HC Deb 31 March 1976 vol 908 cc1488-511

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 14, in page 6, line 16, leave out from "(1)" to "the" in line 19 and insert Where before the passing of this Act an agreement is entered into, relating to the payment of rent, between the site operator and the occupier of lands and heritages which consist of a pitch for a leisure caravan on the site and which for the year 1975–76 are separately entered in the valuation roll.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we may discuss the following amendments:

No. 15 in page 6, line 17, leave out "19th December 1975" and insert "3rd March 1976".

No. 18 in line 17, after "1975", insert or in the case of an agreement entered into after 19th December 1975 but before the date on which this Act comes into force when it is evident that the agreement was entered into on the basis that the occupier would be liable for the rates attributable to that pitch". Government Amendments Nos. 16 and 17.

Mr. Millan

These amendments concern the transitional provision. In Scotland the situation is not discretionary for assessors. We have tabled the amendments because there may have been agreements which were legitimately and innocently made without knowledge of the Bill. Those agreements may not have provided for any variation in terms. Without a transitional provision, site operators might be faced with additional financial obligations which could not be passed on to individual caravanners, as is intended.

Originally the relevant date was 19th December 1975, the date of the Bill's publication, but in Committee hon. Members pointed out that there could be agreements which had been entered into after that date in ignorance of the provisions of the Bill. I said that I would look again at the matter. Amendment No. 14 changes the date from 19th December to the date of the Royal Assent—which is slightly better than the suggestion in the other amendments. The Government amendment provides that all agreements which are entered into up to Royal Assent can be varied.

Amendment No. 16 defines the circumstances in which adjustments should be made. If the transitional provision is written into the Bill in too absolute terms, there could be double counting and the caravanner might be put at a disadvantage because of the adjustment. The amendment tightens up the wording and makes it more precise. Amendment No. 17 is basically a drafting amendment.

The amendments take account of the points made in Committee. I hope that they are acceptable to the House.

Mr. Younger

I thank the Minister for the trouble he has taken. I agree that his amendments are better than ours and suggest that the House accepts them.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made:

No. 16, in page 6, line 22, leave out from second "site" to end of line 23 and insert which is reasonably attributable to the pitch of such occupier and which but for the enactment of section 3 above would not be payable by the site operator".

No. 17, in page 6, line 24, after "(5)", insert "(9)".—[Mr. Millan.]

Motion made and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

12.34 a.m.

Mr. Michael Morris

My hon. Friends and I still feel rather uneasy about the Bill. On Second Reading we acknowledged that there was a problem and that it had to be tackled, but the longer I have lived with the Bill the more convinced I have become that we have not yet found the right answer.

We are dealing with a tax, and the skill of making good taxation is that it should be fair and equitable in its incidence, simple to administer, easy to collect and successful as a revenue-raiser. We are a long way from achieving that with the Bill.

What is distressing is that the problem has been around for 10 years, since the Field Place Caravan Parks Ltd. v. Harding case. The Minister said on Second Reading that in the intervening period the valuers had had more important things to do than to value caravans. But in the period 1974–75 the valuation officers got round to making the effort, and then the cry went up from the local authorities that as a result of the valuers' work they would have to send out 250,000 rate demands.

The Government have known about the problem ever since they came to power in February 1974. They have had plenty of time to get to grips with it and to consult the interested parties. The extent of consultation with the caravanners and site owners can only be described as appalling. There is no excuse for a Government to introduce legislation without having carried out proper consultation. It is little wonder that the matter has caused an adverse reaction in the country.

The Government did not analyse in sufficient depth the kernel of the problem. The Under-Secretary said on Second Reading: In summary, the net result of this measure is that the cost of collecting rates will be reduced, to the benefit of local authorities and ratepayers. Anything which does that must be a good thing and welcome to both sides of the House. I commend this small but useful Bill to the House."—[Official Report, 3rd March 1975; Vol. 906, c. 1332.] If that had been what it was all about, the Bill would have had a simple and uncontroversial passage. But the real problem was the one identified by the Minister of State, Scottish Office, when he said: I have considerable sympathy with those who say that caravans used for leisure purposes as distinct from those used permanently for homes should not be rated. It is a fine balance of judgment. I do not pretend that the arguments are all on one side. There is a respectable argument for saying that caravans used for leisure purposes should not be rated. But we are not providing for the rating of these caravans for the first time in this Bill. The law has been established. We are not consolidating or formalising the law. The law having been established, this is a more convenient way of rating for leisure caravans. It would have been open to the Government to take the view that we should change the law in a substantial way. But, looking at it from the point of view of local authorities and ratepayers generally, I do not think that the argument comes down in favour of the leisure caravan owner not being rated."—[Official Report, 3rd March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1381.] The real problem is that the law is not as formalised as the right hon. Gentleman suggested.

The principal case which we take as our starting point was not watertight or particularly clear, because there was left open the crucial question how long is "permanent". In another place the noble Lady, the Under-Secretary, indicated that it was more than a year. It is because the case law is not definitive that there are so many appeals outstanding—100,000 or so. That should have been warning enough to the Government that the law needed to be changed substantially. Because many caravanners believe that their caravans are more tourer than residential, many thousands will opt for separate assessment. That is on top of the 100,000-odd outstanding appeals.

The Government were wrong not to go back to first base, but that was their judgment—whether to cure the ill that we all recognise by radical surgery or to do running repairs. But, having decided to do running repairs, they then had to decide between doing sound repairs and doing a botched job.

Any problems of time they have had are entirely of their own making. We have not obstructed the Bill. It has moved through both Houses with exemplary—some would say too much—speed. It was the Government who decided to forget all about the caravanners and site operators and to concentrate on the superficial convenience of the valuation officers and local authorities. I do not impugn their motives but I seriously criticise their analysis of the problem.

The Under-Secretary said on Second Reading: It has also been said that the separate assessment should continue but that site operators should be made responsible for collecting the rates on individual caravans and should be given an allowance for doing so. I admit that this is an alternative which I have considered carefully. However, I have decided that, although that would have relieved rating authorities of many of their problems, it would not have made things easier for valuation officers. They would still have to identify the individual caravan owners, assess the caravans and serve the notices."—[Official Report, 3rd March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1331.] So the Government made what they will come to regard as the fateful decision to act under Section 24 rather than Section 55.

The Under-Secretary probably knows in his heart, as we know, that the latter would have been preferable. As we know from the Committee debates and the consultations, it would have been no more expensive or complicated, but it would have had the great merit of satisfying caravanners and site owners, instead of the present situation, which satisfies neither.

However, being a good and, I hope, constructive Opposition, and despite the handicap of those fundamental errors, we have tried to make this patching operation workable and fair. In the other place, the Opposition raised the question of notifying caravanners. It was the Opposition who knocked some sense into the timing of the display of notices and brought to the Government's attention the nonsense of the timing in Scotland and secured a transitional phase.

It was the Opposition who on Monday evening offered the Government the opportunity to make partial amendments for their total neglect of the caravanners. We have demonstrated with our amendments tonight that it is possible both to maintain ease of collection for local authorities and provide a service—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will deal only with what is now in the Bill and not with amendments which might have been made.

Mr. Morris

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that little is lost, as the Government take the Bill away, in pointing to the errors which have been made.

It is not sufficient for the Government to say that our proposals would put an extra burden on the valuation officers. We do not know whether the Government have analysed the costs of the outstanding appeals, but our information suggests that far more will be spent on those appeals than is likely to be raised under the Bill.

There is one other worrying dimension on which the Government have turned their backs—the status of the leisure caravan owners. The Government have made clear on several occasions that they view them as, in effect, second home owners who should pay their share of rates. They have also stated that it is to the benefit of caravanners to have single site assessment because overall assessment of a site is lower and will attract the benefit of half rate relief for domestic hereditaments. The Government have clarified the position of those who opt for separate assessment and confirmed that they will get rate relief. There was confusion over this, and we are grateful for the clarification.

The Government must now know that many caravan owners believe that they fall outside the scope of the Bill because a surprising number move their vans in sites and between sites within a season. We know that valuation officers have not or cannot have regard to this problem and that caravan owners will want to appeal. They would appeal against the site assessment but they know that they cannot do so under the Bill as it stands, so they will have to opt for separate assessment.

As to the result, we have had the example given to us by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). Even good operators—and the vast majority of site operators are good operators—will get incensed with van owners who go for individual assessment and I regret that the basis of the Bill as it stands is a recipe for disharmony and chaos.

Finally, the local authorities and valuation officers, who are, I believe, the sole beneficiaries, are not playing the game either. There are examples of local authorities sending out separate demands for refuse collection and charging for other specific services. There are examples of valuation officers sending out assessments before we have finished our deliberations on the Bill. I hope that the Minister will come down hard on local authorities jumping the gun and that the Treasury will deal likewise with valuation officers.

It is a sad fact that the Bill has been a case of rush, rush, since it was published. It would have been far better to take it slowly and to build in an adequate transition phase not just for Scotland but for England and Wales. Caravanners are ordinary people enjoying a simple recreation. Today they are up in arms and sceptical of the Minister's assurance of a low level of rates. We accept that the Government have taken on board some of our amendments and that they form a substantive part of the Bill. Indeed, there are whole new clauses within the Bill, and that is no mean achievement in a Bill which started with only six clauses. The Bill is less of a nonsense than when it started.

But I warn the Government that if the old system produced 100,000 appeals, I do not see this doing any better in its present state. It is causing worry, aggravation and ill-feeling. I urge the Government seriously, before it is too late, to reflect on what has been said tonight. For our part, we are willing to help, but if our warnings go unheeded, the Government have only themselves to blame for the ensuing chaos.

12.50 a.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw

The Government have an unenviable record on matters concerning the caravan industry. The manufacturing side of it is suffering under 25 per cent. VAT which is causing severe difficulties. A major component manufacturer has his business in my constituency. Retailers have suffered likewise. Now the Government have introduced changes in the rating system.

Throughout discussion of the amendments the Government have clearly been concerned with simplicity in valuation and in the collection of rates. It should be a tenet of any Government, but particularly of the present one, to recognise that the individual is extremely sensitive about rates, whether he is a house owner or a caravanner.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for you to restore order so that I may hear what my hon. Friend is saying?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I could hear the hon. Gentleman loud and clear.

Mr. Shaw

I am grateful that, as always, my words are clear and honeyed on my lips, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is, however, a considerable noise from Labour Members sitting below the Gangway who obviously take no interest in the affairs of the caravanners in their constituencies.

I was dealing with sensitivity over rates. The individual caravanner, coming across these problems for the first time, will undoubtedly use every means at his disposal to express his opinion and his anxiety—before the valuation court if necessary. There are few issues recently which have involved me personally in as much correspondence with my constituents as the actions of local authorities on Humberside and in parts of Yorkshire over rates. These areas are frequently used for caravanning by my constituents.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you noticed the new style of Opposition which involves bringing cases and boxes of documents into the House? Is that not contrary to our rules, or have the rules been changed?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have not seen any boxes or cases. We are all warned, of course, to keep a sharp eye out for such things in other contexts. I can see nothing that is out of order.

Mr. Brown

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw your attention to the Opposition Front Bench where you will see a green box and a case, which is, I believe, contrary to the terms of the relevant Standing Order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can now see the box in question. It seems to me not very different from certain other boxes which may be seen here next week. I doubt whether there is much to complain about.

Mr. Shaw

After that short episode of shadow boxing perhaps I may now return to the main theme of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I have heard no mention of the possible application under the Bill of water authority rates on caravan sites. I am well aware as are all ratepayers, that charges levied by the water authorities and collected by the local authorities will form an increasingly large burden on the rates, particularly in view of the recent legislation affecting those who do not have direct sewerage systems. This may mean that the caravanner is especially vulnerable. The consequences are that local authorities will be encouraged to levy substantial extra charges to recover the losses being sustained by the water authorities. I understand the Government's reasons for wishing to rate caravan sites, but the prospect of increasing charges from water rates collected by local authorities will add to the burden on the caravanner.

The cumulative effect of these changes will discourage many of those who have found caravanning for substantial periods of the year to be one of the most enjoyable and easiest forms of taking holidays and recreation.

I understand the Government's desire to rate semi-permanent homes, but we have within the Bill all the seeds of discord and difficulty which my hon. Friends have pointed out to the Government on many separate occasions. Therefore, while we shall undoubtedly witness the Bill's passage tonight, it is with regret that we see opportunities missed to make a clean sweep of the problem and to reestablish the view that the citizen who has a caravan is entitled to protection and is not regarded as getting away with charges and costs on the cheap.

I hope that the Government will not find it impossible to handle the complaints and appeals which will indeed be made. I feel certain that the numbers of such appeals will be great and that part of the problem will have been occasioned by this Bill.

12.57 a.m.

Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

There have been times during the remarkably speedy passage of this Bill through the Commons when I felt tempted to suggest that the Minister of State at the Scottish Office should take a night off, find a friendly caravan park owner and bed himself down in a leisure van somewhere in the wilds of Scotland. Only a personal experience of that kind will indicate how difficult and complex the issue of caravan rating is. Perhaps as he wandered round the stances in the gloaming, he might have reflected on the two main characteristics of the Bill—first, the incredible speed with which its passage had been effected; and, secondly, the way in which the original Scottish proposals have been hacked apart, with one clause disappearing altogether and a totally new one making its emergence.

Is the reason that the Scottish Office draftsman, unlike his English equivalent, did not understand, when the Bill first came forward, how distinctive Scottish valuation and rating procedures were?

On Second Reading I suggested that there was no case for a Scottish Bill—for reasons which I still believe to be true and will come to later—or, if there had to be Scottish changes, that those should be the subject of a separate Scottish Bill. Not least among my reasons was that Scottish local government and valuation procedures are currently in the melting pot. Unlike our English colleagues, we have gone through local government changes more recently. We are shortly to have a Scottish Assembly. In that situation, and with Layfield round the corner, it would seem right to let matters rest until the Assembly arrives.

It has been argued that the leading cases in Scotland and England—Red-gates Caravan Park Ltd. v. Assessor for Ayrshire and Field Place Caravan Park Ltd. v. Harding—proceeded on totally different grounds. As one assessor put it——

Mr. Robert Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that this is a Third, not a Second, Reading debate. Is the hon. Gentleman's speech in line with what is in the Bill or with his Second Reading speech, of which he appears to be giving us a rehash?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that it is only the content of the Bill to which he may now refer.

Mr. Reid

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For that reason I would quote what one assessor in Scotland said about the Bill: It just won't do to legislate for the English conditions and try to convert directly into Scottish terms. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Minister of State, Scottish Office, having produced the Bill in its present form, has hovered very delicately between defending his Scottishness and at the same time indicating that, despite the different valuation and rating procedures, there was in essence no difference between the intent of the legislation north and south of the border. The Bill as it now stands and the Scottish clauses, drafted in haste and perhaps repented at leisure, still pose certain problems north of the border. The Minister has been at pains constantly to stress that the Bill has been demanded by Scottish authorities and the assessors. If that were so, why should we Opposition Members receive so many appeals from Scots assessors, and the many letters which have been quoted repeatedly?

Let me concede this to the Treasury Bench—the Bill has certainly been rendered a good deal more tolerable in its passage through Committee. There is now provision for detailed information to go to owners of leisure vans which are to be taken out of individual rating. Secondly, given the mandatory approach, the transitional procedures under Clause 5 go a long way to satisfying the objections of the Law Society of Scotland that park operators should not be disadvantaged.

We still have broad objections of principle, and I think that the Bill will run into difficulties in Scotland. If there have been difficulties for assessors in time past in determining the value of stances—in relation to sea views, water pipes, and the nearness to toilets—these difficulties will continue, as the Bill now stands, for the park operator. If it has been difficult in time past for the assessor to determine the ownership of vans because they have been moved, it will be equally difficult for the park operator to determine whose ownership the vans are in. There is another problem of what happens in cases of empty stances. There will be a continuing friction between park operators and caravan owners.

My own position is that I do not believe that leisure caravans should be rated. If touring vans are not rated, though they can be left in a lay-by or in the driveway of a house for substantial periods, I do not see why that section of the community that cannot afford fuel bills, often the elderly, whose sole chance of a seaside holiday is a caravan, should be rated in the way that the Bill provides.

In view of the recent reorganisation of local government and the forthcoming Scots Assembly—I think it is commonly admitted that the two cannot co-exist—it would have been better to leave things as they were. I opposed the Scots clauses in Committee. I shall not do so tonight. However, the Bill would have been better if we had got rid of Clauses 3, 4 and 5, and at the very end, in Clause 7(2), after the words "Northern Ireland", had inserted the words "and Scotland".

1.3 a.m.

Mr. Cope

The Bill is interesting in that its origin arises from the court case that caused a lot of uncertainty and difficulty among caravanners. However, the Bill does not deal with the problem to which the court case gave rise. All that the Bill does, as those who have been following the debates are well aware, is to enable a caravan site to be rated as a single hereditament.

The question to which I wish to address my remarks is whether that will increase or decrease the actual rates paid by caravanners. That is the question in which caravanners are interested. Their rates were increased as a result of the court decision, but the reason for the increase was not the fact that they were assessed separately from the unit as a whole; it was that leisure caravans were assessed for the first time. That problem is not dealt with by the Bill. The only matter to which the Bill addresses itself is the assessment as a single unit.

In an emotional outburst earlier, the Under-Secretary went on about how the Bill was to be of great advantage to caravanners, and he stated that I was wrong in what I had said earlier—that the valuation of the site as a single unit would be the same as or greater than the sum of the individual parts. He did not argue that I was wrong. He merely stated that I was wrong. He stated that he had been advised that I was wrong. He used no arguments to try to demonstrate that I was wrong. He did not attempt to review the arguments that I had used in an attempt to show that I might at least be right in my contention.

I ask the Minister of State, Scottish Office—the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment seems to have drifted off into the night—whether he can produce any arguments to support his hon. Friend's contention that the sum of the parts would come to more than the whole. That is not the fact in normal valuation for other purposes, especially for tax purposes.

The Minister of State and myself are both accountants. We both have experience of operating the tax law and valuations under it. I ask him whether he can produce another example where the valuation of a group of items as a single composite whole comes out at less than the sum of the value of the parts. I have tried to think of such an example and I cannot do so. Maybe the hon. Gentleman, who is a more experienced accountant than myself, can think of one. Maybe he can demonstrate that I am not correct in my contention.

I believe that the Bill will tend to increase the rates of individual caravanners unless they take the option of going for separate assessment. I understand that they can do so if they wish. I believe that many of them, if they consider the matter carefully, will follow that course. It will be a difficult course for them to follow through and they may not think it worth while. However, I think it is worth while that they investigate whether they should do so. This is the nub of the Bill. It is the point which will or will not commend it to caravanners.

The Bill commends itself to the administrators, the Inland Revenue, the valuation officers and the local authorities. I am all for efficiency of administration, I am all for easing the administrative burden of local authorities, but we must recognise what we are doing by easing their burden. It seems that their burden is being lifted at the expense of caravanners and site operators. The operators will have to carry out the same split of valuations among their site tenants that the valuation officers and local authorities carry out under the present arrangements.

It is a Bill of dubious value. It is not of the value that caravanners expected it would be when they first heard about it. They assumed that it would be to their advantage and that it would reverse the court case that had given rise to their difficulties last year. It seems that the Bill misled some of them into thinking that it goes nearer to the root of their problems than in fact it does.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the next speaker, I should like to add to what I said on the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). I have had my attention drawn to the Official Report for 9th April 1952, at column 2749, where the hon. Gentleman and others will find a comprehensive ruling given by the then Mr. Speaker covering all sorts of articles, including eggs. It may be that the point drawn to my attention by the hon. Gentleman is one at which Mr. Speaker would like to look. I shall draw his attention to the matter tomorrow.

1.11 a.m.

Mr. Mudd

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) has referred to the Bill as being of dubious value. I suggest that it is a Bill that flirts with the problem but does not make an honest woman out of the situation in that it achieves no solution.

It leaves caravan owners and site operators with four major defects, one false assumption and one premature ejaculation. Dealing with the four defects, there is first no specific liability placed on the site operator to refund any rate rebate or repayment to the caravan owner who has paid it in the first place. Secondly, there is no protection in the matter of agreements already entered into. Thirdly, there is no safeguard for caravan owners if the site operator, having collected, defaults or goes bankrupt, having in his hands the money which he holds in their name.

An additional major defect is the complicated situation whereby, although it will be up to the local authority to take a defaulting caravan site operator to the magistrates' court to recover money due, the onus might ultimately be placed on caravan site operators to take individual owners to the county court.

The false assumption is that a holiday caravan can somehow miraculously be regarded in exactly the same light as any other form of second home. But there is a basic difference. While a second home, such as a cottage, house, or a bungalow steadily increases in value, a caravan tends to suffer a marked depreciation in annual value, with a diminishing resale value. Therefore, it cannot be said to be regarded in the same way as can a second home.

Let me deal with the point of premature ejaculation—

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)


Mr. Mudd

The Bill is premature in that it overlooks the imminence, as one hopes, of the publication of the Layfield Report. Therefore, it appears that this legislation will merely bolster up a totally unacceptable rating system rather than look realistically at alternatives.

The Bill has now become a hasty, expensive, confusing and needless piece of legislation that can lead only to more confusion and an unacceptable situation—a situation which, if nothing else, will lead to a vastly increased work load for local government staff in dealing with requests for separate assessments and appeals.

Together with many of my hon. Friends and many Government Back Benchers, I have been transfixed by seven hours of deliberation in Committee, three hours on Report, and a further one-and-a-quarter hours on Third Reading. I wish to recall one statement made by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on 23rd March, when he said: We send so many bits of paper to local authorities that they have to employ more staff to read the bits of paper that we send them about not employing more staff."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 23rd March 1976; c. 129.] The philosophy behind the Bill is the same as that displayed by the Minister, who clearly takes that kind of attitude towards employment in local government service.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Michael Latham

I shall not attempt to follow the imagery of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). That is obviously to the disappointment of the House, but I lack the lithe tongue and other things my hon. Friend obviously possesses.

At this stage, we are concerned only with what is in the Bill and not with what we would like to be in it. I have made clear at every stage that I am opposed to the Bill. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) that it has been improved in Committee. It remains a very bad Bill.

I wish to refer only to Clause 1(7) and separate assessments. We still have inadequate evidence to give guidance to our constituents on this matter. In Committee, the Under-Secretary said: On the figures we have, it would be an exception for a person not to benefit by the single site assessment."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16th March 1976; c. 22.] If the Government have figures, they should have given them to the Committee and the House. They have not done so and we must take them on trust. I am not used to taking the Government on trust, even at this late hour, and I do not intend to do so now. The figures should be published as soon as possible.

I am still disturbed about the sort of practices that are likely to take place as a result of this Bill. The National Association of Caravan Owners has given me a copy of an agreement between a caravan company, which I shall not name—

Mr. Ronald Brown

Name it.

Mr. Latham

I do not think it fair to name the company.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Then we shall have to take the hon. Member on trust.

Mr. Latham

I am not the Government. Back Benchers are sometimes easier to take on trust because Governments stand or fall on their statements while Back Benchers are responsible only to themselves and their constituents. The agreement says: If the Caravan Owner shall:—(i) fail to pay the balance due under this Agreement when demanded by the Company or (ii) Openly disagree with the Company or its site Managers or Agents over site policy … Then in any such case, this Agreement shall terminate and the Company shall be at liberty to remove the Caravan Owner's van from the site to storage … and a lot more in same vein. When I see such agreements, I am concerned about the future implications of the Bill and the site assessment procedure.

I am also concerned when, for example, a letter is written to the General Secretary of the Association saying, I am writing to let you know that the camp owner has put the rates on the site rent, and if we say anything about it, he would say if he wasn't satisfied to take the van off the field. That is one of many specific examples given by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and hon. Members on this side of the House.

I am also concerned about the whole basis of the site assessment system. No doubt many people will wish to exercise their right to separate assessments, at least to see whether the Under-Secretary is right in saying that they will be higher than overall site assessments. We have not been given the evidence and I do not necessarily believe it to be true.

This is a bad Bill and I am sorry that it has got so far in this House.

1.19 a.m.

Mr. Moate

I agree that this is a bad Bill. I would go further. It is one of the daftest pieces of legislation brought before the House this year—and that is saying something. It stems from a fundamental misunderstanding by the Under-Secretary when he faced the undoubted problem of caravan rating.

In an Adjournment debate last year, I urged that action should be taken because district councils, including the authority in my constituency, had the intolerable problem of suddenly being faced with having to send out 250,000 rate demands to caravanners all over the country. It imposed an enormous strain on these councils. Nearly 100,000 caravanners appealed against those assessments, and many appeals are still outstanding.

Instead of returning to the pre-1966 position, the Government introduced this foolish measure to extend the rating system, which is already subject to criticism and creaking under the strains. The rating system is the subject of an inquiry and is likely to be substantially altered soon. The Government decided to extend that system to caravans—not to caravans kept at home and taken out at weekends but to caravans which remain on permanent sites. From that decision flows this legislation which will land the Government in even more trouble in the coming year.

The Government have hardly listened to what was said in Committee and on Report, but they will see in the coming year that what we said is true. As individual caravanners opt for individual assessments in vast numbers, the Government will find themselves in the position they were in before they introduced the legislation, and they will bitterly regret having taken that decision.

The Minister said that he could not go back to the pre-1966 position because he thought that caravan owners should pay rates. He could have avoided this complex legislation and all his troubles by opting for simple legislation to set the clock back prior to 1966. Caravanners already pay some tax. They have always contributed to the rates for the pitch and the communal facilities provided by site operators. The rates they paid contributed substantially indirectly to the revenue of the districts in which the camps were sited. If the Government decided to have a heavier tax on caravans we could debate that decision, but it should not be introduced in this way. One could argue for a tax, perhaps a flat licence charge, but not for rates. This is daft legislation because it extends to caravans the rating system, which is already in a state of collapse and contains many nonsenses and contradictions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) asked the Minister to have the courtesy to write to him to say whether the Bill allows all caravanners to pay rates by instalments. The Minister, who is always courteous, will write to my hon. Friend, but that is not satisfactory for other hon. Members and the general public. I hope that the Minister will give us a straight answer tonight.

The Bill might ease the burden on district councils, which are grossly overburdened. It will impose unfair penalties on site operators. It will be bitterly regretted by 250,000 caravanners. Because of those last two considerations it should be rejected. Even the proposition that it will help district councils has yet to be proved. If in a few months' time more applications are made for individual assessment and there are more appeals, we could be repeating this debate. There will be Adjournment debates on this subject and letters will flow in to the Minister. It will be seen that our opposition to the Bill was right and that the Government were wrong. For that reason I hope that hon. Members will join me in voting against Third Reading.

1.25 a.m.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

As one who has followed the progress of the Bill very closely through the House, I think I am entitled to bid it farewell in a Third Reading speech.

In our Second Reading debate, the Secretary of State for the Environment described the situation that has given rise to the Bill. It was a very frank account of the difficulties of valuing nearly a quarter of a million leisure caravans and of collecting rates from them afterwards. Such were its difficulties that the Government, under pressure from the local rating authorities, decided to legislate.

The Under-Secretary of State, in the Second Reading debate, said that most leisure caravans have been separately assessed".—[Official Report, 3rd March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1327.] But, as we know, some 90,000 caravanners appealed against their assessments. Presumably, these appeals could have been dealt with in time had the present Bill not been introduced. Therefore, the general picture is that the valuation office at least was coping moderately well with its part of the problem, but, of course, as we know, not the local authorities. Their early anticipation of the problems of rate collection tended to be confirmed by their experience during the current year.

The chief executive of my own local authority put it to me as follows when he wrote, as early as 26th March last year: Throughout many parts of the country, especially in the low-rated non-industrial tourist areas, the cost will far outweigh the benefit, and this at a time when the rating system is already creaking at the seams. Later in the same letter, dealing with the question of identifying caravan owners and enforcing rate payment, he says: They will be free to move from site to site each year and be virtually untraceable. The rateable value of the caravan will appear in the valuation list, inflating the total rateable value, with a consequent unbalanced reduction in the rate support grant. Rate support grant will therefore be lost and a large proportion of unpaid rates will have to be written off because of the problems of identification and enforcement. Perhaps in view of the foregoing—which is, I believe, a fair example of the difficulties many district councils foresaw—the Association of District Councils welcomed the Bill in principle. Their main concern—which has been allayed, I hope, by the Under-Secretary of State—was that the single hereditament treatment should be applied throughout the land and not be too dependent on the discretion of the individual valuation officer. In any case, I believe that local authorities can make representations to their valuation officer if they think that the single hereditament policy should be applied in a particular site.

We have a situation, therefore, in which the valuation office and the rating authorities are reasonably satisfied with the content of the Bill, in that it reduces their work and costs appreciably. The Government's dissatisfied customers, as so many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, are the site operators, who are burdened with extra duties and penalties under the Bill, and the caravanners who, instead of being confronted at their weekend visits with rate demands stuck to the tow-bar, have to pay their rates in advance as part of the site charge, which is usually levied before the rating year begins.

Both the site operators and the caravanners share the view that only pitches should be rated and that the caravans themselves should be excluded. This view has been consistently supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Melton (Mr. Latham) and Faversham (Mr. Moate). I do not recollect that the Government have ever answered their argument that this legislation should have overturned the High Court decision, which the Minister himself described as "very strange". It should have brought about the return of the old global system in its comparative purity and simplicity, and perhaps even at this eleventh hour the Government will deal with this fundamental question.

As for the site operators, we have sought all along to persuade the Government to release them from their duties under Clause 2, which we regard as more properly belonging to the valuation officers. About half-way through the Committee stage, the Minister of State, Scottish Office, saw the light and substituted the present Clause 4 for the Scottish equivalent of Clause 2. But the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is unrepentant and, in England and Wales, the site operator remains the provider of rating information on pain of a fine of £50.

I am bound to say yet again that we do not like Clause 2 at all, and that the hon. Gentleman will rue the day when he failed to take advantage of our proposal that the English and Welsh procedure should be brought into line with the Scottish system.

As for the individual caravanner under this Bill, he will agree with us that any information about rates should be given to him by the rating authority and about rateable value by the district valuation officer. Those are the official sources. Any information given by the site operator will be doubted and will lead to endless queries and disaffection. The Government do not seem to mind, as long as the authorities are not directly involved.

The Under-Secretary commended the Bill to the House on Second Reading for two reasons. The first, he said, was that … it will ensure that caravanners should, in general, be paying less in total next year than they would have been paying if they continued to pay rent and separate rates. The Minister was obviously very careful in his choice of words. He talked of caravanners in general paying less in total. What does that mean? The caravan, currently separately assessed, bears a domestic rate and full rate relief. But the site charge must contain an element which covers the commercial rate of other parts of the site. In future, with mixed hereditament rating of single hereditaments, the individual caravan will have domestic relief on only half the rate. But as the whole rate will be buried in the site charge, I cannot see how anyone can prove or disprove whether the Minister is right or wrong in what he says about caravanners paying less under the new system.

The second reason that the Minister gave for commending the Bill was: It will also prevent a significant increase in local authority expenditure in certain holiday areas which would certainly have arisen if leisure caravans continued to be separately rated."—[Official Report, 3rd March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1331.] We hope that the Bill will be successful in this.

Much as we approve of these objectives, such is our dissatisfaction with the means of achieving them through this Bill that I, for one, cannot support the Government, should a Division be called. The ends are good, but the means leave much to be desired.

1.33 a.m.

Mr. Millan

There have been complaints about this Bill being rushed through. Listening to tonight's debates, it did not seem to me that the Bill was being rushed through.

I want to answer one or two of the points which have been made on Third Reading, without going back over the Second Reading debate again. The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) read quite a substantial chunk of my speech on Second Reading, and I do not think that I can improve on that now.

We made it clear that we took the decision that we would not reverse the decisions which had been made by the courts that leisure caravans were rateable. That is not extending the rating system. It is simply accepting what the legal position has been defined to be. But a very serious practical problem was involved because of the large volume of individual rating notices, and the simple purpose of the Bill is to provide for a single unit of assessment.

Although that is the single purpose—and it is basically a simple purpose as well—in any matter of rating, naturally complications arise. It has been because of these complications that we have had an extended debate in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading.

With the various amendments that have been made we now have a Bill which meets the principal objectives we laid down and which eliminates this administratively cumbersome system, doing so in a way which is fair to the site operator and which gives the maximum amount of information to the individual caravanner so that he can judge whether he is being fairly treated in the changed circumstances.

I shall not go over the various provisions of the Bill. They have been substantially improved during the Bill's passage and I believe that we have now met our objectives. I shall answer two individual points that were raised in the Third Reading debate because, as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have pointed out, we are dealing only with what is in the Bill at this stage and not with what might have been in it.

The first point concerned whether the single valuation will be a lower valuation than taking all the individual valuations and adding them together. On a matter such as this we have to rely on the advice we get from the Valuation Office. That advice, very firmly, is that the single valuation will be lower, for certain technical

Division No. 103] AYES 1.40 a.m.
Anderson, Donald Boardman, H. Campbell, Ian
Archer, Peter Bray, Dr Jeremy Clemitson, Ivor
Armstrong, Ernest Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)
Bates, Alt Buchan, Norman Coleman, Donald
Blenkinsop, Arthur Callaghan, Jim (Middleton &c P) Concannon, J. D.

reasons which I am not able to explain in detail. The principal reason for the reduction is that the single assessment will be done on the basis that what is being rated is, in effect, a business enterprise and in those circumstances there has to be assumed a certain incentive to the site operator to run the site as a business enterprise. That in turn, leads to certain deductions which give a reduced valuation compared with the single valuations added together. That is the basic reason why there will be a reduced valuation. That is the advice which we have had from the Valuation Office and the people there will be providing the valuations.

The other point I was asked about concerned the payment of rates by instalments by the caravanner. The important point to recognise here is that the individual caravanner is no longer the ratepayer. The ratepayer is the site operator and therefore the provisions about payment by instalments attach to him, not to the individual caravan owner.

In England at least—it is less so in Scotland—the provisions here are rather complex. The site operator will be able to pay by instalments if he meets the conditions in the rating legislation. The individual caravan owner will not be paying the rates direct. If he is paying, in effect, his share of the rate burden through the rent he pays, it is matter for him to agree with the site operator, on the payment of rent generally, whether there should be some spreading of the burden. Because he is not the ratepayer he cannot have the right to pay rates by instalments.

Many words have been spoken tonight. I do not believe that they have damaged the essential objectives of the Bill, or, indeed, the way in which the Government have chosen to achieve those objectives. It is on that basis that I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 100, Noes 10.

Crawshaw, Richard Jones, Barry (East Flint) Sedgemore, Brian
Cryer, Bob Judd, Frank Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiten) Kerr, Russell Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Dalyell, Tam Lamond, James Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Dempsey, James Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Skinner, Dennis
Dunnett, Jack McElhone, Frank Small, William
Eadie, Alex Mackenzie, Gregor Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) McNamara, Kevin Snape, Peter
Evans, loan (Abordare) Madel, David Spearing, Nigel
Evans, John (Newton) Marks, Kenneth Stallard, A. W.
Ewlng, Harry (Stirling) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Stoddart, David
Faulds, Andrew Mendelson, John Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E Millan, Bruce Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Tlnn, James
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekln) Molloy, William Urwin, T. W.
George, Bruce Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Walnwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Gilbert, Dr John Noble, Mike Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Golding, John Oakes, Gordon Ward, Michael
Grocott, Bruce Orbach, Maurice White, Frank R. (Bury)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Ovenden, John White, James (Pollok)
Hardy, Peter Palmer, Arthur Whitehead, Phillip
Harper, Joseph Pavitt, Laurie Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Pendry, Tom Wise, Mrs Audrey
Hart, Rt Hon Judith Price, William (Rugby) Woodall, Alec
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Robinson, Geoffrey Woof, Robert
Hunter, Adam Roderick, Caerwyn Young, David (Bolton E)
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dart(ord) Rodgers. George (Chorley) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Janner, Greville Roper, John Rowlands, Ted Mr. James A. Dunn and
John, Brynmor Mr. J. D. Dormand
Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Bottomley, Peter Penhallgon, David TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Fairgrieve, Russell Reid, George Mr. Roger Moate and
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Ridley, Hon Nicholas Mr. David Mudd
Latham, Michael (Melton) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Lawson, Nigel Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

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