HC Deb 31 March 1976 vol 908 cc1471-86
Mr. Michael Morris

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 7 leave out "400 square yards" and insert 800 square yards or metric equivalent".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Amendment No. 11, in Clause 3, page 4, line 7, leave out "400 square yards" and insert 800 square yards or metric equivalent".

Mr. Morris

These two relatively minor amendments come back to the matter of 400 square yards. They refer to the 400 square yards basis of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act, 1960. It seems to us that instead of slavishly following that Act, we should recognise that times have changed a little and that in concert with the Government we would wish to reduce the burden on local authorities and on valuation officers. It therefore seems that, as 400 square yards is regarded as about the sort of area which, with two caravans, can be excluded from these provisions, it is reasonable to suggest that we should double that to four or five vans. In doing that we should not be driving a coach and horses through the Act, but bringing a little common sense to part of the Act as it applies to England, Wales and Scotland.

I am slightly disappointed that the Government have not used the metric equivalent. I know that they have withdrawn the general Bill on metrication, but we are operating, particularly under other land legislation, in metric measurement, and it would seem appropriate to refer here to square metres.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I support the amendments, particularly in the Scottish context. I hope that the Minister has learned in the last hour and a half that it is much better to be help ful and co-operative than to proceed by the closure. I am certain that the Patronage Secretary will have learned that he probably cannot move another Closure.

Does the Minister realise that 400 square yards is a remarkably small site? It is probably half the size of the Chamber. It will accommodate at best probably only two or three caravans. It would therefore seem only logical to exclude such site from the Bill. We are thinking here in terms of the average farm which might hive off a small corner to promote caravanning. The tourist boards, the caravan clubs and anyone who wishes to promote rural development would approve of that. Yet if that scheme is implemented on the most humble scale it will involve the whole paraphernalia of the Bill.

The Government should accept the amendments. They arise after careful consideration and consultation by my hon. Friends over recent weeks with all concerned. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's cogent, educative and constructive reasons for bringing farmers in this category within the ambit of the Bill instead of cutting out the monumental amount of paper work that Ministers have introduced into our national life. Out of common sense the Government should accept the amendments.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

I add my support to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro). I hope that the Government will regard the amendments as constructive. Those people concerned with caravans and caravan sites genuinely believe that 400 square yards is on the small side. I have measured the Chamber as best I can and I believe that 400 square yards cover about two-thirds of it. That is a small area of ground.

To put all the complications of this legislation upon such a small site seems to be taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut. The purpose of the Bill would not be altered if we were to make the larger area the minimum size. A large number of very small places where caravans are placed—I should hardly call them sites, because an area of 400 sq. yards is very small—would be exempted. That would make the job of the assessors easy in Scotland. This provision could be extended later if some anomaly were caused by the larger size of site.

I hope that the Minister will take this as a constructive suggestion. If he cannot accept the amendment, I hope that he will at least give it serious consideration.

Mr. Oakes

I do not regard this as a destructive type of amendment. This is a matter of judgment. The Opposition take one view. The Government take another. The amendment seeks to double the size of the area in the Bill. It is a question of size, and size only, about which we are talking.

Apart from the 1960 Act, we chose this size of site because it could have one, two or possibly three caravans on it. Doubling the area would mean that the site could probably take six or seven caravans. That would be getting on for a caravan site. Our judgment is that we should stick to the Act and the very small site where it is not worth the valuation officer making a separate assessment for what would be a one-van, but occasionally two-van, site. The amendment seeks to extend the size more than marginally, because, by doubling the area, the site would be a viable site for four, five or six caravans.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) referred to a farmer allowing a corner of a field to be used for caravans. We are talking about the holiday caravan on a site in such a state of permanence or semi-permanence that it becomes a hereditament. I must use the English term "hereditament". I do not know the Scottish equivalent. We are not talking about the touring caravan or the fanner who, under the Act, allows two or three caravans to use a corner of one of his fields for a few nights. They are not rated at all.

This, as I have said, is a matter of judgment. I think it is better to stay within the provisions of the 1960 Act. We should exclude the one- or two-van sites, but not extend the provision beyond that.

I do not regard the amendment as destructive. It is a matter of judgment. I think that the Government's judgment is right.

Mr. Cope

There is one element in both amendments to which reference has not so far been made. The amendments provide, as the drafting of the Bill does not, for the metric equivalent to be substituted for the number of square yards.

There was some confusion last week whether we should start to use the metric equivalent for some things. I think that it would be useful if we got into the habit of inserting phrases in uncontroversial legislation which would allow the metric equivalent to be used. Whether we like it or not, many measurements, including square yards, will gradually go in the direction of metric equivalents. That is the way in which the world has gone. The United Kingdom is becoming one of the few countries which have not actively switched over to metric equivalents.

The Government were probably right to drop the metrication legislation last week. However, in Bills such as this, where matters are not so controversial, I think that we should have the metric equivalent. Of course, this Bill is controversial in other respects, because it is against the interests of caravanners, as I explained earlier and will do my best to explain later on other more appropriate amendments. Nevertheless, in terms of square yards or the metric measure, square metres, this is where we might usefully insert "square metres" into the Bill. I should have thought that to be a useful feature of the two amendments.

Mr. Oakes

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not dealing with the point about the metric equivalent.

There is nothing sinister in relation to metric equivalents. In the Bill we followed normal rating legislation, which deals in yards and the other English measures. This matter arose in Committee. I said then that we would consider whether we would bring an amendment to the House putting in the metric equivalent. There is no purpose in the words "or the metric equivalent." Subsequent legislation would deal with this matter if the House decided that we were to go into metric measurements. On balance, however, we thought that we would leave it within the general rating legislation which deals in yards, rather than, in the course of this Bill, pre-empt a decision—controversial on both sides of the House—whether we should put it in square metres. That was the simple reason behind it. We left the matter in accordance with the general provisions of present legislation, so that we would not have on this Bill the debate that we might have had last Thursday.

Mr. Michael Morris

I am grateful to the Minister for his observations on the amendment. I am still a little mystified about how under the land legislation, the most recent Order that we debated, which was concerned with area, was all in metric equivalents. In fact it was in metric terms only, and not in yardage at all. We were dealing with square metres. However, I take the Minister's point.

I am sure that the Minister appreciates that the sole reason that we have put this amendment forward was to help local authorities and valuation officers. I believe that what we have suggested would have helped them, and that it was a slightly more practical way of dealing with matters. However, we must rest on the Minister's judgment. He has the resources to consult the various bodies. I hope and assume that he has done so. If their judgment remains at the figure of 400, so be it.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Oakes

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 16, at end insert— Where by virtue of this subsection a hereditament is for purposes of section 48 of the General Rate Act 1967 a mixed hereditament as at the 1st April in any year, it shall be treated as being a mixed hereditament throughout the rating year beginning with that date, notwithstanding that it appears to the rating authority or is determined to have ceased to be one.'. If I may resume the kind role that has been assigned to me, of being courteous and educative, let me say that this amendment results from an Opposition amendment in Committee. I undertook that if Opposition Members withdrew that amendment, I would introduce a Government amendment, perhaps more accurately worded, with the advice of legal draftsmen, but related to the same point.

The purpose of this amendment is to avoid the situation where the site operator might have to meet an extra bill for rates during the course of a rating year, because his site has lost its status as a mixed hereditament, after he has fixed his charges to the caravanners on the basis that the site is rated as a mixed hereditament.

The Opposition amendment confined the continuation of mixed hereditament status to cases where the loss of it would otherwise have been caused by caravanners opting for separate assessments under Clause 1(7). This is not the only possible cause. It might arise from a reduction in the number of separately rateable caravans. The Government amendment accordingly operates on the fact of the loss of status, whatever the reasons for it. Indeed, we go wider than the amendment put forward in Committee.

The likelihood of a site ceasing to be a mixed hereditament is not great because in almost all circumstances it will be more favourable for the caravanner to be included in the single assessment, and on most sites the value attributed to the separately rateable caravans will greatly predominate.

Nevertheless, if this does happen part way through the rating year, the site operator will have to pay the difference between the commercial rate and the mixed hereditament rate for the rest of that year. He will, however, have set his charges on the basis of the lower level of liability for rates. This amendment thus prevents the need for an extra charge to be made on the caravanners remaining in the single unit for the rest of the rating year. In the following year the site operator will be able to set his charges according to the changed status of the site.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

The hon. Gentleman has said once again that the rating of the single site will be of benefit to caravanners. How does he believe that to be the case? There is some doubt among my hon. Friends whether a total site rating will be of benefit to the individual caravanner.

Mr. Oakes

The hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Committee, but this is a matter that was discussed at some length in Committee. I explained that the rating of the site as a whole will be of benefit to the individual caravanner, and I believe that my explanation met with the agreement of the whole Committee. When valuing a site as a whole the valuation officers will take into account a number of factors that are not considered when assessing the individual caravanner. For example, they will take all the amenities of the site into consideration.

We have received the advice that there will be an appreciable reduction in the payment of actual money in rates to the site operator because the assessment of the site as a whole will be less than the total of the individual ratings. In an earlier debate the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) was arguing the reverse case. As I understand it, the site as a whole will have a lower rating than the sum of the individual caravans and the caravanners will benefit.

Mr. Michael Morris

I am grateful to the Minister for taking on board the point that we were making in our amendment in Committee and for widening it on Report. Although he is fairly confident that it will be an exceptional case in which there will be implementation, our evidence indicates that it will not be such an exceptional event as he suggests.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reaffirming that the single site assessment will produce a lower overall assessment than that produced by each individual caravanner having a separate assessment.

There is an area of confusion among caravanners which it is appropriate to put on the record. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to answer this point immediately, perhaps he will answer on Third Reading. There is some confusion whether a caravanner who opts for separate assessment will get full domestic rate relief. At present, under a mixed hereditament, he will get a half. Surely it is logical that if he goes for a separate assessment he shall get the full domestic rate relief. As the Minister has said on many occasions, they are the equivalent of second homes.

Mr. Oakes

I intervene at this stage to save the time of the House. Yes, there will be the relief about which the hon. Gentleman is asking.

Mr. Morris

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That was an important point and the hon. Gentleman has removed an area of confusion. I welcome the amendment and I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for tabling it.

Mr. Whitehead

I, too, welcome the amendment. I think that it will be of use. There is one other misgiving that I must mention. Many people feel, I believe wrongly, that under Clause 1 they will not be able to make application to be separately rated if the switch is made to single hereditament rating. It may be that my hon. Friend the Minister is right and that caravanners will pay less if they opt for global rating. Nevertheless, in view of the misunderstandings in the past year with local authorities, it is important that those concerned should know that they have rights under Clause 1(7) to opt for individual rating if they choose.

12 midnight

Mr. Michael Latham

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in moving the amendment dealt with the point that we raised in Committee. Indeed, in Committee the Minister said: … in the overwhelming majority of cases the individual caravanner will pay less rates and be better off as the result of caravan sites being treated as separate units. There may be some very rare cases where that is not the position—for example, the individual who is entitled to special rating relief as a disabled person. It may be better for that person not to be included in the global assessment. As I have said, such cases will be very rare."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16th March 1976; c. 38.] The Minister has said that on a number of occasions, and indeed he said it again tonight, but he has never produced any evidence. Instead, he has stated it as a fact. The reason that he has produced no evidence is that there is no evidence, because nobody knows what the situation will be. We are dealing here with unchartered seas of valuations in rating entities that have never before been rated—namely, leisure caravans. The Minister should not make general observations about differences in rate poundage in respect of individuals on a site when rated separately when the Government have no evidence on the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) asked about rate reliefs. The Minister intervened to say that this would be covered. Could the Minister deal with the question of instalments? Let us suppose that a domestic ratepayer was not convinced of the Minister's arguments or was one of the disabled persons to whom the Minister referred and chose to exercise his rights under Clause 1(7) to opt for a separate assessment. Will such a person be entitled to pay by instalments if the site becomes a mixed hereditament? This is an important matter because those on mixed hereditaments are not eligible as of right to pay by instalments. The right to pay by instalments is a treasured right for an ordinary ratepayer. If a person is able to pay in 10 or 12 instalments, he does not necessarily pay in anger. Caravanners who choose to exercise their rights under Clause 7(1) to opt out will need an assurance that if the amendment is carried and they are in a mixed hereditament, they will still have the right to pay by instalments.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

The amendment refers to 1st April as being the key date. If my watch is correct, we are now in 1st April—

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

April fool.

Mr. Moate

That date has assumed an almost magical significance for the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. Indeed, he has expressed his regrets that the legislation will not be through by that date. The hon. Gentleman knows that I voted against the Second Reading. I regard this measure as misjudged and calculated to cause greater confusion to site operators, caravanners, valuation officers and district councils. I think that it is a bad Bill and I believe that the Minister will come to regret having adopted this course of action.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Why not deal with the amendment.

Mr. Moate

I was referring to the date 1st April in regard to the amendment, and if I had been out of order I am sure that I would have been called to order by the Chair.

I should welcome a statement from the Minister about the effect of the delay in this legislation on ratepayers and site operators. Was his determination to get the Bill through by this date because he wished to be helpful to the public so that they would know their assessments as soon as possible, or is there some legal significance in relation to the assessments being made for the coming financial year?

The Minister claims that caravanners will benefit from lower rates as a result of overall site assessments. This is a fundamental part of his case, but he has produced no evidence to substantiate it. In many ways, the logic of the argument points in the opposition direction. If a caravanner has a separate assessment, he is entitled to domestic rate relief, but on a single site assessment, he is entitled only to the benefits of a mixed hereditament status. Thus, there will be an automatic discount if he secures a separate assessment.

In the past year, when caravanners appealed against an assessment, they often obtained a further reduction, even after taking into account full domestic rate relief. The Minister may be wrong and caravanners may be disappointed to discover that there is no substantial reduction on the rates they paid last year.

I suspect that caravanners will apply for separate assessments on a far greater scale than envisaged by the Minister and they will then be entitled to pay their rates by instalments, as can domestic ratepayers. Otherwise, they will have to pay rates to the site operators and, even though the Minister says that, in theory, caravanners will be able to pay by instalments, I do not see how that could work out in practice. Consequently, there will be yet another incentive for caravanners to apply for a separate assessment, thereby negating the whole purpose of the Bill.

At the end of the day, we shall be back roughly where we started. Last year, through no fault of the Minister, we had a shambles in the rating system. This legislation, which is meant to cure that situation, will make it worse.

I shall be glad if the Minister will answer some of these points.

Mr. Oakes

I shall try to do so, though most of them do not relate to the amendment which we tabled in accordance with an undertaking given to the Opposition in Committee. I thank the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) for his remarks on that matter.

If I may trespass on the borders of order in answering some of the points raised in the debate, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) that there is a statutory right under Clause 1(7) for any individual caravanner to make an application for a separate assessment if he wishes. The valuation officer must then act upon that request. Whatever a site operator or local authority may say, that is his statutory right.

It is difficult to explain in a few words why it will cost the caravanner less to pay the normal charge on a site assessment than to have a separate assessment. It is not true that we are going into uncharted waters. The advice of the Valuation Office arising from experienced gained since 1966 is that less money will be charged in rates for the site as a whole than if each individual caravan is separately assessed.

I explained in Committee the provisions for the relief of disabled people. Here again I am on the margin of being in order, as the subject may arise on a subsequent amendment. In rare cases a disabled person might find it beneficial to apply for a separate assessment. I urge disabled people to ask the valuation officer whether it is better to be separately assessed or to remain within the general assessment of the site as a whole. Advice will freely be given to a disabled person. The valuation officer would give advice whether an existing rateable caravanner is entitled to disablement relief. Some disabled persons might be better off if separately assessed, but by no means all.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Oakes

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 9, leave out subsection (9) and insert— ' (9) This section shall have effect for any rate period (within the meaning of the General Rate Act 1967) beginning after the end of March 1976; and any proposal of the valuation officer made during the year beginning with the 1st April 1976, if it could have been made on that date had this section been then in force, may be made so as to have effect as of that date, and section 79 of the General Rate Act 1967 (which relates to the effect of alterations in the valuation list) shall apply accordingly.'. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that any proposal made during the 1976–77 rate year to assess caravans and site as a single unit, and also any alteration to the valuation list as a consequence of such a proposal, may be effective from 1st April 1976, notwithstanding the fact that the Bill will not receive the Royal Assent by that date. Without such a provision, much of the benefit of the Bill in 1976–77 would be lost, since rating authorities would have to levy rates on each separately rated caravan for the period up to Royal Assent, and on the new composite assessment for the rest of the rating year.

Opposition Members say with pride that we have gone beyond twelve o'clock, but do they want a 14-day assessment which would not be operative until the amendment is made? I understand that the next date for the Royal Assent to be given is 14th April. The other place inserted 1st April in case the Bill received Royal Assent before 1st April 1976 and to ensure that the Bill would not lead to a complete reassessment for the previous rating year. That is why 1st April 1976 was inserted originally. All this further amendment does, admittedly, is to make the provision very slightly retrospective. But the retrospection is very technical. The Bill has now been before Parliament since before Christmas, and those affected will have assumed that it would be in force for the whole of the rating year from 1st April 1976.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Michael Morris

I think that what the Minister is suggesting is that every valuation officer up and down the country is ready and willing to start work today, but on other occasions he has suggested that they are not. The Opposition would at least question whether it is right that, where the valuation officer has not yet done his inspections, the effect should go right back to 1st April. There may be some who, for one reason or another, because they have a local agreement already operating—such as some of the North-West authorities—will not bother to do it until later in the season.

The amendment refers to Section 79 of the General Rate Act 1967. Part of Section 79 refers to the alteration in the valuation list. Section 68 says that if a change happens it shall be only from the date when the new or altered hereditament comes into operation. Under subsection (4)(f) there is a category of property previous rated in parts becoming liable to be rated as a single hereditament". I am sure that the Government lawyers have got this right, but as I read the General Rate Act 1967, it appears to suggest that the operative date cannot be 1st April in those situations where an alteration is made as it applies to the General Rate Act.

Mr. Michael Latham

The Minister did not answer the question I asked on the last amendment concerning instalments and mixed hereditaments. Perhaps he would be good enough to write to me about that. I could have interrupted him but chose not to do so.

The Minister asked what the Opposition are trying to achieve. I think that the Government have introduced the wrong Bill, and that they should be seeking to do something quite different. The date 1st April has no great interest or relevance to me. It is an entirely wrong Bill which fails to undo the damage done by the Field Place case.

The Minister talked about local authorities and others having assumed that this legislation would be through before the start of the rating year because it had been placed before Parliament as long ago as last Christmas. I hope he will reconsider that. Local authorities and others should not assume anything about the progress of legislation through this place. We are in this House, and others are in another place, in order to review and discuss all the details of legislation.

Local authorities should wait until legislation has reached its final form on the statute book before they send out circulars about rating, particularly when it is proposed, as in the Bill, to change the whole system. The Minister should think rather more carefully before making remarks of that sort, which could be construed in the wrong way by people outside this House.

Mr. Moate

First, I thank the Minister for explaining the matter which I raised on an earlier amendment, wrongly as it transpired.

Next, I make one general point. In our debate on Monday, the Minister made it clear that he was not impugning the motives of anyone and that no one should impugn his own. Certainly I do not impugn his motives in this respect.

Having said that, I find the wording of the amendment a little alarming. I accept that this legislation is likely to be through all its stages within a few days and that there is likely to be very little retrospection in assessments. But the wording contains a dangerous principle. It may be that there are precedents for it, of course.

The provision reads: … and any proposal of the valuation officer made during the year beginning with the 1st April 1976, if it could have been made on that date had this section been then in force. I suggest that that is a classic description of retrospective legislation. Using that same wording, it would be possible to introduce a new tax in the autumn and to say that this tax applies on the assumption that the legislation was in force on 1st April last. The wording is extremely wide and contains dangerous implications.

The amendment draws attention to the problems still facing site operators. On 1st April or soon after they may be told about the rates which will be levied on their sites—rates of a very much greater order than they have experienced before. They have to collect these rates themselves from the caravanners. The site owners are liable immediately for all those rates from the beginning of the year, yet they have now to go through the complex process of recovering them from the caravanners. This is quite unfair.

Site owners have already tried to establish their service charges and rentals for the coming year and in many cases they have already collected them from the individual caravanners. They still have no means of knowing what rates they will have to collect. But there is no provision in the Bill for bad debts that they are unable to recover and no way for them to obtain waivers in respect of people moving off their sites.

The amendment demonstrates yet another unfairness in this legislation.

Mr. Oakes

We had this on Monday. We have it again tonight.

What this Bill does not do and what some hon. Members wanted it to do is to say that there shall be individual assessments for caravans and pitches. Instead, it provides that the rates shall be collected by the site operator and not paid directly to the rating authorities.

This year, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the rent has been paid and the rate demands for last year have gone out. The people materially affected by the date—whether it be 1st April or 14th April—are the valuation officers. All that the amendment does is to say that there shall be a clean start at the beginning of the ordinary rating year, rather than a 14-day assessment under the old scheme for next year and a 50-week assessment for the remainder of the year under the new scheme.

As for the wording, I listened carefully to the arguments of the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) about the 1967 Act. As I said earlier, it is a matter of judgment whether the legal draftsmen are right or whether the hon. Gentleman is right. I prefer to back the legal draftsmen, but if I am wrong we shall try to get it put right in another place.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Michael Morris

I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 3, line 9, at end insert: '(10) For purposes of this section a caravan pitch shall be taken as excluding a caravan thereon which is any structure as is mentioned in section 45 of the General Rate Act 1967 '. This is a probing amendment. In Committee we had a brief discussion about the situation of the disabled and looked at the Scottish provisions under Clause 3(5)(b). It seems appropriate that there should be some similar provision for England and Wales. It may be that there is adequate provision hidden within the Bill and the Minister may say that it need not be spelled out in the same way as is necessary for Scotland.

Mr. Oakes

I cannot answer the hon. Member's question about the difference between the Scottish provision and that for England and Wales. I think that it results from the difference in the Scottish rating system. Perhaps when my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Scottish Office is dealing with the Scottish provisions, he will mention the differences in the rating provisions.

What we seek to do is to give freedom of choice to the disabled caravanner because circumstances may be different in each case. We want to give such a person the choice to decide whether he wishes to be separately assessed. The amendment makes it necessary for him to be separately assessed—whether or not he wants to be—because he is disabled. In many cases such a disabled caravanner would be better off being so assessed but in other cases that may not be so. It is better for the individual to make a choice after consulting the valuation officer. I accept that the amendment seeks to help.

In Committee the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) asked whether I could give him the number of disabled caravanners. We have tried to discover the number but this is not possible without a disproportionate amount of work which would cost a great deal of public money. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want that. I cannot give the exact figure but I understand that the number is small.

Mr. Michael Morris

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. It is right that it should be on the record that it is the Government's view that disabled people should look seriously at the question of individual assessment. In view of the Minister's reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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