HC Deb 21 June 1968 vol 766 cc1473-94
Mr. Speaker

It has been suggested to me that we might take the two rate rebates Orders at the same time. They do similar things respectively for England and Scotland. Unless there is any disagreement the first Order will be moved, and we shall discuss both.

11.22 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I beg to move, That the Rate Rebates (Limits of Income) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your suggestion. These Orders will probably be generally welcomed because the objective of each is the maintenance of the benefits of the existing rebate scheme. They were foreshadowed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a speech last January. The rating authorities have been informed—there have been the usual contacts—and there have been no objections. The purpose behind both Orders has been generally welcomed.

I should point out that I am referring to the Order affecting England and Wales; my hon. Friend from the Scottish Office will be glad to answer any Scottish points that may arise. The Explanatory Notes to the Orders set out their purpose very well, but perhaps I ought to sketch in the general background to them in order that their effect can be fully understood.

It is widely agreed that there is a good deal that we would like to see altered in terms of local government finance. We should all like to see it put on a better basis. We have taken the view that this can best be done when we have been able to settle, as a result of the work of the Royal Commission and its recommendations and the proposals—which the Government will then bring forward— the future organisation of local government. Meanwhile, we ought to do what we can to make the existing system more tolerable, especially to those householders who are less well off.

A series of Measures have been passed which, when he was Minister of Housing, my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council referred to as patching-up operations. These have brought considerable relief—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss the Royal Commission on Local Government and all the other Measures. This Order modifies a rate rebate system. It is the modification that we are discussing.

Mr. Skeffington

I fully understand that, Mr. Speaker. I was merely referring to the fact that at this stage we cannot make a total recasting of the system, but that we have passed a series of Measures—of which this Order will be one— which, in the meantime, we hope will assist those householders who would otherwise have to face a fairly heavy rate bill.

As a result, the restraint generally exercised on local authorities in connection with other measures, the earmarking of part of the Rate Support Grant for the special benefit of householders, and the substantial help now given by the provision for the payment of household rates by instalments, have meant that the impact of the general increase in rates on this category of ratepayers in the last two years has been minimal.

Over 1 million low-income householders in Great Britain in 1966–67 and nearly the same number in the year under review have been receiving rate rebates—averaging £15 a year—as a result of previous arrangements, thus cutting their rate bills roughly by half. That is in addition to the total of more than two million householders who are getting the whole of their rate bills reimbursed by way of a rates allowance in their supplementary benefit.

But the income limits governing the rate rebate entitlement were fixed more than two years ago and income levels in general have risen since then— through increases in the levels of social security benefit, the increase in old age pension last year and the more recent increase in family allowances. If the adjustments were not made as proposed in the Order we might be exposing once again some of the poorest members of the community to the full impact of household rating—the Government do not intend this to happen.

Accordingly, by the Orders the income limit for single househouders is being raised from £8 to £9 a week and for married couples from £10 to £11 a week, and the extension per child is being raised from 30s. to £2 a week.

These new income limits will operate in relation to rebates payable from this autumn's rebate period onwards—from October in England and Wales and from November or December in Scotland. As entitlement to rebate for each half-year rebate period is governed by the income received during the previous period of six months—in England and Wales this previous period is the preceding calendar half year and in Scotland it starts rather later—this means that all income received from last January onwards in England and Wales and from last April onwards in Scotland will be assessed by reference to the new limits and not the old. Thus, if the Orders are approved, the recent increases in pensions and family allowances, to which I have already referred, will not be offset, even in marginal cases, by any loss in rebate entitlement.

In any event these income limits do not entirely cut off any entitlement to rebate. They are merely the limits beyond which the maximum rebate has to be tapered down by five shillings for every £1 of extra income. The maximum rate for a half-year period is two-thirds of the amount by which the reckonable rates for the period—that is, the rate bill adjusted where necessary for the presence within a household of other income-receiving adults—exceeds £3 15s. This means that usually, and especially where the rates are sizeable, a householder can still get some rebate even when his weekly income is £1 or so above the limits which have been laid down.

I will give a few examples. With the new limits in operation from this autumn onwards a retired single person will be able to get the maximum rebate with an income not exceeding £9 a week, and probably will get some rebate even with an income of up to £10 a week. A married couple without children can get the maximum rebate with an income of up to £11 a week, and probably will get some rebate even if their income is £1 or so above this figure. A couple with two children will get the maximum rebate with an income of up to £15 a week, and some rebate even if the income goes to £16. A couple with four children will get the maximum rebate with an income of £19 a week, and probably some rebate even if the weekly income were £20, and so on. To give an even more concrete example, a couple with four children on an income of £19 a week and a rate bill, or a rate element in their rent, of £25 for the half year, would be able to get a rebate of about £14, and if their weekly income is £20 they will still get a rebate of about £7 10s.

Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)

Can my hon. Friend tell the House if there is any intention to publicise the scheme more adequately in the Press and, particularly, on television? Many people who seem to be entitled to rate relief are not claiming it, and many council tenants are not aware that they are as entitled to claim relief as owner-occupiers.

Mr. Skeffington

There have been schemes of publicity. One reason why it is necessary to have the Orders early is that application may be made in August, although the dates that I have given are those when the rebates become operative. During this interim period we and other authorities will want to secure the maximum publicity.

I will say a word or two about the take-up of the rebate scheme. Although we have calculated that if everybody who is entitled made a claim there would be something like 1,500,000 persons, even with the publicity and all such activities, in which I hope the hon. Members will play a part with their constituents, it is unlikely that more than one million applicants will apply. This is disappointing, but I am sure all hon. Members will draws the provisions of these Orders to the attention of their constituents.

Mr. Winnick

Will television also be used?

Mr. Skeffington

All these methods have been considered, and one has to use all the methods at one's disposal, bearing in mind that such operations involve extra cost to the taxpayer.

I have given examples which show the very considerable benefit to those with small incomes, and, particularly, with small incomes and large families.

I will deal with one other point that often arise on this procedure and may well arise with the new limits. The new income limits, like the old ones, relate to the gross income of the householder or the couple, not including the income of any other person in the household, since the presence of the other person is, instead, taken into account by way of an adjustment in the reckonable rates on which the rebate is calculated. The gross income includes pensions and family allowances and, indeed, income of any kind, and one reason why the income limits are being increased is to take account of the increases in income which have taken place. It has been argued that certain types of income should be disregarded. There has been a campaign that war disability pensions, for example, should be exempted. One has considerable sympathy with this point of view, but there are many good reason why the Government have felt that it is right not to make this kind of exception.

The rebates are in the nature of a tax relief for all householders of small means and are made regardless of how these means are derived or on what they are spent. I should be going beyond the purport of the Orders if I went into all the reasons why this has been so. If particular types of income were to be excluded, instead of the rather simple procedure we now have, the manpower required to operate the scheme would have to be increased enormously. The scheme has to be operated by the local authorities, and it already imposes a considerable burden upon them. It might well mean that there would have to be an inquisition into household income of a nature which would be repugnant to many people. It would certainly mean that the authorities would be asked to operate a far more complex scheme than this temporary scheme which will operate until we can revise and re-arrange local government finance generally. It would be difficult to distinguish war pension cases, and one can honestly say that someone who has been suffering for years and receiving a disability pension on account of an industrial complaint, possibly contracted during service in the mines—

Mr. Speaker

I hope the hon. Member will not pursue in detail Amendments to the Order, which cannot be made.

Mr. Skeffington

Mr. Speaker, as this has been a subject of very considerable correspondence with my Department and has been raised throughout the country in connection with the Order, I thought that the House would like to know the reasons why the Government do not propose in the Order to alter the basic scheme, which has the merits of simplicity and certainty. For the reasons which I have given, it would be very difficult to produce another scheme which would give this degree of certainty and would be practical for the local authorities.

The increases on the incomes contained in the Order have been selected broadly to reflect what the resources, both national and local, can afford. The Exchequer bears 75 per cent, of the increase and the other 25 per cent, has to be found locally. It is calculated that the increases in the Order will take care of the additional total benefits and the rise in smaller incomes which have taken place since the last limits were introduced. The numbers of those who will be able to get relief will be brought back to what they were originally when the scheme was introduced.

In financial terms, bearing in mind that the Orders take effect half-way through this year, if everybody who was entitled to relief claimed, it would be theoretically possible for the total payment of rebates in Great Britain during the year 1968-69 to be about £22,500,000, instead of the present £18 million. With the Exchequer meeting 75 per cent, of the cost of the rebates, this means a theoretical Exchequer liability for 1968–69 of about £16.75 million, instead of the present £13.5 million. In view of what I have said about the take-up, although we shall do all we can to publicise the scheme, the Exchequer liability in 1968–69 is likely to be well below the £16.75 million, and provision has already been made for that in the Estimates.

On the timing of the alterations, the Orders affect rebates payable from this October in England and Wales and from November and December in Scotland. But, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick), applications for rebate can be made as early as 1st August in England and 16th September in Scotland. This is why the Orders are made to come into operation ahead of the rebate periods. If they are approved in both Houses this month, we shall arrange for the necessary publicity to start next month and to continue.

I commend the draft Orders to the House. As long as the rating system remains with us in its present form, the Government must protect the least well off householders against its regressive impact which has been, unfortunately, one of the characteristics of rates. The supplementary benefit machinery now gives full reimbursement of rates to over 2 million of the poorest householders. This rebate scheme, if the Orders are approved, will give very substantial relief to a further 1 million or more householders.

Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that we are discussing the raising of the income limits which govern rate rebates. That is what we must debate.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

On a point of order. Will you, Mr. Speaker, allow Members to stay within the limits of the Minister's speech as distinct from the limits of the Orders?

Mr. Speaker

This is always a difficulty. I shall afford the same tolerance to hon. Members as I afforded to the Minister—and that was not very much.

11.41 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I agree entirely with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that we ought to make the rating system more tolerable for ratepayers of modest means. But I think that it was very naive of him to imply that these Orders are necessary because income levels in general have risen since householders' money incomes have risen. These Orders are necessary, because, in two and half years of Socialist Government—

Mr. R. F. H. Dobson (Bristol, North-East)


Mr. Page

The hon. Gentleman might wait until I have finished the sentence before groaning. I will repeat it. These Orders are necessary because, in two and a half years of Socialist Government— that is, since the rate rebate scheme was proposed—two very relevant things have happened. First, the cost of living has increased and, therefore, the value of money has dropped by 1s. in the £; and, secondly, the rates payable by the average householder have risen by 3s. 4d. in the £.

I refer to the period of two and a half years because it was in November, 1965, that the Bill introducing the rate rebate scheme was put before the House. It is true that the England and Wales Order which we are discussing is made under the General Rate Act, 1967. But that was a consolidation Measure which embodied the Rating Act, 1966. The Order in respect of Scotland which we are discussing was made under the 1966 Act. The present figures of reckonable income appeared when the Bill was presented and were not altered in the six months or so between the First Reading and the Bill's receiving the Royal Assent in March, 1966.

Those figures, to put them into annual figures rather than half-yearly figures, which I find confusing, and the amendments to them are as follows. For a married couple, the Act provided that maximum relief would be given when the income did not exceed £520. In future, that figure will be £572 a year, an increase from £10 to £11 a week. For a single person, the annual figure of appropriate limit, as it is called in the Act, was £416 a year under the Act. Under the Order, it will be £468, an increase from £8 to £9 a week. But in both cases, if my mathematics are correct, the relief will amount to another 5s. a week, not taking into account further relief which may arise from the fact that there are dependent children residing with the ratepayer.

To put the position briefly, an increase in the appropriate limit by £1 means a decrease in the rates payable by 5s. I question whether this is, first, sufficient to restore the 1965 position and, secondly, whether it is the right way to do it—whether there should have been an increase right across the board, or whether the Government should have been selective in increasing the appropriate limit of income.

On the first point—whether the Orders will restore the 1965 position—the Index of Retail Prices shows that there has been an increase of 5 per cent, between November, 1965, and May, 1968. Five per cent, of the £10 a week relief, or £10 a week appropriate limit, would account for a 10s. rise. But, in addition to this rise in the cost of living and drop in the value of money, the amount payable by the average ratepayer has substantially increased.

I have a quotation from what the then Minister said during the Second Reading of the Rating Bill: The average householder in this country pays about £36 a year in rates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 47.] He based his argument for the figures of reckonable income which he put into the Act on that basis. I think that he was taking a 1964 figure. My calculations show that at that time the figure was £37 a year. I arrive at that figure by taking the family expenditure survey, the average rateable value per householder, and the average rate poundage. This year, instead of being £36, the figure is £42. Therefore, the average householder is saddled with £6 more a year to pay in rates than he was paying when the Government made their calculations in 1965.

Therefore, in order to restore the 1965 position, there should be an increase in relief of 5s. in the £ on £6, which would account for £1 10s. Adding that to the 10s. which should take into account the rise in the cost of living, the increase in, for example, the £10 appropriate limit for the married couple should have been £2 and not £1 as proposed in the Order. Therefore, to restore the 1965 position, the amount proposed in the Order should be doubled—that is, basing the relief on the average man. But an increase of rates payable on lower rated property, without compensating relief, will hit those least able to pay.

That brings me to the second respect in which I think the Order is inadequate. The increase should have been selective. The Minister has power under the Act, when making an Order of this sort, to take into account the fact that it will have a different impact on different incomes. This Order alters what is called by the Act the reckonable income, which is, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, the gross income, plus the spouse's income, of the householder, disregarding certain payments for board and lodging and certain rent from sub-tenants who are entitled to relief and disregarding income up to the appropriate limit. No other disregards are allowed by the Act, the appropriate limit being intended to take into account all those differences between the incomes of ratepayers.

I will not go into this in detail, but during the passage of the Bill we on this side pleaded for further relief to be given in special cases. Having seen how the Act has operated over the past two years, I think that Order should have been framed so as to take that into account and to be more selective, so as to bring disregards into the figure of appropriate limit appearing in the Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Finch-ley (Mrs. Thatcher) threw out this challenge to the Minister during the debate on one Amendment on Report: I am quite willing to put up a stake of £20 if he"— that was the Minister— will put up a contrary stake of £20, and 1 will bet him £20 that in the next Parliament his Bill will need amending with regard to charities and income disregards."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1966; Vol. 725, c. 680.] We have the amendment today so far as it increases the appropriate limit. I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary will pay up the £20 for the Minister who has left the job. Under the Order the Minister could have taken that into account, having seen how the Act has worked. He could have varied the figures for different categories of ratepayers. It remains a good argument against the across the board increase that there should be greater relief in exceptional cases to take into account, for example, pensioners, whether old-age or disabled, and some of the extraordinary anomalies which have occurred in practice. For example, a payment for foster children is disregarded in a person's income for every other purpose except when he applies for a rate rebate. Such things could have been ironed out in the Order.

Many other anomalies have cropped up. To say that it could not be done, as the Parliamentary Secretary did, because it would increase the cost of administration and make it all too complex is a very defeatist attitude. What is wrong with the mere declaration of some particular type of income when applying for relief? One has to make a declaration as to payments for board and lodging and as to rents received from a sub-tenant who is entitled to rebate. One could just as simply disclose other income which ought to be exempt when application is made for rebate.

In the course of the debates during the passage of the Bill it was forecast that 2 million people would receive benefit from the relief. We now know that only about half that number have received benefit. It was estimated that the cost to the Exchequer would be a certain sum of money which the Parliamentary Secretary said today has not had to be contributed by the Exchequer over the years in which the Act has been in operation. Therefore, previously there has been a wrong judgment about the number of beneficiaries and about the cost of the scheme to the Exchequer.

Although I welcome the principle of these Orders, I think that there is a wrong judgment again in the application of that principle and the Orders do not restore the position as it was when it was introduced and do not take into account the difficulties which have arisen in the administration of the Act, whereas they could have taken them into account by being more selective as to the present beneficiaries.

11.55 a.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I part company with some of the things that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) said. I was fascinated by his exercise in political statistics. He originally pointed out that, according to his calculations, £42 is the current average for rates paid per household. Having earlier said that the Minister's figure of £36 was not, according to him, £36 but £37, the hon. Gentleman then took the Minister's figure to compare with his own higher figure, thus giving an increase of £6, £1 of which is merely the difference between his first calculation and the Minister's. That sort of increase in rates is what I call a political statistic rather than anything else.

Mr. Graham Page

I was using the £36 on which the Minister, as he said on Second Reading, had based his calculations. When I came to make the present-day calculations, I found that, if I applied my same calculations for today to 1965, the figure worked out at £37. That does not alter the fact that the Minister based his calculations on £36.

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman was perfectly honest to point out the defects in his own statistics. He nevertheless said that £6 was the difference, when he meant, on his own figures, £5.

Another point, one of much more substance, on which I part company with the hon. Gentleman is on the question of disregards. I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. The more one puts into any scheme of this character questions of disregards, and so forth, the more one complicates it from an administrative point of view. One also complicates it from the point of view of the beneficiary. If the Order were other than it is, if it did not merely make the across-the-board increase to which the hon. Member for Crosby objects, it would, first, be a more complicated Order; secondly, it would be more complicated to administer; thirdly, and above all, it would be much more difficult for the average beneficiary to find his way round it.

It is obvious that any rebate scheme will miss many proper beneficiaries. The Minister estimated that one-third are missed, that only two-thirds of those who could claim do claim. If it is to be said, in addition, not merely that a person with less than £234, or whatever the figure is, can claim, but also that it must be less on an artificial basis, disregarding this pension, that pension and the other, it would become impossible for the average person to understand.

The trouble about many of these schemes—this, fortunately, is not a defect from which this scheme suffers—is that lawyers, like the hon. Member for Crosby and my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary—persons who are quite used to dealing with the complexities of words and terms—sit here thinking that beneficiaries of rebate schemes of this character will be as competent as they are to understand all the complexities that we put into schemes. That, it seems to me, is the crucial argument against the hon. Gentleman's proposal.

Second, the hon. Gentleman said that it was not unreasonable to ask people to state certain items of income. Again, one can answer quite simply by saying that, although it is not difficult or unreasonable to ask a person to do it once, the process ought not to be constantly repeated. Has the hon. Gentleman thought of how many times people within certain limits of income are asked to consider the selfsame question?

Mr. Graham Page

I realise that very well. For example, a constituent of mine recently told me that he had had to fill in a form every year to say that his leg had not grown again after he had lost it some time ago.

Mr. English

Exactly; this is the whole point. The hon. Gentleman says it is not unreasonable to ask people to make certain declarations, but the trouble is that, as schemes of this kind are extended, people are asked over and over again for the same or only slightly different information. The objection is not the objection of principle which the hon. Gentleman implies. The objection is to the frequency and the variety of application of:he same principle to the same people. It is bad administratively that large numbers of people are required to calculate levels of income, and it is bad also from the point of view of the publicity which we have had in mind. Above all, it is a burden upon people who in the end grow tired of the whole business and in many cases are inclined to say, "Although I may be able to claim something, I do not understand it and I shall have to fill in a lot of forms". Those are the objections to any complication of the scheme.

I have a general objection to schemes of this kind. Rebate systems of this character ought, in my view, to be replaced by a single scheme. I should be out of order if I went into the details of it, but I consider that particular rebates on particular subjects such as rents, rates and so forth, however good they may appear in themselves as individual items, defeat their object in the end by their complexity and variety because they become incomprehensible to the people most in need of benefit from them. To do it once by a sort of reverse Income Tax would be far better.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have been equally tolerant with the hon. Gentle- man, but he must now come back to the Order.

Mr. English

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Your tolerance has, indeed, been noticeable.

Contrary to the view of the hon. Member for Crosby, I consider that the principle which the Minister has adopted in this Order ought to be supported. He has raised the limits. One could argue about whether he has raised them enough, but he has done it without complicating the scheme still further. I hope that the present two-thirds of possible beneficiaries will continue to benefit, and I hope that he will be able to increase that proportion.

I was most pleased, however, when I heard my hon. Friend say that he regarded the whole scheme as temporary, temporary until local government finance is reformed. I hope that he means until local government finance is reformed and the national review of social security is completed. The latter has as much relevance as local government finance in this context. However, I was very pleased to hear him say that he regarded it not as permanent but as a temporary scheme. On that basis, he is right merely to make an across-the-board increase, raising the limits though not complicating the scheme still further.

12.4 p.m.

Mr. R. F. H. Dobson (Bristol, North-East)

I welcome the Order and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on his presentation of the information to the House. There is no doubt that the Order generally will make life a little more bearable for people in England and Wales who have to pay rates. I do not for a moment accept the perambulating mathematics presented by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). I found his calculations extremely difficult to follow. I had the impression that they were designed to show an end product and that the intervening sums were done accordingly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could have made a better job of welcoming the Order in much more emphatic terms than emerged from his slight reference at the end.

The first question which I wish to raise was touched on in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick). Under the Order, people can benefit although the household has a fairly high income. The Minister told us that a household with four children and an income up to £19 a week, or sometimes a little over that, could still benefit. This is a substantial level of income. To digress a moment, I cannot remember anything like it being suggested by the Conservative Party, even though it was the sort of income which Conservatives said that people ought to have. Nothing like it appeared during the Conservative period of office.

The fact that the level of income in a household can be as high as that without excluding rebate benefit underlines the need to ensure that all people who could take advantage know about the scheme. A good many people do not realise that the income limits are so high. It is true that many elderly people try to find out what the limits are, but I have never had a working man in my constituency ask me about the limits of income for rate rebate. Yet there must be hundreds, if not thousands, who earn less than the amounts to which my hon. Friend referred. There are many thousands of men with four children earning less than £19 or £20 a week, yet I have never had anyone come to me at my advice bureau, which I hold regularly, to ask about it. It is clear that there ought to be national publicity for the scheme on television. Few houses now are without television, and I hope that the Minister will do something along those lines.

Local authorities make adequate provision for publicity in local newspapers, but the impression always seems to be given that one is talking about retired people on low fixed incomes who might benefit from the scheme, not about the much wider range of householders who could make a claim. Even for the retired, publicity by television would be a welcome addition in many ways. Not everyone takes the local paper, and certainly not everyone reads the advertisement sections. People are far more likely to pay attention to the headlines. Elderly people need this extra assistance.

The need for publicity is shown by figures relating to Bristol which I obtained from the Minister last year. In the first half-year, the number of rebates given in Bristol was 10,600, and in the second half year it was 12,300. Thus, the mere operation of the scheme meant that more and more people heard of it. Those who did have rebates were, on the whole, in the low-income retired pensioner bracket. It seems, therefore, that the Minister might well take the matter up with the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations. I am sure that this body could make a valuable contribution. The fact that in Bristol there could be an increase of 2,000 or so in a half-year shows the need to publicise the scheme in every possible way.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that the average national amount of rebate under the scheme is about £15—in Bristol last year it was £14 4s.—and, presumably, it will now go up under the present Order. I wish to bring to his attention, on the question of disregards, a point of particular relevance in university towns. This is where the limits of income can operate against people in certain categories, unless they are disregarded. There is still a large number of people on low fixed incomes —perhaps also no income—who are forced to take in lodgers or boarders because they live in large old houses. Under the Act, the income from this is not disregarded. I am thinking particularly of students. If they are paying £4 or £5 a week that can become the total income of the person in whose house they are residing. I have raised such cases with my hon. Friend and I had hoped that he might look at the question again. If such people's income is calculated at £20 a week, it is not really £20 because they must supply lodgings and sustenance to those living in the house with them. It is not an income in any sense of the word.

There is another section of the disregard which I should have liked my hon. Friend to look at, although it is very minor, concerning mixed hereditaments. In small back streets, some houses have a small shop attached which provides the householder with a very small income. I understand that the Act precludes them from getting the benefit from the sort of Order we are considering—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot pursue in detail amendments which he cannot make to the Order.

Mr. Dobson

I had hoped that my hon. Friend would be able to find some way of mentioning disregards in the Order. The Order is a very valuable addition to the social security benefits to people with all types of small incomes. I have had great pleasure in speaking in support of it.

12.12 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is to be congratulated on being the only Member of the Opposition who has had enough interest in this important matter to attend the House this morning. I do not know where his right hon. and hon. Friends are. Perhaps they are consulting Mr. Cohn-Bendit or somebody like that to see about having some sort of demonstration. They could be attending a teach-in—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not pursue the question of the likely places where Members of the Opposition are at present.

Mr. English

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that most hon. Members do not wish to pursue that question.

Mr. Roebuck

You stopped me just in time, Mr. Speaker, I was about to go even further down the scale.

That is the only compliment I shall pay to the hon. Gentleman, because I thought that his speech was sourer than his speeches usually are. A man from Mars who listened to his curmudgeonly observations about the Order might have gone away with the impression that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would be in favour of increasing the limits in the Order; but I see no reason why we should accept the implication of what he said today when we can read the book. For me, the book says that when he and his hon. Friends were in power none of my constituents in need of rate relief received a brass farthing, whereas now many hundreds have received substantial rate relief. I believe that under the Order many more will receive relief.

It is not true to say, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the Order is possibly necessary because of an increase in rates. Largely as a result of the excellent increase in grants given by the Government, the rates in my borough have fallen for the past two years, a splendid arrangement for which all my constituents are extremely grateful.

Mr. Dobson

Can my hon. Friend remember any one year since the war when the rates went down?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may remember, but he must keep it to himself.

Mr. Roebuck

I can think of no one who can obliterate from my mind all sorts of terrible memories better than you, Mr. Speaker.

I do not want to speak for long because that would perhaps be unfair to hon. Members opposite who have other things to do. I support what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) and Bristol, North-East (Mr. Dobson) about the need for much more publicity for the rate rebate scheme. I do not think that it is sufficient that we should have advertisements of the rather dreary sort to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East referred. Much more could be done by local councils with the rate demands. I believe that all councils now send a note on the back of their rate demands saying that persons can claim rate rebates. But they have been drearily worded and have not been typographically arresting. My hon. Friend might take advice on this and send a circular to local councils with a model form of announcement. This would be of great assistance to many people who would benefit from the Order, particularly as many of them are rather old and perhaps not inclined to read the small print.

Mr. Graham Page

That is an interesting point. But is it not those who are not paying the rates direct who are losing the benefit? They do not receive a rate demand and do not realise what they are paying.

Mr. Roebuck

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. There is a great deal in what he says. The people we must go after to make sure they understand about this are often the council tenants, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend for Croydon, South, and the private tenants who pay their rates with their rent. Many do not know about the rebate.

A suggestion was made in the House some time ago that rent books should contain a statutory notice to this effect. I am not sure whether that is feasible; but anything which can be done to make more widely known the great benefits which my hon. Friend and other members of the Government are offering poorer ratepayers should be adopted. I congratulate my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government for improving the lot of the poorer people of this country.

12.18 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to one or two points and give the information courteously requested from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), like Oliver Twist, always wants more, and I do not blame him. But it is a question of what is possible in all the circumstances from the point of view of both the national and local administration. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was not facing up to the position when he referred to general average increases in rate demands, because we are dealing in the Order not with a contribution to the average ratepayer but the contribution which we feel we should make to the householder who is less well-off, whether because his income is small or because he has a very large family.

I hope that the House will bear in mind that the average ratepayer has also been helped by the domestic element we have given in the contribution to the local authorities of 5d. and 10d., which is worth £30 million and £60 million. For that reason, a very large number of local authorities were able to show no increase in their rate demands. Figures produced by the Rating and Valuation Association show that in 1967–68 42 per cent, of the local authorities reduced their rate demands and in 1968–69 38 per cent, did so. In those two years, 14 per cent, and 15 per cent, had an unchanged rate poundage, which means that more than half the authorities either reduced or did not increase their demands. Increases were less than 6d. in the £ for 31 per cent, in 1967–68 and 23 per cent, in 1968–69.

I mention these figures only because I think it fair to do so. If one took the average rates payment in £ s. d. one would fail to realise the contribution that has been made over the whole field to all categories, although the Order deals only with the householder whose income is small, for which reason he is given relief.

Looking at the domestic rate poundage in England and Wales, one finds that from 1966–67 to 1967–68 there was practically no change and that between 1967– 68 and 1968–69 there was a change of 0–7 per cent, These figures ought to be put on the record so that we can see the picture as a whole.

I am grateful to hon. Gentlemen on both sides who have referred to publicity. We do a great deal. Television programmes, films and talks have been arranged in the past, and we shall consider doing this in the future. There was the suggestion that voluntary organisations should be consulted. We have done that and shall do it again in the future. We have also asked rent officers and others to draw this matter to the attention of those who come to see them. I give an undertaking that we shall take every step possible to bring these schemes to the notice of those who are likely to be most affected.

Although it is true that the take-up is nothing like 100 per cent,, and although we expect the figures to go back to over 1 million recipients, I do not want even there to overplay this. There must be, we calculate, about 3½ million ratepayers whose rate liability is very small, probably less than £15 a year or 6s. a week. We appreciate that some people do not want to go to the bother of claiming when the sum is comparatively small, but we shall do our best to bring this matter home to all those who are concerned.

On the subject of different categories, the hon. Member for Crosby said that he would have liked us to provide some further selectivity. I am not sure where in the Bill he thinks this could be done. He was a member of the Committee which considered this matter. The hon. Gentleman said that we could do it in terms. I do not think it can be done under Schedule 9. However, no doubt, with his usual ingenuity, the hon. Gentleman has found some way. Perhaps he will privately let me know how it can be done, and then we can pursue the point in private. The object at the moment was to keep the scheme simple and give the benefit where the shoe pinches most, and do it in a way which is within the staff complement of local authorities and their abilities to operate. I believe that we have done that and that the Order will substantially restore the position—

Mr. Graham Page

I will tell the hon. Member in public, not in private, how he could have done it. The Act gives the Minister power by order to vary the appropriate limits. He could vary them for different categories of people. That is what I was suggesting.

Mr. Skeffington

I should like to look at this further. I am not suggesting that we should do it because of the reasons that I have given. I am not sure whether we have the power to do it, but I will look at the matter again and perhaps have a further word with the hon. Member.

My right hon. Friend and I are very grateful for the general reception given to the Order, and I hope that its contents will become widely known in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Rate Rebates (Limits of Income) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved.

Motion made, Question proposed, That the Rate Rebates (Limits of Income) (Scotland) Order 1968. a draft of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved.—[Mr. Buchan.]

Mr. Speaker

The Question is—

12.23 p.m.

Mr. John Robertson (Paisley) rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I suspected that this would happen. We decided to take the two Orders together. Apparently the hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson) came in late and the information did not percolate to him. However, I have no objection to his speaking before I put the second Question.

Mr. Robertson

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend on bringing forward this Order. I have two suggestions only to make. One has already been discussed. Publicity is most important.

Not all local authorities are doing a good job in this regard. By and large, the position is working out, but we should like more information about how the scheme is working and would like to know in what local authority areas there seems to be some reluctance on the part of the people to come forward and claim rebates.

With those two suggestions, I welcome the Order. I again congratulate my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, who brought the Order forward without any prompting from the Opposition benches.

Question put and agreed to.