HC Deb 10 June 1974 vol 874 cc1372-82

11.14 p.m.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I wish to delay the House for only a short time. Like every other hon. Member, I care a great deal for its reputation and the reputation of its Members.

I am sure that all of us have been told by our constituents, both during the General Election campaign and at many other times, that the trouble with the House is that it is out of touch. That hurts not only hon. Members but the whole system.

I shall mention three irritants. One of the three does not come within the Minister's departmental responsibility but I feel that I must mention it because, like the two other irritants, it brings the whole concept of honest government into question. The vexed question of storage heaters and the publicity that has gone with it drives my constituents absolutely mad. I have two electricity board pamphlets which mention half-price electricity. Those are not my words. The Government have recently—

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to ask for an Adjournment debate on water sewerage and then to talk about electricity charges?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

I think that it was a remark in passing and that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) is coming to sewerage and rates.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

That is right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I am entitled to raise anything I like on an Adjournment debate.

The next matter which is little short of an irritating swindle—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but for the sake of other hon. Members who are in the House I should tell him that, although technically he is right and he can talk about whatever he likes, there is a firm understanding in the House that on an Adjournment debate we stick to the subject.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

I now propose to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I mentioned that first matter in passing. First, I wish to refer to the variation of the rate relief order. I knew that the rates were to go up. There is no point in denying that. However, my constituents complain that their rates have been more than doubled. I am still awaiting a reply to a letter that I wrote to the Minister's Department a fortnight ago seeking to find out the figures for my constituency. It is felt that the rate increases were a political move, and the constituents of rural constituencies are thoroughly resentful.

The inclusion of sewerage and other services within the rates is a matter which was not invented by the present administration but has been in existence for a long time. However, what is now taking place has become absolutely clear. One of my constituents said "Any commercial enterprise which levied charges for services that it did not provide would be liable to criminal charges under the Trade Descriptions Act." That may or may not be true. However, I doubt whether a judge would accept as a plea that we the suppliers of whatever it may be do not know exactly to whom we are supplying our goods and that, therefore, we must charge everyone. That is precisely what was stated in a Written Answer on 7th May. The Minister said that it was intended to do something about the matter. He then added that nothing can be done until the water authorities can identify the properties without main drainage.

But when will that happen? It is not a matter which can be left indefinitely. One of my constituents who has no main drainage received a bill only last April for £27 for such services. We must remember that the rural areas do not have the services which people who live in urban areas are entitled to expect. Their dustbins are collected weekly perhaps, they have no main sewerage, no mains water; they have no pavements, lighting or transport.

The machinery of government is notoriously slow, but there is one thing the Minister can do, and I ask him to do it. What makes people angry is that they are asked to pay for services which they do not receive. When a person is not on the main drainage system, he has to install a septic tank. What happens when the time comes for that tank to be cleaned? The person concerned goes to the sewerage authority and asks for the tank to be cleaned. What astonishes that ratepayer is that he is then charged for the performance of a function which should be carried out free of charge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at this point pending an examination of the whole problem.

Finally, I must make the point that nobody who fought the last General Election could be unaware of the dislike expressed throughout the country of our whole rating system.

Mr. Paul Tyler (Bodmin)

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, will he direct his attention to the fact that it was his Government—a Tory Government— who introduced the Water Act about which he is now complaining. I note from the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Third Reading debate on 2nd May that the hon. Gentleman was not present on that occasion, which was perhaps fortunate, but the rest of his Conservative colleagues supported the Water Act and we are now reaping the consequences.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

I thought I made it clear that I was not saying that the Labour Government had invented all the ills to which I referred. I admit that this problem has been with us for many years.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

No, not for many years—only recently.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

I am saying that the whole rating system has caused a great deal of complaint. It would be quite wrong in this debate, since it would be out of order, to advocate any form of legislation. Some people suggest that there should be a local income tax: some suggest the earmarking of a percentage of general taxation as a way in which local government finances can be carried on; others suggest that the education services should be transferred to the Exchequer. Whatever happens, whichever alternative is chosen, the solution must be drastic— and that solution must be reached as quickly as possible.

11.23 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr, Denis Howell)

I am in many ways grateful to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) for raising these matters tonight, some of which he was kind enough to suggest were not the responsibility of the Labour Government. I will return to that point in a moment.

I was delighted that in his opening remarks he asked for honest government. I was grateful for the realistic intervention from the Liberal benches to draw his attention to the fact that we are being plagued at the moment by the outrageously high rate increases which flow directly from the method of local government reorganisation and water reorganisation imposed upon the country by the Conservative Government. We as the then Opposition, and also the Liberals, said this at the time. If every local government area was to have two treasurers where one had done the job previously, two clerk's departments where one existed before, and duplication of other government posts, those things obviously had to be paid for. We also drew attention to the increased salaries on the basis of which the reorganisation was to be carried out.

When the hon. Gentleman speaks of honest government, he should draw the attention of his ratepayers and taxpayers to where exactly the responsibility for the present situation lies. I have before me a message to all ratepayers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency which appeared in the Shropshire Star on Monday 20th May, containing photographs of the hon. Gentleman, and also of his two hon. Friends, the hon. Members for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and Ludlow (Mr. More), neither of whom is present tonight. The message went as follows: We want to send a message to all ratepayers in Shropshire. We thank those who have written to us. Like most of the rural areas and smaller towns of England. Shropshire ratepayers are being faced with enormously increased rate demands. The amount of the increase varies in different districts; among the worst hit are the former Clun RDC and the Wrekin area. A number of factors have contributed to the present position; the latest blow has been the present Government's sudden alteration in the Domestic Rate Relief. A protest debate took place in the House of Commons on the 25th March, when we all voted against the Government's action. We have also signed a Motion of Protest. It will be seen that there is no honest approach in this campaign which the hon. Gentleman is conducting. There was no suggestion that the rate increases in Shropshire are the direct result of his Government's actions in forcing through this local government reorganisation measure. There is no mention of the creation of the monolithic Severn-Trent Water Authority, stretching across the whole of England and part of Wales, too. This is bound to increase administrative costs.

Mr. Tim Renton () Mid-Sussex

As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, we are talking specifically about the sewerage charges. The Water Authorities (Collection of Charges) Order 1974 was made on 13th March this year, laid before Parliament on 26th March and came into operation on 27th March. Will the hon. Gentleman consider a specific amendment to the order under which hereditaments not connected to the main drainage will be relieved of all or part of the general services charge levied by the water authority?

Mr. Pardoe

In the quotation which the Minister read out there was the phrase "we all voted against". Does he recognise that there is a clear implication there that the whole of the Conservative Party voted against that when, in fact, 90 Conservative Members abstained on that occasion and the Government achieved a majority of 75?

Mr. Howell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that historical and, I believe, factually correct account of our proceedings.

I turn to the main question which the hon. Gentleman has raised, which is that of charges for sewage disposal services levied through the general rate system and the problem which arises when people are not connected to the sewerage system. This is something which very few people would find possible to defend. It is a system which has operated in this country for generations. The one advantage which has so far emerged from the Water Act 1973 is that it has highlighted this deficiency.

That Act has brought this to a head. Sewerage services have always been financed on the basis that they are a community service. One of the things we have to consider is whether the system should continue to be so financed. I draw particular attention to Section 30(1) of the Act, which enables a water authority to levy such charges as it thinks fit for services performed, facilities provided and rights made available.

There is an obligation on the water authorities and the local authorities to provide the opportunity for householders to link up with sewers. But there is no corresponding obligation to ensure that householders always do so. When we discuss future arrangements this must be resolved. It creates an enormous sense of grievance and injustice when people do not have the opportunity to link up with the main drainage system. It adds to their dismay when they also have to pay for the emptying of cesspools and suchlike.

I come to the practicality of the matter. I have already said—and I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said it during an earlier Adjournment debate—that this administration wants to do something about it. We accept that it is monstrously unfair that people who are not enjoying services, not because they are not linked up with them—such people are a separate case—but because they do not have the opportunity to take advantage of the main drainage system, should be expected to pay. The difficulty is how to identify those people and get some system of direct charging.

I have to tell the House that our early estimates are that there are certainly no fewer than 800,000 households whose premises are in this situation of not being able to link up with the sewerage system. It is a formidable number. I am advised that they are not necessarily all in rural areas, although many are.

When we came to office, we found that the previous administration—and I have had to continue to support this system, for otherwise there would have been financial chaos in the water authorities— had decided that the first year's financing at any rate should be done through the existing rate collection system. There seemed to be no other system that could apply. Therefore, it was quite clear that it was impossible to make exemptions this year, especially having regard to the fact that it was not just the great change in water administration with which we had to contend but the phenomenally difficult administrative task of the re-organisaion of the whole of local government, which had also been imposed on the country at one and the same time.

Water authorities took over responsibility on 1st April, and effectively that meant that water authorities had only eight months to establish themselves, to review their situation and to decide their costings and estimates, get into operation and start obtaining the finance through the rating system for their operations. I can tell the House, and I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate this, that, although there are many things that the new administration would like to do, in many of the discussions that we had with the water authorities we found it virtually impossible to obtain the information within the time scale available to us. We have been in office for only three months and we have started to ask for this information in order to make sensible and intelligent decisions, but the water authorities simply cannot obtain the information.

Some of the old local authorities are very good about being able to say exactly what capital allocation has been committed to this task and what revenue costs were, but we have discovered many local authorities where it has been impossible to distinguish, either on capital account or on revenue account, between water and sewerage and other services, because they were all linked under a multiplicity of different heads of local government finance.

It will be seen that, although we wanted to move in this direction, there could be no question of paying relief or rebates in this year's situation. I am informed that in 1972 the previous administration discussed the whole question of paying rebates in the sort of case that has been mentioned. I do not think that this information has been given before, but I am informed that, although the previous administration discussed whether to pay rebates in these cases, it rejected the possibility, and so we are having to start from scratch. That adds considerably to my difficulties.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

Did the hon. Member say, as I thought, that there was now no question of repaying this year's payments? That is not the impression that the Under-Secretary gave in the last Adjournment debate on this subject, when the Liberals were not present but many of us were. He then gave the clear impression not only that this matter would be looked at for future years but that the Government would consider rebating this year's payments.

Mr. Howell

That is a fair point. It is quite true that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that we were actively looking at the situation this year because the anomalous and unfair position had been drawn to our attention. We have looked at it this year but, for the reasons which I have unfolded to the House—at least 800,000 premises are affected—the local authorities and the new water authorities do not have the information on which to take any such practical action this year. Although, as the hon. Member has said, my hon. Friend said that we would investigate the position, I am sorry to have to say that we have done so but that we find it impracticable to act this year.

Mr. Cope

I apologise for interrupting the Minister again but, frankly, the large number of people involved—the Minister has given a figure of 800,000, and I do not disagree—is no reason for not doing anything on this occasion. Indeed, it is added reason why something should be done.

Mr. Howell

I hope I have made it clear to the House, and I am being frank in giving as much information as I can, that the size of the problem administratively to identify the premises is colossal. With the added fact that the new authorities have only just started work, and in a sense all their rating demands are estimates, it is practically impossible to do anything this year. While that is a regrettable state of affairs, it is no different from every previous year when these people have paid for services which they have not received.

What the House will want me to do, and what I undertake to do, is to move as rapidly as possible to a situation where the water authorities can identify these dwellings and can exempt them from payment for services which they are not enjoying. That is what I wish to do.

Mr. Cope

Can the exemption be backdated?

Mr. Howell

It cannot be backdated. Why should that be done in one year when in some cases this has been happening for 50 years? The logic of retrospective relief is impossible to apply. It is attractive to say that we should do it for this one year, but why stop at one year when the people have been paying for these services and local government has been financed on this basis for a large number of years?

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

1 apologise for intervening but I should like to correct the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope). I heard the summing up in the earlier debate on rating which came on unexpectedly one night and about which great play has been made by the Conservative Opposition. The information concerning properties which have septic tanks could be obtained easily from valuation officers, who make the assessments and know which properties have septic tanks and those which do not.

Can the Minister please answer a point put by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) when he spoke about the charge for emptying septic tanks? This is certainly an affront to ratepayers, and surely something can be done. Many authorities had not budgeted for this money in their accounts because they were under the impression that the water authorities would pay for it. Surely this could be underwritten by the Government and septic tanks at least be emptied free of charge. Will the Minister deal with this before he concludes?

Mr. Howell

I will do my best in the time that remains. The cleaning of cesspits and septic tanks is a function of district councils, which is an added complication. It is not a function of the water authorities. It is for the district councils to decide whether to charge or to empty the tanks free. Water authorities have no power to pay district councils to empty septic tanks.

A further complication is that, even if these domestic dwellings could be identified, there is some doubt whether it would be legal or ultra vires for water authorities to refund charges properly demanded and collected under the collection of charges order. This is one of the questions which I discussed with my legal advisers today. They are not entirely united, but the best advice I can give the House is that most of them think that it would be ultra vires to implement a refund charge such as this.

We shall do the best we can. I very much hope that it will be possible to put this matter right for next year. I give the House the assurance that I shall do my very best to ensure that we speed up the administrative arrangements necessary to identify these properties. We want to have them excluded from payment if they are not enjoying the services. I trust that the House will rely upon me to bring that about.

But it must be faced—this is the main fact—that the reorganisation of the water services was carried out far too quickly by the previous administration for proper administrative arrangements to be made for direct charging and certainly for proper administrative arrangements to be made in the time available to the water authorities, which was eight months from the moment they were set up to the moment they took over the responsibility for these major services. To impose that sort of administrative nonsense, which I believe it to be, at the same moment as local government reorganisation on an unprecedented scale was going on is a condemnation of the manner in which the Conservative Government carried out their important duties.

We shall do our best to retrieve the situation as soon as we can. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter because it has given me the opportunity to highlight where the shortcomings in these matters should firmly rest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.