HC Deb 12 December 1974 vol 883 cc901-13


9.55 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 9, leave out from 'until' to end of line 10 and insert: 'either 1st April 1979 or 1st April 1980 as the Secretary of State may provide by order made by statutory instrument; and that section shall be amended accordingly'. On Second Reading and in Committee we probed the reasoning behind the object of the Bill, that of postponing the next general rate revaluation from 1978 to 1981. We commented on the fact that during no Labour administration had any valuation ever taken place and that every time a valuation was due, some reason was found for postponing it beyond their period of office. The Secretary of State assured us, with his hand on his heart, that electoral considerations had nothing to do with their thinking. We accept that, for the purpose of the argument, at its face value, although we reserve our personal judgments on that situation.

We also asked whether the reason might be that the Labour Government's intention to nationalise the land would throw such a burden on the valuers that they could not undertake the work of nationalisation and revaluation at the same time. Again we were assured that that was not the reason for the postponement.

We were told that the reason was the setting up of the Layfield Committee to investigate the whole rating system. The argument was that, on the assumption that Layfield would recommend a change in the rating system, it would be a waste of manpower for the revaluation to continue meanwhile. We therefore asked about the timing of that committee and of any subsequent legislation, in order to test the proposal to postpone until 1981.

We were told at the first sitting of the Standing Committee that it was assumed that the Committee would take its full time and report "at about this time next year"—in November 1975. The Minister went on: There must then inevitably be the digestion of the report by the Government and, to some extent, by the Opposition, and by local authorities. All that would take many months, to put it at its most optimistic. Legislation could not be introduced, therefore, until the autumn of 1976, and it could not become law until the summer of 1977. We are postponing revaluation in the Bill for a period of three years from 1978 to 1981." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 19th November 1974; c. 8.] We were not satisfied in Committee with that timetable. We pressed the Minister hard. The result was that he brought forward a concessionary date—namely, April 1980.

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the General Rate Bill may be proceeded with at this day's sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]

Bill not amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.

Mr. Rossi

That concessionary date is reflected in the amendment and in Government Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 which, I understand, we may also discuss.

We were grateful to the Minister for coming forward in Committee with that compromise and meeting our objections part of the way. But still we were not completely satisfied. We thought that there should be some flexibility so that if the Layfield Committee finished its work earlier than the Minister suggested, it might be open to him to bring forward revaluation to an earlier date. At another point of our discussions in Committee the Minister said, Clearly, it cannot report this year, for we are in November now. I hope that it will report early next year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 19th November 1974 ; c. 10.] That would be early in 1975 rather than later in 1975. If that were attainable the whole programme could be brought forward virtually a whole year. Therefore, instead of talking in terms of 1980 it would be possible to talk in terms of 1979.

It is for that reason that we have tabled the amendment. It states that the valuation instead of being on 1st April 1981, as is in the Bill, or 1968, as is in Government Amendments 2 and 3, shall be either 1st April 1979 or 1st April 1980 as the Secretary of State may provide by order made by statutory instrument ; and that section shall be amended accordingly. That is the section in the earlier Act.

We are proposing to give the Minister the opportunity to choose either 1979 or 1980. It is clear that he is content with 1980. We are giving him the opportunity to choose either date depending upon the speed with which the Layfleld Committee can conclude its deliberations and the speed with which the Government can study its proposals and bring forward legislation. There is no obligation for the Minister under the amendment to select 1979 if he finds it too early. He will still be able to leave revaluation to 1980. He can select either of the two dates by coming to the House with an order made by statutory instrument. We are leaving the decision entirely to him, but we are giving him the flexibility which he has denied himself.

If there were the measure of good will in this matter that the Minister has tried to persuade us exists, and if the true explanation for the delay or postponement is only the work of the Layfield Committee, the Minister should readily accept a situation in which he is free to choose one of two days, depending entirely upon the speed of the Layfield Committee, and not to be hamstrung by an arbitrary, inflexible single date inserted in the Bill.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I must ask the House to resist the amendment, and I shall ask it to approve Government amendments Nos. 2 and 3, which will change the date to 1980 in accordance with the consideration which I said in Committee would be given to this matter in view of representations made by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) and other hon. Members.

I repeat that the reason for the Bill is the uncertainty that must inevitably exist when an independent committee is considering the whole of the rating system and is due to report, according to its terms of reference, some time next year, but before the end of the year. In view of that situation, we do not want the time of valuers to be wasted in carrying out a revaluation which may not be required.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the revaluation may be required. We do not know what the Layfield Committee will come up with. It may suggest continuation of the present rating system as it is or with slight modifications. If so, we might then think it a pity that we had not proceeded with revaluation, but we must be prepared for the fact that the Layfield Committee may not make such a recommendation.

That is the reason for the Bill, and it is absurd for hon. Members to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman has done, that, in December 1974, I can know that, whether it be 1980 or 1981 or a subsequent year, a Labour Government will be in office and that I can now bring forward a Bill to postpone revaluation because I have such foresight. It is impossible for me to know any such thing now. I agree that I might be giving a valuable weapon to a future Conservative Government by this Bill, but that is not its purpose. The purpose arises from the considerations of the Layfield Committee and the uncertainty which exists now as to the future of the pattern of the rating system.

Amendment No. 1 would take the date from 1980 to 1979, with, as the hon. Gentleman has said, provision for the Secretary of State to choose 1980 if he thought it necessary. But I ask the House not to accept the amendment, because 1978 would normally be the next revaluation year, and if that date remained it would set in motion the preliminary work during this year. The valuers would now be doing preliminary work if the date were 1978. If the date of 1979 were fixed, the valuers would have to start work in the middle of next year, regardless of Layfield.

I said in Committee that we would look at the date 1980, and it is just possible for us to advance the date from 1981 to 1980, and that is why, following the concern expressed in Committee, the Government have put down an amendment accordingly. It represents the minimum postponement possible, and that minimum is to 1980 and not to 1979. The whole object of the Bill could easily be defeated if the date were 1979, because the revaluation work might well have to take place before Layfield reported, and certainly before the Government had had the opportunity, with the local authorities, to consider the report in detail, otherwise they would never get the work done in time.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

As I understand it, what the hon. Gentleman is talking about is the date at which valuers would have to start work and the need to postpone the starting of the work according to Layfield. Am I wrong in assuming that the process of revaluation is a continual process and that valuation officers are continually doing the job of revaluation? If not, what are the valuation officers doing at present?

Mr. Oakes

It is partly a continuous job of bringing up to date the process for new properties, and so on. That is taking place all the time. The valuers, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, are extremely busy at present dealing with appeals against assessments. That is another aspect of their work. They are facing a mountain of work with regard to that alone. But with regard to the major valuation, this has to be done years in advance. Preliminary lists are sent out, and so on. Considerations of hypothetical rents go out. Differences between areas in respect of very prosperous districts for shopping, and so on, have to be considered.

It takes many years to do this. It is not a case of the valuers being able to settle down and provide a revaluation for the following year, or even the year after. If 1979 were the date, some time next year—probably fairly early next year—they would have to start work on it, and the whole purpose and object of the Bill would be rendered quite useless. The purpose of the Bill is to stop futile, useless work going on until we know what Layfield has reported and until we know what the Government intend to do with that report. We could not have both those things by early next year. That is fairly certain, even if Layfield reported early next year. We want the report at the earliest possible time.

Hon. Members should bear in mind that the Layfield Committee is a completely independent body. It is not a Government body. We must bear in mind that these are very busy people who sit on this Committee. They are very busy people doing very important things other than sitting on the Layfield Committee. In view of the debate which took place in Committee and in the House, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have written to the chairman of the committee expressing the view expressed by hon. Members. He has replied pointing out the difficulty which his committee is in at present, bearing in mind its composition, and so on.

Mr. Lawrence

I think that it is implicit in what the hon. Gentleman is saying that there are some valuers at present who are working on revaluation, if not all of them, and that others are engaged in other processes. As a result of the introduction of this legislation, will those who are at present working on the process of revaluation stop doing that? What work will they do if they stop that work? To what work will they be transferred? Is the number of people who will have to be transferred from present revaluation work a significant or an insignificant number?

Mr. Oakes

When the hon. Gentleman says that revaluation is taking place, he should bear in mind that what is taking place is the continual up-dating of the list. That must inevitably be so when new property is built, and so on. The list has to be up-dated when extensions are added to property, and so on. What these people are doing, and what they will be doing instead of revaluation, is attacking the mountainous volume of work that they have at present in relation to appeals. I am constantly getting complaints from hon. Members—sometimes understandably—about the length of time it takes before an appeal can be heard. I assure the House that valuer's have more than enough to do without their doing what could be futile work.

The concession, which I made in Committee, to meet the very strongly expressed feelings of the Committee that perhaps we were taking a little too long in choosing the date of 1981, was to cut that down to the earliest date possible consistent with the valuers' time not being wasted. That was in order to meet hon. Members in their desire that the revluation should take place as soon as possible.

I ask the hon. Member for Hornsey to withdraw his amendment favouring 1979. I assure the House that I have done my best to bring forward the date to a year earlier, but the earliest possible time would be 1980.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Jones (Daventry)

We all recognise how accommodating the Minister has been in agreeing to the new date of 1980 instead of 1981, but I hope that he will understand the scepticism some of us have about the political content of his decision. I accept his personal statement, but the history of revaluations under Socialist Governments leads one to conclude that in the past these decisions have had a political content. I refer particularly to the cancellation of the 1968 revaluation. I am confident, from my knowledge and experience, that the late Richard Crossman was influenced by political considerations when that revaluation was cancelled. Although I accept entirely the assurance the Minister has given, 1 hope he will understand our scepticism.

I may be a little less charitable than my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) in this respect, but that is explained by the fact that I was present when Richard Crossman admitted to the political content of the decision to defer in 1968. I accept that the time scale is not unreasonable. I would have preferred the Government to be a little more accommodating, but I know of the pressures that the valuation office is under with the appeals against rating revaluations that are in the pipeline. I had hoped that the Government would go that one stage further, and I feel certain that that would not have been in any way detrimental.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made:

No. 2, in page 1, line 9, leave out '1981' and insert '1980'.

No. 3, in page 1, line 10, leave out '1981' and insert '1980'.—[Mr. Oakes.]

Mr. Rossi

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 18, at end insert 'to whom the Secretary of State shall report upon whatever consultations he may have had with the representatives of the local authorities prior to the making of such order and in particular upon any representations made to him during such consultations concerning the possible effects of such order'. This follows a somewhat similar amendment which we put down in Committee which was occasioned by representations we received from local authority associa- tions when this legislation was sprung upon them by the Government without any real consultation. Hon. Members may recall that the first anyone knew of this proposal was a Press statement issued by the Secretary of State some time during September. That immediately provoked an angry reaction from the local authorities' associations which wrote to the principal secretary for the Department of the Environment complaining in strong terms that the announcement had been made without any consultation.

I think the reply the associations received—and I am speaking only from memory—was that the matter would have to be deferred until after the General Election that was then being considered as possible, and that in any case the Secretary of State did not consider it necessary to have formal consultations because he already knew what the views and reactions of the local authorities were likely to be to the postponement. He had therefore taken them as read when making his decision and deciding to go ahead with the postponement in the face of the objections that he knew would have been raised to it.

That was a somewhat arbitrary and high-handed action and that is why we are proposing an amendment which asks the Secretary of State, if he comes to the House for further deferments of the valuation list in 1980, to report upon whatever consultations he may have had with representatives of the local authorities before making the order, and particularly to report upon any representations made to him during such consultations concerning the possible effects of such an order.

The amendment is worded in such a way as to avoid the difficulty we ran into in Committee. Our amendment there was that no postponement should take effect until the Secretary of State had had consultations with the local authorities. It was correctly argued that that wording tended to take away from the sovereignty of Parliament, that in effect it would leave with the local authorities the decision whether there should be a postponement. We have tried to avoid that difficulty, which was the main objection to the amendment in Committee, by asking the Secretary of State to report to the House when his order comes up for discussion by the House. Therefore, the last word will be with Parliament.

The amendment does not even require the Secretary of State to have consultations. He may have them or not have them, as he chooses. What he must do is to tell the House whether he has had them. Then the House will have to consider whether he has acted reasonably or unreasonably in making an order, and decide whether to confirm the order. The sovereignty in the matter will be there.

We are asking that, as well as reporting whether he has had consultations, the Secretary of State shall report what the local authorities have told him about the possible effects of his order, so that we may judge for ourselves the weight and validity of those representations. We are trying to give as much dignity as we can to both Houses in the matter. We are making clear to the Secretary of State what we would like to hear from him when he asks us for permission to make an order for a further postponement of revaluation.

It may be argued that it is not necessary to require the Secretary of State to report on consultations, because in a debate on such an order he will report anyway, or, if he does not, he can be questioned about consultations and will then explain to the House. I accept that that is possible, but it helps on occasions—in view of the criticisms of the Government by local authorities, this is such an occasion —if the House spells out to the Minister the approach it would like to see him make when he contemplates a course of action.

The amendment is no more than an indication by the House to the Minister that if he finds it necessary to seek a further postponement of the valuation list we should like to hear from him what consultations he has had, the results of those consultations, and in particular the representations made to him, so that the House can weigh up the pros and cons and decide whether the order should be approved.

Mr. Oakes

The purpose behind the amendment is the same as that which the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) expressed in his amendment in Committee, namely that he wants to ensure that consultations take place and that the House knows of the consultations before any extension of the order is made. I said in Committee that never before had local authorities been consulted on the question of revaluation in the way in which the hon. Gentleman meant, but that with hindsight it would probably have been better had we had discussions with the local authorities before the Press notice was issued.

But now we are concerned with the position for the future. The hon. Gentleman anticipated much of my reply when he said that the amendment may be regarded as superfluous. There are some slight technical objections to the amendment, not incidentally the same objections as we had to the earlier amendment moved by the hon. Gentleman which would fetter the House and which we therefore could not consider. We ask the House to reject this amendment because it is superfluous.

Let us consider the mechanism that would be involved if the Secretary of State exercised his power to make a further extension for one year. He would have to come to the House. This would be an affirmative procedure, not a negative procedure, and he could be questioned in the House about his reasons for making an extension. He could be asked what consultations he had had with the local authorities' associations. If the local authorities' associations had opposed his proposal he could be asked why he was seeking an extension in defiance of those associations.

The other leg in the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the Secretary of State should report to the House on the local authority representations, but inevitably he would have to do that in the course of replying in the House to questions raised by hon. Members. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman knows, I know, and you know, Mr. Speaker, that the local authorities' associations are never slow in coming forward to tell hon. Members in some detail about their opinions on any particular piece of legislation which is to come before the House, or on any action proposed by the Secretary of State.

I do not think that there would be any fear that any hon. Member would not know what were the views of the local authorities' associations, because the associations would take great care to make those views known. No hon. Member need fear that the Secretary of State could take action without first explaining his reasons to the House because it would be open to any hon. Member to ask for those reasons in the course of the affirmative procedure. I do not criticise the drafting of the amendment, but it is rather cumbersome and it is unnecessary, because protections are given by the procedure that is adopted before any extension for 12 months can take place. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Lawrence

The Under-Secretary's reply does not at present convince me. I asked him in Committee whether he would make the sort of concession which we now seek, whether he would undertake that before any further local government legislation was introduced, at least during his term of office, he would have some form of consultation. The Undersecretary was good enough to say that he had some sympathy with what I was saying regarding the protests of local authorities about not having been consulted. In a letter to him the local authorities expressed dismay and anxiety about the position, and complained about the total lack of consultation. In Committee we did not get any assurance. There was talk about the semantics of the situation and about how inadequate our amendment was. The Minister was his usual, kind, pleasant, generous, tempting self and we decided that we would not press the issue because we felt that we had seen some sort of a glimmer of sympathy. Now we wish to give effect to that sympathy by changing to a more effective form of procedure.

We do not want to fetter the Government and prevent them from taking appropriate action but there is a need for a lever by which to control the Government if they do not wish to enter into consultation. What the Minister has been saying is that there is no need for the amendment, that it is superfluous because in the ordinary way of things he would come to the House and give us an explanation. That is the position now, yet the Minister has said that there were no consultations and the Government are sorry about it. That will not stop this legislation from being enacted.

We want to make sure that there is some stipulation ensuring that the feelings of local authorities will be considered prior to any changes of this kind in future. While the Minister has shown sympathy for the points raised on behalf of the local authorities, he proposes to do nothing to make a change. Instead, in his siren-like manner, he tempts us on to the rocks of withdrawing the amendment. That is not good enough.

This amendment is an expression of genuine feeling, not by one local authority but by the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils. The entire body of local authorities are dismayed and anxious about the lack of consultation.

If the Minister will give us some reason for thinking that things will change, some commitment, I am sure that we will be willing to withdraw the amendment. Until such time as a commitment is given, I would be most unhappy about allowing things to remain as they are, particularly at a time when local authorities need to feel that the Government are on their side and that they are all pulling together to get us out of our troubles. There should be something more than an empty gesture.

Mr. Oakes

I can give the hon. Member the assurance which he is seeking. Things were somewhat peculiar in the autumn of this year. The normal course of events did not run. The election was coming up and there were all sorts of difficulties with a minority Government. There was no precedent for consulting local authorities.

They have made it clear that they feel extremely irate with us for not having consulted them. It would be an unwise Secretary of State who would come to the House and ask for an extension of 12 months without consulting local authorities in advance. He would risk the wrath of the House as well as that of the local authorities' associations. I think I can say, fairly safely, that a Secretary of State will consult the local authorities' associations if he proposes to ask for an extension.

Mr. Rossi

I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. This allays our fears. After that assurance, no Secretary of State would dare bring forward a revaluation postponement without full consultation. We have ventilated the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.