HC Deb 31 March 1976 vol 908 cc1442-71

'(1) Where the valuation officer alters the valuation list under section 1(1) of this Act 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, subject to subsection (3) below, of such pitches which the valuation officer is including in the said single unit; and
  4. (d) the amount of the rateable value of the said single unit which the valuation officer attributes to such pitches.

(2) The notice shall make specific reference to the fact that information regarding 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 rating year then current in which the site and pitches thereon are assessed as a single unit is available from the offices of the relevant local authority, whose address, telephone number and the name of the chief financial officer shall be given in the notice.

(3) Unless the site operator specifically requests the contrary, the information to be provided by the valuation officer need not make any reference to, or give details of, any pitches for leisure caravans which the site operator retains in his ownership for letting.

(4) 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, 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 notice under that subsection.'

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

Government Amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Wyn Roberts (Conway)

When we discussed new Clause 1 on Monday, the question, "That the clause be read a Second time", was not decided by the 100th Division of this Session since there were fewer than 40 Members present.

I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments which I deployed in favour of the new clause on Monday. In it and the related Amendment No. 6 we are seeking to dislodge from the Bill the existing Clause 2 and to replace it with a clause similar to the Scottish Clause 4, which lays the onus for providing information on the assessor rather than the site operator.

We have had the benefit of the Under-Secretary of State's criticism of the new clause. Some of this criticism we accept as valid and we have sought to introduce appropriate amendments. I believe the Minister will accept that, true to Conservative tradition, we have widened his choice considerably in a very short space of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) has gone so far as to introduce an entirely new clause which I hope he will have an opportunity of commending to the House. That also seeks to meet some of the Minister's criticisms. I would not be surprised if the Minister preferred new Clause 2 as the lesser of two evils as far as he is concerned.

I must stress that the essential difference between us and the Government is that we believe that the duty of supplying information should be laid on the valuation officer rather than the site operator. The information required has to do with rateable values and the Government cannot deny that the authoritative source of such information is the valuation officer. Therefore, it is up to him to provide, and to provide directly, such information to those requiring it. We accept that the valuation officer is not the authoritative source of information about rate poundage so we are prepared to delete subsection 1(e).

Unlike the valuation officer, the Scottish assessor is, I understand, primarily a local authority official. It is appropriate that he should convey rate poundage information, whereas it is inappropriate that the valuation officer should do so. We do not consider it necessary to burden the local authority with the provision of this information at all, other than by its normal provision of it through the local Press.

Rate poundage is common and general knowledge and we do not think it necessary to disseminate it on an individual basis to caravanners. My hon. Friends and I consider that it is important that the rateable value of each pitch should be known to individual caravanners. We made the point in Committee, and it was made again during the debate on Monday evening by many of my hon. Friends, that unless individual caravanners know their individual rateable values they will not know whether to go for separate assessment under Clause 1(7).

The Government are adamant that all that needs to be provided is average rateable value, but we are dealing with a great many caravanners who have been saparately assessed for this last year and they will wish to compare like with like. During the Second Reading debate the Under-Secretary of State told us: Most leisure caravans have been separately assessed."—[Official Report, 3rd March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1327.] These people will not be content with average rateable values which are not strictly comparable with the rateable values they already have.

I readily admit that the Government have a very difficult problem here. I do not want to sound dogmatic about our proposed solutions. I can see that the Government's solution will lead to endless requests for separate assessments. Consider the caravanner who has been separately assessed this year and who knows what rates he has to pay. In future he will get the average rateable value of his pitch on a mixed hereditament basis and his rate payment will be buried in the site charge. He will go straight to the site operator and press him to reveal the amount of his rate burden and how it was calculated. I would be very surprised if that conversation ended amicably. The rows have already broken out. I am sure that they will continue until we get a satisfactory answer.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation now is that many of the caravan owners, rightly or wrongly, have such reservations about the Bill that they are saying, in my view wrongly, that they would prefer another year on individual rating? That at least would give them an opportunity, through the valuation appeal procedure, of fighting their case.

Mr. Roberts

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right that there are many caravanners who would like to continue with the separate assessment.

We have also sought to meet the Government's criticism that the new clause provided only for a single year by adopting the Government's Amendment No. 8. We have tried to sweeten the Minister still further by accepting that the site officer shall in future display notices of changes.

I realise that not all of our suggested changes are as consistent as we would wish. I hope that the Minister will not waste his time and that of the House in pointing that out to us. What we have tried to do is present the Under-Secretary with a wide range of choices and to encourage him to move away from Clause 2 as it stands, even with the new Government amendments. We also hope that their Lordships, to whom the Bill will have to return, will have more time than we have had to consider some of our suggestions and misgivings about this part of the Bill. Those misgivings are fully justified because what the Government propose to do is to foist the valuation officers' problems and the problems of the local authorities on the site operators. We do not think that this is fair to the site operators or conducive to justice being done to the individual caravanner.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

I am grateful for the chance of saying a few words about new Clause 2 standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts). This clause was tabled subsequent to our discussions on Monday night which were interrupted by the decision of the House. One of the results of that decision, that the debate should stand adjourned, was that we were given a chance—which we do not often have on Report—to consider what the Minister had said about the form of our amendments, to take that into account, to make alterations and to table them once again. New Clause 2 reflects this.

If I had to take a single text in discussing this matter it would be that used by the Under-Secretary during our proceedings on the last occasion when, talking about the famous judgment of the High Court in the Field Place caravan site case, which is the basis of the whole of this Bill, he said: The High Court makes some strange decisions, and this one was very strange."—[Official Report, 29th March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1057.] We are dealing on the basis of a strange decision which the Government have decided not to overturn but to implement in a rather different way. So be it. I do not agree with that, but that is the Government's intention.

In dealing with the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Conway on Monday evening the Minister brought forward three specific criticisms to be found at columns 1060 and 1061 of our proceedings. The first criticism was that the new clause, in the form in which we had originally moved it, gave to the valuation officer a duty of communicating to the site operator the rateable value of the caravans which the site operator was renting as opposed to those which were on the site, owned by other people on the normal basis.

To meet that point, subsection (3) of my proposed new clause says: Unless the site operator specifically requests the contrary, the information to be provided by the valuation officer need not make any reference to, or give details of, any pitches for leisure caravans which the site operator retains in his ownership for letting. That subsection exactly meets the point made by the Under-Secretary on Monday and we can therefore dispose of that objection.

I have also tried to deal with his second objection when he said, 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. I have tried to deal with that. The Under-Secretary went on to say that it makes no provision for giving any information to the caravanner after the first year."—[Official Report, 29th March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1061.] The hon. Gentleman will notice that I have deliberately dealt with that problem in subsection (2) when I deal with information in respect of the rating year then current". That exactly meets the point. The other criticism of new Clause 1 as originally moved on Monday by my hon. Friend the Member for Conway was that it required a valuation officer under paragraph (e) to provide information about the rate in the pound. The Minister pointed out that that was not of interest to the valuation officer because in England he was an official of the Inland Revenue as opposed in Scotland to an official of the local authority. Obviously the valuation officer has no concern with the rate in the pound. That seemed germane. Therefore in subsection (2) I have suggested: The notice shall make specific reference to the fact that information regarding the rate in the pound at which the general rate for the rating area ies charged … is available from the offices of the relevant local authority, whose address, telephone number and the name of the chief financial officer shall be given in the notice. If a caravan owner wants information about the rates in the pound in an area where he is holidaying, which will probably not be his own local authority area, he will know where to go.

In redrafting the new clause and in giving it a new title—"Site Notices" instead of "Information for Caravanners"—I have gone a considerable way towards meeting the Under-Secretary's objection. We put the clause down yesterday. But because we are discussing matters which were not then recorded in the Official Report, as the debate on Monday took place after 10 o'clock at night, I missed one of the points made by the Minister about a notice of deletion under Section 3(3) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act. It was reasonable argument and if the Government wish to meet that difficulty by a manuscript amendment to my new clause, I shall consider it favourably. But I have not yet had an approach from the Under-Secretary.

I turn to Government Amendments Nos. 7 to 10. Having now read what the Under-Secretary said on Monday, I have a number of questions about the wording of these amendments. It would have been more convenient if he had moved amendments to take out the whole of subsections (2), (3) and (4) of Clause 2 and put down the whole of the new wording by amendment. The Minister's amendments to subsections (2), (3) and (4) are so drastic as to make it extremely difficult to read the clause as it is to stand in its amended form. I have puzzled over it all day and I think that by dint of the use of many brackets and crossings-out I have it right. But the drafting is detailed, and it would have been easier for the House to understand the clause if there had been three new subsections.

10.15 p.m.

In Government Amendment No. 7 the expression from the beginning of April to the end of October is used. That is an improvement on the previous wording between the beginning of April and the end of September", but it is not as good as until the beginning of November", used in the old version of subsection (3). It would be useful if the Under-Secretary would explain why that wording was chosen and whether he is satisfied that no caravan sites are open after the end of October. It could be a matter of some importance in, for example, ski-ing areas.

The matter was raised in Committee, and the Government have had a chance to consider it. I think that it was I who first suggested to the Minister on Second Reading that it was useless to have a notice posted on the site at a time when people were not there. The Government have introduced the amendment to try to meet that point, but I am not satisfied that they have dealt with the whole problem.

What is the meaning of the words in brackets in Amendment No. 7: but starting with the April following the receipt of the notice under subsection (1), if it is received in October"? If the notice is received in October, why should one have to wait until the following April for its contents to become relevant? Why cannot it immediately reflect in October the situation then? The words in brackets were presumably included for a reason.

I come next to Government Amendment No. 8. I have some difficulty in establishing exactly what the duty of the site operator is supposed to be. It is not proposed to amend Clause 2(1) as far as I know. The impression is given that it is the site operator's duty to put on the board certain information including under subsection 2(a)

the facts stated in the notice under subsection (1) —not the notice received from the local authority but the facts stated in it. The site operator is presumably to transcribe them because, under Amendment No. 8, information is to be given which is to take the place of the notice under subsection (1).

Would it be in order for the site operator to pin up the notice which he receives from the valuation officer, rather than having to transcribe it? I am glad to see the Minister nodding agreement. No doubt he will wish to confirm it for the record. This is a matter of considerable importance to the site operator.

I turn to subsection (3), that part which it is not proposed to redraft, which says The notice … shall be displayed at some conspicuous place". There are important considerations here. For example, what happens if the notice s blown down? This is not a frivolous point. We are talking about open-air caravan sites and a notice of great importance both to the caravan owners and the site operator. We wish to know whether it is supposed to be a "conspicuous place" outside or inside. Clearly, a notice which is up for a day, is blown down by strong Lincolnshire winds and is not replaced by the site operator, is a poor remedy for the caravan owner. The Minister might wish to consider whether "conspicuous place" should be an inside place. I am tempted to suggest a toilet, where the people on the site are certain to want to go at some time in their holiday.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 re-draft the whole of subsection (4). I find this extremely difficult to understand and extremely impeding. As I understand the proposed redrafting subsection (4) will read, If so requested by a person occupying any such pitch as aforesaid the site operator shall give him in writing the information required by subsection (2) above to be given by a notice under that subsection as the subsection would apply at the time for a request if a notice were required to be displayed at all times after receipt of a notice under subsection (1) and to take account of any notice received under subsection (2A). I understand those to be the re-drafted words which will be inserted in this Bill if the Under-Secretary's amendments find favour with the House.

I simply want to ask what does that provision mean and who is supposed to be able to understand it? Hon. Members, whether they have been involved with the Bill in Standing Committee, or whether they have been involved with it since it came back to the Floor of the House, wrestle with the words of the Bill and try to understand what they mean. But we are dealing in most cases with caravanners, people of very modest means, whose caravan is the only luxury they have. It is a very important possession for them, and that is why hon. Members such as myself have been very disturbed by the effect of this Bill. In many cases these people do not have a powerful organisation to act for them. They have groups or associations, not with full-time paid officials, but with voluntary workers working on behalf of those ordinary caravan owners. How they are expected to be able to understand the rewording of this Bill and to give advice to their caravan owners about what exactly is involved is very difficult for me to see.

There are references to all sorts of notices in the new drafted subsection (4) and it will be hard for anyone except an expert to understand it. What guidance will be given? The Minister may say that there will be a circular to local authorities, but who will read that other than the rating officer or the treasurer of the local authority? How many caravan owners will know their rights? In particular, how many caravan owners will be able to know whether it is in their interests to make an application for individual assessments? This is very much at the core of the Bill.

When we are discussing this matter in Standing Committee and talking about Clause 1 the Minister described what would happen when a proposal is made and whether, if someone challenges the assessment, he will be deleted immediately from the site assessment and have the chance to be reinstated later.

In column 35 of Hansard of our Standing Committee on 16th March I suggested to the Minister that this was an unsatisfactory situation which needed to be looked at again. The Minister was courteous enough to write to me on 25th March, when he said: Even though their previous separate assessment may have been deleted this does not in any way affect their right to a separate assessment under the new system, nor does it affect the procedure which they would have to go through in opting for a separate assessment…in most cases the financial advantages to caravanners from being in a composite site assessment will be such that it will not be worth their while seeking a separate assessment. In these cases where the caravanners may not realise this and opt for a separate assessment. Valuation officers will almost certainly draw this to their attention when discussing the proposal and it is expected that many will then decide not to go for a separate assessment. A number of basic questions occur to me from reading that letter. For example, how does the Minister know that it will not be worth their while to seek a separate assessment? We have had no information about the differences between rates assessed individually or on a site basis. No one knows. Some caravanners in my constituency have negotiated a 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. reduction in the rates on which they have so far been assessed. The valuation officer and the local authority have admitted that they had no idea of the rateable value of a holiday caravan and that the previous estimates could only have been figures plucked out of the air. At my surgery last Saturday a constituent said, "I am worried that if site assessment is forced on us, the reduction we have negotiated after very hard work may be lost."

The Minister says that valuation officers will almost certainly draw this provision to the attention of caravanners. But what worries us is that the valuation officers may say to caravanners, "Under no circumstances must you exercise your rights under Clause 1(7). You are much better off under site assessment. Do not waste our time and cause trouble. Accept site assessment and we shall all be much happier." Rights are provided in this way, presumably, so that people may have the opportunity to exercise them.

Words like those in the Minister's letter—however courteous—confirm my suspicions that the object of the exercise is to ensure that people do not exercise their rights, that they accept site assessment and everyone lives happily ever afterwards. Caravanners are not living happily ever afterwards. There is great feeling in Leicestershire over this matter.

The House was right not to come to a decision on this matter on Monday. The Minister did not give an adequate description of his amendments. Perhaps he will feel able to do so tonight, and to answer the points I have put to him, on which he is doubtless receiving information from his officials.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I wholeheartedly support new Clause 2. It seems that my hon. Friends listened carefully to the Under-Secretary's careful and educative remarks on Monday and have tried to accommodate his philosophy.

New Clause 2 seeks to do away with subsection (5) of the existing Clause 2, which has been consistently overlooked by Ministers. It refers to a penalty of £50 in the event of a site operator failing to furnish details, having received a written request. In Committee on 18th March, my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) said that that must be the first time that failure to answer a letter had been made a criminal offence.

Why the miraculous figure of £50? Perhaps the Government have looked into their crystal ball and seen two certain effects of inflation—to minimise the effect of fines and to increase postage rates. Perhaps they believe that it will be cheaper in two years to pay a £50 fine than to pay the postage on a statutory letter. Throughout our proceedings, the Government have refused to comment on this provision.

The Government were asked in the other place on 5th February, as reported at column 1474, within what period the retrospective questioning of an assessment could arise. The point was made that persistent caravan owners could well raise this point three years after the reassessment. Baroness Birk gave the impression that this situation would arise only in the first year of the new system. I hope therefore that the Minister will deal with these points.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)

My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) is to be congratulated on his new clause, which owes its refinements to the discussion we had on Monday. My hon. Friend has been genuinely trying to meet the wishes of the caravanners and the site owners, as the Minister said on Monday. None of us is trying to do other than be helpful and introduce some sense of reason into this difficult matter.

The Minister said that he had practical experience of caravanning on Anglesey, but those who know the East Coast wonder how many sites have been visited by ministerial advisers in the course of drafting the Bill. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that at an early age I sold holiday footwear all round that coast, and there are few sites of which I have not had experience. There is a considerable difference between the sites of the West Coast and those on the East Coast.

It would help to reduce the sense of conflict which is being generated between caravan owners and site operators and caravan owners and the Government for the Minister to visit the caravanners who feel that the Government are determined to push the legislation through against their interests. The visit should be made at Easter when many people make the first trip of the year to their caravans. Many of these people would welcome a discussion to clear the air.

It is insufficent simply to have a notice on the site, in spite of the £50 fine. With crowds of people on a site, all busying themselves with their activities, one formal notice pinned to a board or a tree is not enough. That is not the way to inform people of the serious financial commitment they may be entering into. One worrying facet of this matter is that some site owners are already extracting cash from caravanners in anticipation of site valuation. Caravanning is often the one relief and joy in life for the caravan owners. This proposal is a real worry to them. On Monday the Minister accepted that we were trying to alleviate that worry. We are trying to be as helpful as possible.

Some site have between 200 and 400 caravans on them. Indeed, there is one at Yarmouth with 1,200 caravans. A simple notice posted on such a site is not the way to inform owners of their financial commitment.

At Easter weekend many people will be milling about and having meetings to try to find out what the situation is. The site owner will probably say "I have posted the notice." The caravanner might say "I have not seen it. I have not been able to understand or assess it."

We want to see the situation envisaged in new Clause 2 where if it cannot be done by Easter, at least people will be able to see that the mechanics exist. That will cool the temperature, because they will know that they will be treated fairly. They will know that in time, before they have to pay anything, they will have fair assessments, because every caravan owner on a site will be informed of his position.

It is difficult to interpret what the Minister said on Monday. The hon. Gentleman referred to somebody who collects rates because a valuation officer has said "This site is worth £10,000 and that can be divided by the number of caravans to get the average per pitch." That seems different from the valuation officer saying "This site is worth £10,000 and we shall notify each site owner of his commitment." That, in the Minister's mind, seems to be the difference between a collector of rates and a ratepayer. I submit that it is a very narrow point.

We are trying to ensure that those who pay the rates are satisfied that they are fair. Of course, they will never be totally satisfied, because they do not believe they should pay this kind of rate. Many of us believe that it is erroneous to equate the holiday cottage with the caravan. We want to satisfy those who have to pay this money that what they are called upon to pay is fair compared with fellow site renters and we have to protect them against any malpractices by site operators.

With the benefit of hindsight and the amount of thought that we have put into new Clause 2, I should have thought that the Minister would readily accept that we are genuinely trying to help the Government to get out of the awkward situation in which they find themselves. We are against the pressure for this date. Many people will be seriously affected. I hope that, in the reasonable way in which the Minister usually replies to these debates, he will accept new Clause 2.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

I have not played a big part in these debates so far. That seems all the more reason why I should intervene at this stage.

These new clauses, in particular, deal with site notices. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) went to the heart of the philosophy underlying the new clauses when he talked about the valuation and the fact that none of us knows whether the valuation will be greater or less under the new arrangements proposed in the Bill as a whole.

The site notice will not matter at all if the valuation, when it comes out, is the same for the site as a whole, including all the individual caravans on it, as the sum of the caravans on the site. If that is so, the notices will not matter in the least. The money collected from the site owner will be passed on in charges to the caravanners. It will become part of the site charge which is collected in one parcel from the site owner instead of from the individual caravanners. In that case, therefore, the notice on the site will not make much difference to the caravanner. He may feel that he is totally out of the picture and does not understand what is going on. He may need the matter explained to him a little more. But it will not make any financial difference to him.

Where the matter starts to make a financial difference to the caravanner and where the notice starts to be of real importance to him is if the valuation of the site as a whole, the single hereditament valuation which is provided for in the Bill, turns out to be greater than the sum of the individual valuations of the individual sites which would otherwise be levied on the individual caravanners.

There is no doubt that the total single hereditament valuation will be greater than the sum of the individual valuations. After all, that is normally the case when one is talking about a number of individual parts of a set. If one takes a set of almost anything, one finds that the valuation of the individual parts added together does not come to the same amount as the valuation of the set as a whole. This is recognised not only by valuers in valuing various things, whether in the antique market, in parcels of land, or in parts of many different things. It is recognised throughout the valuation of almost any type of goods that a collection of something is worth more than the individual bits put together.

That brings me to the heart of the Bill and the nub of the new clauses and the amendments, and the matters at which they are aimed. One can follow this argument through by looking at all kinds of other examples. I do not want to weary the House by pursuing it into a very large number of things, but if the Government doubt in any way that what I say is correct, they have only to look at the tax laws to see that a large parcel, particularly a controlling parcel, of shares, for example, under the estate duty legislation, is of a considerably greater valuation than individual shares not amounting to control. Under estate duty the same applies to small areas of land. If these are put together into a larger area there is a much larger valuation than the mere sum of the individual bits.

That is the philosophy behind those who have been anxious in the past and, indeed, remain anxious to try to increase their wealth by assembling parcels of land, shares or other assets into sets in order to increase the value. They realise that they can buy the individual pieces and that when they have done that, the set will be worth more than they have paid for the individual pieces, even if the value of the pieces has not altered.

I think that estate duty was introduced in 1894, although it may go back earlier than that. It has long been recognised by Governments that a set of items, even if they are identical items, must have a value greater than that of the individual parts of it. That being so, it becomes very important that the site notice that is displayed is clear and understandable and that the caravanners appreciate the nature of what is being done when there is application for a single hereditament valuation. When they appreciate that, they will realise that this is a device which increases their rates, and that it is not the other way around. The supposition that is generally being put about at present is that it is likely to decrease their rates.

That is why the new clauses and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton go to the heart of the Bill. As a result of these considerations and as a result of listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Melton, I have become deeply suspicious of the Bill as a whole and of the purposes which lie behind it.

10.45 p.m.

The Bill attracted my support in the first place as it appeared to be a means of simplifying administration. However, when we consider the displaying of site notices, when we consider the information that will be displayed on them, whether they are displayed in lavatories or on a tree, we begin to appreciate that the Bill has a character that we did not appreciate at first instance.

If the Bill is not to lead to a simplification of administrative arrangements, with the savings to go to the local authorities or to be shared between the cara-vanners, the site owners and the local authorities, and if the effect will be to increase rates, this measure takes on a different complexion. It seems that the site notices for which the Bill provides have taken on a different importance from what was suspected in the first place.

I have a specific question to put to the Minister. It is a question that may have been answered in Committee but I do not think it has been answered in the House on Report. I do not understand why in Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 so much excitement is attached to October. If a notice is received in October all manner of different things start to happen. If a notice is received on 1st November, or later in November, I cannot see why it should be treated differently from a notice that is received during October. It seems from my reading of the Bill that September creates a slightly different situation.

What is the difference between 1st November and 31st October? I know that there is the difference of one day, but it seems that the definition "in October" is a little more precise than is justified. There may be some point attaching to October which escaped me on reading the Bill. I am not a lawyer and I am sure you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is sometimes difficult to see through all the complexities of legislation of this sort. However, I wish to try to see through the drafting complexities and to ascertain what the effect will be when the site notice is displayed in the lavatory.

I return to my original point, which I think is essential to the Bill and the new clauses. The valuation of the individual parts is bound to be less than the value of the site as a whole.

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

First, I must make a confession. I must be one of the most disingenuous Members in the House. On Monday Opposition Members paid tribute to the Government for introducing a Bill which will be of assistance to caravanners. However, they thought that they had a clause which would make it better, and I believed them.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) has said that I made a courteous and educative speech. I hope that it was. I always try to be courteous and educative. I tried to point out how the clause was not as good as the existing clauses. But what happened? Hon. Gentlemen, who were said to be pleading the cause of caravanners in this House, tried by a procedural device to lose the Bill altogether. That is their concern for caravanners.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South) rose

Mr. Oakes

No, I will not give way. I acquit two hon. Members of that charge. I refer to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), who voted in favour of what he believed, as he is fully entitled to do, and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), who also voted. The rest of them—including, I am ashamed to say, hon. Members on the Front Bench despite an agreement between the usual channels—tried to get the Bill lost.

Mr. Michael Morris

Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that, through the usual channels, his hon. Friends were duly warned that the Opposition Front Bench were happy to assist the Government, but adequate warning was given that there were Opposition Members who had great reservations about the Bill? It was the Government's fault that they sent people home to bed because they were too tired to stay here and listen.

Mr. Oakes

Then I must have misread the Division lists. Indeed, those lists must be wrong. The hon. Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) and Conway (Mr. Roberts) were not down on that Division list as voting on the issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. I think it might be wise to return to the discussion of the clause.

Mr. Oakes

I am discussing the clause. Opposition Members said that I was courteous and educative. I deplore duplicity in this House, and there was nothing but duplicity on Monday night.

Let me return to the serious business of helping caravanners. Hon. Members seem to be worried about two aspects of this clause—first, the kind of information which caravanners are to be given and, secondly, the method by which this information is to be given to them.

On Monday night unfavourable comparisons were made between the English and Welsh Clause 2 and the Scottish Clause 4. So far as the kind of information is concerned, the two clauses are virtually identical, although an amendment I shall move later adds to the information given in England and Wales. So far as the method is concerned, as I said on Monday night, the Scottish rating system lends itself to the system whereby caravanners are notified directly by the assessor of the total rateable value of the separately assessed caravans and their number, whereas in England and Wales our system does not.

Let me now turn to more specific points. The Opposition have said that they wish to extend the kind of information provided by the valuation officer and require him to apportion the rateable value for the whole site to each individual pitch. If this were done, it would lead to a great deal of work for valuation officers in England and Wales who would have to apportion a value to about 250,000 caravans.

I should draw attention to the fact that in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum it is stated that A reduction in the additional staff which would otherwise have been required in the Inland Revenue Valuation Office will also be achieved. If this provision is passed, it is very unlikely that this reduction will be achieved in the coming year. Let me remind Opposition Members, who often express concern for public expenditure savings, of what they are proposing.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Valuation officers have to assess the number of caravans on a site anyway. I cannot believe that this suggestion will make any extra work for them. I just do not believe that is true.

Mr. Oakes

This is inevitably true. By virtue of the new clause, the Opposition seek to place a burden on valuation officers—not local authorities, they have taken out that proposal—to notify each caravanner on each site. That is precisely the situation we are trying to get away from in this Bill.

I must stress again that it is fundamental to the whole approach in the Bill that the assessment should not be broken down, as a matter of valuation, to individual caravans. The rates become one of many expenses of the site operator, to be recovered through his site charges, and there is no need for the rates to be separately identifiable beyond that point, although, if the site operator chooses to charge rates as a separate item, he could, of course, do so.

Still on the subject of information, I welcome the Opposition's amendment to extend the provision of information to later years as an indication that they will accept my later amendment on this point.

I now turn to the points made on the method of providing the information. I was most surprised to see and hear about the way in which the Opposition propose to get round the problem that the valuation officer cannot be expected to provide information on the rate poundage. If I understand them correctly, they are saying that in order to assess the rates payable on each caravan, each caravanner will have to contact the rating authority in question. Thus 250,000 caravanners, many of whom will be living miles away from the area where their caravan is located, will individually have to contact the rating authority. It will involve caravanners in a lot of trouble and it is, in my view, quite unnecessary to subject the rating authority to a spate of requests for information which can and should be displayed for all to see.

But the Government's main objection to the Opposition's method of conveying the information to caravanners is that it relies for its effectiveness on the valuation officer being able to trace caravanners and post the information to them. The experience of the past year has shown that in many cases valuation officers will not be able to find many of the addresses, either because site operators refuse to provide them or because caravans have changed hands. It is, therefore, fairly safe to assume that this method will ensure that thousands of caravanners will not receive the information to which they are entitled. The Government's notice board provision on the other hand ensures that any caravanner who visits the site during the season—and this will be the vast majority of them—will be able to see immediately the information relating to rates on the site notice board.

May I now refer to the Government amendments to Clause 2 which will enable the maximum possible information to be given to caravanners? I spoke on Monday in detail about these amendments and I hope that hon. Members opposite now fully understand how helpful this information will be. There was however one query which the hon. Member for Conway raised about Amendment No. 7. His point concerned the deletion of the proposed rateable value of the single hereditament from the notice board. Indeed, this information has now been replaced by the rateable value which is attributable to those caravans not in the occupation of the site operator. This amendment will enable caravanners the better to judge the average rates payable on their caravans and pitches.

The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) raised a number of matters and asked whether a site operator could pin on the notice board the notices sent to him by the valuation officer. If he wishes to convey the information in that way, he may certainly do so.

The hon. Member also asked whether the Government had changed the wording from "the end of October" to "the beginning of November". The end of October and the beginning of November merge together. It is not a serious point, but we have amended the wording to make it consistent with existing statutes.

11.0 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if the notice were blown down. On a proper site under the Caravan Sites Act and Control of Development Act, 1960, I assume that if a notice is blown down the site operator puts it up again. If the hon. Gentleman had experience of the licensing laws, as I have, he would know that if a notice under the licensing laws blows down the applicant's duty is to see that it is replaced. It is easy for the site operator, if he is in proper control of the site, to do that, and I assure the hon. Member for Camborne and Falmouth that most site operators are in control of their sites.

I was asked whether the notice could be put up in the toilet. I suppose that is a good place for it, provided it is displayed in both the ladies' and the gentlemen's toilet. My brother-in-law is a painter for a corporation housing department. He tells me that the one surface he makes absolutely perfect is the back door of the toilet, because that is the surface that people sit and look at. It may be that the back door of the toilet is a good position for the notice to be displayed. Without all the paraphernalia put forward by Opposition Members, a caravanner will be able to see clearly what rates are being charged and judge whether his bill from the site operator has gone up fairly or unfairly. That is all the Government seek to do.

I ask hon. Members to reject the new clause and the amendments put forward by the Opposition and to accept, on behalf of caravanners and site operators, the much better provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Michael Morris

I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman has cheered up a bit from a few moments ago. We are conscious that he must be feeling the pressures of Government business. He has been on Committee after Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is all very well for you to moan; you were not here on Monday night and did not see how tired Ministers were looking.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

Mr. Morris

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We all learn from experience.

I am sorry that the Minister has accused us of duplicity. He knows how much we have helped him. The Second Reading debate was on 3rd March, and we gave him every encouragement in Committee. We could easily have held out in Committee, but we saw the Bill through in three Sittings, which is a reasonable pace. Some would say that we moved forward far too quickly. The hon. Gentleman might care to withdraw his remarks. The role of the Opposition Front Bench is not to ensure that the Government get their business when we have reservations about it. We said from the beginning that there was a problem to be solved, that we were happy to help the hon. Gentleman but that we had reservations about certain aspects. We shall not be filibustered out of full discussion. If the Government cannot get their supporters here on time, it is not our fault.

It seems very strange to English and Welsh Members that we cannot have provisions in England and Wales which are as good as those in Scotland. We understand that the law may be different, but we believe that it should be perfectly possible to have English law which is as good as Scottish law. That is the object of the exercise.

If the Government had taken the trouble to consult the National Caravan Council, the site operators, the Caravan Action Group, and the National Association of Caravan Owners, as we have done, they would have found that those bodies were not satisfied with the proposals of Clause 2 as they stand, even in the amended form brought forward by the Government this evening. They believe that either our new Clause 1 or new Clause 2 would be much better. We are trying to be helpful to the Government by suggesting that there are several ways in which to approach the matter. The Government may well be able to improve on what we have done, but the basis of what we put forward is what the caravanners want.

I am sure the Minister will accept that we should not bear in mind only the benefits to the local authorities. I accept that we need to look at the benefits to the local authorities, but we have to consider the caravanners and site operators as well. As things stand at the moment, neither the caravanners nor the site owners are happy with the Minister's amendment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) said, the Minister raised some criticisms of new Clause 1 last Monday. We understand and accept them. In the rather limited time left to us, we have brought forward a new clause, and my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) and I have amended the existing new Clause 1. We have met the Government on the points they raised. We have met them on the involvement of the site operator's own van. We have met them on the point about being longer than one year, and on the fact that it is not the valuation officer's job to put down the rate in the pound. We have met them on the point about the notice of deletion. The Government may complain about the time we are taking on this, but we are producing a law that will affect a quarter of a million caravanners, and we might as well get it right, even if it means staying here until the early hours.

It was disappointing that the Minister did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Melton when he asked for an explanation of subsection (4). The English to be used now in subsection (4) is a total disaster, and I urgently request the Government, just for the sake of simple communication, if it gets through in its present state, to look at it when it goes to the other place and to try to put it into English that ordinary people can understand. At present it would require an experienced lawyer to find a way through it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) has rightly raised the problem of the £50 penalty. We share his concern. The Minister may say, as he did in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester), that the notice board should be picked up if it gets lost. It is a little unrealistic, on a site of 1,200 caravans, to expect one notice board to provide what is required.

When the Minister says that the crux of the matter is that the valuation officers cannot cope, he knows as well as I do—he said it himself here—that the valuation officers have already done the vast majority of the assessments. They do not have to do them again. The vast majority of them exist.

Next, there are the local authorities. There are agreements between site owners and local authorities at the moment. Several examples have been quoted in Committee and in this Chamber. There are several in North Wales. There is no need for people necessarily to write to the local authority to ascertain the rate poundage. Most of them take the local papers, and they can get to know of it from them, or they can ask their friends. In any event, the Minister says that caravan owners are the same as second home owners. Second home owners have the right to write in. Why should not caravan owners have the same right?

The Minister said earlier that he objected to the fact that caravan owners would write to the local authority to ask——

Mr. Oakes indicated dissent

Mr. Morris

If he does not object to that, I am happy to give way to him in order to allow him to say so. But he cannot have it both ways.

It was our hope that, even if the Government refused to accept new Clause 1 or new Clause 2 as they are drafted at present, they would at least agree that they go nearer to what the caravanners and site operators want. What is more, I believe that if there had been time to check with the local authorities, we should have discovered that a significant number of them would prefer our drafting, too.

The Opposition have not dragooned their supporters to come here tonight in order to support these proposals. This is not a party political matter. We know that 250,000 caravanners think that we have it right and that the Government have it wrong. We know that because we have asked the views of their representatives. Since Monday, we have checked with the National Caravan Council, the Caravan Action Group and the National Association of Caravan Owners. All have said that they support our new clauses.

We have brought forward practical proposals, and we hoped to get the Government's agreement to them. Certainly we hoped to get their acceptance of the principle that we suggest. I expected the Government to say "Yes, on balance, we think that we were probably wrong, and it would not do any harm to spend a few more days getting it right." After all, we have now reached 1st April, to all intents and purposes, and the Minister knows that we have not delayed him on the way.

I do not know whether my hon. Friends wish to press the two new clauses, but I have to express some disappointment to the Government that they have not listened to the caravanners.

Mr. Whitehead

Those who listen to and read reports of this debate will probably be amazed at some of our proceedings in the past few days. The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) made heavy weather of his peroration just now. We had a new clause on Monday. I went into the Division Lobby to support it. The hon. Member for Northampton, South failed to do so because of some prior engagement. He did not have to face the same robust language from the Patronage Secretary as I faced when I emerged from the Lobby. But when an hon. Member comes to this House and participates in a debate, I assume that he votes according to what he intends to be the result of the legislation in question. The hon. Gentleman failed to do that on Monday and, if I correctly interpreted his closing sentences, the Opposition may well withdraw their proposals tonight.

I want to address a few words to my hon. Friends below the Gangway, who are aggrieved at having to be here and are wondering why there is this unrest about the position of caravan owners. New Clause 2 and, to be fair to him, my hon. Friend's Amendments Nos. 7 to 10 attempt to protect a class of people who have reason to believe that they will be chiselled by the site owners and by those who have been assessing them for rates consequent upon the 1966 House of Lords decision unless adequate protection for them is written into the law.

11.15 p.m.

I and most hon. Members know that this Bill is an improvement on the earlier situation, when there were individual valuations. The difficulty is persuading these 250,000 people that that is the case, persuading them that what we are doing in a great hurry in this House is in their interests and will ultimately mean that they pay less, not more in rates. That is the difficulty and that is why we are concerned with obscure points about whether the site notice will blow down or the back of the lavatory door will fall off.

It must be said that there are some who are attempting to speak for the individual caravan owner, the man of limited means taking holidays by the sea in his private caravan. Those people feel that they are being chiselled. The bulk of the work of revaluation has already been done. Consequent upon the rating and valuation of 1973, individual rating revaluations were delivered to every caravan. It is not possible to drive down a street in Lincolnshire without running over some local government official having a nervous breakdown as a result of the enormous pressure placed upon him by these procedures.

The result is that we now have to persuade all those who live in caravans that everything possible is being done to protect them against unfair practices, because within the global charge that will be levelled at them there will be something added on to what they would have paid if they had been individually rated on their own pitch rather than on the total of the site, which is more than the sum total of all the pitches. Secondly, we have to assure them that the law will give them adequate notice and protection against the site owner who seeks to withhold information.

Division No. 101.] AYES [11.19 p.m.
Anderson, Donald Dunnett, Jack Leadbitter, Ted
Archer, Peter Eadie, Alex Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)
Armstrong, Ernest Edge, Geoff Luard, Evan
Ashton, Joe Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) McCartney, Hugh
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Evans, loan (Aberdare) McElhone, Frank
Bain, Mrs Margaret Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Mackenzie, Gregor
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Faulds, Andrew McNamara, Kevin
Bates, Alf Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Madden, Max
Blenkinsop, Arthur Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Marks, Kenneth
Boardman, H. Forrester, John Marquand, David
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur George, Bruce Mendelson, John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Gilbert, Dr John Millan, Bruce
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Golding, John Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Graham, Ted Molloy, William
Buchan, Norman Grocott, Bruce Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Hardy, Peter Noble, Mike
Campbell, Ian Harper, Joseph Oakes, Gordon
Cant, R. B. Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Orbach, Maurice
Carson, John Hart, Rt Hon Judith Ovenden, John
Clemitson, Ivor Henderson, Douglas Palmer, Arthur
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Hooley, Frank Pavitt, Laurie
Cohen, Stanley Horam, John Pendry, Tom
Coleman, Donald Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Price, William (Rugby)
Concannon, J. D. Hunter, Adam Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Conlan, Bernard Irving, Rt Hon. S. (Dartford) Reid, George
Crawshaw, Richard Janner, Greville Robinson, Geoffrey
Cryer, Bob Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Roderick, Caerwyn
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) John, Brynmor Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Rooker, J. W.
Davidson, Arthur Jones, Barry (East Flint) Roper, John
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Judd, Frank Rowlands, Ted
Deakins, Eric Kerr, Russell Sedgemore, Brian
Dempsey, James Lambie, David Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)
Dormand, J. D. Lamond, James Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Dunn, James A. Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C (Dulwich)

I gave the House examples on Monday of the withholding of information that can take place. I do not think that there is much between the new clause put forward by the Opposition and the amendments tabled by the Government. Rather than detain the House I would go for the four amendments, particularly since the Opposition have virtually announced that they will not press the clause. They did not do so on Monday night and I do not think that they will be bold and valorous now. Many of the constituents of my hon. Friends, like mine, are in this caravan-owning category and it ill-becomes us to treat them frivolously and believe that they do not need the protection of the law and at least the courtesy of a full and adequate debate before this Bill passes on its way.

The Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. Walter Harrison) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 135, Noes 25.

Sillars, James Urwin, T. W. Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Skinner, Dennis Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Small, William Walker, Terry (Kingswood) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Ward, Michael Woodall, Alec
Snape, Peter Watkins, David Woof, Robert
Spearing, Nigel Watt, Hamish Young, David (Bolton E)
Stallard, A. W. Welsh, Andrew
Stewart, Donald (Western Isles) White, Frank R. (Bury) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) White, James (Pollok) Mr. James Hamilton and
Thorne, Stan (Preston South) Whitehead, Phillip Mr. David Stoddart.
Tinn, James
Beith, A. J. Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Bottomley, Peter Lawson, Nigel Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Cope, John Lester, Jim (Beeston) Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Eyre, Reginald Moate, Roger Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Monro, Hector Younger, Hon George
Fairgrieve, Russell Morris, Michael (Northampton S) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Freud, Clement Pardoe, John
Gray, Hamish Penhaligon, David Mr. Michael Latham and
Grist, Ian Roberts, Wyn (Conway) Mr. David Mudd.
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 25, Noes 126.

Stallard, A. W. Ward, Michael Woodall, Alec
Stoddart, David Watkins, David Wool, Robert
Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) White, Frank R. (Bury) Young, David (Bolton E)
Thorne, Stan (Preaton South) White, James (Pollok)
Tinn, James Whitehead, Phillip TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Urwin, T. W. Williams, Alan (Swansea W) Mr. James A. Dunn and
Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V) Wise, Mrs Audrey Mr. Peter Snape
Walker, Terry (Kingswood)

Question accordingly negatived.

Forward to