HC Deb 29 March 1976 vol 908 cc1037-65

(1) Where the valuation officer alters the valuation list under section 1(1) above so as to include an area of a caravan site as a single hereditament, he shall send to the site operator and to each occupier of a pitch for a leisure caravan within the area so included, a notice containing the following information—

  1. (a) the name and location of the caravan site on which the pitch is situated;
  2. (b) a statement that the valuation officer is treating an area of the caravan site including the pitch as a single unit in the occupation of the site operator;
  3. (c) the number of such pitches which the valuation officer is including in the said single unit;
  4. (d) the amount of the rateable value of the said single unit which the valuation officer attributes to such pitches; and
  5. (e) the rate in the pound at which the general rate for the rating area is charged under the General Rate Act 1967 in respect of the first year in which the site and pitches thereon are assessed as a single unit.

(2) If so requested before the 1st April after the making of the proposal for the alteration of the valuation list under section 1(1) above, by a person occupying any such pitch as aforesaid at the time when the proposal is made, the valuation officer shall give him in writing the information required by subsection (1) above to be given by a notice under that subsection.—[Mr. Wyn Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.01 p.m.

Mr. Wyn Roberts (Conway)

I beg to move. That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following amendments:

No. 6, in page 3, line 10, leave out Clause 2.

Government Amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 to Clause 2.

Mr. Roberts

The new clause is intended to replace Clause 2, which relates to the provision of information to caravanners in England and Wales after the valuation officer makes a proposal to treat an area of a site as a single hereditament.

The clause is drawn up in terms as similar as I can make them to the terms of the Scottish provision in Clause 4, which, for the benefit of those Members of the House who were not members of the Committee, I must point out was introduced by the Government at a fairly late stage in our proceedings to replace another clause very similar to the existing Clause 2.

In other words, we are seeking in the new clause to bring English and Welsh procedure into line with the Scottish after the Government themselves had shown their dissatisfaction with the Anglo-Welsh procedure by rejecting it for Scotland. What was not good enough for Scotland is not good enough for England and Wales. We contend that the Scottish procedure devised by the Government should be equally applicable to England and Wales.

The first question hon. Members are bound to ask is in what way the new Scottish procedure and the new procedure which we are seeking to introduce for England and Wales in the new clause is an improvement on the procedure for giving information to caravanners contained in the existing Clause 2. The precise answer is that the new proposed procedure cuts out the site operator as the provider of information and lays the duty of provision on the valuation officer as it has been laid in Clause 4 on the assessor in Scotland.

The necessity for the site operator to display a notice on the site is done away with and replaced by a duty on the part of the valuation officer to inform each caravanner individually of the various facts that he would otherwise have to glean from the site operator's notice board.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office summed up the difference in Committee at our third sitting when he said: Our system enables a much more direct notice to be given to the Scottish caravanner than is possible under the English system. Earlier he had said: I hope that we are providing here, in this basically simpler and neater way, reasonable information in an intelligible form for the individual caravanner in a way which guarantees that he will receive the information regardless of the complications of the time of year for pinning up notices and so on."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 23rd March, 1976; c. 118–121.] I totally agree with the Minister of State that the Scottish provision is better than the provision for England and Wales, and I agree with the epithet he used in Committee to describe the Scottish provision.

I do not think many would disagree with us on this point. I cannot believe that site operators in England and Wales will relish the possibility of having to put up a notice. Equally, there are caravanners who would prefer to be informed by an authoritative letter from the valuation officer rather than by a site notice put up by the site operator.

If there is general agreement that the direct supply of information to the cara-varmer by the valuation officer is a better system of provision than the site operator's notice, why can it be done in Scotland but not in England and Wales? The Government explained in Committee that the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975 requires the assessor to give notice to the occupier of a property when it is deleted from the valuation roll, and the assessor would, therefore, have to give notice in any case to the individual caravanners when single unit treatment was introduced and individual assessments were consequentially deleted. There is no similar requirement relating to the valuation officer in England and Wales. Therefore, as the Minister of State put it in Committee, The Scottish system fortuitously gives us an opportunity for making better provision than the provision which will inevitably have to be made for England, but it is basically directed towards the same end."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 23rd March 1976: c. 118.] Frankly, I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's sense of the inevitability of second-rate provision for England and Wales in this context. If the Scottish system is better—and I believe that it is—why do we not adapt the English system and enable it to provide the information in as automatic and guaranteed a manner as the Scottish system does? That is the aim of the new clause.

The Government may say that for the valuation officer to write to each individual caravanner affected would mean an inordinate amount of work, but I question whether the valuation officers will not be deluged with inquiries anyway since they are the repository of official knowledge of matters relating to rateable value. As the Under-Secretary pointed out in Committee, as reported at c. 82 of the report of the second sitting, these officers are available for consultation should the need arise. Site operators cannot give definitive answers to queries about rateable values, and it is very questionable whether they should be encouraged to play such a role in this context, or whether individual caravanners should approach them with valuation problems.

The proper suppliers of official information of this kind are the valuation officers. If their equivalents can do the work in Scotland without any increase in staff and costs, I really do not see why it cannot be done similarly in England and Wales. I am assuming that if any increase in staff were anticipated in Scotland as a result of the new Scottish procedure, we would have been told about it.

Like the Scottish replacement clause, our new clause does away with the dubious procedure relating to written requests to the site operator for information and redirects such queries to the valuation officer. Consequently, the penalty of £50 on the site operator for failing to answer such queries within a month is also done away with. The same penalty, of course, applies to the site operator who fails to display a notice. Our clause abolishes the penalty in that case as well, because the responsibility for providing information no longer rests with the site operators but with the valuation officers.

I believe that our new clause will be welcomed by the site operators and individual caravanners alike and will make for a more harmonious relationship between them. I urge the Government to give it very serious consideration.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)

I support the new clause becaue, like many other hon. Members in the Chamber at present, I represent an area where many individual caravanners will be affected by this legislation. They are individual caravanners of a whole variety who feel the added tax on their recreation to be imposed by the Bill to be especially heavy. We all had the initial shock of separate assessments compared with the pre-1966 position.

Many people felt that the assessments were high compared with the rates paid on private dwellings. I share the view that my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) put forward throughout the Committee proceedings, that we would have done better had we reverted to the pre-1966 position.

I pay tribute to the Minister, because I realise that even with the problems he has in his Department he has tried to be helpful. We all bombarded him with complaints and figures about caravanners who complained to us about the costs of collection and about the bureaucratic nonsense created by the 1966 decision. I do not like the Bill, but I recognise that it is an attempt by the Minister to be helpful, and for that reason I pay tribute to him.

In future, site assessment will become the norm rather than the irregular. I recognise that this will make the task of collection easier. Whether lower valuations will result remains to be seen. Many caravanners throughout the country will be more convinced of the value of the Bill when enacted if their valuations and the rates they have to pay are reduced.

Serious questions arise on the Bill. The question that worries me most is the increasing friction which will result from this. It must be recognised that legislation with regard to caravans is very hazy. Other hon. Members dealt with the problems which arise with mobile homes. Some site owners engage in practices which many of us regard as questionable, but in saying that I do not wish to joint the finger at site owners in general. Many site owners have excellent sites. However, many on the East Coast engage in practices which some of us have little time for. We should seek to prevent serious friction arising between site owners and caravan owners.

Despite Clause 2, friction will arise because of a lack of knowledge on the part of caravanners of the basis on which they will be called on to pay their share of the rates. The new clause goes a long way to solving this dilemma. If caravanners, having been communicated with by the valuation officer rather than by a notice having been posted up on a windy site, can be assured that the valuation of the whole site is fair and then that their share of the overall valuation is fair, it should ease matters and ensure a return to the sunnier climes we used to enjoy on the East Coast at places like Mablethorpe and Ingoldmells where people go on holiday.

Next, the notice having been pinned on the notice board—that is, in accordance with the provisions of the Bill as it stands—and the caravanner having been asked for his share of the rates and six months having elapsed, what guarantee does the individual caravan owner have that the rates will be paid to the local authority and not used as a useful float or fund for the first six months of a site operator's existence, perhaps at the most difficult time—the summer holidays?

Another important question is that of the variation which arises between sites which allow owners to rent their caravans for profit and those which forbid owners to do so. This is another injustice about which caravanners feel strongly.

The matter to which I attach the greatest weight is the need of the many caravanners in the East Midlands to whom their caravan genuinely represents their one major investment. I do not wish to appear to be pouring on the agony or over-egging the pudding, but one of a variety of reasons led to their acquisition of a caravan—age, disability, perhaps a pet which they cannot take to any other place, or bad local conditions. This applies to the majority of caravan owners in the East Midlands. If one lives in a fairly dismal street, in a dark and unpleasant environment, perhaps in a terraced house with no garden, with no green fields nearby and perhaps with a pit tip immediately behind, the thought of getting away at the weekend to the East Coast in one's caravan represents a real contribution to one's standard of life.

10.15 p.m.

To many people with low incomes, these increased charges represent a breaking point in deciding whether they can afford to continue with what I would describe not as recreation but as a let-out from their normal lifes. To provide these people with the right advice to enable them to know whether they are being fairly treated is a major factor in helping to alleviate their situations of which many of us are aware as constituency Members. I hope the Government will give proper consideration to the proposed clause and will accept it in the spirit in which it is moved.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I support the clause and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) on selecting what I regard as the key issue in the Bill relating to the provision of information to caravanners about their rating assessments.

Hon. Members will recall from my speech on Second Reading that that is my principal doubt about this Bill. I share the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) that the effect of the Bill will be to produce many disputes between site owners and caravan owners about the break-down of the rate bill between a site and individual caravans.

I had hoped that given the Ministers' acceptance that there were some difficulties on this issue when they spoke on Second Reading, one would find in Committee that they had taken the opportunity to ensure that when we reached the present stage much more information would be given to caravanners. I was not able to sit on the Standing Committee, and I shall not attempt to mislead the House or my constituents by claiming that I made any great efforts to get on the Standing Committee, but I find on reading the report of the Committee that no great progress has been made on his issue so far as it affects England and Wales.

When dealing with this detailed aspect of the Bill, one of the problems has been the timetable within which the Bill has been taken through the House. I was one who last year pressed for legislation of this kind to be introduced. I was glad that the Minister managed to get some parliamentary time at all, but, unforunately, the parliamentary time has come a little late in the Session, bearing in mind the target date of 1st April 1976 which the Minister has set down in the Bill. Between Second Reading and this stage, for a Bill which had little detailed debate in the other place, we have taken the whole thing at a galloping rate and we are at the final stages with inadequate time having been devoted to sorting out very important details.

The most important detail of all is the amount of information which has to be given to caravanners about the share of the rate burden which they have to carry in order to minimise the real risk of serious disputes between caravanners and site owners. That risk cannot be minimised. My experience, with that of other East Midlands Members, which is bound to be considerable, is that the fierceness and the extent of disputes which can arise between caravanners and some site owners cannot be overestimated. There are too many fringe operators who take advantage of people of modest means who own caravans. Some of the practices on sites are quite deplorable and the possibilities of dispute are absolutely limitless.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this is a subject on which East Midlands Members of Parliament have had an enormous number of representations and about which people feel very strongly? We have done our best to press the case throughout the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Clarke

I agree entirely. I notice that in Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) said that caravanning was one of the principal industries of his constituency, and that industry is fuelled by the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Beeston (Mr. Lester) and for Melton (Mr. Latham), as well as mine and those of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), many of whom seem to have holiday caravans on the Lincolnshire coast.

The information which caravanners will wish to have is their share of the rate burden and precisely how that share of the burden has been arrived at for their caravans on their pitches. We cannot consider any new clause or amendment without constantly directing ourselves to that point, for that is what the caravanner wants to know.

At present, under what is otherwise the quite delisable aim of the Bill—this is, to treat the whole site as a single hereditament and reduce the overall burden—the break-down of the rate burden as between individual caravanners is left to the unfettered discretion of the site owner. I see that in Committee the Minister put it quite starkly: The purpose of the Bill in taking the whole of the site and averaging it out as a single unit is that the site owner can most economically—commercially and economically—deal with this in the ordinary charge which he makes to the caravanner. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are choice pitches and there are less choice pitches. These are matters of commercial judgment. The site owner assesses which are the most desirable pitches—those with the best views, those overlooking the sea, those nearest the tap, those furthest from the toilets, or nearest to the toilets, as the case may be."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18th March 1976; c. 70.] Thus, the whole quesion of how the rate burden over the site as a whole is to be broken down is to be left entirely to the commercial judgment of the site owner, and there is to be no obligation on the site owner to tell his caravanners how he has exercised that commercial judgment in respect of their caravans. I can think of nothing less satisfactory.

I think that most site owners—certainly the most reputable—probably do not want such an unfettered discretion in dividing the burden among their caravanners and collecting the rates. Moreover, there are a good many caravanners who, for understandable reasons, do not trust their site owner to make that commercial judgment and to break down the rate burden unless they can have far more information than the Bill as it stands is likely to give them by way of notice on a caravan site.

I expect that the Minister will seek to draw a distinction between his position and that of his Scottish colleague, his Scottish colleague having been lucky enough to put in the Scottish part of the Bill terms precisely on the lines of those which my hon. Friends are urging for England and Wales. I have no doubt that he will say that the principle objection is that this would impose a great burden on valuation officers, and one of his main purposes throughout the Bill has been to relieve the East Lindsey Council, for example, of the need to have eight extra valuation officers and to relieve valuation officers generally of this work.

I accept that there would be a difficulty in that a considerable burden would be put on valuation officers, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) said, it is plainly practical in Scotland to go about it as we suggest. The work is to be underaken by Scottish valuation officers, and it is difficult to see why in England and Wales, if there is to be no satisfactory alternative, English valuation officers cannot take on the same burden.

I speak of "no satisfactory alternative" because I wish to make clear that, for my part, although I support my hon. Friend's proposal, it is, in my view, still second best. We are pressing this proposal upon the Minister because he has declined to put a duty on site owners to put a proper notice on display to caravanners. In my opinion, a proper notice would give the information to which caravanners are entitled—namely, a proper explanation of how their site owner has decided to break down the rate burden for each individual pitch.

The site owner will have to do the work. I cannot see why it is unreasonable that the site owner should be obliged to show caravanners exactly what he has done, how the bill has been divided up and the total arrived at, since he will have already done the work and used his commercial judgment. That would be the best method. But if the Minister insists on saying that that is an unreasonable obligation, someone will have to do it and I believe that that person should be the valuation officer. I invite my hon. Friend to press his new clause if the Minister does not produce some good reasons for resisting it.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I go a long way with what the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has said. The Minister should be in no doubt about the strength of feeling that there is over the Bill even when it is being dealt with late at night on a one-line Whip. The Bill has gone a long way in a short time, and that has annoyed those people outside the House who are perhaps not as privy as we are to parliamentary procedure.

I have to declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the newly-formed National Association of Caravan Owners. The members of that Association are holiday caravan owners. Until recently they have not seen the need to be organised and they were not involved in the debate on the Mobile Homes Bill. They did not see the need for protection broadly similar to that which has been extended to residential caravan owners under legislation introduced by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King).

I recently visited Ingoldmells on the East Coast to speak to Roy Middleton, the Secretary of the National Association of Caravan Owners. He was as astonished as I was at the strength of feeling and the immense turn-out at the end of the season at an inaugural meeting to discuss the consequences of the 1966 decision and the Government's attitude. I accept that the Government wish to help the holiday caravan owner by altering the basis of site rating from the obviously and blatantly unsatisfactory situation that obtained last year. Many individual rating assessments then poured through letter boxes and were pushed under the doors of empty and deserted caravans, causing panic and distress when owners returned at the beginning of the next season. Caravan owners were in considerable doubt about what the local authorities were up to—particularly the East Lindsey Council, which sent out many thousands of demands. I accept that the Government are trying to put that right.

Further indignation has been caused by the way in which the Bill has been introduced. There appears to be no way of protecting the individual holiday caravan owner from an assessment which he believes to be that of the site owner and not based on independent valuation. There has been considerable friction over the years between site owners and caravan owners about that matter. Printed forms have been sent out, before the ink is dry on the Bill, making demands dated from 1st April 1976. Site owners have taken in some cases an arbitrary and high-handed view of their role in this matter.

10.30 p.m.

I shall quote one letter from a caravan owner, a member of the newly-formed association, since we are all bearing in mind that the individual caravan owner will be better off with global rather than individual rating per pitch. He says: Many site owners are charging up to 100% higher rates than those individual assessments by the Valuation Officer. On this particular site I now mention, the site owner, who is considered one of the more moderate owners, sent out rents 'inclusive of rates'. The caravan owner concerned wrote back saying, as this bill was not yet law, and he would have an option under the bill to be individually rated, he would exercise this option, should the bill become law. The site owner had had many such letters, and realising he was out of law, had a standard letter printed, saying he would accept the rent alone providing they paid the rates on demand. On realising the rates were several pounds higher than the individual assessment, this caravan owners wrote back asking why this was so. With all due haste, the site owner replied, giving a reason, and stating that as the caravan owner had put him to such a lot of trouble, and in any case 'you should have been satisfied with the offer made by me in the last paragraph of my letter. I sincerely hope therefore that you will arrange for the removal of the above caravan by 5th April next '. That is four days after this Bill is due to become law.

That kind of threat is monstrous. It is ridiculous that, when no caravan owner is yet aware of the full provisions of the Bill, when its provisions are being debated in this House and presumably any amendments made will be taken back to their Lordships, these threats should be made and should be putting many caravan owners in considerable fear.

I remind my hon. Friend that these are working-class people. I do not say that in any emotional, breast-beating sense. The reason why so many East Midlands Members are here is that caravanning tend to be the pastime of the low-income groups in the East Midlands, who are as far from the sea as one can get in this country. The only joy they have of the seaside is to rent a caravan after saving for many years to do so. Now they find that they are to be rated on their caravans just as the better-off classes are rated on second homes, holiday cottages and so on. They are being asked to pay rates to contribute to all the local services whether they enjoy them or not—schools, and so on—in the area where they happen to have their caravan.

If they are to be asked to do so and we have to revert to the pre-1966 decision, it is of paramount importance to guarantee that we do it as fairly as possible. The new clause has its flaws, but at least it is a step towards making it demonstrably clear that we shall be fair to the individual caravan owner, that the assessment for rating he receives has been arrived at after due thought, and that these harassing and bullying letters will not be sent out but there will be assessments based on a fair and independent scrutiny by the valuation officer or his equivalent.

If we cannot guarantee that, we should not proceed with the Bill. I rather concur with the proposal to postpone the Bill, but if we are to stick to the time table, although many of us have had little sight of the legislation, it must be demonstrably fair. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to give a fair wind to the new clause.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Having listened to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), I am more puzzled than ever why the Government decided to choose this method of proceeding. The new clause would at least help. But the Government should have opted for a different course in considering how to resolve the problem arising from separate assessments.

The people we are concerned with are largely in the low-income groups, and the Government have chosen a way that will cause immense inconvenience to them. I do not think that the Government have taken full account of what will happen once the Bill proceeds. One must understand that although, under individual assessments made last year, in theory many caravanners were going to be subjected to this new and higher rate for the first time, in practice the assessments were not sent.

The Government should understand that up to 250,000 caravanners will be faced with the problem of paying these very high rates for the first time. The new clause is an improvement, and I hope the Minister will accept the eloquent pleas we have heard from both sides of the House in favour of this reasonable change.

It is important that these high rates should be put to caravanners as fairly, clearly and independently as possible. The new clause meets that objective.

I regret that I was not on the Standing Committee. It was not through want of trying. In fact, I succeeded, but, because of a temporary indisposition, I was taken off the Committee. The speed of the Committee's work deceived the eye, and by the time I got back, the Committee stage had been completed. It was dealt with at amazing speed, which was a little unseemly bearing in mind its considerable implications. Consequently, I was unable to hear the arguments in favour of this procedure being adopted in Scotland. If the Minister is not going to accept the new clause, perhaps he can tell us why this procedure will not work in England and Wales. I can see no reason why it should not.

I hope the Minister understands the implications of the legislation. Many of us with caravans and chalets in our constituency are beginning to understand the seriousness of the charges being imposed by site operators. They have had to rise considerably because of inflationary pressures. These matters are now assuming new dimensions. In the past, rents, rates and licensing were relatively small charges within the means of most caravanners. Suddenly, they are faced with substantial increases. On top of higher licence and site fees and club licences, they will be faced with rate charges of £25, £50 or even more.

How will caravanners react when they receive a bill for £50 from the site owner? They will be quite cross. It would be much better if the demand came direct from the valuation officer. It would give the impression of greater authenticity and independence and would be much more likely to be accepted and reduce the area of resentment between caravanners and site operators.

I particularly dislike the fact that the Bill makes site operators virtually valuation officers. In Committee, the Minister said site operators were literally being made into "unpaid tax collectors". In addition, the Bill imposes on them the burden of making decisions on rates to be collected from individual caravanners. This is not the sort of burden we should impose on site operators. The new clause would lighten that burden to a limited, but reasonable, extent. Some of the burden will be transferred back to the valuation officer, but this is fair enough. After all, this is a tax to be collected for the Government. It can hardly be right to impose the burdens of collection and valuation on site operators.

The new clause is constructive and helpful. It may be of assistance to caravanners. It will certainly help site operators and maintain good relations between them both.

I hope the Minister will decide that this is a helpful and worthwhile new clause.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was right to draw attention to the alleged bullying of occupiers by site operators. Bullying is often the offspring of fear and ignorance. It is the fear and ignorance of the tightly-knit time scale of the introduction of this legislation that has led to some site operators acting hastily and perhaps savagely. The clause attempts to introduce an air of fairness, gentleness and more leisurely wisdom to the proposals contained in the Bill. Many people feel that the legislation is being slipped through with undue haste, with an obsession to get it on the statute book before some strange clock somewhere strikes midnight.

In Committee the Government gave many assurances that everyone involved had been consulted. They may have been consulted, but there is little evidence that the submissions made were considered when the Bill was drafted. It might be accepted that site operators, local authority associations and district valuers were consulted, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the one group of people not consulted were those who occupy holiday caravans. The National Association of Caravan Owners states: This Bill must be deferred far at least a couple of mortals to enable everyone's point of view to be heard. This Bill is going to cause even more friction. If we had known just how quickly it was going to be done we could have arranged for our members to lobby their MPs or to have used some other form of protest. The Caravan Owners Action Group, which represents 5,000 caravan owners, has this to say: As the Bill stands at the moment, I think it will cause utter chaos. The Government anticipate the rates being around £25 and, if this is so, all our members will opt for separate assessments, because the rates we were asked to pay under the separate assessment for 1975 were only as much as that and we are still waiting to have our objections settled for that year. No one in our group will pay these rates until this is done. Those are the voices not of militants but of people who merely wish to enjoy their holiday homes without undue pressure, undue difficulties, undue cost and, above all, without friction with the site operators thrust upon them by legislation. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) will press the clause to a Division.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I rise briefly to support the clause. I was not a member of the Committee, but during the Second Reading debate I was worried that the intention of the Bill was to put on the site operators the task of breaking down the assessments for individual caravanners. I never thought that that was a good idea, and from what I have heard tonight and read of the proceedings in Committee it is a non-starter.

Those of us who were members of the Committee on the Mobile Homes Bill know of the representations we received from the people whom both we and the Government thought we were helping. There were cases of sizeable charging, particularly on commission rates, on the sale of caravans and other aspects. Many of us, who thought we were doing the occupiers a good turn, were disappointed. The same will happen here. I do not think there is the good will between the tenants of these places, the holiday caravanners, and their proprietors, and it behoves the Government to put the onus on the valuation officers to give the information direct to the occupiers of the caravans.

10.45 p.m.

From reading the debate in Committee, I cannot understand why this should put so much extra work on valuation officers. They are not overburdened at the moment. In many cases they have had to assess the numbers on the sites before making their assessment. They are bound to take into account the density and desirability of the site when they make the overall assessment. They cannot do it in any other way. Why will it put so much more work on them to make individual assessments?

The Layfield Report will be published shortly. This may take some of the burden from them. The Minister may know what is in the report. My guess is that valuation officers will have less to do in the future than in the past. I accept that if they have to post bills to occupiers someone will have to find out the names and addresses, but it is more practical than leaving it to the owner to break it down. I am certain that is right, and that we should support it on all sides.

I am not quite sure why paragraph (e) has been put in the clause. It is not a valuation officer's job to give the rate poundage. That is surely for the local authority. Apart from that, I think the clause has a great deal to commend it, and I support it.

The Government are, perhaps, caught in a dilemma. They have tried to be helpful by bringing in the Bill before 1st April in order to give some measure of relief. But, just as we came unstuck with separate rating assessments under the general rate with people now getting far higher assessments, here again we are about to make a big mistake, and it might be much better if the Government held their horses and thought again.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

It needs to be placed very firmly on record that Clause 1(7) gives a legal right for any owner of a caravan on a caravan site to opt for separate assessment. The House listened, therefore, with absolute horror to the letter read by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) from the General Secretary of the National Association of Caravan Owners, which talked about someone being required to leave the site by 5th April because he had indicated that he would exercise his right to opt for separate assessment. If that is the sort of problem we are to have in the future, it is a gloomy prospect.

I have, like other hon. Members, received many representations on this matter. I am very concerned about a letter I received today from the General Secretary of the National Association of Caravan Owners. I should like to read two extracts. She writes: Site owners are already sending out rents inclusive of rates', although this is totally illegal, but they have been so sure all the way through that it is just a matter of a nod from the Minister, they feel perfectly safe in doing so. As the writer later mentions a particular council and I have not been able to check the facts, I shall conceal the names in reading the second extract. The General Secretary writes: I have already had a letter from the … valuer, saying his decision will automatically override my option to apply to be individually rated. What right does that leave us then? This is before he even knows the outcome of the Bill. The Director of Finance Mr. … has already sent out letters to all the site owners saying that they are now the rated persons. This was confirmed when I asked a site owner why he was collecting 'rates' from the owners on his site. If that is the procedure which is being followed in certain areas, it makes a mockery of Parliament. It must be said that, whatever the feelings of the Government or of local authorities at any time, a law is not law until it has received the Royal Assent. We are still debating the Bill. It has not yet passed through Parliament. There are Government amendments down for discussion tonight which may change the form of the Bill. It needs to be said to those who have been sending out notices in that form that they are jumping the gun and anticipating the decision of Parliament.

The new clause has a fairly chequered history. When the Bill first appeared in another place, there was no provision for individual notices in the sense of individual information to the caravan owner. It was only as a result of pressure during the Committee stage and on Report in another place that this change was made.

In Committee, the Minister in charge of the Bill, Baroness Birk went to great lengths to explain how difficult it was, how the Government would have to think about it carefully, and so on. When she came to Report, she described the clause which she commended to the House and which is now Clause 2. She said: Where the valuation officer exercises his discretion to value the site as a single unit he will be required within one month after the date on which the proposal is made to give written notice to the site operator stat- ing the number of caravans he took into account in making the assessment. The site operator will then be required to display a notice showing the part of the site included in the assessment; if it is the whole of the site he must say so; the number of caravans included in the assessment; the assessment itself, which is the rateable value; and the rate poundage levied by the local authority."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5th February 1976; Vol. 367, c. 1466.] Reading the Bill, it is very difficult to see where all these proposals come. The operative part is Clause 2(2), and that does not give anything like the information about which the noble Lady spoke. So my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) brought forward this wider proposal, following the Scottish proposal, which gives only minimal information to the caravan owner.

Paragraph (a) provides for the name and location of the caravan site on which the pitch is situated". That is a fairly elementary piece of information to tell him. Paragraph (b) calls for a statement that the valuation officer is treating an area of the caravan site including the pitch as a single unit in the occupation of the site operator". By definition, he knows that because he has not had an individual assessment. Then paragraph (c) refers to the number of such pitches which the valuation officer is including in the said single unit". That is a very important piece of information which the caravan owner is required to have. What is worrying many people is that the site owner will say "I have 10,000 vans on this site. My rate bill is £X thousand a year. I shall simply divide that by 10,000 and that is what each caravan owner must pay, irrespective of the services, the size of van, and so on." People fear that group assessments will be made by site operators. Paragraphs (d) and (e), although useful, largely repeat what is contained in subsection (2) as it stands.

I have said repeatedly that the trouble with this Bill is that it attempts to deal with the problem in the wrong way. The problem arose as a result of the 1966 Court of Appeal decision. It would have been better if the Government had said that this was a mistake, that it anticipated Layfield, that the decision should be overturned, and that we should revert to the pre-1966 situation. If they had done that, they would have got their Bill more quickly.

If Layfield had come forward with a new system of local government finance, the Government would have brought a major Bill before the House. But they could not bring themselves to do that. They think it better that the rates should be paid. The Under-Secretary believes that caravans are like second homes and that they should be rated as well. As I said in Committee, tents and Dormobiles will be next. The Government therefore came forward with a Bill solely for the convenience of the local authority. The caravan owner will derive no value from it. In some ways he will be worse off since he will be at the mercy of the site owner who tells him how much he has to pay by way of rent—and I use that word advisedly. In Committee the Under-Secretary made clear that the site operator would not be a collecting agent on behalf of the local authority; he will be the ratepayer, and how he chooses to recoup the rates he pays will be a matter for his own commercial judgment.

The hon. Gentleman resisted an Opposition amendment to allow the site operator a discount for doing this job because, he said, the site operator will not be acting for the local authority. He will recoup the charges for rates the same way as he recoups his charges for electricity, heating and so on. No doubt the site operators will for the most part act properly and fairly, but the appalling example given by the hon. Member for Derby, North shows the dangers of this approach.

The Government made a mistake in bringing the Bill forward so quickly. They did so from the best of motives. They realised the difficulties for local authorities where a particular situation had arisen by mistake. They wanted to deal with it as speedily as possible. As we progressed through the Standing Committee the difficulties became more apparent and our uneasiness about the method of implementing the Bill increased. If we had had more time in Committee, instead of having to meet the Government's 1st April timetable, I believe that the Bill would have been withdrawn so that further thought could be given to it. I entirely support the new clause and I only wish that it went further.

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

The hon. Members for Melton (Mr. Latham), Isle of White (Mr. Ross) and Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) were good enough not to impugn the Government's motives in bringing in the Bill. Equally, I do not impugn the motives of those who support the new clause. However, I do not believe that it will achieve the objectives they claim for it.

Perhaps I may go back to first principles. In this Bill I was confronted with three parties—the caravan owner, the site operator and the local authority. We have tried to balance the interests of these three parties. Under the new clause neither the site owner nor the caravan owner will benefit. They will benefit substantially, however, from the amendments I am proposing to Clause 2. We were faced with the 1966 decision by the High Court. That decision only came into effect during 1973 to 1975 because of the difficulties of the valuation offices over revaluation. It was only then that this matter became effective. The High Court makes some strange decisions, and this one was very strange.

The hon. Member for Melton wants us to go back to the pre-1966 position. I do not think that we can. There is a similarity between someone occupying a caravan on a permanent or semi-permanent basis in a particular area and someone occupying a cottage in that area. They draw on the services of the local authority: refuse collection, the police, and other general services.

11.0 p.m.

I am surprised that hon. Gentlemen, many of whom represent holiday areas—the better environmental areas; not like some of the East Midlands areas or my own, Widnes, which has been mentioned—should make the point so forcefully that caravanners on a holiday caravan basis should pay nothing at all, although they may occupy or charge rent to other people for their caravans, when ratepayers in those areas have to provide services for those sites. From the local authority point of view, there is an obligation to pay something towards the services provided to those caravan sites.

It would have been easy for the Government to introduce a Bill—and it might have satisfied the Opposition—providing that the rates on caravans on holiday sites shall be collected from individual caravan owners and paid by the site operator. But we should have done just what the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) does not want. That would have made the site operator the unpaid rate collector for the individual caravans on his site. We did not want to do that and the site operators did not want us to do that, but that is precisely what the new clause seeks to do. It would restore the position that the valuation officer reports to each caravan owner his individual assessment. I suggest that would create even further disputes between the caravan owner and his site operator about the assessment or would make the site operator the collector of those rates. We have sought to represent the interests of all three parties.

It is fashionable today to declare interests. I have no specific interest at the moment as a holiday caravan owner, but I was a very happy holiday caravan owner in Anglesey for five years. Therefore, the problems and difficulties of the holiday caravan owner, the site operator, the change of site operator, and so on, are not unknown to me. I also appreciate the difficulties caused by site operators who may not play the game.

Clause 2, which did not exist in this form when the Bill was in another place, is for the protection and benefit of the caravanner. It enables him to know by a notice displayed on the site the rateable value of the caravans of that site.

The Government's amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 give even greater protection to the caravanner by enabling him to know precisely what the rating situation is. But the herditament should be the caravan site as a whole: there should not be individual assessments for each caravan. That is cheaper for the cara-vanner and better for the site operator and the local authority.

I said that we did not seek to make the site operator an unpaid rate collector.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

My interests have been on behalf of the caravanners rather than the site operators, but I fail to see how the operator could object to paying the rates for the whole hereditament while the valuation officer divides the amount among the individual caravans. How is the operator better off having to do the division as well as the collection? In a sense, he is an unpaid tax collector either way, but the Minister's proposal is a greater burden on the operator than the proposal that the valuation officer, an impartial civil servant, should divide up the burden of rates.

Mr. Oakes

I could not disagree more. There are more things on a site than the total of individual caravans—facilities like toilets and so on. I envisage infinite disputes under the new clause if the valuation officer had to report his assessment to each caravanner. That would defeat the object of saving manpower for the local authority and the valuation office.

The third leg of the triangle that I as Minister had to consider—apart from the caravanner and the operator—was the representations of councils like East Lind-sey and many others about the cost of sending individual rate demands to each caravanner. Many of them are unknown to the local authorities, notices pinned to doors often blow away, and the cost in manpower would almost cancel out the rates received.

Hon. Members did not impugn my motives and I do not impugn theirs. With the best of motives, they are trying to help individual caravanners and site operators. I will seek to show that the new clause, taken in conjunction with our amendments, would help neither. If it did help, I should accept it, but it would have worse effects than the existing provision for both site operators and caravanners.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

The new clause is concerned with valuation officers, and not with putting the burden of rates collection on local authorities. It is misconstruing the clause to talk about individual collection by local authorities.

Mr. Oakes

As the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight said, subsection 1(e) of the new clause deals with the individual rate levy in an area. That has nothing to do with the valuation officer: it is a matter for the local authority. Under the new clause, the valuation officers would rightly say that that was none of their business. Then we should be back to square one: local authorities would have to find the manpower to give this information to individual caravanners.

I appreciate that the purpose of the new clause is to remove from the site operator the obligation to provide information to caravanners about the rate liability of the formerly separately assessed caravans included in the single hereditament. It seeks to provide that the valuation officer should supply information not only to the site operator but also to all those caravanners included in the single unit. It differs from the present Clause 2 in that the information to be given relates to all the caravans on the site, whereas Clause 2 relates only to those in the occupation of the caravanners, as opposed to caravans in the occupation of the site owner.

There are many sites where there may be a preponderance of caravans in the occupation of the site owner—the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, who represents a holiday area, knows this—which are rented or leased every year, with a very considerable minority of caravans on the particular site that are actually owner-occupied caravans—to use the ordinary sense of that term.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) has based the new clause on the Scottish provisions. It is not for me, with you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State sitting beside me, to try to go into the provisions of Scottish rating law as distinct from English rating law. All I would say is that they are very different indeed. The provisions made under Clause 4 by my right hon. Friend when he presented this to the Committee are really the effects of a rating system that is very different from that of England and Wales. In Scotland there are assessors, who are quite different from valuation officers. They are not centrally directed in the sense that our valuation officers are.

A further point that I make unashamedly is that we are dealing in Scotland with some 36,000 caravans, and we are dealing in England and Wales with 250,000. There is an enormous difference between the two figures. There is a vast difference in the provisions made concerning Scotland and the Scottish rating system, as my right hon. Friend will be describing on later amendments, and in numbers.

However, there are further deficiencies in the new clause itself. The information that it seeks to provide will be less useful than under the present Clause 2 because it will include information on the site operator's caravans, and that is no use at all to the caravan owner himself.

Thirdly, the new clause as it stands, as distinct from our amendments to Clause 2, makes no provision for giving any information to the caravanner after the first year. What I am seeking to do in the amendments that I am introducing in conjunction with the new clause is to provide that information to the caravanner. To those hon. Members who are seeking to help the caravanner—and I admire them for it—I am saying that their new clause is less effective than Clause 2 together with the amendments that the Government are putting forward to it tonight.

A further point is that in the debate on the Scottish Clause 4, hon. Members seemed in Committee to be under the misapprehension that it provided that each caravanner would be separately notified of the value attributable to his caravan and his pitch. They have used the same wording on this point in the amendment and they may well be under the impression that Clause 4(1)(d) means that the valuation officer will attribute values to individual pitches.

The hon. Member for Conway pointed out that the Scottish rating system lends itself to this treatment because there already has to be—and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will understand this, as will my right hon. Friend; I am using words that I do not understand—a notice of deletion under Section 3(3) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend could explain the meaning of that later, but I am trying to point out that the Scottish system of rating and the English system of rating are very different creatures indeed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The Minister may add "The Scottish system is far superior to the English system."

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Oakes

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I will refer now to the Government amendments which seek to improve Clause 2, in an endeavour to help hon. Members opposite who want to help caravanners.

The purpose of Government Amendment No. 7 is to extend the requirement for the notice to be displayed beyond the first year and to ensure that after it is first received it is displayed at all times from the beginning of April to the end of October. The system will therefore work in the following way. The site operator will receive from the valuation officer a notice stating the number of caravans occupied by persons other than the site operator included in the new single assessment, and the rateable value he attributes to these caravans and pitches. The site operator will then display a notice on the site from the beginning of April to the end of October in any year showing, first, the part of the site included in the new single assessment; secondly, the information included in the valuation officer's notice; and, thirdly, the general rate poundage.

Amendment No. 8 makes provision for the valuation officer to update the information he gives in his notice when necessary. The purpose of the amendment is twofold. The first part is consequential on Amendment No. 7 and provides that the rate poundage to be displayed on the notice board shall be the current rate poundage. Thus, this item on the notice will normally change annually.

The second part provides for the valuation officer to update the information given in his notice under subsection (1) if it appears to him that the facts stated in it are no longer accurate. This could occur if, for example, there is a change in the rateable value of the site because of a change in the number of separately assessable caravans on the site.

In Committee I gave an example of a site owner who might apply for a complete revaluation of his site. I gave an instance out of the top of my head of a site next door to which a pig farm had set up. Caravanners might want to leave that site, and the site operator would then apply for a change in the rateable value because there had been a reduction in the number of caravans on the site. In the same way, the owner of any hereditament may apply for a revaluation of his hereditament.

Amendment No. 9 is a consequential amendment on Amendment No. 7. It removes the provisions in subsection (3) and (4) which related to the requirement to display the notice in the first year only. In the clause as it stands, the only person to whom the site operator must provide information in writing is the person occupying a pitch at the time when tthe proposal to treat the site as a single unit is first made. One consequence of the extension of the notice provisions beyond the first year is that any subsequent occupier should also have a right to the information, and this is achieved by the new wording at the beginning of subsection (4) in the amendment.

Amendment No. 10 is a completely consequential amendment. It provides that the written information to be given by the site operator on request from a caravanner is to contain the information given in the latest notice received by the site operator from the valuation officer.

Mr, Wyn Roberts

Before the Minister leaves the Government amendments, will he direct his mind to Amendment No. 7? As I understand it, the deletion involves the deletion of the rateable value proposed for the hereditament. Does Amendment No. 7 mean that the display notice does not contain information about the rateable value proposed for the single hereditament?

Mr. Oakcs

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by "the single hereditament". If he means the single hereditament of the site as distinct from the single hereditaments of individual caravans, it will contain information of the average of the number of caravans on the site and the average rateable value. If he means the single rateable value of each hereditament—each caravan—that is what we are trying to get away from. That is what makes the site owner the rate collector for the individual caravans.

I have spoken for some time because I recognise that the amendments and the proposed clause are well intentioned, but in brief I am suggesting that the clause will do a considerable disservice to the individual caravanner and to the site operator, both of whom the Opposition seek to protect. Clause 2 as amended by the amendments which we have tabled would suit both caravanners and site operators much better.

Mr. Michael Morris

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving his reply in depth.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made the point that time has not been on our side. Since the Committee stage I have read the Minister's contribution on 24th July in the Adjournment debate on caravan rating, and I should like to quote from that debate to illustrate what prompted our new clause. The Minister said But certain people have been badly affected because caravans have to be individually assessed, and these people, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out are in fact the local authorities themselves, which, in theory, should have benefited. He then went on to talk about the problem of sending out individual rate demands, and said: I have had representations about this from many local authorities and also from the Association of District Councils. They largely agree with me that it is legally right that caravans should be individually rated, but they ask for help in easing the rate collection problems which have arisen,"—[Official Report, 24th July 1975; Vol. 896, cc. 1261–2.] After thinking about the Committee proceedings and having the benefit of little time, it seemed to us, looking closely at the Scottish situation—although we accept that the rating law in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales—that if a Scottish assessor can deal with a certain number of sites on an individual basis, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to expect the valuation officer in the United Kingdom, and in England and Wales in particular, to deal with an equal number. It seemed to us that the Scots were getting off on a far better basis than we were, and that it was our duty to help the Government to ease the problem.

The situation is further complicated, as my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) have explained, by the submissions that we have had in the last 48 or 24 hours, and indeed in a telephone call that I had a few minutes before coming into this Chamber. It seems that because of lack of consultation, the situation on the ground is such that not only are there 100,000 assessments still outstanding but some site operators have jumped the gun and some disgraceful situations and general confusion have arisen.

While I accept that our amendments may be technically deficient, nevertheless even with the amendments to Clause 2—and there have been an extraordinary number of amendments to Clause 2; suddenly the clause appeared in the other place at the last moment and dramatic changes were made to it in Committee—we are giving the Government the opportunity to have another look at the clause. It is not right at the moment, and many problems will arise if it goes through in its present state. Valuation officers will be faced with problems. I suspect that individual caravanners, so long as their caravans have wheels on them, will move, and valuation officers will have to try to keep track of them. No doubt, addresses can be got from the site operators, but it seems to me that Clause 2, although it is better than anything we had when the Bill started life, still leaves much to be desired.

Division No. 100.] AYES [11.25 p.m.
Mudd, David
Whitehead, Phillip
Mr. Kenneth Clark and
Mr. Michael Latham.
Armstrong, Ernest Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Stott, Roger
Canavan, Dennis Hunter, Adam Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Cohen, Stanley Lamond, James Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Coleman, Donald Leadbitter, Ted Walker, Terry (Kingewood)
Dempsey, Jemes McCartney, Hugh White, Frank R. (Bury)
Dormand, J. D. Mellish, Rt Hon Robert White, James (Pollok)
Duffy, A. E. P. Millan, Bruce Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Dunn, James A. Oakes, Gordon
Evans, John (Newton) Rodgers, George (Chorley) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Small, William Mr. Joseph Harper and
George, Bruce Stoddart, David Mr. James Hamilton.

It appearing on the report of the Division that forty Members were not present, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.