer him hearty congratulations on the speech which he has just made, his first major speech on this Bill.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government will have to get used to facing up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One of the most important facets of the character of any Minister of Housing and Local Government is to be able to stand up to the Treasury, but, almost immediately, the right hon. Gentleman comes to the Box to tell us that he has acquiesced in what the Chancellor has told him about the unavailability of valuers to perform a function for which they are properly qualified.

I can tell the House why he will not get the valuers. His right hon. Friend sitting next but one to him, the Minister of Land and Natural Resources, has scooped all the valuers from every source in order to deal with the horrible—I call it no more—Land Commission Bill about which we heard so much earlier in the House today. I wonder whether, if the Government are determined to put off revaluation for 10 years, a revaluation will ever take place.

As we had an exceedingly heated debate in Standing Committee, when I was accused by the Parliamentary Secretary of irresponsiblity, and accused of knocking the £, I shall not once again indulge in quite such a heated debate. Nor had I intended to bring up the question of cadet valuers. The Parliamentary Secretary took me to task about this, and I am surprised that the Minister dared tread on this delicate and treacherous ground.

On 29th July I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer a Parliamentary Question about the situation with regard to valuers, and I was informed of the size of the staff of the valuation office and the total valuers in post. There are fewer valuers in post in the valuation office today than there were in 1962. But more and more work is being piled on the valuation office. Admittedly, more and more clerks are employed; there has been an increase of 20 per cent. in their number in the valuation office this year.

As I say, there are fewer valuers in post than in 1962 and there is far more work for them to do. Who is responsible for the increase in work? It is the Ministers opposite who have been bringing in a lot of unnecessary legislation at a time when the most important task that faces valuers is bringing valuations up to date.

In Standing Committee, we put forward all kinds of suggestions to overcome these problems. The subject of revolving revaluations, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones), was explained by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) in Standing Committee. I can tell the Government that every responsible organisation of local authorities and every learned professional organisation is dead against the Government's proposals in the Bill with regard to postponement of revaluation. What we offered the Government was an opportunity for revaluation to be brought forward by Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. In other words, we offered a degree of flexibility. I am amazed that the Government have not accepted our suggestion. We did not destroy the Government's proposals.

I suggest that there may well be a change of Government long before 1973, and all that will happen will be that the Ministers opposite will be sitting on this side and will have to face up to fresh legislation that will come from the Conservative Party to bring forward a revaluation. If they had accepted our Amendment they could have saved themselves sitting for long hours while we brought in fresh legislation to reverse the decision that the Government are determined to put through tonight.

The right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) let the cat out of the bag with regard to this decision when he said that there are many inequities, in the valuations at the present time. If there are many inequities, why are the Government seeking to put off revaluation for this number of years and thus preserve these inequities?

During the Recess I had a long-distance telephone call from the Press informing me that there was very great concern among the public about the fact that many houses had been fitted with central heating and the valuation department had not caught up with these installations, the result being that great inequity was caused by the fact that some homes in which central heating had been installed were being rated accordingly whereas many ratepayers were getting away with it because the installation had not been detected. This is one very cogent reason why it is tragic that revaluation is to be put off in this way.

I think that the Government are trying to destroy the rating system. The present

Leader of the House, the previous Minister of Housing and Local Government, personally disliked the rating system. I believe, therefore, that within the Bill the right hon. Member for Coventry, East, sought to destroy the rating system, for nothing will more effectively destroy it than the postponement of revaluation, because that will bring it into disrepute. I am a believer in the rating system, properly worked, and that is what we should like to see.

I do not believe that any Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to throw overboard a system of local taxation which at present brings in £1,200 million a year. Therefore, we should seek by all means in our power while the system exists to make it work satisfactorily. I am exceedingly disappointed by the Minister. We have offered him a degree of flexibility and I am amazed that he has turned it down. We believe that revaluation at regular intervals is essential and for that reason I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House.

Question put, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill:—

The House divided: Ayes 136, Noes 100.

Division No. 176.] AYES [9.1 p.m.
Alldritt, Walter Foley, Maurice Lee, John (Reading)
Anderson, Donald Fowler, Gerry Lestor, Miss Joan
Archer, Peter Fraser, John (Norwood) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.) Gardner, Tony Lyon, Alexander W. (York)
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Garrett, W. E. Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)
Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice Ginsburg, David McBride, Neil
Bennett, James (G'gow Bridgeton) Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony MacColl, James
Bidwell, Sydney Gregory, Arnold Macdonald, A. H.
Booth, Albert Grey, Charles (Durham) McGuire, Michael
Boston, Terence Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Mackie, John
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Griffiths, Will (Exchange) Mackintosh, John P.
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W) Hamling, William Maclennan, Robert
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Haseldine, Norman MacPherson, Malcolm
Chapman, Donald Healey, Rt. Hn. Denis Mason, Roy
Coe, Denis Heffer, Eric S. Maxwell, Robert
Concannon, J. D. Hilton, W. S. Mayhew, Christopher
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Hobden, Dennis (Brighton, K'town) Mellish, Robert
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Hooley, Frank Mendelson, J. J.
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Horner, John Mikardo, Ian
Davies, Robert (Cambridge) Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Miller, Dr. M. S.
de Freitas, Sir Geoffrey Howarth, Harry (Wellingborough) Milne, Edward (Blyth)
Delargy, Hugh Howie, W. Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Dewar, Donald Hughes, Emrys (Ayrshire, S.) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Dickens, James Hughes, Roy (Newport) Morris, John (Aberavon)
Dobson, Ray Hunter, Adam Murray, Albert
Edelman, Maurice Janner, Sir Barnett Newens, Stan
Ellis, John Jeger, Mrs. Lena (H'b'n&St. P'cras, S.) Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip (Derby, S.)
English, Michael Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Ogden, Eric
Evans, Albert (Islington, S. W.) Judd, Frank O'Malley, Brian
Faulds, Andrew Kenyon, Clifford Orme, Stanley
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham) Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, S'tn)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Floud, Bernard Lee, Rt. Hn. Jennle (Cannock) Palmer, Arthur
Park, Trevor Rose, Paul Wallace, George
Pavitt, Laurence Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.) Wellbeloved, James
Pentland, Norman Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford) Whitaker, Ben
Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.) Silverman, Julius (Aston) Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.) Silverman, Sydney (Nelson) Winnick, David
Price, William (Rugby) Small, William Winterbottom, R. E.
Pursey, Cmdr. Harry Snow, Julian Yates, Victor
Randall, Harry Spriggs, Leslie Zilliacus, K.
Rees, Merlyn Steele, Thomas (Dunbartonshire, W.)
Robertson, John (Paisley) Symonds, J. B. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Robinson, W. O. J. (Walth'stow, E.) Taverne, Dick Mr. Whitlock and
Roebuck, Roy Tinn, James Mr. Ioan Evans.
Rogers, George (Kensington, N.) Tomney, Frank
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Gurden, Harold Prior, J. M. L.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Hall, John (Wycombe) Pym, Francis
Astor, John Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N. W.) Quennell, Miss J. M.
Balniel, Lord Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter
Batsford, Brian Heseltine, Michael Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Bell, Ronald Higgins, Terence L. Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Hiley, Joseph Roots, William
Biggs-Davison, John Hobson, Rt. Hn. Sir John Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Black, Sir Cyril Holland, Philip Russell, Sir Ronald
Blaker, Peter Hordern, Peter Scott, Nicholas
Body, Richard Hunt, John Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Bromley-Davenport, Lt. -Col. Sir Walter Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Sinclair, Sir George
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Smith, John
Bullus, Sir Eric Jennings, J. C. (Burton) Stainton, Keith
Burden, F. A. Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.) Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Carlisle, Mark Jopling, Michael Stodart, Anthony
Clegg, Walter King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Cooke, Robert Loveys, W. H. Taylor, Edward M.(G'gow, Cathcart)
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Lubbock, Eric Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Corfield, F. V. McAdden, Sir Stephen Teeling, Sir William
Costain, A, P. Maclean, Sir Fitzroy Temple, John M.
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Maddan, Martin van Straubenzee, W. R.
Crawley, Aidan Mathew, Robert Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek
Crosthwaite-Eyre, Sir Oliver Mawby, Ray Walters, Dennis
Dance, James Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C. Weatherill, Bernard
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Miscampbell, Norman Webster, David
Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.) Monro, Hector Whitelaw, William
Digby, Simon Wingfield Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Errington, Sir Eric Murton, Oscar Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Eyre, Reginald Nott, John Wylie, N. R.
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Onslow, Cranley Younger, Hn. George
Glover, Sir Douglas Page, Graham (Crosby)
Goodhew, Victor Pardoe, John TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Grant, Anthony Peel, John Mr. R. W. Elliott and Mr. More.
Grant-Ferris, R.